Lapworth Museum, Birmingham. You know, rocks n’ stuff. Geology. Part of Birmingham University’s great academic empire.
And a tinder box of stories, all waiting to be told.
Mainly because rocks come from the strangest places, and man has to go there and undertake weird and wonderful experiences to get them.
Take the man who started the whole Lapworth collection off with a piece of amphibolite, way back in the 1570s. Sir Martin Frobisher was a typical Elizabethan explorer-type. He went to tea at Windsor Castle with the queen. More than once.
A ground-breaker, he was, obsessed with the North West Passage and its navigation; a great warrior of the English navy during the Spanish Armada, and remembered as such on a plaque at St Martin’s-Without-Cripplegate. He sleeps there with John Milton, and Nathaniel Eaton, the first master at Harvard.
His plaque, as snapped by lostcityoflondon.co.uk reads as follows:
Interestingly- or perhaps inevitably – it makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of the gold.
One doesn’t want affairs like that cluttering up a nice shiny reputation.
His is a strange CV. He was born in Yorkshire in 1535 and brought up in London by a relative, but by the age of nine he was at sea. At 19, he was captured by the Portugese and imprisoned; but he emerged a trader in Morocco some years later. Whether the staid life of a merchant suited him I cannot say, for it is said he became a pirate, operating out of an Irish port.
Whatever his background, by his mid twenties he was deep in a plot to find a trade route along the North West Passage to China.
It took him five years to get the funding, and finally he managed to acquire the backing of the Muscovy Company.
He took three ships with him. Only one made it to the place where the ice starts. Martin named it Frobisher Bay, and Frobisher Bay it remains, though whether the local Inuit call it that I do not know, for they disagreed with Sir Martin so vehemently that he was compelled to run back to London.
But not without a big black rock, picked up on Hall’s Island. Which looked, on close examination, to contain gold.
Four experts they asked, when they got back to London. Only one said this might be gold; but it was enough to hook the English. The queen sold a ship to raise £1000 for the journey. Frobisher was to be High Admiral of all lands and waters he discovered.
He went back to Hall Island. he didn’t get much exploring done; rather, 200 tonnes of ‘ore’ were mined and piled into ships to bring back.
They returned in 1577. By June 1578 they were back at sea, this time with a fleet of 15 ships. They returned with huge amounts of ‘ore’ in August 1578.
They were welcomed home and the ore taken to a specially constructed smelting plant at Powder Mill Lane in Dartford, on the Thames.
But alas: it was not until now that they looked closely at what they had brought back.
It was found to be iron pyrite. Tons and tons of fools gold, brought back from the New World.
Eventually the whole lot was used for metalling roads.
How does one rise from a debacle like this? How could one ever hold one’s head up in the queen’s presence again?
Yet Sir Martin did. And he is well remembered for his valiant work defending her Majesty at sea to this day.