Turning Back The Pages: The Victorian Era

What is your favourite period in history? Colleen Palumbo looks back at local history.

I would find it very difficult to have to choose the period in history that was my favourite. Each offered something new and exciting while carrying on the traditions of the past. But, if I absolutely had to name only one, it would have to be the Victorian Era.

The hardships of settling in a new land now over, people worked only at lavishing themselves and their guest with every luxury possible. Not even the smallest detailed were overlooked in their quest for refinement. It was time filled with tea parties, white linens, fresh flowers and impromptu picnics, all spiced with the correct amount of taste and etiquette.

It’s hard to imagine that Golden’s first families lived in such a time, and many of them didn’t, but the ones who did left evidence of that era for all of us to share.

A love of nature was something common to all of them and they spent every bit of their free time admiring it. They began collections of flowers, ferns, stones, shells, birds, animals, nests and eggs. They spent many hours carefully cataloguing, preparing and displaying their collections in every manner possible. A good collection was built over many years, with an even better sample replacing one whose quality was not quite as good as the first. This was a very time consuming job best suited to someone with patience. One such notable collector in Golden was Bill Wenman.

Bill, who was born in England, came to Golden with his family at the age of 13, and started his collection soon after his arrival here. Today his work is part of the Golden Museum’s collection.

Always careful to keep the collection in order, Bill was meticulous in his manner. If he were collecting birds’ nests he would find them intact with eggs. Once home he blew the eggs out, measured them and carefully put the eggs back in the appropriate nest. Next the card was filled out with all the pertinent information. Location where it was found, time of year, the species, and the number of eggs in the nest.

Once all this had been done, and only then, did Bill add the new acquisitions to his collection room.

This room became known as Bill’s Museum and was housed on the second floor of his shoe repair business. He treated all the artifacts that he collected with the same care and tried to make the displays as appealing as possible.

In carefully constructed cases he displayed beetles, spiders, bees and bats. Each with a pin inserted through them that kept them from touching the background, so that each feature could be easily seen. In other glass cases he displayed birds and even a hornet’s nest that he had carefully cut one side out of so that you could see how the hornets went about building their nests.

He had a fair number of larger birds and mammals that he loved to show. Rocks, fossils and bones were among other things that he collected and for each of them a record was kept. While on one of his trips walking up the Kicking Horse Canyon, Bill came across the skull of a buffalo that had been unearthed by the CPR. The skull had been buried under six feet of soil, leaving one wondering how long it had been laying there.

Bill had made a small cabinet with shallow drawers that he used to display his rockets and other precious stones in. Each of the drawers was divided into sections so that the specimens would not get mixed up and once again careful records were kept of each artifact.

Another of the things that he kept close records of was the weather. Housed in the Museum Archives are the hand written diaries that Bill filled out twice each day and every day for over 40 years. It had all begun as a hobby but with the right care it soon became a wonderful reminder of the past for the whole community.

I very much admire the people of that time, each having a great deal of knowledge about nature and how it works, but in their excitement to learn more they were responsible for the near extinction of many species of plants and birds. It was often hard to study the birds from afar, so they simply shot them for a better look and the same was true of many species of plants, they would find a small growth of a particular kind and instead of watching its progress from afar they picked for themselves and then told others where to find the remaining few.

As much as I admire the loveliness and romance of the time I’m glad that the people finally realized the harm they were causing the environment and took steps to see that samples already taken could be shared and that laws were set up to protect the living species for future generations. We proudly display parts of the Wenman Collection at the Golden Museum.