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Tue 17 Aug 2021
William Constable's Pump-up Air Gun
Philippa Wood // Curator
Philippa Wood
Curator
Research Volunteer Mike takes a look at William Constable's precious collection of firearms, with a close look at locally-made 18th Century air gun.
William Constable collected one of the finest gentleman’s gun cabinets of the eighteenth century, buying from the most prestigious gunsmiths of the time.

George Wallis, one of the most prominent gunsmiths of this period, had premises in Mytongate in Hull. Here he produced a series of light and elegant small-bore airguns - one of these can be seen in our Museum. William Constable was so impressed by Wallis that he employed the gunsmith to keep his collection clean and in good repair.

Not all the gun suppliers were quite so local, however. Robert Wogden of London was renowned for making high quality duelling pistols, and a number of these were bought by William. Other prestigious Georgian gunsmiths from London such as Griffin, Bailes and Turvey also supplied William with firearms for his collection.

Although the firearms collection was sold in 1952, many have since been returned to Burton Constable for display - this purchase would not have been possible without the help of the Art Fund.
Cabinets of Curiosities

Now one of the brightest jewels in Burton Constable’s crown, the museum collection of William Constable (1721-1791) lay dormant in dusty attics before being rescued and placed on public display at the Hall in the 1970s. Its renowned ‘cabinets of curiosities’ have been described as the best example of an Enlightened gentlemans collection by Simon Jenkins in his book ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’. Arguably the most remarkable and well-known of the Hall’s many owners, William was a Grand Tourist, a scientist and a collector. Today, his extensive collection of natural history, fossils, shells, scientific instruments, guns and other curiosities provide a fascinating diversion for modern-day visitors.

Items from the gun collection of William Constable
The Burton Constable gun collection

William’s gun collection, which is on display in the museum, tells a particularly interesting story. Prior to the eighteenth century, the manufacture, supply and repair of firearms in East Yorkshire was primarily the province of the resident armourer and his staff at Hull garrison. Things changed however following the turbulence of the Civil War and the Restoration. Aristocrats, landowners and farmers increasingly sought to acquire firearms from local gunmakers, for both self-defence and sporting purposes. Even as late as 1780, one never knew when firearms might be needed (as a companion blog in this series demonstrates: see ‘The Gordon Riots and Hull’). However, as the country became more politically stable, the need for personal protection declined and the ownership of a fine gun cabinet became more a matter of personal prestige and conoisseurship.

 

William was no exception in this respect, and he set about gathering one of the country’s finest collections of some 34 firearms. Many came from from prestigious workshops in London, but others were made locally by Hull gunmakers such as Benjamin Burgess and George Wallis. The collection survived until 1952, when it was broken up and sent to London for sale. All was not lost, however, as the collector the late W. Keith Neal obtained possession of eighteen of twenty eight of the items dispersed. By such means, with the help of the National Lottery Fund and Leeds Royal Armouries, together with supporting evidence of purchase, repair and maintenance bills, the collection has survived as a single entity.

George Wallis, by John Harrison (Wilberforce House, Hull)
George Wallis (1731-1803)

In October 1759, Wallis replaced Burgess as Burton Constables gunsmith. He supplied Williams powder and shot, kept the gun collection clean and in good order, and produced the remarkable pump-up airgun described in detail below. Wallis also carried out various commissions at the Hall, such as sharpening scissors, repairing metal and silver items and providing a speaking trumpet.

 

Wallis became a collector in his own right, perhaps inspired by William’s exotic cabinets of curiosities. He went on to establish possibly Hull’s earliest museum, where coins, medals, natural history and weaponry were available for people to see, free of charge. Later on, the public were charged one shilling a head for admission.

 

Following Wallis’s death in 1803, his son George Wallis Junior took over the museum and continued to run his father’s gunsmith business. One of George Jnr.’s finest achievements was the construction of a swivel mounted harpoon for Hull’s whaling industry.

A bar lock airgun, c.1776, by George Wallis
William's Pump-up Airgun

As far as we know, this fascinating item is the only gun that George Wallis made for William’s collection. Part of the W. Keith Neal collection referred to above, it is currently on display in the Hall’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Its date of manufacture is unknown, but it was supplied To Burton Constable in the late eighteenth century, possibly even after William’s death. A fine example of Wallis’s craftsmanship and knowledge of air weapons, it is the only gun of its kind to have been made in Hull. In 1776, Wallis had previously produced a series of airguns with the same distinctive spherical air reservoir but a different bar-lock mechanism, apparently based on a German design (illustrated on the right).

 

The Burton Constable airgun is surprisingly powerful and has a long range. To fire it, the metal sphere air is removed and filled with compressed air using a T-shaped handpump. This is done by standing on the side-bars of the ‘T’ whilst pumping downwards from above. The sphere is then loaded into the airgun ready for firing. Spare screws for attaching the sphere to the gun are included in a small chamber in the top of the pump.

'All's Fair in Love and War'...?

Air rifles were used by snipers in battle on a small scale in Europe between the late 1780s and 1815. Tyrolean sharpshooters were specifically trained to use them at sieges and in specialist operations. One user noted that “These weapons were really accurate and effective”. They were however prone to malfunction without proper handling, so were reserved for only the best marksmen. It seems that they were banned in several towns as residents found them unfamiliar and terrifying. Dr David Connell, the former curator at Burton Constable, has remarked that being silent in use, they were considered to offer an unfair advantage, with the result that the Prussian army honourably gave up using them!

The Wallis airgun is on display in Burton Constable’s Museum Rooms. Items from the Hull Museum Wallis firearms collection can be seen in the Georgian Galleries at Wilberforce House.

Sources and Acknowledgements

Arthur G. Credland, Hull and Beverley Gunmakers: The Story of a Trade Through Three Centuries, in East Yorkshire Miscellany 1, ed. Barbara English, East Yorkshire local History Society 1992, pp. 5-22

Ivan & Elisabeth Hall, Burton Constable Hall: A Century of Patronage, Hull City Museums & Art Galleries and Hutton Press, 1991, pp. 54-59

David Connell, Burton Constable Hall, Burton Constable Foundation and Jarrold Publishing, 2014

Shane Jessop, The Wallis Collection, museumshull.blogspot.com

The Wallis Collection: Hull’s Historic Firearms

https://www.kcomhome.com/hull2017/news/the-wallis-collection-hull-s-historic-firearms/?kcomid=08adecc6-eabb-45bf-8142-5deb25566897

The Stack Exchange

https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/27983/where-and-when-were-air-guns-used-in-a-major-battle 

Did you know?
Afternoon tea was created by the Duchess of Bedford in the late 18th century. She invited friends to join her for an afternoon meal of small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, sweets and, of course, tea. The practice was so popular that it was quickly adopted by other social hostesses 

The Burton Constable Whale is featured in Herman Melville's famous novel Moby Dick. 

Today the Burton Constable Whale is nicknamed 'Constable Moby'

Over 80 different species of birds have been spotted at Burton Constable, from the smallest British bird, the Goldcrest, to large birds of prey such as Buzzards and Barn Owls