It Takes a (Cork) Village

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

If we described our little cork village under glass, we could say it was quaint and quirky. And when it first came to us from Walter Potter’s museum in Great Britain, it was one big question mark.

In some ways it was very like the other folk art miniatures in Ye Olde Curiosity Shop’s collection, such as the tugboat made of matchsticks and the four-masted sailing ship fashioned entirely of bone and ivory from Alaska. The common factor was that some human being – apparently with a load of leisure time – painstakingly recreated some beloved object out of the materials to hand. The resulting creation may not have been slick or gallery-ready, but each was meticulously crafted and detailed down to the tiniest feature.

What set the diminutive village apart wasn’t so easily defined. Part of its charm was the warm woggliness of the walls, windows, and rooflines of the buildings, wavering as if the whole thing was made of gingerbread hot out of the oven. Then, it seemed to be the recreation of a very specific street rather than an idealized every-street that existed only in imagination. Perhaps because the street was populated with busy cork men and women pushing goods-laden carts, walking their dogs and shopping, it seemed like a real place. The signs affixed to the storefronts were even carefully hand lettered with family names.

Mr. Andy Grant, a resident of Brighton and Hove in England and a local historian, kindly answered the call for help we posted on a neighborhood website: My Brighton and Hove. From across the Atlantic, he was able to identify the street scene in simply astounding detail.

We are looking at a frozen moment in time from nearly 200 years ago, in 1828. The style of buildings is typical of that period in Brighton. The red-brick paving was another feature of Brighton Streets that was much complained-of by residents, dusty with red powdered brick in the summer and running red in the rain.

Depicted in cork, cardboard and paint is a sort of three-way intersection at the corner of North Street meeting with Upper Russell Street/Western Road. In the low building on the far left John Pitt manufactured pipes. You can see teeny little pipes on top of the roof of the low shed, possibly where the craftsmen traditionally tossed their rejects. Later Ann Pitt was registered on site; John’s wife, perhaps, or daughter.

Next door to the right, Simon Wisden shoed horses and plied his anvil as a blacksmith. He also offered the place as a lodging house, with one parlour, one best bedroom and one servant’s bedroom. On the far right, Elizabeth and then Mary Heasman ran a grocer’s shop. Edward Wisden made pocket watches at that address.

By 1832 all of them were gone, replaced by other businesses, people and buildings. Our cork recreation is one of the few records that this neighborhood ever existed.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

• Want even more details? See the extraordinary writeup by Andy Grant at the website for England’s Brighton and Hove neighborhood, which was the location of Walter Potter’s museum from 1972 to 1985.

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