John Clayton - the man who saved Hadrian's Wall. Courtesy The Trustees of the Clayton Collection
One of the great unsung saviours of the UK’s heritage was remembered yesterday when the museum housing his remarkable collection was re-launched at Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria.
Chesters Roman Fort Museum, which re-opened on April 29 2008, houses the Clayton Collection and has 5,500 catalogued items from a variety of sites along the central section of the wall.
However, few people today have heard of John Clayton yet he is one of the single most important individuals in the history of Hadrian’s Wall.
A classically educated Victorian gentleman who combined demanding roles running the family law firm and acting as town clerk for the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Clayton had a passion for archaeology and the Roman military legacy in his beloved Northumberland.
Were it not for Clayton, it is now understood that large parts of Hadrian’s Wall would have disappeared – as the industrial revolution fuelled the demand for stone to build factories, mines and mills. His role in the preservation and survival of Chesters Roman Fort – the best-preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain, is now undisputed.
'Mr Clayton' surveys his revamped collection at Chester's Roman Fort Museum. © English Heritage
“Clayton, and to an extent Chesters Roman Fort itself, has been rather overlooked in the recent past by the general public, who are more familiar with nearby high-profile sites such as Housesteads and Vindolanda,” said Kevin Booth, English Heritage’s Senior Curator for the North.
“Without wishing to take anything away from the importance of those sites, Chesters and the Clayton Collection offer one of the principle insights into Britain’s northern Roman frontier, especially through the inscriptions and sculpture.”
In the early 19th century Clayton lived at Chesters House in the parkland surrounding the Roman fort and from an early age became fascinated by the Roman relics that surrounded him.
By the 1830s he began buying land to preserve the Wall, this was at a time when - what is now a World Heritage Site - was little understood and being unthinkingly vandalised by quarrying and removal of stones for reuse. He even had some restoration work carried out on parts of the wall.
Chesters Roman Fort is the best-preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain. © English Heritage
Clayton’s enthusiasm helped preserve the central stretch of Hadrian’s Wall that includes Chesters (Cilurnum), Housesteads and Vindolanda. He carried out some of the first archaeological excavations on the Wall and even brought early tourism to the area by displaying some of the finds at Chesters.
The museum housing the Clayton Collection was opened next to the Roman fort site in 1903, 13 years after his death.
It is privately owned but curated by English Heritage on behalf of the Trustees of the Clayton Collection and has been refurbished to bring it up to 21st century standards of conservation, display and interpretation.
However, great care has been taken to respect its character and to retain the feel of a 19th century gentleman antiquarian’s collection, and many of the labels and original cases have been retained.
Actor Simon Kirk as Mr Clayton with an original notebook with notes on coins found at Chesters. © English Heritage
“This place houses a remarkable collection with magnificent pieces,” said Georgina Plowright, Collections Manager for Chesters Museum, “and I like to think that if John Clayton were to see it today he would be happy with the care and respect that has been accorded to his legacy.”
Clayton managed the estate and its farms successfully, producing cash to fund further preservation and restoration work on the Wall. He never married, and died in 1890.
Want to know more about the collection of John Clayton? Then read Georgina Plowright’s Curator’s Choice of her favourite items from the collection of a remarkable collector.