An Exotic Bill Of Sale From Falmouth's Old Curiosity Shop

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 03 October 2007
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a handwritten invoice with an illustration of a bay at the top

The 1897 Bill of Sale, a very exotic invoice. Courtesy the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall has been lent a piece of proof that Falmouth’s Old Curiosity Shop really did trade in the weird and wonderful in Victorian times.

The shop was run by John Burton, importer of foreign merchandise from every region under the sun. His reputation spread far and wide and he boasted he could sell ‘anything from a monkey to a pulpit’.

A Bill of Sale from the shop, dated 1897, gives credence to the theory, listing the sale of items including a hippo skull, a walrus tusk and a necklace all to be sent to Nottingham.

“This demonstrates that John Burton’s shop was a real Aladdin’s cave reflecting the amazing diversity of people passing through Falmouth at the time, from all over the world,” said Jenny Wittamore, acting curator.

The Bill of Sale was bought a few years ago on eBay by a couple from Penryn. Simon and Philippa Holden bought the print for its illustration of their town as they collect Penryn-related ephemera.

“When we received the bill, we were vaguely aware of Burton’s shop from photographs in local history books. We wondered at the exotic items listed, handwritten in pencil, then like a great many things we buy on eBay, carefully put it in a drawer!” explained Simon.

“When we saw in the local press that the Maritime Museum had a display re-creating the shop window, we dug it out and brought it down for the curator to see. We were very nicely persuaded to loan it to the museum, who have carried out some conservation work on it and we are now delighted to see it on display.”

The Bill of Sale is now framed and on display in the museum’s Falmouth Gallery alongside the Old Curiosity Shop display. As for the Shop, which stood at 27 Market Street, it closed after Burton’s death in 1907.

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