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Mystery Joiner’s Time Capsule

27 October 2014

Durham Cathedral is looking to solve the mystery of a joiner who penned his name and hid newspapers in a bookcase back in 1880.

The discovery was made while the Cathedral’s current team of joiners were dismantling the bookcase in the Monks’ Dormitory, ahead of work to transform it into a breath-taking exhibition route as part of the Cathedral’s £10m Open Treasure project.

The two papers are the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, from 13th July 1880 and The Weekly Times, a London Newspaper dated Sunday, 17th June 1880.

Norman Emery, Durham Cathedral’s Archaeologist said: “There are no articles in the papers about the Cathedral itself but it’s very interesting to read about the various murders, marriages and miracle cures!”

The papers were found in a sealed void between the base of the bookcase and the floorboards of the Monks’ Dormitory. Norman said: “It’s a bit of a mystery how they ended up there really because our records show that the library was opened in 1856 and there is no way anyone could have got under the bookcases after that, but the newspapers date from 1880.

“We’re looking into possible explanations; perhaps that the library was extended at a later date and the new bookcases made as exact copies of the existing ones, but they appear to me to have all been made at the same time, which is baffling.”

And Norman has also started research into who this joiner was. He said: “The name written on the bookcase is John Milbanke and we think that he was possible a builder and joiner from Church Street in Durham, but it would be nice to know a little more about him, perhaps we might glean an idea from what we find out to explain why he wanted to conceal these newspapers like a time capsule.”

The Weekly Times newspaper also has a name and address written in ink across the centre page. Norman added: “The name looks to be Mr R Gelloly, or something similar, from Berwick on Tweed. It would be fascinating to know the link between this man and the man who ended up with his newspaper.”

The newspaper and signature finds follow the discovery of a piece of samian ware – a type of glossy red pottery from the Roman era, as well as pieces of 13th Century stained glass, in April this year. These discoveries were made in the Great Kitchen, which, once work has finished, will be a new home to the Treasures of St Cuthbert.

Open Treasure is a multi-phased development programme designed to transform the way visitors can enjoy the Cathedral and gain inspiration from it. The current phase involves the creation of stunning exhibition spaces in the Claustral buildings and has received a grant of £3.9 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Click here to learn more about Open Treasure.