Mystery of the Missing Mummy

When I was young one of my favourite days out was to Macclesfield Museum, situated at the Prestbury Road entrance to West Park. I always lived what seemed like miles from West Park, either way down south, near South Park in fact, or way out East, over the Bollin in Hurdsfield.

But when my little legs did carry me out West the museum was a goal worth the effort. The Park itself was always fun too in the way it held out strange tales and mysteries. I was told about two Russian cannon that used to sit in the park allegedly captured from the Crimea. That story may be truer than some of the others as it is recorded as fact on the Historic England Website. That august record also notes however that the cannon were ‘removed’ during the Second World War. That was also part of the story I was told: to make Spitfires, although that bit I am sure is wishful thinking at best. There remained a 30 ton boulder which I was told was a leftover from the last glaciation. Whether this was true or not, it didn’t arrive in West Park via an ice flow, but rather via a carter’s horse drawn truck from a field by Oxford road under supervision of the Borough Surveyor in 1857. No one seems to know why.

The whole area was one of Victorian hubris and make believe, and across the valley of a small stream through the wooded dell lies the town cemetery, formally delineated and separated from the park in 1860. That last stopping place for the Victorian obsession with formal ceremony marking life’s way stations, birth, marriage and death.

The Museum was part of the Victorian age’s obsessions too. Collecting and exhibiting one’s collection from the Empire and the world which was the playground of the British nineteenth century equivalents of modern internet billionaires.

In Macclesfield’s case it was textiles and more particularly silk that paid for the foreign jaunts and hoovering up the remains of lost civilisations and endangered wildlife. In the museum were swords from Egypt and the Sudan, courtesy of one of the local businessmen who had trundled up the Nile. He, or perhaps other local worthies, had shot a Panda in China and had it stuffed and brought home. There were obviously exhibits praising the silk industry which had paid for the collecting trips, there were bits of mail armour from the middle east, not from the Silk industry, and best of all a collection of Egyptian artefacts. There was a mummified cat, statuettes of goddesses and priests, rings, small stones, whose purpose I forget and of course most fascinating of all for a small boy, a real life, so to speak, Egyptian mummy!

Except apparently it wasn’t.

The case, belonging to a temple girl called Shebmut was on display and the story was that another of the Brocklehurst clan of silk entrepreneurs, this time a woman called Marianne, had, with her female companion, Mary Booth, bought the case containing the mummy, and I had naturally assumed the two were a fixture standing by the entrance to the museum. Certainly the case, linen wrapped around the girl, plastered and painted with her likeness and hieroglyphs and scenes from Egyptian mythology, looked to be intact and therefore one supposed as a naive, child containing its original occupant.

However, having had a virtual trip down memory lane I see it is now, and according again to those tales, was then, empty. The ‘is now’ bit I assumed was a recent separation when I read about it. The case was being moved and going on display in the Silk museum, the council having neglected to maintain the West Park Museum to the point things were decaying in it. Given recent concern about the removal of objects, artefacts and remains during the Imperial past and repatriation of some I presumed the council had returned Shebut. Not so apparently.

The display had always been of a case only. Possibly.

Yet what happened to Shebut is unclear. A 2011 article in Cheshire Life suggests ‘the body was removed and reburied in Egyptian soil’. They also suggest the mummy was in the case when in the possession of the Brocklehurst family in the UK, if not in the museum itself. The timing of the return? Unstated, the article declares ‘the case is now empty’ which doesn’t suggest that long ago. When was it removed and returned?

Or indeed was it?

A 2019 BBC piece about Marianne and other North Western women who were obsessed with Egyptology suggests Marianne was worried about being discovered smuggling the mummy home, and dumped the body on the journey home, possibly at sea. While this may be possible it should be noted that this version comes from a piece selling a Radio 3 documentary which has the usual modern day slants expected about such a subject. The then current display is castigated for not mentioning that it was smuggled nor the body discarded (maybe because its fate remains unclear?) and Marianne and Mary are outed as being lesbian life partners (I have no idea if this were true nor why it is relevant to Egyptology but it fits with modern sensibilities).

So spare a thought for Shebut, wherever she may be. I may not have been seeing her as I thought, but her mummy case and the thought of her, inspired a small boy with visions of a land far away in space and time. It was probably not the best way for it to happen, but given it did I am glad the case was on display, for free and available to widen my horizons beyond the expectations of a northern mill town, and to sow the first inklings that there were more people, more cultures, more things worthy of interest, of study and respect than I imagined in my everyday experience there.

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