To celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, we want to share with you the story of an extraordinary woman who helped save the Petrie Museum Collection during World War Two, UCL conservation student and volunteer Violette Lafleur.
Only one tin of Ptolemaic funerary masks and thirty limestone tomb-wall fragments were deemed beyond repair following the bombing raids during the Second World War. It is remarkable that more was not lost. We owe this to one incredible lady who, through sheer determination, took up the challenge of packing and sorting the collection during this tumultuous time.
Against a backdrop of wartime austerity and danger, Violette Lafleur managed almost single-handedly to save the Petrie collection.
In 1938 the most fragile and most important objects in the Petrie collection began to be boxed up and moved to Blockley, Gloucestershire, home of a naval Captain George Spencer Churchill, a cousin of Winston Churchill. The bulk of the work was undertaken by Lafleur, with the occasional assistance of College porters and a former student. The remaining 160 cases stayed on campus in the South and Refectory Vaults.
On 18 September 1940, the College sustained bomb damage that destroyed the skylights, allowing water to drip onto a tray of funerary cones and wooden toys. Despite this close shave, Lafleur returned a few days later to continue her efforts at considerable personal risk: one day a bomb dropped nearby as she laboured over the collection.
It was arduous work, compounded by the lack of packing crates due to wood shortages, meaning Lafleur had to improvise with drawers and trays. Then in April 1941, the College suffered an almost direct bomb strike and, although artefacts were not directly damaged, water from the firemen’s hoses seeped into the basement leaving cases standing in water. The artefacts had to be unpacked, dried, treated and repacked once again.
Funders were eventually secured from College coffers to finish the last tranche of repacking and some 405 cases were transferred to Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire, where part of the British Museum collection was already safely housed.
As the bombs continued to rain down it was clear London was far from safe. The Ministry of Works arranged for a further 275 cases to be moved to Drayton Court in Northamptonshire, home of Colonel Stopford Sackville. By July 1943 some 14 tonnes of cases and crates had been transported by the Pall Mall Depositing and Forwarding Company in four separate van loads, all sorted and designated by Lafleur.
Her valiant efforts were noted at the time and then-Provost, David Pye, asked that an official letter of appreciation for her efforts be written. There were plans to further acknowledge her remarkable achievements with a plaque. This never materialised, and only a short speech was given at a UCL Fellows dinner in May 1951.
Lafleur had no formal academic qualifications and her professional status at UCL was something of an anomaly. With her extensive experience of collections care and management, she was eventually bestowed the title ‘honorary museum assistant’, a role that she held until her retirement in 1953. She never received a single penny for her work, nor was it ever commemorated in the way she deserved. Her commitment, however, is not forgotten.
You can read more about some of the extraordinary stories behind the Petrie Museum on our website and in the Petrie Museum Entrance Gallery.
This article is taken from Pike, H., (2015), ‘Violette Lafleur: bombs, boxes and one brave lady’, in Stevenson, A., (ed.), The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections, London: UCL Press (DOI: 10.14324/111.9781910634042)