Spoof memos, pranks, and ‘chocolate moose cake’: fun and games in the DUA Finds Section at the Museum of London

Ian Blair

Sometime in the early 1980’s whilst living in Haringey, near-neighbours Jo Groves and Natalie Tobert, Penny MacConnoran’s colleagues in the DUA Finds Section at the Museum of London, came around and gifted her a pot plant with an amazing vibrant orange flower springing from the centre of its lush green foliage. Penny lovingly nurtured the plant with regular waterings in the weeks to follow, always amazed at the flower’s beauty and its remarkable longevity. Probably a couple of months later and with the sun streaming in through the front bay window casting a new light on the plant, the hilarious truth was revealed, Penny saw that the flower was artificial and made of textile, standing atop a coloured wire stem which Jo and Natalie had pushed into the centre of an otherwise unremarkable pot plant. It was obviously a cause of much amusement and delight to them on their subsequent visits to the house, to find that the secret the pot held had still not been detected.

This story well demonstrates the innate sense of fun that was an integral and important part of being an archaeologist in the DUA, was equally reflected and matched within the DUA Finds Section. Jackie Keily remembers the practical jokes from the days in the old finds room in the basement of the Museum. ‘I think still to this day there is a 1p coin glued to the floor there and I think it was Jo Groves who put it there, so that Penny would try to pick it up - and I think she did try!’ The stories about the spoof memos (and there were many) show how she was willing and enjoyed being taken in as much as tricking others, although the latter was always a more enjoyable challenge.

Effervescent Penny in characteristically mischievous mood, as we all lovingly remember herEffervescent Penny in characteristically mischievous mood, as we all lovingly remember her


In the days before emails most internal communications took the form of memos circulated by hand in A4 orange envelopes, with multiple addressee boxes printed on both sides facilitating their constant reuse. This quaint form of communication from simpler times in a bygone age when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, leant itself to a certain degree of subterfuge and humorous pranks, with Penny being responsible for the two examples that follow.

The earliest memo dated 01/04/1987 (and there is a bit of a clue in the date) purported to come from Ray Collins and was sent to Jackie Keily’s sister Fiona who was the finds supervisor on the Broadgate medieval cemetery at Liverpool Street (LSS85). Suffice it to say that Fiona was horror-struck and appalled in equal measure, at his request for 350 small human finger bones or teeth to be set into Perspex and sold to the public to raise funds for the City of London Archaeological Trust.

Spoof memo from Penny purporting to come from Ray Collins: about acquiring small human bones and teeth to be set into Perspex to raise funds for the City of London Archaeological TrustSpoof memo from Penny purporting to come from Ray Collins: about acquiring small human bones and teeth to be set into Perspex to raise funds for the City of London Archaeological Trust


The second memo dated 16th March 1989 concerns another colleague, Ian Riddler who was the victim of her best and most complex joke. Previously, Ian had substituted a photo of Penny’s head (photocopied from her staff pass which she had left on her desk) for one in a photograph of the City of London Ratcatcher. The doctored photo was displayed (and moved about) in various places in the Finds’ room where she might notice it and he and others could witness her reaction.

Somehow, she did not notice what had been done: she was just so busy doing things she kept walking past the photo or not looking closely at it. Someone over on Ian’s side of the room finally drew her attention to it during lunch hour when Ian was out. Penny was in stitches, her laughter ringing out for a long time. She asked her colleagues not to let on to Ian that she had seen the photo and she would show them something worth waiting for.

Shortly after this, possibly a day or two later, Diana Twells who was Brian Hobley’s secretary and friendly with Penny, came down to the finds room and put something on Ian’s desk. It was a letter from Hobley saying Penny had come to his office in some distress. She had been going about her work when she saw her head substituted on her staff pass for that of the City Ratcatcher and she had been very upset by this. She had told Hobley there was a culture of endless joke-playing in the Finds’ department and she was fed up and distressed by it. She wondered what could be done. The letter asked those responsible to come to Hobley’s office at 4.15pm.

 

 The spoof ‘Ratcatcher’ memo from Penny that had Ian Riddler heading off to Brian Hobley’s office with his tail firmly between his legs The spoof ‘Ratcatcher’ memo from Penny that had Ian Riddler heading off to Brian Hobley’s office with his tail firmly between his legs

A few minutes before the allotted time, Ian got up from his desk and headed for the door. As he passed Penny’s desk he stopped and said: ‘Penny, I wanted to say how very sorry I am for what I did. I’m not saying this because I want to avoid trouble - I’m going up to see Hobley now, but if I’d known doctoring that photo would cause you distress, I would never have done it.’ He then continued to go out the door.

Penny raised her voice and called after him: ‘And if I had known how hard it was to forge a letter carrying Brian Hobley’s signature, I would never have done that either!’ The whole room exploded with laughter and everyone, including Penny, had tears rolling down their cheeks. Whenever that joke was mentioned in years to come Penny would laugh loudly.

The DUA Finds Section at the Museum was in a sizeable open-plan basement room with large sloping windows that looked out onto the eternally grey and gloomy subterranean carpark. Whilst it does not sound a particularly salubrious place to work, it had a certain charm and lost-world privacy to it as it was generally only visited by fellow archaeologists, but nonetheless it gave us the sense that we were genuinely part of the Museum of London. Consequently, it remains one of my favourite DUA finds section locations, I daresay a view that is partly coloured by happy memories of countless social gatherings within its four walls.

The last memo below is genuine and was written by Mike Rhodes, head of the DUA Finds Section, commenting on the profusion of parties that were constantly taking place in the department, and I can see why Penny kept a copy of it for twenty years, as it contains one of the best misspellings of all time when Mike opens by saying: ‘As much as I enjoy scoffing chocolate moose cake,..’. Given the size of a moose I imagine that the cake if life-sized must have been a substantial confection, but then it probably had to be sizeable to cater for the massed ranks attending the average Finds Section soiree. As a result of this spelling mistake, some staff members gave Mike the nickname “Moose”.

 

Fig 4 Mike Rhodes memo 550wGenuine in-house memo dated June 12th, 1990, from DUA Finds Manager Mike ‘Moose’ Rhodes

 

Tony Wilmott seen slicing-up the remains of the once massive ‘chocolate moose cake’ at the daily DUA Finds Section party at the Museum of London. Pictured from left to right: Gill Craddock, Patrick Allen, Mark Burch, Duncan Brown, Alan Vince, Tony Wimott, Sue Mitford, Jacqui Pearce, Kate Armitage (Photo from Paul Tyers)Tony Wilmott seen slicing-up the remains of the once massive ‘chocolate moose cake’ at the daily DUA Finds Section party at the Museum of London. Pictured from left to right: Gill Craddock, Patrick Allen, Mark Burch, Duncan Brown, Alan Vince, Tony Wilmott, Sue Mitford, Jacqui Pearce, Kate Armitage (Photo from Paul Tyers)

 

** I am indebted to Penny’s colleagues and friends: Jackie Keily, Lynne Keys, Natalie Tobert, and Michael Rhodes who were able to provide the background to the ‘ratcatcher’ and ‘moose’ memos and add other tales of life and humour in the DUA Finds Section.

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1 comment

  • Comment Link Lynne Keys Wednesday, 01 March 2023 13:02 posted by Lynne Keys

    Reading this brought tears to my eyes. A wonderful time - one that's irretrievably gone but memories of which still warm the heart.

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