Creepy stuffed animals that shocked up visitors to remote Cornish moorland inn

Creepy stuffed animals that shocked up visitors to remote Cornish moorland inn

Potter’s Museum of Curiosities was one of those places that people found totally fascinating and seriously disturbing in equal measure. A fixture at Cornwall’s renowned Jamaica Inn from the late 1980s to early noughties, it boasted one of the most extraordinary and grotesque collections of Victorian stuffed animals and birds anywhere in the world – 6,000 of them to be precise.

Located just off the A30 at Bolventor, next to the notoriously haunted pub, it used to be a popular year-round destination for brave locals and tourists alike. What could be better than combining a visit to a mawkish museum with lunch and a pint, especially on those gray days when an endless mizzle cloaks Bodmin Moor?



Jamaica Inn at Bolventor, in 2002 when it was still home to the Walter Potter collection of Victorian stuffed animals and birds

For some, like me and my children, it was a case of once seen, those bizarre displays could never be forgotten or revisited. We really didn’t want to look at those poor stuffed kittens trussed up in three-piece suits or pretty frocks and necklaces, but for one time there was something so curiously compelling only about the expressions on their faces as they stood preserved in anthropomorphic splendor, interacting with each other in glass cabinets.

The juvenile questions were awkward: “Are the kittens dead, Mummy? Where did they come from? Did someone kill them?” I could only answer the first query honestly, but I had no idea what the truth was about the others. I thought the kittens had a certain symmetry about them, as if bred for just such a macabre purpose, although the museum insists no animals had been deliberately dispatched.

See more pictures from the museum below



The band plays at The Guinea Pigs' Cricket Match

There were tufty red squirrels drinking sherry and playing poker at their club, baby bunnies in school doing sums on chalkboards, leathery toads performing acrobatics, more cute kittens pouring tea and brandishing croquet mallets. Add to that the spectacle of a lamb with two heads and other creatures born with freakish disabilities too heart breaking to mention.

Dozens of British birds were dotted through the museum, including 98 specimens together in the solemn, intricate and highly prized centerpiece, The Death of Cock Robin. Then there were the more exotic wild beasts from around the world that most folk in Victorian days would never have witnessed unless they were stuffed – a tiger, a lion, a polar bear, a baby elephant and a big brown bear, to name but a few.



The Funeral of Cock Robin tableau
The Funeral of Cock Robin tableau

It was all part of the weird menagerie collected by famous 19th century taxidermist Walter Potter from Sussex. As a teenager, he’d taught himself to preserve birds and animals after his pet canary died and he dissected and stuffed the bird.

At that time it was fashionable to have your deceased pets stuffed and put on display in your home, so that was his day job while he continued to build up his incredible assortment of creatures, creating artistic tableaux.

After his death in 1918, the Potter collection moved to Brighton and Arundel before arriving in Cornwall in 1987. It even gained some popular additions while in the duchy including the moth-eaten stuffed bear from the TV series Steptoe and Son and the ferret that accompanied Compo on Last of the Summer Wine.

But by 2002 the whole lot was taking up too much room at Jamaica Inn, where people’s appetite for Victorian curiosities was waning in favor of the venue’s alternative offering featuring ghosts and smugglers, inspired by the Daphne du Maurier novel Jamaica Inn and its screen adaptations.



Let loose on Bodmin Moor - some of the larger stuffed wild animal exhibits in the Potter's sale at Jamaica Inn
Let loose on Bodmin Moor – some of the larger stuffed wild animal exhibits in the Potter’s sale at Jamaica Inn

The space was needed to build more guest accommodation and the animals had to go. It was international headline news when the exhibits were put up for auction and more than 1,000 applied to Bonhams for catalogs. When the pieces went under the hammer over two days in September 2003, Jamaica Inn was fit to burst, with 300 potential buyers eyeing up tableaux and individual pieces.

There were several famous faces in the crowd, including comedian Harry Hill, who apparently bought a couple of stuffed dogs, photographer David Bailey and Sir Peter Blake, who famously designed the cover for the Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, who also bought two tableaux.



Comedian Harry Hill was at Jamaica Inn for the sale of curiosities in 2003
Comedian Harry Hill was at Jamaica Inn for the sale of curiosities in 2003

A last-minute pre-sale bid of £1 million to keep the collection together came in from controversial artist Damien Hurst – known for his own piece preserving a cow in formaldehyde – but he was just too late and had to make do with individual items . At the time he said: “We used to take the kids up to see it all the time because they loved it. They had that sense of wonder – you could see they were fascinated but repelled at the same time. And I love it, too.”

In the end the collection – which also featured fossils, glass eyes, Victorian greetings cards, Queen Victoria’s enamel bath from the Royal Train and the world’s biggest shoe – raised £529,000 and items were dispersed to new homes as far away as the USA and Japan .

What do you remember about visiting Potter’s Museum of Curiosities? What other attractions in Cornwall and the South West do you miss? Let us know in the comments section below or email jackie.butler@reachplc.com

Love nostalgia? Have the best articles emailed to you for free with our new weekly nostalgia newsletter. Click here to see all the Cornwall Live newsletters.

Read more: Inside Cornwall’s hidden woodland chapel that’s just for animals

Amazing rags to riches tale of eavesdropping barber who bought Cornish town’s grandest house

.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.