"A jewel in a ten-times-barr'd-up chest": The Linnean Society's Iron Chest

This month, Project Archivist Alex Milne is looking into the history of the Iron Chest that once held the Society's most important organisational documents and artefacts.

Published on 12th January 2024

The Linnean Society of London was granted its first Charter in 1802. The impressive document is made of vellum, and laced at the base is a heavy, black wax seal in a round tin. It was folded away in a smart but unassuming box and delivered to the Society to add to its regalia. That same year, the gilded Grant of Arms was added to the collection with its three seals packed away into a long custom-shaped box. At that time, the Society was based in Gerrard Street, and these documents were prestigious and impressive but mostly, they were legally important and thus they required as much care and security as the membership roll, lease and Society finances.

Invoice for Iron Chest
DA/GOV/2/7 Item 2: 1809 September 14, Invoice for Iron Chest from W. Larkins & W.J. Eade for £8 18 6d

With this in mind, on 24 May 1802, the Council resolved to invest in a special chest to hold the Society's most important institutional documentation - arguably its first custom Domestic Archive storage. The need for specific storage for these documents was clear: they were vital to the continued running of the Society and contained details of members, rules and decisions. An ordinary wooden box might have been cheaper (and would certainly be easier for the current Collections Staff to move) but the virtue of an iron chest was clearly its weight and strength. Items locked in this chest would be safe from theft, as it was unlikely anyone would be able to break into it and equally unlikely that it could be easily carried away in the night.

The authorisation was given and correspondence began with different companies to compare the size, weights, and relative merits of differing chests. Eventually an order was placed with the ironmongers W. Larkins & W.J. Eade, located on 56 Chiswell Street. (Very little survives of their records other than those collected by their bank, Martin’s Bank Ltd. (1563-1918), now held by the Barclays Group Archive.)

The impressive chest was delivered to Gerrard Street around 14 September 1809 (according to an invoice), seven years after the search began. Two years later, the Society finished paying for chest, receiving a receipt for the full £8 18s 6d cost.

Photograph of the Iron Chest on wooden floor
The Iron Chest in its current home in the collection store. The three keys fit into covered slots on the top of the lid with the President's key fitting the middle slot.
Photograph of the inside of the Iron Chest filled with papers and boxes
The contents of the Iron Chest before they were removed to be stored as part of the Archive. The Grant of Arms (pictured with three seals in its custom box) is now on display outside of the Library.

The chest might seem surprisingly small at 34.8cm high, 61.5cm long and 31.5cm deep, with solid handles at either end. However, it was designed to be functional, and the grandeur is in its security rather than an ostentatious look. While Linnaeus's collections were housed in grand wooden cupboards and the library books were displayed in a glorious rainbow of bindings, the Iron Chest is comparatively discrete and austere.

The custom design features three separate keyholes requiring three different keys, which were distributed between the President, the Treasurer and the Secretary of the Society. Therefore, all three Fellows had to be present at any opening of the chest, and the most regular opening occurred for an annual "examination" on the day of the Society’s Anniversary Meeting.

Handwritten list of chest contents including notes over the years from checking off items
DA/GOV/2/7 Item 4: Contents of chest examined in Council. The contents were also examined in Council on the 5th of June 1862, 4th of June 1863, 20th of June 1864, 17th of June 1875, and 6th of June 1878

During the "examination", the President, Treasurer and Secretary would remove the contents of the chest and check them off from a list. Over the years the contents included: the Charter, Grant of Arms, the Great Seal of the Society, insurance documents for buildings and in case of injury by aircraft to staff during wars, a certificate of exemption from rates, bye-laws, certificates of Fellows, gold presentation watches, and various medals including those of the Society and those of Fellows such as Joseph Dalton Hooker.

The first time the ritual faltered was during the upheaval of the Second World War. Many of the collections were sent to Woburn Abbey, but relocating the Iron Chest required a more practical solution. The Domestic Archive shows that on 17 April 1939, the Council resolved to deposit the chest with the Society's bank, which was Lloyds at the time - it was stored in their vaults.

Typewritten notice of the move of the Iron Chest to Lloyds Bank
DM/COL/9/1/9 Item 4: 1939 Apr 17. Council Meeting. Resolved that the iron chest be deposited at Lloyds Bank.

The wider the Fellowship grew and the more their work took them far afield, the Society realised that having the three keys to their foundational documents in unknown locations was possibly too secure, so at some point in the Society's modern era, the keys were kept at Burlington House. The tradition of the annual examination, however, continued. Every Anniversary Meeting the chest would be opened and the contents checked. By this point, modern legal documents were mostly kept elsewhere, but the Charter, medals and original copies of the Bye-Laws remained.

Eventually in 2019, the annual examination ceremony was ceased and the chest's contents were distributed to more suitable homes. The Grant of Arms is now on display outside the Library and the delicate Charter is housed with the Linnaean Collections that it helped to preserve and promote to the world. The Iron Chest itself is currently housed with the collections (as many of the Collections staff’s stubbed toes and bruised shins can attest to) but, as we aim to open up more of our collections, we hope to have it on show in the near future.

Just as soon as we can figure out how to lift it!

All images © Linnean Society of London


Title: Richard II, William Shakespeare

Larkins & Eade: The Post-Office Annual Directory (1814), volume 15, p. 193