British Classic Mineral Specimens

Early Beginnings - meeting Dick Barstow

The 1970’s – halcyon days for a collector in the north of England, and the Barstow phenomenon.

It all started when my mum did the washing on Monday mornings. My pockets would be stuffed with little pebbles picked up in the garden. Then I was given a little Ladybird book about minerals… and the rest, they say, is history.

My first experiences in the Midlands of England were in quarries and piles of rock by the roadside. My long-suffering mum, Joy, would organise visits to local museums, and discovered the whereabouts of abandoned quarries which we’d go fossicking in. A slow trickle of broken fossils, tiny bits of quartz, lumps of calcite, and amorphous lumps of rock began to collect in my room. I began to get frustrated.. the Ladybird book had nice crystals in it. How did I find some – where were the vughs – crystal lined monsters buried in hillsides all over England? Long suffering mum came to the rescue with Geological Society membership, which took me on field trips all over the country collecting fossils from every epoch. Then came that fateful Christmas morning. I woke up shortly after midnight, to find the floor of my bedroom strewn with minerals – quartz crystals, turquoise, cassiterite.. They’d found a collection for sale in the local paper and bought the lot. It was all from China Clay pits in Cornwall – and from that point onwards, I was hooked. The chap they bought it from gave them the address of a collector in Cornwall who worked in one of the mines. My mum organised a trip to Cornwall which I counted the days down to…

In the meantime I’d sold my train set (which would have been very valuable now – it was huge!) and used the proceeds to buy specimens on the family holiday to the Isle of Elba. My bedroom was soon stacked with specimens of haematite, ilvaite, and pyrite from Rio Marina.

This little shop was in Rio - it was crammed with specimens - tourmaline, pyrite, haematite, ilvaite, and more. It was about 200 yards from the hotel, there was a coffee shop next door, and I lived in the place!

On our return, we went to Cornwall. I was 10 years old…

We stayed in a little bed and breakfast not far from Penzance. On the first day, we went in search of our contact, who worked at a mine called Geevor. It wasn’t hard to find – Pendeen village sits on the edge of the cliffs, old engine houses dot the landscape, and piles of rock are everywhere. We drove up to the mine, and asked in the office where we might find him. The tough looking Cornish bloke in a mining hat surveyed my slim, beautiful, long brown-haired mum (who used to be a model) and his face slowly cracked into a smile...

‘Dick Barstow… oh, he’s in the sample compound up the hill. There’s two blokes up there – a big tall bloke and a skinny little runt – he’s the little bugger!’

We walked up the track to where two figures were sorting long lines of calico sample bags of drillchip. The little one straightened and came over to us... 'Dick?.. ' my mum asked. A grubby hand was proffered, and without further ado some pieces of malachite and chalcocite were plonked into my disbelieving hands. That night, we ended up at the pub with him, talking about mining, listening to tales of crystals and miners.

Over the next few days, we explored Cornwall to his directions, returning every night to his little cottage - 26, Tregeseal, St Just - to be precise, where his long suffering wife Yvonne prepared tea, and left me to sit, awestruck at his tales of specimens, mines, crystals, old books. He started to show me his collection, letting me pick pieces up, ask questions, and wonder at their perfection. Chalcocite, Cassiterite, Bournonite, Liroconite, Clinoclase, Langite, Botallackite, Bornite, Cuprite... the list went on..He took me to Cligga - I remember scrambling down the slope and into workings which led off the cliff. We spent the day hacking out a big vein of Stannite - I still have lumps of it to this day. I remember seeing bits on the monthly list afterwards and thinking 'I halped get them out'. Dick spent all day with a big lump hammer, mauling away at a pointed chisel, prising lumps of granite off the wall, working around the vein. I got the easy bit - breaking lumps of the soft stannite away from the wall when he'd exposed it all. At the end of the week, we left with a collection of little pieces he'd given me, and a promise to stay in touch - and a firm place on his collection of addresses to which he mailed out the monthly 'List'.

The next month, the list arrived. With it, my life changed forever. Gone were the attempts to find crystals in local quarries - I badgered my parents to take me down to Cornwall again - to ring and write to Dick and find out localities I could visit. The correspondence deepened, and over the next year or two we bought numerous specimens from him, and made repeated collecting trips to Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, the Weardale, Alston Moor, Cheshire and other localities too numerous to mention. One of my precious posessions is a collection of all the letters from Dick - he wrote long letters about collecting and the mineral market, and they provide a fascinating insight to this legendary figure - also to the philosophy and history of collecting in the 70's - a real snapshot of what was going on in those halcyon years.

Weardale and Peter Embrey

My mum learned to wear a mining hat and oldham caplamp. Not quite the social scene she was used to, but having a model for a mum made it easy to pass her off as my sister. We used to go to the mine offices in the Weardale and she'd sit in the office with the managers whilst I was sent underground with the geologist - collecting bag and hammer in hand. They never found out she wasn't my sister.... They gave her some lovely specimens....! The photo is me, outside Redburn mine, in the Weardale. We 'did' Allenheads too, then Blackdene - always returning with bags full of lovely pieces. I remember Alan Emerson - the manager at Blackdene, daring me to pick up the enormous lump of purple fluorite that sat on the window ledge in his office - at the top of the flight of stairs which went up the side of the building by the old horse level. I struggled, and couldnt lift it - but went away - a determined nine year old, and returned a year later after spending a year doing press-ups and getting stronger. We went up to see Alan again, and this time, I managed to move the huge piece as far as the door. Alan relented then, and organised a collection of specimens for me!

I started to frequent the Natural History Museum at Dick's suggestion. One day, a door opened at the end of the long mineral gallery, and the chap walked straight up to me, extended his hand, and said 'I've been watching you - you come here often - pretty interested in this stuff are you?' Seeing my confusion, he gestured to the door, and said 'Fancy a look behind the scenes?' I nearly feinted. I trotted behind him as we entered the secret world of rooms and turrets - specimens strewn on top of boxes, up stairs, over desks, under cabinets, on top of books and bookcases - and he finally introduced himself - 'I'm Peter Embrey - the curator here'

I'll never forget that first visit. He took me into the vaults. Made me stand with my eyes closed whilst he put things into my hands - I'd open them on command, to find myself holding the Latrobe Nugget, or the largest Platinum nugget in captivity, and many other wonders that are so often illustrated in mineral books. We sat drinking coffee in his office - talking about Russell, Kingsbury, Sowerby and Rashleigh as though they were old mates. I was sworn to give him an example of anything I found.. a promise which in later years I always kept. I still have the letters from Peter and John Fuller, thanking me for the latest donation.. At about the same time, Dick was frantically denuding the Russell exchange collection at the museum, through a constant stream of exchanges. I didnt realise that I could have exchanged rather than donated!!! This was the source of much of Dicks good Cornish material. (I did eventually cotton on, and have some nice cassiterites with Russell labels). I used to stay with Peter in London in later years - I enjoyed many fascinating evenings sitting in his flat around the corner from the Museum, looking at the draft of Minerals of Cornwall and Devon, and talking about collecting philosophy. Peter always wanted me to retain specimens in an uncleaned state - to him it was more important to see how they were found - their environment, as well as the perfect, cleaned version, stripped of its associations. They told more of a story in that fomat, and I always tried to make sure the museum got a 'dirty' piece to go with anything I gave them after that.