Hilda and Flinders – A Reluctant Romance

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, today’s post takes a look behind the scenes, delving into the archives to tell the story of an unlikely couple, whose tireless work shaped Manchester Museum’s Egyptology collection, and proving that you can find love in the most unexpected places … and that sometimes, opposites really do attract!

Manchester’s Petrie Legacy

Manchester Museum’s collection of around 18,000 objects from ancient Egypt and Sudan is one of the most significant in Europe, and the fifth largest in the UK. One of the strengths of Manchester Museum’s Egyptian and Sudanese collection is the number of objects with a documented archaeological findspot, especially owing to the generosity of Manchester cotton magnate Jesse Haworth (1835-1921) whereby Manchester Museum was the beneficiary of material excavated by William Matthew Flinders Petrie. This contextual information is of particular value in the reconstruction of the history and the lives of past people.

1912opening.jpgManchester Museum’s Egyptology gallery opening in 1912. The gallery’s major benefactor Jesse Haworth is shown standing in the picture, with WMF Petrie (seated third from right), and the museum’s first curator William Boyd Dawkins (first on right). (Photo: egyptmanchester.wordpress.com)

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie is one of the most famous names in Egyptology. In the fin de siècle he one of a new guard of archaeologists who revolutionalised the discipline, not only taking a scientific and methodical approach to excavations, but meticulously recording the sites and objects.

“I believe the true line of research lies in the careful noting and comparison of the smallest details” – WMF Petrie

From the Archives …

It is both a pleasure and a privilege to work with the Egyptology Correspondence Archive here at Manchester Museum. It quickly becomes clear that although perhaps less renowned, but arguable equally important in the shaping of Egyptology collections worldwide, was Petrie’s wife, Hilda.

It was Hilda’s meticulous and tireless work behind the scenes which allowed Flinders (as she would refer to him) to become the Egyptological pioneer of his day. From permissions to excavate and paying the workers on the site, to organising the publication of the excavation reports (including authoring chapters and preparing illustrations), and perhaps the most important part – promoting the subscriptions to the acquire the funds for the next excavation!

Manchester Museum Egypt Correspondence ID 334. Writing to then Egyptology Keeper, Winifred Crompton, in her meticulous handwriting, Hilda Petrie having just returned from Rome filled with its exhausting tea parties and lunches, is hoping for new subscribers for their ‘Ancient Egypt’ publication. Looking for marketing strategies asks Crompton, “Can you flourish one in the public eye of people coming to see your department? Please do think of any methods of getting those interested in Egypt to take it in.”

Hilda Mary Isabel Urlin

Hilda Mary Isabel Urlin was born 1871 to Dublin based barrister Denny Urlin and his wife Mary Elizabeth. Hilda’s childhood as the youngest (by some way) of five daughters, was spent between residences in Sussex and London, and she was educated with a small group of children by a governess at Rustington Rectory.

After taking classes at King’s College for Women, including geology, as well as facsimile drawing courses, and this is where she excelled, developing a particular talent. And, at the age of twenty-five, it was Pre-Raphaelite painter, Henry Holiday who introduced her to Flinders Petrie, Professor of Egyptology at University College London, who needed someone to make drawings for a book he was planning to write about the history of costume.

CDN_CLS_086534.jpg ‘Aspasia on the Pnyx’ by Henry Holiday (1839–1927). In her teens, Hilda was described as “and attractive redhead”, and properly chaperoned by her sisters, sat for this painting by Pre-Raphaelite artist, Henry Holiday in his studio in Hampstead, and he was the one who would later introduce Hilda to Flinders Petrie. Photo credit: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.

A Reluctant Romance

The story goes that Flinders was immediately captivated by Hilda, but 18 years her senior, and having devoted his life to his work, which included long, hard seasons of excavating amid harsh living conditions in Egypt, had not expected to share this life with another. The glimmer of hope for Flinders was her desire to one day see Egypt…

Letters are a fantastic source of snatching a glimpse of the ‘real’ person, behind the famous personality. Flinders Petrie was meticulous in the field, but, quite unlike Hilda,  across the page he was quick to speak his mind, he was passionate and enthusiastic, and to quite a large degree … illegible!

Manchester Museum Egypt Correspondence ID 338. Postcards were the most instant of the messages of their day – the nineteenth century texts, tweets or snapchats…

Over with winter following their first meeting, Flinders corresponded regularly with Hilda, and on his return from Egypt in the summer of 1896, he asked Hilda for her hand in marriage. Hilda was at first reluctant, maybe in awe of the Professor, or wary of the gap in maturity. But eventually she relented, and agreed to his proposal.

The romance of the story continues, as they were married early in the morning of 29th November 1897, and leaving the Urlin family to celebrate without them, they skipped the wedding breakfast, catching the boat train on the first leg of their journey to Egypt!

Falling in love … with Egypt!

Where Hilda had shown reluctance in her affections for Flinders, there was no such reticence in her enchantment with the land of the Pharaohs. Their first stop was Cairo, where the her new hisband took her to the Cairo Museum, and then to Giza, where it has passed into legend that Hilda shedding her skirt, in her bloomers, climbed to the top of Khufu’s Great Pyramid!

Petrie_Hilda_full-580x827.jpgHilda Petrie descending into a tomb, possibly Dendera 1897-8. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society.

But this wasn’t just a honeymoon. From Cairo, the newlyweds continued south to the site where Flinders Petrie had obtained a permit to excavate that season, on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund, in the cemetery area behind the temple of Dendera. This suited Hilda perfectly. During this, and subsequent expeditions, she worked in tomb shafts copying inscriptions and transcribing hieroglyphs, as well as drawing the profiles of vessels, writing journal records, progress reports, and in the periods following excavation, she would assist in the writing of the excavations reports. And during all her time on expeditions, she was never asked to play a domestic role in a camp.

6857465682_625a4d0377_o.jpgHilda Petrie at Abydos. © Egypt Exploration Society

A Trowel Blazer

Hilda and Flinders were a good team – perhaps the perfect match. But Hilda was groundbreaking (pardon the archaeology pun) in her own right. The first excavation for which she took control was their final season at Abydos in the winter of 1902, with a team including Margaret Murray, and artist Miss Hansard. This was a hazardous project, which was eventually abandoned. But undeterred, in 1905, with an all-woman team, she worked on the Old Kingdom tombs at Saqqara.

The Petries’ Legacy

The Petries well and truly brought archaeology into the twentieth century. Flinders pushed the boundaries of archaeological method in an age that was rigidly theistic, he re-excavated spoil heaps discarded by previous treasure hunters and adventurers and in doing so found the some of the most important historical jigsaw pieces upon which our current picture of Egyptology relies. Hilda in turn pioneered new ways in which to fund excavations, generating an appetite for Egyptology long before Howard Carter had the Times newspaper as his press agent when he discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Manchester Museum Egypt Correspondence ID 338. Hilda, writing on 30th November 1922, in the  is tirelessly chasing subscritions, but also bringing exciting news; “There has just been a tremendous find in the Tombs of the Kings, by Mr Carter, of XVIIIth. Furniture &c. time of Tutankh amen, & going back to Akhenaten – a new royal tomb apparently. You will see something in today’s “Times”, & other papers.”

Following the discovery of Tutankhamun in 1922, and the increasing tensions between the excavators and the the Department of Antiquities, Flinders was concerned for the future for overseas archaeologists in Egypt, and turned his focus towards Palestine. This was again a project that Hilda would tirelessly promote. And all of this work did not go unnoticed by her husband, who made this dedicated in his 1930 autobiography –

“To my wife, on whose toil most of the work has depended.” – WMF Petrie

Michelle Scott

#WonderWomen #TrowelBlazers #Archives

Bibliography and further reading
Hilda Petrie Biography (Margaret Drower)
Breaking Ground: Women in Old World Archaeology
TrowelBlazers – Hilda Petrie
Egypt at the Manchester Museum
Aspasia on the Pnyx – artuk.org
Egypt Exploration Society (Flickr)
The Palestine Exploration Fund
Egypt Exploration Society

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