An Egg with a View

A Peep-egg made near Coleorton, LeicestershireLong before the internet, television or films brought the world into our homes people relied on much simpler entertainment. It was to meet this need that the 19th Century ‘Bauble’ industry centred around Coleorton, Whitwick, Thringstone and other Leicestershire villages produced alabaster views of far off places, these simple dioramas later came to be known as peep eggs on account of the their shape. The alabaster for these novelties was mined in Chellaston, Derbyshire and the stone would have been delivered to workshops in large blocks, which were then sawn into more convenient sections ready for turning on a treadle lathe into candle sticks, egg cups, tobacco boxes and trinket boxes and peep eggs etc. Peep eggs in particular required some skill in their production since the top part of the alabaster dome would have to be turned sufficiently thin to allow light to penetrate and illuminate the printed views inside. The peep egg consisted of two parts the upper translucent dome and the lower base. The top part would have had a hole at the top into which a Stanhope lens would have been glued. Stanhope lenses were an early form of microscope invented by Charles Stanhope with a fixed focal distance. The bottom half of the egg had a shaft fitted to which was added up to four copper plate printed images of famous scenes or sometimes imaginary crystal grottoes. The two halves were then glued together with egg white and two knobs attached to each end of the shaft so that the shaft and its attached images could be rotated to different viewing positions. Finally the item might be polished with beeswax or varnished and a decorative motif painted on it.

The author has recently acquired an example of a peep egg (see above1) the four views comprise two of the Thames Tunnel from the Wapping and Rotherhithe entrances. The tunnel was completed in 1843 under the direction of father and son engineers Marc and Isambard Brunel. The third image shows Isambard Brunel’s great iron ship the SS Great Eastern docked at Rotherhithe. In its day this steam and sail powered ship was the largest in the world and made its maiden voyage across the Atlantic in 1860. The fourth view is of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. The Crystal Palace was built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, but was then moved to Sydenham in 1854. My egg must be about 160 years old, its painted decoration is only left in traces, but the images still delight the modern viewer as it did our Victorian ancestors.

Compiled by: Terry Ward, member of the Coleorton Heritage Group. Are there any more ‘Baubles’ out there amongst our readers? If so the author would be very interested to record them.

A view of the Thames Tunnel on the peep-egg

A view of the Thames Tunnel in the peep-egg

Display of spar baubles

Display of spar baubles at "Coleorton Past - a Village History" exhibition at Ashby Museum spring 2024. Some items loaned from Leicester Museum