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Basil Richardson Stanley Megaw

Epithet: Director of the Manx Museum, 1940-1957 (1913-2002)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

After graduating in archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge Basil Megaw was appointed assistant director and secretary of the Manx Museum in 1936, where the bright young graduate established a remarkable rapport with William Cubbon, who had been Philip Moore Callow Kermode's assistant and successor in the early days of the museum. As well as working on the archaeological collections (requiring attention since Kermode's death in 1932), and strengthening the already important folk-life collections, Megaw played a significant part under William Cubbon in establishing the Cregneash Folk Museum - the first branch of the Manx Museum, and the first publicly-owned open-air folk museum in the British Isles. He also provided significant input into the drafting of the Manx Ancient Monuments Act of 1938, still in force and yielding a markedly better protection of the archaeological heritage than is the case in England and Wales. In addition to these heavy Manx commitments Basil Megaw was also continuing important academic archaeological studies from his Cambridge days, most notably in a definitive paper published in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society in 1937 on 'British decorated axes and their diffusion in the earlier part of the Bronze Age', written jointly with Eleanor Mary (nee Hardy) Megaw, who was to become his wife. Basil and Eleanor were involved about this period in the outstanding excavation of the sumptuous Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. Their marriage just after the outbreak of war in 1939 brought Eleanor also to the Isle of Man.

Basil succeeded William Cubbon as director of the Manx Museum in 1940, but the early years of his directorship were interrupted by prolonged absences on war service (with Eleanor running the museum as acting director). Despite these absences, however, this, and the immediate post-war era, was a remarkably important time for Manx archaeology. Gerhard Bersu, the outstanding German archaeologist, as a refugee in Britain had been interned in the Isle of Man. He was eventually permitted to undertake archaeological excavations under armed guard, using volunteer labour from the internment camps, and Basil and Eleanor were closely involved in many ways. An important rescue excavation on Ronaldsway Airport (then a Fleet Air Arm base - so Bersu could not be directly involved) was undertaken in 1943 by Eleanor and John Ronald Bruce, leading to the remarkable discovery of a rectangular house of the Neolithic period with rich occupation deposits. The report, 'A New Neolithic Culture in the Isle of Man', incorporating an assessment by Basil of the distinctive culture revealed by the excavation evidence appeared in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society in 1947. After the end of hostilities Bersu remained in the Island for a year, undertaking further outstanding excavations for the Manx Museum.

After the wartime problems Basil was active on many fronts - work on the collections and displays (and some memorable special exhibitions); developing a more structured Folk Life Survey; the Manx Museum (as well as Yn cheshaght Ghailckagh) making sound recordings of the last generation of native speakers of Manx Gaelic; continuing an ancient monuments service; emergency excavations, notably a Bronze Age burial mound on Bishopscourt Farm, and the north-east section of the King Orry's Grave chambered tomb at Laxey. In 1951 an Act of Tynwald extended the role of the museum still further to embrace a National Trust for the Isle of Man, which saw the administration of the Calf of Man and a start in the acquisition of properties of natural beauty and landscape value. In the same year the core of the nautical branch museum was opened in Castletown, centring on the late eighteenth-century armed yacht Peggy in her original boathouse.

In 1957 Basil was appointed the first director of the Scottish School of Studies, a postgraduate department of the University of Edinburgh, which was to be the centre for the interdisciplinary studies which were to occupy his attention for the rest of his career. He remained an Honorary Fellow of the Faculty of Arts at Edinburgh until his death. Basil Megaw was above all a fine scholar, as shown in an impressive range of academic papers which appeared under his name in the Isle of Man and elsewhere. In addition to those already mentioned, in relation to Manx topics he contributed six significant papers to the Proceedings of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society, and no less than 41 shorter contributions to the Journal of the Manx Museum. Many of the latter, though brief, still stand as the definitive published source on the topics in question. They represent a carefully considered academic assessment combined with a popular presentation,often illustrated with his own accomplished pen-and-ink drawings. In relation to the early Christian period his papers on 'The Monastery of St. Maughold' and 'Who was St. Conchan?' are of especial significance; while in regard to the crucial period of the Norse Viking settlement and kingdom his joint paper with Eleanor 'The Norse Heritage in the Isle of Man' in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe, still remains a primary source, and his seminal 'Norsemen and Native in the Kingdom of the Isles: A Reassessment of the Manx Evidence' is a definitive study.

This brief survey of his achievements says nothing of his quiet dignity, his pleasant friendly manner with a lively sense of humour, and his warm affection for the Isle of Man and the Manx people, with whom he enjoyed working so much. His knowledge of, and interest in, Manx studies continued throughout his time in Edinburgh.

A tribute to Basil Megaw's work at the Manx Museum was read at the memorial celebration held in his honour at Edinburgh University.

Biography written by Marshall Cubbon.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.305-7).

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 22 June 1913

Date of death: 22 August 2002

Name Variant: Megaw, Basil


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