‘Laid out on the table were bits of flint whereof they were told wondrous stories by Mr Toms, who knows so much about the Stone Age that one suspects he is a reincarnation of one of its medicine men.’
Brighton Herald, 5 November 1910
Yesterday, 6 December, marked the 70th anniversary of the death of one of Brighton Museum’s most influential curators, Herbert Samuel Toms.
Toms was a lively spirit. He began his career at Brighton Museum in 1897 and was fascinated by archaeology and folklore. As a young man he had assisted the famous archaeologist, General Pitt-Rivers, on many archaeological excavations and learnt the rigorous lines of enquiry and pioneering techniques Pitt-Rivers used in the field. Toms began to notice that Brighton’s local ancient landscape was rapidly deteriorating and so he led several amateur archaeologists to found Brighton and Hove Archaeological Club (Society after 1935) on 27 October 1906.
Initial excavations under his direction included trips to Hollingbury and Devil’s Dyke. Using Pitt-Rivers’s methods, the Club carried out meticulous investigations. The General had also made Toms aware of the importance of publication. In 1914, the Club produced the Brighton and Hove Archaeologist, the first of three publications detailing the Club’s latest work and archaeological theories.
Toms was fascinated by Sussex folklore which he saw as a direct link to the ancient past. He lectured freely in the subject and accrued an important archive of photographs, reports and artefacts for Brighton Museum. His wife Christina, a lecturer in folklore and antiquities, also shared his passion for archaeology and often joined him on site.
Christina died in 1927 and Toms retreated from archaeological fieldwork. After over 40 years of service, Toms retired from Brighton Museum in 1939. On 6 December 1940, he died in the garden of the Greyhound pub in Cocking, West Sussex.
A small group, including our Keeper of Local History and Archaeology, Richard Le Saux, and Matt Pope, Senior Research Fellow at University College London, visited the pub yesterday to pay their respects to Toms. If you also find yourself in the Greyhound pub on a wintry night, do raise a glass to the marvellous Mr Toms.