It’s been a while since we looked at another female Egyptologist, so let’s learn about Violette LaFleur. She almost single-handedly saved the Petrie Museum’s collection during World War II.
Violette LaFleur was born in 1897, possibly in Canada. She was a Canadian citizen and the daughter of a leading Montreal judge. She went to school in Highgate, England, and then was a social worker in the 1920s.
Sometime in the 1930s, she entered the Department of Egyptology at the University College London as a non-degree student. She was close friends with Stephen Glanville, who at the time was the Edwards Professor of Egyptology. His wife Ethel had been at school with her.
Violette eventually became part of the new program of curatorial, cataloging, and conservation work in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. In 1935, she started to work in the museum as a general assistant and began conservation training at the British Museum. She was eventually promoted to Honorary Museum Assistant and responsible for the photography in the museum. She also gave six lectures on object conservation.
In 1936, she accompanied Glanville on his excavations of El-Amarna and Armant, Egypt.
Her conservation work extended outside of Egyptology to the remains of Jeremy Bentham. He was an English philosopher whose remains are displayed at UCL. She was responsible for cleaning and preserving his clothes, chair, and stick, as well as padding the skeleton so that it could be displayed in the Cloisters of the Wilkins Building.
Her biggest contribution to the Petrie Museum was during WWII. She managed the removal of the collections to Stanstead Bury, specifically to the home of a naval captain George Spencer Churchill, a cousin of Winston Churchill. On September 8, 1940, the college was the first bomb with destroyed the skylights above the area where some of the objects were. Violette returned a few days later to continue packing at personal risk.
In April 1941, the college was hit again and water from the fireman hoses seeped into the basements where the cases were in standing water. The artifacts were then unpacked, conserved, and repacked. Finally, the 14 tonnes of cases and crates were transferred by July 1943. She did this mostly on her own, sometimes with some help from college porters or former students. And if you can believe it Violette lost her own flat and most of her belongings during the Blitz in 1940.
Later Life and Recognition
After the war, when the collection was returned, Violette continued to preserve the collection and teach at the university until 1954. If you could believe it, this was an honorary volunteer position, and she never received a single penny for her work.
I could not find much more information, let alone photos, of her, but she did die in 1965.
In general, she did not have any recognition for her efforts. Rosalind Janssen dedicated her book, The First Hundred Years: Egyptology at University College London 1892-1992, to the memory of Violette LaFleur. Her work was once recognized in 1951 by Sir David Pye, the Provost of UCL at the Fellow’s dinner. There was a wish for a permanent record to her be made at the Petrie Museum, but no record was made.
Violette Lafleur in her conservation – https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/mu
Cartoon of her – https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/news/extraordinary-stories-behind-petrie-museum
Petrie Museum – https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Petrie_Museum_of_Egyptian_Archaeology
Jeremy Bentham – https://medium.com/the-philosophers-stone/what-utilitarian-jeremy-bentham-intended-for-his-body-after-death-971d641c781d
Stanstead Bury – https://www.historichouses.org/house/stanstead-bury/tours/