Monday, June 15, 2015

The Postman's Snuffbox

A British postman’s 100 year-old snuffbox found in London 
and returned to his family in Dursley, Gloucestershire

We all love a good treasure-hunting story; accounts of buried pirate booty, lost gold mines, or Roman coins found in a farmer’s meadow seem to capture the attention of nearly everyone. Most of us are not fortunate enough to discover a buccaneer’s hoard behind a chimney stone, but it seems that we all in our way do a bit of treasure hunting—keeping an eye out for a Picasso at a jumble sale, searching for bargains at Debenhams, or just looking for forgotten change in vending machines.

My wife and I are both collectors and treasure-hunters of a sort, and when traveling we look for inexpensive curios in antique shops, shop windows or flea markets—objects that seem to convey history, hold a strong visual appeal, and ideally some level of mystery. The object might be a hand-made toy, a piece of jewelry, an old postcard or a faded photograph, but it must convey a human touch or story that communicates across time. On a recent trip to London we spent hours in the British Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, and the Museum of London, but what really excited us was the prospect of discovering small treasures in the many flea markets of the city. 

On a damp, grey Sunday—the kind of day that makes tourists feel that they are in the London of Sherlock Holmes or Charles Dickens—we ventured out to the Old Spitalfields Market in the East End, an area of London outside the old medieval walled city that has seen buying, selling, haggling and trading of all sorts for hundreds of years. The historic market looked promising—crowded aisles between stalls filled with bits and pieces of other times and other lives.  The odors of age and dust were greatly improved by the smells of of Cornish pasties and meat pies and we eagerly took to the hunt.  While bargaining over some small metal hooks that might find use in our bathroom, I noticed a small, nickel-plated snuffbox with the words, “A. Whittard, Postman, Dursley” marked on the lid. The letters had been stamped into the metal, one at time, with hand tools. The repetition of the letter “X” turned on its side had created a border around the words.  My wife and I immediately thought that this intriguing find had enough clues to trace it to its original owner, and that mission might serve as a fun challenge. The snuffbox would be our map. The owner would be the treasure.

 The Snuffbox

I made a cash deal with the seller for both the bathroom hooks and the snuffbox and my wife and I went happily back to our hotel room to rest up for the next day’s adventures.  A week later, back at home in Texas, I searched the Internet for Dursley, and found that it was a small market town in Gloucestershire. A search for A. Whittard, Postman, Dursley, quickly turned up a link to an online forum for past residents of Dursley and a comment by Julie Smith from Ohio, USA, about growing up in the town, along with a mention of her late brother, Alan Whittard, who had been a Dursley postman. 

Parsonage St., Dursley, circa 1910. The old post office was on this street.
Postcard from author’s collection

It appeared that we had a win on the first spin of the wheel, but in further investigation, we recognized that Alan was too young to be our snuffbox owner, and what’s more, no one remembered him ever using snuff. Julie offered to contact a friend in Dursley, Jennifer Rennie, known as “Paddy.” As it turned out, Paddy’s maternal grandfather was Arthur Whittard, a Dursley postman at the turn of the 20th century. So, unknown to Julie, she and her “friend” Paddy were actually distant cousins.

Paddy put us in contact with her first cousin Sadie Evans, another of Arthur’s granddaughters. With help from Sadie and her daughter, Jane English, the story of the Dursley postman, Arthur Whittard, began to take form. My wife and I offered to return the snuffbox to the Whittard family in exchange for some details of Arthur’s story.

Arthur Whittard was born in Dursley 1866, began work as an errand boy at age 15, and later joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps.  After his military service, Arthur was certified as a postman in 1893, and a year later he married Ada Morgan. The 1911 census reveals that the Whittard family lived on Slade Lane, and had nine children: Frederick 16, Arthur Victor 14, May 12, Maud 11, Edith 9, Valentina 8, Alfred 6, and Dorothy 2.

One family story relates the possibility that Arthur worked as a school headmaster in India.  We could not confirm this, but it is of note that in the late 1800s the Kings Royal Rifles were posted to India. Perhaps this family story relates to time that Arthur spent in India with the KRR before returning to Durlsey and beginning his work as a postman.

Dursley Postmen, c. 1900. Arthur Whittard fifth from the left, back row, prominent mustache.
Back (L-R) Unknown, Unknown, Frank Martin (?), Unknown, Arthur Whittard, Unknown, Unknown, Fred Hitchins
Front (L-R) Tom Fussell, Frank Hadley, Unknown, Unknown, ? Hitchins, Jim Fussell
Seated, Harry Trotman, Telegraph Boy
Photo and information courtesy of David Evans and Andrew Barton, Dursley

With the onset of World War I, Arthur’s eldest son, Frederick, joined his father’s old regiment as a rifleman with the King’s Royal Rifles in July 1914. In September, Arthur, age 48, re-enlisted in the military and served as a corporal-instructor with the Army Service Corps in England.  Arthur’s younger son, Victor followed his brother into the King’s Royal Rifles infantry regiment as a rifleman in January 1915.

Both of Arthur’s sons saw action in the trenches of the Western Front of France and Flanders in 1915.  Victor met the fate of so many men in the trenches, and became ill with pneumonia. He died on Boxing Day, December 26, 1915. He was only 19 years old. Victor is buried in Merville Communal Cemetery in Northern France.  His brother Frederick was wounded in Ypres during the heavy fighting of the summer of 1915, and was discharged in May 1918, with the loss of a leg. Arthur continued to serve in the ASC until he was discharged as ill, in March 1918, and he died only a few years later at age 59.

We will probably never know how the Arthur’s snuffbox traveled from Dursley, to Old Spitalfields Market in London 88 years after his death, but the little snuffbox was returned to Dursley and to Arthur’s granddaughter, Sadie Evans. With a little luck, some online research, and some trans-Atlantic sleuthing two tourists from Texas learned a bit about a British postman and the history of a family in a small market town in Gloucestershire.

When people bury treasure nowadays they do it in the Post-Office bank.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Chuck Will's Widow and the Night a Jaguar Ate the Moon

The twenty-four hours of April 14, 2014 rolled raw and rusty across across Central Texas; it seemed prehistoric, beautiful and very natural;  The events we saw, felt and heard have been experienced by others for centuries.

The day began with a line of dark, intense thunderstorms rumbling through the area.  There was heavy rain, high winds, lightening and even hail in a few areas.  This display of force went on for several hours until the sky gradually cleared to full sun on the outstanding array of bluebonnets and other wild flowers that had been with us for a couple of weeks.  

The wind continued to gust heavily all day, as an unusually late cold front moved across the state.  When darkness fell, the wind let up and the temperatures dropped quickly to a low in the mid thirties.   We were forced to bring our outdoor potted plants in again this year.

As I left the studio about 10 p.m. and walked up to the cabin in full moonlight, I was very pleased to hear the repeated call of a Chuck Will's Widow.  Each year they return to this area to nest during the warm months.  It's my favorite bird on our place, even though I have never seen one.  The are fairly large but they hide during the day and feed at night on insects, and sometimes on smaller birds or bats.  They do not built nests but lay their eggs on the ground in the leaves and dirt.  When sitting on this "nest" during he day they are almost invisible – still and quiet – blending in to their background. We are on the very western edge of their nesting range. 

I heard this bird's nightly calls for years during the summer months, and when I asked people about it, they told me it was a Whip-poor-will. I didn't think so. The call was similar to a Whip-poor-will, but not quite the same, and I knew it must be a different bird. A little searching online led me to better information. 

The two birds are related, but if you listen carefully, the call is distinctively different, with each bird saying its name. With the Chuck Will's Widow's call, the "Chuck" part is low and difficult to hear at a distance but the "Will's Widow" part is very clear, and the call repeats over and over in the early evening and less often during the night and in the early morning before sun-up. But the bird is silent and hidden during the day.

Here's a link to the call -- scroll down on the link page and click on the call button:

I went to bed very pleased to have Chuck Will's Widow back "home."  We have been doing a little landscaping and building a hiking trail on our place, and I was afraid we might have disturbed her nesting areas.  

April 14 had more in store for us and the natural display was not over.  My wife and I slept lightly until 1:45 a.m. when we got up and went outside to check on the progress of a full lunar eclipse! A rare "Blood Moon!" For the next hour and a half, we kept coming back inside to warm up, waiting ten or fifteen minutes and going back outside to check the progress of the eclipse. The night got darker and darker, and the crescent of lighted moon gradually decreased, revealing a reddish, ghostly moon almost directly overhead and a very bright Mars shining just to it's right.  The planet Mars was at one of it's closest points to the earth and was the brightest "star" in the sky, and the moon was a coppery disc.  

One could not help but wonder what ancient people thought of this phenomenon.  What great stories they must have concocted. The ancient Mayans thought the eclipse was the result of a jaguar eating the moon, and they performed ceremonies to drive it away.  I hope you didn't miss the event, but if you did, there will be three more full lunar eclipses coming up soon that will be visible in North America -- one in October and two more in 2015.  Don't let the opportunity get by you.  It is a beautiful sight, and it reminds you of other sky watchers, past and present.

All in all, it was a lot of "nature" in 24 hours. Hell of a day.  

Don't let the jaguar eat your moon! 

“Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth.” 
― Ptolemy

Saturday, December 28, 2013

More Than a Game

People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. 
I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. 
– Rogers Hornsby

A few years ago I found an old, broken, worn-out, Little League baseball bat in the corner of an antique shop. The bat is a late 1940s or early 1950s Louisville Slugger 125J, Little League model, with a Babe Ruth decal.  The bat was badly broken – split along the grain, but the break had been carefully repaired. The first repair was probably done with black electrician’s tape judging by the tape residue still on the bat. The second repair was done by tightly wrapping the broken area with steel wire. To say that the bat spoke to me is to use a well-worn cliché, but it spoke to me.

“Label up! Hold the bat with the label up!” Most kids who learned to play baseball in the era before aluminum bats can remember those instructions, shouted at them as they hefted the bat at home plate and looked toward the pitcher. The bat in their hands would have been made from ash or oak, and the “label” was more than likely not actually a paper label or decal, but a manufacturer’s trademark branded into the wood. The child knew what the instructions meant, even if he didn’t know why; the maker’s name and emblem should be facing up.

Here’s a picture of the “label” on the Babe Ruth bat, and below it is an example of how it would have looked when it was new:

Before the mid-nineteenth century baseball players were expected to provide their own bats, and many sizes and shapes of bats were in use.  As the game became more organized, rules were imposed to limit the bat diameter and length; although the shapes varied, including some bats with flat hitting surfaces. Bats with a rounded barrel soon became the norm, but no matter what the size or shape, wooden bats were still subject to being broken during the course of a ballgame.

The contact between a pitched ball and the baseball bat is an exceptionally violent collision, and occasionally a wooden bat breaks at the moment of impact – usually splitting along the grain of the wood.  The best safeguards against breaking a bat are the choice of a strong, close-grained wood for its construction, and striking the ball with the edge of the wood's grain rather than the side of the grain.  The manufacturers of wooden bats place their trademarks or labels with the alignment of the wood grain in mind; if the label is facing up, the edge of the grain is toward the incoming ball.1

The history of Louisville Slugger baseball bats begins with a broken bat. In 1884 Pete Browning, the star player for the Louisville Eclipse baseball team, broke his favorite bat during a game, and Bud Hillerich, the son of a local woodworker, offered to make him a new one. Bud’s father, J. F. Hillerich, owned a shop that produced stair railings, porch columns and butter churns. Using his father's shop, seventeen year-old Bud turned a new bat for Mr. Browning who proceeded to get three hits with it the next day. 

Young Hillerich persuaded his father to add baseball bats to their product line, and they trademarked the name “Louisville Slugger” in 1894. While there have been other manufacturers of wooden baseball bats, the Louisville Slugger has been the best-known wooden baseball bat for well over a century. Frank Bradsby became a partner in the business in 1916, and the firm’s name was changed to The Hillerich and Bradsby Company. By 1923, the company was the largest manufacturer of baseball bats and over the years baseball legends like Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron and Derek Jeter have all swung Louisville Sluggers. 

Broken baseball bats are only useful as kindling for a fire and are usually discarded. However, as with most things, necessity sometimes trumps convenience; and that was the case with our 125J Louisville Slugger.  

One can envision the events unfolding as a dejected child held a broken bat that had seen many days of hard play on a baseball diamond.  The evidence clearly shows an attempted mending with black tape, possibly performed by the child, and a later wound-wire repair probably done by a father, an uncle or an older friend.

The story this bat tells is one about the time and effort spent to repair it and to convince a child that it was still usable and that a new bat was simply out of reach – at least for the time being. The story shows us a precise moment of generosity and affection as well as the shared lessons of perseverance, problem solving and economy. 

The wear on this bat demonstrates that it was used for a considerable amount of time after the repair was completed. One can imagine the emotions of the child changing from those of distress to grudging acceptance, and perhaps even to a smile of delight as the bat went back into play and the game went on.

A Louisville 125J, with the Babe Ruth decal in very excellent condition is apparently worth several hundred dollars to collectors. I get that, but I'd rather have this bat; it tells a better story.

“Use it up – wear it out – make it do,” is an old adage that we don’t hear or observe much anymore, at least not in the more prosperous parts of the world; but it’s a good lesson to keep in mind – if we want to win the game. 

Link to the history of the Louisville Slugger:
Link to video about The Hillerich and Bradsby Company:
Link to Rogers Hornsby bio, National Baseball Hall of Fame:
Link to Babe Ruth bio, National Baseball Hall of Fame:
  1. To understand the physics behind the impact between the baseball and the wooden bat, hold a deck of playing cards in your hand and strike a surface with the flat of the cards and notice how the deck flexes and bends.  Now strike with the edge of the deck and notice how differently the cards react. The individual cards represent the grain of the wood and in this position much more force is transmitted into the blow. Not only will more force be transmitted to the baseball, the possibility that the bat will flex and break will be greatly diminished.
Personal note:  
My great-uncle, Texas Grey Burleson, played baseball with Rogers Hornsby when they were children. They both grew up on the Blackland Prairie of Texas in a large bend of the Colorado River known as Hornsby Bend, just east of Austin. Rogers Hornsby went on to great fame as a professional baseball player in the years between 1915 and 1937. As the family legend goes, Uncle Grey wanted to leave home to play baseball too, but was told by his father that baseball was only a game for children.  He soon left home for work as a cowboy in Wyoming.

Rogers Hornsby is buried in his family's cemetery at Hornsby Bend, Texas.