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


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