While on holiday in London Kenneth Grey Wilson and his wife found a snuffbox owned by a British postman. In trying to find the relatives of this postal worker he came across a few unexpected surprises. This week (in a two-part post), Kenneth will be sharing his story and that of the snuff box owner.
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.
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.
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…
If this story inspired you to do some family history research of your own, or you just want to find out more about a family member who worked for the British postal service, the BPMA has range of records in its collection that may help you find out more.