Monday, 5 March 2007


My paternal grandfather had a bachelor uncle, Tom, who was his godfather and after whom he was named. Uncle Tom [born in 1839] was the younger brother of my great-grandfather, and as a young man went out to Ceylon to work for a firm of importing and exporting merchants. He wrote several letters to his brother, a few of which I still possess. They are in a beautiful copperplate hand, and illustrated with some charming pen-and-ink drawings.

In the first, written from Colombo in 1866, he starts off by discussing family matters, and then proceeds:

“That old canting hypocrite B. did you down certainly. I always suspected him of being a “Humbug” - by the bye, this word “humbug” is well known and used by the Asiatics & it is no uncommon thing to hear men who only know say two or three words of English, calling each other in measured strain “Humbugs”!

“I note what you say about the “Fenians” - they are certainly a rum lot, but the movement seems to have been rather wider spread than was at first supposed - the escape of Stephens was a sad blunder and now that the extradition treaty with France is broken up the capture of such men will be more and more difficult. When the news reached Colombo that the “Head Centre” had escaped, a few of us were nearly telegraphing home that he had taken up his abode in Ceylon. Our Collector of Customs is very much disliked by the merchants and his name being Stephens we have dubbed him the “Head Centre”.

[To spare readers a long disquisition on Anglo-Irish history, suffice it to say that the Fenians were the mid-Victorian equivalent of the Provisional IRA, and perpetrated several bomb outrages around this time.]

Uncle Tom continues: “In reply to your query I have to state that I am a full blown Freemason Irish Constitution & expect soon to receive my certificate. Masons in Ceylon are as a rule very quiet fellows; in fact in this hot country men dare not indulge too freely in liquors altho’ some I will allow take a “fair whack”.

“The coffee planters are the most noisy and obstrepolous [sic] - at the last banquet held at Kandy I hear that one of the “worthy masons” shied a whole boiled fowl at the Worshipful Master’s head. In fact the planters are not at all particular in attentions of this sort & the tales of havoc they commit in one anothers Bungalows sometimes, is scarcely to be believed. The Crockery and Glass ware on such occasions are the first to suffer, then the furniture comes in for its share - on such occasions it is the rule for the English and Scotch to take separate sides.

“To recur again to Masonry, it is widespread over India and China and to any one visiting these places must be of advantage. We are very charitable and to a deserving brother in distress sometimes pay his passage home or send him on to another place where he may perhaps be more fortunate. Of course when he can afford it he returns the money. We also contribute handsomely to the local charities…..

“As you say, the time since I left home has passed away very quickly, and my 3 years will soon be up - whether or not I shall stay I don’t know - it all depends upon [R.B.C] and [J.B] who will no doubt come to some arrangement & it will be for me to say whether or not I am agreeable to further risk my liver &c for a further term of years - If they do the handsome I may and most likely will, but if there is no proper inducement, what’s the good - Life is a great drag out here I can assure you, compared with Home, & the only balm for it is to know you are making money. If you know you are not making money and the future is dark, then you are miserable in spite of yourself - time is passing year by year, and I must look well about me - so far I consider I have not done much. I must however wait and see.

Uncle Tom had, as will be seen, a vivid gift of description and a lively sense of humour. He continues:

“So mother has looked out two wives for me, has she? Bless her dear old soul, is she not aware that to do so is acting against the divine Commands or does she think I have turned Mormon and is sufficiently liberal enough to think there is no harm in letting me have “as many wives as I want”….

“Didn’t go to Church last Sunday, but my Companion B. did - he told me he felt very sleepy under the Native parson & was only fairly aroused when the said Native parson spasmodically ejaculated a prayer that we might be preserved in this “Wicked World of Wailing Weeping Woe”. The Bishop seldom preaches and Europeans are often absent, and it[s] very dreary work going to listen to some of the Black ministers, although they are good men I have no doubt. The above expression of the parson’s was however a Crasher.

“I am glad to say that I continue in very good health, and take plenty of Horse Exercise - it is expensive £45 a year with the risk of your horse dying, but it is far better to spend your money than spoil your liver - it is very disgusting, but people out here are perpetually thinking about their livers.

“Trade keeps exceedingly quiet in “Rags” i.e. cotton goods and unless a change takes place soon we shall have to pocket a loss instead of a profit .”

“PS. In the “Times” I send you will most likely come across a piece headed “A Spicy Breeze from Ceylon’s Isle”. It is a short account I wrote out regarding the manner in which public money is sometimes wasted out here.

[No doubt this still lurks in some old newspaper archive.]

The next, undated, letter is mostly concerned with trade matters, including the possible market in Ceylon for English iron goods [my great-grandfather was an ironmonger in Manchester]. It is illustrated with some beautifully delicate drawings:

1. Ceylon Moorman (Trader, Full Dress). [From a sketch by M Hypolite Silvaf.] 2. Ceylon Moorman (Mason). [From a photograph by Slinn & Co.] 3. Ceylon Malay [From a sketch by M Hypolite Silvaf.] and the comment:

“Figures 1 & 2 represent the class of men to whom the shipment of nails would be sent. Do not despise the Old Buffer no 2 - when I came out first an honest old fellow in similar “get up” was worth £50,000 ! Very few like him left.

My great-grandfather had recently heard from a hitherto unknown cousin in the United States [whose letters I also have], and Uncle Tom comments:

“Our American Cousin - Will you please send me the photo of this individual just to let me see what an American Cousin is like - I will send it back by return mail also will you please inform me if I have an American Cousin of ye weaker sex - if I have and you have got a carte [a Victorian photograph and carte de visite] of her too please send it me on loan - It might be perhaps as well as any if she has got a lot of ‘tin’ in her own right as in that case when I return home perhaps I might induce her to lodge it with me if she would but consent to make me her own. Also am I the second, third or fifty third cousin?

“I was very sorry to hear of the deaths of Mr T & Mrs W - In my reveries of home I think now & again of those little trips we used to take when lads with Father to the T’s at Wilmslow & away through the breezes to Alderley Edge - Happy days those were!

Another illustration of Sinnapittia Coffee Estate, near Gampolla [From a Photograph by Herbert].

“My new Carte - You ask me where it is and you also inform me that the Miss W’s are twitting me with my want of gallantry in not sending them one for those they sent to me. I plead guilty - do you know I have a perfect horror of photographic galleries in Ceylon. The last time I was taken I was almost roasted to death under the glass roof - the tears were forced into my eyes by the “sun’s direct rays” and I know the result was not flattering - it’s perfect torture believe me - but if it’s to please the ladies why - I’ll go through fire & water - Tell the Misses W that my shadow in some shape or other will soon be before their pretty eyes.

“I take up your supplement 13th March 9.45 a.m. (really you are a very exact man) - You tell me that a whole posse of you had been to a swell party and that you stayed out till 1.30 a.m. - Now I can beat that for the other night I was dining with the Manager of the Chartered Mercantile Bank & did not leave till 2 a.m. but if you think I am in the habit of keeping such hours you are mistaken. “Early to bed & early to rise, makes &c” was never more true than in the East where late hours eat so much into your enjoyment of life physically speaking - for very often Brandies & Sodas go hand in hand with late hours.”

The next letter from Uncle Tom is some thirty years later, after my great-grandfather’s death, and is addressed to my grandfather on the eve of his marriage:

Smedley’s Hydropathic Establishment

Telegraphic Address, “SMEDLEYS” Matlock Bank. Railway Station, MATLOCK BRIDGE.

MATLOCK, 17th April 1896

My dear Nephew Tom,

This will I hope find you safely returned to Gransmoor after your, probably, stormy journey to and from Belfast.

Hebe has very kindly informed me fully with respect to matters that so nearly concern yourself, and which are now on the eve of accomplishment - I refer, of course, to your approaching marriage.

Altho’ I shall not be able to witness the ceremony at St. Peter’s, Ashton, next Monday, I shall be there in spirit you may be sure.

I am pleased to learn that it is to be a very quietly arranged function - Emblematic, in that respect, I trust of the tranquil life before you both when you get fairly settled in your own little nest at Heaton Chapel. I have seen the house and it has a pleasant outlook.

It is customary, I know, on occasions like this for Uncles to accompany their letters of congratulation & felicitation with something substantial in the form of a suitable presentation, and your being, moreover, my Godson naturally makes it all the more incumbent on me to conform to the ‘good old rule’. How gladly I would do this, were I able, it is needless for me to tell you. The opportunity can now only arise and be embraced and availed of “when my ship comes in”, and when that will be is known only to the Gods!

I now send you both my sincerest wishes for your present and future happiness, health, prosperity and long life,

and remain

Your affectionate Uncle

Thos. W

It is clear from the above that Uncle Tom’s ship had not yet come in. And this is where the mystery begins. He had evidently returned to England, either permanently or on leave, and was staying at Matlock in Derbyshire. It is a region where there are many caves and potholes. Whether this had anything to do with Uncle Tom’s disappearance will never be known. But disappear he did, and as far as I know the above letter was the last that was heard from him. I do not know, either, whether he left any belongings behind at the Hydro. He just vanished without trace.

My grandfather had a cousin who, as was fashionable in some circles in those days, was a convinced believer in Spiritualism. He naturally sought the help of various mediums to see whether he could make contact with Uncle Tom in the spirit world. He was given some vague messages about rushing water. Whether this indicated drowning, either in a Derbyshire cave or at sea, who knows? However Uncle Tom died, I prefer to think of him and my great-grandfather enjoying their boyhood jaunts to Alderley Edge with their father, or indulging in boisterous evenings with his fellow-masons to ward off the tedium of colonial life.

May he rest in peace.


lavenderblue said...

Wonderful, Anticant!
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

It was the FOX HOLES in Derbyshire that confused em all.

zola said...

Had a vision of Anticant doing a midnight climb on Mam Tor and returning just in time for the nags head to open.
Nothing special in that you might say but Anticant was wearing only boots.
The pub through him out saying that boots are not allowed in the establishment.

ben trovato said...

He must have been rather cold. Is that why they call it the Shivering Mountain? If it had been the burrow Snug, we would have given him a double brandy on the house and let him snuggle up to Wooffie.

I'll keep a lookout for some naturist jokes, though printable ones are few and far between. A friend told me he gave up attending naturist gatherings because they were so primly boring. They used to sit around with their legs crossed discussing such fascinating topics as how to rid cooking rice of weevils! My friend decided he had better things to do. Uncle Tom's Ceylonese masonic chicken-hurling coffee planters sound more fun.

zola said...

Damn it I thought you were a Yorkshire lad.
But I see now that the Hope station still exists even if shivering in the cold.
Oh how much learning goes on in the not too serious zones of .....
let me buy you a pint in the Snake Inn after a walk over Kinder just before closing time.
Where the rocks on the ground are better than a compass. Where a sense of place is wonderful even when pissed to the eyeballs.

Take a trip from Edale to the Snake Inn and back agin and then climb Mam Tor.

But those were the days when boots were allowed in the Nags Head pub. Shame that boots were banned.

anticant said...

No, I'm a Cheshire Cheese - it would be Greater Manchester now. But I lived in Yorkshire for much of my childhood and 'teens - latterly in Sheffield, so know and love the Peak District.

Wish I could go walking there again! I've had some great hikes on those moors with my Father and friends and can still sniff that heather-fragrant air and see those marvellous views in my mind's eye. But alas, a London garden gate is the limit for me these days.

Anonymous said...

[To spare readers a long disquisition on Anglo-Irish history, suffice it to say that the Fenians were the mid-Victorian equivalent of the Provisional IRA, and perpetrated several bomb outrages around this time.]

Surely a better, more truthful comparison would be with the French Resistance of WW2?