Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Captain Franklin’s moccasin: many mysteries solved!

Captain Franklin’s moccasin: many mysteries solved!

So, back to the mysteries of the moccasin…There are far more clues with this object than are normally found with museum collections! One of the best is a note from the donor in the Museum’s “related documents file” for the collection. The RDF, as it is known in the Museum, is where we put all the correspondence related to acquiring objects and any bits and bobs of notes that come in with objects. The RDF for the moccasin includes a handwritten note by someone in the donor’s family:

"4 shoes, knife set, 2 chop sticks? bone implements, money maps etc bought by Mother at Gawdy Hall sale 1938-9? Some or all are connected with the Franklin expedition Esquimo"

Really, you don’t get much better than this in museum research!

We know that the moccasin was given by Frances Griffin to Mary Ann Gilbert, her aunt by marriage. We also know, thanks to this note, that the moccasin was purchased at the sale at Gawdy Hall, and we know from research on the Gawdy Hall sale that it occurred in July 1938.

So how did the moccasin get from its second owner, Mary Ann Gilbert, to Gawdy Hall? 

Mary Ann Gilbert married Davies Giddy Gilbert in 1808. Their surviving children were John Davies Gilbert, who like his father became an important Fellow of the Royal Society and its president, and three daughters, Catherine, Anne, and Hester Elizabeth, cousins of the Griffin sisters.

More clues are found in a local history volume, Eastbourne Memories, by George F. Chambers (1910), a fine gossipy book which reads very much as an extended oral account of one man’s reminiscences. It contains a very helpful anecdote describing the author’s connection with the extended Gilbert family, including Hester—and Lady Franklin:

The East-Bourne house was occupied during many years by Mrs. Sancroft Holmes, Mr. J. D. Gilbert's widowed sister, and her son and four daughters. During that occupation I was a frequent visitor there and made the acquaintance of two ladies the widows of two men who had at the middle of the 19th Century occupied very prominent positions in the public eye, Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth and Sir John Franklin. …Mrs. Holmes afterwards went to live in Norfolk, and died there in 1885. Her son, Mr. J. S. Holmes, is a landed proprietor in Norfolk, living at Gawdy Hall, near Harleston. (p14-15, italics mine)

So John Davies Gilbert’s sister Hester went on to be Mrs Sancroft Holmes, and lived after her widowhood with her children at the Davies Gilbert family home in Eastbourne, Gildredge Manor. Jane, Lady Franklin, visited her cousin there. And Hester, who was Mrs Sancroft Holmes, had close ties by marriage to Gawdy Hall. Doing a bit of research around these bits of information reveals that Hester married William Sancroft Holmes in 1840, and was widowed in 1849.

It was through cousin Hester’s marriage that the moccasin ended up in the Gawdy Hall sale. William Sancroft Holmes, her husband, was born there in 1815. George Chambers noted that Hester’s son, ‘Mr. J. S. Holmes, is a landed proprietor in Norfolk, living at Gawdy Hall, near Harleston,’ which would have been because he inherited it from his father. It makes perfect sense that he would have taken his widowed mother there with him in her old age. At some time during her married life, Hester took the moccasin to Gawdy Hall, where it entered the collections there before she died in 1885.

So after Frances’ gift of the moccasin to Mary Ann Gilbert, it came into the possession of Mary Ann’s daughter Hester. And sometime between then and Hester’s death in 1885, the moccasin must have passed to her son, who took it to his home, Gawdy Hall.

Hester’s husband William Sancroft Holmes had something of a collection, mostly of African weapons and other miscellaneous ethnographic objects. At some point he lent it briefly for a display—the location and purpose fo this is unknown, but it came back to Gawdy Hall with small handwritten labels. One of these now in the Museum’s RDF is written on the back of his calling card:

It didn’t stay there, though, because Gawdy Hall, everything in it, and the entire estate was sold at auction in July 1938. Hester and Wiliam’s son, John Sancroft Holmes, died in 1920; the Hall required extensive repair by then and the heirs decided it was too expensive. There’s an amazing auction bill for the sale at the English Heritage Archive, listing everything to be sold: Gawdy Hall and its gardens, glasshouses, and stables, three lodges near the Hall, 5 farms, four sets of cottages, and associated properties, were all sold at auction. It was there that the moccasin was purchased by the man who gave it to the Pitt Rivers Museum.

But how did the moccasin get to Captain John Franklin in the first place? Stay tuned…

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