Re­hom­ing a rep­tile

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

One of the plea­sures of be­ing a his­tor­i­cal re­searcher is that ev­ery now and then, when look­ing for some­thing to do with fam­ily or lo­cal his­tory, you come across some­thing that is com­pletely un­ex­pected – a serendip­ity of dis­cov­ery, a doc­u­ment which is funny, or quirky, or riv­et­ing be­cause of its spe­cial in­ter­est.

Ar­chiv­ists also have the same ex­pe­ri­ence – slog­ging through some box or bun­dle of rou­tine pa­per­work and cat­a­logu­ing it, they might en­counter a piece of pa­per or parch­ment which re­ally bright­ens up their day.

I was re­cently in the record of­fice at Bar­row-in­Fur­ness, which I visit from time to time and al­ways en­joy. It’s one of those smaller and per­haps less well-known ar­chive repos­i­to­ries which are of­ten so good to work in – a pleas­ant at­mos­phere, not glitzy or high-tech but with re­ally friendly staff and some great his­tor­i­cal ma­te­rial to re­search. I know the ar­chiv­ists, Michael and Su­san, quite well. We were chat­ting (very qui­etly, so as not to cause a dis­tur­bance, of course) and we got onto that very sub­ject – the quirky dis­cov­er­ies, the odd­i­ties, the doc­u­ments that make you laugh.

Su­san had re­cently been hav­ing a rather dull time, go­ing through masses of 100-yearold cor­re­spon­dence from the town clerk’s of­fice (not ex­actly grip­ping, as you can doubt­less imag­ine). Then she came across some­thing which re­ally did brighten up a dull day – and kindly gave me a copy.

It’s a let­ter from a gen­tle­man called Ernest Jones, and was sent to the town clerk of Bar­row just be­fore Christ­mas 1914. Not a good time, with the war four months old and a na­tional cri­sis un­der way, but it must have caused a lit­tle mirth even on a cold De­cem­ber day in Bar­row a cen­tury ago. Mr Jones had items to dis­pose of and very con­sid­er­ately thought of the town coun­cil. He of­fered for sale, at a mere £15, “a very fine spec­i­men of a full grown al­li­ga­tor.” In case the town clerk imag­ined the fe­ro­cious beast snap­ping at his heels with its mas­sive teeth, Mr Jones went on to say that “it was shot in the River Ganges by my father.”

No doubt think­ing him­self an ex­cel­lent and per­sua­sive sales­man, Jones pro­claimed that “it is one of the finest spec­i­mens in this coun­try, and well worth the price,” adding that “it is 12 feet long and has been very well cured and stuffed hav­ing taken some seven months to do at the Govern­ment Tan­ner­ies.”

It would ap­pear that the al­li­ga­tor was sur­plus to re­quire­ments be­cause Mr Jones needed the space: “My fam­ily is in Old­ham so I am anx­ious to pro­vide a home for same over here,” he added, which pos­si­bly im­plies

that the al­li­ga­tor was oc­cu­py­ing the spare room in Ernest’s home.

Surely, this was an un­miss­able bar­gain? The town clerk did his demo­cratic duty and put the tempt­ing of­fer be­fore the elected mem­bers of the coun­cil. A week later, though, he wrote back with the bad news: “my Li­brary and Mu­seum Com­mit­tee de­sire me to thank you for your of­fer but to in­form you that they do not de­sire to pur­chase the al­li­ga­tor which you have for dis­posal.”

We will never know what hap­pened to that trea­sure, and its fate is shrouded in mys­tery. Did the work­men on the coun­cil tip make a ter­ri­fy­ing dis­cov­ery? Were stuffed al­li­ga­tors re­cy­clable in 1914? Or did the Jones fam­ily learn to love and care for their ex­otic com­pan­ion, per­haps mount­ing him on the wall of a room rather more than 12 feet in length?

There is a se­quel of sorts to the story. Not long af­ter­wards, an­other let­ter ar­rived at the town hall, though not from Mr Jones. This time the town coun­cil was of­fered an­other un­re­peat­able bar­gain. Two stuffed an­te­lope heads from Africa! And that of­fer was ac­cepted. Su­san’s next task is to try to find out if the town’s mu­seum still has th­ese. All in a day’s work for a town clerk, no doubt, but I am left won­der­ing why Bar­row-in-Fur­ness a cen­tury ago seemed to be so packed with spec­i­mens from the colonies!

Ernest of­fered for sale to the town coun­cil, at a mere £15, a very fine spec­i­men of a full grown al­li­ga­tor

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