OFF THE RECORD
Rehoming a reptile
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