There’s been a lot of talk about Ellen Willmott’s knuckleduster, so I thought today I’d tell the story of how it was found – and what I think it means…
Warning: Most of the photographs in this post are going to be a bit out of focus. This is because it was DARK in that basement and my cameraphone was having a lot of trouble.
First of all, here is the trunk I found the object in:
It was easily the worst preseved trunk in the basement and even had ‘not worth saving’ chalked on the outside. I’m pretty sure the only reason it hadn’t been hauled upstairs and chucked was its tremendous weight.
Everything inside had once belonged to Ellen Willmott, dating from around the mid to late 1920s. Most of it had turned to dust, though there were some chequebooks, notebooks and this rather sad-looking chocolate box:
I’m sorry to say the contents were shot to pieces:
Though I did manage to save this charming Christmas decoration:
The one thing that was pretty much undamaged was the now-notorious knuckleduster.
I have so many questions about this object. Was it meant as an offensive or defensive weapon? Why would a woman want arm herself in the 1920s? And how can we be sure it actually was Ellen’s in the first place?
Let’s deal with that one…
Unlike several other trunks, which had had odds and ends belonging to other people shoved in the top from time to time, this particular case contained nothing that wasn’t Ellen’s. The most likely ‘other’ owner of anything like this would be her nephew, Captain Robert Berkeley. He would have brought it back from World War I – but this set doesn’t have the date-marked, military-issue broad-arrow stamp that would suggest that. Ellen’s sister was dead, her nieces had left home, her brother in law was old and in pain. It’s a bunch of negatives, but it works for me. The geographical position of the knuckles inside the trunk say late 1920s, when Ellen would have been in her late 60s or early 70s.
I have a confession to make: when I first saw these I laughed. As has every other person I’ve ever told about it. Karen and I had great fun posing with them. Here I am modelling them in my super-sexy boiler suit combo…
And, aw, c’mon, there is something funny about the image of a little old lady tooled up to the hilt.
But…I have since revised my opinions.
What did Ellen intend to do with this? We can tell a little from the object’s manufacture. The T-bar handle and finger stalls tell us it is a British Classic design. Unlike American models, which generally have circular finger stalls, forcing the fingers apart for a stronger punch, British stalls are oval and easier for small hands to wear.
This is important. Typically, American finger stalls are graded to fit each digit. They can only be worn one way around and are usually intended for regular, even constant wear. They are therefore often associated with aggression.
These, British knuckles may be worn either way around. The holes are roughly equal, making them less comfortable in long-term wear but easier to slip on at short notice, implying a defensive purpose.
Like most examples of civilian knuckledusters, these bear no maker’s mark. They could have been made by any number of sporting goods companies and sold alongside shotguns, rifles and shooting sticks in a range of hardware and country stores or even mail-order catalogues. They were common.
According to hand weapons expert David Grant, in Victorian times knuckledusters just didn’t carry the ‘gangland’ connotations we associate them with. Indeed, in the 1880s, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company even produced the ‘Brute Tamer’, a model specifically designed for women. Each individual stall was decorated with pyramidical, art nouveau swirls.
By the 1920s this was changing – not least thanks to gangster movies and general gangland culture but since the 1880s there had been a perception, often fuelled by the press, that women –especially those who refused the protection of men and insisted on travelling, living and working independently – were in danger.
Lurid articles in papers such as the The Police News, racked up the terror, suggesting that the only way to survive was to take matters into one’s own hands.
It’s impossible to know how many late 19th century women really carried weapons in their handbags, but it seems not unreasonable to believe that at least some did.
Moving into the early twentieth century, suffragettes were known to carry weapons and even study jui-jitsu, though again it is hard to know how much of this was propaganda on the part of either the outraged establishment or the women themselves.
Ellen Willmott was now alone and in her late 60s/early 70s. Her staff largely dispensed with, she inhabited a mansion well-known to house treasure, from Old Masters to Ming porcelain, silver dinner services to important historical musical instruments.
Yet she refused to accept solitude even if she couldn’t afford the carriages, motor cars and taxi cabs of her youth. Instead, she took excursion-rate trains into London, Oxford and beyond to attend committee meetings, conferences, exhibitions, dinners, and galas. She would either catch the last train home, walking the final two miles up a deserted hill or, if she had missed it, slept on park benches or in doorways. Both options would have left her vulnerable.
Warley Hill was dark, with high hedges and overhanging trees, plenty of places for would-be muggers to hide. The sheer number of photographs Willmott took of the lonely walk home may suggest her unease at the prospect.
Audrey le Liévre writes ‘she sometimes imagined that people were creeping along behind the hedge shadowing her,’ implying an unreasonable paranoia, yet such fears were not entirely ungrounded.
Everyone in the neighbourhood knew that Willmott walked that route alone, on a regular basis, to a house where no one was waiting for her. It was also common knowledge that, to hide her poverty, she wore her finest jewellery on a regular basis.
Physically small-framed, older now, and suffering from acute rheumatic pain since her mid-twenties, Ellen was not capable of physically fighting back, even if she had wanted to.
Many women today will be familiar with the experience of walking down a dark alley. As fear grows, justified or otherwise, some of us will admit to forming the keys in our pockets into makeshift knuckledusters. Ellen Willmott lived in a time when the real thing was not yet illegal.
An overwhelming amount of correspondence in the uncatalogued Berkeley Family Archives, to Willmott, from friends, acquaintances and institutions carries invitations to meetings, events, dinner, exhibitions and soirees, written to a woman that still had something to say to people who still wanted to listen.
To me, these brass knuckles are a joyous thing. They tell me that that Miss Willmott was determined not to miss out on any of these opportunities merely because she was afraid of what might happen in the dark.
Just because an object may speak of fear, does not necessarily mean it cannot also speak of hope.