We know the current whereabouts of very few objects that absolutely, without doubt, belonged to Ellen; even fewer objects that absolutely, without doubt, also belonged to her family. So today’s piece is very special.
These binoculars are not in the first flush of youth – or at least their once-sturdy, red velvet-lined case isn’t. It’s had a tough time over the years and, somewhere along the line, has lost its base…
…so the eyepieces peek somewhat saucily out of the bottom.
I like that. These faithful field glasses have seen action, and plenty of it, almost certainly by at least three people we can name.
They were found at the home of James Riches Robinson, Ellen’s faithful butler of over forty years. But how did he get them? And how have they managed to survive the decades?
Try as I might, I can’t find a maker for them and no, I’m not taking them apart to see if there are any names inside the lenses. They’re excellent quality, all the moving parts still move, the thin leatherette wrap is still good, and if one eyepiece is a little bashed, it was once very nicely made.
Their original owner seems a mystery – until they are extended for use. It’s hard to photograph, but very clear in real life that these are engraved with the name:
…Ellen’s father. Fred was not the type to go around having his own name engraved on things, so I’m guessing they were a present – perhaps from his wife or one (or both) of his daughters. When?
It has to be before 1891, as poor old Fred died that year, but exactly how long before then, well, who knows.
1891 is also the year that Robinson joined the Willmott family, so it’s highly unlikely a brand new butler would have been given a pair of good-quality binoculars as a remembrance gift of a brand new employer. They didn’t go to Spetchley, so it’s most likely they were retained by his eldest daughter, Ellen.
They have a pretty deep range:
…so I am thinking that Ellen used them on the many, many rambles, vacations and country house visits she made throughout her life and only parted with them when life parted with her.
My reasoning? I’ve been checking the 1935 auction catalogue…
…and despite Ellen’s ownership of multiples of pretty much every scientific gadget going, there is only one pair of binoculars destined for the hammer:
Of course I can’t be sure. Ellen may have left her old butler a second pair of binoculars that never made it to the sale and are thus not listed anywhere. But I don’t think so. Let’s look at the evidence:
There is one point against these being the same set of field glasses. The listing is clear: the binoculars for sale are by the London-based optical company Ross & Co, founded in 1830, who also made camera lenses. As noted earlier, our pair bears no maker’s name.
That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. It’s possible the name was once on the bottom of the case, which is now lost, or that the valuers were braver than me in being prepared to take the object to pieces for evidence on the lenses themselves.
To be honest, we’ll never be sure, but there is one other detail, from the catalogue’s previous page, that may suggest the binoculars for sale in 1935 were the same as those that once belonged to Fred. The auctioneers found them here:
Ellen clearly cared enough about those particular field glasses to keep them in a different place to all her other beloved cameras and scientific instruments. Perhaps because they reminded her of her dad…?
So, on balance, I’m thinking that, on Day Four of the Warley Place Auction, 1935, loyal, devoted James Robinson sat in that sale room – his old stomping ground, Warley Place itself – paddle in hand, and bought Lot 1068 for £3 +fees, as an eminently practical, yet tender reminder of his former employer.
Do they still work? Just ask Warley Place expert John Cannell: