For a historian, there are times when it is important to dream. Feet-on-the-ground is all very well, and there are plenty of opportunities to be sensible, thorough and precise. I can do that when its needed. I never, but never, allow my fantasies to overrule actual evidence and if I’m speculating I will always say so.
What is research without romance? Without the ‘what-ifs’ and the ‘maybes’? Aunt Sally theories almost always end up being knocked down but the very act of dreaming them allows us to embrace the Possible, to entertain alternatives to the Probable, that might – only might – lead to new discovery.
One of the most exciting things about mouldlarking is the strange concept of the Locked Box/ Locked Cupboard.
We’ve come across several of them over the years and they do still occasionally turn up.
Now, I must preface this – and all stories of locks – with one fact: neither Karen nor I are any good whatsoever as lock picks.
We have been known to spend over an hour with one frankly bog-standard, suitcase-style clasp, using actual lock-picking kit and the nearest we got was when I got one of the tools so stuck in the workings that we spent a further 15 minutes getting it out.
It’s always so easy in the movies…
…but the upshot is:
Never recruit either of us as a safe-breaker in a heist.
I do wonder whether the reason we’re so rubbish at it is that we can’t tell if we actually want to know what’s in them or just prefer the fantasy of what might be in them.
This particular case we did manage to open and it surpassed our expectations – big old tease that I am, though, I’m going to leave it for another day (yeah, yeah, yeah…) as that’s not what this post is about…
…because whatever the contents, with every unlocked – or even unpacked – box another door into the missing parts of Ellen’s life closes.
Take this little red casket, which rocked up in 2019, knocking around the cellar, alongside all the other trunks, tea chests etc.
I mean – c’mon – it even LOOKS like a treasure chest.
We didn’t have time to open it when it was first hauled out. We were on the clock. All we could do was store it with the other finds…
…but we did give it a gentle shake.
A slow, heavy, thudding, clonking sound.
Oh, the fantasies about what could be in it. Ellen’s missing tiara? That annoyingly elusive Victoria Medal of Honour? The lost code book to Ellen’s photographs?
…it turned out to be a thick, ribbon-tied bundle of particularly fruity letters? Letters so fruity that it would mean a complete rewrite of Miss Willmott’s Ghosts? I can’t imagine anything more exciting than finding material that challenges conclusions I’ve already made, forcing me to completely reconsider everything.
We tried to downplay our hopes, to prepare ourselves. Perhaps it was just filled with more empty boxes or some fancy but unwritten-on stationery. Karen suggested a box of playing card packs, and it did sort of sound like that when we shook it.
I had a feeling it might be a lost holy relic, and this isn’t as mad as it sounds. We’d found an authentication certificate in the trunks, but no corresponding relic. The casket was the right size and at once both fancy and plain enough to hold such a treasure.
We got an opportunity to properly look when it arrived at Berkeley Castle in late 2020. The first job was to remove the dust.
Try as we might, though, we couldn’t get into it. We went through every spare key in the castle.
On my next visit, I brought a tin containing 60 years’ worth of abandoned keys from my dad’s workshop. We tried all of them.
We moved onto other things. The seemingly never-ending (and refreshingly open) boxes of correspondence, photographs and weird stuff temporarily trumped our frustrations with locked caskets.
In the end, Castle Custodian and tech-maestro Josh managed to get the thing opened.
It contained a chalice.
A very nice chalice. Solid silver/silver-gilt, late nineteenth century, probably Ellen’s, though it hasn’t turned up in photos of either Warley Place’s private chapel or the one at Spetchley so we can’t be sure.
I should be relieved that it’s opened, that the mystery is solved. But in truth, I am a just a teeny, teeny bit disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the item is lovely, a beautiful addition to Spetchley’s collection. It’s a really good piece, but it doesn’t add much – or indeed anything – to what we already knew about Ellen or her sister.
There is nothing in the box to say whose it was, or why it was made. All it has done is remove the mystery.
Perhaps the hallmark will help but I think I now know that I prefer my boxes locked.
… a locked box is an itch that must be scratched or it will drive you crazy. You only have yourself to blame when you create a sore spot doing it.
Luckily there is still at least one more Mysterious Locked Case to go – not to mention an equally intriguing Locked Cupboard.
And here’s the thing…
I have just heard rumour that the Cupboard That Was Locked has been opened.
What to do?
I can’t help myself. I’ve just got to know…