I really wasn’t expecting this.
I had set out to start clearing some of the detritus we had managed to gather over the last few years, when we had undertaken the sad task of dealing with the belongings of both our sets of parents after their deaths. I must confess to being a hoarder by nature, blessed – or cursed – with the sort of memory that can recall almost everything about the many and varied items found amongst their possessions; where it came from, who bought it, in what circumstances it was used… and as a result of this, I find it almost impossible to part with anything, and the memories surrounding things. So we now have two bedrooms which are jam-packed with miscellaneous items, to the point that you have to clear a path through the boxes and bags just to get into a room.
As we are getting on a bit, I resolved that this must stop, and I put aside a day to begin the task of sorting through. Starting with a bedroom cupboard, which I had to stand on a stool to reach. Using Mum’s old grabber, I pulled down an avalanche of hats, doilies, scarves, and joy of joy, old photos. So I knew that was my day gone. Who can resist photos? Coughing from the dust, I sat on the bed and opened the bag. There were the photos I had glimpsed, but there was also a small bag containing a treasure I thought had been long lost.
With trembling hands, I pulled out my Great Grandfather’s midnight blue velvet sash. A wondrous thing, richly decorated with tassels and embroidery of silver metallic strands, gems and beads. I remembered this from my childhood, but being in my late 60s now, I had assumed it lost during moves, or chucked out by my lovely Mum, who hated ‘clutter’.
I had regretted its loss in later life when I began studying family history, and had thought it to be connected with trade unions. Of course, when I was young, it was not so easy to discover the origins of things; but now all I had to do was feed a description of the sash into a search engine – and Bingo! It was identified as originating from a branch of a Temperance movement of the late Victorian period, ‘The Original Grand Order of the Total Abstinence Sons of the Phoenix’, ‘Pride of Camberwell Silver Lodge’ as testified by the embellishments, with a wondrous silver Phoenix at the top of the sash. And it would seem that Great Grandad was no less than a PCN, a ‘Past Chief Noble’, which means he was Master of the Lodge at one time.
The main thing that struck me as I opened the package and examined the still perfect velvet, was the smell. Of course, it had been in my cupboard for at least 35 years, so you could expect it to be a bit pongy because of the dust on the outside, but the sickly-sweet smell seemed to envelop me as I examined the item. It was a strangely familiar herbal sort of smell, with a touch of furniture polish thrown in, and a whiff of cricket bats and linseed. A cloying smell, so that though I absolutely HAD to try the sash on, I removed it very quickly before I was overpowered by the scent. I tried leaving it out to get the air in the kitchen for a while, but soon everything in the kitchen smelt of it. Not exactly unpleasant, but the sort of aroma that goes straight to the head, like some weeds I could name. It gradually dawned on me that this was not just the smell of macassar oil; it was the smell of Victorian London. After many years of family history research, I know this belonged to my Great Grandfather William Henry Marsh.
There is, I know, a photo of him somewhere round the family, in the early 1900s, sitting on a bench in Brighton with his wife, my Great Grandmother Mary Annie nee Daniels, looking every inch the Victorian lady; so tiny in a long black dress and cape, with white cut off gloves and a little bonnet on her head. They would have been around 60 then, quite elderly for those times, being from a working class Peckham family. Great Grandfather is wearing a wool jacket and trousers, with an overlarge cloth cap and a full grey moustache that overshadows his rather small thin face.. I must get in touch with my cousins who may have it still. But I don’t need the photo. Every time I breathed in at home I could conjure up that picture; indeed I could almost feel him around me, as that fragrance lingered in the air, overwhelming even my automatic 21st Century air fresheners battling furiously against the 19th Century aroma pervading the house.
For days the atmosphere indoors subtly changed; even the other half stopped complaining and was getting used to it. I myself was seeing things out of the corner of my eye – maybe this Victorian vapour is hallucinogenic? After all, Sherlock Holmes dabbled in now illegal substances, and even the original Gripe Water has long been banned.
Continuing to explore the papers enclosed in the parcel containing the sash, I found the pieces of a silver and leather belt, which I recognise at once as being that worn by my Grandmother Lilian in the photo we have of her taken just before my Grandfather went off to France in 1914; the leather has largely perished, and there are some of the ornate links missing, but it is a treasure nonetheless, bringing me closer to Great Grandfather William, Nan’s father. It was enclosed in the same envelope as Christmas cards and postcards from the front, written by my Grandfather, to his sweetheart Lilian in 1914, who then became his wife after their wedding in 1915.An even more poignant card is addressed to ‘Mother’. And all the while I was reading these, the pungent aroma of the sash filled the air, and, now knowing its meaning, I felt guilty sipping my G&T.
I spent the next day sorting through the photos and documents, scanning many of them into my PC so that they would not be lost to posterity. Such interesting documents as my Grandfather’s de-mob account from 1919, and his Home Guard Certificate from 1945, signed George R I, with a thank-you message which reads : ‘In the years when this country was in mortal danger Louis Francis Wigzell who served 13th August 1940 – 31st November 1945gave generously of his time and powers to make himself ready for her defence by force of arms and with his life if need be. I must admit it brought a tear to my eye, the old soldier ready for battle yet again, and having to send his only son away to the Far East, once again to battle for his country’s freedom. Photos of my Dad in his various sporting teams aged from 12 to 17 were also included in Grandad’s envelope, poignantly together with the photo of a very young Nan Grandad carried with him all through WW1, and the first photo of my Dad in his RAF uniform before being sent overseas.
The very fragile Christmas cards and postcards from various French villages, I set aside carefully, to put away in a more suitable place than the cardboard box, though I kept this too.
Days after this find, even going about my normal business, I could not take my mind off the items I had found; especially the beautiful sash. Reaching for the gin bottle seemed just wrong, as I caught a whiff of the still strongly scented air, so fizzy water with a hint of elderflower became my evening treat. My husband did notice this, and also remarked that I had started wearing long skirts of an evening, instead of my usual jeans and T shirt. And my long, usually loose hair worn in a bun. Hmm. Maybe I was getting a bit obsessed with my Victorian ancestors. Or maybe there’s too much Larping on telly these days. But where’s the harm in that?
It was half-term holiday, and my youngest Grandson Luke, age 8, was coming for the day. He’s not always easy to handle, being autistic and epileptic, but we love him to bits: he is a very interesting character to be around. Fridge replenished to cover any food fad he might be having, we awaited his arrival with anticipation. At 10 a.m. he arrived with his backpack containing all his most loved items, including his teddy, and the ever-present tablet.
But he was in the mood for watching YouTube, so headed for our PC, in the back room. (He’s a whizz at IT, as Aspergers’ kids often are). After making one or two adjustments to our settings, just to prove his credentials, he clicked on the last thing that had been viewed, which just happened to be my Ancestry account. Studying the open Search page, he demanded to know who William Henry Marsh might be. I told him that he was my Great Grandfather, therefore his Great Great Great Grandfather, and explained about the sash I had found. He bounded over to the wicker basket where I had put it for safety, and to relieve the smell a little. Very carefully for him, he took it out, demanding to know what the lavish embroidery and insignia was all about. As I recounted what I had discovered, he slipped it over his head and proceeded to strut proudly round the kitchen, and out into the garden, where I, of course, took photos.
At the end of the day, when he had gone home, I went to put the sash away. As I folded it, my Other Half remarked that the smell had gone. Not a whiff anywhere, yet it had still been strong that morning, and I had been concerned that Luke might not like it, with his sensory issues. But he had not mentioned it at all. I asked him if he had noticed the strange smell of the sash, he said yes, at first it had made him sneeze when he was wearing it, then he had ‘thought out loud’ that it was ‘rank’ and ‘smelled of old stuff’; but after that he didn’t notice it any more.
Now things have returned to normal; kids are back at school, I’m back in my jeans, and the sash is back in its appointed place. There is no ‘smell of old stuff’ apparent, and our boy seems to have entered a period of calm. And he tells me he has a new friend……..