Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Solving The Mystery of Two 187 Year Old Artefacts


Cowrie shell sterling silver snuff box 
belonging to John Hall Snr. of Roslin,
Midlothian Scotland, 1829

The Story of a 187 Year Old Snuff Box :

We all love a good mystery, but this is one that took me around 40 years to solve! But in the process I finally ended up solving no less than two enduring mysteries. So let me start from the beginning. In the mid 1970's my elderly Aunt left in the care of my brother and I a collection of artefacts and jewellery, mostly having come from Scottish family members. Very little of it was could be specifically identified except for two old pocket watches which bore my Grandfather's initials and my grandmother's engagement ring.


Engraved inscription on base of cowrie shell sterling
silver snuff box 
belonging to John Hall Snr. of Roslin, 1829

"A Poor Blind Man Och On" :

But the most curious item was an unidentified cowrie shell and silver snuff box with a rather enigmatic inscription on the base :

"This was presented me jany eighteen thirty-three. To solace me when alone, a poor blind man och on! By my only surviving son O'Three John".

It appeared to have had some light use but was in very good condition for its age and is now 187 years old. There is no makers mark but it carries a London sterling silver hallmark for London 1829 with the inside cover being gilded.

Incidentally "Och on!" is an old Scots term also used in the poet Robert Burns' writings and can generally be interpreted as meaning sorrow, misery, pain or regret.


Establishing a Family Tree :

While the name "John" appears in my immediate family either they died young or appear not to have married. So, without a surname ownership of the box could not easily be attributed to any family member and was more likely to be a relative. But who exactly? I really thought this would end up being an enduring mystery that could never be solved.

So there the matter rested until the availability in recent years of online Scottish pre 1855 parish records. I then took a very slow, ordered and methodical approach with my research as I first needed to compile a comprehensive extended family tree in order to even begin this quest. But I still perceived that I would have very little likelihood of success

This process took a number of years to complete as time and finances allowed. As I was compiling a family history I needed to undertake this research in any case. Luckily parish baptismal and marriage records for my extended family, in this case Lasswade Parish south of Edinburgh, went right back to the 18th century.    


Gilded interior of cowrie shell sterling silver snuff box
belonging to John Hall Snr. of Roslin, 1829

Searching for "O'Three John" :

I could then establish with some accuracy which distant family members or relatives by marriage may have been named "John" and could possibly have been living around 1833. But they would still need to be young enough to have an elderly father. The Scottish vernacular term "O'Three" may be interpreted as simply meaning "number three" or "the third". I therefore felt that the most likely candidate would be John Hall, a brother of my paternal Great Great Grandmother, Margaret Hall. Critically, John Hall, latterly of "New Milton" in Glencorse Parish, was the third son in the Hall family, is recorded as being born in 1784 and, according to civil records, died in 1856 aged 71 years.


Confirmation of the death of John Hall (Snr.) of "Roslyne",
being interred in Lasswade Church Yard on the 26th Sep 1835

Searching Early Burial Records :

To advance my research at this point rested on proving that John Hall's father was alive in 1833. Baptismal entries for John and his siblings in the Lasswade parish register record their father's name (also) as John Hall. We shall now refer to their father as John Hall Snr. With some considerable luck burial records for Lasswade parish were also extant for this period. Many Parishes did not keep such records as, unlike baptisms, physically recording deaths or burials was not considered vitally important in the Scottish Presbyterian Church. In fact, many registers only record "mort cloth" dues, being a fee paid to the Parish for a temporary cloth in which to cover the deceased until burial. But such a record is still very useful. Not being buried in a coffin was, in early years, perfectly normal. In 1855 the State took on the task of properly recording births, deaths and marriages so from this date civil records are generally fuller and more concise.

From the extant parish burial records I could now establish that John Hall Snr., a "portioner" [small land holder] of Roslin in Midlothain, died in September 1835, being buried at Lasswade Church Yard (most likely in a Hall family plot).


Establishing Original Ownership :

Thus I could now say with some degree of certainty that the snuff box presented in 1833 belonged to John Hall Snr. But how might it have come down to our side of the family and not the Hall family? Surviving Parish or late statutory records make no mention of the fate of John Hall senior's first two sons so I assume they died young. But as inscribed on the box, it was gifted by"...my only surviving son". Thus having no record is actually good as it confirms the inscription. A fourth son also died prior to 1833. The survivors were Margaret Hall, Janet Hall, and the afore-mentioned John Hall Jnr. So my great great grandmother Margaret Hall must have either inherited the box as part of her inheritance upon the death of her father in 1835 or upon the death of her brother John Hall Jnr. in 1856. Margaret herself died in 1859.


Gold wax seal belonging to John Hall Snr. of Roslin, pre 1835

A Surprising Confirmation :

I was now perfectly happy that the mystery of the ownership of the box had finally been solved as it now all seemed perfectly logical. But I then made one further discovery that now confirmed my attribution of ownership beyond all reasonable doubt.

Very occasionally, either through a serendipitous situation or simply by the fact that one is looking more intently at things, one stumbles across something surprising.

My family collection of artefacts includes a gold and carnelian wax seal used to seal letters with sealing wax. The carved intaglio seal, which is in reverse, leaves a set of initials on the wax. To view it normally you need to hold it up to a mirror or create, as originally intended, a wax seal impression. As the initials were inscribed in a flowing script this made deciphering them difficult. Reading the initials in reverse, ie as a mirror image, the last letter looked like a "C" which matched my family surname so was a perfectly reasonable assumption to make. But being, as I have since discovered, in a flowing Flemish script, the initials when stamped on wax, are in fact a perfectly formed version of "JH". This would obviously be John Hall Snr. and again proves that items belonging to the Hall family did in fact pass to his daughter (my great great grandmother), Margaret Hall. As with the snuff box, the seal will also be at least 187 years old but could now easily be over 200 years old.  


The Initials "JH" for Hohn Hall (Snr.) engraved
in the carnelian intaglio gold wax seal


What do We Know of John Hall Snr?

Described as a "portioner" or land holder, extant records show that John Hall Snr. held the tacks [leases] to two properties in the parish, having been taken up in 1780 and 1784 for terms of 99 years each. Mention is also made of two houses built by John Hall on one of these properties "...on the west side of the new street of the village of Roslin with the garden at the back..." There is no mention of the lease amount.

Although the silver snuff box was a gift from his son, ownership of two long term tacks (leases), two houses in Roslin, and the gold wax seal would indicate that John Hall Snr. was a man of relative means. By 1833 we know from the inscription that he was blind although this could also easily be cataracts which were then inoperable. Obviously with being given the box we know that John "took" snuff, being the inhalation of powdered tobacco which was then very common. While he is buried in Lasswade cemetery I do not know if there is a headstone. While I have visited this cemetery I was not at the time looking for members of the Hall family.


Gold wax seal belonging to John Hall Snr. of Roslin, pre 1835

How Did my Family Obtain this Snuff Box and Gold Seal?

As previously stated, Margaret Hall evidently inherited these items, either after the death of her father in 1835 or her brother, John Hall Snr. in 1856. Margaret Hall's husband Matthew lived on until 1870, his grandson (ie, my paternal grandfather) latterly residing with him at Gray's Mill in Slateford out of Edinburgh.

When my grandfather emigrated to New Zealand in 1879, all items of family jewellery remained in Scotland with his only surviving sibling, his sister Ann. Although Ann married she died childless in 1920 thus all the jewellery and artefacts were sent out to my grandfather in New Zealand. The latter then wrote to Ann's husband in Edinburgh, "...As they [the jewellery etc] had to come I was in a way pleased to see them, but in another not as the sight of them brought some old memories & the cause of their being here owing to your & my loss made me feel a bit glum at the sight of them."



Wax seal impression showing the initials "JH"
for John Hall (Snr.) of Roslin

Apparently my grandfather never specifically identified the ownership of the majority of these items. But his written note above confirms he at least remembered the items and as he had lived with his grandfather until 1870 (he was then aged 19 years) I am assuming that he probably had a good idea who the various items had belonged to. But as my father related to me, my grandfather talked very little of family other than his only surviving sister. This was possibly due to so many of his immediate family, including his parents, having died from illness during his early years so there appears to have been a natural unwillingness to talk about them and bring up sad memories. While my father remembered my grandfather going through the items he and his siblings were then younger and I believe they took more interest in the items than their actual provenance.

It may well be that more items in my family collection also came from John Hall Snr. but we shall now never know. I am however quite content that the provenance of these two items can now safely be attributed back to their original owner who died as long ago as 1835. It saddens me when I see jewellery and artefacts for sale at antique stalls and to know that the provenance of these items has been lost as this adds so much to the story of any item, especially when it is at least 187 years old. Remarkably these two items are now owned by the 6th generation of the original owner.

If any Hall family descendants read this Blog I would be delighted to hear from you and share information which I have gathered. My email appears in the right-hand menu bar or you can leave your contact details as a private message at the bottom of this Blog (this would not be public as I moderate all comments).


Sources : 

- Personal family papers and artefacts
- Scotland's Places


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