Monday 28 December 2015

Out with the Old . . . by Julie Summers

Hang on, hang on. It is all too easy at the back end of the year to get over enthusiastic about throwing things out. I love having a good sort through my shelves and cupboards but I do wonder if I get carried away and throw out something precious. Or more to the point, something that might be precious to others in the future. At the beginning of this month I had the great good fortune to have a behind the scenes visit to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The curator of Early Modern Manuscripts, Mike Webb, produced a small number of treasures to illustrate various stories about life during the seventeenth century. One of the objects he showed us was an accounts book kept by Mary Gofton, previously Lady Sandys, between 1645 and 1649. In this little volume she listed every item of expenditure she made. They range from £2 11s 6d for ‘16 yards of selver and gold lace for my morning cotte’ (mourning coat) to 2s 6d for a ‘play thinge for nick and miles’ (her grandsons), while on other occasions she made huge donations to her children, such as £2,000 to her son stuard in March 1647, the equivalent of £250,000 or $375,000 in 2015. 

Account book of Mary Gofton (née Hanbury,
afterwards Lady Sandys,
afterwards Richardson), 1645-1649
Shelfmark: MS. Eng. e. 3651
Several things struck us powerfully about this book. First, the cover was utterly unprepossessing.If one had seen it in a junk shop it would have been easy to overlook it. Secondly, it was written in the vernacular rather than ‘secretary script’ which is how men of letters were taught to write. Women did not need that skill.

Page beginning 16 March 1647
The result is that her spelling is wonderfully arbitrary but the voice is entirely hers. Reading the descriptions of her expenditure, Mike Webb was able to reconstruct her speech through her spellings and we were amazed but thrilled to hear the gentle ‘burred’ accent of a seventeenth century gentlewoman from Gloucestershire. How Mary Gofton’s book has survived is a mystery and it is nothing short of a minor miracle that it was not thrown out in a New Year spring clean in any one of the intervening 367 Januarys.

When I was working on my first book Fearless on Everest, about the disappearance of Sandy Irvine with George Mallory on Mount Everest in 1924, I had a stroke of luck with a find of material that too might have ended up in the bin. Sandy was my great uncle, though of course I never knew him. 

Willie Irvine, 1877
I did however once meet his father, my great-grandfather, Willie Irvine, when I was a baby. There is a photograph of me aged about 9 months with legs like sausages sitting on the old man’s knee. He was 93 and died not long after the photograph was taken.  Fast forward 38 years and I was living in California with my young family. Our third son had been born in Stanford and we called him Sandy after his namesake because, like him, he was blonde haired and blue-eyed. A few weeks after he was born I was walking down the high street in Palo Alto when I saw a photograph in a bookshop window. It was the last photograph of Mallory and Irvine taken the morning they left camp IV to head for camps V and VI before launching their bid on the summit on 8 June 1924. They disappeared in a blanket of cloud at about midday, last seen by Noel Odell in what is probably the most famous sighting in mountaineering history. They were, in his words, ‘going strong for the top.’ We came back to Britain in 1998 and the following year George Mallory’s frozen remains were found by an Anglo-American team and interest in the mystery of Mallory and Irvine soared.

Sandy Irvine, Spitsbergen 1923
There are more than one thousand books written about Everest and almost every single one of them alludes to their story. However, Sandy was merely the historical cipher to the great George Mallory and little was known about him. So little, in fact, that almost nothing existed in the public domain other than his sparse Everest diary and a few notes in the Royal Geographical Society archives. When I asked various family members whether anything else existed I was shown a handful of lovely family photographs and a dozen or so letters from Sandy to his family. He wrote to his mother telling her about his rowing triumphs and to his aunt, who was about to go into hospital to have an operation: ‘Dear Aunt Ankie, I’m dreadfully sorry to hear you are going to be cut up tomorrow.’ But nothing from Everest. The story went that Willie Irvine had thrown everything away, so sad was he after Sandy was killed on the mountain.
Sandy Irvine (left) with Willie, Evelyn (my grandmother) and older brother Hugh, 1904
Willie Irvine was an amateur historian and I know that historians of any shape or size hate throwing things away. So I persisted in my questioning and eventually my cousin went to the family home in North Wales and there, in the attic, she found a black trunk and in this trunk was a slim foolscap folder. It was fastened with a blue ribbon and on the front it said, in Willie’s tidy handwriting, ‘ACI Everest 1924’. Andrew Comyn Irvine, Sandy’s full name. It was one of the most exciting discoveries of my life. In this file were 11 long letters from Tibet and the mountain; photographs taken en route and developed in a dark-room tent at base camp; notes about the capricious oxygen apparatus which Sandy was responsible for and bills for his Everest clothing.

The trunk, found 75 years after Sandy's death
The fact that this trunk had not been thrown out is almost unbelievable. The house had been sold after Willie’s death and run as an old people’s home. Then Alec Irvine, Sandy’s younger brother, bought the house back in the late 1970s and by the luck of the stars no one had bothered to clear out the attic. The letters, in particular, gave me Sandy’s voice. He wrote as he spoke, in a breathless and impatient way. When he couldn’t find the words to describe something he would draw it. The letters were literally priceless to me for my book. And for posterity?

Sandy's letter to his mother from Sikkim, en route to Everest
Well, they now reside in the archives at Merton College Oxford and I can only hope that in 300 odd years they will still be there, as Mary Gofton’s accounts book is in the Bodleian, to help someone to hear a voice from the past.

So, when you are throwing out the old to make space for the new, just ask yourself if in doing so you are condemning something not only to the bin but to silence…


Sue Purkiss said...

What a marvellous find - and what a legend to have as part of your family!

Unknown said...

Thanks Sue, it certainly was a wonderful find. And it started me off on the course of what I call my 'career' but is actually my life and passion.

Janie Hampton said...

Fascinating, Julie. And thanks for saving me from the bother of doing a new year clear up. I'll just post all my receipts and old Christmas cards down the crack in the floorboards for somebody to find in 100 years.

Unknown said...

Excellent Janie. Leave them to percolate through to the future ...

Clare Mulley said...

Gosh, how spine-tingling to discover that trunk with its contents intact - all credit to you for persevering and to recalcitrant historians refusing to throw away the old. And how marvellous that you have since published on this story. Thank you for now sharing the back story too!

Unknown said...

Thank you Clare, I've not been on the website for a few days so missed your kind comment. I keep hoping that one day I'll find another trunk but I suspect I'm more likely to find one on an elephant in the zoo. However, I'll keep looking!

Unknown said...

I was at your book signing & talk in Birkenhead School many years ago now. I treasure the book and its links to Birkenhead. I still know people who refer to Tata steel in Deeside as Summers. The old headquarters is all boarded up but it looks a fantastic building on the banks of the Dee


Unknown said...

Thanks Tony. That's quite a few years ago now. I am shattered to say that I started work on that book twenty years ago this summer. Must be getting old. I'm very touched that you treasure it. It certainly kicked off an eventful career that has taken me and my research all over the world. My next book involves another Summers-related character but at the other end of the spectrum from Sandy Irvine.