Tuesday 8 May 2018

My Secret Drawer by Karen Maitland

The Old Red Lion Inn, Holmes Chapel. Photo: David Dixon
When I was a little girl I became obsessed with the dream of finding a secret drawer and spent many fruitless hours searching and prodding every piece of furniture in the house. I was doomed to failure, because everything was a mass-produced, post-war, utility piece. I also almost knocked myself out on several occasions trying to walk through the back of wardrobes in the vain hope that one day I’d emerge into Narnia. I quite quickly realised the Narnia adventure was never going to happen, but my 'secret drawer' fantasy never really went away. So, I was thrilled when, a few weeks ago, two dear and generous friends sent me an unexpected parcel. It turned out to be a George III writing slope made between 1795-1810, which contained not one but two secret drawers.

My friends restore antique boxes and in stripping this one down to clean it, they discovered its secret. If you merely opened up the writing slope you’d never guess they were there, but remove one of inkwells and lift out a series of tiny wooden panels in the right order and you find a hidden catch which releases a false back, behind which the drawers are concealed.

Dragon's Blood trees (Dracaena cinnabari
Socotra Island, Yemen. Photo: Rod Waddington
One drawer contained a residue of a blood red powder. The novelist in me would like to think it might be powdered ‘dragons blood’, the costly resin from a tree such as Dracaena cinnabari, believed by alchemists and physicians to have great healing powers and later used for dyeing wood to make violins. But the red substance is probably powdered red ink of the kind once used on legal documents.

The other drawer contained a stained fragment of paper which looks as if it might have been torn from the top right-hand corner of a much-folded letter. Written on it is a name and address.
Red Lion,
Holmes Chapel,

My friends decided to research the address and discovered the wonderful story that the Old Red Lion Inn at Holmes Chapel is reputed to be haunted by a pale woman in a dark habit and white wimple. Legend has it that she was the victim of immurement and was walled up alive in one of the rooms. Just a legend of course and there are many such tales all over the country, with little or no basis in historical fact, but the idea is remarkably persistent in folk myth. There is also a story that in 1745, some of Bonny Prince Charlie's men stopped off for a little refreshment at the Red Lion on their way south to try to take the throne.
Holmes Chapel with the Red Lion Inn, 1853

Holmes Chapel was originally called Hulme and then Church Hulme. The earliest document discovered which mentions the Red Lion Inn comes from the will of Thomas Gandie in 1625. The inn became an important stop-over for travellers using the daily stage coaches. And in 1738, John Wesley, travelling between Oxford and Manchester, is reported to have preached at the inn. Perhaps his blessing protected it, for tragically on 10th July 1753, fire broke out in the village burning down 18 of 20 houses. Only the church, two cottages behind it and Red Lion Inn were spared.

London to Birmingham Stage, 1801
Painting by John Cordrey
Of course, my writing slope dates from some years after these events, but here the novelist in me takes over. Why was this address torn from a letter and left in the box? Was it simply a correspondence address the owner of the box wanted to keep because he had to write to someone working or staying in Chapel Holme? The Booths were certainly a prominent family in that area. Had the owner arranged to meet this person at the inn, perhaps for an hour or so, as they transferred between stage coaches on route to Oxford or Manchester or somewhere else? Does the red legal ink, if that’s what it is, give a clue to the owner’s profession and was it in that capacity he'd perhaps arranged to meet W.Booth at the Red Lion Inn? And why was the address put in the secret drawer? Was it simply to ensure they didn’t mislay the scrap of paper or did they have some reason for concealing it? The possibilities are endless.

When I was a child searching for a secret drawer I had longed to find a magic stone hidden in it or charm that would take me back in history, like the bed knob in Mary Norton’s ‘Bedknob and Broomstick’. As an adult, I've found a scrap of paper that does just that, and I am just as childishly thrilled now as that little girl would have been all those years ago.

1 comment:

Lesley Downer said...

What a wonderful rabbit's warren of stories and pictures, all from one little drawer! Thanks for posting this, Karen!