“Whilst I live, I Crow”


Tin box. Why wasn’t I curious enough to open this sooner? CREDIT: Alf

This is a post for the genealogists – about arcane Masonic documents hidden in tin boxes, and secret compartments in nineteenth century writing slopes and – lots of fun stuff like that.

Genealogy-wise, can you believe we have a tin box that originally belonged to my husband’s great-great grandfather, that a lovely step great aunt gave us maybe twenty years ago, and we have never thoroughly looked through? It was mainly full of paperwork – I had a rough recollection of it being from around the 1890s – having maybe had a cursory root through about 20 years back – and I had spotted something Masonic in it, so assumed it was mainly stuff from his Masonic lodge.

There were also a couple of smaller boxes inside, containing odds and ends, that we’d totally forgotten. Husband’s great grandad was something of an amateur scientist – one box contained a massive beetle he must have ‘collected’. That thing last probably saw a leaf in 1905. Luckily I’m not bothered by spiders and beetles but it did make me cautious, opening the three small boxes inside. Just in case.

Anyway, I was reading yet another Jack The Ripper book the other day (My Gx3 Uncle, with the glorious name of Charlie Varley, was York’s Chief Inspector in 1888, so I have a kind of vicarious interest in the goings on of 1888) and there were so many mentions of London Masonic lodges, I got curious and thought “I’ll go look through that tin box, and see which lodges are mentioned.”  We know both his great great grandfather and great grandfather – who had the tin box after him – were keen Masons, and one of them eventually the Grand Master, we think, of a lodge in Kent when they’d left London. I had a vague recollection of this paperwork being from his time as Manager of the Author’s Club in Westminster, at the turn of the century.  (He was a friend of the Scott Expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting – whose signature is also on a document in this box!  I better scan it…  And that is the story for another day as we think we own something very special that was given to great grandad as a child, by Ponting, after the 1911 Expedition).

Quick back-story: husband’s great great grandma died when her only child was a baby.  That child was husband’s great grandad.  After a couple of years, Great Great Grandad, re-married.  There was one son from the second marriage.  That son had a daughter and she gave this tin box of family memorabilia to my husband, many years ago, as much of it concerned his family, and she felt he was the rightful owner. Lovely lady.

Turned out there was only a little Masonic material in the box. I haven’t had time to scan the document yet, which seems to be certifying that G-G-grandad in law had been through the initiation ceremony for ‘X’ Lodge in Westminster – prime Jack the Ripper suspect territory, that little roomful of people,  if ever there was any – but will put it up on here when it’s scanned, in case anyone stumbles on this and is interested in the Freemasons’ history.  As well as the certificate, and a gold pentacle believe it or not, which we assume must be Masonic,  there is a small leather pouch we assume he carried to meetings, with his initials and a Masonic symbol in gold tooling.

Also in the box were the deeds to numerous houses (if only husband owned one of the several houses in Pimlico, or Kent hotels we seem to have copies of deeds for!)

A tip to genealogists: look up your ancestors’ addresses on Zoopla or similar to get an idea of their current value.  One of these houses is now worth a cool few million (it is now divided into flats and each flat is worth over a million quid, put it that way!)  At the same time, go and look in the 19thC censuses at your ancestor and not just your ancestor, but his and her neighbours.  Check out the occupations.  This street was fairly ordinary in the 1870s – in fact, there was a pretty sordid murder 3 doors down in 1875 as I found by doing an address search in a database of nineteenth century newspapers.

Whenever I find my target on the Census I look at the immediate streets around. It gives you a real sense of your ancestor’s life.  Obviously, Pimlico in 2017 is not remotely like Pimlico of the 1880s.

Writing Slope. Mother of pearl with walnut veneer and marquetry. CREDIT: D.HUNT

Many a gentrified street now peopled by the wealthy, was once simply lived in by coach-builders, factory workers and servants; ostlers and clerks.

Bear with me, gentle Reader, whilst I go off on a tangent for a bit.

Talking of clerks, I recently got interested in 19thC writing slopes. They’re a sort of portable desk – some have secret compartments.  I like the ergonomics of writing on a sloped surface, so decided to get one to use, not as an ornament. Regency ones often have a drawer in the side and later, Victorian ones a secret compartment.  Like this one in mine:


a drawer0
Lift this bit, and…
a drawer2
Activates this hidden mechanism, and…



a drawer4
Two secret drawers. We found this in one, written in modern handwriting, on vellum. No, I’ve no clue, either! The number we found slipped between the ink well and another compartment, presuming that is from manufacture. No maker’s name.  This box could be anything from 1840s- 1900.  CREDIT: D. HUNT



The slope, when it came, had a stunning blue velvet skiver (not unlike the vivid purple on in Emily Bronte’s slope, although I can only here find a picture of Charlotte’s) .

In the case of my slope, the velvet was rotten and had holes in where someone seems to have closed it hastily with maybe a dip pen nib still in there, that damaged the wood and badly abraded the velvet on both sides of the slope.  So we stripped off the old skiver and replaced with blue leather, after filling in the gouges in the slope’s wood, and sanding it.   That was painful to me as a textile historian.  But I did it because I wanted this thing to use, not admire.

We did manage to keep the original Greek key skiver surrounding as that was only slightly damaged.  There are compartments for paper storage (or sealing wax, or wafers, or whatever in the nineteenth century) behind both surfaces of these slopes.

The slope is hinged only with fabric so the central bit is reinforced – luckily I had some vintage, wide cotton tape which was perfect for the job. As you can see, I have the original glass ink well whichI was pleased about, given the fact I only paid £30-odd for the slope.  It has lost its key but I’m told the locks are simple, and often an old key can be found that will fit.

What has any of this got to do with husband’s tin box?  Well, in amongst the little box of treasures inside, we had totally forgotten about, was a wax seal. Son 2 and I experimented yesterday and he managed to do this  (The black bits were caused by us having to light our wax from a candle. Victorians knew not to do this!):


For scale, with a penny:


1870s seal itself and penny for scale

Sons and husband now know that their family sigil is a parrot.  Appropriate.


Also in the box were some notes by step great aunt. I guessed they dated from the 1960s or 70s as these , I’m guessing by Aunt Elizabeth were written in biro.

Apparently, one of her family names had a cockerel as their ‘sign’ and their motto, according to the notes was “Whilst I live, I crow!”  Finding this, I assumed the gilt fob seal I found was a cockerel (bad eyesight and these things as TINY!)  But in fact, it was a parrot.  It would, of course, be unusual to find a letter addressed to someone with the same seal on as you found in a box of their possessions.

I did find several (sadly, empty) envelopes addressed to husband’s G-G-G Aunt, postmarked from 1875, which did indeed have a wax seal with a cockerel on and this may be what prompted Great Aunt to write her note – but in fact the step family only became family a generation after these letters were sent, so I think it’s a coincidence.  Intaglio fob seals like these were no doubt mass produced.  We also have a blank one in the box, so maybe sometimes people took them to be customised/engraved after they bought them.  Others would have been produced with generic symbols and mottos on.

They will have been made en masse after the introduction of the Penny Post and letter-writing became cheap and accessible for everyone. Previously, it was cheaper to send a parcel and smuggle a letter inside it, than to send a single sheet letter…

After she died, Emily Bronte’s writing slope was found to contain wafers – a sort of gummed paper seal you’d use to seal an envelope – sometimes use in conjunction with wax seals, wafers meant for informal correspondence. Many of Emily’s have oddly flirtatious mottos – no-one knows who they were meant for. For most letters though, you’d seal the envelope with wax.  The seals we have are maybe only 1cm long, if that.

I have been researching 19thC Birmingham pen-makers for another project, and had recently come across the profession – many of whom side-stepped into being pen-makers – of “Gilt Toy Maker”.  (Toy = any small frippery).  I suspect these seals were mass produced in Brummagem by Gilt Toy Makers.

Letter to husband’s GGG Aunt. It has cockerel seal on the back. CREDIT: NATE HUNT


Anyway, upshot is – the ‘family seal’ now lives in the secret compartment of our writing slope (alongside the previous owner’s interesting vellum recipe).

I only had time to hastily scan this – from everything in the box.  Because I found the lady on the right’s clothing fascinating.  But I’ll be scanning it all. The oldest photo in the box dates to around 1856. It is probably the oldest thing in the box. As a young man, the gent below, was a carpenter working on a church restoration (Very Thomas Hardy) and the architect photographed him.  It is brilliant.

I will have to spend a couple of days scanning to get everything but yes.  A genealogist can have a box of genealogical treasures in their house for twenty years and barely get round to opening it…

Step-relatives in Folkestone. (1890s?) Aunt Polly in centre. D.HUNT






3 replies on ““Whilst I live, I Crow””

Hi, I was very interested to see that you found something relating to Herbert Ponting in a box belonging to a relative who was a mason – I found it completely by chance as I’d just Googled Ponting and Mason as I’d just discovered that he was friends with someone who was a mason. I wonder which lodge it is – and I also wasn’t quite sure which relative it is of yours, surname Varley? I’m currently researching Herbert Ponting for a new biography and am turning up all manner of interesting connections which have never appeared before. I was in Japan and found Ponting’s signature in a 1901 hotel register, so know the feeling… I’d love to be in touch about your discovery if you’re happy to share the information. With best wishes, Anne Strathie


Hi Anne

If you email me at, I will send you a scan of the signature we have, and also look through the box so I can get back to you about the lodge(s) concerned. I say lodge(s) as I seem to remember husband’s great grandad was in more than one. Ponting knew him from The Author’s Club, where I think Ponting was resident, at least some of the time.


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