Friday, February 18, 2011

The snuff-box

For as long as I can remember Mum used this kidney-shaped Georgian brass snuff-box to store pins inside her sewing basket. I am not quite sure where it came from, except I have an inkling that Uncle John may have given it to her—simply because it so exactly reflects the monkish side of his taste. He could easily have picked it up for no money at all in the Portobello Road, or else on one of his sweeps through the junk shops and country auctions.

It is brass, with a lovely soft patina, and the hinge is rather fine. I have lately seen several others like it. These days the type is generally referred to as a Welsh miners’ snuff-box, though obviously the inscription provides a completely different point of reference. I doubt if we shall ever identify E. L. Bull, but I presume he was a sailor aboard H.M.S. Terrible, and also responsible for turning down the nose of the lid, presumably with a hammer or mallet, to create a sort of clasp. It is pretty effective. Was he, I wonder, the ship’s carpenter?

H.M.S. Terrible was a 1,660-ton, 170-foot, 74-gun Culloden-class ship of the line. She was ordered by their lordships of the Admiralty in December 1781; her keel was laid down on January 7, 1783, and she was launched on March 28, 1785. During the 1790s, she saw action in the Mediterranean under the command of he who rejoiced in the name and rank of Captain (later Admiral) Skeffington Lutwidge. The Terrible joined squadrons harrying the French, at different times under the direction of Rear-Admiral George Hotham and Admiral Viscount Hood, and a little later she transferred to the Channel fleet, then finally via Plymouth, Madeira and the Canaries, to the West Indian station—for essentially the same purpose. On October 15, 1800, a court martial was held aboard the Gladiator at Portsmouth at which James Keating, a Royal Marine, of the Terrible, was found guilty of disobedience, and of striking a serjeant. He was sentenced to 200 lashes. E. L. Bull may well have known the man, however this wobbling, but nevertheless reasonably well-spaced and carefully punctuated, stamped inscription on Mum’s snuff-box is his only surviving private statement. I fancy E. L. Bull was proud of his ship, as literate as he needed to be, and far cleverer than to be insubordinate.

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