The following is a true story – well, almost a true story. I stumbled across a newspaper article from 1876 in which a Sheffield boy had dug up an old snuff box. Then followed a week of piecing the story together. But one question remained. Whatever happened to the snuff box? And so, fact meets fiction, embellished by my own hand. But realistically, there is the chance that somebody out there did inherit a tarnished old snuff box.
It was 1584, and Mary Stuart sat in the long grass beneath the shade of her favourite walnut tree. It was summer and everything was green. She gazed down at the castle that she had come to despise, but her eyes were drawn towards the hills, valleys, and moorland that stretched beyond. Soon, the sun would disappear, and the sky would become a sea of red, orange, and then deep blue.
“There you are Mary,” said a voice. She looked up at the solemn face of George Talbot who sat beside her. “I see you are taking a last look at Sheffield.”
“That’s right. This is a view I shall not forget, nor shall I forget the past fourteen years. I am grateful that you allowed me to spend so much time up here and not in that dark and gloomy castle.”
George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, reached into his pouch and pulled out a tiny snuff box. He took a pinch and offered it to Mary who placed a small amount between her thumb and index finger and sneezed after taking it.
“Where am I going?”
“I have come to tell you that you are going to Fotheringhay.”
George thought she looked old and had noticed how unsteady she had become on her feet and summoned two servants to help her back to the lodge.
It was the last time they spoke.
That night, George realised he had left his snuff box underneath the walnut tree and sent his manservants to retrieve it. But there were hundreds of trees, and it was dark, and they were unable to find it.
In 1876, a boy called George Martin, son of a man of the same name, was clearing long grass and weeds beside an old walnut tree that had been felled the day before. His master, Henry Fitzalan-Howard, Duke of Norfolk, had instructed the men to chop down more timber to make charcoal for the melting of iron and steel. But this was walnut, and George knew that this tree would end up in the workshop of a London cabinet maker.
George liked Old Crofts, and he sat on a patch of newly exposed soil to rest. He looked across the valley and was glad that he was here, away from the grime and smoke that belched out below. Once, a strong wind had briefly blown the smoke away and he had seen a glimpse of what lay beyond the rooftops and factory chimneys. There were more hills like the one he was sitting on.
He began chopping at the vegetation again, piled it against the dead tree, and used a pick and spade to loosen the soil. Then he noticed something buried underneath and started digging deeper.
Later, George Martin showed the snuff box to his father who lived on Bernard Street. It was incredibly old, studded with several stones, but they weren’t sure if it was worth anything. His father had a brother who lived in Hermitage Street, who mentioned his nephew’s find to Thomas Jowitt, landlord of the Rising Sun.
Jowitt was interested in antiquaries although professed not to be an expert. He asked to see the old snuff box and it was brought to him at the pub. He inspected it carefully and despite it being tarnished, was convinced that the box was made of gold. He was also of opinion – although upon this point, he was no means certain – that the stones might be precious ones, even – to go a little further – diamonds.
Jowitt bought the box for what he considered a fair sum and cleaned it up the best he could before putting it on the sideboard.
Michael Ellison, the Duke of Norfolk’s agent, was paid a considerable wage to know everything about his nobleman’s estate. One morning, Ellison had become irritated with his master, who had grumbled that the Sheffield newspapers had reprimanded him for the ruinous condition of the Turret Lodge.
He sat in his office at The Farm and went through the notes before him. There were tales of rebellious tenants, trespassers, and poachers. But one thing struck him as being unusual.
There was a note from one of his rent collectors who drank at the Rising Sun public house in the town. It spoke of the landlord who had come into possession of an old snuff box that had been found at the Old Crofts, near to the Turret Lodge.
More peculiar, were the landlord’s claims that the old box had been the property of one or other of the distinguished personages who in ancient times had resided at the Manor.
Ellison summoned the rent collector who repeated the story and added that antiquarians had been profane enough to suggest that the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots may have used its contents to titillate her Royal nose.
“Bring the snuff box to me,” exclaimed Mr Ellison. “Let me have a look at it.”
A day later, the rent collector arrived with the snuff box, but Ellison was too busy and put it aside to be inspected later.
Days went by. Ellison got a cold, then a fever, and was laid up in bed for weeks. In the meantime, his assistant had found the snuff box and asked Ellison what he should do with it.
“Oh! Send it back. Write a note saying that his Grace is not regarding it as a relic belonging to the Howard family, nor anybody else for that matter.”
The snuff box remained on Thomas Jowitt’s sideboard for years afterwards. Occasionally, when drink got the better of him, he would retrieve it and regale customers with increasingly romantic and far-fetched stories about its provenance. His regulars played along and told Jowitt that it might be worth a fortune.
This was lost on a stinky little urchin called Alfred March, who, one day, was surprised to find the back door of the Rising Sun wide open. March slipped inside and stole three bottles of ginger beer but not before pilfering the intriguing old snuff box.
He struggled along Hermitage Street, careful not to drop any of the bottles, and when he reached Porter Brook decided that the little box was more trouble than it was worth and flung it into the water.
And there the snuff box lay, trapped between rocks, until winter snows caused the river to become angry and send raging torrents along its course. It was sent down river, bounced along the stony bed, until it reached the Sheaf and the Don, from which the dented snuff box was lost in the mud forever.
©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.