The following is a long-overdue posting, which was suggested to me by a friend two years ago, about one of my most prized possessions – a writing-chest which I purchased in London, England, during one of my trips to Europe.
This is the story of the box, its features, and the company which manufactured it.
This box featured prominently in the last posting I did about writing-boxes, written back in January of 2011!
While that posting focused on writing-boxes as a whole, this one will concentrate purely on the box in the photographs.
Finding the Box
I have wanted to own a writing-box for twenty years.
I’m twenty-six now.
In my childhood, I had the great fortune of growing up within walking-distance of four antiques shops. And I used to visit them religiously as a child. The beauty of all the wonderful things inside fascinated me. Old desks, grandfather-clocks, gramophones, pocketwatches inside glass display-cases, typewriters, silverware, walking-sticks huddled together in neat wooden racks and stands, and all other manner of mementos from centuries past.
The first writing-box I ever saw was when I was six years old. It was made of dark wood, and had a green, leather writing-surface which was tooled around the edges, and with gold-leaf pressed into the sides.
Ever since then, I was mystified and captivated by these things. Typewriters, pens, old books, watches, clocks, clothes, furniture…everything else came and went in waves. Sometimes I was wildly interested in them, sometimes not. And then after a passage of time, I’d be wildly interested in them again. But writing-boxes never lingered more than a few inches below the surface of my mental ocean at any one time during my life.
For years I wanted one. But writing-boxes are notoriously hard to find, and even harder to find in working condition! And once found, are often so expensive, there was no way a schoolboy could afford to buy one! So for years, they also remained a dream.
I stared at them online, and in shops and magazines, but never managed to get one. Until one day in 2010.
In December of that year, I was in London on holiday. And like any antiques fanatic, I immediately made a beeline for all the major antiques markets. If you’ve scoured the antiques markets in London, then I’ve probably been to them. I went from shop, to shop, market to market, from the Camden Locks to Bermonsdey Market.
But you can’t go to London without visiting its famous antiques mecca. Also called the Portobello Road Antiques Market.
If you chase antiques, and you’ve never been to Portobello Road in London’s West End…you will kick yourself. Block, after block, shop after shop, stall after stall, arcade after arcade of dozens of dealers and sellers, selling everything from Kodak Brownies to Underwood Portables, Louis Vuitton steamer-trunks, antique umbrellas, walking-sticks, silver match-cases, ivory straight-razors, magnifying glasses of all strengths and sizes, fountain pens, dip pens, old books, antique hat-boxes and more hallmarked silver than you could shake a stick at. You might even notice All Saints Spitalfields, with its mountains of antique sewing-machines stacked up against the windows.
It was in Portobello Market that I found this box.
The man I purchased the box from had won it at auction. He’d bought it with a view to reselling it at a profit, but had never found a buyer. He was sick of having it in his shop and I managed to get it for a good price, I packed it up, pocketed the one and only key (literally. No locksmith, restorer, or key-cutter I’ve spoken to has been able to duplicate it), and took it home with me.
One key to rule them all, one key to find them.
One key to bring them all, and in the darkness, bind them…Oh wait…
The box as it appeared at Rosebery’s Auction House in London.
Auction Date: 8th September, 2010. Lot No.: 1158. It’s listed as “Early 20th Century”, which is impossible, for reasons I shall explain further down.
The box came complete with its original bone-folder, page-turner/letter-opener, ink-scratch knife, (all three made of elephant-tusk ivory), box of matches (marked “LIGHT”), inkwell, and a pencil from Bradford Grammar School.
Letter-opener or page-turner. For cutting envelopes,
or turning pages if hands were inky/sooty
Originally made of actual animal bones, this ivory ‘bone-folder’, was used to make sharp, clean folds or creases in paper,
as when making one’s own envelopes, for example
Ink-knife shafted in elephant-tusk ivory. The sharpened, spearpoint knife-blade was used to scratch away dried ink from a document. A primitive form of ‘eraser’, back when paper or parchment, was much thicker and heavier
Detail of the protective, leather sheath. “Joseph Rodgers & Sons. Sheffield”. J. Rodgers & Sons held the royal warrant as cutlers to the Royal Family. I also have a J. Rodgers straight-razor
The whole box. The “LIGHT” box on the bottom left, the “INK” box on the right. Compartments up above for paperwork, and slots for the ivory desk-implements. The tray in the middle holds dip-pens, and lifts up to reveal storage underneath. Obviously not complete, but then, it’s very old…
Three panels of elephant-tusk ivory. An ‘Aide Memoir’, it served as a writing-slate. Messages or short notes could be written on them in pencil, which could then be erased later, with a damp cloth…it still works today, with no damage sustained to the ivory
Finding this box fulfilled a lifelong dream for me, and it is one of my most prized possessions. But the fact remained – I knew absolutely NOTHING about it. I had not an inkling how old it was, who made it, where, when, or for what sort of market.
So began the long slog of trying to find out more about the box and its maker.
Messers Toulmin & Gale
The following information was gleamed from old books, newspapers, and advertisements scanned from Victorian-era documents, and which are available for public inspection on the internet.
For what was once a famous and significant company, there is VERY LITTLE information available. All such facts, dates, addresses, etc, which I have managed to gather, are shown below…
Toulmin & Gale, the company which manufactured this box, was established in London in 1735 as a manufacturer of travel-cases, storage-boxes and luggage. At this time, until the mid-1800s, it was located at 85-86, Cheapside, the City of London.
Cheapside (which is a STREET, not a neighbourhood), in London.
Photograph taken 1909
By the late Georgian period, Toulmin & Gale had started manufacturing all kinds of handsome cases, boxes and trunks.
X-box, Wii, PlayStation? This is what an original gaming-console looked like! Toulmin & Gale Gaming Compendium from 1869.
Chess, checkers, dominoes and cribbage
T&G also made such beauties as this four-decanter tantalus, for the safe transport of liquor:
There is no mention of Toulmin & Gale making an appearance at the famous 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, but that didn’t mean they didn’t get their time in the sun. Eleven years later, in 1862, they won the prize for “Excellence of Materials & Workmanship”, at the International Exhibition.
This 1863 advertisement is quick to flash their prize-winning success in everyone’s faces…oh…and what’s that on the left-hand side? Looks vaguely familiar…
With the extra money that this prize-winning must’ve given them, in 1863, Toulmin & Gale moved house. No longer confined to Cheapside, they expanded to 7, New Bond Street, and opened up a manufactury at 18, Sise Lane. In the advertisement above, you can see the going-rate for my writing-box: “…Russia Leather, finest quality, 9 pounds, 9 shillings…“
Sadly, this wonderful rise in fortunes was not to last. The company was losing money – fast. And in 1876, Toulmin & Gale, established in 1735, had the unenviable distinction of being “gazetted“. That is, they appeared in the London Gazette. And you only ever appeared in the London Gazette for ONE reason.
Below are the original scans from the London Gazette of 1876, showing the bankruptcy proceedings for Toulmin & Gale. The dates in italics are the publication dates for the editions of the Gazette, not of the dates when the advertisements were submitted to the Gazette.
London Gazette. 16th of May, 1876
London Gazette. 22nd of August, 1876
London Gazette. 12th of September, 1876
No further record of Toulmin & Gale exists after this date.
Now you’ll understand why the date of “early 20th century” in the auction-description is a complete falsehood – Toulmin & Gale were out of business thirty years before!
Of note in the above articles is one name: “G.W. Betjemann”. That is George William Betjemann, another prominent manufacturer of writing-cases. The G. Betjemann & Sons company was established in 1859 in London. George William was one of the “Sons” in the company owned by his father, the other one being his brother John Betjemann. That company closed in 1939 after their descendants lost interest in running a cabinetmaking company.
Extra Photographs of the Box
Closeup of the front of the box. On the right is a bone-shafted dip-pen with brass grip and nib. Not original to the box, but of the same time-period
The inkwell. The original (probably porcelain) insert was long-gone when I purchased the box. What you see there is a modern plastic insert of the same size. The whole thing is kept under tension with clasps, hooks and springs. Pulling the clasp on the right releases the ring…
…which pops the inkwell up, for removal and cleaning. Et voila!
Gotta light, guv?
Make me a match…
The matchbox, with original striking-plate and matches. Commonly called ‘Vestas’ or ‘Lucifers’ (two popular Victorian-era brands), these are much smaller than modern matches. I do not think they are original to the box. Poisonous white phosphorus matches were banned in the early 1900s
Peek-a-boo! I see you…
Finding anything about the Toulmin & Gale company is extremely difficult. Those are, to my knowledge, the only facts available on the internet. A few extra details were gleamed from antiquebox.org, one of only two online resources about antique writing-cases and boxes.