Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Web Feet – Quack, Quack

Morgan still has the same tilt of his head when he explains computer-related things to me.
When it comes to computer savvy, most people under the age of twenty are native speakers, the next cohort have absorbed it like a second language, and then there are those in my age bracket who can only manage the computer-equivalent of pidgin-English. Fortunately for me, my friend Morgan - I have known him since he was born - taught me how to design a web site, Thanks to his help, I published my first post, on July 15, 2003. An article on Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, it would end up being one of very few posts that would not be focused on the story of the Silver Bowl. 

Margaret Bradford died in 1874 and missed out on the Internet.
My initial idea for a web page started with my obsession over a particular silver bowl. When I was growing up, all that I knew about it was that it had been given by an Emperor of Japan to one of our ancestors. There were supposedly two more matching bowls, as well as a tray and candelabra. Their whereabouts was unknown.

On July 15th, 2003, I also posted a story about The Pirates and Mrs. Dare of Singapore. Days later, people responded. This amazed me. It still does. Over the next several years, I learned that the Far East had been a magnet for dozens of Ulster-Scots in the mid 1800s. Most of them were young men in their early 20s, sons of tenant farmers, men who had just made it through the most recent famine. In spite of the fact that they had little in the way of money and professional education, they soon became key players in international banking – in particular with respect to the bank that we now know today as HSBC.

One of the most famous of these young men - Thomas Jackson - my great-great-uncle, became knighted as a result of his accomplishments. It turned out, however, that he wasn’t the actual recipient of this bowl. It was his younger brother, David, the one who was usually in the shadow of his older brother. Ironically, according to at least one family member, David Jackson drunk was a better banker than Thomas Jackson sober. If that was true, then David was one hell of a banker.

My web site connected me to dozens of family members from all over the world including places as far removed from each other as Zimbabwe, Scotland, England, Ireland, Japan, United States – and more. It turned out that Wendy Jack from Australia had copies of a family tree that I also had, thanks to great-aunt Blin, although we are so distantly related that it scarcely bears mention. For a while, the two of us emailed almost daily, and gradually pieced together the links that connected her family in Australia, with mine in Canada, and both of them with family in Ireland and the Far East.

On the other hand, one of my attempts to meet people through the magic of the internet should have resulted in a slammed door. It started with the fact that my father had visited Gilford Castle as a child in the early 1920s. Because of this, I wondered if descendants of his cousin, Mollie Wright, still lived there. The BT directory had a C. Wright of Gilford, and going from the papers I found after my father’s death, I figured that this was probably Christopher Wright, a grandson of Mollie. Putting two and two together, I wrote to Christopher, and included a photo of the silver bowl and the outline of what little I knew. A week later I received an email from his half brother, James. Apparently, Christopher had died in unhappy circumstances some years earlier. Once I got over this, I let the next bit sink in: We noticed from your website 'the silver bowl' that it looked remarkably similar to a piece that we have in the house.... My mother has sent a letter to you asking you to come and stay here at Gilford Castle.

Indeed, this was the second of the three bowls. Two down, one to go.

I hit another bit of pay dirt when I was invited to stay at the home of a relative in an out-of-the-way rural corner of England. He supposedly had a cache of letters that my great-great-grandmother had written to her son, Sir Thomas JACKSON in the mid to late 1800s. I had first learned about the letters at the HSBC archives in London. They had been found in a bog in Ireland in the early 1960s, but no one had seen hide or hair of them since. My husband, who used to write about scams, thought it was a total crock.

I hope I haven’t brought you down for nothing, said my “cousin” as he handed me a medium-sized tin box. Not only were there seventy seven letters in the box, but also dozens of deeds and other documents dating back to the late 1700s. Even better, it turned out that his wife was an ace fly-fisher and cook, so our lunch included the best, freshly caught trout that I have ever tasted in my life. Since then, I have succeeded in tracking down the third silver bowl. It is in Bangor, Co. Down at the home of a cousin who is an even more precious find, another one of those who has become a friend for life.

The only downside that I can see to maintaining a web site, such as The Silver Bowl, is that it takes an indecent amount of time to assemble the facts, transcribe and annotate documents, and then organize material, format photographs, and then to post the whole mess. And then there is the ongoing need for corrections and updating. Thankfully, I keep getting heads up from readers to alert me when I have gone astray.

Still, it is more than worth it. Doors have been opened to stories that could never be discovered any other way. Professional historians are taking note. In a future post, I will share how some of this material has had a profound impact, for example the story of a woman left as a foundling in the early 1940s who found out as a result of my posts that she is a descendant of Rev. Daniel Gunn Browne.

For now, I just want to celebrate Morgan, and thank him for taking the time to get me up and walking on my web feet.

Quack, quack. What comes next?

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyable post. I've been slowly proceeding on getting a web page going. Thank you.