Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Mystery of Catherine Tozer

The essential details of the life of Solomon Tozer, a sergeant in the Royal Marines assigned to HMS Terror, are well-known, and have been documented in Ralph Lloyd-Jones's article "The Royal Marines on Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition" (Polar Record 40 (215) (2004). He was born in Axbridge, near Cheddar, in 1815 or possibly 1817, and may have been a Nonconformist (a religious term from the day, signifying those who did not agree with the 29 articles of the established Church of England). 

However, what is far less well-known is that he may have had a sister, Catherine, who was a nonconformist in a much more modern sense of the word. According to the 1913 press article, she'd worked as a schoolmistress, but suffered so much abuse from her husband that she left him (it should be borne in mind that divorce was essentially impossible at this period in time), and chose to adopt male attire for the rest of her life, going by the name of "Charley Wilson" and finding employment as a painter. Further details about her are scarce -- the two newspaper items in this post contain almost all of what is known, and my efforts to contact the family descendant who first drew my attention to her story have not (so far) met with success, but apparently the family genealogy is -- by that account -- fairly certain.

(The few other items about her online are often accompanied by a photograph said to be hers -- but in fact the image is a glass plate photograph of Marie Høeg (1866-1949), a Norwegian photographer and suffragist who had taken private photographs of herself wearing a theatrically fake mustache). 

The Catherine Tozer known in these newspaper columns seems to have been born in 1837, which would make her twenty years younger than her brother, quite a stretch but not an impossibility. By this earlier account, she first came to public attention after a scandalous affair -- circumstances rather different from those described in the Cheltenham Chronicle years later. The details are in this item from the Bury Times of September 8, 1860 (the dates given here are inconsistent by two years with those of the other article). 

One of the last records I could find was a notice from the Gloucestershire Echo of 15 October 1897 noting that she will be able to leave a workhouse in West Ham thanks to the support of the Painters' Union and an offer of employment in "some light business." If I have her correct date of birth, she would have been sixty years old at that time. 

More recently, a lengthy research article on the Tozer family has come to light, compiled by a user known as @dustygnome; a link to this article may be found via Tumblr. There's a tremendous amount of valuable information in this article, which covers several generations of the Tozer family. I've also located a couple of additional resources in more specialized archives, including this trans history page which links to a newspaper article that contains an actual interview with Charley Wilson conducted shortly before his death. From this site, it's also fascinating to learn that Wilson was employed painting ships for the Peninsular & Oriental shipping company, including the Rome, the Victoria, the Oceania, and the Arcadia. P&O, as it was known, continued in business until 2006, when it was sold to DP World; a reconstituted part of the company operates P&O Ferries, infamous for sacking its entire staff in 2022. Charley Wilson is said to have died in 1911; I have so far been unable to locate a burial site.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Parks Canada 2023 finds

Marc-André Bernier examines the seaman's chest
The news is in: Parks Canada has just made its first official release of results from the 2023 dive season. It was a relatively short one -- just twelve days -- but the objects recovered from HMS Erebus are remarkable both for their number -- said to be in the hundreds -- and for the light that those so far publicly identified cast upon the lives of those aboard Franklin's flagship.

It's a slow and patient process, as divers have to ensure that they disturb the context of the objects they recover as little as possible, knowing full well that this means that there will always be items that must wait until the next dive season. The Underwater Archaeology Team (UAT) has been moving slowly through the accessible spaces of Erebus, continuing their work on the captain's steward's storage area just forward of Franklin's Great Cabin, and looking into one of the officer's rooms -- likely that of lieutenant H.T.D. Le Vesconte. At the same time, with an eye to learning more about the onboard lives of regular sailors, a seaman's chest in the fo'c'sle -- forward of the wardroom but astern of the sick bay -- was investigated. The finds in each of these areas have already transformed our understanding of the lives of Franklin's men, even as we must be cautious -- since such a small portion of all the artifacts on board has yet been recovered -- of the ways in which finds yet to be found may re-shape the story.

Beginning with the captain's steward -- Edmund Hoar -- new items have been found in what was likely a storage area of which he was in charge. Notable among these is a bottle, embossed with the "broad arrow" signifying government property, as well as a letter "K." Dubbed the "K bottle" (after a compressed-air bottle in quite common use among divers), it may contain some sort of medicine; similar bottles with different letters have been recovered from marine sites elsewhere in Canada. The location seems to have been well-contained, which suggests that perhaps Hoar, or the Captain he served, had some need of it. Further along the companionway, a room believed to be likely that of H.D.T. Le Vesconte disclosed an unexpected find: the reel of a fishing rod (found with other parts of a fishing kit), which quite alters one's imagined view of Le Vesconte or any Franklin officer if the room were theirs. Once, we knew them only in their dress uniforms; now we must imagine at least one of them with rod and reel, which conjures up quite a different image.

But it's the seaman's chest in the fo'c'sle that piques the imagination most -- among the objects within appear to have been some pistols, one of which has been recovered to the surface and will be undergoing conservation. Why would side-arms have been kept in such a chest? Were they stored there under lock and key in case of need, or perhaps cached for safety when the ship was deserted? It's worth noting that the Royal Marines would have shared this area with the regular sailors, and yet such pistols were not necessarily standard equipment (though Nelson's navy had its sea-service pistols). One thinks also of the long rifles hanging from the beam in Terror's great cabin -- was the attitude toward firearms more relaxed while on Arctic service? More context is certainly needed to answer such questions; it may perhaps emerge in future dive seasons, when the chest is further excavated.

It's the suggestive and enigmatic quality of these objects that makes them so special. My personal favorite is a stoneware bowl, also found in the chest; unlike the fancy flo-blue and transferware from the officers' mess, the regular sailors would surely have made do with humbler vessels, and this is one. It's a reminder that, both in written records and in artifacts, the daily life of most of the men aboard Franklin's ships has only just now begun to be accounted for.