This post is my 100th photo essay since I began this website two years ago. As most projects will do, my original intent has evolved since The First Post, and now that the internet provides so many new ways to integrate multi-media material with text commentary, I feel I've become more a curator of a virtual museum. But since it is my museum, I can bend the rules if I like, and I will mark the occasion of this post with a different kind of non-musical photo story. There is a musician, but not in any of the vintage photographs.
The gentleman at the reins is Charles Reynolds Williams, Esq. with his grandson Charles R. Williams and Cross, his groomsman. The photo was taken near Dolgellau, Wales and dates from around 1896. It was a photograph included in an auction lot of a 1900's scrapbook that I purchased many years ago. It is a very large albumen photo mounted on cardstock with the names written in pencil. It may have been the work of a professional photographer, but there are no other markings.
Charles Reynolds Williams is about 80 here, to judge by his grandson who was born in 1886. Williams made his career as a solicitor in London, and after retirement moved to Plas Dolmelynllyn, an estate he acquired in western Wales in what is now the Coed y Brenin Forest Park.
In this next photo, Williams stands on the steps of "Dolly", showing off the landscaped garden of the main house, which dates from the 17th century. He purchased the grounds of this manor house and also, as I recently discovered, another larger estate nearby, Penmaenuchaf Hall in about 1865.
Though of Welsh decent, Williams was born in India in 1816 and at the age of 6 returned to England with his parents. In the days before the Suez Canal, this was a 5 month long voyage around Africa. On December 31, 1846 he married Margaret Marshall Romer at St. Pancras Church in London and they had three children, Eleanor, Minnie, and Romer.
Their home was No. 48 Gloucester Square, just above Hyde Park, which one can still see today in Google Street View. It was a typical upscale London row house on a garden square, probably with a mews behind. In the 1861 census, the Williams family household included a mother-in-law, a younger cousin, and a butler, footman, lady's maid, cook, housemaid and under-housemaid.
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Charles kept a respectable law partnership at No. 62, Lincoln's Inn Fields, an address appropriate for an upper level lawyer, and seems to have specialized in estate law, that Dickensian subject that was always complicating the lives of various plucky young men and women in the 19th century. He published a book on his career in 1883, called Some Professional Recollections, which Google has deemed worthy of including in its library. It is a light memoir which includes several arcane stories that would no doubt entertain other lawyers familiar with the personages and the legal devices. The best part is the last chapter which he devotes to a tour of India he took with with his brother, a noted Oriental scholar, after retirement in 1878. This time using the new Suez Canal.
He also wrote another book called The Defence of Kahun: a forgotten episode from the first Afghan war: being a narrative compiled from a journal kept during the siege, and from original letters. A book about the British/Afghan conflict of 1840, and one in which we in the 21st century can unfortunately appreciate the irony of this tragic place.
My impression is that Charles was both a skilled writer and a talented raconteur of good stories. And certainly a good attorney to represent one's interests. He died on November 20, 1905, at age 89 and left an estate valued at £85,078 7s. to his son Romer Williams. In today's terms that could be valued at between £6 and £27 million. A different Charles Williams, a vinegar-maker of Cardiff, who died in August 1905 left an estate of only £34 3s. 11d. Romer, who was also a London solicitor, sold Dolmelynllyn in 1907.
If you have read this far, you might ask, how or more particularly why do I know so much about this gentleman of the 19th century? The answer is a story about me and explains why I so enjoy history and especially photographs.
Many years ago, I lived in London in a house very like Mr. Williams' in Paddington, but located below Hyde Park in Earl's Court. But though the household population may have been the same, it had long ago been divided up into cheap bedsit rooms for the assortment of foreigners and young frugal music students like myself. My room had a balcony overlooking a beautiful residential park, and was probably once the breakfast room or study.
One of my favorite free entertainments was a stop at Christie's auction house to check out the latest sales. The South Kensington branch specialized in the middle level of fine art and historic items including furniture, musical instruments, and ephemera - a word I did not know then, but have since used many times to describe the photographs and paper I now collect. What made these auction previews so much fun was the chance to examine and handle antiques that otherwise would be beyond my ability to own or hidden behind glass in a museum.
One day an auction of autographs, stamps, and ephemera attracted my attention, and there I discovered a box containing a Victorian era scrapbook. This large simple binder was filled with countless letters, photographs, sketches, cards, and news clippings all coming from the life of one man - Charles Reynolds Williams. There was no order to the material, but I was fascinated by the quantity of different things and how it described the golden age of Victorian/Edwardian London.
After I left at closing, I could not stop thinking about it. Now I should explain that my knowledge of Britain was largely shaped by the many British television series that I had watched on PBS like Upstairs Downstairs, or The Duchess of Duke Street. This scrapbook was like a talisman to actually touch someone from that period. I could not resist and the next day went back to the auction.
There were hundreds of lots, and fortuitously this one was one of the last as the antique dealers seemed to have reached their limits. I raised my hand a few times and suddenly I was the winning bidder! I could hardly contain my excitement in the rush to take it back to my flat and open up this treasure chest that was now mine.
In hindsight, I'm not sure which cliche applies here, "One man's treasure is another man's trash." or "A fool and his money are soon parted." At the time, I did not care. This was real history unlike anything I had read about in books. Williams put no real organization to this material, there were some annotations but no chronological system. It more resembled my own hodge-podge method for filing letters and receipts.
Now for the twist in my story. The following Monday, my landlady called me to the house payphone, which was unusual as I never received phone calls. It was the sales manager from Christie's. He explained that they wanted to buy the scrapbook back. Regrettably he could offer no reason, but he could offer twice what I had paid for it.
I was dumbfounded, but said I would consider it. What did this mean? How could this jumble of paper now be more valuable? Could there a real treasure hidden inside? I would never know unless I did some research. So I began to make a list. Several lists.
For the next four days I wrote down every person, place, and event that I could find amongst the many letters, autographs, and photos of this scrapbook. Names of barons with long titles and generals with polysyllabic surnames; obscure colonial battles and remote foreign places. And did I mention stamps? I became very familiar with the reference stacks at the Chelsea library.
All of this was far beyond anything I had learned from Masterpiece Theater. Who were these people? Charles conveniently had drawn up his family genealogy which made it easier to decipher some of the many letters, telegrams, and photos. But there were many other names too. Maybe the young Winston Churchill was a client? Was Charles Reynolds Williams on King Edward's private telegram list? Did Charles like to have a pint with Gilbert and/or Sullivan? Williams had obviously met a vast number of people that were important to him and he saved everything.
After an exhaustive search I came to only one conclusion. There was really only one important value in this scrapbook. Family.
I returned the scrapbook to Christie's and doubled my investment. The sales manager did say that the scrapbook would go back to a Williams descendant, but he could not elaborate on how it came to be in the auction.
I stayed in London for another year, but eventually ran out of money and returned to America. But I kept in touch. After securing a position with a small orchestra, I asked a lovely young English woman to marry me, and we made our home in Georgia. But by coincidence, my father-in-law was also a London solicitor, and whose specialty was estate law. I think he and Charles would have made a great pair, as they shared a deep love of close friends and good stories.
On a trip back to London several years later, while looking through a National Trust Guidebook, I was startled to discover that Dolly was still standing! Plas Dolmelynllyn was now a fine private hotel withing a national forest. We had to go see it.
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Alas, I was still a frugal musician, and now with a toddler in tow, so we could not afford to stay at the hotel. But the grounds were open, and I knew the photo I wanted to take. The spire is gone, as is the redwood on the right, lightning perhaps, but the dolphin fountain is still there and so are the fine terraced steps. Here is a side view of the main house, the terrace is below on the left.
In that box, there were a few large photos that were loose, unattached to the scrapbook, and Christie's had never cataloged any of the contents. If they only requested the scrapbook, and didn't actually ask for the photos too, what would you do?
So now Charles Reynolds Williams, Esq. has a place in my virtual museum. His history is not especially remarkable and resembles the lives of many London professional gentlemen. But his collection introduced me to a kind of personal history, rich in the details of people and events, that continues to intrigue my eye, whenever I find a good photograph. What's the real story we see?
A final photo that was on the back of the photo mount of Dolmelynllyn. I think it looks up the river Rhaeadr Dhu which is near Dolly. Someday I hope to find it and take a photo like one this too.
My contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you will find more enthusiasts of vintage photos and their stories.
12/31/11 UPDATE:In a wonder of the internet age that would surely astonish Charles Reynolds Williams, his great great grandson contacted me within hours soon after I posted this story. He has generously provided some photos of Charles and Dolmelynllyn Hall which I add as a fitting postscript to his history.
|Charles Reynolds Williams and family c.1904|
|Plas Dolmelynllyn c.2010|
|Dolmelynllyn Hall detail showing East Indian carved filigree.|
|Upper monument on gravestone of Charles Reynolds and Margaret Marshall Williams|
|Gravestone of Charles Reynolds and Margaret Marshall Williams|