Social History Part 2 - A Rolex with a story to tell.
Of myth and reality.
If you have read my write up of putting Boomers bike on the roof at the Paddock you will already have seen how a story can take on a life of its own in 30 years or so. This tale came to my part of the family around 70 years ago, but originates another 30 years before that. It was only after noticing a discrepancy in an old photo that I did a little research and found out that the story as told was not entirely true. This is a great pity, because in my humble opinion, the myth is a far better story than the reality, but read on and make up your own mind.
First lots of background info I’m afraid.
This story comes from my Mum’s side of our family, (which you may remember comes from Co. Sligo), and became real for me through a little gold watch that lay in her jewellery box. I was fascinated by it as a child because the back of the case hinged open to reveal the intricate mechanism ticking as its cogs slowly turned. The makers name (Rolex), meant nothing to me then. It didn’t work particularly well probably because it had not been serviced by a watchmaker in years, so after a minute or so, it always stopped no matter how much it was wound up. At this point, and much to my juvenile shame, I have to admit that I broke it by trying to restart the balance with a childish finger. Of course, being a complete coward, I did not admit to this at the time. More recently, I made amends for this by having the watch restored for my Mum.
She cherished this and all her other stories. So often in our lives objects like this that have so much meaning attached to them lose the tales that are associated with them. I hate to see family heirlooms appearing on auction and sale sites because like all history these stories are a part of us. I understand that it may be necessary to pass heirlooms on, but since the stories that these items carry is of at least an equal value to their material value, what I dislike is the loss of these items real, personal significance. Hopefully this article will ensure that this little Rolex will stay meaningful and be an object of wonder and discussion for years to come.
My maternal grandmother was one of 6 children; Edward, James, John, William and Frances (twins), and lastly Thomas. This story has four main characters; Frances (my grandmother), Thomas, James, and of course my Mum, Rosaleen.
Think back to let’s say 1915 and Ireland was still wholly within the British empire, the home rule debate had been raging for years and all the WW1 “over by Christmas” promises had faded into the reality of a long and bloody struggle.
Both sides of the home rule movement were keen to prove their loyalty to Britain. In the North, the UVF had already illegally brought in 20,000 guns at Larne in 1914 (ironically German ones). As an aside, apparently most of these ended up with the Home Guard in England during WW2. The story of the 10th, 16th, and 36th divisions has been told numerous times; so need not be repeated here. Suffice to say that the mass enrolment in the North of UVF into the 36th, led to an equally great campaign by home rule supporters. Redmond’s volunteers got two recruits from my family, Thomas and James.
They were a close family and kept up a good correspondence. James and Frances seem to have been particularly close, (or perhaps they were just the most prolific letter writers?). James was also in love, and before going off to war, he and his fiancé got engaged; the marriage to be postponed until the end of hostilities. As a token of his love and commitment, James gave his fiancé an engagement ring and a small gold wristwatch with a personal message engraved on the back.
Now we all know that things changed somewhat in Ireland during the course of WW1 (the understatement of the year perhaps?). 1916 ‘happened’, and the simmering contradictions that have been in the whole island for centuries bubbled up through rebellion, the war or independence, treaties, civil war, border polls and all the rest of the stuff that we are still really dealing with today. Somewhere early in that maelstrom, the WW1 soldiers were demobbed. Many, I believe, decided for their own safety not to return to Ireland at all. Thomas and James however did go back to Sligo, but found that outside their family things had changed to such a degree that they were no longer welcome in their own communities. James in particular must have been heartbroken when his fiancé refused to take up their relationship where they had left off, and returned both the engagement ring and the watch to him.
Sligo doesn’t seem to have been particularly heavily involved in the war of independence, but the civil war that followed was another matter. In Sligo there was heavy fighting. This must have been the last straw for Thomas and James, for at this point they gave up on Ireland and emigrated to New Zealand. They settled around Wellington, opening a market garden and prospered as a result. Frances and her brother James continued to exchange letters, and when my mother was small she started adding little childish notes to her uncle. These notes must have been welcome, for they initiated another correspondence between James and my mother. Even in the 60’s when I was small we still received a Christmas card from him each year.
New Zealand too must have been changing rapidly after WW1. Apparently land was leased to those willing to clear it. The timber was then sold to the rapidly growing city, and the leaseholder also got to work the land for a period before passing it on for building as the city encroached. Then you moved on and started again with a different tract of land. The brothers farming experience would not have been out of place. During the restrictions of the later WW2, seed sent from the brothers’ market garden kept the family farm in Sligo growing a wider variety of crops.
I was told that the engagement ring now lies somewhere at the bottom of the Red Sea, having been thrown overboard at the start of the brothers new life when their ship had made its way through the Suez Canal. The watch however stayed with James as a reminder of what he had left behind. He never married.
After WW2, James made a return visit to Ireland. He must have planned ahead and been willing to let the past go, for on arrival, he presented the Rolex to my mother as a thank you for her letters. The inscription on the back had been polished off and the case back as a result is very thin and easy to bend. It has been through a lot, and is still touching so many lives. It is a little living history in my family. I hope my niece who now owns it enjoys and treasures it, and that she gets to add a little of her own story to it. Wear it with pride Tracey.
Years ago I had done a little research on the watch. But this was pre internet, and although the foundation date for the Rolex Company (1905) fits the story, the hallmarks in the case proved elusive. My first hint (and it was a big one!), that the details of the story were wrong came only a few years ago when my aunt Edith in Sligo sent us some old family photos to copy. When looking through these with Mum we came across the picture below of Mum’s christening (1929). She was then still able to name all the people in the photo, and guess who makes an appearance in the row of people standing behind the baby? Both James and Thomas are there rather than New Zealand! Mum failed to make the connection between this and the Rolex myth.
This prompted me to go back to the hallmarks, and the internet provided the answer that I had failed to find all those years ago. The watch dates from 1929, and has Glasgow hallmarks. My best guess for the ending of James’s romance then simply falls on his fiancé’s unwillingness to emigrate with them. Their date of emigration can’t have been long after the christening photo was taken, and was perhaps due to the onset of the great depression? We will never know now, but I still think the myth is far better.
The watch itself was well used over the years. It should be fitted with the gold strap that is in a picture hereabout. As you can see the strap, which should expand because of two minute springs in each link, has lots of broken/missing springs. Because of this, Mum got it changed for a leather strap many years ago. I hadn’t realised that the strap was even still in existence when I had the little Rolex restored, so perhaps now there is still hope of the two coming together again.