My house is full of past lives. My family have lived on the farm where I grew up for just over 100 years, consequently as a child I was surrounded by other people’s possessions; their books, furniture and knick-knacks. One generation after another has added to the chattels of the house. The mirror that I use to brush my hair every morning once reflected back the image of my grandmother and my great-grandmother. The chair that I am sitting on while I type this was made by my mother’s father’s father while he was working as a carpenter in New York.
For me, objects have a life that is inexplicably linked to the people that owned and loved them. The life of an object is shaped by the life of its owner. The patina of shared experiences perhaps. So when I was asked to write the story of an object for 15th anniversary of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall I was intrigued and excited.
Choosing my item proved a little problematic at first. I am a frequent visitor of museums. I am very used to falling in love with an unattainable object behind a finger-smudged pane of glass and walking around the NMMC there were so many to choose from. But at first none of them were saying that they had more of a story to tell me than the one on their information label.
I looked at opaque green glass floats and wondered if I could make a story out of the conflict between their rather practical purpose and their intrinsic fragility. Then there was the scrimshaw. The smooth white curves of whales’ teeth and walrus tusks tugged my mind’s eye towards far off shores. I wanted to tell tales of drunkard sailors carving hearts and anchors for their long-lost sweethearts. But somehow none of these objects was really coming to life for me.
On my third hunting expedition to the museum I finally found what I was looking for. It was at first glance small and insignificant. An object lost amongst many other bigger and showier companions. A quiet, patient object just waiting to be listened to. I read the description, a Napoleonic Prisoner of War Pass. All at once I found I was full of questions about its life. Who had owned it? Who had it made? Why was it made? How did it come to be here in Falmouth? And I knew that that was the story I needed to tell.
My research revealed that the black rectangle of folded leather was made 200 years ago in Verdun, France and arrived in Cornwall with a young man called John Parsons.
John Parsons was born in Portsmouth in 1791, into a family of sailors. At just eleven years old he joined the navy and left his home for an adventurous life at sea. Eventually he would rise to the rank of captain on the famous Packet Ships and become known as ‘Old John Steadfast’ and sometimes ‘Honest Jack’ because of his steady character. Life at sea was wild and at times bloody, John was just 14 when he fought at Trafalgar and saw his uncle torn into two by a cannon ball. At seventeen his steadfastness saw him promoted to Master’s Mate, responsible for the anchoring of the ship. But at eighteen he became a prisoner of war.
John was captured while ashore on the coast of France distributing ‘seditious papers’ but luckily his enemy Napoleon believed that prisoners of war should be treated fairly. After a long trek east from the channel, he found himself in the small town of Verdun and was more a guest than a prisoner. There are tales of wine, women and gambling for the men and John was allowed to move freely within the high walls of the town, as long as he swore an oath not to run away and had his identification pass about his person.
The pass, now in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth, seems as fresh as it must have in 1810 when it was made and given to John. Its edges are embossed with a bright pattern in gold leaf and inside there is a description of him, prisoner No 922. Taille: 1.73. Cheveux: Blonde. Yeux: Bleue. Menton: Rond. Visage: Oval. Bouche: Moyne.
But John wasn’t happy to be a prisoner, no matter how comfortable his life was and so on Christmas Day 1813 he concealed himself in a cart full of crockery and escaped. In his pocket he kept the leather pass. By luck and the kindness of strangers John travelled the 240 miles through France, Belgium and finally the Netherlands. He arrived on the Dutch island of Zuid Beveland in the spring of 1814 and then sailed home to England.
As the years passed John Parsons’ life at sea continued, he sailed on The Venerable, the Flying Fish, the Crescent, the Alligator and the North Star. Through every adventure he kept his pass from Verdun.
When John Parsons eventually retired from the Royal Navy in 1854 after 52 years of service and he came to live in Falmouth, and spent the rest of his life in a house on Woodlane with his wife Ann. One hundred years after his escape from Verdun his great nephew told his story to a local newspaper (where I got much of this information). Another century has passed since then but the pass still transports us to another place and another time. This story is held within the folds of a small piece of leather, as small and as indestructible as a charm, behind the glass of a cabinet inside a museum.
I think that it is worth remembering that every object, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has its own story – if we take the time to listen.
The National Maritime Museum Cornwall have just realised their annual journal Fathom, for which I contributed a creative piece about the pass, and you can also read 14 other writer responses to objects in the museum. It is a beautiful publication packed with thoughtful articles and wonderful illustrations by local artists and students.
For more on the museum try: Titanic Stories – At Falmouth’s National Maritime Museum
For more stories of the sea try: Newlyn: The Last Port for the Mayflower