The story of search for and rediscovery of Captain William McDonald’s sword has been detailed in the preceding articles. But perhaps an equally interesting part is how the sword managed to get all the way from Tasmania where Captain McDonald had it until his death in 1846, and into the National Maritime Museum at Falmouth, where it was rediscovered in 2007.
It really is a fascinating story involving a little intrigue flavoured with let’s say a little touch of deviousness.
We relate the story using a set of fictional names in place of some of the real ones, but our private records use the real names, and in perhaps a couple of generations from now the published story will use the real ones. Certainly they are now known beyond any doubt.
Initial Sword History – the story of the origins of the sword and the search for it are recounted in preceding articles on this webpage. But, in a nutshell – Captain McDonald as Master of the ship Duke of Marlborough, together with the ship’s captain (Captain Bull) were each presented with gold handled ceremonial naval swords by passengers on The Duke.
These presentations were made in gratitude for services rendered during the night long sea battle in the Bay of Biscay in 1814, fought against what they discovered to their horror next morning was another British ship, the 18 gun brig-sloop, HMS Primrose of the Royal Navy.
Captain McDonald brought the sword with him to Van Diemens Land when he arrived as Captain and owner of the sailing ship Britomart in 1833. On board with him was his supposed wife Agnes Smith and her baby daughter Agnes Eliza McDonald Smith. The family later settled permanently in Hobart, Captain McDonald having retired from his seafaring life.
The Harcourt Inheritance – Captain McDonald died in 1846 leaving his much prized sword to his “wife” Agnes. On her death in 1864 she left it to her daughter Agnes Eliza McDonald Smith who in turn left it (in 1894) to her son William McDonald Wilson. This William in his Will of 1942 explicitly left it to his grandson William Keith Harcourt: it was held for him by his mother (Agnes Eliza Wilson – known as Agie) at her home in Frankston
Agie remarried after her first husband’s death to Robert Louis Stevenson Baden-Powell Smith (let’s call him RS – he was actually known as Thomas) and he took possession of the sword, refusing following Agie’s death in 1951 to give it up to the rightful inheritor William Keith Harcourt when young William went to the home and demanded it be handed over.
Shortly after this event, our good friend RS disappeared from the scene and repeated searches to find him, both by the Harcourt family, and over many years after by various family history researchers, were unsuccessful.
Rediscovery – However the stars came together in a remarkable way via two initially unrelated events – the first in September 2005, the second in June 2007.
As it happened, our research into RS had earlier in 2005 succeeded in tracing his Smith family, and in discovering that he had married again shortly after Agie’s death, furthermore that he and his new wife had lived and subsequently passed on in Wangaratta, Victoria, and were buried there. Our researchers were successful in fully detailing RS’s Smith family – parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and so on.
Then in September 2005 a lady – let’s call her “Joan” – contacted our researcher via an international genealogy website on which we had made reference to our missing friend RS. We quickly established that she was of the same Smith family and that our RS was one and the same as hers. Indeed she was one of his grand nieces on the Smith side.
“Joan” was provided by us with all the charts both on the Smiths, and on the Wilsons as connected with her Smiths – she had from her own research a little of the Smith information but not all of it, but very little of the Wilsons.
A little later on, after exchange of several further introductory emails designed to prepare the way for what we expected might be a sensitive matter, the vital question was posed to her – had she heard of the gold handled sword and the story attached to it. The connection between it and RS was not mentioned.
From the moment that question was posed no further response was received and despite several further emails sent to her, she gave no further response for the next twelve months or so – in effect “Joan” ‘went to ground’.
It was assumed she simply refused to discuss the matter further, leaving us to conclude that the reason for such an apparent level of sensitivity was that there was in that family something of a ‘conscience’ about the matter!
The Plot Thickens – Move forward to June 2007 – ongoing research of antique naval sword repositories in Australia and Britain led to the rediscovery of our sword, in the National Maritime Museum at Cornwall. The fact that the Museum had secured the sword via The Art Fund which had acquired it from auction house Bonhams, was publicly declared on the NMMC website.
What was not declared was where Bonhams in England had got hold of the sword. However one of our researchers had some connections who had some connections, and via a rather roundabout route it was duly discovered (late in 2007) that Bonhams in England had acquired the sword from their associate company in Sydney, who in turn had acquired it from a gentleman who we had in our Smith family records as – surprise, surprise – “Joan’s” brother; and with the firstname, well, let’s call him “Darby”.
This channel also ascertained that “Darby” had been given the sword by a great uncle around 1960 – who as we know was of course none other than our very good friend RS.
Just to further test the waters, early in 2008 our researchers decided to again seek contact with a simple ‘trust you are well’ email to “Joan”, expecting that silence would continue to reign supreme. To our surprise we got a response advising that “Joan” was indeed in good health.
We then ventured further and enquired of “Joan” – ‘did you ever get to enquire of your family connections about that gold handled sword which our family research suggested might have finished up with your great uncle RS’.
The response to this query was – “well I did enquire but no one including myself has ever heard of the sword”!
So, there we have it; the sword is with Joan’s brother for some 50 years and “Joan” has never heard of it – nor has anyone else in the family!! – including her brother from whom Bonhams in Sydney acquired it !!
I guess poor old “Darby” thought it was a butter knife and for 50 years left it in the kitchen drawer, where no one spotted it! Yes, that must be it!!