Rolling The Jack
I only knew my great-grandfather for a vanishingly brief amount of time.
Robert Aitken Masterton was his name, and for much of the early part of my childhood, he was all but invisible to us, living away in Belfast with his second wife. My younger sister and I only really became aware of him following the tragically premature death of his son, my paternal grandfather. He suddenly became a Grandad substitute, a new kindly old man in our lives, one who we once visited at his home in Northern Ireland (where he’d lived since the end of the Second World War) and who then became a frequent house guest of ours for the last couple of years of his life.
He passed away, well into his 80s, in the summer of 1983. I accompanied my father to the house near Edinburgh where he spent the final part of his life and kept him and his uncle company whilst they went over his personal effects. I’ve no direct memory of it, but I can only presume it was on that trip where I came into possession of an extraordinary collection of artefacts by which he is forever defined in my memory.
Tin Can Alley
They’ve lived for years inside this tin, itself steeped in history. From what I can gather from some rudimentary research, Politis Creme de Menthe Turkish Delight was sold in these green tins during the 1950s and 1960s. Even they are seen as collectables and intact examples such as this regularly trade on eBay for a few pounds each time. Even this is a container all of its own and surely a concept lost to later generations. These days if you have stuff you want to store, you go buy a plastic container from Robert Dyas. If you were a child in the 1970s and your parents didn’t have things kept for safekeeping inside repurposed sweet or tobacco tins, were you even there at all?
So what is inside, I hear you ask. Take a look:
Inside the tin are badges. 92 different multicoloured enamel badges, mostly representing crown green bowling clubs across Northern Ireland and Scotland. It was, and indeed for those clubs which still survive still is, a tradition to have lapel badges made of your club crest for sale to members and visitors. For many players, it became a tradition to collect one from each club you visited through league or cup competition as if to assemble a drawer or even a display cabinet full of playing memories. Quite how my Grandfather came to possess these is something of a puzzle. My father has no memory of him being a bowler and there was nothing in his personal effects to suggest he ever had been. He was however employed as a groundsman, and it is more than possible he was responsible for the upkeep of bowling greens. An avid collector of trinkets, it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that he took the opportunity to acquire a collection of badges from visiting teams. Maybe in the hope one day they would be of some value.
Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
Some have a simple design, such as this Scottish one from Dundee. Although the gold thistle alone makes it quite the work of art as it is.
Others are more ornate, the Coleraine Bowling Club in Ulster (suffering from flash glare sadly) featuring a more colourful crest.
Here’s the crest of the Windsor Bowling Club in Belfast.
The location here is important, as there are a number of “Windsor Bowling Clubs” across both the British Isles and across the world, as a quick google search reveals. Interestingly all have the stag and shield logo in common, although the castle motif seems unique to this Belfast-based badge.
My Grandfather’s collection also contains some genuine curiosities too. Mementoes of what were clearly two visiting tours from teams predating sporting and cultural boycotts.
This pair of badges turned out to be quite useful in helping to date the collection. Whilst there’s the cliche that lawn bowls is only played by elderly people (leading to the awkward statistic of it being one of the most dangerous sports in existence due to its high proportion of in-game fatalities), dating these badges to the 1950s puts my Grandfather in his late 40s or at worst early 50s when he was collecting these. That’s also in keeping with the vintage of the tin in which they are kept.
Whilst sorting through them for this piece, I did stumble across one curiosity:
A bowling club clearly formed back in wartime and centred around those men (and women) forming part of the civil defence. There are precious few clues online however as to who V Group were and precisely where they were based. No team of this name appears to still exist. Unless anyone reading this knows otherwise.
Such collections are far from uncommon and sets are regularly traded by collectors on eBay. The badges themselves aren’t particularly rare, alhough they have some value for collectors and individual ones will often fetch a couple of pounds each on the traders market. I’m no trader or collector, but somehow it seems important to me that I have these and have hung onto them for 35 years. My link to a kindly old man who not only eased for me the transition of dealing with the first death of a close relative but who will always be the oldest living ancestor of mine who I was lucky enough to meet.
Also, there’s one final badge in the tin which isn’t from a bowling club but which has a greater significance than I used to appreciate when examining them as a child.
His old regimental cap badge. To be pinned to the beret and worn above the eye. The inscription reads HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, the old French Maxim losely translated as “shame be to he who evil thinks”. It’s the motto of both the Royal Order of the Garter but also over the years that of various service branches of the British Army – in this case, the Royal Army Service Corps to which Robert Aitken Masterton was attached during his time as a soldier. He never saw active service, being too old to fight in WWI and too old by the time of WWII. But he was posted during the latter war to Belfast, which was where he met the lady who would be his second wife and how he came to settle there rather than back in his native Scotland. The badge is battered and careworn, but possibly close to a century after it was first issued to him, it has passed down to me.
Links To The Past
As a child, I’d sometimes spend time browsing through the contents of the tin, never quite appreciating how they had come to be in the possession of my Grandfather or indeed the historic link they represented. In truth, the act of writing this piece is probably the first time I’ve even contemplated their sentimental value. But they are my important link to the past of a kindly old man who appeared to treasure the time he spent with my sister and I in the final years of his life, as much as we were glad to know him.
For Robert Aitken Masterton, Royal Army Service Corps, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and, as it turns out, collector. These are the fruits of his hobby, and ones which mean I can retain a physical link to his memory.