Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Billiard Room

The cupboards in the billiard room
There is on the island a room called the billiard room. This came as some surprise when I first came out here but the name comes from the fact that is is a room in the engine house where there is still the base of a full size billiard table, presumably an off duty entertainment for the lighthouse keepers. The table now is just the legs and stone base and is so big and heavy it is unlikely to be moved in the near future. This room is now used mainly for storage and Paula, our new volunteer for the season (more of her in later posts) and I were clearing out the cupboards in the room to give our building contractors more storage room. And hidden in the cupboards we found a small glimpse back in time with the lighthouse keepers.
Firstly the cupboards themselves looked perfectly normal wooden cupboards from the outside but inside their origins can be seen. Stamped on the dividing walls and door on one cupboards were stencils that showed that they were originally food packaging that had been turned into cupboards by the enterprizing keepers. "Symingtons essence of coffee and chicory" was on one. Symingtons was a Victorian food company still going now and set up by the innovative Thomas Symington who was the first person to develop a form of instant coffee where you just added hot water. They had an Edinburgh coffee works in the early 1900's. Another was made from "Fitzroy Brand compressed corned beef" box, corned beef from Australia which was a common product used on Antarctic expeditions and during the first World War.  The inside of one of the other cupboards had been used by a keeper as a notebook when no paper was to hand . "Gulam (?) got paint scrappers on 15th Aug" said one bit and something about the "south horn" said another.  
Thought it was a long time since the cupboards had actually been used there were still some bits and pieces in them that date back over the years, such as pieces of electric equipment, hessian sacks of nails and bolts, hawsers and sisal rope and other pieces that we had no idea what they were for. In amongst these was a cutlery fork with N.L stamped on the handle, Northern Lighthouse probably? And perhaps most interesting a box contained a wad of old newspaper all screwed up.  One of these was found to be part of the Sunday Post from 18 July 1971, over 40 years old and brought onto the island when it was still manned by keepers and their families. Even better, another piece when delicately unscrewed was from the Evening Dispatch, an Edinburgh paper and this was dated Saturday 27 January 1934. Reading the snippets of articles from these scrunched up bits we found that at an attempt was to be make the first aeroplane flight from Rome to Buenos Aires by Italian airmen, Aladdin was on at the Theatre Royal, birth and marriage rates were rising and infant mortality rates falling,  and the Student Representative Councils of the Scottish Universities were proposing more organised groups to take part in the new activity of "hiking" that included German tradition of singing while they walked. We were straight back to world of nearly 80 years ago.
The engine room has always been one of the most atmospheric buildings on the island with its big old engines and machinery still in situ but cleaning out these cupboards made us feel the link to the lighthouse keepers that little bit stronger.

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