The Howarth Foundation

“How much is this?”, I asked.
“What do you think its worth?”
“You can’t put a price on something like this.”
“My thoughts exactly! So pay what you want.”

I counted the change in my pocket. There wasn’t much there but it’s all I had on me. I handed over every penny and dashed home to explore my find in more detail.

Second Hand shops are magical places, treasure troves, portals in time. Objects in these shops have a story to tell. What I brought home from Hidden Owls in Armley that day was something particularly special. It was a tangible and genuine gateway into the past; the year 1929 to be specific.

My grandma will have been 18 in 1929. I wouldn’t be born for another 34 years. L. Brearley will have been a schoolboy. Who’s L. Brearley? It was his invaluable 1929 Charles Lett’s School-Boy’s Diary that I’d just bought from Hidden Owls.

Bound in leather cloth, with a back loop into which one could store a pencil, the diary had cost 1s. 6d. You could also buy it bound in “Fine Quality Leather with pencil and pockets [and] gilt edges” for 3s. 0d. Both versions of the diary came with a £1000 Accident Insurance policy, and there it was, the actual policy, hanging on to the back page by the tiniest fragment of original gum. The policy was a sheet of fine folded paper. I gingerly opened it up but immediately closed it again, terrified that I might be the straw that finally broke the adhesion.

There was no pencil in the back loop, but I did find the remains of some tear-out “Ford’s Blotting” paper. It was on the page beginning Sunday 20th January (the diary had a-week-to-a-page format). There was a narrow strip of the blotting paper still attached to the spine, with a perforated edge where the paper had been meticulously removed.

The most magical part of the diary was the fact that it had been filled in. I could read L. Brearley’s entries, written in longhand. Most were in pencil, although some small sections of prose were in ink. I suspect L. Brearley had once blotted those words with the missing sheet of Ford’s paper.

Before I got to L. Brearley’s entries there were printed pages devoted to career options, and pages with tables of verbs in several languages. There were more pages, with tables of a scientific and mathematical nature, and an almanac of various sports statistics. There was a list of statistics from various Universities and Schools, and two blank “memoranda” pages with no memos written on them. And then I eventually got to meet L. Brearley, in writing at least, and learn a bit more about him.

As well as his first initial and his surname, I discovered he was a size 4 in boots and a 13 collar and wore a 6 ½ hat. I knew that his birthday was January 24th but had no year from which I could work out his age. I found out that he weighed 6st 0lb in August and was 5’ 0” tall in September. I suppose we’ll never know why he didn’t have his height measured at the same time he was weighed.

The biggest clue to L. Brealey’s identity, however, had to be the fact we had his home address.

BINGO!

The internet can be a wonderful tool sometimes and I was determined to find out more about this rediscovered schoolboy diarist from the past. But first I needed to check out some of those entries. I held the diary in my palms and it fell open at the page where the blotting paper had once been. I read the entry for Sunday 20th of January, 1929.

“Got up late. Stayed in all day. Listened to the wireless. Played at cards. Heard foreign stations. Father poorly”.

I carried on reading.

“Monday 21st January, 1929. Got up early. Went to school. Fine day. Went to The Palladium and saw Marguerite de la Motte and Malcolm McGregor in ‘Her Sister’s Honour’. Fetched the supper. Father poorly” 

I gently went through the diary, read the entries, spotted patterns of behaviour, met members of an extended family (Hello, Auntie Lottie, hi, Harold, whoever you are), started to piece together a rough sketch of L. Brearley. He definitely enjoyed visiting the cinema and listening to the “wireless”. He also played the piano, as did his father, who I’m pleased to say recovered from whatever was ailing him in the entries quoted above.

I showed the diary to a friend, which brought out the private detective in her, and within minutes she had more information for me about L. Brearley. Not least was the fact that his first name was Leslie. The aforementioned “Harold” was one of Leslie’s two brothers. Their mother was called Annie, and she was a widow when she died in 1949 (further research revealed that the “poorly” father must have recovered, because he lived for a few more years before passing away). Annie left her three sons effects valued at £1305 19s. 9d.

We also found out that The Central Cinema in Elland, which Leslie visited frequently according to his diary entries, is still screening films to the public to this day, albeit under a different name, and that an organ has been installed in The Rex (as it is now known) so that patrons can share the same kind of cinematic experience that Leslie enjoyed all those years ago.

The diary is here on my desk as I type and I wonder what is going to take place in the next chapter of its story. It has not only survived all these years but it still looks good for its age. I’m amazed how the insurance policy has clung on for so long.

I’ve asked for the diary to be valued, but how can you put a price on such a treasure. I have ideas about what I might do with it. I could try to trace any surviving family members for a start, but I found this diary in a second hand shop. How long has it been abandoned in a box, forgotten? How did it end up being donated? Why wasn’t it left to a surviving family member? Are there any surviving family members? Did someone donate the diary to charity because they didn’t care about it? So many unanswered questions.

I suspect I might contact The Rex cinema in Elland and ask them if they would like to take care of the diary. Maybe they could have it on display, accompanied by enlarged prints of entries where the cinema has been mentioned. Perhaps they could include posters of the films that Leslie saw there, and headshots of the actors who starred in them.

All I know for sure is that second hand shops are magical places. They’re places where writers can stumble across golden nuggets and lost treasures and take up forgotten stories where they’ve been left off. I paid for the diary with every penny I had on me that day, and yet I bought a priceless artifact. If I do sell this diary I will, of course, be sharing any proceeds made with Hidden Owls.