Pearls in the Strong Room

Everyone is familiar with the sight of poppy sellers in the run-up to Armistice Day, but did you know that there was another campaign of remembrance before that? Library Digital Assistant Becky takes us hunting for Pearls in the strong room.

Rachel Tretheway’s moving book, Pearls Before Poppies (361.76) relates the story of an appeal launched in 1918 in which the women of Britain were asked to donate one pearl from a piece of jewellery that they owned to make a necklace that would ultimately be raffled off to raise funds for the British Red Cross.  The campaign gained momentum and transformed itself into over 4,000 acts of remembrance as pearls poured in from across the world, often accompanied by a memorial to a loved one it commemorated.  It’s a fascinating book and really moving, but there are two things that prompted me to share it today.

The first is that on page 96, the writer details a contribution made by a Leeds woman – in fact, an Otley woman.  Otley Museum were able to add a little more to the information in the book.  Ada Bey, before she remarried, was the widow of William Henry Dawson; a family famous not just in Otley but around the world for their contribution to the development of printing machines.  William died of pneumonia in 1905, leaving Ada as director with the support of her second husband Henry.  Jewellery appears to have been a bit of a theme in Ada’s life as there is an article in the Yorkshire Post from November 1908 about her having her jewellery box stolen on the train.  She was lucky in that the war doesn’t seem to have touched her personally, but she donated a pearl ‘for the fallen men of Otley’.  Details of these men can be found here, on a website created by Otley Museum which maps their names and addresses.

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The second reason for sharing is that starting on page 172, the book tells the story of the contribution of Israel Gollancz, an academic who ‘gave’ his translation of a 14th century poem.  Pearl is an allegorical poem by a grieving father about his lost daughter.  650 copies were printed and specially bound in vellum.  They were sold at £3 3s each.  The YEP for Monday 1st July has an advert for a 2 bed furnished house in Headingly for 25s per week.

Looking at today’s house prices, it would cost you between £315 and £358 per week now – but I don’t think you’d definitely get a piano.  I reckon that makes the equivalent purchase price of this title around £900.

Guess what we have in the strong room?

We don’t know which of the 650 our copy is as the information has not been recorded.  It is beautifully printed in an ornate typeface.  We seem to have had it since 1921 and it has racked up 50 ‘issues’ although it has always a been a reference title.  It’s a lovely poem to read. 

After an exhibition in June 1918, the pearls were made into 41 necklaces, as well as other items of jewellery.  One of the notable things about the campaign was that once strung, the pearls became anonymous and untraceable, each donation being viewed as important as the next.  Their original goal of an egalitarian raffle in which anyone could end up owning a necklace was thwarted as raffles were classed as an illegal gambling activity at the time.  The jewels were instead auctioned, raising almost £85,000.  An incredible sum, given that according to Rachel Tretheway, ‘a gardener working for one of the women who donated to the appeal would be paid about £24 a year in 1918.’(p237).  To return to our 2 bed house in Headingley, you could rent it for 1362 years.

Rachel Tretheway attempted to track down the necklaces, but only managed to find one, which was still in its presentation box.  It would be nice to think that Ada’s pearl for the fallen men of Otley was on it.

If you would like to reserve Pearls before Poppies by Rachel Tretheway, you can access our online catalogue here:


If you would like to view our 1921 copy of Pearl, (SR 094.4 PEA) please contact the Local Studies Department 24 hours in advance to arrange an appointment. You will be asked to show ID before accessing special collection material.

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