The Mystery of John Unwin's Diary

Two weeks ago I travelled to Saltaire with my uncle to hand over a number of items of historical interest from my grandfather’s papers to the Saltaire Archive.

The most significant item in the collection was a personal diary for the year 1897 which carried an inscription on the flyleaf of “John Unwin, Fanny Street, Saltaire”.

In itself the diary is a fascinating piece of social history and that is certainly the main reason for including it in the archive for the benefit of future generations. The diary is of interest to my family for a second reason however, which is the mysterious way in which it came to be in the possession of my grandfather.

The cover of the diary.

The story is that in the 1930s my great-grandfather, David Unwin, was the general foreman on a building site in Cricklewood when one of the workers on the site came to him with the diary and asked, given that as foreman my great-grandfather would simply have been “Mr Unwin” and that the diary belonged to John Unwn, if the diary was his.

Obviously David Unwin knew that the diary was not his, but equally he knew that his father and his older siblings had been born in Shipley and that he had many relatives in the Saltaire area, and he therefore assumed that the diary must belong to a relative of his.

Despite a number of attempts by members of the family over the last eighty years to figure out who John Unwin was and how, or if, he was related to our family no real progress was made until I started on some genealogical investigations a few years ago in an effort to draw up a family tree.

Looking at the tree I had assembled there was one obvious candidate for a John Unwin who would have been a suitable age in 1897 and reading the diary confirmed beyond any doubt that he was in fact the author – among other things the diary records the departure of his brother Robert on his way to a new life in Bridgeport, Connecticut; an event that I had already discovered evidence of during my research.

Diary entry for 1st October recording departure of Robert Unwin (RU) for the USA. Shipping records show that he sailed from Liverpool the next day.

The result of my research was therefore to discover that the author was in fact the first cousin of my great-grandfather, and my first cousin three times removed. Quite how the diary came to travel from Shipley in West Yorkshire to Cricklewood in North London between 1897 and 1930 remains a mystery, especially given the excellent condition in which it survived despite being found on a building site!

The diary is now, as I indicated at the start, in the Saltaire Archive, along with my scans of the diary and my uncle’s transcription, having been handed over to representatives of the Saltaire History Club and members of the Salt family (the great-grandson of Sir Titus Salt, Denys Salt, and his nephew, Jonathan) during this year’s Saltaire Festival.

Tom Hughes

Tom Hughes
Software Engineer, Developer and system administrator for OpenStreetMap

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