Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Tolkien’s uncle Wilfred

Every so often, I go poking around in old archives — often out of little more than boredom — for anything to do with Tolkien that might have been digitized since the last time I took such a fit. And once in a while I find something I hadn’t seen before, or at least that I don’t remember having come across.

Here’s a little notice regarding the dissolution of a business partnership between Joshua George Terry Lee and Wilfred Henry Tolkien. [1]

And here’s something even more ephemeral, some golf scores from a couple of tournaments in 1899. [2]

Wilfred was Tolkien’s uncle, his father’s younger brother, born in April 1870 in Handsworth, Staffordshire, and who died on 8 August 1938 in Essex. At age 1, Wilfred shows up in a census record living in Moseley Road Heathfield, King’s Norton, Worcestershire, and my guess is he lived there for quite some time, as the golf scores above are also in King’s Norton, nigh on 30 years later. In 1910, Wilfred married Katherine Madeleine Green (1870–1955) in Aston, Warwickshire. It looks like they had a child, Wilfred March Tolkien, who died in infancy (or childbirth) that same year. Evidently, Wilfred was a stockbroker by profession [3]. The notice from the The London Gazette was published when Tolkien was 5 years old and about a year after Tolkien’s father, Arthur, had died of rheumatic fever. Wilfred himself passed away the year after The Hobbit was published and is buried in Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham. His name appears on the family tombstone, at whose head is his father, John Benjamin Tolkien (Ronald’s grandfather). [4]

I don’t know much else about Wilfred, I’m afraid. At least, no one I know has dug up very much, not even Ryszard Derdziński, unless I’ve missed something.* He’s not even named in the Tolkien and Suffield family trees in The Tolkien Family Album, where he’s just part of “4 [other] sons” under John Benjamin Tolkien. Nor is he in Carpenter’s biography, where he is likewise part of “3 daughters and 4 [other] sons” [5]. The one tangible thing I know is that, like Tolkien and his father, Wilfred attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham [6].

*I had hoped that mentioning Ryszard, whom has done more genealogical research into the Tolkien family than anyone else I know, might lead to something, and I wasn't disappointed. Ryszard sent me an email to point out these late letters and a photo of Wilfred. He’s the second from the left seen here. Thank you, Ryszard!

Does anyone know anything else? I’ve had a quick look through most of the usual reference works and there’s little more to be found. To learn anything else would take more digging. Was Tolkien even in touch with his uncle during the last decades of Wilfred’s life? There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of it.

Another passing thought: could the name of Tolkien’s uncle have influenced the choice of Wilfrid (note the different spelling) in the character Wilfrid Trewyn Jeremy in The Notion Club Papers? It doesn’t seem all that likley, but ... maybe?

One final note. This is the first new post on this long dormant blog in some years. Is anyone still reading? Who will discover it? We wonders, yesss, we wondersss. :)

[1] The London Gazette, Vol. 1, No. 9, 1 June 1987, p. 3091.

[2] Golf Illustrated, 11 August 1899, pp. 260–1.

[3] According to a family tree in the Wikipedia topic on “Tolkien family” [link]. No source for these dates is given. Update: I found some additional details here, maintained by a member of the Tolkien family, and here.

[4] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/41880606/john-benjamin-tolkien.

[5] Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 1977, p. [263].

[6] See Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, Rev. and exp. ed., p. 601. This is the only mention of Wilfred in the Companion and Guide, and it’s a tidbit new to the revised and expanded edition.