‘A great object’: famine relief through excavations in Cyprus?

As mentioned earlier, the Visitors’ Guide to the 1875 Yorkshire Exhibition states that, while Vice-Consul in Cyprus, T.B. Sandwith relieved the hardship of local inhabitants by paying for the products of their excavations.

“A famine had taken place in the island at that time, and Mr Sandwith, knowing that there were ancient graves in various parts of the island, set the people to excavate them… The sale of many of these articles relieved the starving people” (p.10).

On the face of it, this seems rather unlikely. However, I’ve come across further sources that add weight to the idea that Sandwith’s excavations were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to help local Cypriots. As noted in a previous post, the Cypriot oenochoe bought by Mr Joseph Hall came with the following provenance:

“The digging has been under the charge of Mr Sandwith our Vice Consul, brother to the late Dr Sandwith of Kars celebrity, and the pottery sent to England to be sold for the relief of the inhabitants, who were suffering from famine.”
(Letter to Mr Joseph Hall, © Leeds Museums and Galleries)

Perhaps this is no more than a repetition of the story circulating at the Yorkshire Exhibition. More weight can be given to information provided by Mr John Holmes (1815-1894), a notable Leeds collector who was acquainted with the Sandwith family. He provided a brief biographical note of Dr Humphrey Sandwith, T.B. Sandwith’s brother, for the 1889 volume of Old Yorkshire, a multi-volume compendiary of notable Yorkshire places, events and people. In this he says:

“I made his [i.e. Humphrey Sandwith’s] personal acquaintance in 1873-4. It begun [sic] in the old pots, sent from Cyprus by his brother, T.B. Sandwith (then Consul), for sale, to relieve the Cyprians, who were dying of famine from a three years’ drought and locusts. I purchased from a shop window in Sheffield certain of the very curious pottery, of at least over 2,000 years old, became acquainted with and was visited by the Rev. Henry Sandwith, of Todwick, and was induced to visit Humphrey at the Old Manor House at Wimbledon, 1874 – presumably because I had, in 1871, sold so many vases, etc., at such prices as, among others, to enable the Consul to do much good, as I realized myself in Larnaca, 1873.” (Old Yorkshire series II volume 1 (1889), ed. W. Smith)

This account gives a tantalizing glimpse of the dispersal of the Sandwith collection in Yorkshire in the 1870s. What was the shop in Sheffield, and who else bought the Cypriot artefacts? Eight Cypriot pieces in the Leeds City Museum are from John Holmes’ collection, and it is at least possible that some of these were originally shipped to England by Sandwith.

There is further testimony from even closer to home. The Leeds City Museum archive includes a couple of hand-written letters from the Reverend Henry Sandwith, the third of the Sandwith brothers, who seems to have been involved in the sale of his brother’s collection. Dated only ‘Sep 10’, one letter to an unknown recipient begins as follows:

“Will you kindly let me know how many pieces of pottery remain unsold and the prices of each. I will then consult with Mr Holmes whether any reduction in the prices of them should be made. Personally I should feel strongly disposed to favour a considerable reduction if the purpose be as you suspect; but I have a great object in view; the relief of famine which must also guide my decision.”

Again, this raises intriguing questions about the ‘purpose’ alluded to; but it also confirms a relationship between Henry Sandwith and John Holmes, and explicitly links the sale of the Sandwith ceramics with famine relief.

The hardship caused by locusts and resultant famine in Cyprus in the later 19th century is not in doubt. The evidence above strongly suggests that T.B. Sandwith took steps to ensure that local Cypriots benefited from the appetite for antiquities in the West, and that at least some of the profits from sales of pottery went to those who excavated them.

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