We (and our readers) certainly enjoy solving puzzles - but we must admit that we have so far been well and truly stumped by the task set us by Gordon Chapman of Sutton Coldfield (outlined in his letter which follows). He is searching for the meaning of a word that was seemingly in common useage in the mid nineteenth century, but in 2006 has disappeared from view, and in all the many and varied reference books we have consulted, is not to be found! Can anyone help please?.
"I am working on a Family Tree and like many others who have taken on this kind of task I now have a list of names, some 144 at the moment, plus the dates of their births, marriages and in some cases, deaths.
While researching this mass of history, I came across one work from a book on Local History that has caused me a problem and this letter to you will, I hope, resolve my problem.
In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln approved the selection and appointment of Elihu Burritt as the United States Consul to Birmingham. In June 1865, Burritt took up his appointment, two months after the assassination of President Lincoln. One of the duties of the US Consulates is to report regularly to the US State Department in Washington. Their reports require them to give details of trade between organisations in their Consulate District and the United States. In addition they are expected to report on other facts bearing upon the productive capacities, industrial character and natural resources of communities embraced in their Consulate Districts.
It is understood that Burritt was not altogether happy with the reporting system as laid down by the State Department in Washington. Burritt was a man of action and energy, (on a previous visit to the UK in 1841 he completed a major walk from John OGroats to Lands End), and in gathering information for his reports he travelled widely, mainly on foot.
In 1868 Elihu Burritt had a book published, a kind of Supplementary Report on his first two years as Consul, which gave a picture of his Consul District which the standard report form did not permit. The book, Walks in the Black Country and its Green Borderland ideally would be on the bookshelves of every reader of the Black Country Bugle and in pride of place in the Records Office of the State Department, Washington.
It is not my intention to dissect the publication page by page, but I did say I would like your help in finding the meaning of the word Ackle. If you take your copy of Walks in the Black Country off the shelf and turn up pages 190 and 191, (this is such an attractive book that someone may have borrowed it and failed to return it, so I enclose photocopies of these two pages). These two pages give details of goods exported to the United States in 1865 and 1866.
Most of the items on the lists caused no bother, I am not sure what R.R. Fly Signals are, maybe Rail Road Fly Signals, but it only accounted for a small amount of the money involved. The thing that caught my attention was Ackle and Nickle Goods £5,544 in 1865 and £19,928 in 1866. So once again I ask the question, What is Ackle?"
My first action was to look it up in my dictionary, it wasnt there. I tried the other six dictionaries I have, including Websters American Dictionary, it wasnt there either. I then went to the Reference Library in Sutton Coldfield. They saw this as a challenge to their professional ability; every dictionary in the library, including, eventually, the 13 volumes of the Oxford Dictionary, was examined in great detail, the result, Ackle was not to be found?
I am not into internet, but the Reference Library are, and I understand that Google and Jeeves were consulted, plus a number of other unamed suppliers of information, the result, no Ackle. The Library and Museum in Walsall also gave time to help me trying to track down this word. Four Local History Groups have also delved into the past without success.
The only option open, America. I wrote to the American Embassy, in Grosvenor Square, London. I approached the Americans along the lines that they ordered a thing, a product or perhaps a substance which they called Ackle. We, or as it states at the top of pages 190 and 191, a company or organisation in Birmingham or the vicinity supplied it. They paid for it and we exported it. What, I asked did you use it for and how was it used. I finished my letter by asking for a photograph or drawing of an Ackle, or if Ackle was a substance, a photograph or drawing of something made from Ackle.
After a short delay I received a brief reply. At the request of the Embassy the American Metal Museum, which I believe is in Memphis, Tennessee, was consulted, their opinion Ackle was probably a metal used in die casting, but the word is no longer used. Why did they have to use the term probably? Without that word I would have probably have seen my efforts as an interesting exercise and I would probably have closed the book and forgotten all about it. Probably, according to one of my dictionaries means most likely, in another with appearance of truth; in likelihood; likely. If they had said that Ackle was indubitably a metal used in die casting, problem solved.
So how did Ackle escape all the dictionaries I have consulted? Sorting this out is a job for a cross between Sherlock Holmes and a dedicated wordsmith, I am sure you have these qualities. As a final farewell can I say; - The Ackle is in your court!"
Gordon Chapman, 44 The Greenway, Sutton Coldfield.