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Paul Dean

Ormsley's Odd Loss Is Gilroy's Gain

November 29, 1986|Paul Dean

Despite the absence of a starched butler and murder by weed killer, Agatha Christie would have loved this. . . .

A mystery involving the British clergy. Also a village, Lower Ormsley, that apparently has been mislaid or may never have existed.

Presuming no village, what of a village charity, the Mother's Union, that supposedly collected change for the orphans of Lower Ormsley? And whodunit; who spirited the union's collection box from bucolic England to busy America and the Antique Mart in Sherman Oaks?

Where I rescued it for $35.

The box was installed at home. Friends were unable to resist its power of collection and so I wrote of my search to give its small proceeds to the orphans of Lower Ormsley.

Donation should have been easy. After all, the box bore hand-painted initials and purpose: "IOO MU, Orphan Gift Fund." Said a dealer's sticker: "From Mother's Union of Lower Ormsley Village, England."

Yet, in correspondence, Roger Cozens, of the Mother's Union in London, said there was no such place as Lower Ormsley. Not by any British gazetteer or 70 years of Mother's Union handbooks. Our transatlantic saga screeched to a halt on the premise that Lower Ormsley was nothing but an antique dealer's come-on.

Yet. . . .

Cozens overturned one last stone. He contacted the Church Times, a Protestant weekly. Its story begged any information on an apparently disappeared village and its Mother's Union.

Response was fuller than a Whitsun offertory.

"I would respectfully suggest," wrote Mrs. Grace Parker of Gravesend, "that it was not a Mother's Union collection box but a Lodge box of the Independent Order of Oddfellows Manchester Unity . . . (hence) the marking: 'IOO MU.' "

And so it was respectfully suggested by Gareth Davies of Newcastle, Mrs. J. Holmes of Bath, George Eastwood of Blackburn and Michael Davey, who is organist of All Saints' Church at Tooting Graveney.

Then came P. H. Ward of London. He pegged Lower Ormsley as a myth. But not total invention. For, explained Ward, the Manchester Unity's former headquarters was on "Lower Ormond Street." That's in the phonetic neighborhood of "Lower Ormsley" and close enough to confuse an antique dealer 6,000 miles from the original purchase.

"Lower Ormondsly, Schmormsley. Wotsitmatter, Harry? Write 'Lower Ormsley' on the box. The people in L.A. don't know from nothing."

Mystery solved. Except for one loose end.

I'm left with a lodge box that rattles with coins and no orphans.

Yet there was a helpful postscript to that letter from Mrs. Holmes: "The Order (of Oddfellows) was taken to North America in the 1820s and '30s by emigrants."

It turns out the movement has grown a little since then. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (two words in the United States) with headquarters in Winston-Salem is 653,000 members in all states. It provides student grants, assists welfare causes and finances research at Johns Hopkins University.

"Odd Fellows?" said spokesperson Mavis Paull. "That comes from the early days when members would secretly leave gifts on doorsteps of the needy who would then say: 'Now isn't it odd that some fellows would bring us food.' "

Paull loved the old box story. She's a sucker for Odd Fellows lore, Anglo-American relations, the Church of England, transatlantic mysteries, and presumably Agatha Christie.

She's also well up on the work of the IOOF in California. "We have a float in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena every year . . . and we have a children's home in Gilroy."

A children's home?

"Well, an orphanage."

There you go. After a lapse of several years, sale and resale and a change of continents, an old-fashioned box is back in business.

I'll send its little collection to the IOOF Children's Home in Gilroy.

It should be enough to buy the children a Christmas tree.

Maybe they'll see it as a gift from some odd fellow.

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