Farm story 8: The sea chest, the princess and Bruce Springsteen

The sea chest

As proof of the family’s maritime connections, there are two seamen’s chests in the farmhouse. Both chests show signs of age and are more likely to belong to the nineteenth than the twentieth century, which points to their having belonged to an earlier generation. I guess they belonged to Emanuel and Albin. two of Olle’s uncles and both merchant seamen in their youth. Sea chests like ours are common on the island and are practical objects. We used to use the smaller, simpler sea chest to hold old newspapers for lighting the fire, but as we don’t use the brick fireplace anymore (or read actual newspapers come to that) we haven’t touched it for years. The chest is hard to date, but I’d guess from the handmade iron nails which hold the chest together and the thin wrought iron handles on either side, that it is from the last decades of the 1800’s. It measures 75 by 40 cm and is 34 cm high. It has a slightly rounded top - enough to allow any water to run off - but is flat enough to make a practical stool or to place objects on it without their rolling off. Its lock and key have been removed as these were expensive items to be re-used when the original chest fell out of use. It’s painted a very dark green colour, presumably to protect the wood from damp, but on one side the top has been rubbed entirely bare of paint – perhaps that’s where the owner sat most often.

It would have contained a bible, clothes and underclothes, socks and gloves, a pair of shoes, a metal plate and bowl, a mug, cutlery, sewing equipment for repairs, toilet articles, and a few knives and other tools. There was little room on board ship, and these chests also doubled as seats and sometimes dining tables. I’ve seen pictures of chests just like ours where the inside of the lid has been decorated with pictures of ships in full sail or flags painted directly onto the wood. There’s nothing like that on either of our chests although there are pin marks indicating that something’s been there in the past.

One thing the two chests have in common are the narrow, deep nicks in the chest lids. If you sit on the middle and let your right hand drop, they will land on these scars in the wood. They mark the place where the seaman would use a knife to cut himself off a piece of snus from a block of the stuff. Snus is a sort of tobacco for which there isn’t a good English word. It’s often translated as snuff, but if you are picturing a sort of dry powder to be inhaled, the translation has misled you. The European Commission describes Sweden’s snus as both moist smokeless tobacco, and as a moist oral tobacco snuff and it consists of finely ground tobacco, treated with salt solution and sodium carbonate, after which it’s pasteurised and flavours added – flavours which nowadays include mint, liquorice and lingonberry. I can’t say that fruit-flavoured tobacco sounds particularly appetising but perhaps that’s just me.

By the early nineteenth century snus became popular because it was cheaper than dry snuff and chewing tobacco. When the waves of Swedish emigrants reached the US in the latter half of the 19th century they took their snus with them. The result is that Swedish-type snuff is available in most places in the US, while Sweden itself has about one million regular users of the stuff , who get through an average of 160 grams a week. So how do you consume snus? The idea is that you tuck a small piece under your top lip, beneath your nose, and leave it there for the taste of the tobacco and nicotine to fill your mouth. Nowadays users consume it in what look like mini-teabags, but in the past many chests would contain blocks of the stuff and their owners would cut a piece off, using the wooden lid of their trunks as a cutting board.

For years the old chest functioned as a store for newspapers and sticks for the fire, but a while back I decided that it was high time to throw them out. We didn’t need kindling any longer for I’d had thermal heating installed and the brick fireplace that Olle had made in the 1970’s had become obsolete. But as I was excavating the layers of newspapers and magazines I came across one with a photo which grabbed my attention. The picture showed an elegant little lady, obviously not in her first youth, being escorted to her car by no less a person than The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, himself. The picture was in an evening newspaper, Aftonbladet, and was dated 25 June, 1999. I recognised the old lady as Princess Lilian, Duchess of Halland, a British woman then 84 years old. She had been married to Prince Bertil, the present King’s uncle, and had been widowed two years previously.

Lilian’s long life was one of rags to riches. She was born Lilian Craig in 1915 , a miner’s daughter from in the Welsh coalfields. She was raised in poverty in Swansea by a single mother but in her teens, in true rags to riches fashion, she left Wales for London to seek her fortune and there became a model and minor film star. She met Bertil in 1943 in a nightclub. The story is that one night she noticed a strange man staring at her and asked the club owner who he was. On hearing that this was Prince Bertil of Sweden she quipped that, “And I’m the Queen of Sheba.” She wasn’t lacking in confidence and invited him to her twenty-eighth birthday party. He came, and they hit it off immediately. These were the days of the blitz, and one night her house was badly damaged. After trying to find her accommodation and finding all the possible hotels in London full (which sounds like an excuse to me) he invited her to move in with him. She did so - and never left.

Prince Bertil was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and the third son of the Swedish Crown Prince and his English wife, Princess Margaret of Connaught. In 1943, by most accounts Bertil was a bit of a playboy and was working as a naval attaché in the Swedish Embassy in London. Not surprisingly, the Swedish royal family was not happy about his new relationship and the few people who knew about the romance would have assumed that Lilian would go the same way as earlier royal mistresses and disappear from the scene after a year or two. However, the relationship endured, although marriage was out of the question. The reason was that in 1947 the Swedish crown prince, Bertil’s eldest brother and heir to the throne, was killed in a plane accident leaving a nine-month old son as the new heir. This made Bertil third in line to the throne and the unofficial mentor of the little boy, as well as being a vital ink between the young prince and his grandfather, King Gustav VI Adolf. When eventually Prince Carl Gustav grew up, became king, and got married in 1976, Bertil must have breathed a sigh of relief - at last he could retire gracefully from his unofficial role of guardian and marry Lilian. The wedding took place thirty-three years after the couple had met and they were then 61 and 64 respectively. Three days after her marriage Lilian attended her first Nobel prize-giving, sitting on the stage with the rest of the royals and, like the other ladies, glittering with some of the royal family’s fabulous jewels. It seems she took to public life like a duck to water.

And public life included rock stars. She had met Bruce Springsteen at a reception two years before this picture was taken and they had evidently hit it off. On his next visit to Stockholm she must have thought it would be fun to renew the acquaintance and visited him at his hotel. The photo shows him escorting her to her car and he appears to be opening the door for her. Her white hair is beautifully coiffed while his needs a comb. There’s a crowd surrounding them and I can see a policeman’s cap, a pair of hands holding a camera above a faceless figure, a grim older man who could be a body guard and another man in a baseball cap who seems to be addressing her. Bruce is smiling, while at first glance Lilian looks a little put out at the tumult. But if you look more carefully, although her head is slightly bowed her glance is directly into the camera and the mouth in the old face has a slight smile. This is not a woman unused to, or with a dislike of, attention. The headline in the rather yellowed newspaper can be translated as, The King of Rock and the Princess. I bet she loved that.

I’m not a particularly enthusiastic monarchist but I do like the sound of Princess Lilian. She reminds me of my own Welsh mother, feisty and funny and irreverent, and lucky enough to find a man who remained deeply in love with her his whole life. I’m glad the Swedish royal recognised her at last and that she’s remembered with affection as one of their own.

©Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023 For more pictures of the farm on Tjörn go to Instagram account gwyneths_swedish_farm

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