It was a framed and yellowing newspaper cutting showing the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne which caught Adrian Hoare’s eye.
‘I’d never had her down as much of a royalist,’ he says. ‘It was very puzzling.’
But the young royals were concealing a family treasure which would launch the 18-year-old Adrian on a 50-year odyssey – a voyage of discovery which would take him from Gosport to Portsea and from Nova Scotia to the United States.
It would eventually expose a family link to one of the most infamous events in modern history – the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Adrian, a pupil at the old Southern Grammar School in Portsmouth, whose favourite subject just happened to be history, was helping clear his grandmother’s house in Chasewater Avenue, Copnor, Portsmouth, when she moved into a Cosham nursing home.
He recalls: ‘Hidden behind that old newspaper cutting was a delicate watercolour portrait of a young Victorian boy with a parrot on his arm. On the back was the inscription: ‘‘W Mitchell, Miniature and Portrait Painter, Southsea, July 1849’’.’
That angelic-looking lad posing with the African grey parrot turned out to be a cousin of his grandmother. His name was William Reynolds.
This was the mid-1960s and Adrian, now 68, remembers: ‘About the same time my father gave me a bundle of old family letters, several of which proved to be written by Reynolds from the American Civil War to his mother who lived in King Street, Portsea.’
Suddenly Adrian was able to start building a picture of the extraordinary life of his ancestor.
‘The combination of portrait and letters fuelled a lifetime interest.
‘In the past 50 years I have researched Reynolds’s story to a point which had enabled me to complete a novel based on his short and eventful life.
‘He joined the Royal Navy at 15 and died in the United States from consumption when he was 23, but what he packed into those eight years was much more than most of us achieve in a lifetime,’ says Adrian, who worked in Portsmouth City Council’s planning department until 1969.
The title of Adrian’s book A Shilling on Good Friday comes from an event which happened to Reynolds when he was a child growing up in the Forton area of Gosport. He was there because his father and uncle had both served in the navy.
‘His father was dead and the family was poor. Apparently, one Good Friday William was given a shilling by a Gosport priest who took pity on him because of the worn-out state of his boots.’
It was an act of kindness Reynolds never forgot and referred to it in his letter home to his mother in Portsmouth while he was fighting in the American Civil War.
He moved to Portsea and was living with his widowed mother and grandmother when, aged 15, he signed on with the navy and in 1857 joined HMS Excellent, then a hulk in Portsmouth Harbour. Adrian discovered his service record which reveals that five years later while serving in a gunvessel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he was jailed ashore for 28 days.
‘He was obviously unhappy in the navy because not long after he was released back to his vessel, William jumped ship.’
He made his way from Nova Scotia into the United States and promptly joined the Union army fighting the Confederates in the civil war, the conflict which would lead to the abolition of slavery in the southern states.
After serving in Louisiana, where he was wounded in battle, he became a coal miner in Pennsylvania.
As the war (1861-1865) drew to a close, Reynolds re-enlisted in the Union army a month before President Lincoln, the 16th president, was fatally wounded by gunman John Wilkes Booth in a Washington DC theatre.
Adrian says: ‘Among the letters I inherited is one from William to his mother in Portsea telling her that after the assassination he was put in charge of 12 men who were sent out to search for George Atzerodt, one of the conspirators and the man who was supposed to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson but lost his nerve and fled Washington.’
In that letter Reynolds says his posse was ‘despatched without tents or overcoats, the party of foot soldiers told not to return until the conspirator was either killed or taken’.
Several of his men succumbed to illness until eventually, with only five men left, they stumbled across a group of Union troopers also hunting Atzerodt.
They joined forces and at a farmhouse in Montgomery county, Maryland, discovered Atzerodt and captured him.
In that letter home, Reynolds tells his mother... ‘we met a few cavalry scouting and they requested my aid to capture Atzerodt. I cheerfully consented and to our satisfaction captured him’.
Atzerodt was hanged in the courtyard of a Washington DC prison on July 7, 1865.
Meanwhile, William Reynolds would last only another year. He died from consumption in Philadelphia aged 23. He dreamed of returning home to Portsmouth to see his mother, but never made it.
Adrian says: ‘For 50 years I’ve been determined to ensure Reynolds’s story was not left untold.’
He’s convinced it would make a film and that almost came about in 1983 when he was staying at the same hotel in Sorrento, Italy, as actor and screenwriter Colin Welland not long after he had won an Oscar for his script for Chariots of Fire.
Adrian says: ‘He expressed an interest in writing a screenplay based on the research material I’d amassed at that time – nowhere near as much as I have now.
‘He took out a year’s option on the idea, but he couldn’t get financial backing. However, the fact that an Oscar-winning writer had shown faith in the storyline simply stoked my enthusiasm to continue to write the story of my remarkable ancestor.’
n A Shilling on Good Friday, the story of William Reynolds’s rise from obscurity in Gosport and Portsmouth to playing a key role in history, is published as an e-book on a date to be fixed in February.
‘A thrilling adventure’
Adrian Hoare’s 50 years of painstaking research into the life of William Reynolds has resulted in his first novel.
At 350,000 words long it gives a fascinating insight into life in Victorian Gosport and Portsmouth as well as the intricacies of the American Civil War.
Apart from his research in the Portsmouth area, the project has taken him to many of the key locations of the civil war in the United States.
Adrian says: ‘Although the first half of my novel is set in Gosport and Portsmouth, it is not simply about the life of William Reynolds. It also follows that of George Atzerodt, again from his childhood to the point that both men’s tragic lives converge on April 20, 1865: lives which, within a year, would be snuffed out by the ravages of consumption and the hangman’s noose.’
Adrian has become close friends with Dr Edward Steers Jr, a microbiologist and a former deputy director of the National Institute of Health in the US and leading expert on Abraham Lincoln, the assassination conspiracy and its eclectic bunch of participants, including the hapless Atzerodt.
He has guided Adrian through the writing process and checked the manuscript.
He says: ‘That an Englishman should find himself in an American army where he becomes part of his new country’s two greatest tragedies makes for unusual and exciting reading.
‘Adrian translates William Reynolds’s letters into a thrilling adventure story in the tradition of great British storytellers.’