W W Thomas Jr is the only name that looks remotely English (Welsh in fact), carved in stone in S A Hedlund’s Guest Book, but he turns out to be American and with a story to tell
About 10 minutes walk from my home in Gothenburg, near the entrance to a park, is a rock-face – a smooth granite cliff – inscribed with dozens of names. This is SA Hedlund’s Guest Book.
The first time I was taken to see it, soon after I first visited Sweden, I recognised exactly two of the names: the playwright Henrik Ibsen and the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. My (Swedish) guide was perplexed. What about Fredrika Bremer? The feminist Fredrika Bremer? No? Well, you must at least know Viktor Rydberg. He wrote “Tomten“!
I shook my head sadly. I did not know Viktor Rydberg. I had never heard of “Tomten”.
My companion was aghast at my ignorance. Clearly my claims to be a university educated student of history and literature were seriously in doubt.
And how is it, she asked, that the only two names you do recognise are Norwegian?
I’m very sorry, I said.
Not wanting to be found completely unworthy I scanned the rock desperately for names I might recognise. They all seemed to be Scandinavian. Or German. Except… Who was W W Thomas Jr? I asked
I don’t know, she said, offhandedly. Some Englishman.
But he wasn’t.
William Widgery Thomas Jr was an American. He was born in the city of Portland in the State of Maine in 1839. He first visited Sweden in 1863 when he was appointed as the first American-born Consul in Gothenburg. Not bad for a 23-year-old. This started a life-long love affair with Scandinavia in general and Sweden in particular.
In many ways, Thomas was probably typical of his age and class. His appointment (as the American Civil War dragged on) was probably in gratitude for his family’s support of the anti-slavery movement and the campaign to elect President Lincoln. Officially he was to be the contact man for American citizens visiting Gothenburg. In fact his job was also to counter Confederate propaganda and recruit immigrants to the USA – especially trained soldiers for the Union army.
Although opposed to slavery and so – you’d think – committed to the equality of all mankind, Thomas had very decided views on what was the Right Stuff for an American citizen. His fellow consuls in Britain were recruiting many Irish. Thomas disapproved. The Irish he thought “fickle, merry, light-hearted” and infected by Catholicism; Scandinavians were far superior, especially the “honest, pious, plodding Swedes.”
His period as Consul came to an end in 1865, but in 1870 he helped Swedish immigrants found the settlement of New Sweden in northern Maine. He married a Swedish woman (Dagmar Törnebladh, and after her death, he married her younger sister), and held the position of US Ambassador to the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway on three separate occasions. And he translated both Viktor Rydberg and Fredrika Bremer into English.
To judge by his memoirs, Sweden and the Swedes (Från slott till koja in Swedish), published in 1892, he really enjoyed Swedish wildlife. He certainly tried to kill as much of it as possible. Roughly half the book’s 700+ pages – by my count – is taken up with descriptions of hunting or fishing expeditions.
William Widgery Thomas (Jr) became my goal. I went out of my way to track him down. Thirty years on, I might not know much more about Viktor Rydberg or Fredrika Bremer. Or about some of the other 60-odd luminaries whose names are carved in the stone Guest Book. But I know a lot about W W Thomas Jr. I even know that the Guest Book originally missed the “Jr”.
In the first chapter of his magnum opus, Thomas describes coming to Sweden to take up his post as Ambassador in, I guess, 1889. He arrives in Gothenburg, crosses the river and rides out to the estate of his old friend, the editor and publisher Sven Adolf Hedlund. Hedlund, the legendary editor-in-chief of the Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning – the Gothenburg Trade and Shipping Newspaper – had caused the rocks by the drive up to his summer residence to be carved with the names of all the illustrious people who had been his house guests over 32 years.
Thomas is delighted to see that his own name is carved in a place of honour, just above Viktor Rydberg (though in smaller letters). He comments, however, that the name is missing its “Jr”. Without it, he points out, Hedlund has actually honoured Thomas’s father. In the book he reports Hedlund saying he was trying to save money; that every letter costs one Swedish kronor to have cut. Still, Thomas’s published complaint seems to have had the desired effect. Hedlund found the cash and the carved letters now identify W W Thomas Jr and no one else.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.