The Trials of Clan Mortimer

T.J. Mortimer’s maker’s mark, in silver.

by Terry Wieland

The name “Mortimer” pops up periodically throughout English and Scottish history. The earliest I ever encountered was one Roger de Mortimer, a complete scoundrel from the Welsh Marches.

Without going into great detail, he is believed to have murdered the hapless King Edward II in 1327, cohabited with Queen Isabella, the “She-Wolf of France,” and acted as regent for the future Edward III, who was then under age. On seizing the throne, Edward III had him hanged, drawn, and quartered at the Elms of Tyburn — the first Englishman to enjoy that legendary fate for traitors.

One of his titles was Baron Wigmore, and he lived in Wigmore Castle, which caught my interest because Wigmore was my mother’s maiden name. For years, I fantasized that I might number the wicked Sir Roger among my ancestors. We seek distinction where we can.

Hence, 20 years ago when I was offered the chance to buy a Mortimer boxlock, I was more than intrigued until I had it assayed by an English gunmaker. He found that someone in the past had bored out the forcing cone to the point where the chamber walls were dangerously thin, and it would cheerfully accept a 3½” 12 gauge cartridge. In spite of its lovely weight and balance — the Scots have a way with boxlocks — I gave it a pass.

T.J. is most often associated with the address 21 St. James’s Street, as prestigious then as it would be now.

Because of its connection with John Dickson & Son, many assume Mortimer was originally Scottish, but such is not the case. In fact, one offshoot of the many-twigged Mortimer clan expanded from London to Edinburgh in the mid-1800s, and it was this branch that Dickson absorbed in 1938.

Gun collecting is fortunate in that true devotees will become so obsessed with one name, or one type of gun, that they devote great swathes of their lives to studying them, poring for hours over dusty records, compiling information, searching out examples and mortgaging their first born to obtain them. Eventually, they write a book about it. Often, only a thousand are printed, and equally often at the author’s expense, and eventually become costly collector’s items in themselves. But — the fortunate part — the priceless and hard-won information is set down for posterity and the edification of future researchers.

The Mortimer clan was fortunate in having H. Lee Munson, who published a book entitled The Mortimer Gunmakers 1753-1923.  It appeared in 1992 and can be found today fairly readily, albeit at a price.  My copy cost close to $300, but when you need to learn about a gun you’ve just acquired at auction, money is seldom an object — at that point, anyway.

The gun in question is shown here:  A late flintlock duelling pistol made around 1820 by Thomas Jackson (T.J.) Mortimer in London.

A fin de siècle flintlock duelling pistol by Thomas Jackson Mortimer.

Ideally, one would acquire the book first, to learn about the gun before bidding, but it never works that way.  After all, why invest in the book when you’re not sure you’re going to get the gun?  At any rate, I now have both, and am completely happy, because the gun is a gem.

But first, a bit on the Mortimers.

The family is famous primarily for its flintlocks, since its heirs and successors seemed to peter out during the percussion era.

Originally, there were three brothers:  Harvey Walklate (H.W.) Mortimer, the eldest, who came to London from Newcastle-under-Lyme and established himself as a first-rate gunmaker specializing in pistols.  Next was Thomas Mortimer, then Jackson Mortimer.  They worked together, they worked apart, their families intertwined, as did their names.  H.W. Mortimer is renowned as a maker of duelling pistols, a contemporary of Robert Wogdon and John Fox Twigg.  Sons joined fathers (adding “& Son” to the company name) then left, or took over when the father retired and dropped the “& Son.”

Confusing?  Try this:  the son of Thomas Mortimer, and nephew of Jackson, was named Thomas Jackson (T.J.) Mortimer.  At various times, all the Mortimers were, apparently, given royal warrants, and added “Maker to the King” to their trade labels and gun barrels.  But, as monarchs died, warrants became invalid unless the new monarch issed a new warrant.  Trying to date a gun by the presence or absence of the warrant is chancey at best.

The lock of a duelling pistol from the late golden age (1780-1820) is a thing of crafted beauty, and a work of functional art.

The family name of Mortimer did become associated with London ‘best’ guns, to the point that it was frequently counterfeited, both during their lifetimes and later.  Munson mentions, with understated chagrin, that in the early 1990s, Dixie Gun Works was importing a flintlock made by Pedersoli in Italy, which had “Mortimer” engraved on the lock plate.  He fretted that, a century hence, the gun might be passed off as a genuine Mortimer, or at least a genuine period Mortimer counterfeit.  When you get to the point of worrying about counterfeits of counterfeits, it might be time to take a break.

An auction or two ago, I pursued a pair of H.W. Mortimer duelling pistols, but was quickly and severely outbid.  Then came this T.J. Mortimer, a single pistol that might once have been one of a pair.  Pairs of duelers are always more attractive than singles, so there is a premium to be paid.  Where one might bring $5,000, the pair would command $15,000.  This is the opposite of game guns, and is, at best, a general rule.

At any rate, the T.J. has all the hallmarks of a fin de siècle flintlock by a first-rate maker:  Deep-V (waterproof) pan, coxcomb curved to the rear, set trigger, roller bearing on the hammer (frizzen) spring, platinum flash hole, spur on the trigger guard, counter-bored muzzle to facilitate loading, half-stock, lockplate held by a hook and one pin, and a sliding bar safety.

It has been said that you don’t really know about truly fine flintlocks until you have handled, studied, and shot an English duelling pistol from the golden age. This one certainly qualifies, and bears an endlessly intriguing name to boot.

Gray’s shooting editor long ago gave up any pretensions to being descended from the infamous Sir Roger but his DNA shows his ancestors mostly hailed from the Welsh Marches. So who knows?