My granddad’s ‘housewife’

Army issue khaki 'housewife'

This is my granddad’s army sewing kit, known as a ‘housewife’, and dating from the period 1907-1919. As a young soldier, he had to learn to take care of his own uniform.  During the freezing cold winters of some of his tours, he also learned to knit – partly for something to fill the time, partly for the warmth afforded by the results.  Upon arriving back home late in 1919 he married my grandma, and when my mum came along it was he who passed these skills on to her, teaching her to mend and sew by hand and to knit.  Many years later, she – my mum – taught me.  From these humble beginnings my love of all kinds of needlework expanded and developed, straying far from my granddad’s knitting for warmth and sewing for necessity.  Eventually, in 2009, I started my first online blog which focused  on needlecrafts and other creative projects.  It has to be said, though, that by this time my ‘sewing kit’ occupied considerably more cupboard space than this little roll…

British Army khaki soldier's 'housewife', unrolled

My granddad’s ‘housewife’ belongs to me now.  Although it’s standard issue, it is nevertheless a very personal item, and would have travelled with him to many parts of the world.  It bears his regiment and personal identification details, and contains everything he needed to keep his uniform in full working order: needles, thread, elastic, safety pins, spare buttons … and tucked away at the back of that pocket … what seemed to be a bullet!

.303 calibre Enfield rifle drill cartridge

So one day, back in 2012 I posted these photos on my needlework blog.  The point of the post was to highlight the link between my granddad’s sewing and knitting and my own needlework skills, which bizarrely I seem to owe to the British Expeditionary Force!

However, that blog post caused quite a stir!

A couple of readers pointed out that the bullet could be dangerous.  They advised me to investigate its safety.  But how do you investigate the safety of a hundred year-old bullet?  In the UK, gun ownership is strictly regulated, and my gun-related knowledge was and remains virtually non-existent.  (Is it a bit dense to say I assumed it was the action of the gun that propelled the bullet through the air, rather than the explosive properties of the bullet itself…?!)

So a local gun club was my first port of call.  In an email sent via their website I explained that I had an early 20th Century British Army bullet and asked for information as to where I should go to have it checked out.  I was surprised to receive, almost immediately, a telephone call from the club, advising me that the bullet could be dangerous.  It would not spontaneously explode, but if dropped at a certain angle it could do so.  Not only that, but it’s illegal to be in possession of even one bullet in the UK without a firearms licence.  So concerned was my adviser from the gun club that he would have driven over to my house to look at the bullet had it not been for the photograph I was able to point him to on the blog – the photo you see directly above.  After seeing this he thought it had been decommissioned.  This would make it both safe and legal – but he asked me to take it into the gunsmith for a second opinion.

I had walked past this gunsmith’s shop a hundred times without even knowing it existed.  Now (rather carefully!) I took in my bullet and they couldn’t have been more helpful.  It turned out that this isn’t in fact a bullet at all.  It’s a dummy, or ‘drill cartridge’.  My granddad would have used it for drills: for practising loading the rifle at speed.

By this time, in a highly unexpected turn of events, that post from my needlework blog had been shared by an enthusiast to his own firearms blog!  Consequently I now had a small international team of firearms experts advising behind the scenes.  The brass case, I learned, is the ‘cartridge’.  The four holes drilled into it indicate it will not fire.  (You can see straight through two of these holes in my photograph below.)  The ‘bullet’ is the red bit at the end, but a real bullet would have a cupronickel coating; this one is wood.  The reason my granddad kept it in his sewing kit was to avoid the risk of mixing it up with the live ammunition.

.303 calibre Enfield rifle drill cartridge

I was so grateful to everyone who got involved.   Of course I was relieved to know that ‘my bullet’ wasn’t dangerous – and that I didn’t have to give it up.  But I was equally delighted to have a little more information about my granddad’s time in the army.  Thanks to all these people, I now knew that the rifle my granddad used was a .303 calibre Enfield.  I already knew he was something of a crack shot – we have a number of spoons inscribed with his name, and a trophy – all won in Army shooting contests.  And in truth, as a firearms expert himself, he would not have kept this tucked away in his family home for more than fifty years if it had been dangerous to do so.

I share all this here for several reasons.  First of all, just look how much you can learn about a family member from one small item!  Secondly, it illustrates what a wonderful resource the Internet can be, not to mention the kindness of enthusiasts who really seemed to take this situation to heart, were keen to help and had genuinely been concerned for my safety.  But on top of all that, I thought you might appreciate the story.  🙂

Do you have a little something stuffed away in a drawer that you might be able to explore further?  You never know what you might learn!