Open and shut case

What’s in this old-fashioned suitcase? A slice of sartorial history is revealed in the Province archives.


By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia

The tan suitcase is a throwback to a bygone, more genteel era. It has metal hinged locks that have become discoloured over the years. To my inexpert gaze, the surface of the suitcase looks like calf leather, with its beautiful light and medium tones. There is much darker, thicker leather across the perimeter, and the stitching – given the considerable vintage – was probably done by hand. The stout leather handle is in reasonably good shape, despite a few nicks.

Pasted neatly across the area directly under the handle is an old Dymo label. Its shiny black surface is the perfect foil for the white letters that say: “Robert Schneider”. It’s safe to surmise that he once owned the suitcase.

There is one other clue – the metallic label that says in an italic font: “Regal”. My thoughts go immediately to the TV series ‘Antiques Roadshow’. How good would it be to talk to one of their experts and find out that the style of stitching indicated a particular era, or that the leather trim was associated with a specific style of travel goods, or even that the locksmiths probably came from a region noted for this long-forgotten style of craftsmanship.

As it turns out, the Province Archivist, Fr Michael Head SJ immediately sheds light on the name on the Dymo label. The late Robert Schneider was born in 1941, entered the Jesuits in 1960 but left the order in 1971 and married.

Regal suitcases and other brands, as research shows, were manufactured by an Australian company, Ford Sherington, based in Sydney. A quick look at the internet shows another suitcase brand – an Airway rather than a Regal – is for sale with a description that says it was “Made by Ford Sherington Ltd, manufacturers & importers of travelling requisites, 319 George Street, Sydney”.

There is also a discussion thread that suggests the metal locks on some, if not all, Ford Sherington suitcases were the only components imported from England. So I look more closely at the locks on this suitcase in the Province archives and I see a tiny stamp that says “Cheney”. The sans serif typeface is unremarkable, but in a twist on standard typography, the letters at the beginning and end are smallest, with the larger letters in the middle.  Indeed, Cheney locks were manufactured in England, but it’s harder to find out with any level of assurance whether some of the locks were created under licence in Australia.

The suitcase locks snap open immediately, which is good news, because there are no keys attached to the handle.

Inside, fitting rather snugly, is a stout cardboard carton. Right up the top is a large white envelope. Its contents include a large photograph of the late Fr Adolfo Nicolás Pachón SJ, the 30th Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 2008 to 2016. There are also beautiful posters on thick art paper, one of a mosaic Christ from a Berlin museum, the other an interpretative Madonna and child painted on wood, from a Moscow gallery. The last one is a print of a striking painting of Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary as Mary looks on. It has Latin captions, of which the topmost line says: “As a lamb to the slaughter”.

Robert Schneider's suitcase

Image 1 of 10

Fr Michael Head SJ wearing the cassock. Photo: David McMahon.

Underneath the posters, folded neatly in the cardboard box, are black cassocks. Once again, Fr Michael has all the answers to my questions.

Are these Jesuit cassocks? Yes, he says, they were originally worn by Irish Jesuits who were once part of the Australian province.

Are there any clues as to their vintage? As he points out, the Irish were here from 1865 until the 1950s.

How long have these cassocks been in the suitcase? Probably fifty years or more, he reckons.

How exactly does he know – without unfolding any of them – that they were once donned by Irishmen? Because, he says with a mischievous smile, they were also worn by those in the novitiate, and all the cassocks had two long but narrow free-flowing strips that were called “wings”. Each strip was about a metre and a half long, roughly the length of an adult arm.

How do you know that? Because he used to wear them, he says patiently. And because novices tended to (sometimes) play pranks on one another. It was not uncommon, he says, “for someone to stealthily take your wings from behind you and surreptitiously tie you to a nearby chair or other piece of conveniently located furniture.”

Is that a fact, or a fanciful story? He silences me with a steely but humorous gaze. “It’s a fact. I was often tied to chairs,” he says.

So if he was late for Mass, was his perennial excuse that he was rather tied up? He just guffaws at the thought.

Does he know where these winged cassocks were made? No idea, he shrugs.

For once, I have an answer for him. They were probably tailored in Cassockstan.