THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

10 posts from June 2017

29 June 2017

One green bottle… Jan Sobota’s book binding

Good news! We have recently acquired this for the Library:

Sobota1

“A hip flask?” you may ask, incredulously.  Well, yes and no.

Let me explain.

What you’re actually looking at is a modern book binding by a man called Jan Sobota.  Sobota was born in Czechoslovakia in 1939 and grew up there during the Communist occupation.  He studied under a famous designer bookbinder called Karel Silenger in Pilzen and graduated from the School of Applied Arts in Prague in 1957.  In 1969 he was awarded the title of “Master of Applied Arts” in bookbinding and restoration by the Czech Minister of Culture.  Sobota died in 2012.

The restrictions of the Communist regime meant that Sobota couldn’t follow international developments in the fields of art and design for many years.  He struggled with a lack of inspiration until these restrictions were lifted and ideas came trickling, or rather flooding, in.  This was when Sobota started experimenting with creating book objects like the one we’ve just acquired for the Library.  These are three-dimensional, almost sculptural bindings that transform a book into a unique piece of art.  The book itself is housed securely inside the protective sculpture that also serves as a highly experimental, innovative way of expressing its contents.

So what book is contained within this object?  It’s a Czech translation of a book, first published in 1954, about an extraordinary ocean crossing.  Alain Bombard became famous in 1952 for allegedly drifting in a 15-foot rubber boat across the Atlantic, from the Canary Islands to Barbados, in 65 days.  He did this without provisions and relied solely upon fish, salt water and fluids squeezed from raw fish (disgusting, I know) to survive.

The flask itself is made from olive-green, crushed morocco (leather made from goatskin) and Alain Bombard’s initials are embossed on the front.  A note is tucked inside saying that it was made in 1979.  There is even a brown leather cork in the neck at the top of the bottle.

Why did Sobota choose this bottle shaped binding for Alain Bombard’s book?  Perhaps Sobota is wryly suggesting that Bombard should have brought something a little stronger along on his voyage.  It would have broken up the diet of salt water, fish and fish juices at least.  But maybe Sobota is being more whimsical than that.  Could it symbolise a traditional message in a bottle?  After all, Bombard was essentially stranded at sea for 65 days.  My favourite interpretation, however, is that Sobota believed Bombard must have been extremely inebriated to come up with such an insane idea in the first place!

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

For more fascinating book-objects by Sobota - Jan Sobota

 

27 June 2017

A botanical excursion in Wales

On Sunday 27 June 1773 at Chepstow, a party of botanists were clambering about ‘on the Steep nacked Bank by the Side of the Wye not far from the Castle’, hunting for plants.  The species identified included wild cabbage (Brassica maritima) on Chepstow Castle, madder (Rubria tinctoria) and stonecrop (Sedum rupestre) “upon the Rocks on both Sides of the Wye above and below the Bridge at Chepstow”, and the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) on the river bank.  They may have been too intent on their botanising to notice that two other members of their party were getting stuck in the mud of the tidal river. The artist Paul Sandby recorded this mishap in his 1775 aquatint, Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire.

K.Top.31.6.f

Paul Sandby, Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire  British Library K.Top.31.6.f. Noc

This expedition took place between 25 June and 16 August 1773.  The members of the party were Sir Joseph Banks, Dr Daniel Solander, Reverend John Lightfoot, The Hon. Charles Greville, Paul Sandby, and possibly also the Swiss geologist and meteorologist Jean Andre de Luc. The itinerary, recorded in Lightfoot’s journal, covered much of the coast of South Wales from Chepstow to Milford Haven and St David’s.  The purpose of the expedition was primarily botanical but there were also artistic aims. 

Sandby had made a tour of North Wales in 1771 and his subsequent enthusiasm for Welsh scenery must have been well known to his friends. While the scientists explored the vegetation, Sandby was taking views of the many castles along the Pembrokeshire coast. They were at St Quintins on 5 July where Sandby sketched the Castle gatehouse and the botanists found mint, Mentha longifolia, “by the Mill going to St. Quintins Castle a mile from Cowbridge, and in a wet marshy meadow on the left going to the Mill, found Ranunculus lingua” or Greater Spearwort.

K.Top.47.50.b

Paul Sandby, St Quintins Castle British Library K. Top.47.50.b .Noc

The party was at St Donat’s on 6 July. While Sandby drew the landscape and castle, the botanists were exploring the cliffs, caves, and crevices at nearby Nash Point where they found the ferns Asplenium marinum and  Adianthum capillus veneris “upon Nash Point facing the Sea, several Patches of it, but upon very high inaccessible places”.

K.Top.47.43.b.

Paul Sandby, North West View of Saint Donat's Castle British Library K.Top.47.43.b. Noc

Sandby depicted the view up the Neath River on Wednesday 7 July while the scientists were making a new botanical discovery for the county of Cheiranthus sinuatus or Sea Stock “a quarter of a mile before you come to Breton Ferry, on a Sandy Bank, on the right-hand side by the Road Side from Bridge End”.

K.Top.47.46.c.

Paul Sandby,View up the Neath River from the house at Briton Ferry British Library K.Top.47.46.c. Noc

This expedition had an unexpected outcome for Sandby’s career.  Later the same year, Banks was approached by the artist P. P. Burdett who wished to interest the scientist in his ‘secret’ printmaking technique as a way to reproduce Banks’s collections from his voyage with Captain Cook.  Banks did not take up this offer, but Greville subsequently paid Burdett £40 for the description and passed it on to Sandby.  This was the technique Sandby developed and named aquatint, and his first set of prints, published in 1775, was of the views in South Wales taken during the summer tour; the set was dedicated to his companions, Banks and Greville.

Ann Gunn
Lecturer in Museum and Gallery Studies, University of St Andrews

Further reading:
A transcript of Lightfoot’s  journal is in the Natural History Museum and it was published in 1905 by H. J. Riddelsdell, ‘Lightfoot’s visit to Wales in 1773’, Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 43 (1905), 290-307
Gunn, A. V., The Prints of Paul Sandby (1731-1809): a Catalogue Raisonné , 2015 Turnhout: Brepols / Harvey Miller

 

22 June 2017

The King’s Architect and the ‘Architect King’

n 1757 the Swedish-born Scot, William Chambers (1723–1796) was appointed as architectural tutor to the future king, George III. Chambers’ job was to teach the young heir the principles of classical architecture, but together they also designed and built several real buildings too. The King’s Topographical Collection, assembled by George and later given to the nation, now resides at the British Library and includes views of a number of the buildings born out of their partnership, many of which can now be seen at Picturing Places, the British Library’s brand new online encyclopaedia of all things topographical.

Maps_k_top_41_16_r
John Spyers’ view of Richmond Observatory. Maps K.Top.41.16.r. Noc

One of those views is featured in my article about the little-known draughtsman, John Spyers. For 20 years Spyers worked for the most famous of all British gardeners, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, before turning his hand to topographical art and selling two albums of his drawings to the Russian Empress Catherine the Great for a very large number of roubles. A handful of original views by Spyers are preserved in the King’s Topographical Collection. One shows the Royal Observatory in Richmond Gardens, which was designed by Chambers and completed in time for the King to observe the much-anticipated transit of Venus in 1769. While the view’s poorly-drawn sheep are clear evidence of Spyers’ authorship, the drawing was formerly unattributed until an exhibition and conference at Hampton Court Palace in 2016 drew attention to the overlooked draughtsman.

Maps_k_top_41_16_s
Design for a Register for the Weather by James Adam. Maps K.Top.41.16.s. Noc

The Royal Observatory is one of the many buildings that illustrate George III’s fervent interests in science and the arts. Another related building is encountered in Peter Barber’s article on the Scottish architect, Robert Adam. Like the Observatory, the design for a weather register by Robert’s partner and brother James was also intended for Richmond. But although it is undoubtedly very elegant, for unknown reasons it was never built – probably to the delight of William Chambers as Robert Adam was one of his great rivals, even though they shared the title of ‘Joint Architect to the King’.

649_c_25_plate_25
The Great Pagoda, from Chambers’ Plans, Elevations, Sections…56.i.3 Noc

Adam never completed any major works for the King, whereas Chambers was far more successful in this respect. The majority of his private royal commissions appeared at Richmond’s neighbour, Kew Gardens, between 1760 and 1763. (The present-day Kew Gardens encompasses both parts of the royal estate, although at the time the two gardens were separated by a thoroughfare known as ‘Love’s Lane’.) Chambers designed and built more than 20 follies and seats in a multitude of styles to ornament the gardens – a ‘Turkish’ Mosque, a ‘Moorish’ Alhambra, a ‘Chinese’ Pagoda and a ‘Gothic’ Temple among them. The full story is told in Jocelyn Anderson’s article, which looks at Chambers’ publication, Plans, Elevations, Sections and Perspective Views of the Gardens and Buildings at Kew in Surry (1763). George III’s own copy of this book is today owned by the British Library.

Drysdale PagodaScaff1_2017
Restoration of the Great Pagoda begins… © Historic Royal Palaces

The Great Pagoda in Kew Gardens is currently being restored by Historic Royal Palaces, who are returning the building to its original appearance complete with 80 glowering dragons. The restored building will be open to the public from mid-2018. In much the same way Picturing Places brings into the open hundreds of items from George III’s personal collection of topographical art, with both projects offering further insights into the tastes and patronage of this fascinating and cultured monarch.

Tom Drysdale
Archivist (Curators' Team), Historic Royal Palaces

 

19 June 2017

Judith Weston and her search for a husband

Judith Weston left England in December 1727 to visit her brother William in India.  William had recently been appointed to the East India Company’s civil service in Bengal. Aged 26 and belonging to a large family living at West Horsley in Surrey, Judith was hoping to find a husband. 

Still 4
 India Office Private Papers Mss Eur B162 Noc

Her voyage to India on the ship Streatham (or Stretham) is described in Judith’s account which is preserved in the India Office Private Papers. There were four other female passengers on board the ship. Judith explained that the Bay of Biscay was so rough that they could not cook meals, change their clothes or even lie down. The other ladies were horribly seasick, but not Judith! She even kept a good appetite. She tells us that one of the other ladies was so sick, she burst a vessel in her stomach.

The ship docked in the Cape Verde islands and Judith was fascinated by the active volcano, Fogo. Hot lava was visible at night and the female passengers found this frightening. The ship continued to the Cape of Good Hope and then onwards to India.

 Still 5

India Office Private Papers Mss Eur B162 Noc

The ship stopped off at Fort St George in Madras (modern day Chennai) on its way to Calcutta (Kolkata). The ladies had to endure a difficult journey to shore by rowing boat in very rough seas. Judith was embarrassed by the fact that the oarsmen were wearing only loincloths.

Arrival at MadrasNoc

Landing at Madras P1551 (1856) Images Online  

When Judith made dry land, she was taken to the governor but the other ladies had to stay in a punch tavern. They were all invited to a dinner and dance in the evening. The governor made it very clear that he thought that none of the ladies would get a husband. Judith did not like being treated as merely a package of goods for market. The governor had been asked by an East India Company official who lived at an outpost station to find a wife for him. The governor thought Judith would do. He was very surprised when Judith refused the offer. She was determined to continue on her voyage to see her brother.

Judith found a husband very quickly - within a month of the Streatham’s arrival at Calcutta in July 1728.  She married Scottish-born merchant John Fullerton on 16 August 1728. The previous year, John had been the sole survivor of an attack on a group of Englishmen at Jeddah.

It seems to have been a very happy relationship. In 1732 the couple left India on separate ships to return to England and settle there. John wrote to Judith from St Helena declaring his love for her. He was relieved to find that she had given birth safely on board ship. She was three weeks away from port at the time. She had produced a fine baby boy but John wanted a daughter. In his letter, he wrote that he hoped to have a ‘little Judy’ in the future. His wish was granted. As well as four sons, they had a daughter Judith.
 
Helen Paul
Lecturer in Economics and Economic History, University of Southampton

At our event on 19 June you can hear more about the shipboard experiences of voyagers to India as revealed in their private papers.

Further reading:
Judith Fullerton papers, British Library, India Office Private Papers Mss Eur B162
John Fullerton papers, British Library, India Office Private Papers Mss Eur D602

 

15 June 2017

The loss of the East Indiaman ‘Ganges’

The British Library holds an account of the sinking of an East India Company ship, the Ganges, in 1807.  It is a terrifying story, not least because the crisis took place over several days. The Titanic sank in less than three hours. The Ganges was in trouble for a week. 

 Ganges

'The Ganges East-India-man Foundering in a Gale' - from T Harington, Remarkable Account of the loss of the ship Ganges East Indiaman… (London, 1808) Noc

The author of the account was Samuel Rolleston, a passenger on the Ganges.  Born in Hampshire in 1775, the son of a merchant, Rolleston had been appointed to the East India Company’s civil service in Bombay in 1794. 

A convoy of East Indiamen had left India and was approaching the Cape of Good Hope.  The weather was unsettled and the Ganges had been letting in water. The crew were monitoring the leak.  On 24 May, there was 24 inches of water in the hold. To make the ship lighter, four guns were thrown overboard and then some of the masts were lowered down.  One of the other ships in the convoy was the St Vincent.  On 25 May Captain Thomas Talbot Harington, commander of the Ganges, went on board the St Vincent. He asked the commander, Captain Charles Jones, whether some passengers could change ships. Jones refused as the St Vincent was also leaking. However he agreed to stay close by. 
 
On 26 May, the weather was fine. There were hopes that they would reach the Cape safely.  The next day, Harington gave orders to throw more cargo overboard.  The passengers helped the crew to do this and also to pump out water from the hold.  The guns on the main deck were thrown overboard.  Now the Ganges was less able to defend herself against attack.  The Ganges made constant signals of distress.  The St Vincent did not reply. 

The passengers believed that they would die that night. Darkness fell and the ship was rolling heavily.  At midnight, an officer thought he saw a light.  He went to tell the captain.  Three hours passed before they saw the light again.  At dawn, it was clear that the St Vincent was astern.  The Ganges sent a signal: ‘The Ship is Sinking. Sent Boat’.  The sea was rolling so violently that it was difficult to get people into the launch.  The first passengers left just before 1pm.  The last boat, with Harington and Rolleston on board, reached the St Vincent at 9pm. 

The next day, 29 May, the Ganges was still visible.  Harington and Rolleston went to her in a launch to see if they could salvage anything.  They could not and returned to the St Vincent. They had just reached her when the Ganges sank in one minute.  She went down with her masts standing, except one.  All hands and passengers had been saved, but presumably any animals on board had been left to drown.  Rolleston finished his account with ‘gratitude to my Creator’.

After this traumatic experience, Samuel Rolleston settled in England. The family home was Pan Manor on the Isle of Wight.  He was twice married and had two children. Rolleston died in 1860 aged 84.

Helen Paul
Lecturer in Economics and Economic History, University of Southampton

A Passage to India - Shipboard Life - Join us on 19 June to hear more about the experiences of voyagers between England and India as revealed in their private papers.

Further reading:
The loss of an East Indiaman in 1807, BL Mss Eur F591
Simon Martin, ‘The Loss of an East Indiaman in 1807: account by Samuel Rolleston’ in The Journal of the Families in British India Society, no.22 Autumn 2009, pp.23-29
T Harington, Remarkable Account of the loss of the ship Ganges East Indiaman… (London, 1808)

 

13 June 2017

Cow Protection in India

On 9 December 1911, The Graphic magazine had a short piece with the surprising title ‘How Cattle Threaten the Unity of the Empire’. This stated that at a time when the King’s cattle had been winning prizes in Britain, his Hindu subjects in India were petitioning to stop the slaughter of cattle for the British Army and permit the introduction of beef from Australia. It reported that a picture was being circulated with the petition showing how useful cattle were to other industries if they were not slaughtered.

The Graphic  9 December 1911

The Graphic 9 December 1911

Cow protection was a serious issue in India. The cow was an important Hindu symbol of maternity and fertility. For those fearful that colonial policies were endangering traditional Hindu practices, and others who were struggling with increased competition for education, jobs and scarce resources, the cow represented a comforting and benign figure, a guard against evil, and an illustration of good Hindu behaviour. As such cow protection was a unifying issue for Hindus of all walks of life.

The proposal referred to in The Graphic of importing Australian beef for British troops in place of beef killed in India seems to have been devised by Khursedji Sorabji Jassawalla, a member of a well-known Parsi family from Bombay. A colourful figure, Jassawalla had been associated with the anti-cow killing movement since 1885. In October 1911, he travelled to London with the intention of presenting to the King a petition and two million signatures he claimed to have collected. While residing in Hampstead, he wrote a note outlining his scheme to provide Australian mutton to the British Army even at a loss to himself if the slaughter of Indian cattle would be stopped. Unsuccessful in his attempts to gain a Royal audience, he sent his petition to the Government of India and the India Office.

Jassawalla Petition (top)

Jassawalla Petition (bottom)

IOR/L/PJ/6/1123, File 4428 Noc

The Government of India was rather unimpressed with Mr Jassawalla’s scheme, as this comment in his criminal intelligence history sheet notes: “The whole proposal is a commercial one, and from that point of view his past career does not inspire confidence”.

This was not the only petition on cow protection the India Office received that year. On 9 November 1911, a petition was received from Sir Bhalchandra Krishna, a resident of Bombay, protesting against the slaughter of cows in the city and district of Muttra and Varaj in the United Provinces. With his petition were submitted over 100 pages of signatures. The Government declined to make any alterations to the arrangements for the slaughter of Indian cattle.

Bhalchandra Krishna Petition

Bhalchandra Krishna Petition signatures

IOR/L/PJ/6/1125, File 4678 Noc

John O’Brien
India Office Records

 Further reading:
The Graphic, 9 December 1911, page 889 (in a file of newspaper cuttings on Persia in the Curzon Papers) [Reference Mss Eur F112/249]
Memorial to the King from Mr Jassawalla and others asking that British troops in India may be supplied with Australian meat in place of beef slaughtered in India, 1911-1913 [Reference IOR/L/PJ/6/1123, File 4428]
Memorial from Sir Balchandra Krishna and others protesting against the slaughter of cows in Muttra (UP), 1911 [Reference IOR/L/PJ/6/1125, File 4678]
 

09 June 2017

Thomas Bowrey’s cloth samples

To celebrate International Archives Day, we’re sharing some unexpected treasures we found in the India Office Private Papers.  One of the joys of being an archivist is the daily opportunity to be surprised and enchanted by the collections in our care.

Tucked away in a volume packed with closely-written correspondence and accounts are a number of cloth and colour samples from the early years of the 18th century.

MSS Eur D1076 (9)

MSS Eur D 1076

The papers belonged to Thomas Bowrey (d.1713), merchant and compiler of the first Malay-English dictionary.  As a young man, Bowrey worked as a ship’s pilot in the East Indies.  He then moved on to operating his own ships as an interloper breaching the monopoly of the East India Company in Asia. 

On his return to England in 1689, Bowrey married and settled in Wapping in East London.  He owned and freighted ships for the East India Company.

MSS Eur D1076 (10)

MSS Eur D 1076

The woollen cloth samples sewn onto papers show the colours selected as being suitable for export to the East Indies. 

MSS Eur D1076 (3)

MSS Eur D 1076

There is also a textile colour chart, like a modern paint chart.  The colours are still vibrant after 300 years.  The name which jumped out at me is number 18 - Gall Stone.  For lack of romance, this label certainly rivals the Persian silk colour described as Water Rat which featured in our story ‘Was 'water rat' the new black in 1697?’  

MSS Eur D1076 (6)

MSS Eur D 1076

So – Gall Stone, Water Rat.  I wonder what other surprising textile colour descriptions await discovery in the British Library collections?

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
MSS Eur D 1076 Thomas Bowrey Papers
Margaret R. Hunt, ‘Bowrey, Thomas (d. 1713)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008

 

07 June 2017

Three men and a boy (and a coal mine…)

In 1735, three men and a boy from an unassuming village near Bristol made the headlines. As one cheaply printed broadside says, “amongst the many and various accounts which have been given us of accidents happening to mankind, nothing has occur’d more particular for many years than the following account from Bristol”.

ThreeMenAndABoy

A full and true account of the wonderfull deliverance of three men and a boy. Bristol, c.1780.

Joseph Smith, 69, Edward Peacock, Abraham Peacock (his son) and Thomas Hemings of Mangotsfield worked in an old coal mine near Two Mile Hill in Kings Wood. In the early 18th century, coalfields were divided into ‘liberties’. Aristocratic families owned these liberties and leased the mining rights to master colliers, the so-called ‘adventurers of the coal mines’. This particular mine was owned by the Chester family and run by one Joseph Jefferies. 

On this fateful day a “prodigious torrent of water burst out of the veins”, spelling “nigh immediate death” for the miners. Their candles were extinguished instantly and the mine began to flood. As the water rose, the men scrabbled for higher ground until they found a “hatchin”, a local term meaning a “high slant from whence coal has been dug”.

They huddled together on this ledge, in the darkness, for 10 days and 19 hours. They divvied up a bit of beef and a crust of bread between themselves and drunk their last drops of water. As the days passed, desperation forced them into “drinking their own urine”, chewing on coal chips and even “a piece of shoe”.

Why did it take so long for the miners to be rescued? Well, the colliers on the surface tried several times to go down into the mine and rescue their “unfortunate brethren” but they suspected a “black damp in the work”. Black damp is a noxious mixture of poisonous gas that eliminates oxygen from the atmosphere, causing suffocation. It’s common in mines and, nowadays, there are safety measures in place to combat this but in the early 18th century there were none.

Eventually, a last ditch rescue attempt was successful. The rescuers apparently carried down a “quantity of burning coals” and “draughted the damp” so they could reach the miners. The writer of this broadside declares that, “what with the heat of the place they were in, and the nauseous fumes of their bodies, their want of water and meat during so long a time,” the survival of the miners must be considered “nothing else but a surprising miracle”.

So what happened next? A long spell in hospital? Early retirement? Nope! These miners were made of tougher stuff than that. They received some “comfortable refreshment”, walked to their respective homes and faded into obscurity as local printers found another melodramatic story to report. And that was the end of that!

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections