THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

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