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Untold lives blog

8 posts from December 2017

28 December 2017

Untold Lives looks back at 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, we’re looking back on some of our posts which proved to be the most popular during the past twelve months.

In January we told you about a major new digital resource which had just become available for researching the East India Company and the India Office. We showed a few of the digitised documents, including the list of the first subscribers to the East India Company drawn up in September 1599...
 

IOR B 1 f.6
IOR/B/1 f.6 Noc

.. and the Instrument of Abdication signed by Edward VIII at Fort Belvedere on 10 December 1936.

IOR A 1 102IOR/A/102 Instrument of Abdication Noc

 

‘Value in unexpected places’   was the story of the sole surviving copy of a 17th-century schoolbook now held at the British Library. The grounds of learning was written by schoolmaster Richard Hodges primarily for children as early learners of literacy.

HodgesPhoto1Noc

 In March we asked: Did Jane Austen develop cataracts from arsenic poisoning? In the drawer of Jane Austen’s writing desk at the British Library are three pairs of spectacles. The Library had the spectacles tested and the post revealed the results.

  Jane Austen's glassesSpectacles believed to have belonged to Jane Austen (now British Library Add MS 86841/2-4) Noc

 

We researched Gerald Wellesley’s secret family. Wellesley was an East India Company official who spent many years as Resident in the Princely State of Indore. He provided for his three children born to an Indian woman in the 1820s but stopped short of giving them his name or recognising them publicly as his offspring.

Indore X108(15) Indore from William Simpson's 'India: Ancient and Modern X108(15) NocOnline Gallery 

Thomas Bowrey’s cloth and colour samples  were unexpected treasures found in tucked away in a volume packed with closely-written correspondence and accounts. The colours are still vibrant after 300 years.  And how about number 18 on the chart – Gall Stone?

MSS Eur D1076 (9)MSS Eur D 1076 Noc

MSS Eur D1076 (3)MSS Eur D 1076Noc

The East India Company’s Black Book of Misdemeanours 1624-1698  was brought out of the shadows this year. Most complaints relate to private trade carried on against express orders, but they also cover drunkenness, negligence, desertion, disobeying orders, embezzlement, and debauchery.

 Black Book  IOR/H/29 Noc

We told the story of how Isfahan in Iran became the City of Polish Children during the Second World War. Thousands of Polish military and civilian refugees journeyed from the Soviet Union to Iran.. One poignant statistic stands out: in January 1943 the camp in the city of Isfahan contained 2,457 civilian refugees, of which 2,043 were children.

Group photo Isfahan

Group photo of older children at one of the children's homes in Isfahan. Reproduced with kind permission from the personal collection of Dioniza Choros, Kresy, Siberia Virtual Museum

  EAP001_7_1
Portrait of Polish refugee children, taken by Abolghasem Jala between 1942-1944. Abolghasem Jala took thousands of portraits of Polish refugees during his time in Isfahan at the Sharq photographic studio. Abolghasem Jala Photographic Collection, Endangered Archives Programme, EAP001/7/1

 

In 1847 a book called Real Life in India offered advice to British ladies going to live in India. This covered clothing, equipment for the voyage, household management, and ways of passing the time. Women were told to take six mosquito sleeping drawers and to learn the art of piano tuning.

India - ladies' equipmentFrom Real Life in India by An Old Resident (London, 1847)  Noc

 

And finally we treated you to the untold life of a paper bag!

  Paper bag Evan 9195Evan.9195 Noc


The bag reveals that Indian sweetmeats were being sold in London in the late 19th century, much earlier than most people would expect. This lovely piece of ephemera was displayed at Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage, an exhibition at the Library of Birmingham which ran from July to November 2017.

We hope that you have enjoyed revisiting these fascinating stories as much as we did. Who knows what our great contributors have in store for you in 2018?

Twittter takeover posterNoc

A Happy New Year to all our readers!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

 

25 December 2017

A Tommy’s Christmas Day letter 1917

On Christmas Day 1917 Sergeant Frederick William Spires was serving in the Machine Gun Corps in France.  He wrote a touching letter to the Derby Daily Telegraph, thanking the people of his home town for gifts sent to the soldiers.

‘Through the medium of your paper I should like to thank the Mayor and residents of Derby in the name of all the Derby boys out here now for the little present and good wishes that arrived here yesterday.  Such acts of kindness and thoughtfulness at this season help to take away that dull, lonely feeling that we are all apt to have, for if ever “Tommy” thinks of home it is at Christmas.  This is my fourth in France, so I know that “Christmas feeling” only too well.  The present and good wishes seem to draw Derby a little nearer to us, for we know that we are not forgotten, even in the midst of war-time household worries.  May our efforts really and indeed result in lasting peace, and goodwill, and may it be soon for the sake of the anxious ones at home.  I am sure all Derby Tommies will join me in wishing the old, old Christmas season wish, and that the Mayor and residents will have a brighter New Year.’

Spires 1Derby Daily Telegraph 31 December 1917

In December 1918, Sergeant Spires wrote another letter to the newspaper from his station at Grantham in Lincolnshire.

‘Through the medium of your paper, I should like, in the name of all “Tommies” of St. Chad’s parish, to thank the parishioners for the small cash present and the kind thoughts and thanks for past sacrifices in the great war.  I’m sure we appreciated all the kindly thoughts. It is pleasant to know that we always stand in the memories of our fellow parishioners, although we have been so long absent.  Our greatest satisfaction lies in the knowledge that what we have done during the past four years and the hardships we have endured have not been in vain, and the war has come to the satisfactory end that we all fought for.  I, for one (as well as my own brothers), do not regret my four years in France and Belgium.  I think our only regret is that so many of our old chums from boyhood  have been killed in the great fight for right, and are not here to see the result of so great a sacrifice.  May the peace be a lasting peace, and that we shall know no more war.  I sincerely hope that in all homes there will be joyful reunions for the Christmas season, and absent ones will return, though such is not my own luck for this my fifth Christmas. – Again thanking St. Chad’s parishioners, and wishing them a right merry Christmas and the brightest of New Years.’ 

Spires 2Derby Daily Telegraph 14 December 1918

The outbreak of World War II shattered Frederick Spires’ wish for lasting peace.  He re-enlisted and served as a warrant officer in the Sherwood Foresters.  Sadly Frederick died in Derbyshire Royal Infirmary on 9 October 1943 aged 54.  He was buried in the churchyard at Findern and his grave is marked by a military memorial.

Spires 3Grave of Frederick William Spires at Findern Church, Derbyshire

 Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Derby Daily Telegraph via British Newspaper Archive or findmypast

 

21 December 2017

East India Company Christmas gifts

Imagine it is December 1858.  A few months ago, the East India Company was replaced by the India Office, a department of state.  Many matters have to be resolved in this period of transition. One issue is whether the India Office will continue the Company custom of distributing Christmas boxes and making charitable donations

George Shipway, head door-keeper at East India House, raised the question of Christmas boxes with the Finance, Home and Public Works Committee.  For many years it had been the Company’s custom to distribute sums amounting to £24 4s 0d.  The money went to about 50 individuals - people connected with the local parish and City ward, tradesmen, servants of East India House, and others. Shipway asked for a continuation of this bounty and was told to make enquiries at other government departments.  He reported back that no Christmas boxes were given the previous year by the General Post Office and the Custom House. The Committee decided that the money should be paid to Shipway in 1858 but the recipients were to be ‘distinctly informed that such grants will not be continued in future’.
 

DustmanA dustman from Richard Phillips, Modern London; being the history and present state of the British Metropolis (London, 1804)   BL flickr Noc

The Committee was then asked to decide about the Christmas gifts formerly distributed by the India Board.  A total sum of £27 16s had been split amongst office keepers, porters, messengers, bookbinders, newspaper boys, men delivering Parliamentary and Lords’ Papers, dustmen, scavengers, lamplighter, glazier, bricklayer, turncock, plumber, oilman, and charwoman.  It was ordered that the cashier should pay the money requested. Christmas boxes amounting to £48 16s 6d were also granted for the present year to staff at East India House – messengers, firelighters, and the housekeeper and her assistants.

Next came a letter from John George Bonner, head of the Military Store Department.  He listed the donations totalling £3 12s 6d which he had usually made at Christmas and asked about their continuance:  Inquest – Leet Jury; Clerk of St Andrew Undershaft; Ward beadle; Bishopsgate beadle; scavenger; lamplighters at Leadenhall Street and New Street.  It was decided that the money might be given again that year but not afterwards.

  Pawnbroker
From The Letters of Charles Dickens edited by his sister-in-law and his eldest daughter (London, 1893)  BL flickrNoc

Charities which had received donations from the East India Company were keen to secure the support of the India Office.  In December 1858 the Lime Street Ward Benevolent Fund and Visiting Society based at 126 Leadenhall Street sent its annual report down the road to the India Office.  The Society provided the local poor with coals, potatoes, shoes, blankets, flannel, and bread, and redeemed pledges for clothes and ‘necessaries’ pawned.

  Lime Street charityIOR/L/F/2/224 no.114 Noc

An accompanying letter said that the East India Company had made donations for very many years and that the Society hoped that the Council for India would continue this. There is a pencilled note that the Company had donated 7 guineas half yearly.  The matter was dealt with in person on 15 December but unfortunately there is no record of what answer the charity was given.

Seasonal good wishes!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/F/2/224 numbers 114, 115, 126, 171, 201, 211 Papers of the Finance, Home and Public Works Committee December 1858

 

19 December 2017

A case of cruel treatment and hidden identity

On Tuesday 17th November 1807 a bricklayer going about his business in Bishopsgate Street spotted a young sailor sitting in a doorway near the Black Bull pub, soaked to the bone with rain and weeping bitterly. He asked what the matter was, and found that the sailor had recently arrived in London on board a northern coal ship, and had run away due to ill treatment.

Taking pity on the shivering figure, the bricklayer took them into the Black Bull and offered some refreshment. The heat of the pub proved too much for the poor sailor, who fainted almost immediately after crossing the threshold. The landlady and bricklayer, loosening the sailor’s clothing to aid revival, discovered to their surprise that the sailor was a young woman.

Whitby image BL flickrImage taken from page 232 of Memorials of Old Whitby, etc. via the British Library Flickr Commons 

Originally from Whitby, Marianne Rebecca Johnson was the daughter of a seaman who died whilst serving in the Navy. Her mother remarried, and her stepfather forced Marianne into work. When she was thirteen, her stepfather showed up at her place of work and made her dress as a sailor boy, threatening to kill her if she revealed her true identity to anyone. She was then apprenticed, under the alias William Johnson, to the coal ship Mayflower, on which she served for four years.

Coal Ship BL FlickerImage taken from page 373 of The History and Description of Fossil Fuel, the collieries, and coal trade of Great Britain. By the author of the “Treatise on manufactures in metal” in Lirdner's Cabinet Cyclopædia [J Holland], via British Library Flickr Commons

It later transpired that Marianne’s stepfather had dealt with her mother in the same terrible manner, forcing her to take a position on a ship-of-war disguised as a sailor. Marianne did not hear from her mother for seven years, until her mother wrote to a friend and explained the circumstances of her own life at sea. Her mother had reportedly served several years on board different ships, before being mortally wounded in action during the battle of Copenhagen in 1807.

Copenhagen_on_fire_1807_by_CW_EckersbergChristoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, The Terrible Bombardment of Copenhagen, via Wikimedia Commons 

These details have come from the Proceedings of the Lord Mayors Court, which were reported in several newspapers at the time. Having heard Marianne’s tale, the pub hostess had resolved to present her before the Lord Mayor in order to provide her with some form of relief. The Lord Mayor initially intended to have Marianne transported back to  Whitby on board a coal steamer, but after Marianne raised her fears about travelling in such a manner now that her true identify was revealed, the Lord Mayor reconsidered.

It was eventually ordered that Marianne be taken care of, and fresh clothing provided, until a different and more suitable mode of transport could be obtained for her journey back to Whitby.

14 December 2017

Sixty Thousand Signatures against the Bengal Partition: Bengali Resistance in 1905

The ‘Partition’ of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 saw the birth of India and Pakistan in an unprecedented human tragedy.  But it was not the first time that British India witnessed a partition.

On 16 October 1905 Bengal province was ‘redistributed’ by the Viceroy Lord Curzon, apparently for administrative efficiency. Its eastern part was conceded to Assam Province to form a new ‘Eastern Bengal and Assam Province’. The remaining part of Bengal was further reduced by surrendering some of its parts to the Central Province.

This partition excited the Bengali population and resulted into various kinds of organized protest movements.  Memorials containing thousands of signatures were sent to the Governor General of India in Council to revoke the partition.  It was unprecedented in the history of the Raj that so many of her subjects literally took up their pen in an organized manner to register their protest against a Government decision.


L PJ 6 754 File 1027IOR/L/PJ/6/754. File 1027

One of many such memorials, sent on 31 December 1906 by Khaja Atikulla of Dacca, describes the day of the partition: ‘The demonstration which took place on the 16th October 1905, when the Partition was carried out, will never be forgotten. The whole Province was in mourning; the shops were closed; it was a day of fasting and prayers; and in Calcutta thousands of devout Hindus bathed in the Ganges, as is customary when a great misfortune overwhelms them’.

L PJ 6 803IOR/L/PJ/6/803

The ‘multitudinous signatures’ created a stir even in the British Parliament. MP Herbert Roberts asked the Secretary of State for India 'whether he has received & considered a memorial signed by 60,000 of the inhabitants of Eastern Bengal, protesting against the proposals of the Government of India in reference to the partition of Bengal...’

L PJ 6 729  File 2260IOR/L/PJ/6/729, File 2260

The list of the signatures running to thousands of pages bears the marks of a great number of Bengali population either in terms of written signatures or thumb impressions.

L PJ 6 803 AOne of many such volumes containing thousands of signatures IOR/L/PJ/6/803

The pages of signature were divided into three columns: Name/Signature, Address, and Profession. The overwhelming majority of the signatories were Hindu by religion, even in places like ‘East Bengal’ where Muslims outnumbered the Hindus.  A conspicuous absence of Bengali women from the lists went against the fact that Bengali women participated in the Movement in great numbers.

L PJ 6 754A page bearing the signature of Upendra Kisor Raychaudhuri, an eminent Bengali writer who established India’s finest printing press in Calcutta and introduced half tone and colour block making for the first time in the subcontinent IOR/L/PJ/6/754

  L PJ 6 755A signature page  IOR/L/PJ/6/755

The lists start with signatures of men of prominence and authority, mostly Maharajahas and Zamindars. They were followed by common men of different professions. During the first decade of the 20th century, the majority of Bengalis were farmers by profession. But the list does not reflect a proportionate representation of the Bengali population as the majority of the signatories were land owners (Taluqdar) or in money-lending professions (Mahajani, Tejarati).

However, organizing such a huge signature campaign against the reigning colonial power was not an easy job. Reaching the households of hundreds of villages all over Bengal, crossing rivers and forests, braving seasonal difficulties like those in the monsoon time could not have been possible without very organized concerted efforts. The list of 60,000 signatures seems to be a premonition of organized nation-wide struggle against the British Government which paved the way for the leaders like Gandhi.

Parthasarathi Bhaumik
Lecturer in Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, and Chevening Fellow at the British Library

Chevening_primary_CMYK (with bleed)

 

 

 

 

 

12 December 2017

Journals of Albert Hastings Markham

Where in the library collections might you find watercolour arctic landscapes, playbills, squashed mosquitoes and first-hand accounts of whaling?

We are pleased to announce that the journals of Sir Albert Hastings Markham (1841-1918) have been processed and are now available to request in the Manuscripts Reading Room, under reference Add MS 89230. The journals were acquired at auction in 2015, drawing on the T S Blakeney Fund and with the generous support of the Friends of the British Library and the Eccles Centres for American Studies.

They cover the period from 1871-1902, during which Markham undertook polar reconnaissance in the Arctic and the Kara Sea, surveyed the conditions in the Hudson Bay for the Canadian Government, participated in the British Arctic Expedition (1875-1876), and served in the Navy in the Torpedo School, Pacific Station, and Mediterranean.

Sleddingscene

A sledging scene under sail, Add MS 89230/2/1 f 136

Importance and writing

Markham’s entries are richly detailed, and he does not shy away from recording his opinions on the behaviour of his crew and the places he visited. His account on the whaling vessel Arctic is probably best not read by those of a sensitive disposition, conjuring up as it does the sights and smells of decks covered with blood, fat and coal dust.

His journal as second in command of the Mediterranean fleet contains his first-hand account of the incident for which he is probably best known – the sinking of the flagship Victoria, following a collision with Markham’s ship Camperdown whilst undertaking manoeuvres off Tripoli.

These journals complement our existing holdings on Arctic research and exploration, from material relating to James Cook’s third voyage and attempts to find the Northwest Passage, and Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition. The British Arctic Expedition of 1875-1876 was in several aspects a precursor of later Antarctic explorations, and Markham’s role leading the sledging team to achieve farthest north makes this a vital first-hand account.

Accompanying materials

The British Arctic Expedition journals (Add MS 89230/2) contain beautiful watercolours and ink sketches of arctic landscapes, wildlife, and fellow crew members.

YeloomYe Loom, Add MS 89230/2/1, f 36

CaninetroopYe canine troop performing a melodious concert, Add MS 89230/2/1, f 82

During the cataloguing process I was pleased to find letters enclosed in the journals, many written by figures in the history of arctic exploration and 19th century naval history, including William Grant (arctic photographer), Captain Antonius de Bruijne (of the Dutch schooner Willem Barents), and Benjamin Leigh Smith. Markham was also careful to collect keepsakes such as dinner menus and playbills for the performances put on by the ship’s company.

ThurspopsProgramme for the Thursday Pops, Add MS 89230/2/1, f 191

The Hudson’s Bay journal (Add MS 89230/4) was partly composed by Markham whilst he journeyed from York Factory to Winnipeg by canoe. Markham and his party were plagued by mosquitoes - “the buzz and the hum of my relentless persecutors – the mosquitoes – will they never tire? Will they ever leave me unmolested?” -  and these flying irritants have literally left their mark on the journal, with folios 115-151 spotted with pressed remains.

MosquitoesJournals with the ick factor, Add MS 89230/4

The catalogue can be found at Search Archives and Manuscripts under collection reference Add MS 89230. We will continue to post images on @BL_ModernMss, so be sure to follow us if you aren’t already.

Alex Hailey

Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

08 December 2017

Hostess with the mostest… and so much more: introducing the Ishbel MacDonald Archive

Imagine the Prime Minister having to pay to run Downing Street out of her own pocket – seems unreasonable from today’s perspective, but until fairly recently this was an expectation for the British Prime Minister. The recently acquired archive of Ishbel Peterkin née MacDonald (1903-1982) sheds light on the burdens of this. Ishbel was the eldest daughter of Ramsay MacDonald, the first Prime Minister for the Labour Party in the UK, first in 1924 and again from 1929 to 1935. When Ishbel’s mother Margaret passed away in 1911 Ishbel acted as her father’s host during his political career living alongside him at 10 Downing Street and running the house.

MacDonalds in Garden Hampstead
The MacDonald family in their garden in Hampstead, North London. Ishbel stands behind her father Ramsay. © With kind permission of Ishbel Lochhead.

Ishbel visited Downing Street prior to the family’s move and was perturbed by the big, empty house. Previous Prime Ministers had brought their own furniture – and then taken it away with them. The MacDonalds, however, were not moving from a grand residence but from their modest family home in Hampstead. To prepare, Ishbel and her sister purchased linen, crockery and cutlery with their own money, while Ramsay MacDonald arranged a loan of paintings from the National Portrait Gallery. These intimate domestic details reflect an interesting shift in 20th-century politics. MacDonald was of more humble origins than his predecessors in government who had set a precedent for running Downing Street as an extension of their wealthy homes.

Guestlist Thurs 11th Dec 1930

Guestlist Thurs 18th 1930
Guest lists for 11 and 18 December 1930 © With kind permission of Ishbel Lochhead.   

Ishbel’s effort to run Downing Street modestly did not stop with the furnishings but in hosting and feeding guests. Carefully preserved notebooks of guest lists and menu cards paint a vivid picture. We can see who was eating with the Prime Minister and when, including place settings inked on the left in red. The menus themselves suggest that the MacDonalds had to budget carefully and were unconcerned with the culinary fashions of the day. Typical menus of the period from society events showcased a classical, often ostentatious French repertoire, usually written in French. By contrast Ishbel’s menus contain simple dishes like ‘Nut Roast’ and ‘Roast Chicken.’

Menus 18th and 11th Dec 1930
Menus for 11 and 18 December 1930. © With kind permission of Ishbel Lochhead.

Ishbel MacDonald’s papers will offer researchers a fantastic insight into her efforts running 10 Downing Street as well as a record of her fascinating life more generally. Ishbel was an active politician in her own right, elected to the London County Council in 1928 and again in 1931. She was the subject of public fascination and when she decided to leave politics to run a pub in 1935 the move was covered by extensive media coverage. The archive contains correspondence, detailed diaries, and scrapbooks and notebooks relating to the family's time in politics.

Luncheon 2nd December 1930
Guest list and menu for luncheon on 2 December 1930. © With kind permission of Ishbel Lochhead.

The archive is currently being catalogued with the aim of making it available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room by the middle of next year. In the meantime please contact eleanor.dickens@bl.uk with any enquiries.

Eleanor Dickens
Curator, Politics and Public Life

05 December 2017

The Rani of Jhansi

Lakshmi Bai is probably the most famous woman in modern Indian history.  The widowed Rani of Jhansi was pensioned off in 1854 when the East India Company annexed her state.  She then fought against the British disguised as a man and died at their hands four years later during the Indian ‘Mutiny’.
 
An account of her death was given in a letter by John Latimer, a member of the Central India Field Force. Writing in camp in Kalpi on 24 June 1858 to his uncle in the UK , he describes the fighting and marches that he and his unit have recently endured.  He goes on to say: 

 '… a fine looking native woman was killed in the pursuit by a grape shot it is supposed, She was riding a white mare which was also shot, A beautifully limbed and pretty woman she must have been, the Jhansi Ranee is said to be very ugly otherwise we were all inclined to think and even hope it might be her, As it is the matter is likely to remain a mystery (unless some of the big fellows can manage to get some clue as to her identity) '.

Rani of JhansiLakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi. Add.Or.1896


 He continues the story in the same letter on 9 July, mentioning her death and the massacre of Europeans at Jhansi thirteen months previously: 

 'The so called Ranee of Jhansi has been killed at Gwalior.  She seems to have been a brave and determined woman, worthy of a better fate, the cruelties attributed to her at Jhansi, have since been officially contradicted.  Our unhappy countrymen and countrywomen may have been it is true, killed with her sanction, but it is generally believed that she could not have saved them had she wished it, the terrible atrocities attributed to her have been found to have been purely fictitious'.
 
His grudging admiration becomes clearer a few lines later: 

 ' … seeing her army broken and defeated, with rage in her heart and tears of veneration in her eyes, she mounted her horse and bent her course towards Gwalior, here her last stand was made, she disdained further flight, and died with a heroism worthy of a better cause, when the storm burst in May last year the mutineers visited her and persuaded her, that the hour had come for the asserting of her rights … Proud and impetuous, she required but little persuasion, she girded on her father’s sword raised the standard of her ancestors and entered the Palace of Jhansi at the head of the troops … Her life has been a brief and eventful one, and gives to the revolt – its only romantic tinge, Whatever opinion the world may entertain regarding her cruelty, her courage shines pre-eminent and can only be equalled, but not eclipsed by that of Joan of Arc . She played for a high game, and even when she found she had losing cards did not despair, but looked defiance [sic] to the last'.
 
Given the atrocities committed by both sides talk of a 'romantic tinge' seems misplaced, but at least one of Lakshmi Bai’s enemies paid tribute to her undoubted bravery and charisma. 
 
Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services

Further reading:
John Latimer’s letter – India Office Private Papers  MSS Eur C596