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78 posts categorized "Commerce"

13 September 2018

A day in the life of an East India Company Director

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Every April the stockholders of the East India Company elected 24 men to serve as directors for the following year.  Two were then chosen by the directors to be Chairman and Deputy.  These ‘merchant- statesmen’ had responsibility for governing a vast overseas empire as well as dealing with administrative minutiae such as petitions from home staff.  What was a typical working day for an East India Company director in the early 19th century? 

East India HouseJoseph C Stadler, East India House 1817 - P1389 Images Online

The Court of Directors met at East India House in Leadenhall Street in the City of London to take ‘cognizance of all matters of record relating to the Company’.  Thirteen directors had to be present to form a quorum.  One Court had to be held every week, but the directors often met two, three, or more times.  Proceedings generally started at 11am or midday, sometimes at 10am.  They usually broke up between 6pm and 7pm, although sittings might go on until 10pm. There were fines for non-attendance. During a sitting, some directors might go off to other parts of East India House whilst unimportant matters were being dealt with, but if something was brought forward for discussion, all directors were recalled to the Court before business continued.

  EIC Court RoomThomas Hosmer Shepherd, The Court Room, East India House c.1820  - WD 2465 Images Online

Court meetings started with the reading of all papers received since the last session. Dispatches from India were read in Court before being sent to the different departments at East India House, but the vast body of consultations copied back to London were merely referred to and read as necessary. Lengthy debates often took place. Matters were either dealt with immediately or referred to one of the specialised committees of directors. There were sixteen committees in 1813: Buying, College, Correspondence, Government Troops and Stores, House, Law Suits, Library, Military Fund, Military Seminary, Preventing the Growth of Private Trade, Private Trade, Secrecy, Secret, Shipping, Treasury, and Warehouses.

The Court then adjourned and the committees of directors convened.  About 5pm the Court came back together to consider reports from the committees and make final decisions. The Court also swore in captains and officers of Company ships, and saw civil and military servants returning to India.

EIC chairChair used by the Chairman of the Court of Directors manufactured c.1730 - Foster 905 Images Online

Directors took turns at presiding over sales at East India House, and committees often sat on days when the Court was not meeting.  With very few exceptions, the Chairman and Deputy attended East India House every morning, and frequently were there until late in the day: ‘their constant attention is indispensable, from the frequent communication with Ministers and the Government Offices’. They often had to go to the west end of town on government business.  

General Court Room 013355Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, General Court Room, East India House, c.1820 - WD 2466 Images Online

In return for their services, directors enjoyed patronage rights over certain civil and military appointments as well as a salary, fixed in 1793 at £300 per annum for directors and £500 each for the Chairman and Deputy.  In 1814, the General Court of Proprietors voted an increase: £1200 for the Chairman, £1000 for his Deputy, and £500 for directors (£700 for those on the Secret Committee or Committee of Correspondence).  Not all stockholders approved of the pay rise: the vote was 51 in favour, 21 against.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Proceedings of the Select Committee appointed by the General Court of Proprietors, on the 6th October 1813, to consider and report upon the expediency of augmenting the allowances to the Directors for their attendance upon the business of the Company … (London, 1814)

 

 

28 August 2018

Hazards when crossing the Atlantic in the early 19th Century

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Charles Kingsley’s maternal grandfather, Nathan Lucas FLS, owned plantations in Barbados and Demerara.  Lucas left Liverpool in the Barton (Captain George Chalmers) on 4 January 1803.  She had two decks, three masts and displaced 212 tons.

Liverpool c13872-60The Port of Liverpool taken from the opposite side of the River Mersey. Drawn and engraved by William Daniell. G.7043 plate 39 Images Online

On 19 January, off the coast of Spain, he wrote in his journal: ‘At 5am a mountainous sea broke upon the Ship from head to stern, carried away our booms – one of our boats – stowed the other – all our stock washed overboard.  The ship was thrown on her beam ends, & did not right again! … she was entirely unmanageable, & could not wear round – but cut away the Mizen Mast, without any effect … we then cut away the main mast; & thanks to God she righted a little & we got her before the wind – immediately she was pooped, the windows all broken in, & the Cabin a sea of water.  As we had no masts, sails or boats, we did not think proper to put to Lisbon, fearful of being wrecked on a lee shore.  Madeira was out of the question & we kept on to Barbados … Got in a Jury Main Mast, made from the Derrick – we have no more spars, except foretop gallant mast & foretopsail yard – we are busy in making some from planks sawn and nailed together – busily employed in making sails, rope &c’.  The voyage to Barbados lasted 51 days. 

BridgetownBridgetown – engraving by Samuel Cope reproduced in West India Committee Circular Vol.XXVIII no.38, 6 May 1913

England and France were at war when Lucas returned on the Ash (master James Reed).  ‘A convoy for England being appointed, I determined to take the advantage of it, for safety of convoy, not expedition; for who has sufficient patience for the delays of a convoy! I have not, I candidly confess; but it is the lesser of two evils; & a prison would detain longer than a fleet.’  Twenty ships sailed from Barbados on 21 July, and eventually there were 176 ships escorted by HMS Courageous and HMS Venus. Lucas recorded six ships sinking:  “September 17th: We hear that the Betsey of Dublin foundered in the late gale, & all hands lost.  The unexpected & unfortunate War in which we are engaged, by keeping many tender vessels abroad, to wait convoy, instead of getting home as fast as loaden, & of course getting a winter’s passage, has been the cause of all the disasters in the fleet.”  The voyage to Bristol lasted 70 days.

On 18 August 1811 Lucas left Falmouth for Barbados on the Swallow (Captain Morphew). On 4 September they were boarded by the French frigate La Clorinde sailing from Madagascar to France. ‘It was soon rumoured that the Vessel would be given up to us, & the men &c exchanged on Cartel … They were in the greatest distress for provisions & water, though they had removed all from the Prizes they had made, but were now so low, they could not detain us.  Our private property was secured to us, tho’ they took away my Petite Neptune Francais.  Everything else was carried off, stores, rigging, sails, provisions &c … we really thought there were no provisions & water left; but we afterwards found some Pork & Potatoes.” They returned to Falmouth, where Lucas joined ‘the Express, Capt. Bullock, with Mails for the Windward Islands’, arriving in Barbados on 10 November. 

Peter Covey-Crump
Independent researcher

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive 

 

02 August 2018

James Cook and Adam Smith

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The art historian Bernard Smith famously described Cook as ‘Adam Smith’s global agent’.  Cook’s voyages certainly promoted commerce as a civilizing activity, a key theme in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), published the same year Cook departed on his final voyage.  Commerce is often illustrated in John Webber’s images of the expedition.

  Nootka Sound c07546-04John Webber, The ship, ‘Resolution’, at anchor in Nootka Sound, 1778, pen, wash and watercolour, British Library, Add. 15514, no. 10 Images Online

In their eagerness to trade with the British, the Mowachaht are here exercising what Adam Smith terms ‘the most sacred of human rights’ – to make a profit from what they have produced, particularly sea-otter furs which were highly prized by the British – and in doing so, are sharing in the benefits of ‘civilization’.

Like Smith’s own public image, however, the man on the £20 note extolling the virtues of the division of labour, the realities of the encounter were more complicated than that.  Less often quoted are his comments on the impact of this division of labour on individuals’s lives: ‘The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations… becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to become’.

Smith was equally sceptical of European intrusions into the New World, motivated by ‘the dream of Eldorado’ or the equally fantastical ‘discovering a north-west passage to the East Indies’.  As for what he terms ‘colony trade’, this, he argued, tended to serve the interests of merchants above either those of the colonies or of the ‘mother country’. The ‘blankets, fire-arms, and brandy’ that the nations of North America traded for furs did little if anything to improve their lives, nor in Britain did those new imported products ‘consumed by idle people who produce nothing, such as foreign wines, foreign silks, &c’.

Smith was not alone in holding such critical views.  Some even stuck to the figure of Cook himself who was accused of being ‘amongst the pursuers of peltry’.  The accusation was not without some justification.  Soon after his death in 1779 a number of commercial expeditions were launched on the back of reports from Cook’s voyage of the abundance of sea-otter furs on America’s north-west coast and the huge prices they fetched in China.  Several of these trips were led by former crew members of Cook.  In 1792, George Vancouver, a midshipman on the Resolution, sailed to Nootka Sound to negotiate with Spain the rights of the British effectively to take possession of the region for purposes of trade.

In the background to Gillray’s caricature of Vancouver is ‘The South-Sea Fur Warehouse from China!’ selling ‘Fine Black Otter Skins.  The assertion: ‘No contraband goods sold here’ is hardly to be believed.  Instead, Gillray, like Smith, casts doubt on the benefits to the ‘mother country’ brought by ‘colony trade’, a point emphasised by the inscription on Vancouver’s cloak: ‘This present from the King of Owyhee to George IIId forgot to be delivered’.  Such criticisms of course take little, if any, account of the injurious impact the trade had on the Mowachaht themselves.

James Gillray  The Caneing in Condiut StreetJames Gillray, The Caneing in Conduit Street, dedicated to the Flag Officers of the British Navy, 1796 - hand-coloured etching British Museum

So it may be true that Cook’s promotion of trade was ‘the diplomatic hallmark of his command’.  But the suggestion that he did so with a particular economic theory in mind, Smith’s or anybody else’s for that matter, would be to credit him with a far greater clarity of purpose than all the evidence would imply he possessed.

Ben Pollitt
PhD Candidate, Department of History of Art, University College London

Further reading:
Bernard Smith, ‘Cook’s Posthumous Reputation,’ in Robin Fisher and Hugh Johnston (eds), Captain James Cook and his Times, Vancouver and London, 1979, pp. 159-186
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776
James Cook and James King, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1784
George Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1798
MacLaren, I.S., ‘Narrating and Alaskan Culture: Cook’s Journal (1778) and Douglas’s Edition of A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784)’ in J. Barnett and D. Nicandri (eds.), Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2015) pp. 231-261

Visit our exhibition James Cook: The Voyages
Open until 28 August 2018

BL_Cook_737x451-quote-final-weeks

 

15 March 2018

Preventing disorder at the East India Company factories

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More than 1500 volumes of East India Company Factory Records are being digitised though a partnership between the British Library and Adam Matthew Digital. The factories were the Company’s overseas trading posts from the 17th to 19th centuries. The Factory Records are copies of documents sent back to London to be added to the archive at East India House.  

EIC factory Cossimbazar 1795 Add.Or.3192 - Cropped East India Company Factory at Cossimbazar 1795 Add.Or.3192 Online Gallery Noc

The main categories of documents included in this series are formal minutes of official meetings; diaries recording daily business and life at the factory; and correspondence.

A wide range of topics is covered, for example:
• Commercial transactions and dealings with local merchants
• Descriptions of goods traded, with prices
• Private trade of Company servants
• Relations with other European nations and with local inhabitants
• Ship arrivals and departures; negotiations with captains
• Personnel management
• Misdemeanours
• Establishments and salaries
• Complaints and petitions
• Sickness and death

The first of two modules of digitised Factory Records was launched recently. It includes the Company trading posts in South and South-East Asia. Amongst these are the records for the Hugli Factory in the Bay of Bengal, 1663-1687.

IOR G 20 2 p.19IOR/G/20/2 part 2 pp.19-21 Rules for good behaviour December

In December 1679 the Agent and Council for the Coast of Coromandel and the Bay of Bengal composed a set of orders ‘’for advanceing the Honour of the English Nation and the preventing of Disorders’. All Company servants employed in the Bay of Bengal were instructed to –

• Stop lying, swearing, cursing, drunkenness, ‘uncleaness’, ‘profanation of the Lord’s Day’, and all other sinful practices.
• Be sure to be back inside the Company house or their lodgings at night.
• Say morning and evening prayers.

Penalties for infringement were specified.

• For staying out of the house all night without permission or being absent when the gates were shut at 9pm without a reasonable excuse – 10 rupees to be paid to the poor, or one whole day sitting publicly in the stocks.
• For every oath or curse, twelve pence to the poor, or three hours in the stocks.
• For lying - twelve pence to the poor.
• For drunkenness – five shillings to the poor or six hours in the stocks.
• For any Protestant in the Company’s house absent without a valid excuse from public prayers on weekday mornings and evenings - twelve pence to the poor or one week’s confinement in the house.
• For any Christian absent from morning and evening prayers on a Sunday - twelve pence to the poor.  If no payment was made, the money was to be raised by selling the offender’s goods, or he might be imprisoned.

If these penalties failed to ‘reclaim’ someone from these vices or if any man was found guilty of adultery, fornication, or ‘uncleaness’, or disturbed the peace of the factory by quarrelling or fighting, he was to be sent to Fort St George for punishment.  The orders were to be read publicly at the Factory twice a year so no-one could profess ignorance of them.

One of the Company officials who signed the regulations was Matthias Vincent. He was accused in India of corruption, immorality and extortion!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

The East India Company digital resource is available online from Adam Matthew and there is access in British Library Reading Rooms in London and Yorkshire.

 

13 March 2018

Getting a fair price: a handy pocket-book for merchants (and smugglers?)

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We recently acquired a little book with strong ties to Cornish trade and smuggling in the 18th century.  Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal was printed in the sea port of Falmouth, Cornwall, in 1787.  It is a pocket-sized book of tables and calculations of the rates of exchange between Portugal and England, together with conversion tables for measures of cloth, wine and corn, and weights – indispensable for the merchants and sailors involved in Falmouth’s lucrative trade network, clandestine or otherwise, wanting a fair price for their goods.

Photo 1Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal Noc

During the 18th century there was a thriving maritime trade between Lisbon and Falmouth, as described by Daniel Defoe in his Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain, 1724:

"Falmouth is well built, has abundance of shipping belonging to it, is full of rich merchants, and has a flourishing and increasing trade.  I say 'increasing,' because by the late setting up the English packets between this port and Lisbon, there is a new commerce between Portugal and this town carried on to a very great value.  It is true, part of this trade was founded in a clandestine commerce carried on by the said packets at Lisbon, where, being the king's ships, and claiming the privilege of not being searched or visited by the Custom House officers, they found means to carry off great quantities of British manufactures, which they sold on board to the Portuguese merchants, and they conveyed them on shore, as it is supposed, without paying custom.  But the Government there getting intelligence of it … that trade has been effectually stopped.  But the Falmouth merchants, having by this means gotten a taste of the Portuguese trade, have maintained it ever since in ships of their own”.

The Falmouth-Lisbon Packet Service described by Defoe started operation in 1689.  It was an early postal service that carried mail on packet ships from country to country.  There were other packet stations on the south and east coasts and, together, they ran important routes across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and through Northern Europe.  The packet crews furtively traded goods on their own account, duty-free, on the side, making the packet service risky but potentially lucrative work.  Even when the government got wind of this practice and stamped it out, the smuggling continued using privately owned boats.  Portuguese gold bars and coin were particular favourites, and often found their way up to London.  This little pocket book would have been a handy guide for converting measures of smuggled goods, and calculating the exchange rate between currencies.

Photo 2Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal Noc

The last page has an advertisement for Elizabeth Elliot, bookseller, stationer and printer.  Elizabeth was the widow of the printer Philip Elliot and, together, their business was responsible for ten out of the 24 early printed books with Falmouth imprints that survive today.  Elizabeth’s shop sold an eclectic range of “books in all languages and all manner of bindings; stationary/wares of all sorts; mathematical instruments; violins, German and common flutes, and fifes, music, music-books and music-paper; the late Sir John Hill’s medicines, by appointment of Lady Hill; Wash-Balls, lavender-water, eau de luce, &c. &c.”.  Elizabeth took over the shop in 1787 and printed this book of tables, an English grammar for “young beginners”, two sermons, a book of spiritual songs and a satirical poem about slavery.

Photo 3  Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal Noc

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

16 February 2018

Fashion fit for a suffragette procession

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White attire detailFebruary includes London Fashion Week and marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act which gave some women aged 30 or over the right to vote. Suffragette purchasing-power provides an unexpected link between the world of fashion and the fight for women’s right to vote.

In early June 1911, fashion purchasing-power was highlighted as a weapon to be deployed in the struggle to achieve women’s suffrage. Suffragists and suffragettes were preparing for a procession to highlight their cause on 17 June during the Coronation of George V. They were asked to wear white when they took part in this procession.

  Whet Your Weapon article 02-06-1911 cropped                               

 

 Votes for Women, 02 June 1911

 

 

 

Readers of the weekly newspaper, Votes for Women, which was edited by Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, were urged to buy their outfits from firms that advertised there. ‘If they find it pays them to advertise in VOTES FOR WOMEN they will advertise – if they find it doesn’t, they won’t. The more money that flows into the coffers of our advertisement department the better our paper can be made, the wider its influence reaches. Therefore let every woman who believes in this cause never enter a shop that does not advertise in VOTES FOR WOMEN, and let her deal exclusively with those firms that do, and inform them why.’

Women who obeyed this call to arms would have had a good choice of items to ensure a suitably modish appearance during the procession. Advertisers enticed them with pictures of dresses, dainty blouses, charming hats, smart coats and hair care products. The procession through London from Westminster to the Albert Hall comprised around 60,000 women from around the world carrying 1,000 banners and stretched for seven miles. One hopes that they also bought the comfortable shoes on offer!

 

   March route detail

                                  Votes for Women, 16 June 1911

 The advertisements below, taken from Votes for Women 1911, give an idea of the heights of elegance that might be achieved.

Charming hats 09-06-1911  

Universal Hair detail

The fashions of the day generally required a good corset. It is fascinating to see how Mesdames I&L Hammond developed their advertisement for their corsets, garments that might now be regarded as instruments of female oppression, to appeal more strongly to suffragettes.

Corset Hammond detail 1

  Corset detail 19-05-1911 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The advertisement on the left comes from Votes for Women for 21 April 1911. The advertisement on the right, from Votes for Women for 26 May 1911, shows how the company had developed its marketing strategy to be in tune with the suffragette cause.

The British Library's Votes for Women online resource highlights many more treasures in the collections that tell the story of the campaign for women's suffrage.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records

Further reading
Votes for Women online resource
Votes for Women, 1911
https://www.findmypast.co.uk/suffragettes/

Untold Lives blogs relating to women's suffrage
Indian Princess in Suffragette March
Emily Wilding Davison: Perpetuating the Memory 
Lord Curzon's Anti-suffrage Appeal
Christmas Crackers and Women's Suffrage
The Women's Co-operative Guild


Untold Lives blogs relating to fashion
Knitting a shower-proof golf coat
Thomas Bowrey's Cloth Samples 
Muslins, Kincobs and Choli Cloths 
Was 'water rat' the new black in 1697?

 

28 December 2017

Untold Lives looks back at 2017

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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

 

14 November 2017

A paper maker makes the papers: the shocking death of William Moinier Leschallas

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Here in the British Library's Reference Team we often receive enquiries that spark our curiosity, tempting us to dig a little deeper. Following a recent request for help in establishing the identity of a paper manufacturer, I was surprised to find myself drawn into a Victorian mental health crisis, one which lead to a tragic death.

Tasked with establishing who watermarked their paper with the word ‘Moinier’ followed by the date, I began browsing newspaper reports on British Newspaper Archive. A search for ‘Moinier’ and ‘paper’ quickly revealed the full name of our man – William Lewis Moinier Leschallas. He was a wholesale stationer, rag merchant and manufacturer of a unique type of paper based in Chatham. His business ventures did not receive widespread media attention, but there was plenty of coverage in the circumstances of his demise.

Kendal Mercury

Kendal Mercury, Saturday 18 December 1852, British Newspaper Archive.

William ended his own life in 1852. His brother John Leschallas reported that William was 57 years old (although another report suggests he was 75, an early typo perhaps). This meant that he would have started seeing societal changes in approaches to mental health. At a local level, the 1808 County Asylums Act encouraged the building of county lunatic asylums. However, poor ‘lunatics’ often found themselves sent to workhouses, houses of correction or prisons, until asylum building became compulsory in 1845. These were intended to cure patients, where possible, with the introduction of new therapeutic regimes. A substantial number of patients were discharged from institutions within twelve months of admission.

Northampton General LA

‘The Northampton General Lunatic Asylum’, from Edward Pretty, 1849, Wetton's Guide-book to Northampton, and its vicinity, 1303.d.3. BL Flickr.

 

Sadly for William, he did not receive the support that he needed. A servant found his body seated upright between two piles of papers in his warehouse. A discharged pistol clasped in his right hand caused the bullet wound in his right temple. Many of the reports go into startling graphic detail about the servant’s gruesome discovery. The inquest into William’s suicide provides us with some understanding of what he was going through.

Witnesses alluded to William’s struggles with deteriorating mental health. His brother John told the Coroner that William had been suffering from deteriorating mental health for over a year. Problems were thought to have started shortly after a mill forming a significant part of his business was destroyed by a fire. This caused William believed that his business had fallen into financial difficulty. Prior to this, a report from 1836 suggested that William had encountered financial hardships before, when a partnership was dissolved because of growing debts.

Perry Bankrupt GazettePerry's Bankrupt Gazette, Saturday 06 February 1836, British Newspaper Archive

Scrutiny of accounts suggested that business had recovered, contrary to William’s beliefs, and was actually doing rather well. He thought that the company’s healthy accounts had been fabricated in order to mislead him. In a letter read out at the inquiry William mentioned that he thought he was being watched, and had attempted suicide on a previous occasion. This led to many newspapers declaring that William suffered from ‘delusions’ and ‘insanity’.

Carlisle JournalCarlisle Journal, Friday 24 December 1852, British Newspaper Archive

After all the evidence was heard at the inquest, the jury returned a verdict of ‘temporary insanity’.

Claire Wotherspoon

Manuscripts Reference Specialist

Further reading:

Barbara T. Gates, 2014, Victorian suicide: mad crimes and sad histories, YC.2015.b.2389.

Joseph Melling and Bill Forsythe (Eds.), 1999, Insanity, institutions, and society, 1800-1914: a social history of madness in comparative perspective, YC.2000.a.5463.

Andrew Scull, 1993, The most solitary of afflictions: madness and society in Britain 1700-1900, YC.1993.b.4876.