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19 April 2018

The Plans, Maps and Views of Lieutenant-General William Skinner, Chief Engineer of Great Britain

Born to a merchant in St Kitts in the Caribbean, William Skinner (1700-1780) lost his parents at a young age and was adopted by his Aunt and her new husband Captain Talbot Edwards, Chief Engineer in Barbados and the Leeward Islands.

Skinner was educated at military colleges in Paris and Vienna and received his warrant as practitioner engineer in 1719. By 1757 he had risen through the ranks to become Colonel William Skinner, Chief Engineer of Great Britain, and in 1770 he was made Lieutenant-General.

Image 1A View in Newfoundland (Add MS 33233, f. 26)

At the British Library we hold Skinner’s personal collection of maps, plans, surveys and views (Add MS 33231-33233) which show the variety of places where he worked throughout his career, as well as giving an insight into the working process of a military engineer in the 18th century. 

From the start of his career Skinner was sent all over the world.  He became known as an authority on fortifications, and worked on important projects including the building of fortifications on Menorca and surveying Gibraltar, where he later served as Director of Engineering.

Image 3A View of the South Front of the Mountain of Gibraltar (Maps K.Top.72.48.d.)

After the Jacobite Rising of 1745, Skinner was asked to lead a major project to build fortifications in the Highlands. Fort George, built on the sea front north-east of Inverness, was finally completed in 1769 and is still in use today.

Image 4A Plan of Fort George (Maps K.Top.50.33.)

Skinner became Chief Engineer in 1757, just after the Seven Years War (1756-1763) had begun, and many projects that he worked on at this time were as a result of this conflict. In 1761 Skinner was sent to Belle Île in France, which had been captured by the British in order to have a base from which to attack the French mainland. General Studholme Hodgson who had led the raid on the island, complained about ‘the set of wretches I have for engineers’, at which point Skinner was brought in to survey the defences and provide accommodation and shelter for the Armed Forces which had been left to hold the island.

Image 5Plan of the Citadel and Part of the Town of Palais Belle-Isle (Add MS 33232, f. 3)

As Chief Engineer all military building projects needed to be submitted for his approval. One such project was the building of fortifications around St John’s in Eastern Newfoundland. This area had been reclaimed from the French in 1762 after the Battle of Signal Hill, which was the final battle of the Seven Years War in North America.

Image 6A View of Conception Bay, Newfoundland (Add MS 33233, f. 34)

William Skinner died on Christmas Day 1780. He kept on working right up until the end of his life, and had passed on his engineering talent to his grandson, who worked successfully as an engineer in the US.

All the items from Skinner’s collection are available to be viewed in the British Library Reading Rooms, and one of his views of Newfoundland (Add MS 33233, f. 34) can currently be seen in our Treasures Gallery.

Stephen Noble
Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Catalogue links:

Maps and Plans, chiefly of fortifications or surveys for military purposes, Add MS 33231 A-PP
Surveys of Belle Isle, France, and plans and sections of its fortifications during the British occupation after its capture in 1761, Add MS 33232
Views of fortifications and landscapes, Add MS 33233

 

17 April 2018

Papers of Major Geoffrey Herbert Blake, Royal Indian Army Service Corps

The India Office Private Papers recently acquired the diaries of an officer who served in the Royal Indian Army Service Corps during the Second World War. 

RIASC IWM SE 588Royal Indian Army Service Corps troops unload an American C-47 cargo plane at an airstrip in the Pinwe area, 21 November 1944 © IWM (SE 588)

Geoffrey Herbert Blake was born in Peterborough on 30 September 1923.  On leaving school, he began training to become an accountant, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war.  In June 1943, he joined the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, which was responsible for vital supply and transport services for the Indian Army.  He spent the next four years in India, and recorded his experiences in his diaries.

Blake diaries  Mss Eur F717British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

The diaries begin with an introduction on 5 March 1943 in which Blake stated his reasons for keeping the diary: 'I hope that it may record in some detail the most interesting journey of my life, and that it will give me something to talk about in my old age (if I even qualify for this status in life)'.  He then described the process of embarking on the long journey to India.  He left Liverpool on 14 March aboard the MV Britannic, a White Star liner which had been converted to carry troops for the duration of the War.  The Britannic joined a large convoy for the voyage south, with Blake commenting that 'As far as we could see, troop transports were in line', with destroyers protecting them.  The convoy stopped at Freetown, in Sierra Leone, for two days, before resuming the journey to Cape Town in South Africa.  Blake would spend about six weeks camped near Cape Town, before continuing on to Bombay, arriving on 11 June 1943.

First sight of India  Mss Eur F717-1British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

On arriving in India, Blake travelled to Bangalore, where he would spend six months at the Officer’s Training School, before taking up his duties in Air Despatch.  His diaries give a daily account of his life in India as an officer in the Indian Army during the tumultuous years of the Second World War.  He left Bombay aboard the SS Empress of Scotland on 22 January 1947 for the voyage to Liverpool.  Expressing sadness at leaving a country he had grown fond of, he wrote philosophically: 'It looks as if my Indian journey is drawing to an end, but what will the next journey be?'

The start of a journey  Mss Eur F717-1British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

The catalogue of the papers can be found online.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Papers of Major Geoffrey Herbert Blake (1923-2017), Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) 1943-1947 [Reference Mss Eur F717]

 

16 April 2018

The Library of Ideas: Undercurrent at the British Library

To announce our upcoming special event, The Library of Ideas: Creative Use of the British Library presented by Undercurrent Theatre and the British Library we present a blog post by the Artistic Director of Undercurrent Theatre, Laura Farnworth reflecting on her time here at the Library as Artist-in-Residence.

Undercurrent-1APhotographs by the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts team.

It is almost a year since our residency, funded by the Arts Council, began here at the British Library as their First Associate Theatre Company. During my time I have been able to rationalise what is important for me as an artist and I have learnt that I love research and it is integral to my artistic process. The better you understand material, the more distinct and original it will make your artistic work. So, spending time in and with personal archives gives you the rare opportunity to really go deep into a subject. It is about making unexpected and surprising connections between remote pieces of research. The result of these connections is where you start to create something new.

As an artist I am always looking to gather as much ‘fuel’ for my process as possible, stimulus, data, information, knowledge and details. The British Library is the optimum resource for this. Not only does it have ‘everything’(!), it also enables you to approach a topic through various ways, sound, image, digital, manuscript, maps… and all these approaches can inspire you in a different way. It really makes you think about the ‘how’ of your work, in other words, not just what your project will say and contain, but how it will be made, crafted, the form it will take.

Undercurrent-2Manuscript material from the J G Ballard archive (Add MS 88938)

A particular highlight of my time here has been researching the archive of the author J G Ballard. The archive is extensive and a fantastic overview and introduction can be found here. Whilst it does not contain as much personal material as some authors’ archives - it holds very little in the way of private correspondence - it does provide a brilliant insight into the creative process of a great artist. Ballard wrote a lot of his novels by hand and many of his typescripts are heavily annotated. As you start to work through the archive you begin to stitch together a sense of his process. You can learn so much from seeing his choices of what to edit or reword. It is unusual to have such private access to the earliest thoughts of a great artist and it’s quite special to unpick how he works through his ideas and begins his projects. 

The culmination of Undercurrent’s residency will be the The Library of Ideas: Creative Use of the British Library  The aim of this event is to encourage early-career artists into the British Library so that they can discover how they can use the Library to develop their own artistic projects. It’s a rare opportunity to meet curators and get up close to some of the collections - everything from sound to manuscripts to digital.

Laura Farnworth

Artistic Director,

Undercurrent Theatre

Associate Theatre Company of the British Library

Posted on behalf of the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts team.