Untold lives blog

36 posts categorized "Innovation"

22 June 2017

The King’s Architect and the ‘Architect King’

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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.

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.

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’.

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


25 April 2017

William Close - “one deserving of remembrance”

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How does one describe a surgeon, apothecary, hydraulic engineer, inventor, antiquarian, musician, artist, author and editor who was also responsible for saving the lives of the children of his village?  However,  'a little slender man, very clever, but rather changeable... and one who devoted himself assiduously to his professional duties’  is the only contemporary comment which remains of Dr William Close (1797-1813).

The Furness peninsula at the turn of the 19th century provided an interesting environment for a man with Dr Close’s enquiring mind, and he supervised the medical welfare of a variety of people in that region, including agricultural labourers, miners, and factory workers.

Infectious diseases were inevitably rife, and the young were particularly vulnerable, so in 1799, only three years after the development of the vaccine against smallpox, Close inoculated all the poor children of the nearby village of Rampside at his own expense (despite not being a wealthy man).  Within five years, small pox was duly eradicated from the area.

Close 1

 This image is copied from one of Close’s engravings of Furness Abbey used to decorate the cover of The Antiquities of Furness.

Close was also interested in the history of his neighbourhood and was keen to record and preserve local landmarks for future generations. He illustrated and supplemented Thomas West’s The Antiquities of Furness (1805) from his house at 2 Castle Street, Dalton in Furness.  The building is now marked by a blue plaque

Close 2

 Plate indicating the improvements to trumpets suggested by Close reproduced from the Proceedings of the Barrow Naturalists Field Club.

Music, in particular the improvement of brass instruments, was another of Close’s passions.  Volume XVIII of Proceedings of The Barrow Naturalists’ Field Club gives a thorough account of his progress (though this perhaps somewhat over-estimates the lure of such a topic!).

Close was clearly a polymath, his interests ranging from methods of improving the permanency of black ink to the development of safer types of explosives and land drainage technology.  He gave evidence of his research in the form of detailed letters to journals of various kinds.

Sadly this far-seeing man died of tuberculosis on Sunday 27 June 1813, aged just 38.

P J M Marks
Curator of Bookbindings, Early Printed Collections

Further reading:
Damian Gardner-Thorpe, Christopher Gardner-Thorpe and John Pearn ‘William Close (1775-1813): medicine, music, ink and engines in the Lake District’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2004 Dec; 97(12): 599–602. 

Picturing Places - English Landscape Bindings by Philippa Marks

07 July 2016

“Pre-packed airports” for the Persian Gulf?

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‘We regret that no-one in Bahrain is interested in “pre-packed airports.”’ So ran the briefest and most succinct of letters from the Political Agent in Bahrain to the Board of Trade in London, in December 1949. What were “pre-packed airports”, and why was no-one in Bahrain interested in them?


IOR R 15 2 508, f 193

Extract of a letter from the Political Agency in Bahrain to the Commercial Relations and Exports Department of the Board of Trade, London, 1 December 1949. IOR/R/15/2/508, f 193  Noc


The Political Agent’s note was in response to a letter, sent by the Board of Trade in London in September 1949, reporting on a combined Dutch-US company that was comprised ‘of specialists in each constituent field of airport construction’, and who were offering the ‘pre-packed airport’, which could be built in any place as required.

This approach was in stark contrast to the way in which the British-administered airports in the Persian Gulf, at Bahrain and at Sharjah (in the United Arab Emirates), had developed. These sites, established by the British in the 1920s and 1930s, had grown up in an ad-hoc and oftentimes haphazard manner, in response to wartime as much as peacetime needs. Moreover, in the wake of India’s independence in 1947, and as the Royal Air Force scaled back its operations in the Gulf, a host of commercial aviation concerns – both British and foreign – were demanding access to improved airport facilities across the region.

British officials in the Gulf were unprepared and uncertain about how to respond to these changes. One Government official in Bahrain noted in 1949 that ‘we have no clear picture of the respective functions of the R.A.F., I.A.L. [International Aeradio Limited] and B.O.A.C. [British Overseas Airways Corporation] at Muharraq [in Bahrain].’ In official correspondence of the same year the Political Resident Rupert Hay conceded that ‘far more foreign aircraft are using the airfields without permission than with it’.


IOR R 15 2 508, ff 164-168

Extract of a letter from the Political Resident, William Rupert Hay, to the Foreign Office, 9 July 1949. IOR/R/15/2/508, ff 164-168 Noc


There was a gross underestimation on the part of British officials over the future potential of air travel, as well as a clear lack of understanding of the Gulf’s future potential as an international hub for air travel, and of the safety implications this raised. In October 1949 the newly installed Political Officer in Doha concluded that the future prospects for an expansion of ‘air traffic [in Qatar] is unlikely’, and that he did not think ‘there would ever be a demand in Qatar for a complete “pre-packed airport” installation.’


IOR R 15 2 508, f 190
Extract of a letter from the Political Officer in Doha to the Political Agent in Bahrain, 29 October 1940. IOR/R/15/2/508, f 190 Noc


Meanwhile, British Government officials were meeting at the Ministry of Civil Aviation in London, to discuss airfield crash facilities at Bahrain. The facilities at Muharraq, the meeting’s minutes noted, are ‘quite hopeless for any aircraft emergency.’ Proposals made during the meeting included the installation of ‘two standard RAF foam tenders, plus two water bowsers’.


  IOR R 15 2 508, ff 185-189
Extract of advance notes from a meeting held on 19 October 1949, on Bahrain (Muharraq) Airfield Crash Facilities. IOR/R/15/2/508, ff 185-189 Noc


Such equipment could deal with, but not prevent accidents occurring, and, less than a year later, in June 1950, a double tragedy occurred when two Douglas DC-4’s, both operated by Air France, crashed on the approach to Bahrain within two days of each other. A total of eighty-six people died in the two incidents. While investigators attributed the cause of the accidents to bad weather, the tragedies were a wake-up call to British officials, who acted quickly to equip the airfield at Muharraq with radio landing aids and runway approach lights.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project Cc-by

British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further Reading:
British Library ‘File 13/2 VIII Air facilities in Arab shaikhdoms’ IOR/R/15/2/508

31 March 2016

Professor Frederick Browne - Help of the hairless & Victorian blogger

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Lack hair?  Going grey?  Suffer from 'dandriff' and scurf?  Need a sure fire winner at the races?  The hairdresser, ‘Professor’ Frederick John Browne, could address all of these issues, and more. 

A gifted self-publicist, Browne made use of the 19th century’s version of social media.  In addition to handbills and newspaper advertisements, he publicised his salon and wares on the covers of inexpensive popular novels issued by instalment.  Part nine of Shirley Brook’s Sooner or Later  celebrated Browne’s “ventilating and invisible peruke”.  The Professor hijacked popular songs substituting his own hair-related  lyrics, (“How sweet to the tresses is Browne’s Toilet Gem!” to the tune of ‘Home Sweet Home’); produced a sixteen page guide to his services modestly entitled “The Rising Wonder” and kept his clients up to date with his activities via regular issues of Professor Browne’s Toilet Almanack.

Professor Browne 1
 B.L. C.194.a.752. Although ignorant of Instagram, Brown recognised that an image had more impact than words. Noc

Browne, recognising the importance of visual marketing, included images (and colour where possible), facts and figures (not exclusively hair related), tips on hair care and reviews of new Browne merchandise (including the much lauded ‘concave slanting scurf brush’. 

Professor Browne 2

Morning Post 20 September 1846 British Newspaper Archive  Noc

His writing was characterised by humour and rhyme.  The parodies and punning references to literary and contemporary figures (from Shakespeare and Johnson to Louis Napoleon) appealed to the emerging educated middle classes. 

The sheer number of verses is overwhelming and occasionally drollery can feel a little strained, for example when recommending his cologne, ‘The Jockey Club Bouquet’, Browne recounts a dream in which a jockey brandished a fragrance bottle under his horse’s nose claiming “this magic essence which has come from Browne’s, Will make me a winner at Epsom Downs”.  Similarly, the Byron tablet soap which guaranteed “a perpetually soft white hand”.

Browne’s was actually a brand involving the extended family.  The shop was staffed by Browne (1807-1856), his wife Lydia (1806- 1868), and his son, Shem Frederick (1834-1863), as well as numerous assistants (“all well experienced and able Practitioners”).  Shem’s son (1863-1942) was named after the founder of the shop, Frederick John. The premises was owned by the Clothworkers Company and there are records which state that the family paid the lease from 1843 until at least 1882.

Professor Browne 3
Image courtesy of John Johnson Collection 

The comfortable salon in Fenchurch Street, was furnished like a gentleman’s club, albeit one with private rooms for dyeing or having one’s hair “brushed by machine”. It was open from 8am (and sometimes 7am) to 9pm.  Patrons could sit by the fire and browse newspapers, purchase the many fragrances and elixirs Browne had developed and patented, or discreetly examine “the Largest Stock of Ornamental Hair in the World always on view".

PJM Marks
Curator of Bookbindings Cc-by

Further reading:
The rising wonder
The John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library
Gender and Material Culture in Britain since 1600 / Hamlett, Jane (Editor); Hannan, Leonie (Editor); Grieg, Hannah (Editor). Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Advertisement in The Tomahawk A Saturday journal of satire 19 February 1870.


16 March 2016

Dame Anne McLaren: a noted career

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Dame Anne McLaren (1927–2007) was a developmental biologist who pioneered techniques that led to human in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

McLaren studied Zoology at Oxford and received a DPhil in 1952. In the same year she moved to UCL and began research with her husband Donald Michie into the skeletal development of mice. In 1955 she and Michie moved to the Royal Veterinary College and it was in 1958, while working with John Biggers, that McLaren produced the first litter of mice grown from embryos that had been developed outside the uterus and then transferred to a surrogate mother. This work paved the way for the development of IVF technologies and the birth of the first IVF baby Louise Brown some 20 years later.


Detail from McLaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1955-1959 recording her experiments concerning embryo transplants in mice. (Add MS 83844). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.


Detail from Mclaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1968-1976. (Add MS 83854). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

In later years Anne’s career took her from Edinburgh to Cambridge via UCL where she continued her work into fertility and reproduction. As well as undertaking research she was a keen advocate of scientists explaining their work to the population at large and being involved in the formation of public policy. McLaren was a member of the Warnock committee whose advice led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 as well as the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulated in vitro fertilization and the use of human embryos, on which she served for over 10 years.


Selection of lectures dating from 1977-78 including a ‘Lecture to girl’s school near York’ (Add MS 83835). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

The Anne McLaren papers at the British Library consist of letters, notes, notebooks and offprints. There is currently one tranche (Add MS 83830-83981) available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue with a second tranche planned for release later in 2016. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1953 to 1956 (Add MS 83843) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.

Anne McLaren’s scientific publications and books, along with an oral history interview conducted in February 2007, are available to readers via the British Library Explore catalogue.

This post forms part of a series on our Science and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2016.

Jonathan Pledge, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Public and Political Life. 

11 August 2015

Arm-to-arm smallpox vaccination

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A small exhibition on vaccination is currently on show at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and features copies of a small number of items from the archives of the East India Company and India Office.

One of the items concerns efforts to introduce smallpox vaccination to Fort Marlborough at Bencoolen [Bengkulu, Indonesia]. Previous efforts had resulted in failure, as the dried lymph matter used in the vaccination did not survive the journey from Bengal, and so the procedure was ineffective.

  Vaccine 1
  IOR/F/4/169/2985 (1803) Recounting the failure of the vaccine lymph Noc


John Shoolbred, Surgeon and Superintendent General of Vaccine Inoculation in Bengal, proposed that children from the local orphan school be used as live carriers of the vaccine:

The passage of a ship sailing to Bencoolen the middle of December may be fairly estimated at a month, and as it would require two Children to be inoculated every week to ensure the preservation of the disease, twelve or fourteen Children would allow for any unexpected excess of time on the Passage as well as for some days which would inevitably be lost between the inoculation of the two first Children and the final departure of the Ship.

IOR/F/4/169/2985 (1803)

Shoolbred’s proposal was accepted, and a group of children who had not previously been inoculated were selected to make the voyage. The children were to travel on the ship Carmarthen, and a quick examination of the ship’s journal provides us with their names [note that it is unusual for children to be named in ship passenger lists]:

Vaccine 2

 List of the crew of the Carmarthen, showing the Commander and Surgeon. Noc

Vaccine 3


The following Children came on board 17th Dec  1803, By Order of the Bengal Government under charge of Serj. Williams…

Aged 5-

Dan[ie]l Morgan             Will[ia]m Le Baner                  Ann Cope

Mark Lewis                       John McLean                        Sarah Turner

Tho[ma]s Pike                  Will[ia]m Haldane               Eliz[abe]th Fingar

John Walker                      Sarah Black                           Martha Pickard

Landed at Fort Malbro’ 3 Feb 1804

IOR/L/MAR/B/142A  Journal of the Carmarthen, 9 Dec 1802- 8 Sep 1804


A report by was duly issued to the Medical Board upon completion of the voyage:

Vaccine 4 Noc


 Two of the Children were inoculated on Saturday the 10th by two punctures in each arm, and when they embarked on Saturday the 17th a well characterized pustule was formed at each of the punctures, from which Mr Walker the Surgeon of the Carmarthen would inoculate two others on Sunday or Monday and so on successively every 8th or 9th day until their arrival at Fort Marlbro…

IOR/F/4/169/2985 (1803)

The somewhat mercenary use of orphan children in this manner was evidently not uncontroversial at the time, and in a further account of transmitting the vaccine via arm-to-arm transfer from Madras to Canton [China], Surgeon A Stewart reports that he has arranged for 12 adults to make the trip at a rate of 3 pagodas per month:

The persons who now agree to go are such arrived at a period of life when they are capable of judging for themselves, a circumstance which must at once silence every effort at misrepresentation on this subject.

IOR/F/4/523/12474 (1813-1815)

The Library collections document the struggles with lymph preservation, objections to vaccination, problems of administration, and debates over whether to accommodate or legislate against the inoculation practice known as variolation, which had been practised in parts of India long before Jennerian vaccination. These materials can all be found via our archives catalogue.

Alex Hailey
India Office Medical Archives project

Further reading:
Sanjoy Bhattacharya, “Re-devising Jennerian Vaccines? European Technologies, Indian Innovation and the Control of Smallpox in South Asia, 1850-1950”, Social Scientist 26.11 (1998)
David Arnold, Colonizing the body: State medicine and epidemic disease in nineteenth-century India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)
Niels Brimnes, “Variolation, Vaccination and Popular Resistance in Early Colonial South India”, Medical History 48.2 (2004): 199–228. Print.



19 February 2015

Sage advice regarding snakes

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It’s that time of year again, when our friends and colleagues trade coughs and sneezes, and give advice on the best ways to banish them or keep them at bay. Whilst cataloguing the Medical Proceedings of the Government of India as part of the IOMA project I’ve found that the Indian Medical Service were also inundated with information on “miracle cures” and “proven treatments” on a regular basis.

These were received for a range of maladies – dysentery, cholera, plague – but the subject that received the most attention was snakebite. Remedies and prophylactics against snake venoms were sent in by doctors and laymen alike, and a large number were dutifully tested by members of the Medical Service.

In one instance the King of Siam sent his own remedy to be tested:

“The remedy received consisted of two small pieces of a root of a tree with a slightly aromatic odour. The only instructions sent with it were the following: A small quantity of the root to be grated and given to the patient in a liqueur glass of brandy and a little to be applied externally to the wound. Should brandy not be available, tobacco water to be used”.
(Government of India Medical Proceedings, IOR/P/1005 Feb 1877 nos 10-11.)

Unfortunately the results were not positive.

Coluber naja, from Patrick Russell, An Account of Indian serpents collected on the coast of Coromandel (London: 1796-1809)  Noc

Other treatments tested by the Indian Medical Service included ammonia, a preparation made with the seeds of the Impatiens fulva, and even (carefully-measured) doses of strychnine. You can read more about this treatment in the following publication by A Mueller, On Snake Poison. Its action and antidote (1893), digitised as part of the Medical Heritage Library.

Indian cobra, Naja naja. Natmis181 ©Florilegius/The British Library Board Images Online

In 1895 an anti-venomous serum was developed by Albert Calmette at the Pasteur Institute Lille, and was subject to widespread testing in Indian laboratories. In one instance a rushed experiment had to be conducted after IMS officer George Lamb was bitten whilst trying to extract venom from a cobra. Lamb lived to conduct further laboratory work, and the published report on the incident contained the following piece of timeless practical advice:

IOR P 6114
IOR/P/6114 May 1901 nos 99-101 Noc


Alex Hailey
India Office Medical Archives Project


19 January 2015

Victorian office moves

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For seven years in the mid-19th century, the British governed India from a West End hotel. Barely two years after the administration of India had transferred in 1858 from the East India Company to the Crown, the home civil servants were looking for a home. The old East India House in Leadenhall Street was up for sale; the new India Office in Whitehall was still at the planning stage.  A decision was taken to rent rooms in a brand-new hotel close to the heart of government, the Westminster Palace Hotel. With an imposing façade extending 300 feet along Victoria Street, the hotel advertised its advantages “both to business persons and seekers of pleasure”. In 1860 the India Office took a lease on a 140-room wing at the back of the building, for £6,000 a year. There the administration remained until 1867.

Westminster Palace Hotel Photo 278 (6)
Photo 278/(6) Westminster Palace Hotel, London. National Monuments Record c. 1930s  Noc

The establishment boasted the latest technology. It was the first hotel in London to install hydraulic lifts, to ‘convey the occupant of the highest floor to his resting place with as little fatigue as if he were located on the first floor’. The rooms had nevertheless to be adapted. The Surveyor to the India Office, Digby Wyatt, engaged painters, carpenters, glaziers, upholsterers, and iron-founders, to erect partitions, lay carpets, and install a complex system of messenger bells. Details of the tradesmen and their contracts appear in the Surveyor’s records in the India Office Records; they show that Wyatt drove a hard bargain on the distribution of costs between the India Office and the hotel. The architects of the hotel were proud that the building was able to meet the India Office’s requirements. In an address to the Royal Institute of British Architects, Andrew Moseley explained that the joists on the third floor comfortably supported the twelve tons of books that had been placed on them. For the civil servants, however, the noisy street and the hotel’s dark corridors were irksome. Writing in the Cornhill Magazine, the political secretary John Kaye dismissed the accommodation as ‘the fag end of a public house’.

Attached to the original lease is an unusual schedule: a bill of fare. The lease gave the hotel a monopoly on all food and drink consumed on its premises. A menu for India Office staff was drawn up, the prices pegged at ‘Treasury rates’.  The document gives an insight into the civil-service diet; this was an empire fuelled by meat.  

  IOR L L 2 1462

IOR/L/L/2/1462  Noc

The hotel’s Indian connections were briefly revived in 1909, when Gandhi was a guest. He occupied Room 76, which according to Wyatt’s instructions to the decorators had once been the office of Sir Richard Vivian, a former military commander in Madras and a member of the Council of India. Whether Gandhi was aware of the establishment’s first tenants is not known.

In the 1920s the Westminster Palace Hotel was converted into offices and in 1974 the building was demolished. The main part of the site is now occupied by Barclays Bank.

Antonia Moon
India Office Records  Cc-by

Further reading:

J.W. Kaye, ‘The House that Scott Built’, Cornhill Magazine 16 (1867), pp 356-69

Andrew Moseley, “An Outline of the Plan and Construction of the Westminster Palace Hotel”, Papers read at the Royal Institute of British Architects (London: RIBA, 1863)