THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

19 posts categorized "Literature"

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.

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 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

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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?

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A Happy New Year to all our readers!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

 

14 August 2017

Ranjitsinhji, our glorious hero bold

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The first Indian man to play cricket for England, KS Ranjitsinhji, was described in these glowing terms in a song written in his honour. His cricketing career in England began while he was studying in Cambridge. He played for Sussex from 1895 to 1904 and for England against Australia from 1896 to 1902.

Ranji - Driving MBM 1896

KS Ranjitsinhji, Mirror of British Merchandise, 1896

In 1899 he achieved an amazing first for cricketers – over 3,000 runs in one year. Incredibly, he managed to repeat this in 1900. The Ranji song is featured in the British Library’s Asians in Britain web pages where you can learn more about his life. The web pages were initially developed through projects led by Professor Susheila Nasta of the Open University, including Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870-1950  

The Asians in Britain web pages tell the story of the long history of people from South Asia in Britain and the contributions they have made to British culture and society. They include ayahs (nannies), lascar seamen, politicians, campaigners such as suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, scientists and authors. The web pages also highlight the vital contribution people from South Asia made during the world wars.

Naoroji portrait MBM 1892
Dadabhai Naoroji, elected MP for Finsbury, 1892
Mirror of British Merchandise, 1892

The Ranji song is among many fascinating and beautiful items currently on display in an exhibition at the Library of Birmingham, Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage.

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For further details about the exhibition, events and opening hours please see the Library of Birmingham’s website. The exhibition and community engagement programme continue the partnership between the British Library and the Library of Birmingham. They are supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  


Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records and exhibition curator


Further information
Asians in Britain web pages 
Making Britain Database 
#ConnectingStories

Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 years of history, (London, 2002)
Susheila Nasta with Florian Stadtler, Asian Britain: a photographic history, (London, 2013)
Mirror of British Merchandise, 1892, 1896 Reference: 14119.f.37

03 August 2017

Travelling through Europe: the journals of Mary Cecilia Blencowe

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Mary Cecilia Blencowe was born in 1852 in relatively unremarkable circumstances. She never married and has no descendants, but luckily for us Mary Cecilia Blencowe left behind something even better– her diaries. Mary was an avid traveller, and detailed two voyages across Europe in 1871 and 1872 in journals which I am currently cataloguing.

Her first voyage began in March 1871. Mary travelled to Europe during the tail end of the Franco-Prussian war, which had seen France suffer a humiliating defeat to a nascent Germany. She was in no doubt about her allegiance, regularly expressing her sadness for ‘Poor France’ and insulting their ‘merciless foes’. Her assessment of the war is uncannily prophetic, writing in 1871 that ‘France has fought and been conquered…only for a moment and – we shall see’, presaging the hostilities that would erupt in World War One 53 years later.

Landscape Diaries
Mary Cecilia Blencowe's diaries, Add MS 89256/2 and Add MS 89256/1

Her travels took her to Verona (‘the house where the parents of Juliet lived…is now a tavern, and looks neglected and dingy’), Venice (‘embarking in a gondola…[is] much pleasanter than rattling through the streets in a noisy omnibus!’), Genoa (‘if our boat had only not been quite as unwieldy, we should certainly have fancied ourselves in fairy land’) and Stresa (‘how doubly beautiful it seemed to us, after having been so long in towns in the busiest haunts of men who don’t always improve things’), before arriving in Switzerland to stay in Lausanne. Her entries give a fascinating snapshot of Europe immediately after the Franco-Prussian war, as well as providing details of a Victorian woman’s holiday activities.

Vue Generale de Lausanne
Vue Generale de Lausanne, A Garcin, 1870-75. J. Paul Getty Museum (Getty Open Content Program)

Mary’s diaries reveal a surprisingly modern sense of humour, rather than the dry and moralistic attitude culturally associated with the Victorians. In Venice she enjoyed the eternal pastime of people-watching from the campanile, ’watch[ing] the small people and still smaller pigeons in the piazza below’. She also went to art galleries, although she didn’t always appreciate the exhibits, describing one as ‘an ancient picture of an ancient prince, with his favourite cat who is so hideous I think it is a good thing the days of her life are over’.

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Add MS 89256/2

Childsnatcher smallThis adventure ended in July 1871, when she returned to London. In 1872 she travelled to Germany and Switzerland and began writing again. The highlight of this trip was her encounter with ‘a very curious specimen of the human race, a very little weird old man…[who] looked like some creature of another world, but what sort of world I cannot say.’ It wasn’t just her who was scared as ‘he glared at children…until they ran away frightened’. Underneath her description Mary drew a tiny sketch of the man – a Victorian child catcher.

Childsnatcher Page

Her adventures end in August 1872 when she regretfully returned to England in a carriage, comforted by the presence of ‘such a nice Prussian. So handsome and so manly’. Holiday romance, Victorian style.

Emily Stevenson
Modern Archives and Manuscripts Intern

 

27 July 2017

Flouting Laws for his Cause: John Flavell’s FAQs

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John Flavell (1630-1691) was a Presbyterian preacher from Dartmouth, who overtly disobeyed both the ‘Uniformity Act’ of 1662, and the ‘Five Mile Act’ of 1665. These acts prohibited those who opposed the Church of England’s structure from preaching or living within five miles of their parish. Presbyterian ministers, including Flavell, refuted the bishop-centric hierarchies of the Church, and he was expelled.

However, Flavell went to extraordinary lengths to reach his followers. He spoke to his flock in a forest, preached in private houses at midnight, and sermonised on the Saltstone, a ledge in the middle of the Salcombe estuary (quickly evacuated when the tide was on the turn). He also dressed as a woman to ride through town and perform a baptism.  Pursued by riders, he fled into the sea, where both he and his steed swam to the next bay in order to escape persecution.

Flavell 1

Although he was publicly vilified, with antagonists burning an effigy of him in 1685, Flavell continued to preach, and to write extensively about his spiritual learning. An Exposition of the Assemblies Catechism (Add MS 89247) is set out in a ‘frequently asked questions’ format, with answers providing clarification of small topics such as ‘Man’s Chiefe Ende’ and ‘God’s Truth’. The answers are not merely derived from his work as a preacher, but cited from specific bible verses.

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When published in print, this text, like other works published by Flavell, would become exponentially popular with notable puritanical figures such as Increase Mather, rector of Harvard University from 1685-1701, and who was involved with the Salem Witch Trials.

This manuscript notebook, suspected to be composed mainly of autograph script by Flavell himself, could be partially copied from the printed edition of Flavell’s work, as the first page mirrors exactly the frontispiece from the 1692 printed edition, leaving out only the publisher’s details.

Flavell 3

Considering Flavell died in 1691, references to the 1692 printed version are most unlikely to be his doing. However, the presence of Flavell’s hand for the majority of the book suggests that it could have been a fair copy that later fell into the possession of the inscribed ‘Mary Davey’, who wrote ‘A covenant drawn up between God and my own soul’ at a later date than Flavell’s ‘Exposition’. Her ink can be seen throughout the subsequent pages, suggesting she used it as a personal prayer book.

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The last page ends mid-sentence: ‘We know that an idol is nothing in the world, or that...’, leaving the final question unanswered, and raising more about the overlap between manuscript and printed texts, the circulation of recusant religious texts, and issues arising from personal archives. The legacy of the text is wide reaching, considering its clandestine origins in sermons preached in an estuary at midnight.

Flavell 6


Emily Montford
Modern Archives and Manuscripts Intern

Further reading:

John Flavell, An Exposition of the Assemblies Catechism, Add MS 89247
John Flavell, An Exposition of the Assemblies Catechism (London: T. Cockerill, 1692), 1018.h.6.(1.)

 

09 March 2017

Did Jane Austen develop cataracts from arsenic poisoning?

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When Jane Austen died in 1817, aged 41, her portable writing desk was inherited by her sister Cassandra. It was later passed down through her eldest brother’s family. In 1999, Joan Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s great-great-great-niece, very generously entrusted it to the care of the British Library. Among the items that had been stored for generations in the desk drawer were three pairs of spectacles. According to family tradition, they all belonged to Jane Austen.

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Spectacles believed to have belonged to Jane Austen (now British Library Add MS 86841/2-4): wire-framed pair (on left), ‘tortoiseshell pair A’ (centre), ‘tortoiseshell pair B’ (on right, with string wound around arm). 6a00d8341c464853ef01bb097e9917970d

The British Library has for the first time had the spectacles tested. Our Conservation department was involved from the start, to ensure that no harm would come to them. The company Birmingham Optical kindly supplied us with a lensmeter to measure their strength, and their specialist staff undertook the tests.

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 Louis Cabena (left) and Deep Singh (right) from Birmingham Optical, with lensmeter and spectacles in the British Library Conservation Centre. 6a00d8341c464853ef01bb097e9917970d

The tests revealed that the three pairs of spectacles are all convex or ‘plus’ lenses, so would have been used by someone longsighted. In other words their owner needed glasses for close-up tasks, such as reading. Interestingly, ‘tortoiseshell pair B’ is much stronger than the others.

Test results

Wire-framed pair:       R. + 1.75 DS  L. +1.75 DS (PD 27.0 53.0 26.0)

Tortoiseshell pair A:   R. + 3.25 DS  L. +3.25 DS (PD 26.0 56.0 30.0)

Tortoiseshell pair B:   R. +5.00/-0.25 x 84 L. +4.75/-0.25 x 49 (PD 28.5 55.0 26.5)

We showed these results to the London-based optometrist Professor Simon Barnard. He believes there are a number of possible reasons for the variation in strength. Jane Austen may always have been longsighted, and initially used the wire-framed pair for reading and distance viewing. She later required a slightly stronger pair (tortoiseshell pair A) for reading, and used the strongest pair (tortoiseshell pair B) for extremely close work, such as fine embroidery, which would have been held closer to the face than a book.

Austen is known to have had problems with her eyes. She complained in several letters about her ‘weak’ eyes. Could it be that she gradually needed stronger and stronger glasses for reading because of a more serious underlying health problem? Professor Barnard believes this is a possibility. He points out that certain systemic health problems can cause changes in the vision of both longsighted and shortsighted people. Diabetes is one such condition, because it can induce cataracts. A gradually developing cataract would mean that an individual would need a stronger and stronger prescription, over time, in order to undertake close-up tasks. However, diabetes was fatal at that time, so someone might not have lived long enough to require several different prescriptions in succession. 

If Austen did develop cataracts, a more likely cause, according to Professor Barnard, is accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic. Arsenic poisoning is now known to cause cataracts. Despite its toxicity, arsenic was commonly found in medicines in 19th-century England, as well as in some water supplies. In this situation, Austen would have switched from using the wire-framed pair to tortoiseshell pair A, then pair B, as her cataracts got progressively worse.

Jane Austen’s early death has in the past been attributed to Addison’s disease (an endocrine disorder), cancer and tuberculosis. In 2011, the crime writer Lindsay Ashford suggested that Austen died of arsenic poisoning. She came to this conclusion after reading Austen’s description of the unusual facial pigmentation she suffered at the end of her life – something commonly found with arsenic poisoning. Ashford’s novel The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen strays from theories of accidental poisoning into rather more fantastical murder. The variations in the strength of the British Library’s three pairs of spectacles may indeed give further credence to the theory that Austen suffered from arsenic poisoning, albeit accidental.

We should, however, inject a note of caution at this point: although prescription lenses were in use in Austen’s day, we don’t know whether these glasses were prescribed for her by a physician, or whether she bought them ‘off-the-shelf’. We can’t be completely sure that she wore them at all. However, we are keen to publish these test results in the hope that other eye specialists will share their ideas and opinions with us. 

We know this subject is already of interest to literary scholars. Janine Barchas and Elizabeth Picherit of the University of Texas at Austin have taken a keen interest in the spectacles in the British Library, and have also been investigating Austen’s references to spectacles in her novels. Their theories have now been published in the journal Modern Philology. We look forward to further discussions and debate on this topic.  The spectacles themselves have just gone on display in the British Library’s free Treasures Gallery for all to see.

Dr Sandra Tuppen

Lead Curator, Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850

The British Library

Email: sandra.tuppen@bl.uk

24 October 2016

Tagore Meets an Old Friend in Iran

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After ousting the young Ahmad Shah from the imperial throne in 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi determined to once again assert Iran as a world power on the global stage. Gone were the Qajars, who had reduced Iran to a mere plaything in the hands of the English and the Russians; their reign had been replaced by a new order, which sought to modernise Iran, embolden a national identity, and salvage the nation from the ideas and institutions that had so entrammelled it for centuries.

In 1932, Reza Shah invited the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore to Iran. Ties between Iran and India stretch back to time immemorial, a fact of which the Shah and the poet were well-aware. The Shah, on one hand, sought to promote and celebrate Iran’s Aryan (or, Indo-Iranian) identity, while Tagore saw Aryan kinsmen in the Iranians. ‘In me they saw a poet, and that too an Eastern poet, an Indo-Aryan poet like themselves’, he noted. Issues of ethnicity, however, constituted only a part of Tagore’s interest in Iran. The poet was familiar with Iranian history and literature, and was also curious about the Pahlavi dynasty.

On 11 April 1932, Tagore and his daughter-in-law Pratima Devi set out for Iran by air, and reached the port city of Bushehr on the 13th. Although Tagore would later visit the ruins of Persepolis and the Iranian capital, Shiraz (in which he arrived on the 16th) undoubtedly marked the raison d'être of his trip.

 

  Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran
Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran Wikimedia Commons

 

In Shiraz, Tagore visited the tombs of the revered Persian poets Sa’di and Hafez. Unlike Voltaire, who had been nicknamed ‘Sa’di’, Tagore – like Goethe before him –felt more of a kinship with Hafez (here is a Mughal-era commentary on his Divan).  Could this have been because of his upbringing? Tagore’s father was a known lover of Hafez. ‘I spent half the night reciting hymns and the verses of Hafez’, he remarked of his childhood evenings. This love was later passed down to his son: ‘… I had my first introduction to Hafez through my father, who used to recite his verses for me’, Tagore recalled in Esfahan. ‘They seemed to me like a greeting from a faraway poet who was yet near to me.’

Indeed, the bond between the two poets extended far beyond verse. At Hafez’s tomb, Tagore sat and read the bard’s poems alone with eyes closed. ‘I had the distinct feeling that after a lapse of many centuries, across the span of many births and deaths … another wayfarer … had found his bond with Hafez’, he afterwards wrote. Echoing the florid imagery of Hafez’s poetry, Tagore penned a eulogy of Iran before leaving for Calcutta in early June:

Iran, all the roses in thy garden
and all their lover birds
have acclaimed the birthday
of the poet of a far-away shore
and mingled their voices in a pair of rejoicing.

… And in return I bind this wreath of my verse
on thy forehead, and I cry: Victory to Iran!

Joobin Bekhrad
Founder and Editor of REORIENT, a publication about contemporary Middle Eastern arts and culture


Further reading:
Das, S.K., ed. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Volume Three: a Miscellany. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996.
Marashi, A. Nationalizing Iran: Culture, Power, and the State, 1870 – 1940. Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press, 2008.
Mukhopadhyaya, P. & Roy, K. in Radhakrishnan, S., ed. Rabindranath Tagore: a Centenary Volume 1861 – 1961. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961.

 

26 September 2016

Foreign Names and Flatulence: Dodging Censorship in the Book Trade

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For centuries authors and printers struggled under strict laws and regulations that censored the printing trade. The Pope’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) was first published in 1559 and only abolished in 1966. Printing continued to be subject to strict censorship via an elaborate system of licensing from the Church and State through the 16th and 17th centuries. The last act under this system was the Licensing of the Press Act (1662), under which the printing of “seditious treasonable and unlicensed books and pamphlets” was banned, punishable by fines and imprisonment. The Stationer’s Company, formed in 1403, enforced these laws. Parliament refused to renew the Licensing Act in 1694 but an umbrella of libel laws still existed that censored any material deemed defamatory, seditious, obscene and blasphemous. Despite these minefields, the print trade continued to grow. By the 18th century a steady stream of books, pamphlets, chapbooks, ballads, broadsides and newspapers were being produced to meet rising demand from an increasingly literate public.

So how did authors, printers and booksellers get away with producing illicit material?

Some material was imported from the continent. The Netherlands in particular benefitted from having an unregulated print trade, a stable economy and no censorious state religion. Some authors remained anonymous. Jonathan Swift, who had already faced prosecution for writing a number of politically controversial pamphlets, published his Gulliver’s Travels anonymously as it was a transparently anti-Whig satire.

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[Jonathan Swift’s] Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world, London, 1726, British Library 12612.d.24(1) Cc-by

In some cases works were deemed too dangerous for even printers and booksellers to put their name to. Some remained anonymous, like in the Gulliver’s Travels imprint seen above. Others made up the imprint altogether, fabricating the printer’s name and, in extreme cases, the place in which they were based to mask their identities. The most routinely used fictitious imprint in this period was “A. Moore, near St. Paul’s [Cathedral]”. This imprint was often used simultaneously by more than one bookseller and even became a sort of in joke.  As Bookweight, the bookseller in Henry Fielding’s anonymous play The Author’s Farce, says knowingly, “sometimes we give a foreign name to our own labours… so we have Messieurs Moore near St. Paul’s, and Smith near the Royal Exchange”. It was used to print all manner of works, from political pamphlets to erotica (note the “amour” pun on the imprint) and bawdy scatological works like this one:

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[Pseudonym] Puff-Indorst Fart in Hando’s The benefit of farting explain’d, Printed for A. Moore, 1722, British Library RB.23.a.8816 Cc-by

There are almost three hundred works listed on ESTC with this “A. Moore” imprint and, as it was then so it is now, it’s difficult to decipher who actually was responsible for printing these works. Current research focuses on matching woodcut ornaments found in these items to other known works by particular printers. However, this is laborious and many of the ornaments used at the time are almost identical. Still, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing; fictitious imprints give us a fascinating insight into the strict regulations that governed the 18th century book trade and solving all their mysteries might somewhat spoil the fun!

References

[Jonathan Swift’s] Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world, London, 1726, British Library 12612.d.24(1)
[Henry Fielding] Scriblerus Secundus’ The author’s farce, Dublin, George Risk, etc., [1730] , British Library 11774.aaa.27(2)
[Pseudonym] Puff-Indorst Fart in Hando’s The benefit of farting explain’d, Printed for A. Moore, 1722, British Library RB.23.a.8816

By Maddy Smith, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

28 July 2016

Words will eat themselves

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There is something romantic and tragic about iron gall ink. It has allowed the most beautiful words to take form. The best and the worst words. Dull and incidental household inventories; execution warrants for kings; orders for wars; scientific discoveries; declarations of love. And some of the most incredible poems, prose, songs and stories known to man.

And yet iron gall ink is slowly destroying itself and the paper on which it sits. Words are literally eating themselves into oblivion. Even the ink's composition and ingredients are a result of irritation and death. A sting; a bite; a reaction; a tiny extinction.

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Example of iron gall ink damage and subsequent 20th century repair on Add MS 38599 c. early 17th century. Cc-by

I recently attended an Iron Gall Ink Study Day with our brilliant Conservation Department. Three of our conservators have made a study of the ink and their knowledge and research on the subject is amazing. The following are a few images from the day and some manuscripts which show iron gall ink damage.

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Example of iron gall ink damage on a vellum manuscript.  Cc-by

Iron gall ink is made from tannin (most often taken from oak marble galls), vitriol (iron sulphate), gum and water. The galls are a tree's reaction to the eggs laid by tiny wasps. The galls serve to protect the little wasps as they develop. One of the galls I picked up had the body of the wasp lying next to it. It must have emerged from the hole in the gall and expired almost immediately. Allegedly, the richest tannin was produced when the body of the wasp was trapped inside. The best galls were apparently from Aleppo as they have three times as much tannin as British galls (at only 17%).

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Examples of oak marble galls. Cc-by

The way in which iron gall ink was applied also relates to levels of damage. If applied with a brush, the ink is less likely to eat through the page, whereas applied with a metal nib, the ink bites through.

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Same iron gall ink but applied with a brush (left) and a metal nib (right). Cc-by

Similarly, the composition and recipe of the ink affects just how much damage it inflicts. A balanced recipe is more likely to be stable than one which contains larger proportions of gallotannic acid or iron sulphate. Here's a link to just one recipe for the ink. There were hundreds if not thousands of recipes in use at any one time.

  IronGall4  IronGall5

Ingredients in iron gall ink (left) and the colour of the iron sulphate and gallotannic acid when mixed together (right).Cc-by

Why, then, if the damage was evident, was iron gall ink in constant use until relatively recently? It was probably because paper (and indeed vellum) were of good quality up until the mass production of paper in the eighteenth century. Once the paper quality decreased, the effect of iron gall ink was particularly noticeable. Indeed, the most damaged manuscripts I have seen date from the nineteenth century. Wilkie Collins was a particular horror as he scribbled out his lines constantly. The paper on which he wrote was incredibly thin. Much of his manuscripts flake in places where he has crossed out. 

IronGall10

Add MS 41060, Drafts of Basil and Mr Wray's Cash-Box by Wilkie Collins. Cc-by

The ink's path of destruction moves in three dimension. It creeps through entire text blocks consuming the innards of volumes. Until recently, nobody knew that it was both the tannin and the iron sulphate which were damaging. Our Conservation Team are constantly looking at ways to stabilise, treat and better understand iron gall ink. But even then, they say that there is no stopping time: iron gall ink will eventually destroy the prose, poems, letters and warrants. Vitriolic words indeed.

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts 1601-1850.

To find out more about our Conservation Department their blog is here and their web pages are here