THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

28 posts categorized "Modern history"

09 March 2017

Did Jane Austen develop cataracts from arsenic poisoning?

Add comment

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.

AUSTEN%20IMAGE%201

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.

Jane%20austen%20spectacles%20testing
 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 will shortly be 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

08 March 2017

Remembering the Suffragette movement on International Women’s Day

Add comment

I recently came across something in the British Library’s collections that stopped me in my tracks – Votes for Women, the newspaper of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). As soon as I saw the green, white and violet emblem of the WSPU emblazoned on the cover, I was overpowered by the feeling that I was in the presence of something that was instrumental in giving me the freedom and rights that I enjoy today.

WSPU emblem_web

Interpretations of the significance of the colours of the emblem vary. They may have been designed to convey a powerful message – Give Women Votes; it is also thought that the purple symbolised dignity, white purity and green hope.

Browsing through the editions for 1911, I was struck by the relentless and inventive daily campaigning it so vividly chronicles, and the hard work of the people producing the newspaper itself. In an article in the edition for July 14 1911, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence writes about the time that he and his wife Emmeline first met Mrs Pankhurst in March 1906 when she convinced them that activism was the way to secure women’s suffrage.

Frederick Pethick-Lawrence  Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pethick-Lawrences’ marriage in 1901 was a love match between two committed social reformers. Not only did they devote much time and energy to leadership of the WSPU until 1912, alongside Christabel Pankhurst, but they also suffered imprisonment for their cause. The Pethick-Lawrences were inspired by that first meeting with Mrs Pankhurst to support and promote the cause by publishing a newspaper, Votes for Women. They eventually disagreed with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst about the more militant tactics they later employed and were ousted from the WSPU, but continued to campaign for women’s right to vote.

The first edition of Votes for Women was launched in the autumn of 1907, by which time there was sufficient campaigning activity to fill a monthly publication. It achieved a circulation of 2,000 copies when it was first published.

Votes for Women first cover

Cover of the first edition of Votes for Women

By July 1911, when Frederick Pethick-Lawrence was writing about the history of Votes for Women, demand and activities were such that it was published weekly, with a circulation of 30,000. Despite being rather grainy, the images in Votes for Women are a testament to the commitment and continuous graft of the people who produced the newspaper and volunteered to sell and distribute it.

4 Publishing Office

The Publishing Office

5 Press cart

Press cart, ready to start from the Woman’s Press, Charing Cross Road, London

6 Champion seller Miss Kelly

A champion Votes for Women Seller, Miss Kelly

A sure sign of its success was the number and variety of advertisements it attracted by 1911, helping to fund the production of the newspaper.

1 Advert managers office

The Advertisement Manager's Office

Flako soap advert 07 July 1911

One of the many advertisements appearing in Votes for Women in 1911

Over the coming months I will post some more blogs about Votes for Women, giving further insights into the tactics used to muster support for the cause.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records

  Cc-by

Images all taken from Votes for Women, 1911

Further reading
Votes for Women
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

23 August 2016

Gone for a soldier

Add comment

The British Army was a popular career choice for young men in the late 1800s, however not everyone was ideally suited to it. Take James Henry Baker and Harry Baker, who both enlisted in the Army in 1890, as examples:

James Henry Baker, born 1872 in Islington, London. He enlisted in the 4th Hussars in December 1890.  His statement of service states:
• 22 December 1890: Attested as a Private in 4th Hussars
• 16 February 1891: Awaiting trial
• 20 February 1891: Tried by Court Martial and Imprisoned
• 20 March 1891: Returned to duty
• 1 April 1891: Imprisoned by the Crown
• 1 May 1891: Returned to duty as a Private
• 5 June 1891: Imprisoned by the Crown for making false answer on attestation
• 29 June 1891: Discharged from service

 

 British soldiers at play [France] 1915

British soldiers at play [France]. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood.Photo 24/(320)  Noc

 

Harry Baker, born 1872 in Birmingham. He enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in July 1890. His statement of service states:
• 17 July 1890: Attested as a Private in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment
• 20 July 1890: Absent from regiment
• 28 August 1890: Awaiting trial
• 3 September 1890: Trial
• 4 September 1890: In prison
• 25 September 1890: Returned to duty as a Private
• 14 November 1890: Transferred to 1st Battalion as a Private
• 29 December 1890: Awaiting trial
• 30 December 1890: Tried by Regimental Court Martial and sentenced to 28 days imprisonment
• 26 Jan 1891: Released from imprisonment
• 29 Jan 1891: Awaiting trial
• 3 February 1891: Tried by Court Martial and sentenced to 6 calendar months imprisonment
• 3 August 1891: Released
• 19 February 1892: In confinement
• 25 February 1892: Tried by Crown Prosecution, convicted of felony and sentenced to 9 calendar months imprisonment
• 23 March 1892: Discharged the service on conviction by the civil power of felony

The circumstances around their respective decisions to enlist in the Army in the first place are unknown, but clearly they either did not wish to be there, or were simply not cut out for a life of military service given their records as shown above.
In the case of James Henry Baker, the false answer on his attestation, for which he was discharged from service, appears to have been in relation to his age.  He had declared himself to be 18 years old and born in 1872, whereas birth records suggest he was probably only 16 at the time and born in 1873/1874.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:
British Army Service Records,  1760-1913 via findmypast for James Henry Baker and Harry Baker
David Scott Daniell, Fourth Hussar: The story of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars 1685-1958 (Aldershot, 1959)
Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, The Story of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, formerly the sixth foot (London, 1921)

 

18 August 2016

Rescue of an Indian Seaman

Add comment

On 23 July 1924 the Under Secretary of State for India received a letter from T W Moore, Secretary of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild.   Moore informed him of the rescue of an Indian seaman, bringing to his attention the prompt action taken by Captain Robert Greenhill Hanna of the merchant ship S S Mathura, which had been steaming from Calcutta to Colombo at the time.  The Guild felt that Captain Hanna was to be highly commended for his determination to do all that was in his power to save the man’s life.  They believed that the India Office or the Government of India might like to show their appreciation in some way.

 

Hanna

Nottingham Evening Post 25 July 1924 British Newspaper Archive  Noc

 

The curious, and almost fatal, incident began in the early hours of 25 May.   At 6.30am the Chief Engineer of the Mathura reported one of his men missing, a 3rd Fireman Tindal.  On investigation it turned out that after a quarrel in the engine room with another fireman at around 3.30am, the missing man had deliberately jumped over the side! 

No one on board had witnessed this, and the ship had continued on its way with its crew unaware of the seaman’s rash action.  Captain Hanna immediately ordered the ship to be turned around, and a search was undertaken on the course opposite to that she had been steering.   At just before 10.00am the man was sighted in the water, and a small boat was sent to fish him out.  He had been in the water for almost 6½ hours, but seemed very little the worse for the experience.  Alarmingly he reported that while in the water he had several times been “nosed” by what he described as “big fish”, very probably sharks, but he had scared them away by splashing with his legs and arms.  His rescue was even more remarkable as the ship had steamed about 78 miles from the time the man entered the water to being picked up again, and the ship’s log shows that the weather at the time was overcast with heavy rain.

 

Lascars

Collage featuring lascars at work and in their lodgings on shore, Illustrated London News, 1906. Shelfmark: P.P.7611 Noc

 

SS Mathura had a mostly Indian crew, and it was reported that they were delighted at Captain Hanna’s actions to save their crewmate.  The Secretary of the Guild felt that the incident might be useful to the Government of India in demonstrating to the Indian population that a human life at sea was reckoned by a British shipmaster to be of equal importance, irrespective of colour or station in life.  For his excellent piece of seamanship, Captain Hanna was presented with a gold cigarette case by the Governor of Bengal at a police parade at Lal Bazar Police Headquarters, Calcutta, on 21 January 1925.


John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:
File 2629: Captain R G Hanna, Mercantile Marine: life-saving at sea, 24 July 1924 to 7 March 1925 [IOR/L/E/7/1350, File 2629]

 

10 August 2016

Scrapbooking Waterloo: Thomas Pickstock’s travel journal

Add comment

When the London-based merchant Thomas Pickstock (1792-1864) presented his son George with a travel journal recounting his '91 days ramble’ in France and Belgium between July-October 1843, he expressed the hope that the recipient could find it 'amusing...however unconnected as you’ll find it throughout'.

1

Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Cc-by

The concern expressed by Pickstock was not completely unjustified. His journal, far from being a neat and systematic account of his adventures abroad, appears like a scrapbook. Nearly every page presents a mixture of manuscript, drawing and printed material. Pickstock did not simply rewrite his travel annotations in a fair copy. Instead, he took great care in illustrating his writing with several watercolours and the keepsakes that he collected during the trip.

5

Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Detail showing a watercolour. Cc-by

Towards the end of his travels, Pickstock visited the battlefield of Waterloo. This was an experience that struck him ‘with ideas and sentiments…impossible to record, or give a fainting idea of’. Though perhaps difficult to convey with words, Pickstock’s emotional response to this experience can be grasped thanks to the numerous pieces of ephemera relating to the battle inserted into his journal: business cards for tour guides, engravings, maps, and even a note from his uncle, who had visited the battlefield years earlier and had brought home a branch taken off the famous tree under which the Duke of Wellington allegedly held his headquarters. When Pickstock visited the field the tree was not there anymore, as it ‘was removed and transported to England by an individual who purchased the right to do so’.

2

Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Page showing the description of Wellington's tree. Cc-by

The popularity of Waterloo as a morbidly fascinating tourist attraction resonates in Pickstock’s narration of his visit, which included an encounter with ‘a peasant ploughing and expecting to find bullets’ and an instructive visit to the tour guide’s hut, ‘full of Skulls and other Bones with Sabres for sale – all gathered by his own Children from the fields’.

4

Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Detail showing trade cards. Cc-by

The narration of Pickstock’s adventures is enriched with a meticulous recording of his expenses during his three-month-long journey and an explanation of the differences between the French and Belgian currencies. This attention to budgetary matters might be explained by the financial misfortunes experienced by the merchant during the summer of 1841, when he very narrowly escaped bankruptcy.

Image 3

Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Detail showing Pickstock's accounts. Cc-by

Although Pickstock feared that the slightly overwhelming amount of information that he packed in his journal could deter his son from reading it, he also cautiously envisioned that there would be others which ‘might take some pleasure in perusing the same’: an invitation that can now be accepted, as the British Library recently acquired the third volume of Pickstock’s travel journal and it will soon be available to consult under the reference number Add MS 89188.

  6
Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Cc-by

 

By Alessandra Rigotti, MA Early Modern English Literature, King's College, London, & Work Placement Student, Modern Archives and Manuscripts, British Library.

 

02 August 2016

A Drunken Russian Pilot and the Bombing of Mecca 1925

Add comment

In August 1924, the Sultan of Nejd, Ibn Sa’ud, launched an invasion of the short-lived Kingdom of Hejaz, in the west of the Arabian Peninsula.  Meeting little resistance, his Ikhwan forces swiftly captured – and brutally plundered – the city of Ta’if.   After this, the Kingdom’s ruler, Sharif Husain bin Ali al-Hashimi, abdicated in favour of his son, Ali bin Husain al-Hashimi.  The Ikhwan continued to advance and in October captured the holy city of Mecca, leaving the newly incumbent Ali isolated and virtually surrounded in Jeddah.  These rapid territorial losses had left the Kingdom vulnerable militarily and strained economically.

  Shirokoff 1

Ali bin Husain al-Hashimi (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Desperate to gain any advantage that could halt the Ikhwan’s advance, the Kingdom had managed to procure a small number of aircraft.  However, its only pilot was a White Russian refugee named Shirokoff [Shirokov], who was paid a bottle of whisky per day and £60 in gold every month.  Shirokoff is said to have made regular reconnaissance flights, but he refused to fly at less than 9,000 or 10,000 feet and his observer was a “one-eyed officer who always wears dark glasses”.  This prompted Reader William Bullard, Britain’s Agent in Jeddah, to comment sardonically that “it is not believed that the reports brought back are of great value”.

The Kingdom’s aircraft were not armed but Shirokoff was repeatedly pressured to drop hand grenades on Ikhwan positions, even in Mecca, an order he adamantly refused to follow.  He pointed out that if the grenades did not blow the plane up, they would burst before reaching the ground anyway.  Bullard remarked “it is difficult to see what could be gained by the bombing of Mecca by a non-Moslem airman” - doing so would provide Ibn Sa’ud with a propaganda victory.  Shirokoff was said to have supplemented his “inadequate” daily ration of whisky by “heavy purchases and drinking at the expense of his admirers”.  Bullard speculated that “he may one day reach the point of exhilaration at which the prospect of dropping explosives on Mecca will cease to appear objectionable”.  Not long after Bullard expressed this fear, Shirokoff was dead.

Shirokoff 2
 Ibn Sa’ud with his cousin Salman Al-‘Arafa c. 1920 pictured in ‘Heart of Arabia’ (1922) by St. John Philby (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

 

In January 1925, the pilot was flying above an enemy camp when his plane exploded and all those on board were killed.  That particular day, ‘Umar Shakir, a Syrian anti-Ottoman intellectual and journalist who had fled to the Hejaz, was on board.  Shakir was a friend of Shirokoff’s spotter, and had boarded the plane “without authority”.  Shakir was said to have been “clamouring to be allowed to go and drop bombs” and it appears that he did just that.  Bullard speculated that Shakir had attempted to throw one of the improvised bombs and it had exploded in the plane.

 

Shirokoff 3

 A bird’s eye view of Mecca and surrounding hillsides, August 1917. Photograph by Samuel M. Zwemer, National Geographic Magazine.


As the Kingdom’s position became increasingly desperate, it resorted to procuring a fatwa [religious ruling] that justified the bombing of Mecca by Christian pilots from a Shaikh said to be named ‘Shengetti’.  Subsequently, a limited number of aerial raids were made on Mecca by newly recruited foreign pilots, but they proved ineffectual and were soon halted.  By December 1925, Jeddah had been formally surrendered to Ibn Sa’ud and Ali fled to the court of his brother King Faisal in Baghdad, where he died a decade later.  The Hejaz region has been under the rule of the Al Saud ever since, and in 1932 became a part of Ibn Sa’ud’s newly established Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Louis Allday
Gulf History/Arabic Specialist British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership Cc-by

@Louis_Allday

Further reading:
British Library, IOR/R/15/1/565
British Library, IOR/R/15/5/36
British Library, IOR/R/15/5/37

 

12 July 2016

Desert Encounter - Knud Holmboe

Add comment

On 10 November 1929 the Colonial Office received a letter from Philip Perceval Graves of The Times asking whether the Government held any information on a Danish author and traveller named Knud Holmboe.  Holmboe had written to The Times the previous day, briefly describing his plans for a trip across the Arabian Peninsula. He hoped to visit Palestine, Mecca, Medina and Oman, before reaching Aden.  Holmboe requested an appointment with the newspaper’s foreign news editor.  Graves told the Colonial Office that since he assumed that British permits would be required for parts of Holmboe’s proposed trip, it might be interested to know of the Dane’s intentions. 

Graves also wrote:

'[h]ow he means to reach Mecca and Medina is his affair and perhaps "it is his funeral" is all that need be said of that part of his scheme. The rest might be possible'.

Graves’s words would prove to be sadly prescient, although perhaps not quite in the way that he might have imagined.

 

Holmboe

Knud Holmboe from Desert Encounter (London, 1936)

 

A fluent speaker of Arabic, Holmboe, who was born in 1902 into a Danish middle class family, had converted to Islam a few years previously.  He had already travelled extensively in the Middle East. The initial part of his proposed journey took him by car from Morocco to Libya, where he witnessed the shocking treatment that was inflicted upon the Libyan Muslim population by its Italian colonial rulers: thousands of Bedouins were imprisoned in concentration camps and summary executions occurred on a daily basis.  According to Holmboe, during his time in Cyrenaica there were thirty executions a day.

Holmboe was deported from Libya to Egypt, where he was imprisoned before being sent back to Denmark.  He recorded his observations in a book Ørkenen Brænder (English title: Desert Encounter), which was first published in 1931. In the book, Holmboe writes:

'[i]t became more and more clear to me that the Italians understood nothing of the soul of this people, of whom they had appointed themselves rulers'.

Predictably, the book was banned in Fascist Italy (it would not be translated into Italian until 2004) but sold well elsewhere in Europe. However, Holmboe did not live to enjoy his book’s success. Having returned to the Middle East in late 1931, intent on completing his pilgrimage to Mecca, he was killed in Aqaba, in modern-day Jordan, allegedly by members of a local Bedouin tribe in the employ of Italian officers, although this claim has never been verified.

David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership  Cc-by


Further reading:
IOR/L/PS/12/2071, ff 401-402
Knud Holmboe, Desert Encounter (London, 1936)

 

07 July 2016

“Pre-packed airports” for the Persian Gulf?

Add comment

‘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