THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

35 posts categorized "Modern history"

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.

Connecting Stories with logos - small

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

10 August 2017

First World War Indian soldiers' letters in 'Connecting Stories' exhibition

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The exhibition Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage features extracts from letters written by two soldiers of the 33rd Punjab Regiment fighting on the Western Front during the First World War. The Censor of Indian Mails gathered information about the morale of the soldiers, and would prepare regular reports for the information of Government and the Army, appending translated extracts of soldier’s letters to illustrate his reports. The Censor’s reports and soldier’s letters are part of the India Office Records held at the British Library.

Punjab Regiment Photo 24-(352)
A Punjab regiment on the march in Flanders, 6 September 1915; Photographer: H. D. Girdwood. British Library: Photo 24(352)

The Punjab Regiment suffered heavy casualties in the fierce fighting in Flanders in 1915, and the letters reflect the extreme stress the two soldiers were experiencing. Of these letters and others from soldiers of the 33rd Punjabis, the Head Censor commented that the writers appeared to be dejected, and that the regiment had lost nearly all its British officers. Subadar Pir Dad Khan wrote in Urdu from the front on 2 October 1915 that “This country, which is in the likeness of Paradise, now seems to me worse than Hell! (because of the bad news which comes from the Regiment)”.

Ior!l!mil!5!825!6_f065v
Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France: Vol 1, IOR/L/MIL/5/825/6, folio 999

Jemadar Ghulam Hassan Khan was writing to a friend or family member in Rawalpindi in the Punjab in early October 1915. He wrote that he arrived in France on 19 September 1915, and by 23 September he had reached the trenches. The regiment immediately went into action, suffering great losses, but achieving a good name for itself. Writing close to the trenches, he noted that “It rains day and night - both sorts of rain. I cannot describe it. If God is merciful to me, I will escape with my life, otherwise not. To describe what is happening is one thing, to see it for yourself is an entirely different matter. Even if I were to write a whole book about it, it would fall short of the reality.” He went on to say that the men were fully supplied with everything they wanted in the way of food, matches, tobacco, etc., but that “The cold is what we suffer from most, besides the constant rain and hail of shells. I cannot complain to anyone except God.” A note by the Censor at the end of the letter says that the letter was passed by the Regimental Censor, but subsequently withheld. This was more than likely due to Ghulam Hassan Khan’s closing instruction to his correspondent to arrange a code so they could communicate with each other more secretly.

Connecting Stories is at the Library of Birmingham until 4 November 2017. It was created in partnership with the British Library and generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Details of opening hours, events and family days are on the Library of Birmingham website.

The reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, including extracts from soldiers’ letters can be found online.
 
John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further information:
Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, Aug-Oct 1916 [IOR/L/MIL/5/825/6, folios 980-981, 999]
#connectingstories
#brumpeeps

08 August 2017

Duncan Campbell: the Private Contractor and the Prison Hulk

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In 1776 Duncan Campbell (1726-1803) became the first superintendent of prison hulks stationed at Woolwich.  After the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, Britain was barred from transporting its felons to the colonies, where they had previously served sentences carrying out non-plantation labour.  The war with America caused a prison housing crisis; gaols in Britain could not cope with the volume of unexpected inmates and so in 1776 the Criminal Law Act, also known as the Hulks Act, was passed.

The act stated that convicts awaiting transportation would be employed in hard labour for ‘the benefit of the navigation of the Thames’.  At Woolwich, major dredging was needed to correct a drift in the river, and convicts provided a cheap workforce.  While their employment had been decided, the matter of housing hundreds of convicts was unresolved.  The state was unwilling to invest in new prisons as they were under economic strain from ongoing wars with both America and France.  A cheap and mobile solution was proposed; disused and dismantled warships, known as ‘hulks’ were to be used to house convicts along the banks of the Thames.

Engraving of Discovery Add MS 32360
Engraving of the Discovery, a prison hulk moored at Deptford. George Cooke after Samuel  Prout, 1826. British Library Add MS 32360; Item number: f. 112-B.

Duncan Campbell, who previously held the contract for transporting felons to Virginia, was successful in lobbying for the management of the hulk establishment. He proposed to use his ships, the Justitia and Censor, to house convicts at Woolwich.  Campbell’s attention was divided during the twenty-year period of his tenure; his niece was married to Captain William Bligh, commander of the HMS Bounty, the family’s estate Saltspring in Jamaica brought in returns of sugar and rum, and he was involved in lobbying for repayment of debts owed by America to British merchants, culminating in a meeting with Thomas Jefferson in 1786.

As a private contractor, Campbell’s management was subject to little regulation; quality of food was poor on the hulks, gaol fever -which became known as hulk fever- periodically ripped through the decks, and few medical or religious services were provided. Prison hulks drew the attention -and criticism- of prison reformers John Howard and Jeremy Bentham and after two years at Woolwich, a committee of inquiry headed by Sir Charles Bunbury in 1778 revealed appalling death rates; men were dying at a rate of one in four.  Despite these shocking figures, the system was allowed to continue, with some small improvements.

The hulk system under Campbell was not stable. He employed deputies and overseers who patrolled the decks of the hulks and the shores of the riverbank but escape and outbursts of violence occurred regularly.  Overseers were said to be afraid to descend the decks at night when lights were extinguished and portholes were shut.  Lacking clear instruction from the Home Office, Campbell was frustrated. In letters to officials, he asked if more could be done for men after they had served their sentences to stop them re-offending but few solutions were provided.  In 1802, Campbell’s contract was not renewed.  The system moved to more direct government control but the temporary measure of housing convicts on prison hulks continued for another fifty-five years, up until 1857.

Anna McKay
Collaborative Doctoral Student at the National Maritime Museum and the University of Leicester
Twitter: @AnnaLoisMcKay

Further reading:

Charles Campbell, The intolerable hulks: British shipboard confinement, 1776-1857, Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1994.
Criminal Law Act, 1776: 16 Geo. III, c.59.
Convict transportation & the Metropolis: the letterbooks and papers of Duncan Campbell (1726-1803) from the State Library of New South Wales. Marlborough: Adam Matthew Publications, 2005. Available on Microfilm at the British Library.

Victorian prisons and punishments
1862 Hulk
A Phantom Burglar and the Hulk

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’.

Landscape Text
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.

Flavell 2

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.

Flavell 4

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.)

 

20 July 2017

Miss Jenny the cheetah visits England

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Miss Jenny and another cheetah came to England in 1764. They were part of a collection of animals despatched from India by George Pigot, the Governor of Madras, who had made a vast collection of foreign curiosities, ‘particularly wild beasts’. The cheetahs were fortunate to survive the long voyage which sadly proved fatal to many of the animals.

00158-cheetah
Cheetah from Seringapatam, India, 1794
NHD 32/3


The cheetahs and their Indian handlers were temporarily taken in by the Duke of Cumberland who had been an enthusiastic collector of exotic animals which he kept at Windsor until a tiger escaped and mauled and killed a young boy. The tragic incident led him to send his exotic animals to the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London. Sometimes he still took temporary care of animals on their way to new homes, including the cheetahs brought to England by George Pigot.
On 30 June 1764 the Duke of Cumberland organised an event at Great Windsor Park to put one of these visiting ‘tyger-cats’ on show. The cheetah was set loose to hunt a stag that had been placed in the Park but the demonstration of the cheetah’s hunting skills did not initially go well. After being tossed by the stag’s antlers the cheetah broke free, evaded the netting meant to confine it, and escaped into the forest where it proceeded to kill a roe deer. The Indian handlers caught the cheetah and let it feed on its prey. Manchester Art Gallery has a painting by George Stubbs of the cheetah at Windsor.


One cheetah was sold and one was presented to the King as a gift for the Royal Menagerie. A report on the Royal Menagerie from the early 1770s records not only that the cheetah was still there, but that it had been affectionately named by the Keeper of the Royal Menagerie as ‘Miss Jenny’. The two cheetahs’ Indian handler, known as John Morgan, had less respectful treatment. He was the victim of a theft while he was in England.


Miss Jenny now has a different incarnation as the cheetah guiding children around the History Detectives family trail in a new exhibition Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage.

Cheetah for Twitter

This family-friendly exhibition tells the story of the close connections between Britain and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh from 1600 to the present day. It shows how those connections have influenced our food, culture, fashion, politics and heritage and made us who we are today.

LANDSCAPE SCREENS 1920 x 1080 PXLS


The exhibition is at the Library of Birmingham until 04 November. It was created in partnership with the British Library and generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Details of opening hours, events and family days are on the Library of Birmingham website.


Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records and curator of the exhibition


Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records


Further information
Caroline Grigson Menagerie: The history of Exotic Animals in England, (Oxford University Press, 2016)
Old Bailey Online 
Asians in Britain web pages 
Library of Birmingham
#connectingstories
#brumpeeps

 

13 July 2017

Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage

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LANDSCAPE SCREENS 1920 x 1080 PXLS


This family-friendly exhibition, launching on 15 July, will tell the story of the close connections between Britain and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh from 1600 to the present day. It will show how those connections have influenced our food, culture, fashion, politics and heritage and made us who we are today.

Item 67 - Sophia Duleep Singh selling Suffragette 1913The exhibition continues the partnership between the British Library and the Library of Birmingham, bringing together their rich and complementary collections to illustrate this important but little-known aspect of British and local history. There will be over 100 exhibits which highlight many different voices from the past.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh is one of many people who will feature in the exhibition. (Image from IOR/L/PS/11/52, P1608)

Exhibits include letters, posters, photographs, advertisements, surveillance files, campaigning materials, oral history,music, and even a children’s game and a 19th century paper bag for Indian sweets. I and my co-curator of the exhibition, John O’Brien, hope that the variety of exhibits will prompt visitors to consider the many ways that history is

recorded and how gaps and silences can be filled.

The exhibition aims to capture Birmingham's importance in global trade and as a centre of industry.

Item 85 - 14119_f_37__MBM_D B Harris_advert

Mirror of British Merchandise, 1888

The Library of Birmingham's collections include stunning images by local photographers past and present which will be showcased in the exhibition. The image below is a photograph by Paul Hill of the Dudley & Dowell foundry at Cradley Heath, 1972, Library of Birmingham MS2294/1/1/9/1. (Image courtesy of Paul Hill.)

Item 92 Foundry worker by Paul Hill

 Capturing images of Birmingham’s richly diverse community is an important part of the exhibition and engagement programme. A selection of photographs will be included in the exhibition to give a vivid picture of Birmingham and all the people who live there today. Anyone in Birmingham can get involved now by sending their photograph via Twitter #brumpeeps. Exhibition visitors are also invited to ‘make their mark’ and share their own stories. 


Please see the Library of Birmingham's website for activities throughout the duration of the exhibition, such as family days, oral history training and talks at local libraries. 

The exhibition and community engagement programme have been generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. 


Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records and exhibition curator 


Further information
Asians in Britain web pages
Library of Birmingham website for details of opening hours and events
#connectingstories
#brumpeeps

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.

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 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