THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

10 August 2017

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

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

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

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

 

01 August 2017

Battles on the Serpentine

Historical re-enactment is a centuries-old form of fun. The Romans recreated famous battles in their amphitheaters for public entertainment, and from around the 17th century military displays, mock battles and re-enactments became popular in England. As these prints from the King's Topographical Collection show, historical re-enactment was used to celebrate the Grand Jubilee on 1 August 1814, in mock naval battles which took place on Hyde Park's Serpentine River.

 

MapsK_Top_26_6_p80
Thomas Palser (active 1803-43), Scene on the Serpentine, Hyde park, on the Night of the Grand Jubilee, August 1, 1814, published in London by Thomas Palser, August 24, 1814, etching and aquatint with hand-colouring, 28.6 x 40 cm, Maps K.Top.26.6.p.

 

The battles were part of a series of public festivities marking peace with France and 100 years of Hanoverian rule. Sixteen years had also elapsed since the major naval Battle of the Nile (1-3 August 1798), which Nelson won for Britain against the French Republic.

A fleet of miniature ships were built at Woolwich especially for the Serpentine re-enactments. They were fitted up and rigged as men-of-war and flew French flags, Union Jacks and American banners. Britain was then still at war with America and one of the key battles for territory had taken place in the Atlantic Ocean off the Eastern Seaboard.

  MapsK_Top_26_6_n80

Thomas Palser (active 1803-43), The Action between the British & American Frigates on the Serpentine, Hyde Park, published in London by Thomas Palser, 1 August, 1814, etching and aquatint with hand-colouring, 28 x 40.6 cm, Maps K.Top.26.6.n.

 

  MapsK_Top_26_6_o80

Thomas Palser (active 1803-43), The Jubilee Naval Action on the Serpentine in Commemoration of the Battle of the Nile, published in London by Thomas Palser, 24 August, 1814, etching and aquatint with hand-colouring, 28.2 x 39.9 cm, Maps K.Top.26.6.o.

 

While some newspaper critics called the events ‘absurd’, most spectators revelled in watching the little ships engage in such dramatic combats. As these prints show, rockets were fired off to simulate blasting cannons and vessels were set alight to excite the crowd and rouse patriotic cheers.

Over 500 views and maps from the King’s Topographical Collection and other British Library holdings are available to view at: https://www.bl.uk/picturing-places. Keep up to date with what’s being discovered at: https://twitter.com/bl_prints

Alice Rylance-Watson

29 July 2017

Frank Derrett: With the 'Cook's Tourists' in Salonika

During the centenary of the First World War, we have been remembering the staff of the library departments of the British Museum listed on the memorial to British librarians at the British Library.  Today we remember 531860 Private Frank Derrett of the 2/15th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment, the Prince of Wales's Own Civil Service Rifles, who died of wounds on 22 July 1917 at Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece.

Frank Derrett was born at London in 1883, the son of John William and Emma Derrett, who lived at James Street, Marylebone.  Census records from 1871 and 1881 describe John William Derrett as a china and glass dealer, and Emma continued running the business after his death in 1889. The 1911 Census shows 63-year-old Emma Derrett living at 35 James Street with three sons (including 27-year-old Frank), two grandchildren, and two boarding valets from Switzerland.  Frank Derrett married Alice Edmunds at Marylebone in 1912, and they had a son Frank Lionel.

Frank Derrett joined the British Museum as a Boy Attendant in the Department of Printed Books on 23 January 1899.  At the time of his death, he had worked for the museum for 18½ years, from August 1903 as an Attendant in the Reading and Newspaper Rooms.

Frank Derrett enlisted in the Civil Service Rifles in September 1915, becoming part of its second line battalion.  Throughout the war, the 2nd Civil Service Rifles formed part of the 60th (2/2nd London) Division, which served on the Western Front from June 1916 before moving to Salonika in November 1916.

The Macedonian Front is one of the lesser-known theatres of the First World War.  A small Franco-British force first arrived in Salonika in October 1915, ostensibly to support the Serbian army.  While the force arrived too late to prevent a Serbian reverse, it remained and consolidated on Greek soil, establishing a defensive line in Macedonia.

WWI soldiers hrh-alexander

The commander in chief of the Serbian army, His Royal Highness Regent Alexander, with other high-ranking officers on the battlefield in Macedonia. World War One Collection Item

The 2nd Civil Service Rifles spent some time at Katerini before undertaking an epic seven-day march to Kalinova in March 1917.  As part of 60th Division, they played a supporting role in offensives near Lake Doiran (Dojran) on 24 April and 8 May 1917.  In the following days, the battalion had a tough job consolidating positions on hills known as the Goldies, which is where they suffered the majority of their active-service casualties during the whole campaign.

By early June, however, the 60th Division was already on its way back to Salonika, having been posted to yet another theatre of war. The 2nd Civil Service Rifles sailed to Egypt on 19 June, from where they would take part in the campaign in Palestine (the frequent travels of the battalion gained it the nickname, the "Cook's Tourists").  It seems that Private Derrett was left behind in Greece, either in hospital or attached to another unit. He died of wounds on 22 July 1917 aged 34, and is buried in Salonika (Lembet Road) Military Cemetery in Thessaloniki.

Frank Derrett's gravestone includes an epitaph chosen by his widow: verses adapted from a sentimental late-19th century hymn The Christian's goodnight -"Sleep on, beloved, and take thy rest; we love thee well, but Jesus loves thee best".

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager

Further reading:
P. H. Dalbiac, History of the 60th Division (2/2nd London Division) (London: Allen & Unwin, 1927).
P. Davenport, A.C. H. Benké, eds., The history of the Prince of Wales' Own Civil Service Rifles (London: Wyman & Sons, 1921)
Cyril Falls, Military operations: Macedonia, 2 vols (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1933-35).
Jill Knight, The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War: 'All Bloody Gentlemen' (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2004), pp. 147-177.
Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 (London: Harper Collins, 2004).
Alan Palmer, The gardeners of Salonika: The Macedonian Campaign, 1915-1918 (London: André Deutsch, 1965).

 

27 July 2017

Flouting Laws for his Cause: John Flavell’s FAQs

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.)

 

25 July 2017

A Soldier’s Life – the memoir of William Young 76th Regiment of Foot

We recently acquired the captivating memoir of William Young, HM 76th Regiment of Foot.  Young wrote  ‘A Soldier’s Life &  Experience’ whilst stationed in Bangalore in 1871 ‘surrounded by lovely scenery, thousands of miles away,’ to give his relatives at home ‘some faint idea of my chequered life – its joys, its troubles and sorrows’. 

Mss Eur F 698 -1 compressed
One of H.M.’s 76th Regt’ by William Young MSS Eur F698

William starts with his childhood in Ireland and his unhappy relationship with his father who was ‘a very cross man’ with ‘ a rough harsh manner’.   Having decided to leave home, William ‘in mad brained folly enlisted for a Soldier’.  His ‘ever gentle and kind mother’ fretted for him. When she died soon afterwards, she was said to have called for William with her last breath.

Mss Eur F698 - 2 compressed
‘Good bye Sister!  I’m going for a Soldier!!’ by William Young MSS Eur F698


In February 1864, William’s regiment arrived in Madras  after ‘a charming voyage’.  He describes his reactions to his new surroundings – the people, their clothes and language, the blazing sun.  Barely a week after landing he was promoted to Lance Corporal at the age of only nineteen, being ‘a tall, smart, healthy looking young fellow’.

William started to court Mary, the daughter of John Nugent a retired Army Warrant Officer. As John objected to the relationship, William visited Mary at night muffled up in a large black cloak!  John eventually gave his consent to the marriage, but, as William expected, the Colonel of his regiment said that he was too young to marry and there was no vacancy for Mary to be taken on the strength as a wife. 

John Nugent died on 2 November 1865 and Mary’s mother Jane agreed that the couple should marry without permission.  William and Mary had two marriage ceremonies, Protestant at St Matthias Vepery on 17 November 1865, and Catholic at Bangalore on 22 December 1865.  The couple were forced to live apart and Mary worked as a lady’s servant. They did not meet for eighteen months. After William signed on for another term of eleven years, he was given accommodation in the married quarters, with the promise of Mary being taken onto the strength as soon as a vacancy occurred.

There is a gripping description of a military march.  William marched with a pebble in his mouth to help keep away the ‘parching thirst’.  The women of the regiment rode in a cart; many were drunk.  Mary was horrified at their uncouth behaviour and was ostracised for refusing to associate with them.   When the regiment received orders to go to Rangoon, Mary fled to her sister in Trichinopoly rather than travel on with the other women. Her belongings were on board the ship and so William was obliged to sell them in Burma. The couple were later reunited in 1868 at Madras when Mary came to visit William in hospital.  Sadly, Mary died in November 1868 at the age of only 25 – ‘thank God we were permitted to meet and make up all our little misunderstandings’. 

Mss Eur F698- 3 compressed
‘The tired Soldier and his family’ by William Young MSS Eur F698

William’s memoir continues with his return to Britain on leave, his voyage back to India, and a fascinating account of the daily life of a soldier in India, including the relationship between the Army and the local peoples.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
MSS Eur F698 Memoir of William Young
Church register entries for William’s marriages- IOR/N/2/46 ff. 359, 379. Digitised images available via the Findmypast website.
(Mary’s name is given as Catherine in the church records from India.)

 

20 July 2017

Miss Jenny the cheetah visits England

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