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19 April 2018

The Plans, Maps and Views of Lieutenant-General William Skinner, Chief Engineer of Great Britain

Born to a merchant in St Kitts in the Caribbean, William Skinner (1700-1780) lost his parents at a young age and was adopted by his Aunt and her new husband Captain Talbot Edwards, Chief Engineer in Barbados and the Leeward Islands.

Skinner was educated at military colleges in Paris and Vienna and received his warrant as practitioner engineer in 1719. By 1757 he had risen through the ranks to become Colonel William Skinner, Chief Engineer of Great Britain, and in 1770 he was made Lieutenant-General.

Image 1A View in Newfoundland (Add MS 33233, f. 26)

At the British Library we hold Skinner’s personal collection of maps, plans, surveys and views (Add MS 33231-33233) which show the variety of places where he worked throughout his career, as well as giving an insight into the working process of a military engineer in the 18th century. 

From the start of his career Skinner was sent all over the world.  He became known as an authority on fortifications, and worked on important projects including the building of fortifications on Menorca and surveying Gibraltar, where he later served as Director of Engineering.

Image 3A View of the South Front of the Mountain of Gibraltar (Maps K.Top.72.48.d.)

After the Jacobite Rising of 1745, Skinner was asked to lead a major project to build fortifications in the Highlands. Fort George, built on the sea front north-east of Inverness, was finally completed in 1769 and is still in use today.

Image 4A Plan of Fort George (Maps K.Top.50.33.)

Skinner became Chief Engineer in 1757, just after the Seven Years War (1756-1763) had begun, and many projects that he worked on at this time were as a result of this conflict. In 1761 Skinner was sent to Belle Île in France, which had been captured by the British in order to have a base from which to attack the French mainland. General Studholme Hodgson who had led the raid on the island, complained about ‘the set of wretches I have for engineers’, at which point Skinner was brought in to survey the defences and provide accommodation and shelter for the Armed Forces which had been left to hold the island.

Image 5Plan of the Citadel and Part of the Town of Palais Belle-Isle (Add MS 33232, f. 3)

As Chief Engineer all military building projects needed to be submitted for his approval. One such project was the building of fortifications around St John’s in Eastern Newfoundland. This area had been reclaimed from the French in 1762 after the Battle of Signal Hill, which was the final battle of the Seven Years War in North America.

Image 6A View of Conception Bay, Newfoundland (Add MS 33233, f. 34)

William Skinner died on Christmas Day 1780. He kept on working right up until the end of his life, and had passed on his engineering talent to his grandson, who worked successfully as an engineer in the US.

All the items from Skinner’s collection are available to be viewed in the British Library Reading Rooms, and one of his views of Newfoundland (Add MS 33233, f. 34) can currently be seen in our Treasures Gallery.

Stephen Noble
Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Catalogue links:

Maps and Plans, chiefly of fortifications or surveys for military purposes, Add MS 33231 A-PP
Surveys of Belle Isle, France, and plans and sections of its fortifications during the British occupation after its capture in 1761, Add MS 33232
Views of fortifications and landscapes, Add MS 33233

 

17 April 2018

Papers of Major Geoffrey Herbert Blake, Royal Indian Army Service Corps

The India Office Private Papers recently acquired the diaries of an officer who served in the Royal Indian Army Service Corps during the Second World War. 

RIASC IWM SE 588Royal Indian Army Service Corps troops unload an American C-47 cargo plane at an airstrip in the Pinwe area, 21 November 1944 © IWM (SE 588)

Geoffrey Herbert Blake was born in Peterborough on 30 September 1923.  On leaving school, he began training to become an accountant, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war.  In June 1943, he joined the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, which was responsible for vital supply and transport services for the Indian Army.  He spent the next four years in India, and recorded his experiences in his diaries.

Blake diaries  Mss Eur F717British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

The diaries begin with an introduction on 5 March 1943 in which Blake stated his reasons for keeping the diary: 'I hope that it may record in some detail the most interesting journey of my life, and that it will give me something to talk about in my old age (if I even qualify for this status in life)'.  He then described the process of embarking on the long journey to India.  He left Liverpool on 14 March aboard the MV Britannic, a White Star liner which had been converted to carry troops for the duration of the War.  The Britannic joined a large convoy for the voyage south, with Blake commenting that 'As far as we could see, troop transports were in line', with destroyers protecting them.  The convoy stopped at Freetown, in Sierra Leone, for two days, before resuming the journey to Cape Town in South Africa.  Blake would spend about six weeks camped near Cape Town, before continuing on to Bombay, arriving on 11 June 1943.

First sight of India  Mss Eur F717-1British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

On arriving in India, Blake travelled to Bangalore, where he would spend six months at the Officer’s Training School, before taking up his duties in Air Despatch.  His diaries give a daily account of his life in India as an officer in the Indian Army during the tumultuous years of the Second World War.  He left Bombay aboard the SS Empress of Scotland on 22 January 1947 for the voyage to Liverpool.  Expressing sadness at leaving a country he had grown fond of, he wrote philosophically: 'It looks as if my Indian journey is drawing to an end, but what will the next journey be?'

The start of a journey  Mss Eur F717-1British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

The catalogue of the papers can be found online.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Papers of Major Geoffrey Herbert Blake (1923-2017), Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) 1943-1947 [Reference Mss Eur F717]

 

16 April 2018

The Library of Ideas: Undercurrent at the British Library

To announce our upcoming special event, The Library of Ideas: Creative Use of the British Library presented by Undercurrent Theatre and the British Library we present a blog post by the Artistic Director of Undercurrent Theatre, Laura Farnworth reflecting on her time here at the Library as Artist-in-Residence.

Undercurrent-1APhotographs by the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts team.

It is almost a year since our residency, funded by the Arts Council, began here at the British Library as their First Associate Theatre Company. During my time I have been able to rationalise what is important for me as an artist and I have learnt that I love research and it is integral to my artistic process. The better you understand material, the more distinct and original it will make your artistic work. So, spending time in and with personal archives gives you the rare opportunity to really go deep into a subject. It is about making unexpected and surprising connections between remote pieces of research. The result of these connections is where you start to create something new.

As an artist I am always looking to gather as much ‘fuel’ for my process as possible, stimulus, data, information, knowledge and details. The British Library is the optimum resource for this. Not only does it have ‘everything’(!), it also enables you to approach a topic through various ways, sound, image, digital, manuscript, maps… and all these approaches can inspire you in a different way. It really makes you think about the ‘how’ of your work, in other words, not just what your project will say and contain, but how it will be made, crafted, the form it will take.

Undercurrent-2Manuscript material from the J G Ballard archive (Add MS 88938)

A particular highlight of my time here has been researching the archive of the author J G Ballard. The archive is extensive and a fantastic overview and introduction can be found here. Whilst it does not contain as much personal material as some authors’ archives - it holds very little in the way of private correspondence - it does provide a brilliant insight into the creative process of a great artist. Ballard wrote a lot of his novels by hand and many of his typescripts are heavily annotated. As you start to work through the archive you begin to stitch together a sense of his process. You can learn so much from seeing his choices of what to edit or reword. It is unusual to have such private access to the earliest thoughts of a great artist and it’s quite special to unpick how he works through his ideas and begins his projects. 

The culmination of Undercurrent’s residency will be the The Library of Ideas: Creative Use of the British Library  The aim of this event is to encourage early-career artists into the British Library so that they can discover how they can use the Library to develop their own artistic projects. It’s a rare opportunity to meet curators and get up close to some of the collections - everything from sound to manuscripts to digital.

Laura Farnworth

Artistic Director,

Undercurrent Theatre

Associate Theatre Company of the British Library

Posted on behalf of the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts team.

13 April 2018

When the driver crosses his fingers – motoring superstitions

It’s Friday the Thirteenth, an ideal day for sharing a story about superstitious behaviour.  So here are some superstitions just for motorists.

According to an article in the Leicester Daily Mercury of 19 June 1939; ‘…even the Age of Machinery has its own superstitions.  A philosopher might think that the era which has produced the internal combustion engine among other things, would be above superstitious beliefs only fit for the dim dawn of mankind, when people lived in terror of the incalculable caprices of gods and demons, beneficent or very much the reverse. Far from it!  The man who drives the mechanised vehicle has his own private fancies about good or ill fortune, just like the man who urged his string of pack-horses across the trackless waste of mediaeval England’.

Car driver cropped N10002-55Detail from cover of menu for annual banquet of National Association of Automobile manufacturers 22 January 1904 - C.120.f.2 volume 3, no.32 Images Online  Noc


Here are some of the superstitions described:
• Long-distance lorry drivers do not like driving on Wednesdays.
• Bus drivers don’t like Friday the Thirteenth.
• It is unlucky for drivers to turn back after starting out for work.  Never go back indoors to collect a forgotten lunch box.  The bad luck starts as soon as you cross the threshold, so stand in the road and ask someone to bring your sandwiches out to you.
• A taxi driver who has had a streak of long waits for fares will queue in the cab rank until first in line and then drive off without taking a passenger.  In this way, the bad luck shifts to the next driver in the line.
• Beware meeting a cross-eyed woman when starting out in the morning – break the bad spell by getting into conversation with her.
• A cab driver will not change the first piece of silver taken each day but stow it away in a pocket.
• It is unlucky to lose a glove but lucky to find a rusty nail.
• Running over a tin can will bring misfortune.

How many of these superstitions are still observed today?  I’m off to look for a rusty nail to keep in my car just in case…

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Michael Compton, ‘When the driver crosses his fingers’ - Leicester Daily Mercury 19 June 1939 British Newspaper Archive

 

12 April 2018

Alexander Charles Stewart, classicist and army cyclist

Untold Lives has been remembering the six members of the library departments of the British Museum who died during the First World War.  Today we are telling the story of Captain Alexander Charles Stewart of the Army Cyclist Corps, who was killed in action near the French town of Bailleul on 12 April 1918.

  IWM Cyclist CompanyRecruiting poster for Cyclist Company © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4893)

Alexander Charles Stewart was born in 1886, the only son of William and Helen Stewart of Turriff in Aberdeenshire.  He studied at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, leaving in 1903 as Dux.  He then studied at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with a MA in Classics in 1907.  After further study in Paris, Stewart worked as a classics master at Nicholson Institute, Stornoway.  In May 1910, he was appointed a 2nd Class Assistant at the British Museum.

On the outbreak of war, Stewart enlisted as a Private in the London Scottish, the 14th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment.  At some point he transferred to the Inns of Court OTC and was eventually gazetted into the Army Cyclist Corps.  Stewart went to the front in April 1916, joining at first the 61st Division Cyclist Company, which later that year merged with two other divisional cyclist companies to form the IX Corps Cyclist Battalion.

IWM London CyclistsPoster for the London Cyclists © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0873)

Volunteer cyclist units began to emerge in the decades leading up to the First World War.  Cyclist companies were initially established overseas at divisional level, although these were later grouped into battalions at corps level.  Their main intended role was reconnaissance, although they were also often involved in traffic control or signals work.

By the middle of 1917, Lieutenant (later Captain) Stewart was commanding No. 1 Company of the IX Corps Cyclist Battalion.  The battalion spent most of that year in the Ypres Salient.  In February 1918 they moved to the Oise region to survey roads.  They were still there when the German Spring Offensive broke on the 21 March.  Hastily recalled from leave on the 26 March, Captain Stewart rejoined his company when they were helping to defend the River Ancre crossings near Buire.

Shortly after that, the IX Corps Cyclist Battalion moved back north.  They became caught up in Operation Georgette, the German offensive in Flanders that opened on  9 April.  For the first few days of the offensive, the battalion was based at Méteren, just west of Bailleul, mainly tasked with reconnaissance and unit liaison in the area east of the key railhead of Hazebrouck.  Captain Stewart's No. 1 Company was based throughout on the railway line between Bailleul and Outtersteene.

The battalion war diary does not provide any specific details of his death; several days after the event, he was reported wounded and missing on 12 April 1918, somewhere south of Méteren.  It wasn't until the end of the year that Captain Stewart was officially reported killed in action.

Captain Stewart is buried in Outtersteene Communal Cemetery Extension near Bailleul.  In addition to the British Librarians’ memorial at the British Library, his name also appears on the town war memorial at Turriff, the memorials at George Watson’s College and the University of Edinburgh, and the British Museum’s memorials at Bloomsbury and Kensington.

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager

Further reading:
Chris Baker, The Battle for Flanders: German Defeat on the Lys, 1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2013).
John Minto Robinson, ed., The war book of Turriff and twelve miles round 1914-1919 (Turriff: Turriff and District Ex-Service Men's Association, 1926), pp. 7, 110.
University of Edinburgh, Roll of honour 1914-1919 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1921), p. 97, plate lxxvii.
WO 95/845/2, XI Corps Cyclist Battalion War Diary, June 1916 - August 1919, The National Archives, Kew.

 

11 April 2018

‘With our backs to the wall …’ - Sir Douglas Haig’s Special Order 1918

During the First World War, the German Spring Offensives of March 1918 brought to an end three long years of attritional, trench-based warfare on the Western Front.  With little prospect of success on the Somme, the German generals switched their attention to Flanders.  Operation Georgette opened on 9 April 1918, aiming to drive the British and their allies back to the Channel Ports.  The opening offensive successfully targeted an under-strength Portuguese division in the front line near Neuve Chapelle.  Further attacks the following day resulted in the capture of Armentières and Messines.

Douglas-Haig-1st-Earl-HaigDouglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, by Walter Stoneman c. 1916 NPG Ax39017 © National Portrait Gallery, London   NPG CC By

For the British, the situation was now critical.  The Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig, who remains a controversial figure, believed that the British and their allies needed to hold their ground while the French manoeuvred to come to their support.  On 11 April 1918, Haig issued a Special Order of the Day addressed to all ranks of the British Army in France and Flanders.  The order concluded with the now well-known exhortation:
‘There is no other course open to us but to fight it out.  Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement.  With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.  The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment’.

A search of the British Newspaper Archive shows that the message was published in many UK newspapers on 13 April, usually printed verbatim and with very little in the way of commentary.  The headlines attached to it usually highlight what has come to be seen as the key phrase.

Haig's words 1918Western Daily Press 13 April 1918 British Newspaper Archive

Not everyone serving in the line was enthusiastic.  For example, Second Lieutenant Huntly Gordon of A Battery, 112th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, was at the time based near Méteren.  Gordon recalls that the Special Order arrived on 12 April via a runner and was received largely in silence:
‘I got the general idea; but somehow this modern version of the “little touch of Harry in the night” did not inspire me; in fact the rhetoric made me critical.  There was not the remotest contact between us and the Olympian figures at GHQ; there never had been.  How did he know how A/112 were placed?  It was almost two days since this circular had been signed and a good many walls had been given up during that time.  Against which particular walls must our backs now be placed?’

Haig later gave the manuscript of the Special Order to his private secretary, Sir Philip Sassoon (a cousin of the war poet).  After Sassoon’s death in 1939, it was bequeathed to the British Museum and it now forms part of the manuscript collections of the British Library (Add MS 45416).

There is one major difference between the holograph and the version eventually circulated to the Army.  The printed version omitted a final sentence, reading ‘Be of good cheer. The British Empire must win in the end’.

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager

Further reading:
Chris Baker, The Battle for Flanders: German defeat on the Lys, 1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2011).
Huntly Gordon, The unreturning army: a field gunner in Flanders, 1917-18 (London: Doubleday, 2013).
Peter Stansky, Sassoon: the worlds of Philip and Sybil (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003).
David Stevenson, With our backs to the wall: victory and defeat in 1918 (Cambridge, Mass.:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.  2011).
Laura Walker, Haig and British generalship during the war. British Library World War One website

 

09 April 2018

Bahrain is not in Ruritania: Colonel Prior and the ‘Royal’ Sheikh

When the Ruler of Bahrain began to adopt a distinctly regal style in 1940, Britain’s senior official in the Gulf moved quickly to nip the development in the bud.

On 7 February 1940 Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah announced in an official decree, or alan, that he had decided to institute a new honour, the Order of the Khalifah.  The order was to have three classes: Star, Decoration, and Medal, and the Sheikh stated that the decree was issued ‘By our royal pleasure’.

Bahrain 1Alan issued by the Sheikh of Bahrain concerning the Order of the Khalifah, 7 February 1940. IOR/R/15/2/644, f 5


Three days later, the Political Agent in Bahrain, Hugh Weightman, reported ‘this rather silly idea’ to his boss, Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Prior, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf.  Prior was incensed.  He had complained to Weightman the previous November, following his last visit to the Sheikh, that he had been placed between two sofas, with the result that he found himself about a foot lower than the Sheikh.  He insisted then to Weightman that two seats of equal size should be arranged in future ‘as conversation between different planes is difficult’. 

He had also seen a picture in Weightman’s office of the Sheikh sitting ‘on a sort of Woolworth throne’, while the Political Officer, Cole, ‘sat somewhere down by his coat tails in an ordinary chair’. He hoped that no Political Officer would ever put himself in such a ridiculous position again.

Bahrain 2Colonel Prior writes to the Political Agent in Bahrain about the Sheikh of Bahrain’s ‘Woolworth throne’. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 25 (detail)

Prior suspected that the Sheikh’s regal pretensions came from Charles Belgrave, his British-born Adviser, and he told Weightman that the Sheikh needed to be reminded that ‘Bahrain is not in Ruritania’.

 The India Office in London was also concerned to ensure that there should only be one ‘fount of honour’ in the British Empire, and as such an Indian ruler had recently been refused permission to institute an order of his own.  However, they recognised that the Sheikh of Bahrain enjoyed a rather more independent position.

Nevertheless, Prior was in no doubt that the Sheikh’s regal tendencies should be suppressed, and he went to Bahrain in March 1940 to interview both Belgrave and the Sheikh.

Bahrain 3Colonel Prior administers a stern lecture to Charles Belgrave, the Sheikh of Bahrain’s Adviser. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 22 (detail)

He first carpeted Belgrave, informing him that the British ‘did not retain him in his position for his administrative experience or executive ability, but on account of his political gumption, and that he had failed us lamentably on this occasion’.  He then sent for the Sheikh, raised the issue of the ‘odd alan’, and, reading it out, asked who the king referred to was.  Prior continues: ‘The Shaikh giggled rather feebly at this and said that people wrote these titles on the letters sent him and that as for the order, people liked these things’.

Prior then told the Sheikh that orders of chivalry were for great states and that people would laugh at Bahrain for instituting one.  When the Sheikh mentioned that Egypt and Iraq had them, Prior pointed out that Egypt was fourteen times bigger than Bahrain.  The Sheikh then ‘relapsed into a sepia cloud of patriotic protestations’

Bahrain 4Colonel Prior administers a stern lecture to the Sheikh. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 23 (detail)

Prior’s recommendation to the India Office was that only the third class, or Medal, should be allowed to remain, and that the Sheikh’s decree should be allowed to die a natural death.


Bahrain achieved independence from Britain in 1971.  In 2002, the country’s Emir, also named Hamad bin Isa, and now at a safe distance from any risk of being ticked off by the British, declared himself King of Bahrain.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archives
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
London, British Library 'File 26/2 Bahrain Government Honours ("Order of the Al Khalifah")' IOR/R/15/2/644
London, British Library Coll 30/190 'Bahrein: Qn. of the institution of a Bahrein "Order".' IOR/L/PS/12/3927. (A digitised version of this file will appear in the Qatar Digital Library in the course of 2018).

 

05 April 2018

Ode to Income Tax

One of the joys of cataloguing an archive is that you never know what you might find.  At the beginning of this new tax year, we take a look at an unusual item found in the papers of Charles Canning, Governor General and Viceroy of India.

Mss Eur F699-1-1-12  letter 10  f.3rMss Eur F699/1/1/1/12, letter 10, f.3r Noc

It can't be common to find a document in favour of taxation, let alone a poem singing the praises of a new Income Tax.  It becomes an even more astonishing find when that poem is written in Bengali and the author is identified as a fourteen year old schoolboy.  The poem and its translation are found amongst letters written to Governor General Charles Canning by Sir Henry Bartle Frere, Member of the Council of India.  It was originally sent to Frere by the Scottish missionary Dr Alexander Duff.  Duff had founded the General Assembly's Institution, later the Free Church Institution in 1830, with the aim of offering English language based education to middle and upper class Indians.  The Free Church Institution was affiliated with the University of Calcutta soon after its establishment in 1857.

Alexander-DuffAlexander Duff by James Faed the Elder, mezzotint, published November 1851, NPG D35771 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC

Frere writes that the poem's author, Bejoy Nath Roy is “rather famous in the School of the Free Kirk Institute as a writer of occasional poems” and that the boy's Master was “struck by the singular subject he had chosen”.  According to the translation, Bejoy Nath Roy writes “The Government wet with the dew of  mercy incurred debt only for the good of India“ ... “Let no-one grudge therefore to pay the tax”.  He uses the metaphor of the Government as a physician curing the nation, and having affected a cure, demands payment for services rendered. 

Mss Eur F699-1-1-1-12  letter 10  f.5vMss Eur F699/1/1/1/12, letter 10, f.5v Noc

What happened in India in 1860 to inspire such words?  The country had spent the years 1857 and 1858 in the turmoil of the uprising known as the Indian Mutiny.  Indian finances had been in a parlous state even before the rebellion, but with the need for extra military expenditure, the deficit increased.  The economist James Wilson was appointed as a financial member of Council of India in 1859.  His plans to reform India's financial structures included a new Income Tax, as well as an adjustment to Customs Duties, a License Tax for traders, and a new paper currency.  Wilson's plans caused consternation in some quarters.  Sir Charles Trevelyan's outright hostility to the tax led to his recall back to England.   And the extent of the dreaded Income Tax?  A two percent levy on incomes between 200 and 500 rupees, and four percent above that.  In little over a year, and with the support of the Governor General, Wilson managed to lay the foundations of improved financial planning, budgeting and auditing, so much so that India's deficit had been reversed by 1862-63.  Wilson did not see it, he died of dysentery in August 1860.

The poem is a snapshot, shedding light on an unusual poetic subject.  Perhaps though it says less about attitudes to taxation and more gives us a glimpse of the 19th century Western education system within India, whereby particular attitudes towards the British and British administration were promulgated within schools.

And if anyone is aware what happened to aspiring poet Bejoy Nath Roy, please do let us know. 

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
Mss Eur F699 Papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning