THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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40 posts categorized "Rare books"

14 May 2018

#Happy Birthday, Robert Proctor :)

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Anyone with an interest in early printed books should certainly celebrate the 150th anniversary of Robert Proctor’s birth. A debt of gratitude is owed to the librarian and bibliographer, who had a special talent for identifying early printing types and on that basis consolidated a method for arranging incunabula, books printed in the 15th century.

Proctor disappeared in September 1903 whilst hiking in the Tyrol, but his work during his short energetic life did much to make a science of bibliography. The impact of the publication of his Index to the Early Printed Books in the British Museum was figuratively likened to "the launching of HMS Dreadnought". The 'Proctor Order' is still used, giving numbers to printed items arranged geographically and chronologically: first by country, in printing order; then within each country by town, chronologically; then within each town by printer.

 When we are struck by the accomplishments of remarkable people, it’s natural to look for the things that made them click. Proctor’s Diaries written from 1899-1903, provide insights into his day-to-day work, his interests, joys, frustrations, thoughts and opinions. Today Twitter serves this function for many librarians, and so to celebrate Proctor’s birthday we thought we might gift him a Twitter account! What might he have tweeted?

ProctorTwitter1If Proctor had a Twitter account it might have looked like this...

Proctor’s energy and industry is immediately apparent when reading his diaries. We might wonder if he had some kind of thaasophobia – he was never idle. He could have been a prolific Tweeter.

As a librarian he documented his work at the British Museum: cataloguing, acquisitions, visitor interviews, and work on the printed subject index. He also recorded the weather, often with a touch of poetry, aware of its natural magic and dynamism. He could be expected to have tweeted images from the books he worked with, but it’s often illuminating to look at the other interests of people normally associated with a particular area.

For instance, Proctor lived in a house with his mother, and loved gardening. We picture him setting wire fences, chopping logs, picking flowers and making jam.

ProctorTwitter2

He recorded the books he read on train journeys and those he read to his mother; he could have tweeted, “#amreading Zola (to mother)”. Proctor kept up his diary during his holidays, and these contain succinct (tweetable) reviews: “not to be commended, but certainly cheap”, “landlord excellent” etc.

Some diaries and much of social media can be mundane and turgid. The interesting stuff comes with those things that reflect the deeper and more meaningful sides of a character. Proctor’s diaries offer an interesting record of his views and opinions. It is well known that Proctor was greatly influenced by the aesthetics and politics of his idol William Morris and we see plenty of examples of Proctor’s ‘radicalism’.

ProctorDiary1"The bottom of the sea seems the best place for France - but I doubt whether her injustice towards Dreyfus is a greater crime than the behaviour of our Government & Press to the Boers", diary entry for 9 Sep 1899. Add MS 50190-50196.

Many people with social media accounts which identify an employer state in their profiles, ‘opinions my own’ or ‘not tweeting in an official capacity’. Had Proctor taken to Twitter, the British Museum’s Department of Printed Books may just have insisted on this for @IncunabulaBob: on March 7th 1900 Proctor wrote “London much excited because the loathsome Fatguts is defiling it. She is going to Ireland – may she leave her damned bones there.”

ProctorDiary2Fatguts, and 'the Old Washerwoman of Windsor', were Proctor's insulting names for Queen Victoria.

 

Other pages in Proctor's diaries display quite touching gestures of his sincere beliefs.

ProctorDiary3Liberty, Equality, Fraternity written in red pen at the top of the first page of the second volume of Proctor's diaries.

 Further reading

J H Bowman, ed., A critical edition of the private diaries of Robert Proctor (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, c2010). Open Access Rare Books and Music Reading Room, RAR 027.541

The Private Diary of Robert Proctor. Reprinted from the Transactions of the Bibliographical Society 1951.010856.k.6

Christian Algar,

Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

24 March 2018

Humphry Repton, Landscape Gardener

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Humphry Repton is acknowledged as the last great landscape designer of the 18th century. He died 200 years ago, on 24 March 1818, aged 65. Repton claimed that during his career he worked for over 400 clients. Not all the sites where he worked have been identified so far. His report, often called the ‘Red Book’, has survived for 110 sites, 84 are supported by documentary evidence and 48 are mentioned in Repton’s published works. Many others are illustrated in Peacock’s Polite Repository, a little pocket diary for which Repton provided illustrations. It is generally accepted that this indicates he had been invited to advise on the property. The British Library holds a number of these little books as well as copies of his published works.

Repton 1Peacock’s Polite Repository, August 1803 Woodford Hall, Essex – Seat of J. Maitland Esq c.58.aa.12 Noc

 In 1806 the East India Company decided to establish its own college to train the clerical staff who would serve them overseas, and a new building was designed by William Wilkins at Haileybury. 

Repton 2View of Haileybury College in Hertfordshire, 1810, by T Medland BL, K Top Vol 15 no 74 Online Gallery Noc

Humphry Repton was invited to advise on landscaping the grounds. The report which he presented to the East India Company appears not to have survived, but many of the letters from Repton to the Company have survived in the archives of the Committee of College, one of the standing committees of the Court of Directors.

Repton 3Report from the Committee of College in the Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 23 May 1809  IOR/B/149 p.246 Noc

Repton first visited the site in November 1808 when he was shown around and various ideas were explained to him. His first accounts show he visited the site again before presenting his ‘Book of Plans, Sketches and Report’ for which he charged £52 10s. Several more site visits were made to take measurements and meet with the contractor, and for each of these he charged £21 when accompanied by an assistant or £15 15s when alone.

The letters give us several clues about the proposals in Repton’s Report which included planting 420 horse chestnut, elm or plane trees to make an avenue. He mentioned digging up the old road and levelling the site, and gravelling the ‘public road’. However later, when the contract was nearing completion, the roads were being ‘torn up’ by coal carts before they had become established. Repton suggested moving the coal yard to a site more easily accessible from the main road.

Repton also mentions problems arising from the building work, adding an additional £152 to the original estimate for moving 2620 cubic yards of earth. Later he addressed the problem of old clay pits by proposing two pits be made into one pool by raising the lower one and partly destroying the upper one.

Repton 4British Library IOR/J/1/25/333-34 : 1810  Progress report from Humphry Repton, 22 January 1810 Noc

Repton’s letters about Haileybury give us a glimpse of the missing report, but are also interesting because the East India Company did not just commission the proposals from Repton but, unusually, he had a supervisory role in their implementation. Among other indications for this are his letter dated 2 July 1809 when he says ‘I should be glad to leave full direction for the contractor how he is to proceed during my absence & to do as much as possible before the harvest takes off his men’.

Georgina Green
Independent scholar

 

20 March 2018

Insurgency in the archives

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DEAR READER, Please realize that this book will be no suitable ornament at present for Mahogany drawing tables or ivory bookshelves - no doubt its rightful place. The despoilers and oppressors of India will want to hunt it out of view. They cannot stand its fierce light. Whether, therefore, you are an Indian, or a foreigner temporarily in India, we entrust this and subsequent volumes to you for safe custody, by all the ingenious means one employs to save a treasure from theft or robbery, and for as many people to read as you can personally arrange.

Free India Committee, India Ravaged, January 1943 (Delhi, 1943), shelfmark EPP 13

On Friday 12 and Saturday 13 January 2018 the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, hosted a two-day workshop on ‘Insurgency in the archives: the politics and aesthetics of sedition in colonial India’, with focus on the British Library’s collection of publications proscribed by the Government of India. As discussed in a previous post, this collection is one of the largest archives of primary sources relating to any twentieth century decolonization movement. Unable to do justice to the papers presented in such a short space this blog will present collection items related to the workshop’s five panel themes.

Archiving revolution

Both censors and insurgents were concerned with the maintenance of records and circulation of texts. Revolutionaries sometimes also appropriated the apparatus of the colonial state: distributed their writing in the mails or adopted the style and format of official literature. India Ravaged (above) collects texts documenting ‘atrocities’ committed under ‘British Aegis’ during the Quit India movement of 1942. Elsewhere a ‘balance sheet’ published by Indians based in San Francisco estimates that whilst Englishmen extract $136 million from India per year, the daily income of an average Indian is 2.5 cents.

EPP 1(8)
The Balance Sheet of British Rule in India (San Francisco, n.d.), shelfmark EPP 1/8

Communism in the vernacular

British anxiety about Soviet incursions in this region was such that communist literature was automatically banned.

PIB 69(1)
Sāmrājyavāda, a Hindi translation of Lenin’s Imperialism (Benares, 1934), PIB 69/1

PIB 18(1)
Lenina aura Gāndhī by René Fülöp-Miller, a comparative study of Lenin and Gandhi translated into Hindi from German (Delhi, 1932), shelfmark PIB 18/1

Networks of extraterritorial sedition

Banned works not only discussed international affairs, but were also sometimes disseminated via transcontinental underground networks. The wide-ranging nature of these is evident in a cache of Chinese language pro-German propaganda produced during WW1.

PIB 215(65)
A collection of German war reports and speeches translated into Chinese (n.d. and n.p), shelfmark PIB 215/65

Regulating ‘hatred’ and ‘disaffection’

The two main criteria for censorship were established in the 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure, which defined ‘seditious material’ as that likely to incite ‘disaffection’ towards the Government of India or ‘class hatred’ between India’s different communities. The proscribed publications are therefore a valuable archive of both the nationalist movement and communal tensions in the lead-up to Independence and Partition.

PIB 126(2)
A handbill printed on saffron paper urges Hindus to only buy produce from coreligionists in order to protect Gomāta (Mother cow). (Ayodhya, n.d.), shelfmark PIB 126/2

PIB 93p1
A special edition of the Arya Samaj Urdu-language periodical Vedik Maigzīn disputes the authority of the Quran (Lahore, 1936), shelfmark PIB 93

Spoken texts, picture texts

The collection is particularly strong in popular print and street poetry. These texts were intended for a mass audience during a period of low literacy levels, and meant to be seen and heard as much as read.

PIB 210(2)p1
Vidrohiṇī (Rebel woman), a collection of nationalist songs (Bombay, 1942), shelfmark PIB 210/2

 PP Hin F93
Gore kuttoṃ kā harāmīpana (The bastardy of the white dogs), a stream of invective printed on red paper (n.p., 1930?), shelfmark PP Hin F93

Such literature would have circulated hand-to-hand and by word of mouth, before being intercepted by the colonial censor and kept in the British Library.

Pragya Dhital

Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London

 
Further reading:

Pinney Christopher. 2004. ‘Photos of the Gods’: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (London: Reaktion Books)

Shaw, Graham and Mary Lloyd (eds.) 1985. Publications proscribed by the government of India: a catalogue of the collections in the India Office Library and Records and the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books, British Library Reference Division (London: British Library)

Singer, Wendy. 1997. Creating Histories: Oral Narratives and the Politics of History-making (New Delhi: Oxford University Press)


Previous blog posts on the proscribed publications collection:

Alex Hailey, 'Caught out at Customs', 4 April 2017 

Pragya Dhital, 'Inflammable material in the British Library', 25 September 2017

 

13 March 2018

Getting a fair price: a handy pocket-book for merchants (and smugglers?)

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We recently acquired a little book with strong ties to Cornish trade and smuggling in the 18th century.  Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal was printed in the sea port of Falmouth, Cornwall, in 1787.  It is a pocket-sized book of tables and calculations of the rates of exchange between Portugal and England, together with conversion tables for measures of cloth, wine and corn, and weights – indispensable for the merchants and sailors involved in Falmouth’s lucrative trade network, clandestine or otherwise, wanting a fair price for their goods.

Photo 1Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal Noc

During the 18th century there was a thriving maritime trade between Lisbon and Falmouth, as described by Daniel Defoe in his Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain, 1724:

"Falmouth is well built, has abundance of shipping belonging to it, is full of rich merchants, and has a flourishing and increasing trade.  I say 'increasing,' because by the late setting up the English packets between this port and Lisbon, there is a new commerce between Portugal and this town carried on to a very great value.  It is true, part of this trade was founded in a clandestine commerce carried on by the said packets at Lisbon, where, being the king's ships, and claiming the privilege of not being searched or visited by the Custom House officers, they found means to carry off great quantities of British manufactures, which they sold on board to the Portuguese merchants, and they conveyed them on shore, as it is supposed, without paying custom.  But the Government there getting intelligence of it … that trade has been effectually stopped.  But the Falmouth merchants, having by this means gotten a taste of the Portuguese trade, have maintained it ever since in ships of their own”.

The Falmouth-Lisbon Packet Service described by Defoe started operation in 1689.  It was an early postal service that carried mail on packet ships from country to country.  There were other packet stations on the south and east coasts and, together, they ran important routes across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and through Northern Europe.  The packet crews furtively traded goods on their own account, duty-free, on the side, making the packet service risky but potentially lucrative work.  Even when the government got wind of this practice and stamped it out, the smuggling continued using privately owned boats.  Portuguese gold bars and coin were particular favourites, and often found their way up to London.  This little pocket book would have been a handy guide for converting measures of smuggled goods, and calculating the exchange rate between currencies.

Photo 2Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal Noc

The last page has an advertisement for Elizabeth Elliot, bookseller, stationer and printer.  Elizabeth was the widow of the printer Philip Elliot and, together, their business was responsible for ten out of the 24 early printed books with Falmouth imprints that survive today.  Elizabeth’s shop sold an eclectic range of “books in all languages and all manner of bindings; stationary/wares of all sorts; mathematical instruments; violins, German and common flutes, and fifes, music, music-books and music-paper; the late Sir John Hill’s medicines, by appointment of Lady Hill; Wash-Balls, lavender-water, eau de luce, &c. &c.”.  Elizabeth took over the shop in 1787 and printed this book of tables, an English grammar for “young beginners”, two sermons, a book of spiritual songs and a satirical poem about slavery.

Photo 3  Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal Noc

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

18 January 2018

When it’s Not Rude to Point: Manicules in Sir Hans Sloane’s Catalogue

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We’ve all been taught that it’s rude to point.  But did you know that a pointing finger was quite a popular symbol in early manuscripts?

KitchenerLord Kitchener's pointing finger demands Britons enlist for the First World War (Wikicommons)

First used in medieval times, the manicule became a firm favourite of the Renaissance humanists.  Many a margin would be graced by these tiny fists with an extended finger or two, pointing out notable areas in a book.  Predictably enough, the term "manicule" is taken from the Latin maniculum, or "little hand".
 Manicule blog 1

Extract from Sir Hans Sloane's catalogue, volume one.  Manicules can be seen along the left hand margin.

The library of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), a physician and collector whose collections would form the foundation of the British Museum and British Library, is no exception.  These curious little scribbled fists with elongated index fingers are often encountered along the margins of volume one of his eight volume catalogue, pointing out particular works. Although the exact reason for their use by Sloane is uncertain, the manicule was traditionally used to highlight points of interest, and it is likely that they served the same purpose for Sloane.
 Manicule blog 2

Extract from Sir Hans Sloane's catalogue, volume one.  Manicules can be seen along the left hand margin.

What is more interesting is the manicules almost exclusively point to travel literature.  Sloane the armchair traveller was keen on the wider world, although he didn’t make a great deal of effort to see it in person.  As such, his materials on travel are substantial; in fact the manicules only point out selected works from quite a broad range.

These maniculed works encompass literature on numerous countries and continents, including India, China, Japan, Peru, the Americas, North Africa and Persia.  Their topics include accounts of voyages to China [566.g.5.], piracy and buccaneering in the West Indies [1197.h.2./ C.32.h.14.], sugar plantations in America [816.m.13.(156.)], the history and geography of Barbados [796.ff.20.], diplomacy in Tartaria [568.g.6.], the Berber Jewish community of North Africa [860.a.13.], and Botany and medicine in New Spain [546.g.14.].

Manicule blog 3

Illustration from The Present State of the Jews [860.a.13.]

  Manicule blog 4Title page of Diuers Voyages de la Chine, et Autres Royaumes de l'Orient [566.g.5.]

Whatever the exact reasons for Sloane’s use of manicules, the little pointing fists peppered across his catalogue makes for a fascinating exploration of his incredible collection and the materials he deemed worthy, quite literally, of pointing out.  If you would like to explore some of these works then head over to the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue and pop ‘manicule’ into the search bar.  Following Sloane’s own guiding hands, it will open a door into the varied and rich world of the travel-minded collector.

Lubaaba Al-Azami
Sloane Printed Books Catalogue

 

See an example of a manicule from the East India Company archives.

 

28 December 2017

Untold Lives looks back at 2017

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As 2017 draws to a close, we’re looking back on some of our posts which proved to be the most popular during the past twelve months.

In January we told you about a major new digital resource which had just become available for researching the East India Company and the India Office. We showed a few of the digitised documents, including the list of the first subscribers to the East India Company drawn up in September 1599...
 

IOR B 1 f.6
IOR/B/1 f.6 Noc

.. and the Instrument of Abdication signed by Edward VIII at Fort Belvedere on 10 December 1936.

IOR A 1 102IOR/A/102 Instrument of Abdication Noc

 

‘Value in unexpected places’   was the story of the sole surviving copy of a 17th-century schoolbook now held at the British Library. The grounds of learning was written by schoolmaster Richard Hodges primarily for children as early learners of literacy.

HodgesPhoto1Noc

 In March we asked: Did Jane Austen develop cataracts from arsenic poisoning? In the drawer of Jane Austen’s writing desk at the British Library are three pairs of spectacles. The Library had the spectacles tested and the post revealed the results.

  Jane Austen's glassesSpectacles believed to have belonged to Jane Austen (now British Library Add MS 86841/2-4) Noc

 

We researched Gerald Wellesley’s secret family. Wellesley was an East India Company official who spent many years as Resident in the Princely State of Indore. He provided for his three children born to an Indian woman in the 1820s but stopped short of giving them his name or recognising them publicly as his offspring.

Indore X108(15) Indore from William Simpson's 'India: Ancient and Modern X108(15) NocOnline Gallery 

Thomas Bowrey’s cloth and colour samples  were unexpected treasures found in tucked away in a volume packed with closely-written correspondence and accounts. The colours are still vibrant after 300 years.  And how about number 18 on the chart – Gall Stone?

MSS Eur D1076 (9)MSS Eur D 1076 Noc

MSS Eur D1076 (3)MSS Eur D 1076Noc

The East India Company’s Black Book of Misdemeanours 1624-1698  was brought out of the shadows this year. Most complaints relate to private trade carried on against express orders, but they also cover drunkenness, negligence, desertion, disobeying orders, embezzlement, and debauchery.

 Black Book  IOR/H/29 Noc

We told the story of how Isfahan in Iran became the City of Polish Children during the Second World War. Thousands of Polish military and civilian refugees journeyed from the Soviet Union to Iran.. One poignant statistic stands out: in January 1943 the camp in the city of Isfahan contained 2,457 civilian refugees, of which 2,043 were children.

Group photo Isfahan

Group photo of older children at one of the children's homes in Isfahan. Reproduced with kind permission from the personal collection of Dioniza Choros, Kresy, Siberia Virtual Museum

  EAP001_7_1
Portrait of Polish refugee children, taken by Abolghasem Jala between 1942-1944. Abolghasem Jala took thousands of portraits of Polish refugees during his time in Isfahan at the Sharq photographic studio. Abolghasem Jala Photographic Collection, Endangered Archives Programme, EAP001/7/1

 

In 1847 a book called Real Life in India offered advice to British ladies going to live in India. This covered clothing, equipment for the voyage, household management, and ways of passing the time. Women were told to take six mosquito sleeping drawers and to learn the art of piano tuning.

India - ladies' equipmentFrom Real Life in India by An Old Resident (London, 1847)  Noc

 

And finally we treated you to the untold life of a paper bag!

  Paper bag Evan 9195Evan.9195 Noc


The bag reveals that Indian sweetmeats were being sold in London in the late 19th century, much earlier than most people would expect. This lovely piece of ephemera was displayed at Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage, an exhibition at the Library of Birmingham which ran from July to November 2017.

We hope that you have enjoyed revisiting these fascinating stories as much as we did. Who knows what our great contributors have in store for you in 2018?

Twittter takeover posterNoc

A Happy New Year to all our readers!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

 

28 November 2017

Sir Hans Sloane: Physician, Collector and Armchair Traveller

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The Anglo-Irish physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) rose in his profession to serve the royal family and became both President of the Royal Society and President of the Royal College of Physicians. Yet, most notably, Sloane was a collector of books, manuscripts and specimens ranging from medicine and natural history to religious tracts and beyond. This immense collection formed the foundation of the British Museum, from which the British Library and the Natural History Museum were later born. An illustrious man of science notwithstanding, these three institutions of knowledge and learning are his greatest legacy.

Sloane’s collection is vast. It contains at least 45,000 printed items, which the British Library’s Sloane Printed Books Catalogue has been meticulously cataloguing in a dedicated online open access database. The physician did not limit his remit to his field, but stretched well beyond it, reflecting the breadth of his interests. Sloane was a keen traveller – albeit largely of the armchair variety.

Having spent a formative educational period in France which also served to polish his command of the language, in 1687 Sloane secured the lucrative opportunity to serve as the personal physician to the newly appointed governor of Jamaica, the 2nd Duke of Albemarle. The two years spent in Jamaica, along with the period spent in France, were the extent of the Sloane’s travels abroad. Yet these limited experiences would nonetheless spark an insatiable interest in travel and the wider world that was expressed in his vast collection.

Figure 1
Some Observations made upon the Molucco Nutts, imported from the Indies, 546.g.18.(1.)

In both diversity of language and topic, Sloane’s Printed Books Collection is a treasure trove of literature on the far reaches of the world. They include medical literature on herbs from distant lands, including a work on ‘Molucco Nuts’ [546.g.18.(1.)] from the East Indies ‘shewing their admirable virtues in curing the Collick‘ and a work on ‘Brazilian Root’ [778.e.41.(12.)] from South America that possesses ‘wonderful virtue against vomiting and loosness’.

Figure2
Some Observations made upon the Brasillian Root, called Ipepocoanha: imported from the Indies, 778.e.41.(12.)

Figure 3
A Full and True Relation of the great and wonderful Revolution that hapned lately in the Kingdom of Siam, in the East-Indies, 582.e.39.

But such medically related works in his travel collection are in fact sparse in comparison to material on trade and beyond. Sloane’s collection contains numerous works on the East India Company and its forays, including a swashbuckling narrative detailing ‘A Full and True Relation of the great and wonderful Revolution that hapned lately in the Kingdom of Siam, in the East-Indies ... And of the expulsion of the Jesuits ... and Soldiers of the French Nation out of that Kingdom’ [582.e.39.]. A curiosity about religions abroad also emerges from Sloane’s catalogue, with a work on religious sects of India described as ‘A Display of two forraigne sects in the East Indies, vizt: the sect of the Banians, the ancient natives of India and the sect of the Persees the ancient inhabitants of Persia’ [696.c.11.(1.)] as well as a work on ‘the Present State of Christianity in China’ [489.g.14.(1.)].

Figure 4
A Display of two forraigne sects in the East Indies, vizt: the sect of the Banians, the ancient natives of India and the sect of the Persees the ancient inhabitants of Persia, 696.c.11.(1.)

Figure 5
A True Account of the Present State of Christianity in China, 489.g.14.(1.)

The colourful collage of Sloane’s interests was so diverse that many a reader’s taste is catered for. Perhaps you too might like to explore and see what you find to interest you in the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue – the database for the original collection, today held largely at the British Library.

Lubaaba Al-Azami
Sloane Printed Books Catalogue

05 November 2017

Pyrotechnia: A ‘how-to’ guide for firework-makers

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Pyrotechnia, written by a gunner called John Babington, was the first English book about how to make recreational fireworks. It was printed in 1635, seven years before the Civil War. Gunpowder had long been used on the battlefield but, in England, it was only during Elizabeth I’s reign that this technology developed into something that would create fantastic aerial displays. Elizabeth I was famous for her love of fireworks; sumptuous displays were held in her honour and to celebrate military victories.

Pyrotechnia title page

Pyrotechnia told firework-makers all they needed to know about the chemical compounds and complex structural designs required for firework displays. Babington’s instructions are clear, easy to understand and are accompanied by labelled engravings, while the last two sections of the book are helpfully reserved for a treatise on geometry and logarithms respectively. Babington starts simply, with fireworks that are familiar to us today. His is the first printed reference to a roman candle, and there are descriptions of how to make rockets and ‘the best sort of starres’. For stars of a blue colour a combination of gunpowder, saltpetre and sulphur-vive did the trick. He then progresses to making “silver and gold raine”, firework wheels and “fisgigs”, a French firework that fizzed before it exploded.

This was all small fry though. Once a firework-maker had mastered the basics, he could recreate the type of spectacle enjoyed by Elizabeth I. One sight in particular was especially popular during this period: the dragon.

GeorgeAndDragon

It consisted of a huge wooden frame stuffed with spinners, fountains, firecrackers and rockets that ignited to give the effect of a huge fire-breathing creature. Often, a second dragon or St George would be pitched against it and a mock battle would take place. In Pyrotechnia, Babington instructs the reader to strap the dragon and St George together so that, when a wheel is turned, “[they] will runne furiously at each other”. They had to be well balanced as otherwise “they [would] turn their heeles upward, which would bee a great disgrace to the work and workman”. Babington also acknowledges that “much [has been] written upon this same subject”, confirming the dragon’s popularity.

Mermaid and Ship

 A large proportion of Pyrotechnia is also dedicated to creating fiery spectacles on water, a great skill indeed for any firework-maker. Babington reveals “many workes to be performed on the water”, from “how to make a water ball, which shall burn on the water, with great violence” to a “ship of fire workes” and sirens or mermaids “playing on the water”. 

ManuscriptNotesPyrotechnia

The British Library has three copies of Pyrotechnia. The copy in the photographs above has endpapers with a fantastic assortment of manuscript notes and inscriptions by the book’s 17th-century owner. On the first endpaper, most of an ownership inscription can just about be made out: “Edward Nowle[?] his booke bought…25th January …”. Written arithmetic, diagrams and sums are scrawled over the next two pages. It’s obvious that this book was well-used by its previous owner but were they a firework-maker themselves? Did they create a fire-breathing dragon? I suppose we’ll never know!

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections