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44 posts categorized "Religion"

31 May 2018

Cheap and safe burial ground in London

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In the early 19th century there were many privately-owned burial grounds in London. One at St George-in-the-East in Stepney was leased in the 1830s by William Eastes who worked for the East India Company in London.

Burial ground EastesIOR/L/F/2/7 no.24 of June 1836 Noc

Before joining the Company, William Eastes had been a schoolmaster in Kent. He rented the Dissenters’ Burial Ground which adjoined the small Anglican Trinity Chapel in Cannon Street Road, a source of income to supplement his wages as a warehouse commodore (foreman).

The ground was advertised as cheap and safe, with rates for an adult grave varying between 7s and 16s, and those for children under ten between 4s 6d and 8s.  All graves deeper than five feet were charge 6d per foot extra.  Deeper graves were perhaps a deterrent to body-snatchers.  In August 1830, two well-known resurrectionists were charged with attempting to steal the body of Mrs Brown from the Cannon Street Road burial ground.  George Robins and William Jones were arrested around midnight near the partly opened grave. The police found a sack, a shovel, and a long screw iron for opening coffins. The prisoners were committed to three months in the house of correction.

 
Burial ground bill of saleIOR/L/F/2/7 no.24 of June 1836 Noc

William Eastes also acted as clerk to the Reverend Thomas Boddington of Trinity Chapel.  In 1836 Boddington sold the Chapel to the Reverend James Harris, who found Eastes totally unfit for the situation. Harris wrote to the East India Company in May 1836, complaining of how the graveyard was run and accusing Eastes of vile and fearful abuse, gross language, and a violent demeanour. 

Company warehouse-keeper William Johnson put Harris’s complaint to Eastes, a man ‘somewhat hasty in temper & likely to be violent in any matter of dispute’.  Eastes denied molesting Harris, claiming that he had merely been insisting on his right of way to the burial ground as specified in the lease.  Johnson concluded there was probably blame on both sides. The Company directors admonished Eastes and cautioned him as to his future conduct.

Burial ground plan Plan provided by William Eastes to explain his point to the Company IOR/L/F/2/7 no.24 of June 1836  IOR/L/F/2/7 no.24 of June 1836 Noc

In October 1836, Harris renewed his complaint against Eastes: ‘There is no species of horrid language that this man does not apply to me and my family’.  There had been an altercation when a sheriff’s officer came looking for Harris about a debt he owed.  The Company’s Committee of Warehouses decided not to interfere any further in the dispute.

Harris and Eastes continued to be at odds.  In October 1838 a lascar seaman from an East India Company ship was buried in Eastes’ ground.  Newspapers described the funeral procession and burial, claiming that several thousand people assembled to witness the unfamiliar ceremonies performed by the dead man’s fellow lascars.  Harris was quick to dissociate himself from these events.  He made it known that the burial ground was not connected to Trinity Chapel but ‘leased to a Dissenter in the East India Company’s service, who puts on the surplice, reads the funeral service, and receives the fees consequent thereupon, his wife performing the part of sextoness.  The Rev Mr Harris … has nothing whatever to do with the ground in question, and of course took no part in this “Lascar burial”.’

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Records of the East India Company Finance and Home Committee: IOR/L/F/1/4 pp.119, 520; IOR/L/F/2/7 no.24 of June 1836; IOR/L/F/2/11 no.64 of October 1836
British Newspaper Archive e.g. London Courier and Evening Gazette 24 August 1830; London Evening Standard 8 October 1838; Belfast Commercial Chronicle 10 October 1838

 

11 January 2018

The fascinating life of Stella Alexander

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In 2016 the British Library acquired the papers of Stella Alexander, a Quaker and scholar of Yugoslav history. She lived a long and fascinating life, and her papers are a rich resource for a wide variety of research subjects. Her letters and draft unpublished memoir give first-hand accounts of diplomatic and expat life in 1920s and 1930s China, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, and Chinese customs and society. The reports she wrote for the Quakers on her visits to Yugoslavia give rare eye-witness reports of life in eastern Europe during the Cold War. Her work for the Quakers and her travels round India, where she met Gandhian educationalists at Sevagram, are also covered thoroughly by the papers.

SA 1929Stella Alexander née Tucker in Shanghai, 1929 - British Library Add MS 89279

Stella Tucker was born a “privileged alien” in Shanghai in 1912, the daughter of an American bullion broker. She was educated in Shanghai, the United States, and Oxford. After graduation she married John Alexander, a British diplomat, and returned to China in the midst of a tempestuous time in the country’s history. Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and occupied Shanghai in 1932.

The life of a diplomat’s wife involved seemingly non-stop entertaining of diplomats, politicians, and journalists, but it was not all glamour; it was also peripatetic and the family (including their two children) moved frequently with John’s postings, with each move necessitating setting up home anew.

It would have been easy for Stella to settle into the “the narrow, shallow-rooted life” of the diplomatic community, but instead she took the trouble to learn Chinese, spoke Chinese not pidgin English to her staff, made Chinese friends, and ensured her children played with local children.

This comfortable life changed dramatically in December 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. Foreign diplomats in China were interned, in the case of the Alexanders in the Cathay Hotel, “in adequate comfort… like a prolonged ocean cruise”, according to Stella. It was a far cry from the conditions that the thousands of internees without diplomatic status had to endure.

In September 1942 the family was among approximately 1500 Allied citizens who were exchanged for a similar number of Japanese civilians who had been interned in the United States and Stella returned to the US.

It became increasingly difficult for Stella to follow John’s postings, and his frequent secondments and moves between Paris, New York, and Geneva, and the lengthy separations these occasioned, eventually took their toll and they divorced amicably in 1950.

After her divorce Stella worked for the United Nations Association, travelled round India for a year, and became increasingly involved in the Quakers, representing the London Yearly Meeting at the UN General Assembly in 1957. It was through her work for the Quakers that Stella developed her other great interest. After meeting three young Yugoslavs at a seminar in 1957 she became enthralled by the country. She visited almost annually from 1961 into the 1970s, travelling round by bus and train, often alone, learned Serbo-Croat, and wrote academic tomes on Yugoslav subjects.

Alexander  Stella 2Stella Alexander in later life - photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Anthony Upton.  © Anthony Upton

Stella remained active in Quaker affairs, even after being received into the Catholic Church in 1991, and lived out her long and active life in London, surrounded by children and grandchildren. She died, aged 85, in 1998. The phrase ‘a life well lived’ could have been written for her.

Michael St John-McAlister
Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager

Further reading:
British Library Add MS 89279
Stella Alexander, Church and State in Yugoslavia since 1945 (Cambridge: University Press, 1979).
Stella Alexander, The Triple Myth: A Life of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1987).

 

14 December 2017

Sixty Thousand Signatures against the Bengal Partition: Bengali Resistance in 1905

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The ‘Partition’ of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 saw the birth of India and Pakistan in an unprecedented human tragedy.  But it was not the first time that British India witnessed a partition.

On 16 October 1905 Bengal province was ‘redistributed’ by the Viceroy Lord Curzon, apparently for administrative efficiency. Its eastern part was conceded to Assam Province to form a new ‘Eastern Bengal and Assam Province’. The remaining part of Bengal was further reduced by surrendering some of its parts to the Central Province.

This partition excited the Bengali population and resulted into various kinds of organized protest movements.  Memorials containing thousands of signatures were sent to the Governor General of India in Council to revoke the partition.  It was unprecedented in the history of the Raj that so many of her subjects literally took up their pen in an organized manner to register their protest against a Government decision.


L PJ 6 754 File 1027IOR/L/PJ/6/754. File 1027

One of many such memorials, sent on 31 December 1906 by Khaja Atikulla of Dacca, describes the day of the partition: ‘The demonstration which took place on the 16th October 1905, when the Partition was carried out, will never be forgotten. The whole Province was in mourning; the shops were closed; it was a day of fasting and prayers; and in Calcutta thousands of devout Hindus bathed in the Ganges, as is customary when a great misfortune overwhelms them’.

L PJ 6 803IOR/L/PJ/6/803

The ‘multitudinous signatures’ created a stir even in the British Parliament. MP Herbert Roberts asked the Secretary of State for India 'whether he has received & considered a memorial signed by 60,000 of the inhabitants of Eastern Bengal, protesting against the proposals of the Government of India in reference to the partition of Bengal...’

L PJ 6 729  File 2260IOR/L/PJ/6/729, File 2260

The list of the signatures running to thousands of pages bears the marks of a great number of Bengali population either in terms of written signatures or thumb impressions.

L PJ 6 803 AOne of many such volumes containing thousands of signatures IOR/L/PJ/6/803

The pages of signature were divided into three columns: Name/Signature, Address, and Profession. The overwhelming majority of the signatories were Hindu by religion, even in places like ‘East Bengal’ where Muslims outnumbered the Hindus.  A conspicuous absence of Bengali women from the lists went against the fact that Bengali women participated in the Movement in great numbers.

L PJ 6 754A page bearing the signature of Upendra Kisor Raychaudhuri, an eminent Bengali writer who established India’s finest printing press in Calcutta and introduced half tone and colour block making for the first time in the subcontinent IOR/L/PJ/6/754

  L PJ 6 755A signature page  IOR/L/PJ/6/755

The lists start with signatures of men of prominence and authority, mostly Maharajahas and Zamindars. They were followed by common men of different professions. During the first decade of the 20th century, the majority of Bengalis were farmers by profession. But the list does not reflect a proportionate representation of the Bengali population as the majority of the signatories were land owners (Taluqdar) or in money-lending professions (Mahajani, Tejarati).

However, organizing such a huge signature campaign against the reigning colonial power was not an easy job. Reaching the households of hundreds of villages all over Bengal, crossing rivers and forests, braving seasonal difficulties like those in the monsoon time could not have been possible without very organized concerted efforts. The list of 60,000 signatures seems to be a premonition of organized nation-wide struggle against the British Government which paved the way for the leaders like Gandhi.

Parthasarathi Bhaumik
Lecturer in Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, and Chevening Fellow at the British Library

Chevening_primary_CMYK (with bleed)

 

 

 

 

 

17 October 2017

The life and loves of a ‘tremendous literary rebel’, Michael Madhusudan Dutt

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Dutt’s colourful life included romantic adventures, a change of religion and travel to Britain and France, in keeping with a man describing himself as ‘a tremendous literary rebel’. His exceptional creative talent led his biographer Ghulam Murshid to praise him as ‘the father of modern Bengali poetry’.

Item 14 add_or_5606 compressed
Michael Madhusudan Dutt, (1824-73)
Watercolour on ivory. Undated
Add.Or.5606

Around 1833, Dutt and his Hindu parents moved to Calcutta where his father’s success enabled him to provide his son with a good education. The young Dutt entered a world of culture and debate. He began his own writing career and developed a love of English literature and a longing to visit Britain. Towards the end of 1842 he was horrified when his parents began to plan an arranged marriage for him, declaring ‘I wish (Oh! I really wish) that somebody would hang me!’ Shortly afterwards, Dutt converted to Christianity, possibly motivated at least in part by a wish to evade the marriage.

Dutt baptism 1843 cropped
Dutt’s baptism at the Old Church, Fort William, 09 Feb 1843
IOR/N/1/64 f.101

Obliged to leave Hindu College after his conversion, he continued his studies at Bishop’s College, still supported by his parents, but unfortunately a rift later developed between him and his father. In December 1847 he left Calcutta for Madras where he struggled to find employment until the father of Charles Eggbert Kennet, an old friend from Bishop’s College, helped him to obtain a post teaching at the Madras Orphan Asylum. Aged twenty-four, in 1848 Dutt married seventeen year old Rebecca Thompson from the Madras Female Orphan Asylum. Today, a relationship between a teacher and a pupil would be considered scandalous, but early marriage was then considered entirely respectable for young women such as Rebecca. The Kennet family seem to have remained on good terms with the young Dutts as they appear as witnesses to the baptism of their daughter Bertha Blanche Kennet Dutt. Their contemporaries were much more concerned by the fact that Dutt, an Indian man, was marrying a girl of British descent, as this was possibly the first time that this was known to have happened.

BL-BIND-005137759-00313 cropped
Bertha Blanche Kennet Dutt’s baptism at St Mark’s Church, Madras (Black Town), 15 Nov 1849
IOR/N/2/C/2 f.130

Dutt and Rebecca had four children together, but when he returned to Calcutta after his father’s death in 1855, he left her and started a new life with another European lady, Henrietta Sophia White. Finally achieving his dream of studying law in England, he was called to the bar in London though he and Henrietta spent much time in France. They eventually died within a few days of each other in Calcutta in 1873. I do not know what became of the unfortunate Rebecca and her children.

The watercolour of Michael Madhusudan Dutt is on display in Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage, an exhibition at the Library of Birmingham until 04 November. The exhibition and community engagement are a partnership between the British Library and the Library of Birmingham. They have been generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Details of opening hours and events are on the Library of Birmingham website

Connecting Stories with logos

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records and curator of Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage


Further reading
Ghulam Murshid, Lured by hope: a biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt / by Ghulam Murshid; translated from Bengali by Gopa Majumdar, ( New Delhi ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2003)
Michael Madhusudan Dutt, The heart of a rebel poet : letters of Michael Madhusudan Dutt / edited by Ghulam Murshid, (New Delhi ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004)
Clinton B Seely, The slaying of Meghanada : a Ramayana from colonial Bengal / Michael Madhusudan Datta ; translated with an introduction by Clinton B. Seely, (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004)

Find My Past for British India Office collections 
Asians in Britain 

Untold Lives blogs:
Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage 
Miss Jenny the cheetah visits England
Bevin Indian Trainees during the Second World War 
East India Company trade with the East Indies 
Ranjitsinhji, our glorious hero bold 
First World War Indian soldiers' letters in 'Connecting Stories' exhibition 

22 August 2017

Sir Hans Sloane as a collector of “strange news”

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Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) was a major figure in the flourishing scientific culture of Enlightenment London, serving as both President of the Royal Society and President of the Royal College of Physicians. However, his greatest legacy lies in his vast collections of books, manuscripts, specimens and other objects, which after his death became the bedrock of the new British Museum, the ancestor of the British Library.

Sloane’s collections were particularly strong in natural history, medicine and travel, but their overall scope was astonishingly broad. Ongoing research into different parts of his collections is gradually uncovering more detail about their richness and variety. One product of this work is the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue (SPBC), a free and fully-searchable online database that records over 35,000 printed items from Sloane’s library (and counting).

To take just one example of the research possibilities provided by the SPBC – Sloane was a collector of “strange news”. “Strange news” was news of unusual or dramatic events, such as earthquakes, freak weather, monsters or medical marvels, usually accompanied by a supernatural interpretation, such as divine judgement or demonic influence. It typically appeared in the form of short printed pamphlets, bearing titles that promised accounts of “strange”, “miraculous”, “wonderful” or “extraordinary” events to their readers.

Image 1
Title-page of Sloane’s copy of Strange news from France… (1678), bearing Sloane’s catalogue/shelf number ‘c 626’. (BL 8755.c.27.)

The SPBC lists 57 items with titles containing even just the word “strange”, alongside “news/newes/relation”. For instance, one pamphlet of “strange news from France” owned by Sloane provides an account of a storm of fist-sized hailstones that destroyed everything except – significantly – a Protestant church. Another of “strange and true news” tells of severe weather across the Midlands that saw snow smother some and floods drown others, depicted as God’s judgement for wickedness. A third relates a nine-foot-long winged serpent that terrorised the people of Essex – complete with frightening illustration.

Image 3
From Sloane’s copy of The Flying Serpent, or strange news out of Essex… (1669?), A1v. (BL 1258.b.18.)

Image 2
Title-page of Sloane’s copy of Strange and true news from Lincoln-shire, Huntingtonshire, Bedford-shire, Northampton-shire, Suffolk… (1674), bearing Sloane’s catalogue/shelf number ‘N 788’. (BL 8775.c.67.)

“Strange news” was part of a diverse and sophisticated culture of news in early modern England. Although this era saw the birth of the printed newspaper, which generally contained foreign or domestic politics, this was far from being people’s only source of news. Strange news was another – and very different – kind of news in circulation. Its popularity came partly from its raw sensationalism, but also from its supernatural explanations, which appealed to a religious and superstitious culture.

But why did Sloane, a man of science, collect strange news, which represents such a different mental world? Although it is impossible to be certain, there are several clues. Sloane once said he was curious about “very strange, but certain, matters of fact” – in other words, unusual natural phenomena – and accounts of dramatic earthquakes, storms and floods (if not of giant flying serpents) may have appealed to this desire to explain the bizarre-but-true. He may also have been interested in collecting the pamphlets’ supernatural interpretations specifically to expose them as false, as it has been argued that he acquired other objects for this purpose, such as “Quacks’ Bills” (dubious medical adverts) and “magical” tokens. Whatever the reason, Sloane’s collecting of “strange news” indicates that he may have been at the forefront of the Enlightenment, but his interests were not restricted to the products of the new science.

Edward Taylor
PhD placement student, Sloane Printed Books Project

Further reading:
Delbourgo, J., Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane (London: Allen Lane, 2017) – including discussion on Sloane’s attitudes to magic and the supernatural.
Mandelbrote, G., ‘Sloane and the Preservation of Printed Ephemera’, in G. Mandelbrote and B. Taylor, eds, Libraries within the library: the origins of the British Library's printed collections (London: British Library, 2009), 146-168.

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.)

 

13 June 2017

Cow Protection in India

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On 9 December 1911, The Graphic magazine had a short piece with the surprising title ‘How Cattle Threaten the Unity of the Empire’. This stated that at a time when the King’s cattle had been winning prizes in Britain, his Hindu subjects in India were petitioning to stop the slaughter of cattle for the British Army and permit the introduction of beef from Australia. It reported that a picture was being circulated with the petition showing how useful cattle were to other industries if they were not slaughtered.

The Graphic  9 December 1911

The Graphic 9 December 1911

Cow protection was a serious issue in India. The cow was an important Hindu symbol of maternity and fertility. For those fearful that colonial policies were endangering traditional Hindu practices, and others who were struggling with increased competition for education, jobs and scarce resources, the cow represented a comforting and benign figure, a guard against evil, and an illustration of good Hindu behaviour. As such cow protection was a unifying issue for Hindus of all walks of life.

The proposal referred to in The Graphic of importing Australian beef for British troops in place of beef killed in India seems to have been devised by Khursedji Sorabji Jassawalla, a member of a well-known Parsi family from Bombay. A colourful figure, Jassawalla had been associated with the anti-cow killing movement since 1885. In October 1911, he travelled to London with the intention of presenting to the King a petition and two million signatures he claimed to have collected. While residing in Hampstead, he wrote a note outlining his scheme to provide Australian mutton to the British Army even at a loss to himself if the slaughter of Indian cattle would be stopped. Unsuccessful in his attempts to gain a Royal audience, he sent his petition to the Government of India and the India Office.

Jassawalla Petition (top)

Jassawalla Petition (bottom)

IOR/L/PJ/6/1123, File 4428 Noc

The Government of India was rather unimpressed with Mr Jassawalla’s scheme, as this comment in his criminal intelligence history sheet notes: “The whole proposal is a commercial one, and from that point of view his past career does not inspire confidence”.

This was not the only petition on cow protection the India Office received that year. On 9 November 1911, a petition was received from Sir Bhalchandra Krishna, a resident of Bombay, protesting against the slaughter of cows in the city and district of Muttra and Varaj in the United Provinces. With his petition were submitted over 100 pages of signatures. The Government declined to make any alterations to the arrangements for the slaughter of Indian cattle.

Bhalchandra Krishna Petition

Bhalchandra Krishna Petition signatures

IOR/L/PJ/6/1125, File 4678 Noc

John O’Brien
India Office Records

 Further reading:
The Graphic, 9 December 1911, page 889 (in a file of newspaper cuttings on Persia in the Curzon Papers) [Reference Mss Eur F112/249]
Memorial to the King from Mr Jassawalla and others asking that British troops in India may be supplied with Australian meat in place of beef slaughtered in India, 1911-1913 [Reference IOR/L/PJ/6/1123, File 4428]
Memorial from Sir Balchandra Krishna and others protesting against the slaughter of cows in Muttra (UP), 1911 [Reference IOR/L/PJ/6/1125, File 4678]
 

02 February 2016

'Pretty, witty Nell', the 'Protestant whore': Nell Gwyn remembered

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Nell Gwyn, actress and mistress of Charles II, was born on this day in 1650. Nell's short life didn't have a promising start. According to the diarist Samuel Pepys, she was brought up in a brothel, where she served strong liquor to clients. In 1663, at the age of about twelve, Nell became an 'orange girl' in the King's Theatre, selling fruit to theatregoers and probably passing secret messages between the actresses and their lovers. Within a short time Nell was herself elevated to the stage, where she proved a great hit. Pepys wrote admiringly of 'Pretty, witty Nell' and her performances in comic roles - as well as of her shapely figure.

NellGwynn

Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn by Simon Verelst, circa 1680 © National Portrait Gallery, London   NPG

It wasn't only Pepys who found Nell desirable. She had affairs with several men, before attracting the attention of the King himself. She became his mistress and eventually bore him two sons. The King was evidently very fond of her. On his deathbed he supposedly said to his brother, the future James II, 'Don't let poor Nelly starve'. Nell clearly didn't go short of money: when she died in 1687 she left several hundred pounds to family members, as well as money to help the poor and those in debt.

As Charles II's mistress, Nell had sometimes awkward relationships with the King's other lovers. A particular rival was Louise de Kéroualle, to whom Charles had given the title Duchess of Portsmouth. The British Library holds several contemporary publications satirising the spats between the two women, including A pleasant dialogue betwixt two wanton ladies of pleasure, A dialogue between the Duchess of Portsmouth and Madam Gwin at parting, and Madam Gwins answer to the Dutches of Portsmouths letter. The last of these is full of sexual innuendo: the fictionalised Nell says to Louise that the sea-god Neptune (presumably representing Charles II):

'proffer'd you Gold, and Pearl, and what not, if you would have let him stick his Trident in you.'

The Duchess of Portsmouth's Catholicism made her unpopular with some people. While Nell was riding through Oxford in a coach in 1681, she was reputedly mobbed by an angry crowd, who thought the coach contained the Duchess. Nell is supposed to have leaned out of the coach window and reassured the crowd by saying, 'Pray good people be silent, I am the Protestant whore'.

Fascination with Nell Gwyn and her exploits didn't end at her death. She has been the subject of plays, operas and stories in the centuries since, including a three-act play by Edward Jerningham, published in 1799 with the title The Peckham Frolic. In this comedy Charles II, in heavy disguise, meets Nell in Peckham, where all sorts of trickery ensues.

Peckham_frolic

Edward Jerningham: The Peckham Frolic (London, 1799). BL shelfmark: 11778.d.1.  Cc-by

Sandra Tuppen, Lead Curator Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1601-1850.