THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

16 posts categorized "Science"

02 February 2017

East India Company saltpetre warehouses at Ratcliff

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In Saturday night’s episode of the BBC drama Taboo, James Delaney was keen to acquire saltpetre, the main constituent of gunpowder.  This resulted in a violent raid on the East India Company’s warehouse to steal a supply.

Saltpetre, or potassium nitrate, forms naturally in certain soils, or it can be manufactured by mixing decaying organic matter with alkalis. It was imported from India in large quantities by the East India Company .  In June 1814, the homeward bound East India fleet arrived in the Channel carrying 23,199 barrels of saltpetre.

  Liverpool Mercury 17 June 1814 saltpetre etc
Liverpool Mercury 17 June 1814 Noc

Because of its inflammable nature, the East India Company kept its saltpetre at a distance from the City of London.  Most was stored at the Ratcliff saltpetre warehouses which stood to the south of Cock Hill in Shadwell. The original Company warehouses built in 1775 by George Wyatt at a cost of £16,000 were destroyed by fire in July 1794.

The Times reported that the fire began at the premises of Mr Cloves, a barge builder, when a pitch kettle that stood under his warehouse boiled over.  As it was low water, the flames spread to an adjacent barge laden with saltpetre and other stores. ‘The blowing-up of the salt-petre from the barge, occasioned large flakes of fire to fall on the warehouses belonging to the East-India Company, from whence the salt-petre was removing to the Tower (20 tons of which had been fortunately taken the preceding day). The flames soon caught the warehouses, and here the scene became dreadful; the whole of these buildings were consumed, with all their contents, to a great amount.  The wind blowing strong from the south, and the High-street of Ratcliffe being narrow, both sides caught fire, which prevented the engines from being of any essential service.’

‘The Saltpetre destroyed at the late fire at Ratcliffe, ran towards the Thames and had the appearance of cream-coloured lava; and when it had reached the water, flew up with a prodigious force in the form of an immense column.  Several particles of the petre were carried by the explosion as far as Low Layton, a distance of near six miles.’  

A fund was launched to provide relief for the hundreds of people who had lost their homes and their personal belongings, including working tools, in the fire. The Company subscribed 200 guineas to this fund and quickly set about rebuilding and enlarging the saltpetre warehouses with the addition of an embankment on the Thames.

Free Trade Wharf 3

The former East India Company saltpetre warehouses from the Thames embankment. Author's photo Noc

   Saltpetre warehouse ground plan

Ground plan of Ratcliff saltpetre warehouse 1835 IOR/L/L/2/987 Noc

The Ratcliff saltpetre warehouses have survived to the present day, escaping the threat of further fires and explosions to outlive the East India Company warehouses storing less dangerous cargoes. Two of the original three buildings have been restored.as part of the Free Trade Wharf development.

  Free Trade Wharf 1

Two blocks face each other across a courtyard running between the Thames embankment and The Highway. Author's photo Noc

 

The Company arms appear over the 1796 gateway on The Highway side which was rebuilt in 1934. 

Free Trade Wharf 2

1796 gateway on The Highway surmounted by the East India Company arms. Author's photo Noc

I strongly recommend the walk from Limehouse Basin following the Thames path round to Free Trade Wharf.  The views down the river are very impressive, especially on a sunny day.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The Times Friday 25 July 1794 p.2d; Saturday 26 July 1794 p.3d.
The India Office Records holds property documents for the Ratcliff saltpetre warehouses – IOR/L/L/2/969-1170.

 

27 September 2016

Report on Boiler Explosions in Britain, 1880

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Last week we told you about an explosion at a Marylebone gunmaker's workshop in 1822 which killed two child workers . Today we look at industrial accidents in 1880 involving boiler explosions.

While cataloguing some India Office Revenue files recently, I came across a copy of the Journal of the Society of Arts, dated 14 May 1880. A short article in it was a reminder of how lethal a place the working environment was in late 19th century Britain.  The article was an abstract of a report containing particulars of visits of inspection and a record of boiler explosions for January to April 1880, presented at a meeting of the Manchester Steam Users’ Association by Lavington Evans Fletcher, the Association’s Chief Engineer.

Mr Fletcher reported that in the first four months of 1880 there had been 2,129 visits of inspection made and 3,830 boilers examined. The inspections had uncovered a total of 448 defects, with 4 described as dangerous, including:
• Furnaces out of shape
• Fractures
• Corrosion
• Blistered plates
• External and internal grooving
• Safety valves out of order
• Blow out apparatus out of order or missing altogether
• Pressure gauges out of order and boilers without such gauges
• Boilers without feed-back pressure valves
• Cases of over pressure and of deficiency of water

Mersey Ironworks

Exterior of the Mersey Steel and Iron Works in Liverpool 1863 Online Gallery

 

It was reported that the year had started badly with eight steam-boiler explosions killing 33 people and injuring another 32, while a tar boiler had burst killing 11 people and injuring 6. Despite there being a high loss of life, investigating the causes of such explosions wasn’t always easy. An explosion at an ironworks in Glasgow killed 25 people and injured another 23, but the inspector sent by the Association was refused permission to examine the boiler both by the owner and the Procurator-Fiscal, and was obliged to return to Manchester without any information on the incident. The disaster was reported on extensively in UK and international newspapers.

When a negligent owner was brought to court, it could be difficult to secure a guilty verdict. A boiler explosion at Ormskirk killing three men had been caused by the wasting away of the plates at the bottom of the boiler till they were as thin as a sheet of paper, yet the jury had returned a verdict of accidental death. However, as the report pointed out, competent inspection would have prevented the explosion, and the owners neglected this simple precaution which cost three men their lives. Another explosion at Cork was caused by an inoperative safety valve, yet the Coroner stated that there was no negligence on the part of any person. However as the report stated, safety valves are not inoperative without someone being negligent, and it is the duty of those in charge to see that such valves are free.

On the basis of decisions such these, Mr Fletcher concluded that “The verdict by a coroner’s jury is so constantly one of Accidental death, even though the boiler is worn out and unfit for use, that the coroner’s court becomes to the reckless boiler owner very much what the debtor’s sanctuary in the old days was to the spendthrift”.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
Journal of the Society of Arts, No.1,434, Vol.XXVIII, May 14, 1880, pages 588-589 [IOR/L/E/6/19, File 1161]

A description of the Glasgow disaster can be found on Trove

 

22 September 2016

Employing children in dangerous trades

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When we think of children working in dangerous occupations in the 19th century, perhaps the first things that come to mind are chimney sweeps and mill workers.  I was surprised to learn that young children were employed to make priming for guns. This involved handling percussion powder, a highly inflammable preparation of potash, sulphur and charcoal.

 

  Percussion gun primer

Recipe for percussion powder Philosophical Magazine and Journal vol. LVI (London, 1820) Noc

A terrible accident occurred in London on 12 November 1822.  Collinson Hall, a gunmaker in Upper Marylebone Street, arrived home about six o’clock in the evening  to find a crowd outside his front door.  He was told that there had been an explosion.

Alexander Bettie, aged 12, and his brother John, 10, had worked for the gunmaker for nearly two years.  Their job was to prepare black cakes for priming percussion guns and to fill copper caps with priming composition.  Hall had gone out for the day leaving the boys with instructions to make up about five or six ounces of the priming composition.

At teatime, Hall’s son Collinson left the workshop and went downstairs.  As he was returning about twenty minutes later, there was a fierce explosion in the workshop.  The stone fireplace was torn down; the doors were off their hinges; the ceiling of the room underneath fell; and windows on the staircase were blown out.  Collinson Hall junior found the brothers in the workshop, alive but burned and terribly injured.

Alexander and John both died shortly after being taken to nearby Middlesex Hospital. An inquest was held at the hospital. The Coroner’s jury were taken to the ‘dead room’ to see the boys’ maimed bodies laid together in one coffin, ‘a truly shocking sight’. 

Both Hall and his son were questioned.  Collinson Hall senior said that the workshop was never locked, but the boys were not generally allowed to be in there unless the adult workmen were present.  The boys’ work was expected to be finished and taken from them before candlelight was needed.  He believed it was common practice in the gun making trade to employ children on such work – his own daughter aged 15 and another 16-year-old girl also worked for him - ‘He, however, felt confident that there must have been less caution used on this occasion in his absence than if he had himself been at home’.  The cause of the accident could only be guessed at – perhaps the boys took the cakes they had made that day out of the drawer, and perhaps a spark from a candle had ignited them.

  Percussion gun

Percussion gun-lock’ in Transactions of the Society instituted in London for the encouragement of arts, manufactures and commerce vol. XXXVI (London, 1819) Noc

 

A verdict of accidental death was returned.  The coroner explained that the jury could only punish the gunmaker by sending him for trial for murder or manslaughter. However that would imply that the powder had been deliberately placed in the children’s way and there was no ground to presume this.

Both the coroner and jury were disturbed by the case.  The coroner said he hoped that the accident would act as a warning: parents should not allow their children to be employed in such work, and employers should not take on children so young that they were incapable of judging the danger to which they were exposed.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
British Newspaper ArchiveMorning Chronicle 14 November 1822, Evening Mail 15 November 1822, The Examiner 17 November 1822.
‘Percussion gun-lock’ in Transactions of the Society instituted in London for the encouragement of arts, manufactures and commerce vol. XXXVI (London, 1819)
‘Description of the percussion gun-lock invented by Mr Collinson Hall’ in Philosophical Magazine and Journal vol. LVI (London, 1820)

 

19 July 2016

Walter Thom’s 'Pedestrianism'

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Walter Thom’s Pedestrianism; or An Account of the Performances of Celebrated Pedestrians during the last and present Century was published in 1813, an extraordinary survey of records of matches and athletes, and the application of enlightenment thinking to the documentation of sport. Thom’s intention was to celebrate the achievements of Captain Barclay, but in order to give Barclay’s achievements greater meaning he discussed the athlete’s predecessors with a diligence that provides a model for today’s sports statisticians. He categorised records according to the timescale of the race: 1) matches lasting several days, 2) matches lasting one day, 3) matches completed in an hour or more, requiring stamina, and 4) matches completed in seconds or minutes, requiring sprinting skills.

 

  Walking race F60146-17

 Walking Match rom The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. 22 November 1875, page 185 Images Online Noc

 

Thom focuses on the life, genealogy, skills, training and achievements of Captain Barclay Allardice, whose competitive career began at the age of 15 in 1796, when he walked six miles in an hour for a prize of 100 guineas. He followed this two years later with a 70-mile walk in fourteen hours. While the records for the shorter distances are likely to have been possible – umpires were present when Barclay did a quarter mile in 56 seconds - it is the longer distance matches that raise questions. Thom reported that Barclay walked 150 miles from London to Birmingham via Cambridge in two days; 64 miles from Charing Cross to Newmarket in ten hours in 1803; and from Charing Cross to Colchester in June 1806 without stopping for breakfast. Barclay also rowed and ran, but he was marked out by his incredible stamina, being able to maintain a walking pace of 4-5 mph on the flat or over hills.

 

  Captain Barclay

Captain Barclay from Walter Thom, Pedestrianism (1813)   Images Online  Noc

 

Barclay’s most famous achievement was the celebrated ‘1,000 miles in 1,000 consecutive hours’ walking race against the clock, in 1809. The event stretched over 42 days, and Thom tells us what Barclay ate, how he slept, his muscular pains, digestive powers, and whether he perspired. He describes Barclay’s style as ‘a sort of lounging gait, without apparently making any extraordinary exertion, scarcely raising his feet more than two or three inches above the ground’, and bending his body forwards so as to ‘throw its weight on the knees’. He gives us details of the athlete’s clothes, ‘strong shoes and lambs-wool stockings’, his weight loss (two stones and four pounds, 14.5 kilos), and his morale – ‘not so cheerful as during the day’, ‘in good spirits’. The athlete inevitably slowed during the course of this endurance trial, slowing from a speed of over four mph to under three mph by the final week. The account ends with the statistics of each day’s performance: distance covered, conditions, time taken, average time per mile, down to seconds.

For Thom, Barclay was not just an outstanding athlete but a man of ‘inflexible adherence to strict principles of honour and integrity’. However Thom was primarily fascinated, even obsessed, with the athlete’s body, his weight, pains, size, digestion, perspiration levels, speed. The publication of Pedestrianism marked a new kind of public ownership of the body of the athlete. By the end of this summer those of us who watch sport on television will feel we have got to know some athletes’ bodies quite well; a major landmark in history of this process is Walter Thom’s celebration of Captain Barclay.

Julian Walker
Writer and artist - leads workshops at the British Library on literature, art, history, printing and the English Language.

Julian’s latest book The Roar of the Crowd is published by the British Library. This is an illustrated anthology of sports writing, featuring writers as diverse as P.G. Wodehouse on cricket, Ernest Hemingway on sport fishing, Doris Lessing on swimming, Homer on wrestling and Joyce Carol Oates on boxing.

Further reading:

Victorian Pedestrianism (1) – Robert Makepeace aka ‘The American Stag’

Victorian Pedestrianism (2) – 1,000 Miles in 1,000 Hours

 

16 June 2016

A dinosaur dinner and relics from 'one of the greatest humbugs, frauds and absurdities ever known'.

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These are the words which Colonel Charles Sibthorpe (1783-1855) used to describe the Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace. His staunch opposition to any foreign influence, including a deep suspicion of Prince Albert, was the likely cause of his dislike of the Exhibition, which housed 13,000  exhibits from around the world.

  DayandSon

Lithograph published by Day & Son, 1854, showing the Crystal Palace and Park in Sydenham. Add MS 50150. Cc-by

The British Library Modern Manuscripts Department owns two volumes of letters, ephemera and artwork relating to the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace and its life in Hyde Park and later in Sydenham, South London. The collection contains posters, letters, tickets, photographs, drawings, newspaper cuttings and advertisements.

One of my favourite items is a letter dated August 27 1862 from Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) to Edward Trimmer (1827-1904), secretary to the Royal College of Surgeons.

Hawkins was the designer and sculptor of the models of extinct animals and dinosaurs which were commissioned to stand in the grounds of the Crystal Palace after its move to Sydenham. To celebrate the launch of the models, Hawkins hosted a dinner on 31 December, 1853, inside one of the dinosaur models.

  BaxterType

Baxter-type showing the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace, 1854. Add MS 50150. Cc-by

Trimmer had evidently asked Hawkins which dinosaur was the location of the supper party and Hawkins responded:

"In reply to your enquiry as to which of my models of the gigantic extinct animals in the Crystal Palace Park at Sydenham I had  converted into a sale á manger. I send you herewith a graphic answer in a miniature sketch of the Iguanodon as he appeared with his brains in and his belly full on the 31 of Decr 1853 and if you are further interested in the details of my whimsical feast you will find a good report in the London Illustrated News of July 7 1854 as its proprietor The late Mr Ingram was among the press of guests on that occasion; I had the pleasure of seeing around me many of the heads of science among whom in the head of the squadron was Professor Owen and the late Professor Ed forbes with eighteen other friends we were all very jolly to meet the new year 1854."

Hawkins' sketch of the Iguanodon shows a lively scene of people standing and raising glasses inside the body of the dinosaur.

Iguanodon

Detail of the dinner party held inside the Iguanodon, from Hawkins' letter to Trimmer, Add MS 50150. Cc-by

The drawing is similar in composition to the wood engraving from the Illustrated London News which was taken from an original drawing by Hawkins, and shows the dinosaur surrounded by a wooden platform and steps.

  ILN

 Wood engraving from the Illustrated London News, January 7 1854, showing 'Dinner in the Iguanodon Model, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham'. Add MS 50150, f. 225. Cc-by

The dinosaurs remain in the Crystal Park today and are Grade I listed. There's a brilliant Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs group who promote the long-term conservation of the models. A recent blog on the FCPD site shows images of the interior of the Iguanodon, the dinosaur in which Hawkins hosted his banquet.

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts 1601-1850.

05 May 2016

Calculating Kindness Revisited

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To publicise our event Calculating Kindness: Chasing George Price, to be held Tuesday, 10th May, 6.30 – 8.00 pm at the British Library, we are republishing an edited version of Laura Farnworth’s post on the development of  Undercurrent’s production, Calculating Kindness, using archives held at the British Library.

RWD16_Calculating Kindness_011-s

Adam Burton as George Price. Copyright Richard Davenport/Undercurrent.

I first stumbled across George Price in a Readers Digest article in 2011. Struck by his extraordinary story, which illuminates important questions about who we are, I was compelled to find out more. This led me to the British Library where his manuscripts are held, together with those of his colleague, evolutionary biologist William Hamilton.

RWD16_Calculating Kindness_070-s

Neal Craig as William Hamilton, Adam Burton as George Price. Copyright Richard Davenport/Undercurrent.

Price was an eccentric American who arrived in London in 1968. He spent weeks going to libraries, until he discovered a paper by Hamilton.  One of the key ideas in Hamilton’s paper was that people are genetically predisposed to be kindest to kin. George found the idea bleak. Did real selfless kindness exist?

In an attempt to prove the idea wrong, George formulated an equation widely acknowledged as the mathematical explanation for the evolution of altruism. The Price Equation proved Hamilton right and was so extraordinary that University College London gave George an honorary position within eighty minutes of him walking in off the street.

George had been a militant atheist, but writing the equation had a strange effect on him. He began to calculate the probabilities of coincidences in his life, including the probability of him being the man to write the equation. The outcome was so remote, George decided the equation was a gift from God and converted to fundamental Christianity overnight.

RWD16_Calculating Kindness_117-s

Adam Burton as George Price. Copyright Richard Davenport/Undercurrent.

George then embarked on a radical phase of altruism - helping complete strangers. He gave away everything he had and ended up homeless. In America, George had undergone an operation for thyroid cancer. Now, testing God, he had stopped his thyroid medicine, which can contribute to depression. George was pushing the extremes of survival, living on a pint of milk a day and celebrating his last 15 pence.

A few years later, Price was discovered in a squat having slit his throat. Seven men attended his funeral - five homeless and two evolutionary biologists, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.

‘Calculating Kindness’ weighs up the question: was Price mentally ill, or consumed by a spiritual desire to disprove his own theory: that man is kindest to his kin?

Whilst reading through his papers George began to come to life for me - with each document I got to know him a little more. I started to understand what preoccupied George and how he thought about things. This invaluable research has formed the bedrock for developing the show. It is material I keep coming back to, and as my understanding of George’s science improves, so I see new things in his writings.

Laura Farnworth
Artistic Director of Undercurrent

 

20 April 2016

Pioneering cybernetics: an introduction to W Ross Ashby

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William Ross Ashby (1903-1972), or W. Ross Ashby as he preferred to be called, was a pioneer in cybernetics and systems theory. The term cybernetics is today somewhat devalued because of its overuse, particularly in popular culture – with derivative ideas such as cyberpunk and the ‘Cybermen’ of the science fiction series Dr Who being just two examples – but originally it referred to the science of cybernetics, the science of control and communication, in both animals and machines. As a science cybernetics was conceived as being cross-disciplinary involving elements of Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

Ashby1962

Photograph of W Ross Ashby taken 1962, Biological Computing Laboratory, University of Illinois. Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby www.rossashby.info

W. Ross Ashby’s pioneering work in cybernetics began in 1928. While still a student at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London he began keeping a journal of his private interests, including work in advanced mathematics, as a means of relaxation. By 1936, while working at St Andrew’s Mental Hospital as a Pathologist, Bacteriologist and Biochemist, Ashby’s private research, reflecting his fascination with underlying organisation of the nervous system, gradually developed to the point where he conceived of developing a machine that would replicate the adaptive behaviour of the human brain.  Today we would recognise this idea as machine learning.

20150827_081011000_iOS

Slide-7

Image and circuit diagram of the Homeostat taken from Ashby’s lecture slides. (Add MS 89152/40) Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby www.rossashby.info

By 16 March 1948, with assistance from his laboratory assistant, Denis Bannister, Ashby successfully constructed and tested his machine which he called the ‘Homeostat’ the name taken from the word homeostasis, a term used in biology to refer to the control of internal conditions, such as blood temperature, within a living organism. The Homeostat became a minor sensation and was heavily featured in the popular press of the day being described variously as ‘the Robot Brain’ or ‘The Thinking Machine’. A very private man Ashby was somewhat uncomfortable with the attention although he presented the Homeostat at conferences, most famously the ninth Macy Conference on Cybernetics (1952). He also published two books Design for a Brain (1952) and An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956) where he detailed his ideas, including the Law of Requisite Variety’, for both academic and popular audiences.

Throughout the rest of his academic life and into retirement Ross Ashby continued to work on his journal, recording thoughts and ideas, and only stopping in March 1972 just three months before his death. By then his journal stretched to over 7,000 pages spread across 25 volumes.

W. Ross Ashby at the British Library

The British Library collection of W. Ross Ashby’s papers includes notebooks, notes, index cards, slides and offprints and is available to researchers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89153. The estate of W. Ross Ashby also maintains a website The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive which contains digitised copies of much of this material as well as a biography and photographs. It can be found at www.rossashby.info

An in-depth article on W. Ross Ashby and the Homeostat can be found on the British Library Science Blog

Jonathan Pledge, Curator, Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Politics and Public Life

13 April 2016

The Queen's visit to Karachi in 1961- the unofficial view

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In February 1961 I was a young British geophysicist working on ground water exploration in the mountains of Baluchistan. Madeline was working at the High Commission in a secretarial role.

Much of my time was spent camping near the small town of Las Bela, some 100 miles north-west of Karachi. I lived in a tent with water from a well, no electricity, and it was necessary to return frequently to Karachi for food and other supplies.

DEREK MORRIS SCAN 1

Derek Morris in Pakistan - photograph courtesy of author

 

On the day of the Queen’s Reception, Madeline and I made our way to the State Guest House. We were shepherded under the shamiana with hundreds of other guests. The shamiana was an extensive horizontal canvas supported at intervals by vertical poles – ideal for sunny days but not for rain. As the Queen's convoy arrived the sky was already very black, lightning criss-crossed the sky accompanied by thunder and torrential rain.

Very quickly the horizontal canvas was turned into a series of basins, each basin filled with water. The canvas was soon ripped open and everyone underneath was soaked, and the wives of the Burra Sahibs, who had probably been waiting for many years to meet the Queen, found their mascara running down their faces, and their beautiful dresses and hats ruined.

Reaction to the downpour was interesting. For the important guests the priority was to get to a dry place in the Guest House as quickly as possible.

However, for the experienced campaigners in the crowd the first priority was to turn to the tables laden with drink and to collect a bottle or two of whisky or wine as booty, to be of some comfort in the ensuring chaos.

We found ourselves lining a corridor in the Guest House, then everything went quiet as the Queen and her party started moving along the corridor, presumably on their way to meet the High Commissioners and other important guests. The Queen stopped and turned towards me.

‘And what are you doing in Pakistan?’ the Queen asked me.

I had no better or more accurate answer than to say 'I am looking for water, Ma-mm'.

The Queen's reaction was immediate and appropriate.   With a glance out of the window at the torrential rain, she smiled and said “It does not seem very necessary at the moment!”

Everyone laughed at this exchange. Then all quietened down as the Queen moved away and spoke to Madeline about the collapse of the shamiana.

The Duke of Edinburgh then appeared, and he in turn stopped and turned towards me. Before he could say a word, everyone was laughing aloud. Presumably, it is not often that people start laughing before the Duke has spoken, and rather quizzically he looked around for an explanation. He smiled when told of my exchange with the Queen.

 

  MADELINE MORRIS SCAN 2

Madeline Morris looking through a surveyor's theodolite - photograph courtesy of author

 

A few days later I returned to Las Bela to continue my work in the Porali River basin, and later in the mountains, closer to Quetta. The exchange with the Queen is but one of many memorable moments of a year in Pakistan.

Derek Morris
Independent scholar