THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

82 posts categorized "Science and environment"

25 April 2017

William Close - “one deserving of remembrance”

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How does one describe a surgeon, apothecary, hydraulic engineer, inventor, antiquarian, musician, artist, author and editor who was also responsible for saving the lives of the children of his village?  However,  'a little slender man, very clever, but rather changeable... and one who devoted himself assiduously to his professional duties’  is the only contemporary comment which remains of Dr William Close (1797-1813).

The Furness peninsula at the turn of the 19th century provided an interesting environment for a man with Dr Close’s enquiring mind, and he supervised the medical welfare of a variety of people in that region, including agricultural labourers, miners, and factory workers.

Infectious diseases were inevitably rife, and the young were particularly vulnerable, so in 1799, only three years after the development of the vaccine against smallpox, Close inoculated all the poor children of the nearby village of Rampside at his own expense (despite not being a wealthy man).  Within five years, small pox was duly eradicated from the area.

Close 1

 This image is copied from one of Close’s engravings of Furness Abbey used to decorate the cover of The Antiquities of Furness.

Close was also interested in the history of his neighbourhood and was keen to record and preserve local landmarks for future generations. He illustrated and supplemented Thomas West’s The Antiquities of Furness (1805) from his house at 2 Castle Street, Dalton in Furness.  The building is now marked by a blue plaque

Close 2

 Plate indicating the improvements to trumpets suggested by Close reproduced from the Proceedings of the Barrow Naturalists Field Club.

Music, in particular the improvement of brass instruments, was another of Close’s passions.  Volume XVIII of Proceedings of The Barrow Naturalists’ Field Club gives a thorough account of his progress (though this perhaps somewhat over-estimates the lure of such a topic!).

Close was clearly a polymath, his interests ranging from methods of improving the permanency of black ink to the development of safer types of explosives and land drainage technology.  He gave evidence of his research in the form of detailed letters to journals of various kinds.

Sadly this far-seeing man died of tuberculosis on Sunday 27 June 1813, aged just 38.

P J M Marks
Curator of Bookbindings, Early Printed Collections

Further reading:
Damian Gardner-Thorpe, Christopher Gardner-Thorpe and John Pearn ‘William Close (1775-1813): medicine, music, ink and engines in the Lake District’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2004 Dec; 97(12): 599–602. 

Picturing Places - English Landscape Bindings by Philippa Marks

18 April 2017

Captain Ross muses on the ice

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Captain, later Sir, John Ross was one of the first Royal Navy officers sent by Sir John Barrow in search of the Northwest Passage. Barrow, presiding over huge Naval resources after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, was determined the Navy would finally discover the fabled Northwest Passage and, in turn, underscore Britain’s oceanic prestige to the world. Fitting out ships with crews of distinguished war veterans Barrow began one of the most significant non-military campaigns in the Royal Navy’s history and Ross represented one of the most trusted officers at his disposal.

Leaving London’s docks on 18 April 1818 Ross set out to chart the Arctic coast of North America but the captain took with him significant personal interests in the icescapes, peoples, flora and fauna he would encounter on the journey. Indeed, Ross’s account of the voyage, published in 1819, is notable for the various scientific and anthropological studies he relates, as well as his musings on the shape and form of ice. Some of Ross’s depictions of the ice are reproduced as accompanying illustrations to the text, including the two ‘Remarkable Iceberg(s)’ illustrating this post.

A Remarkable Iceberg (Ross June 1818)

 ‘A Remarkable Iceberg, June 17th, 1818’ from Ross, J. (1819), A Voyage of Discovery, made under the orders of the Admiralty, in his Majesty’s ships ‘Isabella’ and ‘Alexander’ for the purpose of exploring Baffin’s Bay, and enquiring into the possibility of a North-West Passage. G.7399

Ross’s icescapes are grand and sublime, overawing the crew with their stature and beauty in the light of the Arctic summer. The text and other illustrations for the publication also show how this sublime beauty can easily become a source of terror, as the ships and their crews become imperilled by the power and capriciousness of the Arctic ice. This ability of ice to shift dramatically from sublime beauty to source of terror is played with to great effect in Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Published the year after the return of Ross the novel highlights how modern men can be overpowered by natural forces still beyond their control.

 A Remarkable Iceberg (Ross July 1818)

‘A Remarkable Iceberg, July, 1818’ from  Ross, J. (1819), A Voyage of Discovery, made under the orders of the Admiralty, in his Majesty’s ships ‘Isabella’ and ‘Alexander’ for the purpose of exploring Baffin’s Bay, and enquiring into the possibility of a North-West Passage. G.7399

Despite making good progress in the summer months Ross turned around and headed home after entering Lancaster Sound. Ross claimed he saw mountains blocking further passage into the Sound but other members of his crew did not have the chance to verify Ross’s sighting. It is possible that Ross saw a mirage and took this as good reason to turn back for England, but could it also be that his musings on the ice had spooked him? It is possible, Ross’s illustrations show his awareness of the fragility of human bodies and ships to the overwhelming power of the ice, but then it is also possible Ross genuinely believed the Northwest Passage would not be found that way – or indeed any way.

Whatever the reason for his return from the Arctic, Ross’s decision earned him the ire of Sir John Barrow who was furious his captain had returned after posing so little challenge to the Passage. He would attack Ross, directly and anonymously, through the rest of his career and was delighted when Ross’s second in command, W. E. Parry, contradicted the reports of his captain. Barrow’s search for the Northwest Passage was not yet finished.

Philip Hatfield
Lead Curator for Digital Mapping

Further reading:
For more musings on Icescapes, see Philip’s Picturing Places essay, ‘Icescapes: Printing the Arctic’.
Hatfield, P.J. (2016), Lines in the Ice: exploring the roof of the world, London: British Library Publishing
Potter, R. A. (2007), Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818 - 1875, Seattle: University of Washington Press
Williams, G. (2011), Arctic Labyrinth, Berkley: University of California Press

21 February 2017

Enclosed Herewith: Specimens of Ore from the Kuria Muria Islands

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Recently the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership programme discovered an unusual enclosure in some India Office correspondence:  four small specimens of ore, contained in a little pouch.  Where were these specimens from and how did they become part of the India Office Records?

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IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 17: pouch containing four specimens of ore Noc

The specimens were given to Lieutenant-Colonel William Rupert Hay, Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, by some inhabitants of Al Hallaniyah during Hay’s visit to the island on 7 April 1947.  Al Hallaniyah is the largest of the Kuria Muria Islands, a group of five islands located in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Oman.  The islands were presented as a gift to Britain by the Sultan of Muscat in 1854, and they became the responsibility of the Government of Bombay in British India.  They were highly valued for their guano deposits, which were exhausted by 1860, following a brief but intensive period of extraction. The islands became part of the British Aden Colony, but for administrative purposes were placed under the control of the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf.

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IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 17a: four specimens of ore from Al Hallaniyah Noc

Although the islands were long regarded by the British as being of little strategic or commercial interest, their status and administration became a topic of discussion between the India Office and the Colonial Office during the 1930s.  This was mainly in relation to Aden’s separation from British India, but also because of the establishment of a strategic air route from Aden to Muscat.

The reasons behind Hay’s visit to the islands in 1947 are not entirely clear, but he appeared to take a personal as well as a professional interest in the islands.  Following his visit he submitted a short article to The Geographical Journal (the journal of the Royal Geographical Society), which was published later that year.  Hay was also curious about the properties of the specimens that he had received at Al Hallaniyah.  A few days after his trip, in a letter to Eion Pelly Donaldson at the India Office in London, Hay wrote: ‘I forward herewith the specimens of ore handed to me on Hallaniyah Island.  If there is no objection I should be grateful if you could kindly have them analysed and let me know the result'.

IOR_L_PS_12_2106_0045

IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 21: letter from the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf to the India OfficeNoc

The specimens were duly sent to the Geological Survey and Museum (now part of the Natural History Museum) in South Kensington. After an initial inspection the specimens were identified as being crystals of iron pyrites, and were deemed not to be of commercial value.  Donaldson informed Hay of the results and added ‘[w]e will keep the specimens here for the time being, unless you want them returned’.  Presumably Hay did not express any interest in retaining the specimens, which have remained with the correspondence ever since.

IOR_L_PS_12_2106_0028

IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 13: letter from the India Office to the Political Resident in the Persian GulfNoc

Images of the specimens will be made available on the Qatar Digital Library website later this year.


David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
Coll 6/39 'Kuria Muria Islands: Administration and Status of', IOR/L/PS/12/2106
John Gordon Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, ’Omān and Central Arabia, 2 vols (Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, India, 1908), II, pp. 1043-1045.
William Rupert Hay, ‘The Kuria Muria Islands’, The Geographical Journal, 109 (1947) No. 4/6 (April-June 1947), 279-281.

  

15 November 2016

A little embarrassing: Britain fails to prevent Barclay Raunkiær from exploring Arabia

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The British did everything in their power to thwart the journey of a young Danish explorer into the heart of Arabia in 1912 – but ended up helping him by mistake.

The Danes had a history of exploration in the Arabian Peninsula going back to Carsten Niebuhr in the 18th century. In 1911 the Royal Danish Geographical Society decided to revive that tradition by mounting a new expedition.  One of the members was a young Danish student, Barclay Raunkiær, whose father, the botanist Christen Raunkiær, gives his name to a system of plant categorisation still in use today.

The Society duly informed the British Government of their intentions. However, the British viewed the expedition as an unwelcome intrusion into their imperial sphere of influence, and decided that it should be prevented.  The British claimed that as they could not guarantee the safety of their own officers and travellers in the region, they could not offer any assistance or protection to the Danes either.

As a result, the Society abandoned the scheme, despite the fact that money had been raised and plans were well advanced. Nevertheless, Raunkiær decided to make the journey himself, and after passing through Ottoman territory, he arrived at Kuwait in January 1912.

IOR-L-PS-10-259, f 75.

Telegram from the Government of India to the Political Resident dated 1 March 1912 asking the Resident to give ‘a hint’ to the Sheikh of Kuwait
IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 75. Noc

The British Government of India responded by giving instructions to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf  that ‘a hint’ should be given to the Sheikh of Kuwait that no assistance should be given to Raunkiær. Without the Sheikh’s support the expedition would be impossible. British officials also monitored the Dane’s movements in the region and passed on information.

It came then as a considerable surprise to the British some months later to learn that the expedition had been a complete success. Raunkiær had made his way from Kuwait to Riyadh and back to the coast at Bahrain, ‘in a somewhat dilapidated condition’, collecting important geographical, ethnographic and botanical information on the way.

IOR-L-PS-10-259, f 48.

India Office minute: the Royal Danish Geographical Society’s gratitude was ‘a little embarrassing’ - IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 48. Noc

 

Worse, the Royal Danish Geographical Society sent a letter thanking the British Government, particularly mentioning the valuable assistance given to Raunkiær by two British Political Agents, Shakespear at Kuwait, and Lorimer at Bahrain. An India Office minute records that after all the obstacles the British had placed in the way of the Danes it was ‘a little embarrassing’ to be thanked in that way, and in the circumstances there seemed to be nothing for it but ‘to put on the best face we can’.

IOR-L-PS-10-259, f 42.

Part of Captain Shakespear’s report on Barclay Raunkiær, 9 March 1912. It was ‘regrettable’ that the Government of India had not made their objections known sooner - IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 42. Noc

The British Government wanted to know what help, exactly, Lorimer and Shakespear had given the expedition. Lorimer was quickly exonerated, but Shakespear was forced to explain that he had given the Dane his ‘good offices’ and permitted the Sheikh of Kuwait to assist the expedition because instructions to the contrary had not arrived in time. He had also thought that Raunkiær’s limited mapping skills showed he was more of a botanist than a geographer, and he had satisfied himself that Raunkiær was not acting on behalf of either the Turks or the Germans.

Raunkiær himself, weakened by his exertions, died in Copenhagen in 1915. He was 25.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archivist British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership  Cc-by

Sources:
London, British Library, File 1202/1912 'Arabia:- Travellers. Capt. F. F Hunter. Herr Runkiar (Danish Expedition). Capt Shakespear.'. IOR/L/PS/10/259.
Barclay Raunkiaer, Through Wahhabiland on Camelback (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1969).
See also: Desert Encounter: Knud Holmboe 

 

 

04 October 2016

Poldark, put your shirt on! An 18th Century description of a Cornish mine.

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In the British Library there is a fascinating manuscript, compiled in 1779, recording a journey across southern England.  An anonymous gentleman set out from London “on the 1st day of July 1779”, and went all the way to Cornwall “with a single horse chaise”.

Upon reaching Cornwall, the traveller decided “to gratify a curiosity of visiting one of the tin & copper mines which lay scattered on the roadsides”.  This caught my attention because one of my guilty pleasures is the TV series Poldark.  Aidan Turner (the actor who plays Ross Poldark) frequently removes his shirt while toiling in the rugged, rocky interior of his mine.  Not surprisingly, the 1779 account of a Cornish mine is completely different.

To begin with, the anonymous traveller of 1779 had to wear copious amounts of clothing before he was allowed down the mine.  In preparation for the descent, he... “immediately went to the room of one of the Captains (that is a person of rather greater confidence than others) where [he] furnished myself with a dress consisting of worsted stockings, pair of trousers, flannel shirt, waistcoat sleeved, flannel night cap & hat.  Having procured some candles & taken a small quantity of gin to prevent injury from my new habit, set forth for the shaft” .

The gentleman traveller estimated that the mine was 430 feet deep, and he described it as a murky, unforgiving, water-filled place, strewn with mud and clay.  A steam operated pump that the traveller called a “fire engine” was used to draw water out of the mine at a rate of a hundred gallons per stroke.

Cornish mine 2

Fire engine used to pump water out of a Cornish tin and copper mine in 1779. BL-Mss Eur Mack Private 91, p.447.

 

The descent into the mine happened at a terrifying proximity to the fire engine mechanism, which perpetually pumped water out of the mine, and inevitably spilled water while it operated.  There was “a large quantity of water flowing over so as to compleatly wet every part of the dress through & endanger the candles going out... the engine sometimes working so close as to make it necessary to keep the cloathing as close to the body as possible; when [we] had descended half way the water from above flowd so fast that our candles were once or twice extinguished to one, though the number[of candles] was about eight”.

At the bottom of the mine “[t]he ground [we] had to walk along where the vein of ore formerly lay consisted of mud or clay considerably over my shoes, & roof so low as to make it necessary to stoop the whole distance...”  It seems that Cornish mines were places where men had to dig about in the mud, and not rock-walled caverns where swarthy men struck hammers against chunks of stone.  At the end of his visit, the traveller “came to a flight of ladders placed so as to form an angle, & it was with some degree of pleasure I revisited daylight after an absence of two hours”.

 

Cornish mine 1

Ladders leading out of the mine. BL-Mss Eur Mack Private 91, p.451.

 

The traveller continued his journey to Redruth, and stayed at an inn called the King's Head, where he ate a “Cornish pye formed of meat parsley onions apples cream &c” for his evening meal. Unlike the miners he left behind, life was good for this gentleman. I wonder if he looked a little bit like Aidan Turner?

 

King's Head Redruth

Photograph of The King’s Head, Redruth, 1900s (now closed).  Image courtesy of cornishmemory.com

 

Jennifer Howes
Art Historian specialising in South Asia


Further reading:

“A Description of a Cornish mine” was taken from pages 442 to 455 in an account of a journey across the south of England by an anonymous traveller, 1779. British Library, Mss Eur Mack Private 91.

Foster, Patrick. “Poldark star Aidan Turner swaps topless scything for semi-clad mining in new series.”  The Telegraph, 22 August 2016.

 

08 August 2016

The surgeon’s porcupine

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Sometimes a single page captures a small life. Here John McCosh, East India Company surgeon in Assam in the 1830s, recalls an unusual pet. McCosh was reporting to the Government of India on the topography of Assam. Topography encompassed history, geography, people, customs, economics, and natural history: indeed, anything which a reporter on an area thought worth recording. This topography would have been a valuable work of reference for government officials. But two centuries later, it is the unexpected glimpse into McCosh’s domestic life which stands out.

 

  Porcupine 2

Porcupine from Burney 97, f.26v De animalium proprietate BL flickr Noc


‘I once had a pet porcupine at Goalpara, I got him or her (for I could never use the freedom of ascertaining the sex) when very young.  It afterwards became so tame as to run out and into the house like a dog, and was wont to make its appearance regularly at meals, and ate from my hand any thing that was at table, whether flesh or vegetable.  It had a great deal of comic humour if I might so call it, and whether to gratify this whim, or from love of stolen treasure, became a great thief.  Nothing that it could carry away was safe; a stick or a shoe, a boot-hook or a broken bottle, was dragged to its nest, but as it never meddled with any thing that was not on the floor, we were easily able to keep things out of its reach.  Latterly this habit became very inconvenient; if any thing fell off the table and was neglected, it was certain to be carried off.  On searching its hoard the lost article was frequently found, but I had sometimes reason to think, the porcupine was blamed for taking away things he had no share in.  It became the torment of the dogs, and was wont to take a fiendish pleasure in pricking and annoying them.  It had a large share of courage, and in fair field was more than a match for any one dog, for it had only to keep its tail towards him to save its head, the only defenceless part about it; sometimes two dogs set upon it at once, and on such occasions it took to its heels, but it only ran to the nearest corner of the room and spreading out its quills, so as to fill the corner, looked back at its persecutors with cool contempt.’

 

Porcupine Noc

Antonia Moon
Lead Curator, post-1858 India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
John McCosh, Topography of Assam (Calcutta: Bengal Military Orphan Press, 1837)

 

 

 

22 June 2016

National Insect Week

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For National Insect Week, here is an extract from the very first volume of the Calcutta Journal of Natural History, published in 1841. The Reverend Frederick Hope, a well-known entomologist from Oxford, solicits information about insects in India and asks for specimens.

 

Insects (2)

  Insects (1)

 Calcutta Journal of Natural History 1841 Noc

 

In the same edition are an article on a species of civet, a review of Robert Wight’s Illustrations of Indian Botany, and an account of a particularly ill-tempered meeting of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (‘A committee that would lay down rules for the direction of a curator, ought to know the difference between minerals and rocks’).

Many of Hope’s entomological collections are now in the Museum of Natural History, Oxford.

Antonia Moon
Lead Curator Post-1858 India Office Records

 

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.