THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

5 posts categorized "British Library Treasures"

24 August 2020

The Manuscripts of Thomas Chatterton

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A guest-blog by Daniel Brass, Kings College, London. The British Library houses many items of significance with regard to Chatterton’s life and works. These include autograph manuscripts of his poetry, written correspondence between Chatterton and Walpole, and letters and articles from the 1770s documenting the Rowley manuscripts controversy, all of which are available to view, for free, in our Reading Rooms.

Thomas Chatterton was just seventeen years old when he took his own life on 24 August 1770. This year, 2020, marks the 250th anniversary of his death. Whilst some of his poetry was published during his lifetime, Chatterton received little remuneration for his efforts and he was impoverished at the time of his suicide. His writing gained a newfound recognition in the years directly following his death, however, and exerted a considerable influence upon the Romantic Movement as well as sparking academic controversy.

 

Painting: 'The Death of Chatterton' by Henry Wallis (Tate Britain, London) dated The Death of Chatterton, 1856, by Henry Wallis 1856

The Death of Chatterton, 1856,
by Henry Wallis (Tate Britain, London)

Born on 20 November 1752, Chatterton was an incredibly well-read child who began composing original works at the age of ten. Inspired by his reading, Chatterton soon invented the persona of Thomas Rowley – a fictional 15th-century monk. Chatterton claimed that his poetry, which adhered to a faux-medieval style, was actually the work of his imagined Rowley. So convincing was Chatterton’s deceit that, following his death, his poetry was included in an anthology of medieval writings, with Thomas Rowley’s name gracing the work’s title. An academic debate regarding the origin and authenticity of these poems raged throughout the 1770s, with the deceit eventually being discovered and Chatterton’s ‘Rowley’ works eventually seeing publication under Chatterton’s own name.

Manuscript draft of 'A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents, chronicling the history of Bristol

Add MS 24891 “A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents, chronicling the history of Bristol

Chatterton also supplied the antiquarian William Barrett with forged documents. Barrett, believing the manuscripts to be genuine, relied heavily upon them when compiling his work The History and Antiquities of Bristol. Published in 1789, long after Chatterton’s death, Barrett’s work was poorly received due to the embarrassing inclusion of the poet’s fabrications.

During his lifetime Chatterton sought patronage on several occasions and used his literary fabrications to gain access. Horace Walpole expressed an interest in Chatterton’s writings, which the poet stated were transcriptions of Rowley’s work. Walpole was not convinced and ultimately rejected the young poet as he suspected that the manuscripts were of a more modern origin than Chatterton claimed.

Manuscript draft of 'A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents, chronicling the history of Bristol, including architectural scketches.

Add MS 24891 “A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents. Chatterton’s fictional account of Bristol’s history includes several architectural sketches.

At the age of seventeen, Chatterton moved from Bristol to London with the aim of supporting himself financially through his writing. His time in London was short – he lived there for just four months prior to his death – but he wrote voraciously during that period. He composed journalistic pieces, political satires and poetry. Writing under his own name and a series of pseudonyms, Chatterton successfully achieved publication for many of his works in literary journals and magazines. Yet, despite his increasing success as a writer he continued to struggle financially. Chatterton died from an overdose of arsenic and opium on 24 August 1770. It is generally accepted that suicide was Chatterton’s intent though some have argued that the overdose which resulted in his death may have been accidental. 

Although branded a literary fraud, appreciation for Chatterton’s works grew significantly in the years following his death. The talent he showed in the composition of the Rowley manuscripts was later properly appraised and appreciated and he began to be taken seriously as a gifted artist in his own right. In particular the Romantic poets venerated him as a misunderstood, tragic genius. He was praised by the likes of Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, and Scott who all cited him as a poet of exceptional talent.

Sources and Further Reading:

The British Library holds a number of manuscripts created by Thomas Chatterton, some of them he passed off as by the fictitious Thomas Rowley. These include:

Add MS 12050, The Revenge, 6 Jul. 1770

Add MS 24890, Eclogues and other poems, eighteenth century

Add MS 5766 A, B and C, Poems drawings and papers including Rowley originals, c. 1762-1770

Add MS 24891 A Discourse on Brystowe, by Thomas Rowleie, eighteenth century

Add MS 39168 A-V, ff. 79-84, contains the letters of George Catcott in defence of the Rowley poems, 1774-1776

17 August 2020

Ted Hughes: A 90th Birthday Celebration

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by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives who catalogued the Hughes Archive (held at Add MS 88198) For more information about the Library's holdings of material relating to the life and work of Ted Hughes, see our collection guide and the relevant pages on Discovering Literature.

Photograph of Ted Hughes © Copyright Caroline Forbes.

Photograph of Ted Hughes © Copyright Caroline Forbes.

Today would have been the poet and writer, Ted Hughes’ 90th birthday. Born in Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire in 1930 Ted Hughes created a hugely diverse body of work from poetry and prose to theatre adaptations and non-fiction. The natural world and our relationship with it is one of the most abiding themes in his work from early poems such as ‘The Thought Fox’ and ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ through to his children’s story, The Iron Man. Hughes was also lauded for one of his last poetry collections, Birthday Letters, a series of 88 poems about his relationship with his first wife, the poet, Sylvia Plath.

We had hoped to mark 2020 with a small display of items from the Library’s rich collections on Ted Hughes in our Treasures Gallery, and an evening event. Sadly the Coronavirus pandemic meant that these plans have had to be put on hold at present although we hope to be able to celebrate Hughes’ life and work in a similar way in 2021 instead. In the meantime I would like to use this post to highlight the richness of the Library’s collections relating to Hughes and point to some of the online resources relating to him which can be accessed at the moment while the Library continues to reopen after the recent restrictions.

My own work at the Library began when I started cataloguing the Hughes archive which was acquired from the Hughes Estate in 2008. The archive contains literary drafts, diaries and notebooks, correspondence, professional papers and project files dating from throughout Hughes’ life and career from early notes made in the 1940s through to 1990s drafts of Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers. The depth and breadth of the archive provide a rich insight into Hughes including both his creative process and the subjects that interested him which were as varied as astrology, fishing and poetry in translation. As my first proper job after becoming an archivist the archive was both a challenge and a joy as I looked through the boxes and marvelled at their contents. I think that all too often curators at the Library can forget how privileged we are to have access to such treasures. Having worked at home since March I have obviously missed meeting up with colleagues in person but I have also missed the collections. Being able to touch the paper on which an iconic work is written remains a privilege and a thrill which I am looking forward to getting back at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.

In addition to the archive which I catalogued we hold a number of smaller collections relating to Hughes often based around a series of correspondence between him and his friends, family and collaborators, including his sister, Olwyn, the artist, Leonard Baskin and the academic, Keith Sagar. Comments made in correspondence can often provide important context to works as well as useful information about an individual’s life.

Anyone looking for a Hughes fix would do well to look at Discovering Literature: 20th century which includes digitised highlights from across our Hughes collections including early astrological charts, notes on river pollution, drafts of Birthday Letters poems and sketches by Hughes. These can be found alongside articles on him by academics and others aiming to provide an introduction to his work.

I thought of Ted recently when out on my daily walk I saw a small pike in a river near my house. Getting out for walks has been important to me since I’ve been working from home and a good way of tiring out my small sons. You can’t spend as much time as I did reading about fishing when cataloguing the Hughes archive and not be enthusiastic about seeing one of Ted’s most iconic fish! Here is a photograph of the spot where we saw the pike.

Photograph of river showing where author spotted a pike

Needless to say I didn’t have a chance to photograph the pike when we saw it and we probably won’t see it again though we have seen chub and roach in the river too. Here are some roach in the same spot which seems to be a popular haunt for them!

Photograph of roach in river

Meanwhile you can listen to Hughes reading ‘Pike’ on the Poetry Archive and describing his pike which sound rather larger and more impressive than mine. Happy Birthday Ted!

28 July 2020

Two Inches of Ivory: A New(ish) Jane Austen Acquisition

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by Zoe Louca-Richards, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. Please note that due to work-flow restrictions resulting from Covid-19 action this material may not be accessible via the reading rooms until later in the year.

 

Photograph of Loan MS 19 showing a letter from Jane Austen to her nephew, James Edward Austen

“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of variety and Glow? – How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much Labour?” Jane Austen

After being on long loan to the British Library for over 80 years, the letter in which Jane Austen made the above famous remark has been acquired for permanent addition to the nation’s literary collection. The letter to Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh, was originally placed on loan to the British Library in 1936 by Austen’s descendants as part of Loan MS 19, and has now been purchased through a generous grant from The Collections Trust. It is one of approximately 160 surviving letters by Austen, of which only a small portion are addressed to those other than her sister Cassandra. The remainder of Austen’s life correspondence is thought to have been destroyed by Cassandra shortly after Austen’s death. The surviving few are a meagre remnant of this literary great: they offer only the faintest glimpse into the life that produced so many of our best known classics. Each of her extant letters has been repeatedly scrutinised and discussed. However, this letter in particular, previously published as Letter 146 in Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen's letters (1995), is perhaps one of the most widely referenced of them, on account of the above quote, making it a valuable addition to the British Library’s literary collection.

Pencil drawn portrait of James Edward Austen Leigh

Portrait of Jane Austen produced for the Memoir by James Edward Austen Leigh

 

  Above: James Edward Austen Leigh. Below: Portrait of Jane Austen produced for the Memoir by James Edward Austen Leigh.

James Edward Austen Leigh, known by family and friends as Edward, and addressed here by Austen as ‘E’, was the son of Jane Austen’s eldest brother, also James. James (Jr.) had recently turned 18 when he received this letter from his aunt, and her opening line, ‘One reason for my writing to you now, is that I may have the pleasure of directing to you Esqre’, offers a playful quip on his recent transition into manhood. James was an aspiring novelist himself, and at the time of the letter had just left Winchester College to begin as an undergraduate at Oxford. James would later publish A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869) the earliest biographical account of his aunt, and the only one to be written by someone who knew her. It wasn’t published until 50 years after Austen’s death, and James himself had concerns as to his ability to do justice to such a task. You can learn more about James’ memoirs of his aunt through the British Library’s Online Exhibition Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. 

James is often referenced as Austen’s ‘favourite’ nephew. Letters to her sister Cassandra, indicate her active support and encouragement for his writing ability from a young age. James too spoke fondly of Austen. In his memoir of her he notes that she ‘was the delight of all her nephews and nieces’ and ‘that there was scarcely a charm in her most delightful characters that was not a true reflection of her own sweet temper and loving heart’. 

Photograph of excerpted quote from Add MS 89437.

Austen's quote comparing her work to the art of miniature painting. Add MS 89437

Early in the 4 page letter Austen notes that she is dismayed to learn that two and a half chapters of James’ own work have gone missing; extending a witty relief that her recent prolonged absence from Steventon cannot render her under suspicion of theft. Her famous remark comparing her work to the delicate and intricate art of miniature painting follows. This introspective comment from Austen regarding her craft has been the subject of much speculation and interpretation by scholars and Austen fans alike. In bashfully attesting to what little value such a theft would have, the fruits of which baring no possible benefit to her own works, Austen seems simultaneously to rib and praise both James’ work, and her own. The quote’s jocular undertone is often read as a subtle reminder to James that compared to her he was but a novice of the pen. Furthermore, ’so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much Labour’ has been suggested to indicate Austen’s own anxieties about the laborious nature of her art. The quote is frequently highlighted as a rare use of metaphor by Austen, a literary device often seen lacking in her published works.

The remainder of the letter goes on to discuss family concerns, particularly those of ‘Uncle Henry’, Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1859), and ‘Uncle Charles’, Charles John Austen (1779 – 1852), two of Austen’s six brothers. 

 

Photograph of excerpted quote from Add MS 89437.

“But I was forced to decline it, the walk is beyond my strength (though I am otherwise very well)". Add MS 89437

Austen wrote the letter on her 41st birthday, which would sadly be her last. Whilst she does make a brief comment on her poor health, noting the decline of an invitation as ‘the walk is beyond my strength’,  the cheerful, light-hearted tone of the letter gives little impression that Austen had been battling with illness throughout the year, or indeed of an awareness that she would not last her 42nd birthday. A later letter written in January 1817 to her sister Cassandra notes that she had gained strength throughout the winter of 1816. Never the less, Austen died the following July. The exact cause of her death is still a matter of contention; Austen’s biographies alternate most frequently between a posthumous diagnosis of Addison’s disease and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – neither of which were recognised during Jane Austen’s lifetime – both also unfortunately untreatable, and both ultimately fatal.

This letter (Add MS 89437) joins another, also formerly from Loan MS 19, to her sister Cassandra (Add MS 70625) - accessible online on Discovering Literature - which was purchased by the British Library in in 1990. Five of the original seven letters loaned to the Library have now been sold (including the two purchased by the Library), and the remaining 2 letters are still on loan as Loan MS 19.

In addition to the aforementioned letters, the British library also holds Austen’s writing desk and a number of other fascinating Austen manuscripts, including:

 

Further Reading:

Jane Austen's letters /​ collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 3rd ed., Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1995.

James Edward Austen Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-memoir-of-jane-austen

Joan Austen Leigh ‘Jane Austen's Favourite Nephew’, Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Persuasions #18, 1996.

15 July 2020

Mervyn Peake’s scariest drawings saved for the nation

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By Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts

Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Today we are announcing the acquisition of over 300 drawings from the pen of one of the 20th century’s greatest illustrators, Mervyn Peake. The archive includes fearsome and funny illustrations for classics such as Treasure Island, The Hunting of the Snark and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm, as well as illustrations for his own books including Gormenghast, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor and Letters From a Lost Uncle. This newly-acquired archive – also containing juvenilia and unpublished work - joins his literary manuscripts already held here at the British Library, together forming the largest public Mervyn Peake collection anywhere in the world. From completion of cataloguing in 2022 you will be able to research the Mervyn Peake Visual Archive for yourself and there will be opportunities to see the illustrations in upcoming British Library exhibitions, but for now here are a few highlights to whet your appetite and stimulate those research ideas.

Treasured islands

One of the undoubted gems of this new collection is Peake’s series of illustrations for Treasure Island, which were published in 1949 and are regarded as some of the finest examples of his illustrative work. It probably helped that Treasure Island was his favourite book from childhood and that he had been poring over the drawings of others, including the anonymous original illustrator, and drafting his own versions since he was a schoolboy (as evidenced by the fact that two watercolour illustrations survive in the archive executed when Peake was only 15). But Peake’s familiarity with the illustrators who went before him was not purely down to childhood fandom. On receiving one of his earliest commissions to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark in 1941 he set out to learn everything he could from the artists he most admired – from Hogarth and Blake to Cruikshank and Bewick. As a writer himself, he maintained a healthy respect for the authors whose work he was reinterpreting, ‘sliding into another man’s soul’ as he put it and subordinating himself to the story, which perhaps explains why he often chose to show us characters divorced from their setting, leaving it to our imaginations to conjure the action of the story. The results have been highly praised and Peake is credited with reimagining the story and showing us the true evil potential of the pirates (see John Lewis’ The 20th Century Book: Its Illustration and Design).

The pirate crew

The pirate crew from Treasure Island, 1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

These Treasure Island illustrations are also a particularly fine example of Peake’s mastery of the technique of cross-hatching, as you can see from the above drawing of the Hispaniola’s shipmates as they approach Skeleton Island. Elsewhere, his innovative use of closely-drawn broken lines results in the incredible image of Israel Hands falling from the mast with a swirling sea behind him. Part of the rich research potential in this new archive lies in the many preliminary drawings and annotated proofs for Treasure Island which Peake retained, allowing us to trace his creative process in detail as he carefully honed each picture.

Israel Hands falling from the mast. Treasure Island  1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Israel Hands falling from the mast, Treasure Island, 1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Too scary for bedtime?

Once dubbed by critics ‘eerie’, ‘sinister’ and ‘quite unsuitable for sensitive children’, it is Peake’s children’s book illustrations that are at the heart of this archive. Peake’s work has thrilled and unsettled children since he started publishing in the later 1930s, sometimes with an outcry from adults who have worried about nightmares and the ‘indelible mark’ left on their offspring. Here is an example from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm (1946), which again uses cross-hatching to evoke the dark, foreboding atmosphere.

Illustration for ‘Our Lady’s Child’ from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm  1946. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Illustration for 'Our Lady's Child' from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

For older readers, Peake will be best-known as the author of the Gormenghast books which earned him the status as one of the best fantasy writers of the 20th century. Fans of the series will find ten illustrations of Gormenghast characters in the Visual Archive, including depictions of its hollow-eyed anti-hero Steerpike, the grotesque chef Arabiatha Swelter and the delightfully-named doctor’s sister, Irma Prunesquallor.

Early Peake

The earliest item from the Visual Archive is a drawing by seven-year-old Mervyn, sketched on a Sunday afternoon in China, where he spent his childhood as the son of a missionary doctor. The Peake family returned to England for good when Mervyn was 11 years old but the sights and sounds of his early years were never forgotten. The sense of being an outsider came from living in a walled missionary compound looking like a miniature version of Croydon set down in a distinctly different culture, and it continued on his return to England where there seemed to be no thread linking his two very different lives. Peake’s perspective on Chinese culture and this sense of isolation have both been consistent influences on Peake’s later work, from the ritualised world of Gormenghast to the stylised brushwork of some of his drawings. In the Visual Archive, the Chinese influence can be seen in his juvenilia and also in his exquisite illustrations for an early unpublished book of nonsense, ‘The Moccus Book’, which he produced in the late 1920s from an idea developed with his best friend, Gordon Smith.

A Sunday evening walk in China. Earliest surviving drawing by Mervyn Peake  aged 7  circa 1918. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

A Sunday evening walk in China. Earliest surviving drawing by Mervyn Peake, aged 7, around 1918. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

The pirate who never grew up

The thread running through the entire archive is Peake’s piratical spirit. He was obsessed with pirate stories from childhood, cultivated a piratical appearance and was very fond of jokes and pranks. It is not surprising therefore that Peake went on to write his own pirate tale in the form of his 1939 children’s book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. Although Peake’s early literary influences reflect the colonial society in which he grew up, it is notable how he could turn these tropes upside down. The bloodthirsty Captain Slaughterboard, for instance, gives up his piratical ways and sets up a cosy, domesticated life on a foreign island with an ambiguously-gendered ‘Yellow Creature’ in what appears to be a very happy queer relationship – marking the picture book out as ‘way ahead of its time’ in the opinion of former Cambridge Professor of Children’s Literature, Morag Styles. The Visual Archive holds the complete set of all 45 final illustrations for this book and you can see a glimpse of an early version of the Slaughterboard story in this beautifully illustrated manuscript from the collection which is available in full on our Discovering Children’s Books site.

The pirate Charlie Choke sporting a tattoo of Mervyn Peake’s wife Maeve on his arm. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor  1939. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

The pirate Charlie Choke sporting a tattoo of Mervyn Peake's wife Maeve on his arm. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 1939. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Words and pictures

Utlimately, in the fashion of other great writer-artists from Blake to Wyndham Lewis, it is impossible to separate Peake’s art from his writing. To understand his imagination and his synaesthetic creative process as a whole, we need to consider his writing and drawing side by side, and this acquisition will enable researchers to do just that. You can read more about the Mervyn Peake Visual Archive in our press release.

Funders

The Mervyn Peake Visual Archive was acquired by the British Library with the generous support of the Art Fund with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation and a contribution in memory of Miranda Stonor, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the British Library Collections Trust and the Friends of the National Libraries.

Further reading

  • G. Peter Winngton, ed., Mervyn Peake The Man and his Art (London: Peter Owen, 2006)
  • G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London: Peter Owen, 2009)
  • Maeve Gilmore, A World Away (London: Gollancz, 1

15 May 2020

“List Ye Landsmen all to me” about Nautical Drama on Playbills

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by Christian Algar, Curator of Printed Heritage Collections. Learn more and help us to bring more playbills to life through our crowd-sourcing project, Into the Spotlight and explore more digitised playbills here. Follow the activities of Printed Heritage Collections on Twitter @BLprintheritage.

The British Library have circa 100,000 playbills digitised in greyscale – a legacy of an attempt to use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to capture the rich and dense details packed onto the playbills. Machines couldn’t succeed in translating the variations of text in font design, size and typographical layout – all characteristics of these eye-catching playbills. There are near a quarter of a million playbills in the Library’s collections but they are not catalogued: there has never been and never will be the resource to record their details.

It’s not always easy to find records and reports of these performances; There’s no newspaper report to be found for  ‘Gallant Tom …’ performed at the theatre in Deal in 1842 – but these playbills are crucial pieces of historical evidence and it is a vital undertaking to capture their details by marking and transcribing titles, genres and dates to make them more findable for future research. That is exactly what the Library’s crowdsourcing project, In the Spotlight strives to do; with your help we can bring these past entertainments to life. To help you navigate your way through the choppy waters of this collection, here’s an eyeglass to look at the nautical drama to be found all over these playbills.

Photograph of playbill for Theatre, Stafford showing headline production of Pilots: A Tale of the Sea

British Library, Playbills 264.


Photograph of playbill advertising 'Nautical Drama'

British Library, Playbills 176.

 

‘The Sea! The Sea! The Open Sea!; ‘The Ocean of Life! Or, Every Inch a Sailor’; ‘Blue Anchor; or, a Tar for all Weather’; A Dream at Sea’; ‘Floating Beacon! Or, The Weird Woman of the Wreck'… Through the golden age of the playbill (the 1770s to the 1860s) we can see how theatre audiences across the country were thrilled by all kinds of genres of plays and general entertainments, but the popularity of nautical melodrama is especially apparent from any casual glance at surviving examples. Looking at the titles inspires further investigation and not just in the confines of the history of drama. Playbills contain valuable additional detail and paratext: cast listings, plots summaries, descriptions of sets and scenery, song titles and notices to the audience. These throw light on the nature and functioning of past entertainments – all of which can tell us about the wider social, economic and political history of the nation.

So why was there such an abundance of nautical themed plays during this period? For Britain and Ireland this was a period of almost constant war - the War of Austrian Succession (1739–48), the Seven Years War (1755–63) and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1789-1815). The Navy and the maritime industry were key to the nation’s aggressive expansion and domination. It had immediate relevance. Audiences were familiar with or personally connected with people in industries in ports and beyond the seas.

Photograph of playbill advertising The Ocean of Life Or, Every Inch a Sailor

British Library, Playbills 263.

Playbill advertising Blue Anchor; A Tar For All Weather

British Library, Playbills 263.

The image of sailors and seafarers had an almost national symbolism like nowhere else in the world. The characterisation of these rugged figures put wind in the sails of literary hacks and dramatists. A tide of plays with very similar plots, dialogue, dramatis personae, and songs repeated in common – often riffing off the earlier tradition of popular street ballads – flowed to audiences in London and across the country. The ‘character of a British Sailor’, even across different genres, from operettas, burlesques, national-historical dramas, to romances, comedies and farces, had consistent but complex and often contradictory features. Whether a play centred on sea battles, shipwrecks (‘The Tempest’ always a strong influence), pirates, lovers’ torments and quarrels, injustices, or just plain old jolly shindigs and knees-ups, the British sailor’s portrayal involved a distinctive and a grotesque idiom with exaggerated speech, sea-phrases, dress, physique and bearing. These were the nation’s Hearts of Oak, Tars for All Weathers. Their manliness was defined through a brave and virtuous demeanour. They were daring, ‘true’, honest, uncomplaining, faithful and loyal, cheerful, and scorned all dangers and discomforts. It was an idealised representation.

Pencil drawing taken from play bill showing sailors drinking and smoking

British Library, Playbills 276.

Theatres were keen to deliver grand spectacles of nautical entertainment with songs, dancing, hornpipes, fight scenes, wrecks, “real fires”, and mechanics including realistic moving wooden ships (shipwrights from Woolwich helped build props at the Theatre Royal, Deptford). For what varieties there were in the plots, most plays shared moral, xenophobic and racial stereotypes prevalent in British culture and behaviour from the time. Foreigners were cowardly, ‘sissy’; black people were pathetic (to be saved or pitied) or were monstrous and barbaric – a threat to the nation and its women. The plays appealed to spurious sentiment and ‘national enthusiasm’. Two very idiomatic plays ‘Black-Eyed Susan; or All in the Downs’ and ‘Gallant Tom; Or, A Sailor’s Life Ashore & Afloat’ shared many of these ingredients. Douglas Jerrold’s play, Black-Eyed Susan, first performed in 1829 at the Royal Surrey Theatre, was itself based on older popular ballads as well as being almost identical to an older play ‘Thomas and Sally; or the Sailor's return’ (1760). Jerrold’s archetypal nautical melodrama played a record 300 consecutive nights – understandably other theatres were desperate to emulate its success. It is the single most common play from the period, certainly on evidence from the playbills in the collection at the British Library. In the play, William and Susan are married before he goes to sea on a man-of-war. When his ship returns to port, his captain, Crosstree, sees the reunited lovers kiss and is seized with jealousy. A drunk Crosstree later tries his luck with Susan and is struck with a sword by William. Condemned for striking a superior officer he is sentenced to death. In a sign of moral recompense, the Captain provides evidence that William was honourably discharged from the service the very morning of the incident and so is spared as a civilian.

Playbill advertising Black Eyed Susan or All In The Wrong

One of the more unusual playbills for ‘Black-Eyed Susan, or All in the … “Wrong”! from Kidderminster in 1829. British Library, Playbills 291.

The illustrated frontispiece to the Lloyd’s Juvenile Drama edition (1829) of ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ showing a full page illustration of a woman with a fruit decorated hat and a red sash.

The illustrated frontispiece to the Lloyd’s Juvenile Drama edition (1829) of ‘Black-Eyed Susan’. British Library, T.1364.(5.)

Plays of the category of ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ were perpetually popular with the patrons of Britain’s theatres because they have a deal of human nature in them and just a sufficiency of breezy humour, observed a reporter for the Western Daily Press looking back on the period in 1898; “occasionally it lapses into the boisterous it is true, to put all parts of the house in a good temper, and as virtue ever triumphs in the end at the expense of vice there is really little to grumble at.”. 

Masculinity is prominent, but it must be understood that the maritime world was certainly not just a male sphere. Women’s contributions and participation in coastal communities is a vibrant area of current research into port towns and shipboard histories. Mister Jack Tar relied on many a Miss and Mrs: wives, mothers, lovers, service providers, traders; women filled the theatres invested with interest and belonging. Women were not just passive observers of all the tar and muscles on stage; there are instances where they played the very roles themselves. In 1836, the actress Mrs. Vining took up, ”by particular desire”, the role of William on stage at the Victoria Theatre.

Photograph of playbill advertising Black Ey'd Susan

Photograph of playbill advertising Black Ey'd Susan

Later, in 1864 in Melbourne, the Australasian reports that “traditional veneration cherished for the wooden walls of Old England and the honest manly character of the British Sailor” had a special feature in a performance of ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ when ‘Lady Don’ “portrayed the noble qualities and peculiarities of Jack Tar with surprising fidelity as natural as though she had been to the manner born or passed the greater portion of her life on board a man-of-war.”

Illustrated cover of a Penny Dreadful edition of Black Eyed Susan, published in 52 parts in 1868 showing celebrating sailors and a woman pleading.

Illustrated cover of a Penny Dreadful edition of Black Eyed Susan, published in 52 parts in 1868. British Library, C.140.a.19.

One of the reasons why the sailors of nautical melodrama proved so popular was the widespread fascination with their “otherness”, they seemed to be from a different world and provided perfect material for dramatic and theatrical depiction. But this is where there is an intriguing raft of contradictions, something that has been called the ‘Jack Tar Paradox’; these Sons of Neptune were so familiar, yet so strange. They walked funny and talked funny appearing like foreigners in their own country. Their reputation for vice, swearing, drunkenness, and libertinism ran parallel to their reverence as defenders of everything cherished as British. Sailors actually spent longer in port than at sea and the moral anxieties of society followed them very closely. Plenty of ballads and songs tell of sailors spending fast and free when on land. The British Museum insisted on ticketed entry in the early 19th century, one justification for this was to shield its dignified galleries from gallivanting sailors and lady-friends when on shore-leave.

Illustration from playbill showing man holding another man over the edge of a cliff and threatening him as his hat falls into the water.

Playbill for ‘The Lost Ship’ performed in Birmingham in 1852. British Library, Playbills 199.

Playbill advertising Richard Parker Or, The Mutiny at the Nore!

Playbill for ‘Richard Parker; Or, the Mutiny at the Nore. British Library, Playbills 276.

But there are deeper tensions too. Developing class identity amongst Britain’s audiences from industrial communities created empathy, they could relate to the strong camaraderie of sailors and the conditions they endured. Whilst naval victories could be quickly translated into stage plays (several plays immediately followed the infamous British naval victory of the “Glorious first of June” in 1794), audiences also identified with calls for a fair deal and wages for Jack. Jerrold (who had served in the Navy himself), also wrote another popular play ‘Mutiny at the Nore’ which added to the legend and legacy of the 1797 sailors’ revolts popularised in ballads and especially about one of its leaders, Richard Parker. There is a stark class tension between William from the Lower Deck and his Captain. The wooden walls of the sailors were the factories of the Sea; these toilers of the sea safeguarded Britain’s pursuit of trade, influence and wealth. The fact that the nautical genre had by the 1880s descended almost entirely into parody and farce gives some legitimate cause for suspicion that the genre was ‘defused’ and made safe. The blockbusting success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ in 1878 seemed to prepare the decks for Morecambe and Wise (or maybe Eric and Ernie were more the ‘Tars at Torbay; or sailors on Saturday night’?!).

Page from the programme for H.M.S. Pinafore at the Olympic Theatre.

Page from the programme for H.M.S. Pinafore at the Olympic Theatre. British Library.

What did the sailors themselves think of all this? They seem to have revelled in it – all publicity is good publicity! They were keen, often over-keen members of the audience. The large water tank at London’s Saddlers Wells Theatre had to be kept guarded against sailors breaking from the stalls and diving in the tanks to swim about the model ships (the price of admission included a pint of port or punch!). The ‘Theatre Rural’, way out West in Devonport, had a notoriously rowdy audience where stage invasions and heckling was common. Playbills for the theatre began to make special notice that “Constables are in constant attendance to keep good order”. The famous sea songs of Dibdin (a landsmen), contrary to some beliefs, were actually well beloved of many sailors.

Further reading and sources:

Allardyce Nicoll, History of English Drama, 1660-1900, vols 3 and 4,  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2009. Open Access  Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 822.009

James Davey, Singing for the Nation: Balladry, naval recruitment and the language of patriotism in eighteenth-century Britain, The Mariner's Mirror, 2017, 103:1, 43-66.

Elizabeth Christine Spoden, Jack Tar Revealed: Sailors, Their Worldview, and Their World Unpublished PhD Thesis, Indiana University, 2010.

Charles Napier Robinson The British Tar in Fact and Fiction, London, Harper & Bros, 1909.

Oskar Cox Jensen, Napoleon and British song, 1797-1822, New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.340180

Harvey Crane, Playbill: a history of the theatre in the West Country / Harvey Crane. Plymouth : Macdonald and Evans, 1980. Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection X.989/89005

Frederick Burwick, British drama of the Industrial Revolution / Frederick Burwick. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2015.  YC.2015.a.11557

Matthew Kaiser, The World in Play: Portraits of a Victorian Concept. [Part II: Portraits / Fair Play in an Ugly World: The Politics of Nautical Melodrama, pp51-84]

'The British Tar on Stage'. The Theatre : a monthly review of the drama, music and the fine arts, Jan. 1880-June 1894, Jan 1895, Vol.25, pp.24-28

British Bravery, or Tars Triumphant: Images of the British Navy in Nautical Melodrama. New Theatre Quarterly, 1988 May, Vol.4(14), pp.122-43 [Peer Reviewed Journal]