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19 May 2023

Andrew Salkey Archive – Mapping the Caribbean Diaspora through Letters

Natalie Lucy talks about their project mapping the Caribbean Diaspora through the letters of Andrew Salkey. 

I am a PhD student at UCL. I started a part-time placement at the British Library in September which finished at the end of February. I was supervised by Eleanor Casson, who, until recently, was working on the Andrew Salkey archive and Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator. The aim of the project was to map the Caribbean diaspora through the correspondence of the writer, broadcaster and poet Andrew Salkey. Well-known both as a meticulous chronicler and a prolific correspondent, the many fascinating and frequently poignant, letters in Salkey’s extensive archive reflect a network of Caribbean writers and academics for whom Salkey served not only as something of a nexus but also as a facilitator in their careers. More importantly, though, the correspondence shows the movement of these writers within a wider context of the diaspora, a feature which we have visually presented through the digital applications, Gephi and Kepler.    

Why did I apply for this project?

My thesis explores the way that the trickster character, Anancy, has historically been reinvented, primarily at key political points, to say something about heritage and identity and how he emerges in the literature of British writers and artists, particularly those with Caribbean heritage. A significant part of my research concerns the ways that Anancy was appropriated in the writing of the Caribbean Arts Movement, a dynamic group of artists and writers formed in London in the mid-1960s. Andrew Salkey was one of the three founders of CAM, along with John La Rose and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. He had been in London since the early 1950s and had already demonstrated his potential influence as something of an ‘enabler’, both through his immense generosity towards his fellow writers and his connections both within the writing world and at the BBC. The project offered an exciting opportunity. Not only would I be able to access Andrew Salkey’s archive, which would undoubtedly enhance my research, but the project had the potential to explore the dynamics between the writers and to bring to life something of the networks, which were so key to the establishment of a literary and cultural foundation.

What are Gephi and Kepler?

Gephi is an open graph visualization platform. It has been used in a variety of projects, to illustrate both social networks, which are evidenced within correspondence, and historical patterns of movement.  In these projects, Gephi has been used as a way to make data more accessible and, by visually animating it, more engaging.

Salkey network
Static visualisation of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files, using Gephi Visualisation Platform. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

Kepler is an open source geospatial analysis tool, which was originally created by Uber to map Uber drivers around the world. This offered a useful application through which to map the movement of the Caribbean writers in Salkey’s correspondence during key periods. 

Kepler visualisation
Static visualisation of the movement of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files using Kepler. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

Gathering the Data

The first stage of the project was to acquire the data that would ultimately be used in the visual map of the diaspora. Salkey was a meticulous archivist, retaining a significant quantity of the letters he received; he was also a diligent and attentive correspondent. Salkey’s friends were prominent Caribbean writers and publishers and Salkey’s archive contains the letters of Samuel Selvon, his distinctive language reminiscent of his groundbreaking novel The Lonely Londoners, George Lamming and Jan Carew.

A selection of letters from Sam Selvon to Andrew Salkey, Add MS 89377/7/54. Credit: CC-BY Samuel Selvon Estate

The initial data was limited to the date and location of the correspondence, information that could suggest the patterns of movement within the diaspora. The idea was that it would provide a framework with which to start to explore the potential of the project. 

The letters were so rich in detail, however, that other information was also recorded. I was able to note when correspondents mentioned other countries that they were planning to visit or when they spoke about other writers within the network. This provided an additional layer of information, which helped to broaden the analysis of the Caribbean diasporic network, linking people with each other as well as with Salkey.

Static visualisation of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files with biographical information. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

One of the recurring themes of the letters was the evident impact that these writers had on each other, not only as a network through which to promote their work, but also to seek some form of solidarity. In numerous letters, Andrew Salkey is asked for advice or practical assistance. Sometimes this is a request for a review of their work, or a recommendation for a lecturing post, or his opinion on a piece of writing. Further clues are revealed by the fact that some of the letters also contain Salkey’s additional notes, handwritten in the margin or a penned tick beside a request.

What did I Learn?

In addition to the fascinating insight into the important work that the British Library does, I have discovered something about Andrew Salkey himself.  What evolve within the letters are essentially a series of stories of friendships, between remarkable writers and artists. Sometimes, the extent of appreciation for Salkey’s generosity in helping so many other writers and friends can also be glimpsed within the, frequently poetical, words on the page. Samuel Selvon’s letters to Salkey are habitually humorous, but occasionally he steps outside his mocking, affectionate style, and says something that is profoundly moving. In one letter to Salkey on 15 March 1975,  he writes: ‘you have a great gift, Andrew, so great, that even with those few words, and my inability to express myself as you do, you will understand and appreciate what I am trying to say. That is the quintessence of your genius - that behind the ballad and the episode that other human beings will laugh kiff-kiff at and enjoy you can see with the inner eye and analyse with the unique power that God gave you.'

A letter written by Sam Selvon to Andrew Salkey 15th March 1975, from Add MS 89377/7/54. Credit: CC-BY Samuel Selvon Estate

Natalie Lucy was a PhD placement at the British Library from September 2022 until February 2023. In this blog, Natalie explains her interest in the project, development of the project through the content of the correspondence, as well as what she learned from the placement. This blog is linked with another post on the Digital Scholarship Blog, which gives more detail on the digital visualisation applications used for this project.

Linked Blog:

Mapping Caribbean Diasporic Networks through the Correspondence of Andrew Salkey

12 May 2023

The William Maskell Chapbook Collection

In 2022, the British Library received a selection of rare books and manuscripts from the Honresfield Library, originally collected by industrialist William Law (1836–1901). This collection was purchased by the Friends of the National Libraries and shared across a number of UK institutions. The Honresfield Library contains several items of significant historical and literary importance.

Title-page of The life and death of Jenny Wren, illustrated with a woodcut depicting a bird and young girl reading from a book to a woman. The image has been very crudely coloured in blue and there is a type error on the imprint.
The life and death of Jenny Wren, for the use of young ladies and gentlemen, Hon.129.(12) Many chapbooks were decorated with simple woodcuts, sometimes coloured, either by the seller or the owner.

Among the items that were allocated to the British Library are a collection of curiously small volumes in uniform brown watered silk bindings with green spine labels betraying their contents: “Chap Books”. This collection comprises of 764 individual pamphlets, bound together in seventy parts. The volumes are numbered on their spines, and suggest three distinct series: 1-48, 1-19, and four un-numbered. This division is reflected, and expounded, in the 1891 Sotheby sales catalogue listing them:

“48. Chap Books. A collection of numerous small popular work for children, with woodcuts arranged in 20 vol. uncut, v. y. – An extensive collection of chap-books, garlands, children’s books, &c. with woodcuts arranged in 49 vol. 12mo, uncut, v.y. – Manuscript catalogues of both series by W. Maskell. 70 vol.”[1]

Comparing the current British Library holdings with the 1891 catalogue entry reveals a few discrepancies. Notably, one volume is missing from each numbered series: neither no. 49 nor no. 20 feature in the present British Library holdings. Furthermore, the remaining four unnumbered volumes are not accounted for here. However, item 49 in the sales catalogue includes a further eight volumes of “Chap and Toy Books”, sold to Maggs, which may suggest the origin of these additional four volumes.

The Sotheby entry also mentions a manuscript catalogue, which is dated 1872 and survives in the present collection. It further introduces us to the original compiler of the collection, the Rev. William Maskell (1814?-1890). Maskell was a liturgical scholar and collector who was in the habit of building up collections of books and works of art and selling them to public institutions[2]. The British Museum Library acquired a large number of liturgical works from Maskell within his lifetime, with a major portion of his collection being sold to the Museum for £2,240 in 1847[3]. However, these chapbooks remained in Maskell’s private collection until his death in 1890 and were sold by Sotheby in the following year. Contemporary annotations in the sales catalogue suggest the volumes were purchased at auction by Bain (possibly the London booksellers James Bain) and were likely acquired by William Law not long after this.

A two-page spread opening of a hand-written catalogue containing entries of chapbooks, belonging to William Maskell.
Manuscript catalogue of chapbooks, children's books, garlands; &c. &c., Hon.112.(1) William Maskell kept a detailed manuscript catalogue of his chapbook collection. The catalogue is organised alphabetically, with entries relating to the numbers which can be found on the spines of the bound volumes. For each entry, Maskell provides the volume number, short title, format, place and year of publication (where available).

The sales catalogue also attests to the impressive scale of the collection: “so complete a collection of chap-books would occupy many years even if possible to procure them in the different towns of England and Scotland in which they were printed.” The collection represents examples of printing from 53 different towns and cities in England, Scotland and Ireland, spanning c.1770-1865. These imprints include the names of printers whose body of work is largely absent from research library catalogues.

Title-page of The misfortunes of a bad boy, with a decorated border, small woodcut illustration depicted the eponymous bad boy and an imprint of Alnick, W. Davison. Not dated.
The misfortunes of a bad boy, Hon.134.(5) Some chapmen, such as W. Davison of Alnwick, produced multiple series of popular tales to be collected. This printing of The misfortunes of a bad boy was no. 21 in a series of halfpenny chapbooks produced by Davison in the early 19th century.

The collection also varies enormously in the nature of its content. ‘Chapbook’ is an infamously slippery term used to describe abridgements, alphabets, ballads, cries, dreadfuls, fables, garlands, histories, rhymes, songsters and morals, among other things. Their physical appearance and cheap, sometimes crude, production are also defining marks. Chapbooks of this period were often illustrated with woodcut blocks, which were typically re-used across publications, sometimes even being shared by different printers[4]. The indeterminate status of the chapbook is well illustrated by the sheer variety of size, shape, theme, and tone of the pamphlets represented in Maskell’s collection. Most of the collection is in remarkably pristine condition, with only a small selection bearing markings of former owners[5]. Some volumes include pencil inscriptions, possibly by William Law, generally commenting on their contents. In addition, there is one chapbook titled, A pleasant and delightful dialogue between honest John and loving Kate. Part the first.” (1791) which has been loosely inserted alongside a copy of the second part of the same story[6]. This title does not appear in the 1872 manuscript catalogue.

Title-page of The wonderful advantages of drunkenness, with a small woodcut illustration and an imprint of Paisley, 1823.
The wonderful advantages of drunkenness; to which is added, Protest against whisky, Hon.163.(11) Chapbooks were produced on various subjects, from popular children’s tales, to more serious moral works. This early 19th century Scottish chapbook was a pamphlet decrying the dangers of excessive drinking.

The Maskell collection provides a useful resource for study into the production of British and Irish chapbooks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is also an interesting example of chapbooks being collected, rather than used, and provides the opportunity for further study of Maskell and Law as collectors of cheap printed materials. This collection complements substantial holdings of chapbooks and cheap print already in the British Library collections. The Maskell collection has been fully catalogued online and can be found within shelfmark range Hon.112.(1) - Hon.183.(14).


[1] Sotheby’s, Sales Catalogue for the Late William Maskell, 26 February 1891.

[2] de Ricci, S.M.R.R., English Collectors of Books and Manuscripts 1530-1930 and Their Marks of Ownership, 1930, p.143.

[3] Harris, P. R. “The development of the collections of the Department of Printed Books, 1846-1875.” The British Library Journal 10, no. 2 (1984): 114–46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42554204.

[4] Dutta, A., Bergel, G., and Zisserman, A., ‘Visual Analysis of Chapbooks Printed in Scotland’. In The 6th International Workshop on Historical Document Imaging and Processing (HIP '21). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, (2021) 67–72.  https://doi.org/10.1145/3476887.3476893

[5] See Hon.119.(2), Hon.121.(8), Hon.124.(4), Hon.129.(5), Hon.129.(11), Hon.129.(12), Hon.138.(4), Hon.138.(5), Hon.140.(6) and Hon.169.(6).

[6] See Hon.156.(6).

05 May 2023

Randall Couch's 'Peal' and other literary bells

This weekend, bells in towers up and down the country will be ringing to mark the Coronation of King Charles III. Since the Coronation was announced there has been a concerted effort, ‘the ‘Ring for the King’ campaign, aimed at recruiting new ringers to learn the fascinating and absorbing hobby of change ringing and join the celebrations.

The art of change-ringing – the ringing of tower bells in mathematical patterns known as methods – originated in 17th-century England and, although practised in other countries today, remains a primarily English phenomenon. As such, it is perhaps strange that it is so little reflected in English literature. While poets such as Tennyson in ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’ or A.E. Housman in ‘On Bredon Hill’ no doubt had the sound of change-ringing in mind, their work does not evoke or describe its specific patterns, although George Butterworth’s musical setting of ‘On Bredon Hill’ does capture it to some extent. Bells are a regular theme in the poetry of John Betjeman, who comes closer to reflecting change-ringing specifically and in one poem, ‘Bristol’, even speaks of ‘the mathematic pattern of a plain course on the bells’. In his Collected Works the pattern is printed below the poem.

John Betjeman’s poem ‘Bristol’ with  the pattern of a bell ringing method printed at the end
Bells Betjeman X.989-6365. Caption: ‘Bristol’, from John Betjeman’s Collected Poems. 3rd ed. (London, 1970) X.989/6365.

The most famous literary bells in fiction are probably those in Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective novel, The Nine Tailors . Crime writers seem to have an affinity with ringing – it features in two of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin books and an episode of the long running TV series Midsomer Murders – but Sayers’ novel captures it most (if not entirely) accurately, and ingeniously uses the pattern of a ringing method as the basis of a cipher that is a key to the mystery.

A recent British Library acquisition uses ringing methods in an equally ingenious and intriguing – though very different – way. The American author, poet and critic Randall Couch, like Sayers, was fascinated by this ‘tradition of algorithmic composition’ and the result was the unusual and beautiful book Peal (RF.2021.a.5), published in an edition of 300 copies by the Tipperary-based Coracle Press in 2017.

Couch uses the construction of various ringing methods to play with English syntax. The books starts with a ‘Cento’, a poem composed from other writers’ lines. The lines Couch uses, chosen from a wide range of literary, philosophical, musicological and scientific sources, almost all relate in some way to bells, numbers, pattern, syntax or melody. He then turns each line into a ringing method by moving the words as the bells move in the chosen method, creating juxtapositions that range from the poetical to the nonsensical. In keeping with the conventions of writing out ringing methods, the path of the last word in the original line, corresponding with the heaviest working bell in the method, is printed in blue, and the first word, corresponding to the lightest bell (the treble, which may follow a different pattern to the other bells) is printed in red.

Here’s a simple example, using the line ‘Every text is a cento’ from French linguist François Rastier’s Meaning and Textuality. The method is Plain Hunt on five bells, the same as the ‘plain course’ quoted in Betjeman’s ‘Bristol’, although Couch better follows convention by writing the rows out in horizontal rows rather than vertical columns.

Sentence ‘Every text is a cento’ written in the pattern of Plain Hunt on Five Bells
Plain Hunt on Five Bells from Randall Couch’s Peal, (RF.2021.a.5). Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

For a work that plays with ideas of syntax and meaning, an obvious line for Couch’s cento is Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical sentence, ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’. Couch turns this into a plain course of Grandsire Doubles ‘Grandsire’ is the name of the method, and ‘Doubles’ means it is being rung on five bells. (You can read more about how methods are named here.)

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’ written in the pattern of Grandsire Doubles
Grandsire Doubles from Randall Couch’s Peal. Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

While Plain Hunt and Grandsire are among the easiest methods and the first that ringers tend to learn, Couch also uses more complex ones which he says were ‘chosen with an eye to the associations created by juxtaposing their names with the corresponding opening lines.’ Here is a line from a work by the earliest writers on change-ringing, John Duckworth and Fabian Stedman, set to a course of London Delight Bob Triples.

‘And every bell is a Wit’s Common-wealth’ written in the pattern of London Delight Bob Triples
London Delight from Randall Couch’s Peal. Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

Couch also includes the method that bears Stedman’s name with a quotation from Gertrude Stein, ‘Money is what words are.’ Among the less familiar methods he uses are Bobby Dazzler Little Alliance Major (to Alan Turing’s words ‘Machines take me by surprise with great frequency’), Titanic Triples (John Cage’s ‘Every something is an echo of nothing’) and some with deliberately amusing names such as Ursa Minor (poet John Cleveland’s ‘I like not tears in tune’).

Couch’s cento and its variations may not have the instantly catchy appeal of Tennyson’s, Housman’s or Betjeman’s poems, but they are a unique and fascinating reflection on the structures of both change-ringing methods and the English language itself, with a lasting appeal for anyone with an interest in either.

27 April 2023

Jane Austen and the Georgian Social Whirl of Bath

Running now for its second year, the British Library and National Trust have collaboratively designed a doctoral fellowship programme which aims to examine the connections between each organisation’s collections. Starting in January 2023, I have had the pleasure of taking the role of Doctoral Fellow on a project which examines the importance of public entertainment spaces, such as Bath’s Assembly Rooms, within Georgian society. The project’s primary aim has been to analyse literature and other paper-based ephemera, found in the British Library and National Trust’s extensive catalogues, in order to gain insight into Austen’s society and, more widely, social life in Bath.

During the eighteenth century, Bath was a place for both the fashionable and the infirm, a city which enticed people for both their healing waters and lavish entertainments. Bath became synonymous with entertainment. Whilst there was an abundance of scheduled entertainments such as plays, balls and musical concerts, the biggest entertainment of all was that of the spa town’s social theatre.

Whether you believe that Austen liked or loathed Bath, the city most certainly had an impact on her life and writings. In fact, there isn’t a single one of Austen’s six major novels which does not mention Bath in some capacity, whether by using the city as the main theatrical stage for Northanger Abbey (1817), or a brief mention of Mr Wickham ‘enjoy[ing] himself in London or Bath’ in Pride and Prejudice (1813). The city features most prominently in Austen’s posthumously published novels, Persuasion (1817) and Northanger Abbey. The treatment of Bath within these texts receives two opposing perspectives: one of wonder and excitement of a small-town girl going to the “Big City” in Northanger Abbey, contrasted with the view of Bath as a faded metropolis, a place in which Anne Elliot rather reluctantly goes to join her family in Persuasion.

Whilst the city attracted fashionable society, this very social class became a prime target for criticism and ridicule, as seen in satirical prints of the period. Found within the British Library collection is an 1858 bound book which includes a series of satirical prints by Thomas Rowlandson titled, The Comforts of Bath, first published in 1798. The twelve-plate series depicts different entertainments within the city, including both a concert and dancing, waters being drunk at the Pump Room, and public gaming.

Nineteenth-century black and white print depicting a large ball room with high ceilings and chandeliers. Figures are seen both dancing and in seated positions. Accompanying text is visible at the bottom of the page.
Christopher Anstey, plate ten from The Comforts of Bath. Designed and etched by Rowlandson, with versification by Christopher Anstey, Esq, 1858. British Library, shelfmark 1267.f.21.

Accompanying each print is an extract from Christopher Anstey’s New Bath Guide, first published in 1766. The title of Anstey’s work is fairly misleading. Instead of an instructional piece recommending the latest and most fashionable of Bath’s hotspots, the publication is written in a series of satirical, anapaestic poems, following the lives of the fictional Blunderhead family. In fact, it’s not really a guidebook at all. Here, the combining of both text and print merges the visual and textual, presenting two very similar satiric critiques of Georgian Bath society.

The title page of Christopher Anstey's The New Bath Guide, depicting full title and publisher details.
Christopher Anstey, The new Bath guide: or Memoirs of the B-r--d family. In a series of poetical epistles.1766. British Library, shelfmark 11633.c.5.

Looking closely at plate ten of Rowlandson’s The Comforts of Bath, we can see a multitude of activity happening in this concert setting. Whilst there are audience members intently watching the performance, many can be seen having conversations between themselves, staring off into the distance, fidgeting, and even having a light snooze. The role of the audience in Georgian entertainment spaces was vastly different to what we experience today. Whilst we are instructed to turn off the distractions that are mobile phones, and talking through movies is often met with a passive aggressive “shush”, eighteenth-century entertainment etiquette was a little different. Speaking of the experience of the theatregoer, Jim Davis states, ‘[r]efreshments, discussion of the performance in progress, casual conversation, a little ogling and flirting, were all part of the experience’ (Davis, p.520).

Nineteenth-century black and white print depicting a concert in an ornate, Georgian style hall. Orchestra and singer are visible, performing to a tightly packed audience. Accompanying text is visible at the bottom of the page.
Christopher Anstey, plate two from The Comforts of Bath. 1858. British Library, shelfmark 1267.f.21.

The role of the audience member, or spectator, was a topic which many artists like Rowlandson adopted in their work. Found within the British Library collection, George Cruikshank’s Pit, Boxes & Gallery, published in 1834, illustrates a lively theatre audience split across three levels. Like Rowlandson’s The Concert, the print shows a variety of comic characters, all engaged in an array of activities, from conversing and drinking to fighting for space in the upper gallery.

Colourful print of a tightly packed entertainment space, split into the pit, boxes and gallery space.
George Cruikshank, Pit boxes & Gallery, from My Sketch Book, 1834, British Library, shelfmark C.59.d.5.

This visualisation of spectatorship, created by artists such as Cruikshank and Rowlandson, often portrays an audience whose full attention is rarely directed at the entertainment in question (Davis, p.520). Consequently, the audience are presented as active spectators as opposed to passive ones, playing a vital role within the experience of Georgian entertainments. This active participation of the audience is therefore instrumental to what we consider Georgian entertainment. It is not just the physical activity of dancing, acting or singing which creates entertainment, but the individuals who both watch and participate in not just the concert halls but also the social theatre of Bath. For is the spa town itself not simply a dramatic stage for the wealthy and fashionable to “perform” their celebrity? Bath therefore acted as a stage which facilitated the gossipy tête-à-têtes of the fashionable elite.

The theatre and concert halls were not the only spaces which society performed spectatorship; the Pump Rooms were a place which people frequented in order to see and be seen. In chapter three of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the narrator describes the daily rituals of Bath life:

"Every morning now brought its regular duties – shops were to be visited; some new part of the town to be looked at; and the pump-room to be attended, where they paraded up and down for an hour, looking at everybody and speaking to no one." (Northanger Abbey, p.25).

Austen paints a picture of a society which, as Kathryn Sutherland states, is ‘continually watching’.  The Pump Room was not only a place for healing, where curative waters would be taken for those in ill-health, but also a space to be seen performing your correct, societal role. The presentation of oneself within society was also visible through newspaper announcements, evident in Austen’s Persuasion where the arrival of the Elliot’s wealthy cousins, the Dalrymples, are announced in the paper:

"The Bath paper one morning announced the arrival of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, […] for the Dalrymples (in Anne’s opinion, most unfortunately) were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was how to introduce themselves properly." (Persuasion, p.139).

Seen in both extracts, Austen not only exposes this societal “peacocking”, but also subtly hints at the absurdity of social formalities, for if agony is caused in trying to talk to one’s own relations, it must be near impossible to socialise with anyone else.  

Taking part in the social display of oneself within these public environments, both created and fed into a culture of gossip. To be spoken about, to be known, to have a respected reputation, were all a means to tap into the benefits of the celebrity culture of the time. For in Georgian Bath, gossip was the ultimate form of entertainment. Similar to the role of audiences, gossip was about active and passive spectatorship. Whilst the trading of gossip provided plenty of entertainment for consumption, members of these social classes also stared as the entertainers themselves, both being the subjects of such gossip and through their social appearance on this “stage”. This gossip culture is also an intrinsic feature of Austen’s writings. Catherine Morland’s naivety in Northanger Abbey is apparent when she struggles to know whose gossip to listen to, or in the case of John Thorpe, his lies and trickery. In a bid to thwart Catherine’s plans with the well-mannered Henry and Eleanor Tilney, John spreads misinformation of the Tilney’s whereabouts in order to secure Catherine’s time for himself.

Thus, Bath was a town of both active and passive entertainment. Bath’s amusements existed on the stage and in the audiences of plays and concerts, but also in equal measure in social spaces such as the Pump Room and tea rooms. People delighted in the scripted entertainments of the stage and ballroom, as well as taking part in the unscripted social theatre. Thus, public entertainment spaces in Bath were vital for the facilitation of not only scheduled entertainment but also the social displays of wealth and importance. It would therefore be remiss to define Bath’s public entertainment spaces as simply the sites of formal activities. The popular resort town functioned as a theatrical backdrop for the social circus that was the Georgian elite, ultimately providing a fashionable space to see and be seen.

By Joanne Edwards, Doctoral Fellow with the British Library and National Trust.



Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)

Austen, Jane, Persuasion, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)

Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)

Austen, Jane, Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Davis, Jim, ‘Looking and Being Looked At’, Theatre Journal, 2017, 69. 4, pp. 515-53

Sutherland, Kathryn, ‘Jane Austen and social judgement’, Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, <www.bl.uk>

26 April 2023

In Memory of Murray Melvin

We were very saddened last week to learn of the death of the actor, director and archivist, Murray Melvin (1932-2023) on the 14th April. Murray had a long association with the Library over a number of years and we were always grateful to him for sharing his knowledge and reminiscences with us, as well as being such good company. With that in mind we would like to celebrate Murray’s life and work today and in particular to highlight the way in which he worked to create and preserve the archive of the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Murray had a long and distinguished career including time spent in the theatre company, Theatre Workshop, under the visionary director, Joan Littlewood. Murray joined the company in 1957, as a student and ASM (Assistant Stage Manager…or ‘dogsbody’ as Murray called himself). He went on to play Geoffrey in A Taste of Honey (both on stage and film), and acted in other significant Littlewood productions The Hostage, The Quare Fellow and Oh! What a Lovely War. His later career included films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Alfie with Michael Caine, and appearances in television series including Torchwood and The Avengers.

Photo depicts Murray Melvin standing in front of a van. He is looking at the camera with a wry smile and his arms folded
Murray Melvin supervising the Theatre Workshop Archive being transported by van to the British Library in 2020. Photo with kind permission of Karen Fisher

Theatre Workshop remained important to Murray for the rest of his life and he was particularly concerned about the legacy of the company and its director, Joan Littlewood. Littlewood’s company had developed out of agit-prop theatre in the 1930s, formalised itself as Theatre Workshop in 1945 before settling permanently in Stratford in 1953. As well as preserving this history, Murray also cared a great deal about the history of the Theatre Royal building and of its location in Stratford, East London, and what the theatre symbolised and meant to the local community. 

Over the course of thirty years, Murray set about gathering archive material that was already held at Theatre Royal bringing it together in Littlewood’s own office and re-housing and listing it.

But he didn’t stop there. Melvin also used his extensive contacts, and an advert in the paper, to encourage others with relevant material to consider donating it to him at the theatre. It is a fitting tribute to the love and trust that people placed in Murray that so many were willing to do so.

The archive that Melvin created is remarkable—from the history of the building in the late 19th century, to a record of every production all the way to 2017.

Photo shows the Theatre Workshop Archive arranged on shelves onsite at the British Library, it is arranged neatly in flat blue boxes
The Theatre Workshop Archive in its new home at the British Library

In 2020, the Theatre Workshop Archive was donated to the Library with the support of Murray, the theatre and its trustees. It was a great source of pleasure and pride to Murray that the archive should come to the Library and it is a generous gift that the Library is incredibly grateful for.

The archive joins Joan Littlewood’s personal archive, which was acquired in 2015 from her estate. Together these archives contain over 1000 files and offer an unparalleled insight into Theatre Workshop and the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Murray Melvin was one of those people that it was always a pleasure to work with. His dedication as the archivist of the Theatre Workshop Archive was tireless, but it was also joyful and captivating. He not only brought together the archive but it clearly gave him great pleasure to see others using it and he was always ready to tell a rich and colourful story on any aspect that caught interest, as well as assist curators and colleagues at the British Library in any query they might have. We will miss him greatly and always remember him fondly.

In 2022, Murray began recording a Life Story with the British Library. This complete oral history of his life began from his earliest years, through the course of his life and career, and, at the point of the last recording reached over eleven hours. It will no doubt be another great resource for researchers wishing to know more about Murray’s life and work and 20th century British theatre more widely.

31 March 2023

Edgar Mittelholzer’s Life in Guyana

A collection of correspondence, poems and booklets from the writer, Edgar Mittelholzer, to his friend, Ruth Windebank, have recently been catalogued and made available to researchers in the British Library reading rooms.

Edgar Mittelholzer was one of the earliest professional English-language novelists from the Caribbean and is widely considered to be one of the most prominent, having been among the first to gain a significant European readership.

Born in New Amsterdam, British Guyana in 1909, Mittelholzer was prolific, writing more than twenty novels over the course of his life. His work ranges in setting from the earliest period of European settlement to the then-present day, and are known for dealing with complex matters of psychological and moral interest as well as the historical and political, such as relations between ethnic groups and social classes, reflecting his own experiences in a middle-class colonial environment.

The archive, now catalogued among our Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts collections, contains 31 letters, 12 poems and 2 pamphlets, mostly dated between 1941 and 1943, and offering insight into his personal life and consequently his writing. The majority of the letters are from Mittelholzer to his friend, Ruth Windebank (nee Wilkinson), whose daughter donated the archive to the Library.

Image shows letters spread in a fan shape on a wooden table
A selection of letters from the Edgar Mittelholzer Correspondence to Ruth Windebank, Add MS 89653. Credit: CC-BY Estate of Edgar Mittelholzer

Mittelholzer’s close relationship with Ruth - affectionately referred to in the letters as ‘Ruthie’- is such that his correspondence to her provides particularly candid accounts of his personal experiences, with honest descriptions of matters as everyday as his eating habits to his deeper thoughts and feelings, such as his outlook on love.

In reading these letters, usually signed off with his nickname ‘Barno’, you accompany Mittelholzer through the early 1940s. He discusses his life, work and relationships in Georgetown, Guyana after the self-publishing of his first novel Creole Chips in 1937 and awaiting the publishing of Corentyne Thunder. He writes about his decision to join the Trinidad Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve (TRVNR) and his service, with letters from his time aboard the ‘Hellene' and HMS Benbow; he continues to write as he settles in Trinidad, discussing his first marriage and the birth of his eldest daughter.

A typed letter on lined paper starting 'Hullo Ruthie!'
A letter written by Edgar Mittelholzer to Ruth Windebank, 27th April 1943, from Add MS 89653. Credit: CC-BY Estate of Edgar Mittelholzer

Poems accompany many of the letters, with 12 in total in this archive, most of which appear to be otherwise unpublished.  Some are written with Ruth or others in mind and certain lines are marked out for their intended recipients. Many have parallels with the letters, for example: conflict only briefly described during his time in the TRVNR is revisited in Mazaruni Rocks, Afternoon Reflections and Death in Prospect. Here, thoughts he alludes to in conversation are explored fully in his art.

‘Ruthie’ and ‘Barno’ had lost contact by the mid-1940s but in the last letter in the archive, dated 15th June 1962 the two have reconnected after 21 years. Mittelholzer writes from Farnham, in Surrey, where he would go on to spend the remainder of his life. The daughter he welcomed in his previous letters is now 19 and he also describes his other children and recent remarriage. Mittelholzer had just completed his novels The Aloneness of Mrs Chatham and The Wounded and The Worried and was awaiting the publishing of his autobiographical A Swarthy Boy.

This archive provides a small window into Mittelholzer’s inner world and into the difficulties that thematically underpin much of his published work. It also includes a selection of typescripts of poems including Afternoon reflections, Mazaruni Rocks, and Just Between Us, which has handwritten annotations.

Sadly, in May 1965, Mittelholzer took his own life by setting himself on fire, three years after the final letter in the archive. Mittelholzer’s end was foretold in his final posthumous novel, where the main character meets the same fate.

This quote from a letter Mittelholzer sent to Ruth on 15th May 1941 sums up his life reflected in the letters:

‘But life is so complicated that I just wonder where I’m going to end up. If you told me tomorrow that I’d be a millionaire in the evening I wouldn’t doubt you. Or if you told me that I’d be dining with the Governor or with an East Indian beggar in Albouystown this evening I wouldn’t doubt you, either.’

A typed letter from Edgar to Ruthie
A letter written by Edgar Mittelholzer to Ruth Windebank, 13th May 1941, from Add MS 89653. Credit: CC-BY Edgar Mittelholzer


By Megan Richardson, Library Information and Archive Service Apprentice (LIAS) and cataloguer of the Edgar Mittelholzer correspondence. 


Further reading

Edgar Mittelholzer Correspondence to Ruth Windebank – Add MS 89653

Louis James, ‘Mittelholzer, Edgar Austin’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online) Accessed 25 February 2023: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/69688

James Ferguson ‘Edgar Mittelholzer: the Dark One’, CarribeanBeat, (2009) Accessed 29 March 2023: Edgar Mittelholzer: the Dark One | Caribbean Beat Magazine (caribbean-beat.com)

17 March 2023

Fairy tales and creative campaigns

by Gwen Morris, Digital Learning Administrator, the British Library Learning team. 

In this post, Gwen reflects on her role and her work on our digital campaigns for primary schools. These creative campaigns aim to spark love of reading, writing and drawing, in response to the treasures on our Discovering Children’s Books website. Our current campaign (running until 28 March 2023) invites children to cook up their own fairy tales with tips from Michael Rosen, Sandra Agard and other brilliant storytellers. Schools from across the UK are making little books and filling them with their own stories, inspired by tales of the past.

What’s a typical day for you as the Digital Learning Administrator?

My role as Digital Learning Administrator is varied and fulfilling. I especially enjoy collaborating with my colleagues to provide teachers and students with exciting online learning resources.

My day often begins with a team meeting to discuss our digital campaigns. These range from making miniature books to ‘Step inside your story’, which puts young writers at the heart of their own tales and proves that everyone can be an author. Our meetings are a great opportunity for me to learn from my colleagues’ points of view as we share ideas for our campaigns.

CUYOFT image 22
Michael Rosen created a film revealing what makes fairy tales special, with brilliant animations by Allen Fatimaharan
CUYOFT-cinderella fairy-new
Cinderella’s fairy godmother turns lizards into footmen. Shelfmark: 12410.r.5. Title: Cinderella, retold by C S Evans and illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1919). Public Domain.

Once we’ve decided on a theme and an activity, our next step is to spread the word to schools across the UK. It’s my job to send out emails to our target schools and to keep track of which schools have signed up. Our Outreach campaigns are designed to support schools in low socio-economic areas, so I do a lot of research to make sure that we’re contacting those most in need of our support.

As a member of the Digital Learning Team, I also help with the process of building webpages so that our resources are accessible online to anyone who wants to use them. Although I had some experience in creating digital content before starting in this role, I’m glad I’ve been able to receive training in this area as it’s helped me grow in confidence whilst learning different strategies for improving SEO. Since completing the training, I’ve enjoyed putting these strategies into practice on our Learning website.

This Roma story by Richard O’Neill is one of the stories featured in our fairy tales project. It depicts the Parno Gry, a magical horse who takes children to wonderful faraway places. Shelfmark: LC.31.a.20058. Title: Yokki and the Parno Gry (2016). Reproduced by kind permission of Child's Play (International) Ltd. Text copyright © 2016 Richard O’Neill and Katharine Quarmby. Illustrations copyright © 2016 Child's Play (International) Ltd. First published 2016 by Child's Play. All rights reserved. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Do you have a favourite digitised collection item from Discovering Children’s Books?

I absolutely love looking through Quentin Blake’s rough sketches of Matilda. Matilda was my favourite book growing up and these sketches bring back lovely memories of laughing at Matilda’s antics with my family.

DCB interviews
Discovering Children’s Books features interviews with authors and illustrators including Quentin Blake, Jacqueline Wilson, Zanib Mian, Joseph Coelho and Julia Donaldson.

What’s your favourite part of your job?

One of the most wonderful things is seeing the fantastic stories we receive from schools and families across the UK. When a campaign is launched, we ask teachers, parents and guardians to send us photos of the children’s work and I’m always amazed by the quality of submissions. There’s nothing better than opening my inbox to find stories about time-travelling cats and magic shoes!

Overall, it’s been a joy to take on this role at the British Library.

Millbrook Park Primary  Mill Hill 1
Fairy tales © Millbrook Primary School, Mill Hill.
St George's C of E Primary  Barrow-in-Furness 1 (1)
Step inside your story entries © St George’s Church of England Primary School, Barrow-in-Furness.

To learn more about our online learning resources, visit Discovering Children's Books, Discovering Literature and Windrush Stories – or explore our full offer.

10 March 2023

Call for Papers for 'Ted Hughes’ Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity'

We are delighted to announce that the British Library will host a symposium on Ted Hughes and Expressionism in collaboration with Dr Steve Ely, Director of the Ted Hughes Network at the University of Huddersfield.

Black and white photograph of Ted Hughes, with a close up on his face. Taken by Fay Godwin
Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin © British Library Board

This symposium is designed to explore and investigate the claim that Hughes’s most characteristic, distinctive, and innovative work—wherein lies the weight of his claim to be regarded as a major poet and an internationally significant artist—is essentially Expressionist, characterised by a rejection of objectivity in representation in favour of a Visionary Subjectivity that draws on inner life and imagination to transform and distort content, deploying abstraction, typologies and symbols to shape presentations in an essentially didactic manner.

Hughes’s Expressionist mode manifests throughout his oeuvre and includes many of his most celebrated poems and books, including ‘Wind’, ‘Mayday on Holderness’, ‘Thrushes’, ‘Pike’, Wodwo, Crow, Cave Birds, Gaudete, Remains of Elmet and Capriccio.  Many of his plays and short stories—'Difficulties of a Bridegroom’, ‘The Wound’, ‘The Head’—are similarly Expressionist, having particular affinities with German Expressionism. Of course, not all Hughes’s work is Expressionist by any means, and across his career he produced celebrated poetry that seems to represent a more objective—Naturalist, Realist—response to experience, in works including Season Songs, Moortown Diaries, River and Birthday Letters, for example. 

Focusing on Hughes’s art, method and technique in this way invites approaches to his work that go beyond the Anglophone literary-historical tradition and discuss his work in the context of European and international artists and movements in the arts—visual, dramatic and musical as well as literary—looking at affinity, influence and collaboration: one thinks immediately of Hughes’s work with, and advocacy of, innovative, experimental and avant-garde artists in the Expressionist tradition, including the Eastern European poets Herbert, Holub, Pilinsky and Popa; the American artist Leonard Baskin; the dramatist, director and impresario Peter Brook and the photographer Fay Godwin.

The British Library is a major centre for Hughes study with substantial collections relating to the poet that include archival, printed and audio-visual material. Researchers can learn more about all aspects of Hughes’ work by exploring his large personal archive (Add MS 88918), which was acquired in 2008 and a number of smaller related collections including Hughes’ correspondence with Olwyn Hughes, Leonard Baskin and Keith Sagar. Please see the Library’s collection guide on Hughes for more information about its Hughes holdings.

A selection of notebooks, typed and handwritten pages of paper displayed in a fan shape on a black background. Items are from the Ted Hughes archive.
Material from the Ted Hughes Archive

Subjects for papers might include, but are by no means limited to, the following.  Proposals should make the link to the themes of the symposium clear.

  • Works by Hughes: specific poems, sequences or collections; radio plays; short stories; critical prose or pedagogical works
  • Hughes’s poetics: artifice, method, style, technique
  • Hughes and ‘visionary precursors’ (including, but not limited to, Christopher Smart, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats)
  • Hughes, T.S. Eliot and Modernism
  • Hughes, Dylan Thomas & the poets of the New Apocalypse
  • Hughes’s relationship with modern and contemporary experimental and avant-garde English language poetry
  • Hughes, European and International poetry & poets
  • Hughes and visual artists (including, but not limited to, relevant collaborations, for example, with Leonard Baskin and Fay Godwin)
  • Hughes and Drama
  • Hughes’s work with Peter Brook
  • Hughes and German Expressionism
  • Hughes and Music

Please send proposals of up to 250 words for 20-minute papers, plus a short biographical note, to Steve Ely at [email protected] by Friday, 12th May, 2023. There will be no charge for registration.

For more information about the Ted Hughes Network, see: https://research.hud.ac.uk/institutes-centres/tedhughes/.