Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

24 May 2022

Hidden Letters: When Documents Contain a Surprise

One of the responsibilities of an archival cataloguer is attempting to determine the provenance of the documents they work with, how each document came into being, and the journey it went on before arriving at the archive.  In some cases this can be a relatively easy task: details of provenance may be clearly recorded, either within the document itself or externally.  But occasionally a document is discovered somewhere entirely unexpected, sometimes even within a collection which the archive has held for many years.  Just last year a previously unknown letter by Giacomo Casanova was discovered inside a copy of his Memoirs held by the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge.  The letter was written to his nephew in 1791, but the volume it was inside wasn’t published until 1833, 35 years after his death.  How and when it ended up there has gone unrecorded, but there is at least an obvious reason for an association between these two documents.  A similar situation involving two documents held by the British Library cannot be simply explained by any such thematic link, and appears to be a connection that came about completely at random.

Inscription at the start of the journal of the ship SandwichInscription at the start of the journal of the Sandwich, inside which hides a document from 75 years later (1755), IOR/L/MAR/B/606C, f 2, India Office Records, British Library Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

IOR/L/MAR/B/606C is a journal of a return voyage by the East India Company ship Sandwich from England to India and Mocha in 1753-55, one of hundreds of similar documents within the India Office Records covering trading voyages from the 17th-19th centuries.  But nestled between its pages is what seems to be an entirely unrelated piece of paper, containing copies of four testimonial references written in 1830 for the then newly-qualified English doctor Alfred Swaine Taylor (IOR/L/MAR/B/606C, ff. 98-99).  This is by no means an insignificant document, the references come from some of the most respected physicians of their day: Honoratus Leigh Thomas, recently retired as President of the Royal College of Surgeons; Joseph Henry Green, Professor of Anatomy at both the RCS and the Royal Academy; Thomas Addison, a celebrated diagnostician who would go on to be the first to describe conditions including Addison’s disease and pernicious anaemia; and Sir Astley Cooper, another former President of the RCS who was renowned for his pioneering treatments of aneurysms and hernias.  What it does not contain is anything directly relevant to an ocean voyage 75 years earlier.

Portrait  photograph of Alfred Swaine Taylor

Portrait  photograph of Alfred Swaine Taylor by Maull & Polyblank NPG Ax87530 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

However, there is a slight connection between the two documents.  Taylor’s father was Thomas Rumbold Taylor, a captain with the East India Company, and though the journey recorded in the Sandwich’s journal is too early for him to have been involved with, he did captain the EIC ship Glory on a voyage to India and Ceylon [Sri Lanka] in 1803-05, for which the journal is preserved as IOR/L/MAR/B/295A.  Is this connection mere coincidence, or might a researcher have inadvertently cross-contaminated the records while looking into this very link?  Might Taylor himself have mislaid his references while researching his father’s profession?  If this was the case his prospects do not appear to have suffered, he would be appointed Lecturer in Medical Jurisprudence at Guy’s Hospital, London, the following year, and go on to a distinguished career in toxicology and forensic medicine.  As for how the document ended up where it is, we will likely never know.

Testimonial for Alfred Taylor from Sir Astley CooperTestimonial for Alfred Taylor from Sir Astley Cooper (1830), IOR/L/MAR/B/606C, f 98v, India Office Records, British Library Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Matt Griffin
Content Specialist, Gulf History, British Library Qatar Foundation partnership

Further reading:
Money matters: the discovery of an unpublished letter by Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798)


19 May 2022

Hugh Danby – JMW Turner’s Phantom Son

According to his first biographer, Walter Thornbury, Turner had four illegitimate children, at least one of whom was a boy.  He provides no evidence for this, except for this piece of hearsay.
“‘I once,’ says a friend, ‘heard Mr Crabb Robinson (the friend of Wordsworth) casually mention a remark dropped by the late Miss Maria Denman, when the two were out for an excursion with Rogers (I think), and had put up at an inn in a village near London. ‘That’, said the lady, pointing to a youth who happened to pass, ‘is Turner's natural son.’”

Portrait of JMW Turner standing in his studio, with paintings, a palette of paints and brushes, and a propped umbrellaJ.M.W. Turner by Charles Turner, engraving published 1852 NPG D6997 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

In his 1938 book about Turner’s hidden life, Bernard Falk says that there were, in fact, only three children, two girls and a boy named Hugh; all the result of Turner’s relationship with Sarah Danby. Turner acknowledged his daughters, Evelina and Georgiana, but never made any mention of a son, which, if he had had one, would have been unusual, given Turner’s general attitude towards women.

So, who was Hugh Danby?  Falk suggests that he was seen from time to time helping Turner’s father 'Old Dad' at the Queen Anne Street studio but, although some of Turner’s friends reported seeing a girl who resembled him, I can find no mention of a boy.

Falk also says that Hugh’s name appears in the list of people who contested Turner’s will in 1852 but not in the list of benefactors when the will was finally settled in 1856, because he had died in the interim.  However, I can find no record of a Hugh Danby who died between those years nor of a Hugh amongst the family of Sarah Danby’s husband, John.

Interior of the Court of Chancery showing the law officials in black gowns and white wigs and the people appearing in court to give evidenceCourt of Chancery, Lincoln's Inn Hall, from Microcosm of London (1808-1810)

I think that the answer lies in the litigation documents for the original case in the Court of Chancery.  In the list of claimants, the only Danby I can find is Turner’s housekeeper, Hannah Danby, who is then mentioned in the final settlement as ‘since deceased’.  However, immediately preceding Hannah’s name is that of Turner’s executor, Hugh Andrew Johnston Munro.  I believe that someone transcribing the list, possibly for a newspaper report, elided the two names, thus creating Hugh Danby.  Again, some later reports just refer to H. Danby (since deceased), making it possible to assume, erroneously, that this refers to Hugh Danby.

List of cases relating to the will of Mr. Turner, R.A. showing the names of the parties involved - Hannah Danby is listed, but not Hugh DanbyList of cases relating to the will of Mr. Turner, R.A. showing the names of the parties involved - Return to an order of the House of Lords 11 July 1861

It is my strong belief that Hugh Danby never existed.

David Meaden
Independent Researcher

Further reading:
Bernard Falk, Turner the Painter: His Hidden Life (London 1938).
Franny Moyle, The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W.Turner (London, 2016).
Anthony Bailey, Standing In The Sun – a life of J.M.W.Turner (1997).
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A. founded on letters and papers furnished by his friends and fellow Academicians (London, 1862).
Documents for the case in the Court of Chancery are held at The National Archives

Turner’s restored house in Twickenham is open to visitors.

Turner's House

17 May 2022

The Society of the Double Cross

In the archives of the Hakluyt Society at the British Library, I found a letter from 1963 sent by Philip Swann to the Honorary Secretary R A Skelton.  Swann had worked as a cartographer in Venezuela in the 1930s and was now living in retirement in New Zealand.

In Venezuela, Swann was introduced by a Scottish mining engineer to a family who produced a curious bundle of documents from a secret society known as La Socied de la Doble Cruz.  The papers referred to hordes of booty hidden across a multitude of exotic hideaways.  They mentioned legendary figures such as Montezuma and Henry Morgan and promised, should the strange hieroglyphics throughout the document be understood, potential lost fortunes might be recovered.  ‘The papers were found in the shape of a ball covered with (bitumen) fastened with two gold pins. There was also ten small bars of gold, one semi-precious stone, four minted coins very poorly done… four or five weights (presumably for weighing gold) a bundle of papers wrapped in a sort of wax…’

Hieroglyphics copied from the Venezuelan papers by Philip SwannHieroglyphics copied from the Venezuelan papers by Philip Swann MSS EUR F594/5/1/3 f.111

Swann said he had been sworn to absolute secrecy and, even 30 years later, felt obliged to ask that the matter be treated as confidential.  He asked the Hakluyt Society for advice on who might take up the research: ‘Even now, I still feel there is a glimmer of truth in it all, and it is worthy of investigation’.  He attached a list of sixteen things which should be explored, including the Booty of Mexico, activities on Lake Maracaibo, the Secrets of the Vulgate, and buried treasure on the Island of Cuanacoco.

Some of the events Swann writes about can be traced in other collection items at the British Library.  Morgan’s raid on Maracaibo was well documented in the 1678 publication Bucaniers of America by Alexandre Exquemelin, which is littered with enticing clues connected to the papers.

Portrait of Captain Henry Morgan set against a background with shipsCaptain Henry Morgan from A. O. Exquemelin, Bucaniers of America, or, A true account of the most remarkable assaults committed of late years upon the coasts of the West-Indies by the bucaniers of Jamaica and Tortuga, both English and French (London, 1684)

Elsewhere I discovered further tantalising leads.  Famed shipwreck salvager and treasure hunter Arthur McKee had a history of success discovering riches of bygone eras.  In his journals, McKee documented a curious excursion: ‘I was contacted by two men from Venezuela who stated they wished to discuss with me some strange markings found on some old documents. These documents were discovered at an old house in Venezuela which had been torn down’.

McKee described manuscripts inscribed on a skin-like material and leather, dated as early as 1557, which referred to ‘The organisation of the Doble Cruz’.  He spoke of the same strange hieroglyphs mentioned by Swann.  His translations mirrored those of Swann in a fashion beyond mere coincidence, with just enough translation discrepancies to suggest this wasn’t a copy of earlier research.  He appeared to be witnessing the same original documents.

In 1976 McKee organised an expedition.  The Forte La Tortuga was a supposed pirate fortress located 110 miles off the Venezuela coast.  McKee and two academics were transported to the deserted island by helicopter.  The expedition was doomed.  Injury and disorientation led to a very real fight for survival.  Rescued by the army ten days later, the quest was abandoned.

La Orden de la Doble Cruz still exists.  Based in Venezuela, a branch of the Knights Templar Illuminati Order fly the flag of the Double Cross, their legitimacy ‘evidenced by authentic ancient documents that rest in this city of Maracaibo, in our beloved country Venezuela’.

Craig Campbell
Formerly Curatorial Support Officer, India Office Records

Further reading:
MSS EUR F594/5/1/3 Correspondence addressed to the Honorary Secretary of the Hakluyt Society, R.A. Skelton. ff 108-111 Letter from Philip Swann. 1963.
British Library Add MS 36330 Venezuela Papers. Vol. XVII. (ff. 345). 1653-1680. ff. 317, 332 Captain Henry Morgan: News of his design to surprise Cartagena: Madrid, 18 Mar. Spanish. 1676.
British Library Add MS 12428-12430 A Collection of Tracts relating to the Island of Jamaica, from 1503 to 1680. Journal kept by Col. William Beeston, from his first coming to Jamaica, 1655-1680.
British Library Sloane MS 2724 Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Carlisle: Collection of his papers and letters: 17th cent. f. 1 Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Morgan, Deputy-Governor and Commander in Chief of Jamaica: Proclamation conc. the Royal African Company: 1680/1
British Library RB.23.b.6178 Bucaniers of America: or, a true account of the most remarkable assaults committed of late years upon the coasts of the West-Indies, by the bucaniers of Jamaica and Tortuga, both English and French… London : printed for William Crooke, at the Green Dragon without Temple-bar. A. O Exquemelin, (Alexandre Olivier) 1684.