Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

17 September 2020

Sylvia Pankhurst’s Toilet Papers

The panic bulk buying of toilet paper and dried pasta?  Or Captain Tom Moore’s long march for the NHS?  It’s too soon to tell which aspects of 2020 historians will focus on.  However, as Sylvia Pankhurst’s biographer, my own obsession with toilet paper began a few years before the Covid-19 pandemic, and it began in the British Library.

Many people remember Sylvia Pankhurst as the suffragette sister from the first family of feminism who stayed true to its socialist beginnings throughout her great life.  Fewer reflect upon the whole arc of that life; one of art and resistance against war, fascism, racism, colonialism, and inequality.

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst 1938

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst by Howard Coster, 1938 NPG x24529 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Sylvia was the most incarcerated and tortured of the Pankhursts, but her prison career did not end there.  In 1921 she was once more His Majesty’s guest in Holloway Prison.  This time her crime was not the struggle for women’s equality but sedition, in publishing anti-war articles in her newspaper the Workers’ Dreadnought.  Her health compromised by previous imprisonment and torture, and suffering from endometriosis, one of the bravest Britons of the 20th century served another prison term, this time as a newspaper publisher defending freedom of the press.

Sylvia used her six-month solitary sentence to write.  A political prisoner, her only permitted writing materials were a small slate and chalk.  Yet she was prolific during this period.  On release, she published the poetry anthology Writ on Cold Slate, whose title sonnet agonizes about writing under such conditions.

Whilst many a poet to his love hath writ,
Boasting that thus he gave immortal life,
My faithful lines upon inconstant slate,
Destined to swift extinction reach not thee.

So, I wondered, how did these faithful lines reach us?

My excavation of British Library manuscripts revealed that artist and writer came up with a practical means of transcribing her writing and smuggling it out of Holloway.  Sylvia drafted her ideas with chalk on slate, then reworked them with soft pencil on standard issue HM Prison toilet paper, concealed in the underclothes of her uniform.  These contraband manuscripts were smuggled out by her friend Norah Smyth on prison visits, and other prisoners on release.  Sylvia’s suggestive wipe-away slate metaphor led me to the discovery of the fragile toilet paper reality.  The compressed, previously unsorted bundles surviving today in the BL contain not only poetry but a previously unknown and nearly complete five act play and clandestine correspondence that I spent six months painstakingly transcribing and putting in order for future researchers.

Sylvia complained to Norah that ‘the stuff I write all rubs off because it flops around in my pocket,’ but this line has survived for a century on its little square of rough toilet roll, along with hundreds of other sheets of beige, perforated prison issue toilet paper.  Sylvia Pankhurst died in Ethiopia in 1960, honoured with a state funeral.  When an earthquake and coup followed, her son unsuccessfully attempted to give a portion of her extensive papers to the British Library for safekeeping.  Refuge was instead found in Amsterdam.  Years later, Richard Pankhurst once again offered the BL the opportunity of a further cache of his mother’s papers, including – bundled up in bulging brown envelopes – this toilet paper in which I have found such treasure.  Thank goodness for second chances and for writing under lockdown.

Rachel Holmes
Author 

Further reading:
Pankhurst Papers - British Library Add MS 88925
Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (Bloomsbury, 2020).

15 September 2020

Hunter, Campbell, and the politics of archiving famine

In the suffocating heat and violent downpours of early August, 1866, Sir William Hunter, his wife, infant son, and a Portuguese nurse, journeyed to Midnapur in Bengal, where Hunter had been appointed Inspector of Schools for the South-Western Division.  They travelled by road in their victoria driven by Hunter himself.  The carriage and horses were crammed on a ferry by which they crossed the torrential river Damodar.  The crossing took fourteen hours, and Hunter drove on until the route was cut off by a chasm created by the floods.  Horses unhitched, the carriage was dragged down the bank to the other side of the chasm.  They reached a rest house which offered little provision.  They travelled again, until, hungry and exhausted, they finally arrived at their destination.

Sir William Hunter driving a carriage with his wife, infant son, and a Portuguese nurse, journeying to Midnapur in heat and violent downpours.Sir William Hunter driving a carriage with his wife, infant son, and a Portuguese nurse, journeying to Midnapur in heat and violent downpours.  Image reproduced by the kind permission of the artist ©Argha Manna.

Hunter then left at once to survey the area as the government was anxious to learn about the effect of the Orissa famine on schools in neighbouring districts.  To his horror, he found Bishnupur, the ancient capital of Birbhum, a ‘city of paupers’, as he noted in his letter to the Director of Public Instruction.  The famine relief operations were disrupted by a cholera outbreak.  At his own expense, Hunter set up a temporary orphanage for starving children who roamed the streets, feeding on worms and snails.

The author of The Annals of Bengal - a text often mined for information on the notorious famines in Orissa (1866) and in Bengal (1769-70) - was not simply an excavator of archives.  An aspect of his life not often told seems to be epitomised by this stark physical encounter with famine-affected areas, which officers like Hunter (and their families) could not avoid.  For Hunter, writing the famous Annals was punctuated by such experiences, as he developed his comparative analytical methods, placing side by side archival findings which allowed him to reconstruct the 1770 Bengal famine, and his immediate knowledge of the Orissa famine a century later.

Head and shoulders portrait of Sir William Hunter, dressed in a formal jacket and tie.Portrait of Sir William Hunter. Image reproduced by the kind permission of the artist ©Argha Manna.

These two famines are infamous events in the history of British administration of the Bengal Presidency.  The first resulted in the loss of 10 million lives, and yet the East India Company’s revenue increased in that famine year; during the second, 200 million pounds of rice were exported to Britain while a million starved to death in Orissa.  Hunter’s analytical method relied on recovering local ecology, history, and demography, loosely modelled on the English annals of parishes.  As Hunter wrote to Cecil Beadon in 1868, ‘My business is with the people’ - a rather risky remark perhaps in an epistle to the former lieutenant-governor of Bengal, recently deposed for his mishandling of the Orissa famine and scant attention to the suffering of ‘the people’.  Moreover, Hunter’s approach was analogical, comparing not only past and present famines, but British and Indian models of record keeping; and, finally, it was predictive.  Hunter believed that better administration and prevention of future famines were possible through historically informed reflection on current experience ….

Portrait of Sir George Campbell to the waist, seated with a stick in his left hand and dressed in an informal shirt and jacket.

Portrait of Sir George Campbell.  Image reproduced by the kind permission of the artist ©Argha Manna.

For the rest of this story about Hunter’s differences with his contemporary Sir George Campbell who also shaped interpretations of the Orissa and Bengal famines; their negotiations with colonial governance; their lasting impression on archiving famine; and their publication of a little-known collaborative collection of records of the Bengal Famine of 1769-70, see the full article on the Famine Tales project blog Food Security: Past and Present.

Ayesha Mukherjee
Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the Department of English and Film, College of Humanities, University of Exeter, and the Principal Investigator for the AHRC projects Famine and Dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800, and Famine Tales from India and Britain.

Illustrations by Argha Manna
Graphic artist and journalist based in Calcutta, currently creating a graphic narrative of the 1770 Bengal famine for the Famine Tales from India and Britain project.

With grateful thanks to Dr Antonia Moon for drawing my attention to IOR/V/ 27/830/14 and to Professor Swapan Chakravorty for directing me to valuable sources on colonial archiving policies in India.

 

10 September 2020

Four 'Weddings' and a Funeral: A Liverpool Story

It started with checking family history loose ends in lockdown.  I was looking for a birth record in 1900 for Elizabeth A. Spinks in Liverpool.  In the 1901 census she was living with her mother Elizabeth Jane Spinks and maternal grandparents William and Margaret Davies in Becket Street, Kirkdale.  I eventually found the record for an Agnes Elizabeth Spinks.  Agnes’s father was Edward Spinks, an able seaman.  Spinks and Elizabeth Jane Davies had married in St Mary’s Church Kirkdale on 14 April 1895.  He wasn’t with his wife and daughter in 1901 because he was moored off Malta on the ship Illustrious

Plan of Liverpool 1845 with illustrations of ships and buildingsPlan of Liverpool (London,John Tallis & Co, 1845) Maps.25.a.2 Images Online

Looking to see what the family was up to in the 1911 census, I wasn’t prepared for the subsequent story of intrigue that surrounded my distant cousin Elizabeth Jane and the downright untruths recorded in the official documents.

Census entry for the Eccleston family 1911 Census entry for the Eccleston family 1911 via Findmypast © Crown Copyright from The National Archives

In 1911 she is recorded as Elizabeth Jane Eccleston, wife of John Eccleston, house painter.  They were living in Thames Street, Toxteth Park, together with daughter Agnes and Ellen Constance Eccleston (3) and John William Eccleston (1).  The census states that the Ecclestons had been married for 5 years.  This is certainly a fib, and the wedding a phantom one, no doubt designed to give the Ecclestons some respectability within the community, and their children some legitimacy. 

Edward Spinks was very much alive at the time of the alleged Eccelston nuptials.  He appears in the admissions registers of Liverpool Workhouse in October 1905, having been taken off the Laconia in Huskisson Dock; he is described as ‘temporarily disabled’ and suffering a fever.  Elizabeth is recorded as his next of kin, living in Pugin Street, Everton.  Edward reappears in the Workhouse records in April 1910, suffering from dropsy.  He had previously spent time in Toxteth Park Workhouse hospital with ‘congestion of the lungs’. 

Elizabeth left Edward to live with John Eccleston at some point in 1906.   Agnes was removed from school in Everton on 21 May 1906, probably because the family moved out of the area.

Marriage entry for Elizabeth Jane Spinks and John Eccleston, 25 June 1913, at St Peter’s Church, Liverpool.Marriage entry for Elizabeth Jane Spinks and John Eccleston, 25 June 1913, at St Peter’s Church, Liverpool. Lancashire Banns & Marriages via Findmypast, Image © Liverpool City Council.

Elizabeth’s third wedding (counting the fantasy one) took place on 25 June 1913 at St Peter’s Parish Church Liverpool, when she “married” John Eccleston.   She is described as a widow, living in Walnut Street.  Perhaps Elizabeth truly believed that Spinks was dead – his spells in the Workhouse infirmaries indicate he wasn’t a well man.  However, he didn’t die until November 1916, aged 44. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in Everton Cemetery.

Marriage entry for Elizabeth Jane Elizabeth Jane Spinks and John Eccleston, 5 Nov 1919, at St Mary’s Church, Kirkdale.Marriage entry from General Register Office for Elizabeth Jane Elizabeth Jane Spinks and John Eccleston, 5 Nov 1919, at St Mary’s Church, Kirkdale.  The church was opened in 1836, closed in 1973, and demolished in 1979.

Finally, Elizabeth and John Eccleston were married (again) in St Mary’s Church, Kirkdale, on 5 November 1919, 24 years after she’d married Edward Spinks in the same church.  This time, with Edward dead, presumably the marriage was legal.  Interestingly (or shamelessly) she was back living in Pugin Street, although not in the same house she’d lived in with Edward.  I have been unable to find any reference to a charge of bigamy against Elizabeth, though I find it surprising that she wasn’t ‘found out’, given the close knit ties amongst people in working class neighbourhoods within Liverpool at the time.  Perhaps by moving around this large industrial city, and lying on official documents, she was able to disguise her cohabitation, her illegitimate children, and bigamy.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Many cases relating to bigamy at the time can be found in the British Newspaper Archive.  A search for cases of bigamy relating to couples married at St Mary’s Church Kirkdale for example brings up the following cases:
Cheltenham Chronicle 17 Oct 1903: Case of Francis Huxham, barman, who married Agnes Edwards at St Mary’s, Kirkdale in 1900, then bigamously married Jane Hindley.
Cornishman 4 Nov 1909: Case of Daniel Young, seaman, who bigamously married Frances Stephenson at St Mary’s Kirkdale in September 1907 while married to Ellen Jane Opie of Penryn.
Dundee Evening Telegraph 24 Jul 1913: Case of Arabella Margaret Bake, married Joseph William Bake at St Mary’s Kirkdale on 25 Dec 1900, and bigamously married William Woolliscroft at Liverpool Parish Church in December 1905.
Liverpool Daily Post 3 Nov 1916: Case of Walter Turnbull Andrew Collier Hunter, seaman, married Jane Shaw Barton at St Mary’s Kirkdale on 23 December 1914, then bigamously married at St Anne’s Church Aigburth in December 1915.