Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

27 October 2020

Wearing a face mask

With the coronavirus pandemic we are all getting used to wearing facemasks in a range of public spaces from shops to transport.  Yet whilst the wearing of masks feels very new to us it is not the first time that they have been employed as a form of protection during an epidemic.

Face masks have been worn as a form of protection from foul air, or miasma, since at least the early 17th century.  The miasma theory of infection, which was accepted by doctors from the 1st century BC until well into the 19th century, ventured that many diseases – such as plague and cholera – were caused and spread through populations inhaling bad air.  (Indeed, the disease malaria literally takes its name from bad (mal) air (aria) in medieval Italian.)  In order to be protected doctors, and the public alike, often carried posies of flowers to freshen the air around them or wore face coverings that both acted as a physical barrier against bad air and attempted to fragrance (and thus purify) the air that was breathed.

Coloured copper engraving by Paul Fürst depicting a plague doctor wearing a mask- ‘Doctor Beak from Rome’Coloured copper engraving by Paul Fürst depicting a plague doctor entitled ‘Doctor Schnabel von Rome’, [trans. ‘Doctor Beak from Rome’], 1656. from Wikimedia Commons


One of the most striking and recognisable protective face masks from the past is the long beaked mask worn by plague doctors throughout the 17th century. The mask has been credited as being developed in 1619 by Charles de Lorme (1584-1678), the physician to the French kings Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV.  The mask, which was a form of early respirator, covered the doctor’s full face with glass openings for the eyes and two air holes for the nostrils.  The long beak contained a cavity into which was stuffed a variety of aromatic items intended to purify the foul air that passed through the mask.  It would typically be filled with dried flowers, herbs, spices or a sponge soaked in vinegar.  The mask’s grotesque features made the plague doctor an instantly recognisable and feared figure and it eventually became a popular costume for revellers at the Carnival of Venice – an event made famous for its elaborate masks.

Kid skin face mask with silk ribbonsKid skin mask with silk ribbons, worn as a prophylactic against the plague, c. 1660. Add MS 78428 B Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Although not as dramatic as those worn by the plague doctors, the British Library holds a face covering from the mid-17th century that has some similar features to shield against the plague.  The Library’s covering is made from fine kidskin leather and comprises a pouch into which the wearer could place scented materials to protect the nose and mouth from foul air.  The Library’s intriguing face covering is found in the archive of the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) and was possibly worn by him as a form of protection during the London plague epidemic of 1665-1666; the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England.

It is not clear how much protection these plague masks afforded, but both de Lorme and Evelyn lived through years of plague to survive well into old age.  Masks can clearly help support public health and though it feels strange at first, we should remember wearing them in an epidemic is nothing new.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts and Archives

 

22 October 2020

Eliza Armstrong – Another Piece of the Puzzle

This blog post provides a modest update to curator Margaret Makepeace’s 2012 and 2016 blog posts on Untold Lives - Whatever happened to Eliza Armstrong? and Eliza Armstrong – still elusive!  Readers are encouraged to refresh their memory of Margaret’s posts before reading on here.


A letter from Eliza West (formerly Armstrong) to W. T. Stead, dated 6 March 1906, and sent from 50 Gladstone Street, Hebburn, confirms Eliza’s marriage to Henry George West, and his death, which left Eliza struggling to support her family and searching for ways to generate the necessary income to keep her household afloat.

Gladstone Street in 1987 showing terraced housesGladstone Street in 1987. Copyright South Tyneside Libraries

That W. T. Stead and Eliza were still in touch may come as a surprise to those familiar with ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, Stead’s series of sensational, New Journalism articles, published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, in an attempt to end the deadlock in Parliament over the Criminal Law Amendment Act.  Stead was vilified (and rightly so) for his part in the abduction of Eliza, in his overzealous campaign to prove that a child could be bought for £5 and sold into sex slavery on the streets of London.

In Eliza’s letter to Stead she thanks him for his ‘kind and welcome letter’ and the gift of a ‘butafull’ [sic] book.  There has clearly been some delay between Stead’s last missive and Eliza’s reply because she apologises for not responding sooner and tells Stead she has been ill.  The letter is familiar in tone, and in it Eliza informs Stead that she has made up her mind to take in lodgers: ‘for a liveing as I realy don’t know what else to do [sic]’.  She signs off ‘thanking you so much for all your kindness I never will forget nor cease to remember all your kindness to us'.

In the same year a letter on Salvation-Army-Headquarters-headed-paper and dated 31 October begins with the subject line:

MRS WEST = ELIZA ARMSTRONG

The letter is from Commissioner Adelaide Cox and begins ‘My dear Chief’ (presumably, therefore, it is addressed to Bramwell Booth).  Commissioner Cox informs Booth that she has ‘instructed Staff-Captain Salt to continue to visit this woman [Eliza West] once a week until she has really turned her present difficult corner’.

The letter goes on to say: ‘We are taking up the question of the children at our Headquarters here.  There are five; and the idea is to find Homes for the three middle children.  Mrs West is willing for this.  At present, there are two lodgers in the house, who pay weekly, and all would be well in this direction, but for the fact that Mrs West has something the matter with her leg, and is obliged to attend the Infirmary'.

Those five children were Alice Maud May (born 1896), and referred to as her eldest ‘May’ in Eliza’s letter to Stead, William Frederick (born 1898), Sybil Primrose (born 1900), Phyllis Irene (born 1902) and Henry George (born 1904).

Between March and October Eliza must have moved quickly to bring in the lodgers mentioned both in her letter to Stead and that of Adelaide Cox’s letter to Bramwell Booth.  And by 1911 it would seem that the Army had succeeded also, in placing those ‘three middle children’ elsewhere, because William Frederick, Sybil Primrose and Phyllis Irene are not listed as members of Eliza’s new household with partner Samuel O’Donnell in the 1911 census return.

Table based on census returns for the West and O'Donnell families in 1901 and 1911

* The 1911 census records ‘children born alive to present marriage’, and sub-divides that information between ‘total children born alive’, ‘children still living’ and ‘children who have died’.  Tellingly, and indeed poignantly, in Eliza’s column, under total children born alive the number 9 is written; children still living 8; children who have died 1; and then each number is struck-through as the realisation is made that only O’Donnell’s children count here, and so the numbers 3, 2, 1 are placed above the original numbers recorded.  This however, again, is not quite accurate, as Eliza’s dead child is Reginald Ladas West (born 1894, died 1897).  Nevertheless, this semi-legible, deleted information tells us that Eliza lost at least 1 child in her lifetime, and at the time of the 1911 census was survived by at least 8.  A recent search of the General Register Office birth index adds two more children born to Eliza and Samuel, Minnie and Norman O’Donnell.

Dr Helena Goodwyn
Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Northumbria University

 

20 October 2020

The truth behind the myth: the colonial legacy of the Mayflower voyage - No.5 Colonial New England from the 1640s onwards

During the 1630s up to 20,000 people emigrated from England to New England.  This period is known as the Great Migration and many of the emigrés were separatists or puritans.  However, colonial life wasn’t for everyone.  During the 1640s, more puritans returned to England than left.  Many returned to fight in the English Civil War.

In the latter half of the 17th century, English colonies expanded throughout the territories of several Algonquian-speaking tribes.  The English established praying towns to convert local people to Christianity.  Relations between Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag tribe broke down, increasing tensions further.

The war that followed, known as King Philip’s War (1675-1678), was the deadliest conflict seen in North America.  The colonists won; thousands of Native Americans were killed or sold into slavery. It was a huge blow for their resistance to colonisation.

Anxieties about the English Civil War by an early female poet

Open copy of Anne Bradstreet's Several Poems…by a Gentlewoman in New-EnglandAnne Bradstreet, Several Poems…by a Gentlewoman in New-England, 1678. C.39.b.48 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was an English poet and one of the first female writers to be published in North America.  She emigrated on the Arbella in 1630 and settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony with her family.  Her 1642 poem A Dialogue Between Old England and New is about the English Civil War.  Young America asks Mother England what is troubling her, to which she replies 'a new conflict' and laments her ‘plundered townes’ and her ‘young men slaine’.


Translating the Bible for Algonquian Native Americans

Title page of the first translation of the Bible into the Massachusett languageWusku Wuttestamentum nul-lordumun Jesus Christ nuppoquohwussuaeneumun. Cambridge: Printed by Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, 1661. C.51.b.3 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This is the first translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language, printed at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1661. It was produced for so-called ‘Praying Indians’ – native people who had been converted to Christianity.

It was jointly translated by John Eliot, a Christian missionary, and Cockenoe, a Native American captured and enslaved during the Pequot War in 1637. Cockenoe taught Eliot the language and acted as his interpreter. This book is known as the Eliot Indian Bible, underplaying Cockenoe’s vital involvement in the work.


Mapping King Philip’s War

First printed map produced in North America  cut by John Foster and orientated to the west instead of the northWilliam Hubbard, A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England, Boston: Printed by John Foster, 1677, G.7146 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This is the first printed map produced in North America.  It was cut by John Foster and is orientated to the west instead of the north.  The map conveys a political message, illustrating the English settlements attacked by Native Americans during King Philip’s War (marked by a number next to the place name).  This was meant to emphasise the violence of the Native Americans.  The map does not reflect Native American lands or the devastating impact of the war on tribal populations in any way.


Enslaved people in colonial America

Transatlantic slave voyages to Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America began in the mid-16th century.  The traders of enslaved people were not only Spanish.  The first recorded transatlantic slave voyage that departed from an English port was in 1563.   This was bound for Hispaniola.

The first transatlantic slave voyage from an English port to an English colony via the African coast was to Barbados in 1641.  However, enslaved African people were bought at South American and Caribbean ports and transported to New England from the 1630s.  English involvement in slavery increased in frequency from the 1640s onwards.  Some colonists in Plymouth Colony owned enslaved people.

Front page of Boston Gazette 11 December 1721 Extract from Boston Gazette with news of inward and outward bound ships and an advertisement for the sale of two women slavesBoston Gazette, 11 December 1721 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


This is an issue from 1721 of the Boston Gazette, one of the earliest newspapers printed in colonial North America.  In the left-hand column, you can see the news of inward and outward bound ships.  Many of these were slave ships.  In the right-hand column, there is an advertisement for the sale of ‘two very likely Negroe Women for either Town or Country Business, to be sold by Mr. John Powell Merchant in Boston’.


Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections