Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

21 May 2020

Researching Suffragettes in the British Library’s Modern Manuscripts and Archive Collections

Like many, the Covid-19 lockdown has provided British Library staff a bit more space and time to get through some spring cleaning.  You might think that archivists would find themselves a little distanced from their cleaning tasks with all their precious archives locked up in their respective institutions, but there is always more to sort in the archive sector, whether physically or digitally.  Whilst quarantined the Modern Manuscripts team has taken this opportunity to sort through reams of our metadata in order to write new collection guides.

We have been working on summarising our archive collections relating to the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom.  The women’s suffrage collection contains the archives of Sylvia Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth and Harriet McIlquham, but we have also had the opportunity to sift through some of our catalogue records and identify some fascinating suffrage campaigners, whose correspondence is held across various collections.

Some examples of these campaigners include:

Barbara Bodichon, 1827-1891

Sketch of Barbara BodichonBarbara Bodichon, Sketch by Samuel Lawrence, 1861 Wikimedia Commons

Barbara Bodichon was an early suffragist and women’s rights activist.  She began meeting with friends in the 1850s to discuss women’s rights in a group which became known as the ‘Ladies of Langham Place’.  She co-founded the English Woman’s Journal, which examined women’s position and rights in society.  She published her thoughts on women’s right to property in her essay, Brief Summary of the Laws of England Concerning Women.  Items of her correspondence can be found in the Clough-Shore papers (Add MS 72832 A) and the William Lovett Papers (Add MS 78161).

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, 1833-1918

Photograph of Elizabeth Wolstenholme ElmyElizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy Photo via Wikipedia

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy was a feminist and suffrage campaigner.  She founded the Manchester Committee for the Enfranchisement of Women in 1866 and would campaign for women’s suffrage for over 50 years.  The British Library holds six volumes of papers relating to her work in the suffragette movement at Add MS 47449-47455, which contains her correspondence with many prominent women activists.

Hertha Ayrton, 1854-1923

Painting of Hertha AyrtonPainting of Hertha Ayrton, c. 1905, by Héléna Arsène Darmesteter via Wikimedia Commons

Hertha Ayrton campaigned for the women’s vote with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, as well as Emily Davison.  She was also an engineer, mathematician and physicist whose work was awarded the Hughes Medal.  There is correspondence between her and her friend Marie Stopes in the Stopes Papers (Add MS 58685 and Add MS 58689).

Ethel Snowden, 1881 -1951

Photograph of Ethel SnowdenPhotograph of Ethel Snowden, by S. A. Chandler & Co, 1921 via Wikimedia Commons

Ethel Snowden was a socialist, feminist activist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. In 1907 she wrote a book called The Woman Socialist, which advocated the collective organisation of housework and a state salary for mothers.  Items of her correspondence can be found in the Mary Gladstone papers (Add MS 46253), the Burns Papers (Add MS 46300) and the Koteliansky Papers (Add MS 48974).

These individuals are just a few of the many fascinating women who feature in the Modern Manuscripts collections.  As we continue to explore our collections from home, we hope that we will find many more which we can bring to light in our collection guides, so that many more people will eventually be able to explore the papers of these ground-breaking women.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
For more information on British Library collections relating to the women’s suffrage campaign, visit Votes for Women BL.


19 May 2020

My daughter Seringa

In 1799 Captain John Norris of the Madras Engineers was aide-de-camp to Colonel Gent at the Siege of Seringapatam.  Following the assault and capture of the fort on 4 May 1799, Norris was appointed Superintending Engineer of reform of the fortifications there. In the months following the siege Norris undertook a detailed survey of the island of Seringapatam for the Company.

The Storming of SeringapatamThe Storming of Seringapatam - engraving by John Vendramini, published in 1802. Shelfmark P779. Images Online

Norris's work brought him into conflict with Colonel Arthur Wellesley who had been appointed to command the fort following the siege.  Wellesley had instructed Norris to supply him with the plans and maps made during the survey, which Norris declined to do as it was contrary to his orders from Government.  Wellesley was reportedly very angry at what he viewed as Norris’s insubordination and reported him to the Madras Government as ‘not a fit person to be employed as the Engineer at Seringapatam’.  The Government however supported Norris’s refusal to supply the documents.

Plan of Seringapatam 1792 Plan of Seringapatam, 1792 taken from A Guide to Seringapatam and its Vicinity. Historical and traditional, 3rd Edn (Revised). 1897. BL flickr

John Norris was appointed an ensign in the Madras Engineers on 3 October 1781 rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before retiring on 25 September 1811.  For most of his time in the corps he served alongside Captain Colin Mackenzie, the renowned surveyor whose collections are one of the foundations of the India Office Private Papers.

Norris’s time at Seringapatam appears to have made its mark on both him and his wife Lydia, the daughter of William Harcourt Torriano, whom he married in 1790.  On 19 January 1800 John and Lydia Norris christened their second daughter Helen Harness Seringa Norris.  The couple had one other daughter Lydia Dampier Norris born in 1794 who died at Cawnpore in 1825.

Helen Harness Seringa Norris baptism register entryBaptism entry for Helen Harness Seringa Norris IOR/N/2/2, f. 420

Historical records suggest Helen Harness Seringa Norris was fond of her unusual name as it was often recorded as her sole forename, including on her death register entry in 1866.  

Seringa Norris was married in 1819 to the Reverend Charles Norman, Vicar of Boxted in Essex.  The couple had eight children, though only four survived infancy.  In 1820 they named their eldest child Seringa Lydia Frances Norman.

Seringa Norman married in 1842 to Joseph Proctor Benwell, a bank manager.  The Benwells had four children, their eldest being a daughter Seringa born in 1845.  Seringa Benwell married Charles Fuller Grenside, a printer ink manufacturer, in 1879.  They had a daughter in 1885 christened Seringa Dorothea.  Seringa Dorothea Grenside was married in 1908 to Laurence Arthur Grundy Lane, an insurance inspector, and their only child was named Audrey Seringa Lane.

By the time Audrey Seringa Lane was born in 1908, the Seringa forename had been passed down through five generations spanning over 200 years.  Naming daughters Seringa carried on, and by the 1960s it had spanned seven generations of John and Lydia Norris’s family and lasted for over 260 years.

Oher branches of the family continued the name too.  Charles and Seringa Norman’s daughter Sarah Elizabeth and son Edward both had daughters named Seringa and the name continued there for several generations too.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
The Military History of the Madras Engineers and Pioneers, from 1743 up to the present time (London, 1888). British Library shelfmark V 6503. Snippet view on Google Books. 
Baptisms, Marriages and Burials available via the British India Office Collection on findmypast -
Marriage entry for John Norris and Lydia Torriano IOR/N/2/11, ff. 631-632.  Baptism entry for Helen Harness Seringa Norris IOR/N/2/2, f. 420.  Baptism entry for Lydia Damper Norris IOR/N/2/2, f. 213.  Burial entry for Lydia Dampier Norris IOR/N/1/13, f. 689.
Birth, marriage, death and census records for subsequent generations of the Norris family are also available in other collections on findmypast.
Biographical Notes compiled for R. H. Phillimore, Historical records of the Survey of India (Dehra Dun, 1945-48). Includes biographical entry for John Norris Volume II, p. 360, shelfmark OIR 354.54
IOR/F/4/95/1926 Papers regarding repair and improvement of the fort at Seringapatam – report by Captain John Norris, observations on Norris’s report by Col. Arthur Wellesley, observations by the Chief Engineer Major-General Patrick Ross. 
IOR/F/4/193/4397 Demolition of forts in the southern districts of the Madras Presidency and of Public buildings and works in the former Dutch settlements of Cochin and Quilon, under the direction of Major John Norris and Lieutenant Hilary Harcourt Torriano, Madras Engineers.

14 May 2020

The most noted girls of the town: A newly discovered edition of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies is a notorious publication that detailed the names and ‘specialities’ of prostitutes working in Covent Garden and the West End during the late 18th century.  When the first edition appeared in 1760, it was immediately derided as pretending 'to give some account of the most noted Girls of the Town; but it has all the air of a lying Catch-penny Jobb' (Monthly Review, June 1760).  A contributor to the London Magazine claimed that the sex workers were 'frightful, and smell strongly of paints, pills, bolus’s, and every venereal slop' (April 1760).  Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its scandalous content Harris’s List amassed a large enough readership to be published yearly until 1794.

Frontispiece and title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden LadiesFrontispiece and title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for H. Ranger, 1773 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It was doing so well that, by 1791, a rival Harris’s List had appeared.  An indignant but anonymous newspaper notice was printed, claiming the rival edition was 'a compilation of falsehood and imposition' and urging discerning readers to keep their eye out for the so-called authentic version of the directory.  No copies of this 1791 rival Harris’s List survive today.  In fact, the only extant edition of this rival publication was, until recently, thought to be the one from 1794 – suggesting that it ran for at least four years.

However, we have recently acquired a copy of the rival Harris’s List from 1793.  It was printed for John Sudbury in Southwark rather than the pseudonymous ‘H. Ranger’ who occupies the imprint in the official Lists.   John Sudbury was a bookseller and occasional publisher who was active between 1786 and 1795, dealing in cheap bawdy material.

Title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, LondonTitle page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for J. S. [John Sudbury], 1793 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Even though it has the same title, this edition describes different sex workers to those featured in the official Harris’s List for 1793.  However, the descriptions are similar in that the line between authenticity and titillation is somewhat blurred in both editions, probably containing only kernels of truth.  In the rival Harris’s List, Miss Patty S—n—rs, for example, is described as the daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer and was one of 'numerous offspring'.  She worked in 'Lissen-green, near Paddington'.  Miss Betty Fr-el, is said to have lost both her parents and, as her stepfather would not support her, joined a 'Strolling Company' and became an actress.  The 'principal hero got the better of her chastity' and, in the words of the List, she 'was soon initiated into the misteries of the Cyprian Deity'.  Another woman, Mrs Stam-er at No.7, Charles-court, Strand, is a widow and nearly forty years old. Having said that, however, she still had 'very fine teeth'. 

Pages from Harris’s List of Covent Garden LadiesPage 42 and 43 of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for J. S. [John Sudbury], 1793 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies provides insight into the underworld of Georgian London and is invaluable for the studies of censorship, erotica and the treatment of women in the late 18th century.  Although the male gaze and its haze of titillation prevents us from getting anything other than a glimpse of these unfortunate women, this is far better than them being lost to history altogether.  While this new acquisition is important from a bibliographic perspective, adding to a precious and limited canon of this notorious publication, it is the stories of these women that are the most significant part of this discovery.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further Reading:
The majority of the British Library’s copies of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies are part of the Private Case collection

The bibliographical history of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies is explored here:
Freeman, Janet Ing. Jack Harris and ‘Honest Ranger’: The Publication and Prosecution of Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1760-95.

For more research on the women described in Harris’s Lists:
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden ladies : pimp General Jack & the extraordinary story of Harris's List, 2005.
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden Ladies: the Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List. Penguin, 2012.