Untold lives blog

6 posts from November 2011

28 November 2011

Tales from the other Shakespears

Among the generous benefactors to India Office Private Papers is the late Dr Omar Pound (1926-2010), teacher, writer and translator of Persian and Arabic literature, only son of the celebrated American poet Ezra Pound and his English wife, artist Dorothy Shakespear. Ezra and Dorothy met at the salon of her mother Olivia Shakespear (1863-1938) who was a life-long friend and one-time lover of W.B.Yeats.   Olivia was a novelist and playwright in her own right and an influential patron of the arts. Her Kensington salon was frequented by writers and artists including Pound, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce.

The Shakespear family is related to a number of other illustrious figures in English literary and military history in British India, including William Makepeace Thackeray, General Sir John Low, and Colonel Sir Richmond Campbell Shakespear.  In order to avoid confusion with William Shakespeare, the Shakespears of British India dropped the ‘e’ at the end of their name. There is, however, a distinct possibility that their earliest traceable ancestor John Shakespear of Shadwell could well be from the same stock as the great poet of Stratford. 

In 2001, Dr Omar Pound presented to the Library the diary (IOPP/Mss Eur A230) of his grand-uncle, Captain William Irvine Henry Shakespear (1878-1915). Captain Shakespear was an explorer and a political officer who travelled extensively in the Middle East, a talented linguist conversant in Urdu, Pashto, Persian and Arabic.  He was killed in action in Central Arabia during World War One.  Captain Shakespear made seven journeys through Arabia between 1909 and 1914. The diary is a record of his seventh expedition, a 1,800 mile journey across mostly uncharted territory from Kuwait to Suez via Riyadh in 1914.   We learn of the frequent struggles and negotiations he had with the members of his caravan as well as his dealings with local tribal leaders and raiders.  On 23 March 1914, he records the discovery of twenty thieves surrounding their camp and he reflects that the early discovery of the bandits prevented a wholesale looting and possible murder of his whole team.  An additional feature is an eight page vocabulary of tribal sign language concerning parts of the body.  This diary appears to be the only primary source recording this remarkable journey apart from an article by Douglas Carruthers in the Geographical Journal of May/June 1922.

Painting of military operations during the Indian Uprising
© The British Library Board 1781.c.8, plate 19 George Franklin Atkinson The Campaign in India 1857-1858.  See more images from the BL’s collections.

When Dr Omar Pound died in March 2010, he bequeathed to the Library an important collection of personal letters (IOPP/ Mss Eur F631) from his maternal great grandfather, Alexander Shakespear (1822-1881). During the Indian Uprising 1857-58, Shakespear was a Magistrate and Revenue Collector at Bijnaur and Civil Auditor of the North-West Provinces.  He wrote almost daily letters to his wife Catherine (‘Kate’).  She had just given birth to their second child and was evacuated from Bijnaur to another town, whilst Alexander stayed in Meerut to protect the property of the headquarters of British administration.  These 83 original letters are records of his personal experience of handling the chaotic situation after the outbreak of violence at Meerut on 10 May 1857.  The letters offer a glimpse of the life style of the British in India, as well as British attitudes towards the local people during the Indian Uprising. Of particular interest are the descriptions of his ambiguous relationship with the Nawab and the different approaches adopted by the British in their dealings with Hindu and Muslim communities.

 Xiao Wei Bond, Curator India Office Private Papers

 Further reading:
Lt-Col J. Shakespear, John Shakespear of Shadwell and his descendants 1619-1931 (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1931) (BL: 09917.e.2)
H.V.F.Winstone, Captain Shakespear: A Portrait (London 1976) (BL: T 29556 or X.809/40860)

The death of a political agent - Captain Shakespear

Search for more books and documents about the themes in this story.

Discover more about India Office Private Papers.

21 November 2011

Jean de Wavrin, writer of one of the great medieval chronicles of England

In the early 15th century the powerful Duchy of Burgundy with its huge territories in the Southern Netherlands, was a political and cultural rival to France. Into the magnificent Burgundian court circle, Jean de Wavrin was born in around 1398, bastard son of Robert, Count of Wavrin, who is believed to be the ancestor of King Juan Carlos of Spain and HRH the Prince of Wales.

Jean made his military debut as a young squire at the battle of Agincourt. He took part in numerous military expeditions for the Burgundians, and their English allies until 1435, when he married a wealthy widow from Lille, and was legitimised by the Duke of Burgundy. As Lord of Le Forestel, he performed numerous official duties for successive dukes, including embassies to the Pope and the English court.

Page from Jean Wavrin's Chronicle
© The British Library Board: Royal 15 E iv vol 1, f. 14

Image no: G70026-79  Discover more images from the Bl collections

In the last twenty-five years of his life Wavrin compiled his multi-volume chronicle of England from its legendary beginnings to 1471. Though his stated purpose was to please his nephew and to avoid idleness, his true motives will never be entirely clear. Wavrin was certainly an anglophile and probably met John of Lancaster, Anthony Woodville, brother-in-law of Edward IV and maybe the king himself during his temporary exile in Flanders. The later volumes provide a unique view from Europe of the Wars of the Roses, based on his personal knowledge of the events as they took place and on information he obtained from those involved on both sides. Edward IV owned a magnificent copy of the chronicle and two luxurious manuscripts to be displayed in the British Library’s Royal Manuscripts exhibition are part of his set.  The first contains a picture of Wavrin presenting his work to the English king.  However Wavrin died at about the age of 75, before the volume was completed in c.1475.

Chantry Westwell


18 November 2011

Indian princess in suffragette march

Today's blog marks the ‘Black Friday’ suffragette march and the launch of a new British Library website telling the story of Asians in Britain.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, was a prominent suffragette and member of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She campaigned for votes for women nationally and locally in Kingston and Richmond, where she regularly spoke at branch meetings. On 18 November 1910, known as ‘Black Friday’, together with Emmeline Pankhurst, Sophia led a 400-strong demonstration to parliament. Clashes broke out between the police and protesters and over 150 women were physically assaulted.

Sophia Duleep Singh selling The Suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace. The Suffragette, 1913 (1913 LON 515 [1913] NPL)

Sophia Duleep SinghSophia took part in many publicity campaigns and was often seen selling the newspaper The Suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace where she and her sisters were given free use of Faraday House in the grounds of the palace.  Her activities raised concerns in some quarters as seen in a letter to Lord Crewe, which asks ‘if anything could be done to stop her’ and whether the King should consider evicting her from her lodging. Sophia also belonged to the Women’s Tax Resistance League, whose slogan was ‘No Vote, No Tax’. Her refusal to pay taxes led to her prosecution several times, and some of her valuable possessions, such as a diamond ring, pearl necklace and gold bangle were impounded.

In addition to her suffragette activity, during World War I she organised collections for Indian soldiers fighting on the Western Front during World War I. She also donated money towards the Lascar Club in the East End of London.

 Sophia was not the only Indian suffragette. Other Indian women too campaigned for the right to vote. For instance, a small delegation took part in the 1911 coronation procession of 60,000 suffragettes.

Text supplied by Rozina Visram
Advisor to the ‘Making Britain’ project from 2007-2010, consultant on the follow-on project, ‘Beyond the Frame’ and author of the British Library’s web pages for researchers interested in the history of Asians in Britain.

A ground-breaking facsimile exhibition, part of a larger project, Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections, takes a new look at the little-known history of the Indian presence in Britain, and will tour India from 25 November at the British Council and from 26 November at the National Archives of India in Delhi.

13 November 2011

Valete fratres - Librarians and the First World War

On Remembrance Sunday, we are sharing a story about librarians who lost their lives serving in the First World War.

In 1923 The Library Association commissioned the calligraphers Edward Johnston and H Lawrence Christie to design a roll of honour commemorating the British librarians who fell in the Great War.  Johnston, a renowned calligrapher best-known for designing an alphabet used on London Underground signs until 1980, was familiar with the British Museum Library having studied its manuscript collections as a young man.  Christie was one of the co-founders of the Society of Scribes & Illuminators and had already designed other memorials to the 1914-1918 war, including the bronze panel in the House of Commons commemorating the five Committee Clerks who were killed in action.

Letter from H Lawrence Christie to W R B Prideaux, Secretary of the Library AssociationLetter from H Lawrence Christie to W R B Prideaux, Secretary of the Library Association, showing the 1923 design for the roll of honour

The original design was for a roll of honour on a series of vellum panels behind glass and framed in oak, to be written and gilded by Edward Johnston and H Lawrence Christie, and framed at the Hampshire House Workshops in English Oak.  The Library Association contacted libraries across the United Kingdom asking for information about staff killed during the First World War.  When the replies came in it soon became clear that there were too many names to be easily accommodated by the original design.  Following the advice of Christie, it was decided that the entire memorial would be made of a series of wood panels incised in gilt.  English oak was chosen because, in the words of Christie “the wood seems to be thoroughly British and to symbolise Britain”.  The memorial was made by the workshops of Harry Hems and Sons of Exeter, ecclesiastical sculptor and wood carver.

The memorial, which was erected in the corridor leading to the Round Reading Room of the British Museum, was officially unveiled at a ceremony in Museum on the evening of Friday 24th October 1924.  The memorial remained at the British Museum until 1998 when it was moved to its current site in the British Library.

Memorial for librarians at British Library

What is less well-known is that the Library Association also collected service details for each of the librarians named on the memorial.  Many of the forms returned included photographs, which are now held in the British Library Corporate Archive.  A selection of these has been made available on the BL Facebook pages.  More will be added during the coming week.

Unfortunately, we have very little information about the memorial or the librarians mentioned on it, and only have images for 30 of the 142 people named.  Please help us to tell the stories behind these ‘untold lives’ by using this blog or our Facebook gallery pages to share any information you have about the memorial or the librarians named on it.

Lynn Young
British Library Corporate Archivist


11 November 2011

An Indian soldier in France during World War I

A story for Armistice Day...

The India Office Records holds the Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, 1914-1918. The Censor was concerned with letters to and from Indian troops in France and England, and his reports include translated extracts from soldier’s letters. The Government’s fear which led to the censoring of mails was that uncensored letters could provide military information to the enemy and that accounts of Indian soldiers suffering in France could distress their families at home and so lead to political instability in India. Touching, funny, sad and at times bawdy, the letters describe vividly the suffering the Indian soldiers endured and their longing to return to their families back in India.

This letter, originally written in Urdu, was from an Indian Muslim soldier writing from Marseilles, France to Moradabad, United Provinces, dated 14 January 1915. In passing it the Censor, Captain E B Howell, commented in his report that it read like an extract from the Arabian Nights. The soldier writes that he has been in France for a year and a half, but has heard that they will be leaving by the end of January or February at the latest. He says that his family must be very distressed at his long absence, and it reminds him of the following story.

Translation of a letter from an Indian Muslim soldier writing from Marseilles -  part one
Translation of a letter from an Indian Muslim soldier writing from Marseilles - part twoIOR/L/MIL/5/828/1 ff.110-110v

He writes that it is told that the Caliph Hazrat Umar used to make a tour of inspection every night, and that on one occasion he passed near a house where a woman was reading some beautiful verses. The next day he returned to the house and asked the woman what she had been reading. The woman replied that she was reading odes of love and affection to her husband who was absent at the wars. The Caliph returned home and asked his daughter for how long a time a woman could remain continent. The daughter raised her hand and showed three fingers. The Caliph understood that a woman could remain separate from her husband for three months, and he forthwith issued an order that whenever soldiers were sent to the wars they should be returned to their homes every three months.

The Indian soldier concludes by asking the recipient of the letter to pray that his difficulties may be removed and he may soon return safely with honour.

John O’Brien
Curator, Post 1858 India Office Records

Discover more documents and books on this subject.


07 November 2011

'Unfortunate' women

In my previous blog about Austrians and Germans repatriated from India during the First World War, I mentioned that some women had an ‘unfortunate’ profession.

Madam l-pj-6-1389_4434 photo croppedThere were six women from Calcutta with an ‘unfortunate’ profession, eleven  from Bombay described more bluntly as prostitutes, five female brothel-keepers, and two servants in a brothel. This was the first time we had seen a reference to European prostitutes in India – documents in the India Office Records focus mainly on local women and the health problems in the Indian Army.

Image and description of a Bombay brothel-keeper (IOR/L/PJ/6/1389)

L-pj-6-1389_4434 text cropped

However, Our Army in India and Regulation of Vice refers to the ‘White Slave Traffic which has provoked the indignation of the Western World, which exists also in the East’. Calcutta Vice, a tract against prostitution, refers to the longstanding import of girls from Germany and Eastern Europe. According to Philippa Levine in Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire: the Case of British India, British authorities were relieved to find that most white prostitutes were not from Britain, and therefore not such a challenge to social norms and the delicate balance of imperial power as they had feared.

The presence of European women in brothels in India raises all sorts of questions. Were they trafficked? Did they go to India expecting an entirely different life? Did they go there with the intention of pursuing this occupation? What were their circumstances in Germany and Austria? Were they born in India?

How did these women get on with their fellow passengers to Europe, the missionaries, nurses, clergymen’s wives and other pillars of society?

The Public and Judicial files (IOR/L/PJ/6/1386-1389) telling the story of their repatriation may be found in Search our Catalogues of Archives and Manuscripts
Further reading can be discovered in Explore the British Library

Penny Brook, Lead Curator India Office Records