Untold lives blog

5 posts from December 2011

30 December 2011

George Chinnery - an artist in Asia

Inspired both by a favourable review in The Independent and an eye-catching poster pinned up on the Asian & African Studies Reading Room notice board, I visited The Flamboyant Mr. Chinnery exhibition at Asia House. Such opportunities very rarely arise, this being the first major display of his art in the UK in more than half a century. Two works from the India Office Prints and Drawings collection are included in this show.


Studies of a brick kiln and of a group of men sawing a plankAn example of Chinnery's work from BL/WD 3385 Album of Drawings of Bengal f.27: Studies of a brick kiln and of a group of men sawing a plank 1821-1825. Images Online

While not a household name, George Chinnery (1774-1852) is now acknowledged as one of the foremost European artists based in Asia in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was nothing if not versatile, producing during the course of a long career spent largely in India and southern China a range of portraits, landscapes and street scenes in oil, watercolour and pencil. An exhibition caption states that he himself preferred creating landscapes. While there are several very fine examples of these in the show, this viewer liked best the portraits, especially a pair of dignified Chinese officials in exotic costume and above all the Anglo-Indian children of the East India Company administrator James Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick was the subject of the writer William Dalrymple's award-winning book White Mughals, published in 2002. Interestingly, a number of his sketches still have the original notes he wrote on them in shorthand, details of which the curators have incorporated into the exhibition catalogue.
Chinnery's life is as fascinating as his art. A Londoner by birth, he studied at the Royal Academy Schools but moved to Ireland when in his early twenties, marrying in Dublin in 1799. His elder brother William also left his native country, but in his case he fled to Sweden to avoid imprisonment for fraud. Leaving his wife and two infant children in Europe, in 1802 George Chinnery set out for Madras on the Gilwell, later transferring to the centre of British power in the sub-continent, Calcutta. His establishing himself among the British community and gaining patrons and commissions may have been assisted by his membership of the 'Star in the East' Masonic Lodge, but nevertheless he fell heavily into debt and left India altogether in 1825 to go to Macao. Apart from regular visits to Canton and a stint in Hong Kong he spent the rest of his life in this small Portuguese colony, being buried in the Old Protestant cemetery there. His name lives on to this day in the 'Rua George Chinnery', a photograph of which is to be found among the exhibits. 
The Flamboyant Mr. Chinnery runs until 21 January at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street W1, and is free of charge.

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Team Leader


26 December 2011

Boxing Day Murder in East London

On Boxing Day afternoon in 1855 Thomas William John Corrigan finished work as foreman at the East India Company’s warehouse in Leadenhall Street, purchased a knife, and returned to the house of friends in the Minories where he and his wife Louisa were spending Christmas.  Without warning, he stabbed Louisa in the chest and she died shortly afterwards. Corrigan was immediately wracked with remorse and all who knew him said the attack was completely out of character.

The murder caused a sensation and his Old Bailey trial in February 1856 was widely reported in the British press.  Corrigan was 29 years old, a quiet and gentle man, and he and Louisa had four young daughters. The court heard how Corrigan had spent the previous day drinking and how he had become increasingly addicted to alcohol during the past few years. His defence was based on evidence that he suffered from delirium tremens and could not be held responsible for his actions as he was in the grip of temporary insanity when he stabbed Louisa. However Corrigan was found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Petitions and letters about the case and the verdict were sent from all over the country to Sir George Grey the Home Secretary.  One petition asking for the death sentence to be lifted was signed by members of Louisa’s family, and the jury who heard the case also submitted a memorial in favour of leniency.

Two days before the execution was scheduled to take place at Newgate, Grey changed Corrigan’s sentence to life imprisonment. However the producers of sensational souvenirs had already been busy and the British Library has two copies of a broadsheet which purports to quote Corrigan’s anguished last words from the scaffold.

Broadsheet detailing Corrigan's execution

' When I slew my dear Louisa,
Wandering was my jealous mind,
On the fatal tree behold me,
At the age of twenty-nine.' 

From BL 74/1888.c.3 A collection of broadsides and newspaper cuttings on murders

Corrigan was transported to Western Australia and his daughters were cared for by the Foresters Society.  Corrigan wrote a book of poetry Fugitive Pieces which was sold to raise money towards their upkeep at a London orphanage. His conduct was exemplary throughout his imprisonment and he was freed on a ticket of leave in May 1861. He remarried and had a second family.  Corrigan was joined in Australia by his younger brother Peter and three of his daughters by Louisa. 

Thomas William John CorriganThomas William John Corrigan (picture kindly supplied by his family) 

Corrigan died in October 1905 after a building a successful career as a journalist and newspaper editor, a life that he could only have dreamed of before the tragic events of Boxing Day 1855.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


19 December 2011

She whirls around! She bounds! She springs!

The professional dancers of the 18th-century London stage, like all but a few of the actors and actresses of the period, have almost entirely disappeared from view. Among those now emerging from undeserved obscurity is Hester Santlow Booth, who was both a leading dancer and a leading actress at Drury Lane between 1706 and 1733. Her acting roles, which may be traced through newspaper advertisements and printed playtexts surviving in the British Library’s collections, ranged from the title role in Charles Shadwell’s The Fair Quaker of Deal (which owed its initial success to her performance) to Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (a part she played for much of her career).

Dancing is the most ephemeral of the performing arts, yet some of Hester Booth’s dances can successfully be reconstructed because they were recorded in one of the earliest forms of dance notation. Many of these notated dances can also be found in the Library. One of the rarest such works, A New Collection of Dances by the choreographer Anthony L’Abbé published in the mid-1720s, includes four of her dances. Passagalia of Venüs & Adonis performd by Mrs SantlowAmong them, the solo Passagalia of Venüs & Adonis is remarkable for its length and its virtuosity. In performance, it brings fully to life the description of Mrs Booth’s dancing to be found in a poem by her husband, the much-admired actor and Drury Lane Theatre manager Barton Booth, published shortly after his death. Booth compared her to Venus, Daphne and Diana, writing of her ‘Sweetness with Majesty combin’d’ and her ‘Harmonious Gesture’ and exclaiming at how ‘She whirls around! she bounds! she springs!’. Such was his wife’s power in performance, that Booth was moved to ask ‘Can Eloquence herself do more?’. Dance, it seems, left drama behind when it came to a truly great dancer.

Moira Goff
Curator, Printed Historical Sources 1501-1800

Further Reading:
Booth, Barton. ‘Ode. On Mira, Dancing’, in Victor, Benjamin. Memoirs of the Life of Barton Booth, Esq; (London: John Watts, 1733), pp. 49-51

L’Abbé, Anthony. ‘Passagalia of Venüs & Adonis performd by Mrs Santlow’, in A New Collection of Dances ([London]:  Mr Barreau and Mr Roussau, [1725?]), plates 46-56

12 December 2011

The Spy who Came in from the Heat

There is no obvious link between the late David Croft's sitcom 'Allo! Allo!' and the India Office Records, but almost inevitably visions of Herr Flick, Von Smallhausen and General Von Klinkerhoffen came to mind when I recently discovered the file IOR/L/PJ/12/623. Official letter about Von Berk

It contains mostly typewritten notes (no illustrations) relating to British surveillance of the magnificently-named Johannes Emil Schwarz Von Berk, thought to be not only a Nazi agent but also to have personal connections with the national leadership back in Berlin. Interestingly, the date span of the contents goes beyond the formal period of hostilities (April 1939 - July 1945). The file forms part of the IOR/L/PJ/12 sub-series, being documentation from and about the Indian Political Intelligence Department - a shadowy body responsible for the internal and external security of the Raj. Whatever nefarious activities Von Berk got up to while in India, the spooks were able to ensure that he did not succeed in damaging the Allied war effort! The file was one of a small collection of archival materials I produced in September when co-hosting a visit from staff working on the India desk in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office; no doubt their predecessors in the Whitehall of the 1940s regarded it with considerably less amusement.


Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Team Leader


Page from report on Von Berk

Search for more India Office Records


05 December 2011

A Keynesian solution

Achieving second place out of 104 candidates in the Civil Service examination of 1906, John Maynard Keynes took up the position of junior clerk in the Military Department of the India Office in October of that year.

The first task that faced him was to find bulls for the military’s dairy farms in Bombay. To breed high-quality milking cows, the army had decided to import British bulls and to cross them with Indian cows. Documents in the India Office Records, many in Keynes’s hand, describe the undertaking. With the help of John Speir, a cattle expert from Glasgow, ten young Ayrshire bulls were chosen and purchased. A pedigree was supplied with each bull (‘Mr Lindsay’s bull, Sire Prince Galla. Dam Beauty, in 1906 she yielded 807 gallons of milk of 4.3% fat’); costs and conditions of transport were negotiated with shipping agents, and a suitable escort was sought for the voyage. Speir’s nephew agreed to accompany the animals, and the SS ‘Costello’ set sail from Hull in January 1907. The cargo was delivered safely, sustaining no greater damage than a single calf with a sore foot.

Long after Keynes had left the India Office, the results of his work became clear. In 1912, Army HQ reported that ‘the half-bred progeny of Scottish bulls are greatly superior in every way to those of the Australian bulls’.

Keynes’s India Office career was brief. In 1908 he resigned to take up a fellowship at Cambridge. His strong interest in Indian monetary policy quickly made his reputation. After publishing Indian Currency and Finance in 1913, he was invited, aged only 29, to sit on the Royal Commission set up to investigate the Indian currency system (the Chamberlain Commission).

  Keynes’s draft of a letter to Speir.IOR/L/MIL/7/1384

This document is Keynes’s draft of a letter to Speir. The annotations show the elaborate conduct of business for which the India Office was known. The draft was submitted upwards to the Secretary of State, John Morley, who passed it down to the Military Committee of the Council of India.* After Committee’s approval, the draft was reviewed and signed off by Council. A fair copy was despatched in the name of the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for India, John Ellis. The original was returned to Keynes to file away.

Antonia Moon 
Senior Archivist, India Office Records

Further reading:

D. E. Moggridge, Maynard Keynes: an economist’s biography (London: Routledge, 1992)

Find out more about the India Office Records.