Untold lives blog

5 posts from January 2012

30 January 2012

Suicide pact of bookbinder’s family

The recent financial crisis has seen the collapse of many businesses, but similar tragedies are very common in history.  In 18th century London, neither the Poor Laws nor the parish workhouses were of any use to failing bookbinder Richard Smith who found himself confined for debt in the King’s Bench in 1732 together with his wife, Bridget, and their two year old child. 

The binder “had been always industrious and frugal, invincibly honest, and remarkable for conjugal affection” but had been afflicted by what he described as “a train of unlucky accidents”. Unable to escape their situation, the husband and wife committed suicide after having killed their daughter to prevent her from remaining “friendless in the world, exposed to ignorance and misery”.  The letters they left behind can be read in the Library’s copy of The Gentleman's magazine (Volume 2 p.722).  A later article in the Library’s copy of Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser  (Tuesday, September 21, 1779; Issue 3226) also covered the event (see the Burney Collection Database).

The Smiths were confident that God would take care of their “unbodied natures”, resigning themselves to him “without any terrible apprehensions”,  and left letters addressed to their landlord and to their cousin (the successful bookbinder John Brindley) which give a heart- rending description of their sufferings.  The contents show Smith to have been a sympathetic man who was careful to apologise for causing trouble to his friends, and who was sincerely sorry to have wronged Mr Brooks his creditor. He had settled his rent and was even concerned for the future of his pets “if you can find any Chap for my dog and antient cat, that would be kind”.

The impact of the suicide on contemporary society was wide ranging, and was discussed by Voltaire, Oliver Goldsmith and Tobias Smollett, all of whom admired Smith’s calm and rational explanation of his plight.  The story even found its way across the Atlantic via The Rhode Island Gazette (1732 BL microfilm M.misc.686) where it inspired an anonymous pamphlet An Appeal for the Georgia Colony (1732) which questioned the sense of sending debtors to gaol - thus effectively preventing them from paying their debts at all - and suggesting that a transfer to the colonies might be more useful.

Bookbinders Provident AsylumThis painful episode may have had a positive outcome. A newspaper cutting of the story is to be found in a scrap book, part of a Library collection compiled by the Victorian bookbinder, John Jaffray, who cannot fail to have been affected by it (see more on the Jaffray Collection).  Jaffray worked tirelessly for the well-being of his fellow craftsmen and to ensure that nothing like this could happen again he promoted the establishment of unions, pension societies and charitable establishments such as the Bookbinders’ Provident Asylum shown in this illustration from the Jaffray Collection.

Philippa Marks 
Curator, Bookbindings; Printed Historical Sources

23 January 2012

Milk and two sugars: why Australians switched from Chinese to Indian tea

Although metropolitan Australians have become passionate, discriminating coffee drinkers, tea has been the traditional hot beverage of Anglo-Celtic Australians since British settlement in 1788.

SwagmanSwagman 1880s, courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne PH24-1985

An iconic image of Australian outback life is of settlers, drovers or a swagman sitting around a fire with a ‘billy’ on the boil for tea. Perhaps the most famous mention of the billy is in Banjo Paterson’s 1895 poem Waltzing Matilda that has become Australia’s most recognised bush ballad:

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
"You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me"

So what tea was being boiled in the billy?

Before the 1880s it would usually have been low grade Chinese green tea known as “common green tea”. If times were hard or Chinese tea unobtainable the leaves of the Australian tea tree (Leptospermum species) and the sweet tea vine (Smilax glycophylla) were used as tea substitutes.

If you were settled in early Sydney and had some money there was a surprising range of Chinese teas available.  As well as “common green tea” you could buy Hyson, Hyson skin, Oolong, Pekoe, Twankay and Souchong teas. These teas were regularly advertised for sale in the The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser from its first issue in 1803.

Commercial growing of tea in India developed rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the 1880s there was a dramatic switch in Australian buying habits from Chinese green tea to Indian black tea. Before the 1880s Chinese green tea had 90% of the Australian market, yet by 1900 the proportions were reversed and Indian tea dominated the market.

The Calcutta Tea Syndicate promoted Indian tea at Australian international exhibitions. Its Australian agent, James ‘Rajah’ Inglis, wrote a report on the 1880-1881 Melbourne International Exhibition for the Government of India. Promotion of Indian tea emphasised its superior quality over the (sometimes adulterated and inconsistent quality of) common green tea from China. Indian suppliers also played on empire loyalties, emphasising British Indian tea over ‘foreign’ Chinese tea. By the 1890s Inglis’ company was selling over 600,000 lb. of 'Billy Tea' and over 1,000,000 lb. of packaged Indian teas a year in Australia.

It was also fortuitous that the Australian dairy industry expanded at this time, making fresh milk available, so black tea with milk and sugar became the national beverage.

The end of transportation of convicts meant an end to a demand for cheap Chinese green teas, as convicts were often paid in green tea. Green tea was associated with Australia’s convict past, and late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Australia was keen to erase associations with its convict legacy.

By the early twentieth century Australia was a major market for Indian and Ceylon teas and by 1929 Australia had become the world’s premier tea-drinking nation, with Australia’s per capita tea consumption briefly eclipsing that of the UK.

For much of the twentieth century until today Australian tea brands such as Bushells - “Our cuppa since 1883” - and Tuckfields Teas were household names. Green tea has returned to Australia as a niche market and Australians are keen coffee drinkers, yet a strong brew of tea with milk – and often sugar – remains the hot beverage of choice for most Australians.

Nicholas Martland
Australasian Studies Curator

Further reading:

Butlin, N. G. Forming a colonial economy: Australia 1810-1850. (Cambridge, 1994). [YC.1995.b.1601]

Inglis, James. Report on the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880-81. (Calcutta, 1882). [IOR/V/27/601/19]

Karskens, Grace. The colony: a history of early Sydney (Crows Nest, NSW, 2010) [YD.2009.b.2063]

Walker, R. & Roberts, D. From scarcity to surfeit: a history of food and nutrition in New South Wales. (Kensington, NSW, 1988). [YA.1991.b.7514]


16 January 2012

A Name Carved in Stone: Henry Beaucourt Skyrme

Skyrme MemorialOn a corner of the perimeter wall of Heathfield School in Ascot sits a memorial to the only son of its former bursar, Flying Officer Henry Beaucourt Skyrme of the Royal Air Force, who went missing on the night of 16 January 1941.  Such commemorations of sacrifice during times of war provide a first step in the journey of discovery. The sources used to find out more about Flying Officer Skyrme may be of use in tracing other ‘Untold Lives’.

Skyrme was first posted missing in The Times on 7 February 1941.  A copy of his RAF service record was obtained with the permission of his next-of-kin. Henry “Harry” Beaucourt Skyrme was born on 8 October 1917 in Bexhill-on-Sea, the only child of Major Theophilus Garfield Skyrme. His middle name refers to Beaucourt-sur-l'Ancre on the Somme, where his father was wounded during the First World War, subsequently losing his leg.


Obituary for Skyrme in The RadleianHarry attended Radley College Abingdon 1931-35. The British Library holds issues of school newspapers and The Radleian [Pressmark: P.P.6118.l.] contains a short obituary of Harry, which describes him as a loyal Radleian although not known for eminence. Skyrme’s service record lists his interests as ‘rugger and rowing’ and The Radleian mentions him crewing a coxed IV for his house in inter-school competitions.

Skyrme was a salesman for Stratstone Ltd in Pall Mall before volunteering for the RAF on 4 October 1938. He scraped through his flight exams at the second attempt and was authorized to wear the coveted RAF cloth pilot’s wings. He married Georgina Alexandra Bellanti from Gozo Malta on 23 September 1939. On 25 October 1940 he was promoted to the rank of Flying Officer and on 1 November 1940 he joined No.10 Bomber Squadron under the command of Group Captain W.E. ‘King Kong’ Staton.

Portrait of Harry Skyrme in uniform
On 16 January 1941 at 18:32 Skyrme and four comrades (Sergeants Rowlett, Sandland, Polkinghorne and Brookman) took off from RAF Leeming in Yorkshire as part of an 81 aircraft raid on Wilhelmshaven following up a successful raid the previous night. During the night of the 16th fewer crews found their targets and Wilhelmshaven reported only light damage with two people killed.  Five aircraft did not return from that raid including the Whitley Mk V bomber T4220 ZA-S piloted by Skyrme on his maiden operational mission. The last report of his aircraft was timed at 21:15: they were going to drop altitude to try to find warmer air because the flaps were icing up. The aircraft and crew were presumed lost in the North Sea.

On 10 September 1941, Harry Skyrme’s daughter Jacqueline was born. The following day, The Times listed him in the roll of honour: “previously reported missing now presumed killed in action”.   He is commemorated on three memorials: Heathfield School, Ascot; Ascot War Memorial; RAF Memorial, Runnymede (Panel 30).

Jeremy Jenkins
Curator, International Organisations & North American Official Collections

Further Reading:

Eunice Wilson, The Records of the Royal Air Force: How to Find the Few, Federation of Family History Societies: Birmingham, 1991 [HLR: Enq Desk 929.341].

W.R. Chorley, Royal Air Force Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, Midland Counties Publications : Leicester, 1993  [Pressmark: 97/25912] 

Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945, Viking: Harmondsworth 1985 [Pressmark: X.800/41147]

George L. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World War, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1990 [Pressmark: YC.1991.a.4084]

09 January 2012

The East India Company slaving voyage of Nicholas Skottowe

Today we are pleased to share a story contributed by guest blogger Professor Huw Bowen.

It is well known that, alongside its trade in goods, the East India Company used its ships to transport large numbers of people around the world: merchants, administrators, soldiers, sailors, adventurers, women, children, convicts, and so on.   Less well known is that the Company also played a small but significant part in the slave trade.  In the mid-seventeenth century attempts were made to establish a plantation colony in Madagascar, but over a much longer period the slave populations of St Helena and Fort Marlborough (Bengkulu) were replenished with West African slaves.  Indeed in 1718 the population of St Helena consisted of 542 whites and 411 slaves.
The last dedicated slaving voyage organised by the Company appears to have been that of the Royal George, commanded by Nicholas Skottowe, in 1764-6.  Skottowe was ordered by the directors to procure slaves at Cabinda in Angola and then sail on to St Helena and Bengkulu before heading to Bombay.   He was given a consignment of commodities to exchange for slaves, including guns, gunpowder, cutlasses, and piece goods. 

Government House & Council House at Fort Marlborough
BL, P329 'A view of the Government House & Council House at Fort Marlborough' 1799.  Images Online.

The Royal George was moored off Cabinda between 26 February and 29 April 1765 while 236 slaves were purchased: 125 men, 45 women, 38 boys, 25 girls, and 3 'children'.  The ship then sailed to St Helena (it was surely no coincidence that Skottowe's brother John was Governor of the island), where in late May the slaves were sent ashore and 'refreshed'.  Skottowe was paid a commission of 15 shillings for every slave (£177 in total) and his Chief Mate was paid 5 shillings per slave (£59 in total). 150 of the slaves were sent on from St Helena to Bengkulu.
Extract from ship's journal about the Royal George slavesThe official journal of Royal George reveals very little about the slaves and the conditions they experienced. We know that all 236 slaves purchased at Cabinda were delivered to St Helena, and 149 of the 150 sent on to Bengkulu were landed at Fort Marlborough in early September: 60 men, 31 women, 31 boys and 27 girls.  This survival rate is very surprising, because Royal George was not a happy or healthy ship.  Of the 77 members of the crew, 21 died during the voyage, 10 were discharged, and 2 were recorded as having 'run' from the ship.  These losses were unusually high for a Company ship.

Further research will reveal what happened to the slaves. Skottowe went on to command the ship Bridgewater before becoming a Principal Managing Owner of some of the East Indiamen hired by the Company.  He died in 1792 aged 67 and is buried at Chesham in Buckinghamshire.
Skottowe’s voyage may only be a small footnote in the broader commercial history of the East India Company, but it opens up a window on a little known and very dark world, exposing as it does the part played by the Company in the transoceanic slave trade.

Huw Bowen, Professor of Modern History at Swansea University

Further reading: IOR/L/MAR/B/17/H Official journal of Royal George; IOR/G/32 and IOR/G/35 Administrative records for St Helena and Fort Marlborough.


02 January 2012

Blood writing in Buddhist scrolls

Among the thousands of manuscripts uncovered from a walled up library cave at Dunhuang, northwest China, at the turn of the twentieth century, were a group of Buddhist scrolls copied by a man in his eighties.  The texts are all linked by a similar colophons, identifying the old man as the scribe and documenting his advancing years.  One of the scrolls, S.5451, today held at the British Library, shows the man at 83 years old demonstrating his piety by copying out a Buddhist scripture in his own hand, using ink mixed with his own blood. The colophon reads:

Copied by an old man of 83, who pricked his own hand to draw blood [to write with], on the 2nd of the 2nd month of 'bingyin', the 3rd year of Tianyou (27 February, 906).


Buddhist scroll  BL, S.5451

These documents illustrate a widespread belief in Buddhist cultures that by copying, or commissioning a copy of a Buddhist sutra, individuals would demonstrate their piety and devotion to the Dharma, or Buddhist doctrine, and in so doing accrue merit for their passage to the next life. 

 Not only was it believed that by replicating the words or image of the Buddha one could demonstrate and build on one’s own piety but also that doing so might improve the karmic lot of one’s relatives or loved ones, alive or already passed.  To this end, wealthy donors and patrons commissioned artists and craftsmen to decorate caves, create elaborate murals, and copy out Buddhist scriptures.  More modest individuals achieved similar ends by spreading the word via the oral traditions of storytelling and music, or by copying out scriptures in their own hand. The most pious sometimes gave their own blood to do so, as a particularly demonstrative and efficacious means of accruing religious merit.

The practice of blood-writing seen in this scroll seems to have been uncommon in other Buddhist cultures; while in China it actually predated the appearance of Buddhism. Acts of self-mortification also extended to more extreme practices of self-mutilation such as the amputation of fingers, and even self-immolation (burning oneself alive) as a means of demonstrating devotion and piety.  The example shown in our scroll S.5451 is not common among the Dunhuang manuscripts held at the British Library but it demonstrates an important phenomenon among pious Chinese Buddhists, which continued through to the seventeenth century.

Abby Baker
Education & Training Coordinator, The International Dunhuang Project


Further reading:

Jimmy Y.Yu, Bodies of Sanctity: Ascetic Practices in Late Imperial China

James Baskind, Mortification Practices in the Obaku School, Essays on East Asian Religion and Culture, Edited by Christian Wittern and Shi Lishan, Kyoto 2007