Untold lives blog

6 posts from April 2012

30 April 2012

Serena Livingstone-Stanley: unsung heroine of imperial exploration

A guest blog from Raymond Howgego whose work featured in Hedley Sutton's last post -

In 1936 the normally staid London publisher, Chatto & Windus, published a stirring account of two women travellers’ adventures in a distant outpost of empire. Entitled Through Darkest Pondelayo, and written by the appropriately christened adventuress Serena Livingstone-Stanley, it was presented in the form of letters back home, edited by one Rev. Barnaby Whitecorn D.D., the author’s ‘next door neighbour’.

Title page of Through Darkest PondelayoTitle page of Through Darkest Pondelayo Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The author, together with her female travelling companion Francis and long-suffering maidservant Placket, sail from Harwich on ‘May 14th’ (year unspecified), and via the Mediterranean and Suez Canal reach Ceylon on 12 June. Ten days later they sight the island of Pondelayo and anchor off Bogtuk, ‘its white sandy beach much like Eastbourne, except for the grass huts and palm trees’. Lodging at the Mission House, they are entertained by Judge Wiggins and his topless black female ‘servant’ Rosie, and in mid-July they set out to explore the remote interior of the island accompanied by Wiggins, Rosie, the Hon. Mrs Pringle (whose bare legs and short skirt feature alluringly in the photographs), Mrs Garble and Captain Fitzkhaki-Campbell (in faithful ‘Worms XI’ cricket jumper).

The expedition crossing the Bobo RiverThe expedition crossing the Bobo River
Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

From Dead Mother-in-Laws Cove the party negotiates the crocodile-infested Swamp of the Blue Lily, and on 27 July arrives at Tikki Bahaar, the first native village. They investigate the Lake of a Million Fishes, where Francis gets lost in the jungle and Placket gives a month’s notice; and in late August they cross the notorious Bobo River (by convenient plank bridge), negotiating the infamous Parrot Gully, and climbing on the slopes of Mount Blim Blam, a volcano in active eruption. From the Great Cataract they beat their way through the dense jungles of Upper Timwiffi to arrive back at Dead Mother-in-Laws Cove on 18 September. The narrative ends at the Mission House on 1 October with the author telegraphing the Revd Whitecorn for the loan of five pounds to cover the cost of her return passage. She arrives safely back in the English Channel on 7 November.

Through Darkest Pondelayo was published in a single edition in 1936, illustrated with thirteen comically edited photographs of the party in various unlikely situations, and of fearsome witch-doctors and decorated tribesmen, their pictures lifted from Hutchinson’s Living Races of Mankind. As one reviewer would note, the publisher ‘entered fully into the spirit of the thing, presenting the book on exaggeratedly thick paper in the true manner of offering a book of tremendous importance’. The stirring poem printed on the title page was similarly contrived, both its author (M. Hodgson) and his Anthology of the Homeland being non-existent. The extent to which the author’s real name was known to reviewers is uncertain, some simply stating that her name ‘is something very different’, and others that ‘she is an Australian’.

In fact the book was an early flight of fantasy by the Australian author Joan Lindsay (1896-1984). Born in Victoria, the daughter of a prominent judge, Lindsay studied painting at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, Melbourne, and in 1922, while in London, married Daryl Lindsay, a fellow painter who became director of the National Gallery of Victoria. Joan became Lady Lindsay when her husband was knighted in 1956. Her most famous work, Picnic at Hanging Rock, a mystery surrounding the disappearance of girls on a school trip to the Mount Macedon area of Victoria, was turned into a major feature film. She died in Melbourne in 1984.

Raymond Howgego
Independent traveller and writer; officer of the Hakluyt Society

Read Through Darkest Pondelayo at the British Library


23 April 2012

Friedrich Spassvogel – an unlived life!

Some lives are untold for a good reason. Several years ago Asian and African Studies added to the stock of their Reading Room a four-volume Encyclopaedia of Exploration compiled by Raymond Howgego (OIA 910.903). What was remarkable about this was that it included a note in the first volume stating that one of the thousands of entries was completely fictitious, and a case of champagne was offered to the first reader diligent enough to identify the spoof. I recognized a kindred spirit in Mr Howgego, but quailed at attempting to comb through well over 3000 pages of text.  
The champagne has been claimed (and no doubt drunk). The indefatigable winner, a German gentleman living in Nice, proved correct in recognizing that his putative fellow countryman, Friedrich Spassvogel - born in Hildesheim in 1606, lost an eye in battle during the Thirty Years' War, went to sea in the 'Treibend' in 1632 in an attempt to break the Anglo-Dutch monopoly in trade with the East, captured and taken to Nova Scotia, escaped to Maine, tried to establish a colony in Georgia, captured for a second time by Spaniards and imprisoned along with his native American wife in Madrid, freed after the payment of a ransom, published his memoirs in Leipzig in 1658 which were later translated into Dutch, French and English, died in Cologne in 1672 - never actually existed. A clue is provided by his surname, which means 'wag'.

Map of the southern part of the coast of Maine c. 1680

Map of the southern part of the coast of Maine c. 1680. (Add. 13970 A) © The British Library Board

Mr Howgego has just completed a fifth volume of his Encyclopaedia, and appropriately enough this is about imaginary travel narratives.
Meanwhile, I believe that the film rights to 'The Adventures of Friedrich Spassvogel' are still available ...

Hedley Sutton
Asian and African Studies Reference Team Leader


20 April 2012

Botanical discoveries and beastly bungalows

RHS National Gardening Week seems a good time to highlight the work of East India Company botanists Saharanpur X1080 vol IIsuch as John Forbes Royle who from 1823 was Superintendent of Saharanpur Botanic Garden, located about 1,000 miles west of Calcutta. He was part of a network of people collecting and describing plants, managing botanic gardens and experimenting with plant transfers, often in difficult conditions. Their work led to changes to agricultural production in India and the introduction of new plants to British gardens.

Royle's article in the Journal of the Asiatic Society (1832) tells us that as well as appreciating the aesthetic qualities of plants, he valued botany for its usefulness to medicine and for developing new sources of food and economic products. He believed that the practical benefits of botany could only be realised if underpinned by a sound knowledge of the distinguishing characteristics of plants and an understanding of their geographical distribution and the implications of that for their requirements for healthy growth. He took advantage of Saharunpur's elevated position to experiment with growing plants that could not cope with the hotter conditions at the parent institution in Calcutta.

Meconopsis X1080 vol II pl15Royle lacked time to do much plant-hunting himself so he used his gardeners and his contacts with shawl merchants to acquire new specimens, using the knowledge he gained to compile his Illustrations of the Botany and other Branches of Natural History of the Himalayan Mountains and the Flora of Cashmere. The herbarium he developed was sent to Britain and I believe it is now in the care of Liverpool Museums.

Royle spent much of his own money on acquiring books to support his studies and rebuilding his home, which also housed his herbarium, as "the Garden Bungalow from being thatched and built of mud, swarmed with white ants and reptiles of every description". The East India Company provided him with a modest salary and practical support, but declined to cover these additional expenses, despite Nathaniel Wallich, Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, putting in a heartfelt plea on Royle's behalf. Despite his disappointment about the lack of financial support, Royle seems to have continued his botanical career with undiminished enthusiasm.

Penny Brook
Lead Curator, India Office Records

Images are from Illustrations of the Botany and other Branches of Natural History of the Himalayan Mountains and the Flora of Cashmere Vol II

India Office Records sources relating to botany are listed in R Axelby and P Nair Science and the changing environment in India 1780-1920: a guide to sources in the India Office Records

Images of selected collection items relating to Nathaniel Wallich and the Calcutta Botanic Garden are available online

Catalogues of the India Office Records, which include the archives of the East India Company are in SOCAM

Explore the British Library to discover the British Library's printed collections

16 April 2012

Whatever happened to Eliza Armstrong?

One hundred years ago William Thomas Stead died in the Titanic disaster aged 62.  He had enjoyed a long career as a journalist and newspaper editor, campaigning on political and social issues. 

  Photograph of W T Stead   W T Stead © UIG/The British Library Board    BL Images Online 

In November 1885 Stead was sentenced at the Old Bailey to three months’ imprisonment for his part in the Eliza Armstrong case. He had intended to highlight the scandal of child prostitution by arranging to buy 13-year old Eliza for £5 from her mother through an intermediary Rebecca Jarrett.   The story of the sale of ‘Lily’ was published by Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette in 'The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon'.

Eliza was the daughter of Charles Armstrong, a chimney sweep, and his wife Elizabeth who lived in Charles Street, Marylebone. The street was rebuilt and renamed as Ranston Street in the late 1890s. It survives today as a cobbled backwater of terraced cottages near the Edgware Road.



Ranston St 1 for blogRanston Street today - author's photograph Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


What happened to Eliza once the Old Bailey trial was over?  From census records, it appears that she forged a new life far away from her family.  In 1891 an Eliza Armstrong aged 19 and born in London was a nursemaid in the household of architect Charles Clement Hodges in Hexham Northumberland.  In 1893 Eliza Armstrong married Henry George West, a plumber and gas fitter born in Islington, London.  Eliza and Henry settled in South Shields and the 1901 census shows  three children: Alice Maud Mary aged 5, William Frederick 3, and Sybil Primrose 9 months. 

Henry George West died in 1906 aged 42. By 1911 Eliza had become the wife of Samuel O’Donnell, a lead worker from Donegal.  They were living in Jarrow with three West children (May 15, Henry 6, and Reginald 4); their own children (Maurice 2, and baby Frederick); and two lodgers.  A 10-year-old Sybil West was a pupil at the National Children’s Home in Alverstoke Hampshire. 

UK birth registers suggest that Eliza and Samuel had two more children: Minnie (born 1913) and Norman (born 1915).  For these births the mother’s maiden name is given as Armstrong.

Eliza was widowed for a second time when Samuel died in 1917 aged 48.  The death of Eliza O’Donnell at the age of 66 is recorded in County Durham in 1938.

Can anyone confirm that this is indeed Eliza’s story?  According to Alison Plowden’s book, Eliza wrote to Stead saying that she was married to a good man and had six children. Did she ever talk to her family about her childhood encounter with Stead and the experience of giving evidence at the Old Bailey? If you know, please get in touch!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading
Alison Plowden, The case of Eliza Armstrong ‘A child bought for £5’ (London, 1974)

The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: The Report of the “Pall Mall Gazette's” Secret Commission (1885)

Contemporary news reports in The British Newspaper Archive

Search for books in the British Library by and about W T Stead


09 April 2012

Half cat, half rabbit: a zoo in Bloomsbury

Doctor Dolittle, in the novels by Hugh Lofting, had ‘rabbits in the pantry, white mice in his piano, a squirrel in the linen closet and a hedgehog in the cellar’.  It could almost be a description of Sir Hans Sloane.  In addition to his vast collections of books and manuscripts, natural history specimens, antiquities and curiosities of all kinds, Sloane owned a surprising number of live animals, which he kept in the garden of his house in Bloomsbury Place just down the street from the modern British Museum.

Many of the exotic creatures sent to Sloane failed to thrive in the colder climate of eighteenth-century London.  An iguana from Antigua only survived a few days, and a tortoise from Virginia died before Sloane could discover any food it would eat.  But he had more success with some of the other animals in his menagerie.  In the catalogue of his collections he mentions an Indian crane, which ‘lived in my garden severall years, and died by swallowing a brass linked sleeve button’, and an arctic fox, which also ‘lived many years with me in my garden’, shedding its fur every winter and changing from brown to white.  He also acquired a hawksbill turtle from the coast of Guinea, which lived for several months in a tub of salt water before succumbing to the cold weather.

Sloane’s younger relatives joined in the collecting game, and seem to have competed with each other in looking for rare and bizarre animals to add to the Bloomsbury menagerie.  In 1711 his stepson John Fuller sent him ‘a couple of Monstrous Piggs’, a gift which he followed up, a few years later, with a pair of young pine martens from Scotland.  ‘They won’t bite or strive to run away’, he assured Sloane, ‘unless the jolting of the Waggon has made them wilder.  Their Dung you’ll find a perfect Perfume.’

But Sloane’s grandson Rose Fuller capped this in 1731 with the gift of ‘an odd mixture of two different species’, a cat which he claimed had been crossed with a rabbit.  ‘The fore part is a perfect cat, and the hinder has as perfectly the make and motion of a Rabbit, which you will perceive immediately upon seeing it goe along, which it does by walking with its forelegs like the former and hopping after like the latter .. It was engender’d as we imagine between a sow cat, and a buck rabbit, which was kept tame not far distant from her.’  ‘PS’, he added helpfully, ‘The Cat will eat milk and catch mice like common cats, and therefore will be no manner of trouble.’

Envelope addressed to Sir Hans Sloane in Bloomsbury 'With a Cat in a Basket'
Envelope addressed to Sir Hans Sloane in Bloomsbury 'With a Cat in a Basket' Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A new research project, Reconnecting Sloane, aims to bring together the separate parts of Sloane’s collection in the British Library, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum.  By studying Sloane’s correspondence and papers in the BL alongside his drawings and specimens in the BM and NHM, it should be possible to get a much clearer sense of his collection as a whole – and perhaps, along the way, discover something more about the monstrous pigs, the pine martens, and the mysterious cat-rabbit, and how they fitted into Sloane’s encyclopaedic vision of the world.

Arnold Hunt

Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts


02 April 2012

Yvonne FitzRoy and Victor Sassoon

 A recent enquiry about the papers of Yvonne FitzRoy [IOPP/ Mss Eur E312] led to the discovery of the letters of Victor Sassoon – a legendary figure in 1930s Shanghai.  
Yvonne FitzRoy (1891-1971), was a society lady with a progressive mind.  She was a theatre actress before the First World War.  But her acting career was cut short when she was summoned by the Scottish Women’s Hospital (supported by the National Union of Scottish Women’s Suffrage Societies) to serve as a volunteer nurse in Romania and Russia.  She was awarded a Russian medal at the end of the War, and continued her adventures in India where she worked as the private secretary for the wife of the Viceroy from 1920 to 1926.  It was probably during this time that she became acquainted with Sir Victor Sassoon, a member of the Indian Legislative Council. 

Yvonne FitzRoy in India, 1923
Yvonne FitzRoy in India, 1923. [Mss Eur E312/14. ] Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Victor Sassoon came to know Yvonne better through his connections with the English aristocracy.  In the early 1920s Sassoon purchased a stately home, West Green House in Hampshire but he never had much chance to enjoy the life of an English country gentleman while looking after his business interests in Bombay and Shanghai.  He allowed the previous owner of the property, Lady Evelyn, Duchess of Wellington, to stay in the manor house with her friend Yvonne FitzRoy. 

  Letter from Sassoon to FitzRoy dated 11 Feb 1927
Letter from Sassoon to FitzRoy dated 11 Feb 1927 [IOPP/Mss Eur E312/4, f.14] Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Yvonne’s unusual friendship with Sassoon lasted many years whilst she stayed in his country property.  Letters from Sassoon to Yvonne were all signed as “Daddy”, “Dad”, or “D.”    At first glance I was misled to think that these letters might have been from Yvonne’s father, Sir Almeric FitzRoy, the Royal Clerk of the Privy Council (1898-1923).   However after careful examination of Sir Almeric’s handwriting in other letters in this collection, I reassured myself that these were indeed written by Sassoon.   

Sassoon, reputed to be a bon vivant with impeccable manners, charmed many young ladies in his busy life.  However, he was never serious about his relationships with women until very late in his life.   This is partly due to his sensitivity about his leg injury caused by an air accident when he was a RAF officer during the First World War.  Curious whether Yvonne was one of his many affairs of the heart, I read all the letters trying to detect any suggestions of romance.   Judging by the contents of the letters, the level of intimacy between these two friends did not develop. Sassoon wrote mostly about the Indian economic situation or political situation in China.  

Their correspondence seems suddenly to come to a halt in 1939 probably as a result of the death of Lady Evelyn.  Yvonne seems to have suffered some trauma around that time.  Sassoon was struggling to maintain his business empire in Shanghai during WWII and eventually retired to the Bahamas in 1948.  With no prospect of ever returning to England, he decided to leave his country house to the National Trust in 1957.  Sassoon eventually married one of his nurses in his 70s and died childless in Nassau in 1961.  Yvonne stayed on in West Green House alone, never marrying, until her own death in 1971. 

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers