Untold lives blog

6 posts from July 2012

31 July 2012

Victorian Pedestrianism (2) – 1,000 Miles in 1,000 Hours

We left Robert Makepeace in 1852 performing his feats of pedestrianism in Australia.

In the same year in India another athlete styling himself 'The American Stag' set out to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours.  William England (b.1804 in Maryland), who had been the chief officer of the American ship Cambridge, was by no means the first man to attempt this challenge. 

Captain Barclay From Walter Thom, Pedestrianism (1813)  © The British Library Board Images Online

Robert Barclay Allardyce, a Scottish aristocrat better known as ‘Captain Barclay’, had become a legend in 1809 when he bet 1,000 guineas that he could walk one mile in each of 1,000 consecutive hours.  Once an hour, he walked across Newmarket Heath to a post half a mile away and then back again. Barclay increased the amount of time which he could rest by walking a mile at the end of the first hour and then starting out on the next mile as soon as the next hour began. Towards the end of his walk he had to be kept awake by being prodded with needles and having pistols fired close to his ears. On his successful completion of the event on 12 July 1809 Barclay was 32lbs lighter but 16,000 guineas richer because of side bets on top of the original wager.

William England walked for 1,000 miles on the road between Calcutta and Barrackpore from 8 March to 19 April 1852 for a wager of 5,000 rupees. The temperature was above 90 degrees for the last fifteen days and he lost one sixth of his body weight. The local people were bewildered.  Allen’s Indian Mail reported that they were ‘utterly unable to account for the spectacle of a European, walking up and down for a month together in the same place. The most popular view of the case was, that the “Saheb” had turned Sunyasee, and bound himself by a vow to walk a stated distance up and down at certain intervals, till he died’.

The 200th anniversary of Barclay’s walk in 2009 was marked by jockey Richard Dunwoody’s recreation of the feat at Newmarket to raise money for charity.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:

Allen’s Indian Mail Vol X (Jan-Dec 1852), p.349
Bengal Hurkaru (20 April and 22 April 1852)
Edward S Sears, Running through the Ages (2001)

Victorian pedestrianism 1-Robert Makepeace aka The American Stag


27 July 2012

Victorian Pedestrianism (1) – Robert Makepeace aka ‘The American Stag’

To celebrate the opening of the London Olympic Games of 2012, here is a tale of athletic prowess from the nineteenth century.

Cover of first issue of Sporting LifeThe first issue of Sporting Life  21 August 1847 © The British Library Board Images Online


We marvel at the stamina and skill of those competing in the pentathlon and decathlon, but what would be the reaction of today’s Olympic athletes if asked to perform 15 events in 90 minutes? 

On 19 August 1849, at the cricket ground in Burnley, Robert Makepeace successfully completed the following feats within the set time of 1½ hours:

• Taking a flying leap through a fire balloon
• Running 160 yards
• Leaping over 5 men’s heads
• Picking up 25 eggs with his mouth one yard apart
• Picking up 25 bricks with his mouth one yard apart
• Leaping over 100 hurdles 4 feet high and 10 yards apart
• Walking a mile
• Running a mile
• Wheeling a barrow half a mile
• Bowling a hoop half a mile
• Drawing a gig half a mile
• Running backwards half a mile
• Walking backwards half a mile
• Drawing a barrow half a mile
• Hopping 200 yards

Robert Makepeace (and yes, we are related!) was a well-known professional sportsman, a pedestrian or ‘ped’. Pedestrianism, meaning competitive walking or running, laid the foundations for modern athletics.  Often centred on public houses, races were organised for high stakes and bets were taken on the outcome.

Makepeace had built up a repertoire of novelty skills to attract the crowds as well as competing in running races from a sprint to 30 miles. His exploits all over England were regularly reported in newspapers such as The Era and Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. Apparently he could run half a mile in the impressive time of 2 minutes 7 seconds. In February 1849 he took on the challenge of racing a horse over five miles, leaping 300 hurdles. The horse lost ground by refusing several times and throwing its rider, but eventually beat its two-legged rival by seven hurdles.

Robert’s nickname ‘The American Stag’ is something of a mystery as he came from London.   Perhaps he was one of the British peds who crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s to challenge their American counterparts?

By August 1852 Robert Makepeace was in Australia with Adelaide newspapers advertising his forthcoming athletic feats.  Then he seems to disappear from sight. Do any Untold Lives readers know what happened to him?


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


Further reading:

British Newspaper Archive 

19th Century UK  Periodicals

Edward S Sears, Running through the Ages (2001)

Warren Roe, Front Runners: the first athletic track champions (2002)

Victorian pedestrianism 2-1000 miles in 1000 hours

23 July 2012

Hume’s Stray Feathers

Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912), British administrator and one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, recorded an extraordinary story of resilience, the ability of people to cope with disruptions.

Hume was a respected ornithologist.  In January 1875 he boarded an old gunboat fitted for the Indian Marine Survey to explore the Laccadive archipelago (Lakshadweep), India’s only coral reefs with atoll formation. Hume’s detailed records of the animals, (in particular birds), geography and people constituted the first research expedition to the islands and submerged reefs. 

Hume published his observations in Stray Feathers, the journal he set up, authored and edited.

Stray FeathersCover page of Stray Feathers Vol. IV., 1876.

Hume’s story is a four-stage ‘negotiation’ between the Indian government and islanders of Laccadive about the control of arboreal rats that were nibbling away coconut palms and the islanders’ income.

• The government suggested cats to kill the rats but the islanders already had cats who were content with their regular food of fish.
• The government sent snakes that were quickly prevented from colonizing the islands.
• Mongooses were shipped but they too were unwelcome visitors, preferring easily available chickens to the difficult-to-reach rats.
• Owls were delivered but they were considered a bad omen and forwarded to an uninhabited island.

  Lakshmi & owlLakshmi the Goddess of fortune with her owl carrier (Add.Or.5267). Chromolithograph originally published/produced in Calcutta Art Studio fl. 1890's.  Images Online  © The British Library Board.  In defence of the government administrators, owls had a positive connotation in Bengal. The white (barn) owl was regarded as royal for being the vehicle of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth.

Hume’s wry humour shows he thought that pest control in this case was best left to the islanders’ wisdom of how to cope with disruption:

‘What ails the Sirkar?’ said the elders ‘Is it not enough that they deluge us with snakes, that they flood us with long-tailed ground rats (mongooses) that kill our chickens? And now they want to afflict us with these devil birds, whose cries keep us all awake at night, and make the children scream, and the old women foretell death and ruin! Certainly we are the Sirkars slaves – what ever they order we obey, but – we won’t have the devil birds.’

The disruption was being caused by the external predators intended as benevolent pest control, not the rats. As a naturalist, Hume proposed that while natural science works around general principles, for instance what preys on rats, local environmental knowledge is also important as it tells what is compatible with local people's values and beliefs. As an administrator, Hume pointed out the link between knowledge and power; that both collective ability and freedom to make decisions were required to negotiate the boundaries of ecological, cultural, economic and political identity. Hume’s story may be one of the first articulations of the role of knowledge and power in resilience.

Andrea Déri
PhD Candidate, Birkbeck College, University of London
BL Cataloguer

In consultation with Nalini Persad, Curator, South Indian Studies, Asian and African Studies

Further reading:

Hume, A.O., c1880. 'The Laccadive and the West Coast' in Stray Feathers (BL, P/V 2044)

Hume, A.O., 1876. 'The Laccadive and the West Coast' in Stray Feathers. Journal of ornithology for India and its dependencies, 4, pp.433-4. (BL, PP.2041) Also online.


19 July 2012

Botany in British India

  Botany in British India Logo


About the Project

Botany in British India is a project to catalogue, digitise and raise awareness of archival material. Our aim is to increase access to key records and enable research in this domain and others.

Botany in British IndiaAt the Height of Activity (1800-1850)

These records mainly cover the period 1800-1850 and are part of the India Office Records. At this time, there was a thirst for investigating ‘exotic’ plants in faraway lands, especially in India.

Highly determined surgeon-naturalists were at the centre of this intense and pioneering activity. These include Robert Kyd, William Roxburgh, William Griffith and Robert Wight. You can also find out how the British and the indigenous Indian population interacted and exchanged knowledge within these papers.

Activity documented includes: the creation and operation of botanical gardens in India (at Bangalore, Saharanpur, Dapuri, Ootacamund, Madras, Samulcotta and Darjeeling); plant-collecting expeditions to Assam, the Coromandel Coast and the Spice Islands; and the use of plants as foodstuffs, industrial products and medicines.

Subjects of Research in addition to Botany

Yes! Whilst botany is well documented, these archives are also of especial interest to anyone studying:

  • history of science, nature and the environment
  • sociology and cultural studies (e.g. social uses of botany, gardens as pleasure grounds)
  • colonial history (including the interaction between imperial and indigenous populations)
  • intellectual curiosity, administration and the exchange of ideas around the world

 …amongst many other subjects. The records also contain some hard data which could be used for data-modelling.
See also the publication: Richard Axelby and Savithri Preetha Nair, Science and the Changing Environment in India 1780-1920 (British Library, 2010)

How has the Project come about?

We identified these records relating to Botany in British India during the Wallich and Indian Natural History Project.

This project is made possible by the generous support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Find out more about the Records: Follow and Join in the Project’s Conversation

The Project has just begun! As I catalogue the files, I will make brief subject-orientated posts on selected records and introduce the topics they cover. These posts will be regularly appearing in blogs and social media using the keyword (and # hashtag): bibi.

How to Participate and Share
Our aim is to engage conversation and research, so please feel welcome to comment on the blog posts and share freely!

Claire Norman
Project Officer: Botany in British India


16 July 2012

Queens of the Silver Screen

As promised in the Untold Lives posting of 21 May featuring Engelbert Humperdinck and Cliff Richard, here are more revelations about celebrities from the world of entertainment.

It is a curious fact that during the second decade of the twentieth century no fewer than four baby girls were born in different parts of India who in their adult lives were to find enduring fame on the silver screen. Their birth and baptismal details can be traced in the 'N' series of the India Office Records, that treasure trove of genealogical data about Europeans who were born, married or died somewhere in the sub-continent prior to independence in 1947.  
The eldest of the quartet came into the world as Estelle Merle Thompson in Bombay on 18 February 1911 (IOR/N/3/105 f.27). As Merle Oberon, she starred in films such as The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Dark Angel (1935) and Wuthering Heights (1939). Her nickname 'Queenie' is thought to derive from the visit of Queen Mary, along with her husband the King Emperor George V, to India for the Delhi Durbar when she was less than one year old.
The 'V. Mary Hartley' born in Darjeeling in Bengal on 5 November 1913 to new parents Ernest and Gertrude (IOR/N/1/392 f.165) is the only Oscar winner of the four. She was to leave the country of her birth in 1920 to be educated back in England and, taking the surname of her first husband, gained cinematic immortality as Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind (1939) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1952). She won the coveted statuette for her performances in these two films. 

Vivien Leigh during a dress fittingFashion designer Pierre Balmain and Vivien Leigh, during a fitting in Paris  1960. Images Online

A mere six months separate the births of Margaret Lockwood and Googie Withers, on 15 September 1916 and 12 March 1917 respectively (IOR/ N/3/116 f.210 and IOR/N/1/420 f.210). Margaret Mary Lockwood was born in Karachi the daughter of Henry Lockwood, a District Traffic Superintendent on the North Western Railway. Edgar Withers served as an officer in the Indian Navy (IOR/L/MIL/16/4 ff.336-7), although by the time of his daughter Georgette Lizette's birth in Mussoorie in the United Provinces he had transferred to the Intelligence Department. This is almost certainly the Indian Political Intelligence Department (files in IOR/L/PJ/12). We know that the professional paths of the two actresses crossed on at least one occasion: Margaret Lockwood has the more important part in Alfred Hitchcock's classic film The Lady Vanishes, but Googie Withers takes one of the minor roles as her friend. It is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine the two of them reminiscing between takes on set about their different childhood experiences of India.   
Dorian Leveque and Hedley Sutton
Reference Specialists, Asian and African Studies


09 July 2012

Rescue of an Indian boy from slavery in Muscat

The Collections of the Board of Control, the body which oversaw the activities of the East India Company 1784-1858, contain many cases relating to slavery. One such tragic case is that of an Indian boy by the name of Hussain Bushkh bin Cutura Coombhar. In early 1842 it came to the attention of the Native Agent at Muscat that an Indian male had at some point in the past been brought to Muscat by an Indian named Meer Ameer Ally and sold to one Suliman Kinar. The Agent was able to secure the boy’s release and despatch him by boat to Bombay with a request that the authorities take charge of him.

  Muscat Arabs

Muscat Arabs BL: WD 315 no.51 © The British Library Board Images Online

On 14 November 1842, P W LeGeyt, Senior Magistrate of Police at Bombay reported to the Secretary to the Bombay Government that his Department had taken charge of Hussain Bushkh. In a statement made to LeGeyt, Hussain Bushkh related that he was a native of Lucknow, that his father was a porter in the suburbs of the city, and that he was 12 or 13 years old. He said that one day many years previously he had been playing with some other boys near his home when a person named Meera Meer Ali enticed him away and took him to Calcutta. He told Hussain Bushkh that he was taking him on a pilgrimage to Karbala, but instead he took him to Muscat and sold him as a slave to Suliman, where he remained as a domestic servant until the Native Agent at Muscat secured his release. Hussain Bushkh expressed to LeGeyt his wish to return to Lucknow, though he feared he would be unable to recognise his parents.

A request was made by the Bombay Government to the Resident at Lucknow to make enquiries regarding the boy’s parents, and communications were also made to the Police authorities at Bombay and Surat to be vigilant in preventing kidnapped children being taken away, particularly during the season for the embarkation of pilgrims to the Red Sea.

Sadly the correspondence on this case ends with a letter from LeGeyt informing the Bombay Government that Hussain Bushkh had been sent to the Native General Hospital where he subsequently died from the prevailing epidemic of cholera.

Extract from Bombay Secret Consultations

IOR/F/4/2014/89999 f.23


John O’Brien
Curator, Post 1858 India Office Records

Further reading:

IOR/F/4/2014/89999 ff.1-28

The Collections of the Board of Control are searchable online