Untold lives blog

7 posts from August 2012

31 August 2012

Dennis Higton - An untold story of testing Britain's first jet plane

Dennis Higton, who died earlier this year at the age of 90, was a British aeronautical engineer who played a little known, but important part in the testing of Britain's first jet aircraft in 1942 and 1943.
Dennis grew up in difficult circumstances and with limited prospects in the hungry years of the 1920s and 1930s depression, until a position as an engineering apprentice at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), Farnborough offered him a rare opportunity. As Dennis recalled for his interview for National Life Stories An Oral History of British Science, “I can’t tell you the resolve that I put upon myself not to cheat, not to slack, to become absurdly diligent because I wouldn’t have another chance.” His practical skills and hard work at night-school won him a position in the Aerodynamics Department when he completed his apprenticeship. As a practical engineer, without a university education, Dennis faced a daunting challenge joining a group that included some of the nation's finest theoretical aerodynamicists and mathematicians.

Dennis Higton being The Boy at RAE

However, this very difference from those around him helped make Dennis an invaluable member of the team. His start as an apprentice meant that he could bridge the divide, social and educational, between technical workshop staff and aeronautical scientists, and his ingenuity as a practical engineer would prove invaluable to more theoretically inclined colleagues.

In the 1940s and 1950s Farnborough was heavily involved in trying to understand the behaviour of aircraft flying at high speed. With wind tunnels unable to function accurately at speeds approaching the speed of sound, much of this work had to be based on data collected 'live' by instruments fitted to aircraft which were then recorded as the planes flew high speed test flights. Not only were the test flights dangerous, but the primitive nature of the instruments available and the tiny spaces on aircraft to fit the equipment created great problems for measuring flight data. Faced with these problems, Dennis devised a range of ingenious instrumentation installations for recording data from aircraft in flight, including the instruments for the first official flight test programme of Britain's very first jet aircraft, the Gloster E.28/39 powered by Frank Whittle's newly developed jet engine. These instruments provided invaluable data for other aeronautical engineers of a more theoretical bent to base their calculations on.

Dennis Higton on the Gloster E.28-39

We may hear about “great British inventions” like the jet engine, carbon fibre, or the modern computer, but how many of us could name more than one or two of those who helped to create them? As Dennis' story reveals, behind every scientist you've heard of, and every item of engineering you use, are an army of hidden individuals, making small but vital contributions as part of a wider team effort.

Dennis Higton talking to aircrew of a British Buccaneer strike bomber
Dennis Higton (in white shirt) talking to aircrew of a British Buccaneer strike bomber under test on the aircraft carrier USS Lexington.  Photo courtesy of David Eagles.

Dennis Higton’s full life story interview can be accessed via the British Library Sounds website.


Thomas Lean
Oral History of British Science project interviewer (Made in Britain strand)

A version of this post appears on the History of Science blog


24 August 2012

Reading Music Festival

What a difference 220 years make!

Here is a reveller at the Reading Festival in 2007 -

Young man painted purple at Reading FestivalReveller at Reading Festival - author's photograph Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

And here is the programme for the far more sedate Reading Music Festival of August 1787. Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabaeus was performed to an audience who no doubt remained fully clothed throughout and refrained from painting themselves purple.

Programme for Reading Music Festival 1787 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The programme is found in a scrapbook belonging to Sir Charles Marsh (1735-1805), one of the stewards at the event.  Marsh was an important figure in Reading society: JP; Commissioner of income tax; and Commissioner for the sale of land tax. He had been an officer in the British Army, serving with the 84th Foot in India during the Seven Years War.  Having returned to England with a considerable fortune, he invested as founding partner in the Berkshire and Reading Bank which opened in Friar Street Reading in 1788.

Sir Charles's scrapbook contains a variety of interesting and perhaps surprising papers.  We shall be sharing more of them in future posts on Untold Lives.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:

IOPP/MSS Eur C426 Sir Charles Marsh's papers
T. A. B. Corley, 'The earliest Reading Bank: March, Deane & Co, 1788-1815' in Berks Archaeological Journal, vol. 66


16 August 2012

What was Lawrence of Arabia doing in Afghanistan?

Photo of T E LawrenceToday is the 124th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935).  It may seem inappropriate to write about Lawrence of Arabia in Untold Lives as his story has been told countless times in books and films.  However one period of his life seems to be a bit hazy.   T. E. Lawrence spent two years in a remote area of India.  What was he doing there? 


Gilbert C. G. Lewis, a soldier in the Indian Army, remarked in a letter in 1928:

‘…You know Colonel Lawrence, the one who made such a name for himself in Arabia during the war?  He is, at present with the R.A.F. at Miranshah – the people we play hockey with at Idak – as an office clerk! You had probably heard that he had joined the R.A.F. as a private in order to escape publicity.  I tried to persuade them to bring him down with their team next time they come, but apparently he doesn’t take much interest in games!  One would have thought that he could have found many better ways of avoiding publicity, as the life of a private must be rather irksome to one who always [has] done more or less as he pleased.  They say he spends most of his spare time learning to type-write!  …’

Lawrence was apparently taking a two year break in India to write his book The Mint.  Enlisted as a lowly aircraftman under the name T. E. Shaw, he corresponded with Charlotte Shaw, wife of George Bernard, on anything from literature to politics.   A few small photographs of him were enclosed in one of his letters.

  Letter and photo of T E Lawrence

Taken on 10 December 1928, signed 'TES'

There was a break in the correspondence with Charlotte between January and March 1929.  Even the India Office had no clue of Lawrence’s exact whereabouts or activities, in spite of trying to keep tabs on this maverick’s movements. 

There were rumours that Lawrence was active in Afghanistan, a self-appointed agent provocateur. ‘Clad in the most picturesque Oriental garb, silken Kerchiefs of diverse hue tied round his head, with long “Jhubba” of silk with designs of different colours and a “lungi” of the same material…’, he was ‘intimate with the tribes and began subsequently to distribute among the tribes money and arms and provoked them against (King) Amanullah’.

Lawrence was sent back to England by order of the Foreign Office in early 1929, just a few days after King Amanullah was overthrown by the rebels.  So, did Lawrence engineer the insurgence in Afghanistan to bring down the anti-British Amanullah? 

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers

Further reading:

IOR/L/PS/11/293 India Office Records: Political & Secret Annual Files, 1928.  File 5310: Afghanistan – alleged secret mission of T E Lawrence.

BL Add Ms 56496 Charlotte Shaw Papers. Vols. VI, VII. Typewritten copies of letters from T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, together with some from T. E. Lawrence to G. B. Shaw.

IOPP/Mss Eur F655/1 Letters from Gilbert C G Lewis from India 1923-1930

IOPP/Mss Eur Photo Eur 174 - Foreign Office Research Note 5/79 on alleged activities of T E Lawrence in Afghanistan. 1928-29


10 August 2012

A bookbinder’s revenge

“Bookbinders were not considered as important people – hardly worthy of notice”. In such circumstances, it was inadvisable for a craftsman to cross swords with an exacting employer. Thomas Elliott was one of several binders who worked on the large and splendid Harleian Library (founded by Robert Harley in 1704), supervised by its rigorous librarian, Humfrey Wanley.  Elliott’s bills, on deposit at the British Library, reveal that from 1720-29, his work for the library earned him £609 16s 5d.  But this was not easy money. Wanley’s diary entries reveal a battle of wills between librarian and binder with Wanley accusing Elliott of negligence, questioning his costs (“I found him exceedingly dear in all the Work of Marocco-Turkey- & Russia-Leather; besides that of Velvet”) and criticising the “vicious lettering,” a task which Elliott had apparently palmed off onto his employees.  Elliott stood up for himself (Wanley tells us he argued that “no man can do so well as himself”) but it was clear that the librarian had the upper hand. 


Spine of book showing initials E L L

E L L - British Library Harleian Ms.3976 

In 1966, an interesting discovery was made in an edition of Wanley’s diary edited by C.E. and Ruth C.Wright. The spines of two books had not been decorated in the prescribed way.  In the middle of each of the spine panels was a small circle enclosing a letter which, put together, formed Elliott’s name!  So maybe Elliott had the last laugh after all.

Philippa Marks
Curator, Bookbindings; Printed Historical Sources

Further reading:

Ellic Howe, A list of London bookbinders 1648 -1815 (London, 1950).
H. M. Nixon, ‘Harleian Bindings’ in Studies in the book trade in honour of Graham Pollard (Oxford, 1975), 153-94.
Lansdowne MSS:771-2: The diary of Humfrey Wanley, 1715-1726, 2 vols, (London, 1966).
British Library Harleian Mss. 2768 and 3976.


06 August 2012

Dr Griffith’s Report on Caoutchouc (Rubber Tree) - transcript

Extract from document

Extract from IOR/F/4/1787/no 73597
Accompanies Dr Griffith’s Report on Caoutchouc (Rubber Tree)

[bottom paragraph, p.26]
Mr. Scott having Very obligingly
furniched me with a Series of specimens
illustrating the relative advantages of
his Various modes of preparation I have
the honor of submitting them for your
[p. 27]
the numbers refer to Mr. Scotts extensive
Series of experiments which throw much
light on this important Article[s] and which
are additionally Valuable from the rediness
with which this gentleman has rendered them
available to all in Assam
No. 10. Juice formed into a Mass without any
6. Juice dried upon a Nonabsorbing Surface
3. dried upon an absorbing Surface
9. Juice Worked up in the hand [bleaches?] in
Water I subjected to a pressure of about 4 maunds
to the square foot.
8. Juice worked up with the hand and not
7. Juice boiled with an euqual [equal] quantity
of Water and subjected be a similar pressure
this has been exposed to the Sun without deterio-
5 Juice boiled in a Smaller quantity of
Water and subjected to the same pressure
11. Prepared from equal part } IV [4] of Juice
and Water with ½ oz of delated [diluted] Sulphuric Acid
of the Edingurh [Edinburgh] Pharmacapaeia less acid
however will destry [destroy] the Coloring Matter.
12. Juice prepared with Concentrated Sulphuric Acid
Dec. 18 1837
Signed W. Griffith Ass. [Assistant] Surgeon
[?] charge Botanical Mission
True Copy
Signed Francis Jenkins
A.G.G. [Agent Governor General]
Ordered that a Copy of the Report on the Corutchou Tree of Assam
by Mr. Griffith Assistant Surgeon to the Buttan [Bhutan] Mission
Submitted with the above letter be forwarded to the Secretary
to the Asiatic Society for publication in the Society’s Journal.

Claire Norman
Project Officer: Botany in British India
British Library



Dr Griffith’s Report on Caoutchouc (Rubber Tree)

Botanical drawingIOR/F/4/1787/no 73597, page 29

Welcome to the first subject-oriented blog post about the Botany in British India Project!

Why this Report?
IOR/F/4/1787/no 73597 is a voluminous file which presents challenging handwriting – so why choose it? Because this Report shows the complex administrative network, the activity of key botanists and the excitement that the Rubber Tree and its potential uses generated at the time.

What is Caoutchouc and Why is it Important?
Caoutchouc is the milky resinous juice of the Rubber Tree which coagulates when exposed to the air and becomes elastic and waterproof. The substance is also known as India-rubber, or Gum Elastic and was found in South America as well as East India. It can also mean the tree itself. According to William Griffith in this Report (p.7), it is ‘far superior to all the other trees’!

Dr William Griffith and Others’ Work – Botany and Science
Dr Griffith (1810-1845) travelled extensively in India and elsewhere and was a voracious collector, amassing over 12,000 specimens. In this Report he tells us about his expedition to the forests including many exciting observations about the Rubber Tree. He ends by relating Mr. Scott’s scientific experiments to understand the properties of the juice. I have made a transcript of this (bottom of p.26-27). Would you make any changes to my transcript? The numbers at the side refer to a document by Mr. Scott – I wonder if this document survives?

Spirit of Exchange of Knowledge
The multitude of references within this file reflect the appetite for learning about the environment and for sharing findings. Griffith mentions many botanical researchers. Included at the end is the information that ‘Francis Jenkins A.G.G.’ signed to approve the copy and that the report was sent to be published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume 7, Part 1. Captain [later Major General] Jenkins (1793-1866) pioneered tea production and other industries in Assam and was a leading educationalist.

Share your thoughts!
Please feel welcome to comment on the blog posts as together we can best understand the records and their context.

Claire Norman
Project Officer: Botany in British India
British Library

Further Resources
William Griffith (botanist), Wikipedia

William Griffith, British Botanist, The Beauty of Orchids and Flowers

William Griffith - Papers at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

'Journals of Travels in Assam, Burma, Bhootan, Afghanistan and the Neighbouring Countries' by William Griffith, Project Gutenberg

Article about Francis Jenkins by Cooch Behar Heritage Society


03 August 2012

India and the Olympic Games

India has a contingent of 81 athletes at London 2012, its largest ever Olympic squad. In an attempt to boost their medal tally, billionaire tycoon Lakshmi Mittal set up the Mittal Champions Trust which has so far spent £8 million on structured training for Indian sportsmen and women.

Before 1920, India did not send a proper team to the Olympics.  In the Paris Games of 1900 the sole representative was Norman Pritchard (born of British parents in Calcutta) who won silver medals in the 200 metres and 200 metres hurdles.

The Indian Olympic Association was established in November 1919 ‘to secure proper representation for India at the next Olympic Games to be held in Belgium in 1920 and to take steps to select, train and send competitors from India for the same’. Athletes from the Native States were to be eligible as well as those from British India. The India Office Records holds printed progress reports issued by the IOA from its headquarters at the Deccan Gymkhana at Pune. The IOA had a membership of 3,793 by June 1920 and had received generous donations from Sir Dorabji Tata, the Maharaja of Navanagar, the Maharaja of Drangadhra and other Indian rulers, as well as a non-recurring grant from the Government of India. Tata attended the 1920 Antwerp Games as the Indian representative on the International Olympic Committee. 


Indian Olympic athletes

In April 1920 the IOA selection committee chose:
P. D. Chaugule marathon and 10,000 metres
H. D. Kaikadi marathon
D. D. Shinde wrestling
P. C. Bannerjee short races
K. T. Navale wrestling
S. V. Datar marathon


On 5 June 1920 the team sailed from Bombay to Tilbury in the SS Mantua.  The Secretary of the British Olympic Association intended to give them ‘a hearty British welcome’ as they completed their final training in England. Edwin Samuel Montagu, Secretary of State for India, wrote to Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War, suggesting that the India contingent might be housed in a military rest camp at Antwerp. Churchill agreed to provide accommodation only and stressed that this must not create a precedent. 

The results were:

• Bannerjee - 100 metres and 400 metres - knocked out in the heats. Flag bearer for India at the opening ceremony.
• Chaugule - did not finish 10,000 metres ; marathon - 19th in 2 hours 50:45.4 and awarded a diploma of merit for being a top 30 finisher.
• Datar  - did not finish marathon.
• Navale  -catch-as-catch-can middleweight class wrestling - equal 9th.
• Shinde - catch-as-catch-can featherweight class wrestling - 4th.

Kaikadi appears not to have competed.

After Antwerp, India Office officials were keen to encourage India’s participation in future Games. They believed that the Olympic movement was important to India ‘both as an outlet for her national aspirations and as a declaration of her national status’.  The IOA began a search for talented athletes throughout India and the path to 2012 was begun.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:

IOR/L/PJ/6/1634, File J&P 6783 of 1919

India and the Olympic Games Part 2