Untold lives blog

7 posts from January 2013

30 January 2013

Catastrophe at the Foreign Office

Judging from the popularity of the recent LOLCats post on the British Library Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog, there is an appreciative audience for feline stories.  So here is the sad tale of the bookbinder’s cat.

Our story takes place in the old Foreign Office building in Downing Street in the mid nineteenth century.  There was a passage leading to the bookbinder’s rooms in the basement which had racks used to store large bound volumes of newspapers. One day a volume of The Times was taken off the shelf by the messenger, leaving a vacant space in the rack. When the volume was eventually sent back to the basement for replacement, the unlucky bookbinder’s cat was occupying the vacant space. Unfortunately the cat was not seen and the volume was shelved, trapping the animal in the rack where it died of starvation.

Some time later, staff at the Foreign Office complained of bad smells emanating from this passage but a thorough investigation failed to identify the source. In 1861 the Foreign Office was moved into temporary accommodation to make way for construction of the current building and the heavy newspaper volumes were taken down from the racks. The workmen discovered:

“…the mortal remains of the cat lying on its side, with its black fur still preserved, as if asleep; but the moment the air touched it the black hair arose and vanished, and there lay the skeleton of the cat, covered, apparently, with white parchment stretched tightly over it”.

Cat mummyCat mummy, 332-330 BC. ©De Agostini. Images Online

At the time the incident was deemed so curious that the skeleton of the cat was put into a large red despatch box and sent up to the Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell, and the members of the Cabinet for their inspection and subsequently kept as a gruesome souvenir. The skeleton of the poor animal was later in the possession of the widow of George Mason, who worked as a messenger for many years in the Foreign Office Library.

Richard Scott Morel
Curator, East India Company Records  

Source: Sir Edward Hertslet, Recollections of the Old Foreign Office, (London, 1901), pp. 36-38.


25 January 2013

The ‘Apostle of Mesmerism in India’

Tonight’s performance of The Singing Hypnotist by Christopher Green will mark the culmination of his work as Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the British Library. To add to Christopher’s stories about hypnotists through the ages, including Annie de Montford (‘the most powerful mesmerist in the world’), I should like to offer Dr James Esdaile, the self-proclaimed ‘Apostle of Mesmerism in India’.

Hypnotic Session - man hypnotising a woman whilst a group of people look inHypnotic Session ©Lessing Archive/British Library Board Images Online

In September 1846 ten Indian male patients were taken from the wards of the Native Hospital in Calcutta. They were placed in a house in the hospital grounds to act as guinea pigs in an experiment to determine whether mesmerism could be used successfully to achieve painless surgery.  The men were aged 18-40 years, both Hindu and Muslim:  Cheedam, Bissonath, Nilmoney, Neechul, Deeloo, Jahiroodeen, Dohmun, Ramchund, Hyder Khan, Murali Doss.

Esdaile ‘declined to perform Mesmeric manipulations himself, on the ground of this being needless and detrimental to his health’. His mesmerizers were young men, Hindu and Muslim, aged 14-30, most of them compounders and dressers from the Hooghly Hospital: Munoorudeen, Nilmoney Doss, Tintamanee, Nuwab Jan, Nobin Doss, Ruhim Bux. A separate mesmerizer was assigned to each patient. They worked in silence in darkened rooms but members of the Committee appointed by the Government of Bengal to assess Esdaile’s work were able to view through small apertures made in the door panels. The patient lay on his back, with the mesmerizer sitting behind him at the head of the bed, leaning over so their faces were almost in contact. The mesmerizer passed his hands over the patient’s face, chiefly the eyes, breathing frequently and gently over the patient’s lips, eyes and nostrils. The process continued without interruption for at least two hours each day, but for as long as eight hours in one case.

The Committee reported that in seven cases the processes produced deep sleep.  It proved impossible to wake the patients with loud noises; light; burning with red hot cinders placed on the chest; pricking with a pin or the point of a knife or scapel; sticking a pin between the fingers or on the point of the nose; or pulling hairs from the chest.  It was different from sleep induced by narcotic drugs since the patient could be woken quickly with transverse passes, fanning, and blowing on the face and eyes. Seven surgical operations were performed without signs of pain whilst the patient was asleep. The patients were all unaware that an operation had taken place.

It was decided that the method warranted further investigation and Esdaile was put in charge of a small experimental hospital in Calcutta for one year. Again his work found favour. Esdaile was appointed Presidency Surgeon in 1848 and Marine Surgeon in 1850. However the East India Company’s support for mesmerism in hospitals fell away when ether was established as a quick and cheap alternative. Esdaile continued with mesmerism in private practice but returned to the UK in 1851.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records             

Further reading
IOR/V/26/850/11 Report of the committee appointed by Government to observe and report upon surgical operations by Dr. J. Esdaile, upon patients under the influence of alleged mesmeric agency (Calcutta, 1846)
James Esdaile, Mesmerism in India, and its practical application in surgery and medicine (London, 1846)
Waltraud Ernst, Esdaile, James (1808-1859) Oxford DNB


18 January 2013

Forbes & Company - one of the oldest businesses in the world

The booming economy of India has brought to our attention one of the oldest companies in the world which is still in business. Forbes & Company Ltd was established by a Scot in Bombay in 1767.  It was taken over in the recent years by the Tata Group and is now part of the Shapoorji Pallonji Group.

Forbes & Company's office, Bombay. 1810Forbes & Company's office, Bombay. 1810.BL/WD 315 no.10. Images Online       Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1764, John Forbes (1743-1821), descendant of an ancient family of Lord Forbes of Pitsligo, set sail on board the ship Asia as a purser on the East India Company’s service.  After three years in India as a ‘free mariner’ and later as ‘free merchant’, independent of the East India Company, he started his own business by trading Indian cotton.  Forbes’ company quickly widened its interests into ship brokerage, ship building and eventually into banking. Within a few years, his company was appointed banker to the Government of Bombay.

John Forbes never married.  His business passed to his nephew Charles Forbes, who was sent to India aged 16 to learn the trade and became head of their Indian business in 1821.  Charles was made a Baronet in 1823.

Illustrated letter from James Forbes to his sister describing his journey from Port Victoria to Bombay, 1771
Letter from James Forbes to his sister describing his journey from Port Victoria to Bombay, 1771. (IOPP/Mss Eur F380/2)Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Searching the archives of the Forbes family in the India Office Private Papers, several interesting items emerged.  Among their family papers, IOPP/Mss Eur F380/1 is a volume of family history.  IOPP/Mss Eur F380/2 is a volume of fine manuscript copies of letters adorned with exquisite watercolours, in which James Forbes, a cousin of John Forbes, described his six voyages made between 1765-1773 to the East Indies, with remarks on the people, animals and vegetable products of Asia, Africa and America.

A view of AnjengoA view of Anjengo (IOPP/Mss Eur F380/2)     Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Apart from family papers, there are several volumes of other papers relating to their business affairs and social life, including a group of commissioned miniatures depicting the dwelling house of Charles Forbes, the office of Forbes & Company, and their social life in Bombay in the 1810s.

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers  

11 January 2013

Worse than McGonagall? The poems of William Nathan Stedman

It’s safe to say that not many people are familiar with the poems of William Nathan Stedman.  Like William McGonagall, however, he does have a certain notoriety among connoisseurs of really bad verse.  His best-known lines appear in one of his sonnets – ‘And when upon your dainty breast I lay / My wearied head, more soft than eiderdown’ – but if I had to pick one specimen of his poetic oeuvre, it would be ‘Bells’, a particular favourite of Stedman’s which, he claimed, had been ‘recited by myself many times, before large and critical audiences’:

The Bell!  Ah, yes, the bell.
What fate may it foretell?
Birth, death, marriage, dinner;
News – for saint or sinner:
The youth in office, lanky grown,
Is rung up on the telephone.
The young man on commercial trip
Knows that it signals through the ship.
From start to finish life is largely hung with bells,
And in them sounds quick summonses and funeral knells.


Photo of William Nathan StedmanPortrait of William Nathan Stedman, from What Might Have Been: Ballads and Poems for Reading and Reciting (1912), 11601.g.31 (5)     Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Like other unsuccessful poets, Stedman blamed his failure on the critics, ‘a clique of unmitigated scoundrels, fools, would-be-somebodies, white-livered parsons, hatchet-faced scribblers, grub-street lepers, bottle-nosed editors, pawnshop reviewers, syphilis-veined critics and bull-browed bastards’.  However, his special venom was reserved for the former Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, who he believed to be both Jack the Ripper and the Great Beast (666) foretold in the Book of Revelation.


Gladstone proved to be the Great Beast, from Sonnets, Lays and LyricGladstone proved to be the Great Beast, from Sonnets, Lays and Lyrics (1911), 11601.g.31 (4)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It was this that drew Stedman’s writings to the attention of Herbert Gladstone, son of the Great Beast and Home Secretary under Asquith.  Alarmed by the violent language of Stedman’s Antichrist and the Man of Sin (1909), Gladstone wrote to Sir Melville Macnaghten, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, requesting a confidential investigation.  The subsequent police report, which survives today among the Gladstone Papers in the British Library, revealed a fascinating story.  Stedman, it turned out, had been involved in one of the most notorious literary swindles of the 1890s, as secretary to a series of fraudulent joint-stock companies including the City of London Publishing Company (a vanity press), the Authors Alliance (a bogus literary agency), and the International Society of Literature, Science and Art, which charged its members the sum of eight guineas for the privilege of putting the letters FSL after their name and wearing a special hood and gown on formal occasions.  For his part in these schemes, Stedman had been convicted of fraud at the Old Bailey in September 1892 and sentenced to fifteen months’ hard labour.

Police report on William Nathan StedmanPublic Domain Creative Commons LicencePolice report on William Nathan Stedman: Gladstone Papers,Add MS 46067, f. 72 

Gladstone and Macnaghten concluded that Stedman was a harmless crank rather than a dangerous lunatic, and agreed to take no further action.  Stedman went on writing poetry, and the British Library holds several of his later productions, including ‘His Majesty the King’, an attack on Irish Home Rule in Shakespearian blank verse:

Ireland is beautiful, in spite of bogs,
And holds her own great natural ‘vantages.
Hard-headed businessmen of State proclaim
That many parts of Ireland should be drained,
So that the soil in part be put to plough,
In part to build, and railways opened up.
I see the busy hum of factories,
And giant engines groaning in their strength.
Harbours arise; the Mercantile Marine
Finds many ports round Ireland’s rugged coasts.
If landowners will but begin their work,
The Government its duty will not shirk.

Nicholas Parsons, in The Joy of Bad Verse (1988), sums up Stedman’s poetry as ‘completely unhinged’.  But it is only fair to leave the last word to Stedman himself, who remained serenely confident that despite ‘all the beautiful gilt-edged programme of extra-superfine double-action donkey-power ignorance’, his true poetic genius would one day be recognised.

Arnold Hunt
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts


09 January 2013

The Royal Indian Asylum and the building of the railway at Ealing

As the Metropolitan Railway celebrates its 150th anniversary, we’d like to draw our readers’ attention to some less well-known papers in the India Office Records which concern the development of the London rail network.

Cover of Near and far : pleasant home districts on the north side of London served by the Metropolitan Railway Cover of Near and far : pleasant home districts on the north side of London served by the Metropolitan Railway (1912) Images Online    Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1874 the India Office received notice that the proposed Hounslow and Metropolitan Railway was to run through the grounds of the Royal Indian Asylum at Ealing.  The Elm Grove estate in Ealing had been purchased by the Secretary of State for India from the Perceval family for £24,500 in March 1870. Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt supervised the conversion of the house into a lunatic asylum for patients who had been sent home from India. The Royal Indian Asylum opened in August 1870.

Clause 32 of an Act passed in 1878 for the building of the Hounslow and Metropolitan Railway was intended to protect the interests of the Royal Indian Asylum:
•    no more than two acres of land was to be acquired compulsorily without the consent of the Secretary of State
•    the railway was to pass through the grounds of the Asylum in a cutting
•    a bridge and road over the cutting were to be constructed and maintained
•    the railway was to be fenced off from the Asylum grounds.

Negotiations between the India Office and the railway company before conveyance of the land in 1881 centred on the amount of compensation to be paid for the land, the positioning of the bridge, and the fencing.  Dr Thomas Christie, the Superintendent of the Asylum, was consulted about the protection to be given to patients passing across the bridge. It was agreed that a properly constructed iron railing would be sufficient and that it would look better than the high brick wall shown in the drawing submitted by the railway company.  Christie believed that patients were less likely to climb an open railing than a wall beyond which they could not see without getting to the top. The only horizontal railing bars should be at the top and bottom – intermediate bars would ‘give facilities for climbing’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records  

Further reading:
For papers, correspondence, plans and drawings about the Hounslow and Metropolitan Railway scheme at Ealing Search our Catalogues Archives and Manuscripts
IOR/L/SUR Papers of the India Office Surveyor’s Department
IOR/L/L/2 India Office Property Records
Anthony Farrington, The records of the East India College Haileybury and other institutions (London 1976)


04 January 2013

French journalists and ‘the greatest of all sedition-mongers’

In the wake of the Leveson Enquiry and discussions about the press, this story about French journalists’ political activities in the Middle East provides food for thought. At the end of the nineteenth century Britain’s position in the Gulf faced a potential threat from France’s efforts to increase its influence in Oman. The strained relations between Britain and France were manifest in local press activity. In his Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, J.G. Lorimer tells the tale of a ‘malicious press campaign against British proceedings in the Gulf’.  The culprit was thought to be Antoine Goguyer, a French arms dealer based in Muscat. According to Lorimer, Goguyer published anti-British 'tirades' in the French, Russian and Arabic press which ‘showed bitter animus and an unscrupulous Musqat waterfront_compresseddisregard of truth, but their style was pungent and some of them were undeniably witty’.

View of the waterfront at Muscat, Photo 206/(6)
© The British Library Board 

Images Online      


 British representatives and the Sultan of Oman eventually asked the French authorities to remove Goguyer. Although Goguyer had previously been in trouble with French officials in Tunis and Abyssinia, the authorities discreetly rebuffed the Sultan and Britain, claiming that he was ‘not a man of violence, but an honest trader’ but that in future he would be restrained from interesting himself in the internal affairs of Oman. Goguyer remained at Muscat and his anti-British activities continued into the early 20th century. 

© The British Library Board            Lorimer title page_compressed 

Lorimer also tells us about an Arabic newspaper purporting to be written by Muslims for Muslims, which was delivered free to a range of Islamic countries, with some copies being sent directly to their rulers. He says that ‘British policy was represented in an odious light’ and that the paper commonly used expressions such as ‘the greatest of all sedition-mongers are the English’ and ‘dwelt exultantly on British discomfitures in any part of the world’. British attempts to intercept copies and prevent their delivery were often outwitted. The French connection with this newspaper came to light through the unfortunate experiences of Salim Qamri, son of a Zanzibar merchant, who took up an offer of employment made via the French Consul at Aden. He moved to Paris and worked on the newspaper as native editor, under M. Piat, formerly French Consul at Bushehr and now ‘employed on special service’ by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Disliking the paper’s methods of operation, Salim Qamri refused to work, was declared insane and confined to a lunatic asylum. With help from his Scottish missionary contacts, he appealed to the British Embassy in Paris, was released from the asylum and returned to Aden where he made a formal deposition about his experiences. The British Ambassador in Paris commented that although Salim Qamri’s story was ‘romantic and unusual it appears no invention or hallucination’. Of course, Lorimer talks only of French journalistic misdemeanours. It would be very interesting to know if anyone has discovered British journalistic malpractices recorded in French sources for the same period.

Lorimer’s Gazetteer and thousands of documents relating to the history of the Gulf are being digitised and made accessible online as part of a major programme funded by the Qatar Foundation. Further information about this programme is available on the Library’s press pages.

Penny Brook, Lead Curator, India Office Records


01 January 2013

New Year’s Day in the Workhouse

A very Happy New Year to readers of Untold Lives!  We start 2013 with a story which shows workhouse administrators of 100 years ago acting in a far more humane way than one might perhaps expect.

Deptford Workhouse Public Domain Creative Commons Licence
ptford Workhouse by C. Matthews (1840) BL Online Gallery

On 1 January 1913, the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser published the story of David Scott, a man in his 70s who had been an inmate at the Chester Workhouse for nine years.  Scott had inherited £1,000 from his sister Margaret Scott, a lady of independent means living at 35 Queen Street Chester until her death on 13 February 1912. Rather than seeing the bequest as his means of escape, Scott wished to remain in the workhouse as a boarder. His request was greeted with amusement by the Board of Guardians and he was asked to leave.  However Scott’s case was discussed again at the next meeting of the Board a fortnight later.  The Clerk reported ‘amid laughter’ that he had received four letters from London, Sandford, Norwich, and Penryn, from people anxious to offer Scott a home.  The Board heard that Scott was in very poor health and helpless.  It was feared that if he was ejected from the workhouse into the town, all his money would go and he would just return with empty pockets.  The previous decision was rescinded and Scott was allowed to remain.

However there appears to have been a twist to the story. David Scott, gentleman, of 39 Princess Street Chester died on 28 February 1917, leaving effects amounting to £870 3s.  Probate was granted to Walter Scott, compositor, the same man who had dealt with Margaret Scott’s estate in 1912.  So did David Scott decide to leave the workhouse or did the Guardians change their minds once again?  Can any readers shed light on what happened?

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records   

Further reading:
The British Newspaper Archive – Scott’s story also appears in the Derby Daily Telegraph 18 December 1912 and the Dundee Courier 19 December 1912.