Untold lives blog

8 posts from February 2013

26 February 2013

‘King’ Robbie James (1957-1998)

Untold Lives tries to maintain impartiality, especially in important matters such as football! So to follow John Watmough’s story of Bradford City's Jimmy Speirs, we have a guest blog by Huw Bowen about Robbie James of Swansea City.

Searching for connections between Swansea City Football Club and Bradford City in the week before the Capital One Cup Final at Wembley was not a difficult task. This is because lots of players, and indeed one manager (Terry Yorath), have been employed by both clubs over the years.  At first I was tempted to write about the tragic life of Alan Davies, once a teenage FA Cup winner with Manchester United, who committed suicide while at Swansea in 1992.  But in the end I just had to plump for Robbie James, one of the few footballers who fully deserve to be described as a legend, a term that is so often misused and abused when applied to sports men and women. 

It has to be said that any non-aficionado of the beautiful game reading this will probably never have heard of Robert Mark James. But, rest assured, the life of Robbie James is most certainly not an ‘untold life’ in south-west Wales.  Because Robbie was a driving force in the remarkable Swansea team of the late 1970s and early 1980s which rose from the bottom of the Football League to the very top.  Born near Swansea, he - along with Alan Curtis, Jeremy Charles, Wyndham Evans, and Nigel ‘Speedy’ Stevenson  - was one of the local heroes we could all identify with and pin our hopes on.  A barnstorming attacking midfielder with a thunderous shot, he dominated the centre of the mud-heap pitch at the dilapidated Vetch Field home of the Swans.

Woodcut of swanSwan by Thomas Bewick-from Bewick's Woodcuts Images Online    Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Robbie made 483 appearances for the Swans in two spells between 1973 and 1990.  He scored 118 goals and won 47 international caps for Wales.  But that is not all.  In total, he made an astonishing 783 league appearances for various clubs over the course of a career that lasted for more than twenty years, and this included playing 89 games for Bradford City between 1990 and 1992.  Unfortunately, though, he also inexplicably went over to the dark side in 1992-3 when he played 51 games for Cardiff City.  When I heard the dreadful news that Robbie had signed for the Bluebirds (or are they Redbirds? Who knows?), I remember thinking ‘Say it ain’t so, Robbie’.

After retirement from full-time professional soccer, Robbie played for several non-league teams in South Wales before becoming player-manager of Llanelli AFC.  Tragically, but in some ways fittingly, Robbie collapsed and died while playing for Llanelli in 1998. The Half-Moon pub in Llanelli was renamed ‘The Robbie James’, and recently a bust of him were unveiled at the Liberty Stadium, the shiny new home of the now Premier League Swans.

By all reports, Robbie was a cheerful, modest man, who sported a trademark 70s moustache and had a genuine passion for the game he graced so wonderfully well.  I only met him once, in a crowded bar during the early 1990s.  As always happens when I am in the presence of one of my sporting heroes, I immediately lost the power of speech and started gaping at him like a goldfish.  Recognising the difficulty I was in, Robbie leaned towards me, quietly said ‘Alright, Pal?’, and shook my hand.

Quite simply, Robbie James was a class act and that is why I was thinking about ‘The King’ when I was at Wembley on Sunday to watch the Swans thrash the Bantams 5-0 (sorry about that Bradford fans, but you supporters were great!).

Huw Bowen, Professor of Modern History at Swansea University


For Swansea City fanzines and books about the club, search Explore the British Library.


24 February 2013

Jimmy Speirs – Inspirational captain, brave soldier

Bradford City’s visit to Wembley for the Capital One Cup final on 24 February has attracted worldwide media coverage and public interest, but many are surprised to learn this is not the club's first appearance in a major cup final. City, currently lying mid-table in League 2, won the FA Cup in 1911 beating Newcastle United 1-0 in a replay held at Old Trafford after the first match at Crystal Palace ended 0-0. City’s cup winning team included eight Scotsmen, still a record for an FA Cup final, among them Jimmy Speirs who was their inspirational captain. It was Speirs who scored the winning goal after 15 minutes, when his header crept into the net after confusion in the Newcastle goalmouth. After the game Speirs held aloft the new (current) FA Cup which coincidentally had been made in Bradford by the jewellery firm Fattorini & Sons. Jimmy Speirs

James Hamilton Speirs was born in Glasgow in 1886. At the age of 19 he joined Glasgow Rangers and then Clyde before moving south to sign for Bradford City in July 1909, making his debut against Manchester United on 1st September. Speirs was described as ‘a cultured and scheming inside-right’ who averaged a goal every two games during his Scottish career. In March 1908 Speirs won his only international cap for Scotland in a match against Wales. At City he played 86 League games scoring 29 times before moving to Leeds City (United) in December 1912 for a then huge fee of £1400. After a further 73 League games and 32 goals, Speirs played his last match in the final game of the 1914-15 season. Despite being married with two young children, he returned to Glasgow and volunteered to join the Cameron Highlanders and enlisted on 17 May 1915. Conscription was still over a year away and even then he would have been exempt through being married with a young family. In March 1916 Corporal Speirs was posted to France. He won the Military Medal for bravery in May 1917 during the Second Battle of Arras, though unfortunately the citation has not survived, and was then promoted to Sergeant. Later that year on 20 August during the Battle Passchendaele, Speirs was reported wounded and missing, with his widow eventually being informed that he had died on or shortly after that date.

Jimmy Speirs is buried at Dochy Farm New British Cemetery near Ypres in Belgium. The grave has received a new headstone and for the first time in 90 years his name is spelt correctly. It had been spelt Spiers, an error that had been made on his enrolment form when he first joined the army. Looking back as a City fan it is sad to learn of a man who had died a lonely death in a muddy shell-hole just six years after holding-up the FA Cup in front of thousands of cheering Bradfordians.

John Watmough
Copy Cataloguing Team

Further reading:

Frost, T. Bradford City: a complete record 1903-1988 (Derby, Breedon, 1988)
Markham, D.  The legends of Bradford City (Derby, Breedon, 2007)
City Gent Magazine (fanzine) 2009 (158) Sept. p.29 and 2011 (172) Aug. p.6

See Explore the British Library for catalogue records.

Jimmy Speirs’ dedicated website: http://www.jimmy-speirs.co.uk/4901.html

Bantams Past Museum: http://www.bantamspast.co.uk/frontroom/jimmy_speirs.html

Photograph from Google images


22 February 2013

Elephant beauty parade

In 1949 Jawaharlal Nehru sent an elephant to the children of Tokyo in response to an appeal made by them. The elephant, named after his daughter Indira, was intended as a messenger of affection and goodwill from the children of India.

Thomas Daniell, Oriental Scenery (1789-90) Images OnlinePublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

There is an amusing letter about this gift amongst the generally staid files of the India Office Political and Secret Department (IOR/L/PS/12/1409). The UK High Commission in New Delhi wrote to the UK Liaison Mission in Tokyo that Indira, a 15 year old weighing two and a half tons, would be leaving Calcutta by ship on 15 August 1949.  The elephant is described as 'a lady of particular beauty'. She was selected at a beauty parade of 20 elephants not only for her good looks, but also because she was the youngest, had a broad forehead and long trunk, and was the most docile of the group.  Moreover she had 18 toenails instead of the usual 16 which was regarded as 'particularly propitious'.

Indira arrived in Japan on 24 September 1949.  She was taken to Ueno Zoo where she was greeted by a large crowd.  Prime Minister Nehru's elephant continued to be a very popular attraction for visitors to the Zoo until her death in August 1983.


Margaret Makepeace 

Lead Curator, East India Company Records


19 February 2013

Convicts and ploughs

Invited in 1835 to review the state of agriculture in South India, the Scottish botanist Robert Wight was not short of ideas for its improvement. One proposal, outlined in a letter to the Government of Madras, was to employ convicts as agricultural labourers. Both convict and State, Wight suggested, would benefit: the convict by acquiring a useful skill, the state from the likely increase in crop production. But the right tools for the job were essential. Recollecting the successful introduction of the wheel-barrow and the long hoe, Wight recommended ‘the most perfect implement of the plough kind that has hitherto been produced’. This was Wilkie’s plough, manufactured by the Wilkie family at Uddingston in Lanarkshire, and the winner in ploughing contests across lowland Scotland. This sketch shows the plough’s innovatory tilt: the blade cut the furrow at an angle, which allowed the wheel to roll through the furrow more steadily. 

Sketch of Wilkie’s plough
Sketch of Wilkie's plough Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Wight also sought to help skilled convicts. He recommended that prisoners keep up their trades and be given the latest equipment: hammers for blacksmiths, fly-shuttles for weavers. Such tools, he insisted, would ultimately produce ‘better men, and better Artists’. The Government of Madras was less convinced, but agreed to deploy a small number of prisoners to work on government farms.

Wight never forgot the value of proper implements. In later years, when setting up experimental cotton farms at Coimbatore, Madras, he rewarded Ram Sing, who had procured some Bourbon cotton seeds for him, with a complete set of ‘Ploughs, Harrows, Hoes, Yokes and Gear’ (IOR/F/4/1964/86089 folio 37r).

The file about convicts can be read at IOR/F/4/1815/74864.

Logo for Botany in British IndiaThese files have been digitised as part of the “Botany in British India” project. A complete list of digitised material is available.



Antonia Moon
Lead Curator, Post-1858 India Office Records    

Further reading:
H. J. Noltie, The Life and Work of Robert Wight (Edinburgh, 2007)


14 February 2013

Marry in haste? Not us!

Thinking of proposing marriage this Valentine’s Day?  Afraid of being too hasty?  You could always agree to have a long engagement.  Here are some examples taken from British Library Newspapers of couples who delayed tying the knot for many years.

In 1864, 26 year old Jacob Schwartz said goodbye to Freda Schmidt, aged 25, and left Germany to seek his fortune in America. He promised to come back. She promised to wait. In 1929, just 65 years later, Jacob, 91, cabled Freda, 90, to tell her to prepare for their wedding as he was sailing back to Germany.

  A fly and bee getting marriedA fly and bee getting married. BL,11646.h.32.  Images Online     Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On 19 September 1822, William Bretherton, an ‘amorous and constant swain’ aged 64, married Ellen Taylor aged 62 after an ‘undeviating’ courtship of 44 years and 7 months. The pair enjoyed nearly 14 years of marriage in Leyland Lancashire before William’s death in June 1834. Ellen survived him by 2½ years.

Our next long engagement unfortunately had a tragic ending. In March 1906, John Reynolds had been engaged to Ellen Charles for 25 years.  He committed suicide on the railway near Cheltenham having kissed Ellen goodbye twice earlier that day.  A note was found on his body which bequeathed all his possessions to his ‘dearest friend’ Ellen.

Let’s end on a happier note.  It was reported in September 1900 that a couple in Cincinnati had been engaged for 15 years. The marriage had been delayed not through the bridegroom being ‘a laggard in love’ nor because of any ‘undue coyness’ on behalf of the bride. There simply had been no time during that 15 years when both were out of prison at the same time.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records 

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive
Stories taken from:
Western Daily Press 31 August 1929
Lancaster Gazette 5 October 1822
Worcester Journal 10 October 1822
Westmorland Gazette 26 October 1822
Dundee Courier 14 April 1906
Huddersfield Chronicle 20 September 1900

08 February 2013

The first western entrepreneurs in Afghanistan

Today we have a guest blogger, author Bijan Omrani.  Read on to discover the part that treacle pudding has played in Anglo-Afghan relations!

The many western entrepreneurs who, over the last ten years, have been drawn to do business in Afghanistan are by no means pioneers. Records in the British Library describe the first wave of western business travellers who reached Kabul well over a century ago.

Amir Abdur Rahman condemning Hazara prisoners of war to deathAmir Abdur Rahman condemning Hazara prisoners of war to death © UIG/The British Library Board  Images Online

In 1880, after the Second Afghan War, Amir Abdur Rahman – the “Iron Amir” – came to the Afghan throne.  Determined to reunify a fragmented country, he ruthlessly imposed a regime of conscription. He intended to develop a large modern army as an instrument to impose central control throughout Afghanistan.  Realising that this new army needed large amounts of military materiel, he was eager to establish up-to-date factories in Kabul to supply it. Lacking the necessary expertise in Kabul, he turned to Europe for help. In 1887, a British engineer, Salter Pyne, was appointed to construct the Amir’s mashin khaneh, or workshop complex. The steam-powered workshop soon began to turn out rifles, artillery and ammunition, and later boots, soap, carpets, blankets, needles, paper, agricultural gear, and even musical instruments for military bands.

Over the following 20 years, Salter Pyne was followed to Kabul by over a dozen western specialists, many hoping to make their fortunes in Afghanistan. There were experts in mining, munitions, geology, tanning, and even a piano tuner. Many of them vividly describe the difficulties of developing western-style industry in Afghanistan. All of the factories were under the close supervision of the Amir, who retained control of pay and often press-ganged poor Afghans into work. The workforce was chronically underpaid, demotivated, and frequently resorted to corruption and petty theft just to survive. The Amir responded with floggings and executions, and the western managers with punishments not much less harsh. These conditions frequently generated resentment against the European outsiders, exacerbated by memories of the recent Second Afghan War. Sabotage was a regular occurrence. Nails were put in machines, glue substituted for lubricating oil in valves, and even flint mixed into a gunpowder grinding machine – Frank Martin, Pyne’s successor from 1895, realised the danger just in time.

Habibollah Khan

Amir Habibullah © UIG/The British Library Board Images Online

Although life in Kabul for these westerners could be tense, there were frequent moments of light relief combined with important cultural diplomacy. Annie Thornton, the wife of Ernest Thornton who ran the state tanneries in Kabul for periods between 1893-1909, organised a tamasha, or entertainment, for their Afghan workforce in their Kabul garden, combining an Afghan pilau with games from an English village fete such as sack racing and pillow fights. Whilst her husband was at the tannery, Annie spent time in the court of the Amir Habibullah, Abdur Rahman’s successor, a passionate gardener and gourmand. The Amir shared his horticultural interests with her; she is credited with introducing the daffodil to Kabul in 1908. She also taught his chefs a number of English recipes, amongst which treacle pudding became his favourite. It is said that Habibullah kept Afghanistan out of the First World War because of his good sense and political wisdom, but I wonder whether it was really his fondness for Annie Thornton’s English cooking which saved the British Empire from fighting on a second front.

Bijan Omrani

Further Reading:
IOR/L/PS/11/31 and 11/38, Interviews of British commercial travellers with political agents
IOPP/Mss Eur F111/56 Lord Curzon’s diary of a trip to Kabul in 1894
“Making Money in Afghanistan: The first Western Entrepreneurs 1880-1919”, Bijan Omrani, Asian Affairs Journal, vol. 43 no 3, November 2012.


05 February 2013


2013 is the 400th anniversary of the establishment of trading relations between the English East India Company and Japan.  Captain John Saris in the Clove arrived at Hirado in June 1613. His mission was to deliver a letter and gifts from King James to the Emperor, with the aim of opening up diplomatic relations and securing permission to trade.  A factory, i.e. a trading post, was set up in Hirado. When Saris and the Clove sailed away in December 1613, seven English merchants were left behind: Richard Cocks, Tempest Peacock, Richard Wickham, William Eaton, Walter Carwarden, Edmund Sayers and William Nealson.

Letter from Richard Cocks at Hirado to William Adams and Richard Wickham at Edo 24 December 1613  Letter from Richard Cocks at Hirado to William Adams and Richard Wickham at Edo 24 December 1613 IOR/E/3/1 no.126    Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

There was an Englishman already living in Japan to meet Saris and the merchants.  William Adams of Gillingham was serving on the Dutch ship Liefde when it was wrecked off the coast of Japan in 1600.  Adams, known to the Japanese as ‘Anjin’ (Pilot), became a confidante of the Shogun and came to act as a go-between for the East India Company.

I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of Anjin - the Shogun and the English Samurai at Sadler’s Wells with Hamish Todd, Lead Curator for Japanese and Korean Studies at the British Library.  Performed in both Japanese and English, this splendid play tells the story of William Adams (played by Stephen Boxer) and his friendship with Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masachika Ichimura), against a background of intense and bloody rivalry amongst the Japanese nobility.  The East India Company merchants are portrayed as lazy, womanising drunkards.  Anyone wishing to judge the fairness of this interpretation should read the documents created in the Hirado factory which are held at the British Library!


Japan400 logoAnjin is the first of many events being held nationwide during 2013 under the Japan400 banner to celebrate the opening of trade, scientific, cultural and diplomatic ties. There will be a small exhibition in late summer at the British Library of items from the India Office Records and the Japanese Collections.



Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records    Cc-by

 Further reading:
Anthony Farrington, The English Factory in Japan 1613-1623 (British Library, 1991)


01 February 2013

Heave Ho, Me Hearties!

The Library's East India Company archives include almost four thousand ships' journals and logs, one of which is that of the Falmouth a 499-ton vessel which left Portsmouth on 12 January 1763 under the command of one Geoffrey (Geffrie) O'Hara bound for Madras and southern China (IOR/L/MAR/B582D). O'Hara was a very experienced seaman whose career with the Company had begun when he served on the Benjamin in the 1743/4 sailing season (IOR/L/MAR/B122B); five more voyages on various East Indiamen followed and saw him rise eventually to the rank of Captain. The Falmouth was a ship with which he would have been familiar, as he had been on her as first mate between January 1757 and April 1759 when she sailed to Benkulen in Sumatra (IOR/L/MAR/B582B).

East Indiaman sailing from Madras

Portrait of an East Indiaman sailing from Madras. Painted and engraved by R. Dodd. Published in London, 1797.  Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

I was both surprised and delighted to make Captain O'Hara's acquaintance, as it were, during a  visit to the Museum of London Docklands. There on the third floor is a scale model of the Falmouth and as is often the way these days in the touchy-feely world of modern museums, alongside it is a touch screen prompting all who find their way to this part of the extensive displays to relive this very voyage by following the route and ports of call on a map and answering the questions posed by the dilemmas the eighteenth century mariners (and above all the Captain) actually faced. What would you have done running into a sudden storm off Madeira? Would you have chosen to resist when a Royal Navy party came aboard to impress (or in plain English, abduct) some of your best men? What to do when your ship's surgeon tells you that a few members of the crew are suffering from scurvy? I was pleased to discover that I was reckoned to have provided most of the right answers - the odds per question being one out of three alternatives - but my callous decision to sail on and abandon a sailor who had fallen out of the rigging on the home leg out from St. Helena was judged incorrect!  
Disappointing to relate, there is no evidence of Captain O'Hara undertaking any more voyages for the Company, although we do know that he brought the Falmouth home safe to the Blackwall anchorage in the Thames on 17 August 1764. From his perspective this was almost certainly a blessing in disguise, as she was stranded on the Sogar Bank in Bengal in June 1766 on her next journey to the East and never made it back to British waters.

Hedley Sutton
Asian and African Studies Reference Team Leader