Untold lives blog

8 posts from April 2013

25 April 2013

History and science meet

The East India Company ships' journals are a vital source of information for climate scientists because of the detailed information they contain about the weather.

Drawing of East India Company ships from journal of the Rochester

Log of the ship Rochester, 1710 [IOR/L/MAR/B/137B] Noc

This early journal of the Rochester is typical in that it recorded the wind direction and described the weather for each day. The Rochester journal is unusual in that it also includes some beautiful drawings, and a skull and crossbones mark each death during the voyage. On this occasion, the sailor was thought to have fallen overboard ‘being in liquor’.

Journal of the ship Rochester showing a skull and crossbones marking when someone died on board
Journal of the ship Rochester, 1710 [IOR/L/MAR/B/137B] Noc

Later ships' journals give instrumental weather data such as pressure readings, and these are even more useful for climate scientists because of their greater precision. The weather data for several hundred East India Company ships' journals 1789-1834 has been extracted and used for climate modelling studies and weather and climate reconstructions (reanalyses). Philip Brohan of the UK Met Office talks about our journals and their usefulness for climate studies on Euronews today at 17-15 UK time.  The story will be on euronews.com/space and also on esa.int.

The website Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth gives more details of how historic records can contribute to climate studies.

The British Library, UK Met Office and the Centre for World Environmental History, University of Sussex, have recently signed an agreement to collaborate to develop understanding of climate through the use of historic records. 


Penny Brook

Lead Curator, India Office Records   Cc-by

Further reading -
P. Brohan, R. Allan, E. Freeman, D. Wheeler, C. Wilkinson, and F. Williamson, 2012:  ‘Constraining the temperature history of the past millennium using early instrumental observations’ Climate of the Past 

Gilbert P. Compo, Prashant D. Sardeshmukh, Jeffrey S. Whitaker, Philip Brohan, Philip D. Jones and Chesley McColl,  2013:  ‘Independent confirmation of global land warming without the use of station temperatures’ Geophysical Research Letters

Search our Catalogues Archives and Manuscripts

23 April 2013

Let me tell you a story…

A resource for researchers in modern South Asian history which is perhaps under-utilised is our collection of oral history interviews with people recounting their memories of the region. We have more than 200 in all, including those from the BBC series 'Plain Tales from the Raj'.

My own contribution to the development of this collection is at one remove. Within 18 months of my joining what was then known as the India Office Library and Records, not only had I met three persons with personal experience of life in the latter days of the Raj, I had also succeeded in persuading them to record their reminiscences for posterity.

I remember meeting Frank Willcocks in the summer of 1988 during a Historical Association conference in Plymouth in Devon to mark the 400th anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. For him it was an opportunity to return to the city of his birth. His connection with India had come in the years just after the end of the Second World War, when he had been posted to the East for his national service with the Royal Air Force. Curiously, one lasting effect of the two years he spent outside the U.K. was a lifelong interest in amateur dramatics, a pastime into which he had thrown himself with gusto in an effort to relieve the tedium of life on station. One particular anecdote I recall him telling me was the occasion sometime in the spring of 1947 when he found himself performing in an up-country location in front of an all-male audience, most of whose members had not laid eyes on a European woman for several months. Almost inevitably this meant that when the first female member of the cast went on stage she was greeted with a huge testosterone-fuelled roar; the poor girl dried immediately and the production came to a grinding halt! I hope this made it on to the tape of the interview! 

  Photograph of the port at Rangoon
Noc Photograph of the port at Rangoon from the Curzon Collection Online Gallery

The other interviewee I remember was Geraldine Wright, a delightful Anglo-Burmese lady I had the pleasure of meeting during a holiday in Worcestershire in the late 1980s. Her story was a much more serious one. Born and brought up in Rangoon, she and her family had had to leave the country hurriedly early in 1942 to escape the invading Japanese army. During the doubtless frightening journey overland to the relative safety of Chittagong in Bengal in India she had been bitten by a stray dog, and consequently at the tender age of nine had endured a series of horrendous injections through the stomach wall to ensure that she did not contract rabies. The story did end happily in that she, her parents and brother all managed to escape unscathed, and indeed the tape concludes with her memories of the return visit she made to Rangoon in 1977 and her noting what had and had not changed since she was last there.  

Hedley Sutton

Asian and African Studies Reference Team Leader  Cc-by

The interviews with Frank Willcocks and Geraldine Blanche Wright can be found via the Sound & Moving Image Catalogue.


19 April 2013

How to stay healthy with homemade remedies

In recent months there is more and more talk about super-bugs and their resistance of antibiotics. Doctors and researchers warn that we may be taken back 200 years, when many died from simple infections. Let’s find out how we could treat some ailments if we followed our ancestors’ example.

Cartoon of an ill patient An ill patient. Detail from a cartoon 'Quite a lucky day'.P.P.5273.c, volume XLII, p.33. Images Online Noc

Asthma - Strong black coffee could stop the attack. Relief might also be brought by the fumes of dried blotting paper soaked in saltpetre. If that is of no help, do not hesitate to smoke 20 grains of datura leaf mixed with tobacco.

Bleeding from internal organs - The bottom line of the treatment: Keep Quiet! That will probably give you a chance to say good bye to the world, in silence, whilst you are being served cold effusions. Lemonade or alum whey (two teaspoons of powdered alum with two tumblers of milk) with a sprinkle of opium is the treatment. If you have a fever too, a mixture of two drachms of nitre in barley water with some lemon and sugar to taste should sort you out.

Convulsions - Put your child immediately into a hot bath and give it some castor oil. Adults should be treated with cold water to the head, mustard plasters to the calves, and a serving of purgative.

Hiccoughs - Not life threatening, but irritating! Try holding the right ear with the left forefinger and thumb, bringing the elbow as far across the chest as possible.

Hysteria - Put away your diazepam and use a mixture of whisky, water and chlorodyne instead. If you are treating a hysteric after the medicine has been administered, just leave them alone.

Lung infection - Take linseed poultices and ipecacuanha, then dress in a bran jacket. Recovery guaranteed!

Poisoning - If you have a heated dispute with your mother-in-law just before Sunday dinner and suddenly you think a little extra something has been added to your soup, try a mixture of milk, soap, water, whites of eggs, seed oil, and rice-water topped with mucilaginous drink. Time is of the essence, so drink it immediately! It will work on acids, but if you suspect that arsenic was the extra spice you will need also to take an emetic.

Toothache - Mix 40 drops of carbolic acid, 60 drops of eau-de-cologne, and a piece of gum mastic (an aromatic resin from a pistachio tree), apply one drop onto cotton wool and put into the hollow.

Snake wearing a  hat

  Snake wearing a hat - from a collection of poems and songs by Edward Lear. Images Online Noc

If you happen to be in a more exotic clime and get bitten by a snake follow these simple instructions:
1. Tie a ligature every few inches; (whipcord seems to be the best, but don’t be too fussy)
2. Ask someone to cut the flesh around the bites and let it bleed. If the snake is deadly, just let them amputate the joint or run the knife round the bone.
3. You need to suck the poison out (you are already poisoned, so nothing to loose, really!) and then your assistant must burn the wound with carbolic or nitric acid, nitrate of silver, or a hot iron. If you are still standing, you will be given a drop of brandy!

Good health!

Dorota Walker
Reference Specialist, Asian and African Studies   


Further reading:
F. A. Steel & G. Gardiner, The complete Indian housekeeper and cook, ed. by R. Crane and A. Johnson (Oxford 2010)


16 April 2013

Jungle trees and their uses

Mangoes, papayas, passion fruit, bananas, coconuts, durian… the first things come to mind when someone mentions “jungle trees”.  The British consume fruits imported from other parts of the world knowing that they cannot grow in the Northern European climate.  But our knowledge of tropical fruits stops short at their succulent taste and nutritional values.  It rarely occurs to us to consider how indigenous people forage for food in the rain forest and take advantage of jungle trees in their daily life. 

A recently acquired booklet came to our attention: Some Jungle Trees and their uses, printed in 1944 by the British Southern Army under the order of Lt-Gen Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse during the campaigns of Pacific War against the Japanese invasion of South East Asia.

Cover of Some Jungle Trees and their UsesIOPP/Mss Eur F670/2  Noc

The handbook was intended for European soldiers and airmen if they were stranded in Asian jungles, as an instruction manual on how to identify different species of tropical trees and plants native to South and South East Asia, and how to make use of them as survival aids.  The compiler of the book must have drawn much of the information and wisdom from the local inhabitants knew how to utilise the trees to find food, build shelters, make tools, construct vessels and design traps to hunt animals.  

With illustrations and diagrams, the book describes various species of trees pointing out the “Useful Products”, and enumerating the beneficial and harmful parts of each tree.  It also offers tips on how to improvise in emergency situations.

Picture and description of cashew nut tree
IOPP/Mss Eur F670/2  Noc

One interesting example is how locals trap fish with semi-toxic seeds of particular plants.  For example, Millettia tree, alias the Moulmein Rosewood, found in Assam, Burma, and the Malay Peninsula, has these Useful Products: “the seeds of Millettia Pachcarpa can be used to intoxicate fish.  They are thrown into tanks or dammed up streams. The fish, after about two hours, are intoxicated and float unconscious upon the surface of the water, and are thus easily captured, and on recovery serve as useful food.”

Other useful tips include how to extract oil or wax from some nuts and seeds to make candles; how to find trees of which the bark or fruit yield dyes that can be used for camouflage; how to obtain water from tree trunk; how to improvise trapping devices and protection shields with thorny stems of creepers; how to make rope and cordage with the tough fibre in the inner bark; how to turn pulp of unripe fruit into gum in place of tar for sealing the seams of boat; how to identify hard wood and soft wood trees, as the former is excellent material for making cutting weapons, frameworks of rafts or jungle huts, and the pulp of soft wood makes good pillow stuffing, excellent insulation material and padding splints for broken limbs.

Picture and description of Cassia Fistula - Indian Laburnam
IOPP/Mss Eur F670/2  Noc

The book also lists medicinal values of some plants, for example, the black pulp from the seed pod of Cassia Fistula (Indian Laburnam) is listed as a “good laxative, but an excessive amount should not be taken.”

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers   

12 April 2013

Knitting a shower-proof golf coat

Despite knitwear being cheap thanks to computerised weaving and cheap overseas labour, the knitter’s art is reviving.  I recently started inventorying the British Library’s collections of vintage knitting guides and the 1930s seemed a good period to start.


Knitting event at the British Library Spring Festival 2012   
Photo by Luca Sage taken at a knitting event at the British Library Spring Festival 2012    Noc

Stitchcraft, the monthly fashion knits magazine, was bought out by Patons & Baldwins in 1932 and continued for another fifty years.   Two collections of P&B’s patterns, issued under the Stitchcraft banner in 1937 and 1939 and 1948-1953, give a good sampling of vintage designs. The firm produced a wide range of patterns, mainly directed to middle class women who had the leisure time for knitting unusual wear.
From crêpe and Angora collars to raglan, ruffled, or flared sleeves, there were a lot of ideas back then that, deservedly or not, have been ignored since.  Unlike today, patterns are offered for “the larger figure” and “the older woman”, with stitch-styles such as Fair Isle, arrowhead, fir-cone, bobbles, zig-zags, pin-checked, mock cable, ladder-stitch, moss-stitch, pinwheel, and beehive.
Cardigans, jumpers, hats and gloves, twin-sets - you’d expect those.  But a knitted ‘shower-proof golf coat’?   The adventuresome and skilled could make a floor-length luxury dressing gown with silk lining and with any luck they wouldn’t have dribbled cigarette ashes on it.  Some things may have seemed lovely ideas but would the maintenance of knitted panties and cami-knickers really be worth the effort of constructing them in the first place? 
Throughout there are suggested colours for a certain style and the occasional rejoinder that “Black and White is Chic!”  Fashionable yarns included Kelpie, Halcyon, Catkin, Diana, Dunora, Beryl, Honeycomb, Totem, Patona, Bouclé, Kingfisher, Bouclet, Mororavia, Netta, Veronica, and even Super Cherub Baby Wool.
Mills that supplied yarns tended to merge through the years, and so, the union of Lister with Lee Target, later known as Lister-Lee, resulted in numerous published patterns. From the mid-1960s they offered a series of Mary Quant designs, another with the ‘Op-Art Look’ in black-and-white, faux-military sweaters for children, a  ‘Party Girl’ series, knitted NASA space suits for techno kids of 1969, funky ‘hot pants’ in 1971, and designs for the Royal Wedding of 1981.
The Lister folks in Bradford shrewdly got celebrities to pose for their colourful front covers.  These included jazz singer Ottilie Patterson and her then-husband and bandleader Chris Barber modelling knitted, collarless ‘Trad Jackets’ in 1963, perhaps taking their cue from the Beatles’ brief embracing of that style.   Other posing personalities were TV star Amanda Barrie, British Middleweight Champion Johnny Pritchet, recording artists Russ Conway, The Caravelles, and The Viscounts, and Barbara Windsor and Jack Douglas in a series of ‘Carry-On-Knitting’ booklets.
Their 1970s and 1980s patterns reflect pop cultures of hippie, disco, and new romantic aesthetics, although they had the good sense not to try to tempt punk-rockers to take up no. 8 needles.   
Andy Simons, Printed Historical Sources  Cc-by

Further reading:
Stitchcraft patterns - reference W.P.12165 (1937 and 1939) and reference W.P.14708 (1948-1953)
Lister-Lee patterns - reference 7951.h.2 (1963-1985)

09 April 2013

Meteorites and other extraordinary phenomena in northern India

In July 1860, Mr Saunders, the Deputy Commissioner stationed at Dhurmsalla in northern India, sent a report to the Punjab Government giving an account of a meteorite strike in the area and his investigation of the event.

He wrote that: “In the afternoon between the hours of 2 and 2.30pm, the station of Dhurmsalla was startled by a terrific bursting noise, which was supposed at first to proceed from a succession of loud blastings, or from the explosion of a mine in the upper part of the Station, others imagining it to be an earthquake or very large landslip, rushed from their houses in the belief that they must fall upon them”. The first noise was followed by several more and with such violence that the ground trembled and shook convulsively! Eye-witnesses reported seeing a flame of fire about nine feet in length darting in an oblique direction above the Station after the first explosion had taken place. Fragments of aerolite fell in several places in a line N.N.W. to S.S.E. and buried themselves up to a foot and half in the ground, sending up a cloud of dust in all directions. Some local people passing close to where one fragment fell, picked up the pieces, but had to quickly drop them owing to the intensity of the cold which quite benumbed their fingers.

Meteor of 18 August 1783 as it appeared from the terrace at Windsor CastleThe meteor of 18 August 1783 as it appeared from the terrace at Windsor Castle - Thomas Sandby Online Gallery  Noc

Like many of the officials in India in the 19th century, Saunders seems to have had a genuine interest in science, and he devoted part of his report to discussing the causes of such events, and the origins of meteorites. He commented on a belief held by some at the time that if one of the minor Planets, or asteroids, came in contact with the tail of a Comet, it would be annihilated instantaneously! It was even said by some that the Planet Earth was in danger of destruction in just such a way from a Comet which was predicted to soon appear. Saunders also claimed that he was the first at Dhurmsalla to discover a new Comet then visible in the sky.

After describing reports of strange lights in the sky on the evening of the same day the meteorite struck, Saunders takes on a somewhat medieval tone, declaring: “Verily this has been an extraordinary season in more ways than one”. He then lists a number of “extraordinary phenomena” all occurring within the previous few months:

•    An aerial meteor or water-spout in the neighbourhood of Bhurtpore
•    A luminous meteor or something described to be like an Aurora Borealis at Delhi
•    A shower of live fish at Benares
•    A shower of blood at Farrukhabad and Meerut
•    A dark spot observable on the disc of the Sun
•    At Dhurmsalla, an unnatural yellow darkness of some duration, followed by a violent wind storm one afternoon earlier that month.

A copy of Saunders' report was sent to the India Office in London, and is available at the British Library as part of the India Office Records. The report was also published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol 29 – 1860.

John O’Brien
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
Letter from the Deputy Commissioner, Dhurmsalla, to R H Davies, Esquire, Secretary to Government Punjab No.927, dated 30 July, 1860 [IOR/L/PJ/3/1088 No.120]


05 April 2013

Science and Great Yarmouth

The Dawson Turner Collection of printed ephemera includes a range of material relating to the history of Great Yarmouth between 1773 and 1851. The collection was created by Dawson Turner (1775-1859), a Yarmouth banker with a keen interest in scholarly pursuits, and includes numerous posters and handbills which provide much information about the social history of the town during the late 18th and early 19th century.

List of lectures at Yarmouth’s Mechanics’ Institution and Scientific Society April to June 1831Noc

The collection highlights popular interest in scientific subjects at Yarmouth during the 1830s and 1840s. In 1829 the Yarmouth’s Mechanics’ Institution and Scientific Society was founded. In addition to regular lectures delivered at the Mechanics’ Institution by residents of Yarmouth, a number of guest lecturers also visited the town during the 1830s, including Robert Goodacre and Thomas Olivers Warwick.

Neither Goodacre nor Warwick was originally involved in science in a professional sense, and their interest in the subject seems to have developed as a personal interest. Robert Goodacre was born in 1777 at Long Clawson in Leicestershire and worked as a tailor before becoming a school master in 1796. As master of the Standard Hill Academy in Nottingham, he upheld the value of science and liberalism in education. He embarked on a career as a public lecturer in astronomy, starting in Bradford in 1821. Between 1823 and 1824 he travelled across the United States of America where he delivered lectures at twenty-four towns and cities and was attended by the president and vice-president.

Six lectures on astronomy by Robert Goodacre 1831Noc


Thomas Olivers Warwick was born in 1771 and began his career as a Nonconformist minister. He trained at the Dissenting Academy at Daventry and Nottingham, a college well-known for providing its students with lectures on scientific subjects such as electricity, magnetism, chemistry and zoology. Warwick became minister of the Presbyterian chapel at Rotherham in 1793, but was awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1798.  He began to deliver public lectures on scientific subjects, travelling in the autumn of 1798 to London, and subsequently giving a course of lectures on chemistry at Rotherham.

Dr Warwick's course of lecturesNoc

Material in the Dawson Turner Collection suggests that the lectures which Goodacre and Warwick gave at Yarmouth were as much a form of entertainment as a scientific venture. Both men charged for attendance and used a variety of visual props and experiments to convey the meaning of their message and to attract the attention of their audiences. Goodacre’s astronomy lectures made use of a horizontal tellurian, lunarian, and eclipsareon, a transparent orrery and a plan of the solar system. Warwick’s ‘Lectures on Natural Phenomena’ were also to be “illustrated by geological plans and the most interesting experiments in Chemistry, Magnetism, Electricity, and Electro-Magnetism”. Such an approach does not necessarily undermine the scientific merit of Goodacre and Warwick’s lectures or imply that they were mere amateurs. Rather, it suggests that they were keen to engage with their audiences and to convey scientific knowledge to ordinary people as well as to the learned.

The information which the Dawson Turner Collection helps to provide about Goodacre and Warwick and the content of their lectures suggests that collections of ephemeral material from the past can prove invaluable in shedding light on individuals whose contribution to the society of their day has tended to go unnoticed.

John Boneham
Cataloguer, Dawson Turner Collection   

Further reading:
Ian Inkster, ‘Robert Goodacre’s Astronomy Lectures (1823-1825), and the Structure of Scientific Culture in Philadelphia’, Annals of Science, 35(1878), pp. 353-363.
Michael Brook, ‘Dr Warwick’s Chemistry Lectures and the Scientific Audience in Sheffield (1799-1801)’, Annals of Science, 11:3(1956), pp. 224-237.
David McKitterick, ‘Dawson Turner and Book Collecting’ in Nigel Goodman (ed.), Dawson Turner: A Norfolk Antiquary and his Remarkable Family (Chichester, 2007), pp. 67-110.


01 April 2013

April Fool?

Some of the stories on Untold Lives are so strange that they might pass for April Fool hoaxes if posted today: the poor cat which suffocated behind the books in the Foreign Office Library; the man who committed bigamy by marrying a mother and her daughter just a month apart. So here are some snippets about London criminal cases involving the East India Company. Could they possibly all be true?


Trial at Old Bailey   Noc From The Bottle, and the Drunkard's Children, G. Cruikshank (1905) Images Online


•    A clerk at East India House stole official records sent from India and sold them as waste paper. This was only detected when a colleague visited a ham shop in Fenchurch Street and saw the papers being used to wrap meat.
•    A labourer hid in the roof space of the Cutler Street warehouse one Saturday night, broke through the ceiling the next day, threw valuable bales of silk down into the yard, then lowered himself on a rope and landed in a water cistern. He heaved a number of bales over the perimeter wall but found that he was unable to climb over and join them. He settled down to sleep in the yard to await discovery when the gates were opened on Monday morning.
•    A sailor hid in a chimney in East India House, intending to break through to the bullion office. Initially he found himself in a tea store.  He drilled through a chest and was nearly suffocated by a large amount of tea falling on him.
•    When three ounces of tea were discovered in his shoes, the suspect explained that it had simply found its way in there from spillage on the floor as he had gone about his duties in warehouse.
•    A warehouse labourer accused of theft said that he did not know what he was doing as he was suffering from a fractured skull having fallen down 36 yards from Hackney Church steeple.  His father was sexton and he was going to wind up the clock.
•    A labourer was found with a yard and a half of calico in his hat, and a yard round his waist. He claimed he had picked them off the ground in order to wipe the wet off the window sashes.
•    When searched, a labourer was found to have a large pair of pantaloons under his trousers with a bag over 12 inches long sewn where the pockets should be. The bag contained 14 ounces of tea.
•    John Leaf was tried for stealing tea. He was found not guilty. So John Leaf was not a tea leaf.

(Cockney rhyming slang, ‘tea leaf’ = thief!)

These are indeed all true stories taken from the records of the Old Bailey.  Many more implausible excuses and strange crimes await you there!

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

Further Reading:
The printed versions of the trials can be read at the British Library or on The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913
The trials mentioned here are:
James Wood 18 April 1798
Samuel Clough 14 January 1830
John Pickett 17 April 1765
Samuel Russell 14 Sep 1803
John Waller 20 May 1801
William Connolly 17 February 1820
James Simms 10 September 1823
John Leaf 6 April 1785