Untold lives blog

9 posts from November 2013

29 November 2013

The nuclear secrets of a Farnborough morris dancer

In the 1950s Britain was building a nuclear arsenal to bolster the country's position as a great power and deter the Soviet Union. At secretive sites across the UK, boffins toiled away developing nuclear weapon systems; giant rockets were tested in the Australian outback and on the Isle of Wight; in the remote Pacific, British scientists detonated a series of nuclear devices as they unravelled the secrets of the hydrogen bomb; and in a small town near Farnborough, a young rocket scientist named Roy Dommett had a tricky conversation with his wife Marguerite:  

[Roy] came home one day and he said, ‘We’ve got to have a talk.’  And he said, ‘I’m working on something that I think is very important, but I can’t talk to you about it.’  He said, ‘But it might help the world in the future, what do you want me to do?’  
Listen to this extract on Voices of Science

What Roy couldn't talk about was his work on Britain's nuclear deterrent as part of the guided weapons group at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. The work was so secret his wife knew little of it until he was awarded a CBE in 1991 for a life's work supporting Britain's nuclear deterrent, including the cancelled Blue Streak ballistic missile and the Chevaline upgrade to Polaris.  In his interview for An Oral History of British Science, Roy gives us a fascinating insight into the hidden world of the Cold War rocket scientist, and his unique solution to the stress and secrecy of the work – a lively interest in morris dancing:

My job was sitting in an office with one other person, and I could go day after day without talking to no more than one person at a time.  You know, I needed an activity where I actually met people, got out and did things with people.
Watch Roy Dommett talking about the problems of combining morris dancing with missile science.

Roy Dommett with fellow morris dancers in Abingdon

Roy Dommett, middle left, with fellow morris dancers in Abingdon, early 1970s Noc

The day job was challenging; developing complex systems to survive the incredible pressures and temperatures of being blasted into space, before hurtling down over the Soviet Union at many times the speed of sound, where they would have to fool Soviet defence systems around Moscow. All to deliver a nuclear payload if the worst happened. While their ultimate purpose may have been terrible nuclear devastation, such systems were intended to deter aggression and make nuclear war less likely, as Roy recalls in this clip it was a paradox not lost on the designers.

  Roy Dommett at Farnborough Air Services Trust with the Chevaline missile bus, 2012
Roy Dommett at Farnborough Air Services Trust with the Chevaline missile bus, 2012 Noc

Roy Dommett is amongst a hundred engineers and scientists to feature on Voices of Science, the British Library's new history of science web resource, based on a thousand hours of interviews collected as part of An Oral History of British Science.

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

Twitter #VoicesOfScience  #histsci


26 November 2013

The Singing Sailor - Salim Rashid Suri

Salim Rashid Suri (1910-1979) was an Omani Sowt singer and ‘ūd player who became famous as the ‘Singing Sailor’.  He developed a truly unique style which took influence from musical sources across the Middle East and India.

Suri’s passion for music was anathema to his family: his elder brother threatened to shoot him unless he stopped singing.  Fleeing to pursue the music he loved, Suri sailed with commercial ships to ports in East Africa, India and around the Middle East.  From the recordings and the testimonies of his children we can begin to piece together his life.

alim Rashid Suri, drawn by an Omani artist in the 1980s

Salim Rashid Suri, drawn by an Omani artist in the 1980s, copyright Saeed al Suri

Salim Rashid Suri was born in Sur, Oman, though he spent most of his life in India, Bahrain and Kuwait.  He began by singing al maidan, a form of sung poetry, accompanying himself on a one-stringed drone instrument, but his reputation resides in his distinctive style of Sowt al Khaleej (‘Voice of the Gulf’), an urban form principally developed and performed by musicians from Bahrain and Kuwait.  Sur was a pivotal trade port connecting Oman with Yemen, East Africa, Zanzibar, India and ports along the coastlines of the Gulf and is still regarded as one of the main centres of traditional Omani music.  Undoubtedly, Suri’s development of the sowt tradition was influenced by the trade links animating the town.

Suri began working on commercial vessels in Sur, later visiting ports in Yemen, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, India and East Africa.  He learned sowt from recordings of the singer Abd el-Latif al-Kuweiti (1901/1904–1975) and from other practicing musicians. His son, Sa‘id Salim Ali Suri, said of his father that ‘he left Sur with a good voice, but didn’t know how to sing’.  It was during his travels that Suri’s music developed and in Aden he first encountered the ‘ūd.

In the early 1930s Suri settled in India.  He lived in the port area of Bombay working first as a ‘boiler controller’ on a steamship before becoming a broker and translator helping Arab merchants to buy goods in Bombay and transport them to the ships.  He recorded twelve shellac (78 rpm) discs with HMV, which sold for around 50 Indian Rupees apiece.  Their commercial success was assured partly by the Arab population in Bombay, but also by his interest in Indian music and the use of Urdu in his songs.

Suri left India in the late 1940s and settled in Bahrain where he became a sought-after freelance artist.  By the 1960s, his own record label, Salimphone, recorded widely in the region with musicians such as Abd el-Latif al-Kuweiti and Mahmud al-Kuweiti.  However, because Suri’s records were only suitable for gramophones, the advent of vinyl records (45 rpm) in the early 1960s damaged his business prospects and he returned to Oman in 1971.  There he found work with the Sultan who made the singer a consultant for cultural affairs. Suri performed songs eulogising the ruler and his family which were widely broadcast on Oman’s recently established TV and radio stations.

Suri had come full circle.  As traveller and seafarer his music encapsulated the centuries-old cultural exchange of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Peninsula.  By the time he died in 1979, Suri was being hailed as an icon of the Omani nation for his contribution to sowt al-Khaleej.

Rolf Killius
Gulf History Curator Oral & Musical Culture

British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme

Qatar Digital Library

This story is based on an interview with Salim Rashid Suri’s son, Sa‘id Salim Ali Suri conducted by Edward Fox on 21 November 1990 and subsequent email conversations between Rolf Killius and Sa‘id. 

Sa‘id Salim Ali Suri is also a versatile musician and singer. He was born in 1954, received his main education in Bahrain and presently lives in Oman where he moved with his parents when he was eighteen years old. From 1975 to 1978 he studied music in Egypt.

Listen to recordings of Sa‘id Salim Ali Suri.


22 November 2013

Finding Charles Clark: ‘a bibliographic farmer’

Today's story about little known printer Charles Clark has been contributed by guest bloggers Dr Mary O'Connell & Dr Carrie Griffin.

Inside the cover of BL MS Egerton 2433 is an unusual bookplate poem.  The poem is printed, dated by hand ‘1859’ and is entitled ‘A Pleader to the Needer when a Reader’.  The poem is a humorous warning to prospective readers not to deface the book:  ‘This Book, too, friend, take care you ne’er with grease or dirt besmear it; / While only awkward puppies will continue to “dogs-ear” it!’.  The author identifies himself as ‘one Charles Clark’, living in Great Totham, Essex.

Clark's bookplate poem ‘A Pleader to the Needer when a Reader’.

BL MS Egerton 2433  Noc

Clark used the poem as a mark of ownership but he also saw it as a way to materially connect his name to his books and to ensure that he would not be forgotten. The first line of the poem makes this wish clear:  ‘As all, my friend, through wily knaves full often suffer wrongs, / Forget not, pray, when it you’ve read, to whom this Book belongs.’  The poem served Clark’s purpose.  While working on Egerton 2433, Carrie Griffin saw the poem and sent it to her colleague Mary O’Connell.  Both decided to try to find out more about the man who wrote it.

  Portrait of Charles Clark
Charles Clark - reproduced by kind permission of Essex Record Office

Clark was born in Heybridge, Essex in 1806.  He described himself as ‘a bibliographic farmer’ who loved nothing more than collecting books.  He invented a portable printing press, wrote satirical verse and songs, and spent much more money than he could afford on rare books.  In 1834 he wrote a poem in the Essex dialect, John Noakes and Mary Styles, which was published by the London bookseller John Russell Smith.  This collaboration inaugurated decades of correspondence between the men.  Clark’s side of this correspondence (well over 300 letters) is preserved in Essex Record Office and has been transcribed by Griffin and O’Connell.

Sketch of Clark's home

Sketch of Clark's home, Great Totham Hall -reproduced by kind permission of Essex Record Office

Clark’s letters to Smith show he was a man who was deeply engaged with the literary marketplace.  While he often lamented living in Essex ‘a shire at which all laugh’, he was dedicated to preserving local knowledge, customs and dialect.  He particularly loved poets who celebrated the rural landscape, and corresponded with John Clare.  The British Library holds letters from Clark to Clare, and also to Clare’s wife (BL Egerton 2249).  Clark felt compelled to write to Clare because he wanted to promote ‘the cause of suffering genius’, and later offered to print an edition of Clare’s unpublished texts – entirely at his own expense.

Tiptree HeathTiptree Heath in Essex, one of Clark's favourite places  - authors' photograph April 2013 Noc

We are chronicling our attempts to find out more about Charles Clark - Finding Charles Clark .  When Clark died, his library numbered almost 2,500 books, and we know from his letters that several hundred more passed through his hands.  If you have found Charles Clark we would be delighted to hear from you!

Carrie Griffin & Mary O’Connell
University College, Cork, Ireland


19 November 2013

Lay of the Red Moustache

This is a cautionary tale for all those attempting to grow a moustache for Movember.  Lay of the Red Moustache is ‘a doleful ditty, founded on facts’.  It tells the story of a young military officer who yearns to grow a splendid moustache to impress his lady love.

Title page of Lay of the Red MoustacheImages OnlineNoc

Frenzied, almost, his youthful brain,
On his profile the cornet glares;
With anxious finger, mirrors twain,
Investigates his face for hairs.

The young man investigates his face for hairs.

He paints on fake black moustaches to see how he would look.

Still he can make – and does -  untrue
Mustaches, growing in a trice,
From a pomatum, black of hue,
Purchased by Truffit’s kind advice.

Unfortunately his own moustache grows red, contrasting with the black hair on his head.

What ecstasy two sprouts of down
Would quickly o’er his soul have shed,
Had magnifying glass not shown
Too plainly they were yellow-red…

He encourages his moustache to grow with unguents including extracts of ‘Northern Bear’.  When he goes to see his love, he colours the red moustache with black pomatum . He whispers sweet nothings into her ear and then kisses her whereupon the black dye transfers to her face –

Seduced by beauty’s lips, and rash
Through love, forgetting wholly this,
A pair of duplicate moustache
Imprints he on her with a kiss.

The young man imprints a moustache on the young lady
Images Online  Noc

Oh, never can be deemed a grace,
Though perfect in their arc and hue,
Mustaches on a lady’s face!
But those she wore, not yet she knew.

At that moment her father enters, sees what has happened,  and swiftly sends the young officer on his way -

Unless you leave this roof of mine
Without an instant of delay,
Three flunkeys shall their strength combine
To prove to you the shortest way.

His love rejects him too –

This little billet-doux uproots
His trust: - “My love is chilled as ashes:
I knew how brightly blacked your boots,
But not that you had blacked mustaches.”

The young man flees to India 'in rage and shame'.

On his return, he visits his mother –

The young man's mother shrieking as he approaches to embrace her

He sees his mother shrink, e’en she,
With awe, from his moustache of flame.
His mother shrinks from his embrace,
A troubled look all o’er him flings,
Shrieks – “Oh, how frightful grown your face!
Ah me, those horrid, horrid things!”

He then approaches some young relations -

Children frowning and running away from the young man

From unsophisticated sight
Of infancy he hopes, than this,
To win reception more polite,-
Of infant cousins begs a kiss.
Tott’ring on tiny legs away,
(After intense, disgusted, stare,)
Resolutely the children say:
“Oh, never will we kiss that hair!”

So he decides to be rid of his moustache –

He rushes to his razors, glares,
Wild-eyed, and – cuts off his moustache.
They part: those he had dreamed to bear
To him attached, from out the world;
Companions old! – as infants dear,
Loved, cherished, and caressed, and curled.

And finds that instead of fiddling his moustache, he now plays with his nose –

From habit, having no moustache,
He strokes, and twiddles with his nose:
So sore it swells, so red with rash,
Once more the ruddy fringe he shows.

Margaret Makepeace
Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further Reading
Lay of the Red Moustache (1851) ‘Dedicated, with the highest respect, to the Hussar Officers of England, by one of themselves’ (BL: RB.23.a.17909).

15 November 2013

The cat and the diplomat

In 1860 Lewis Pelly was travelling through Persia and Afghanistan at the request of the British Government.  His orders were to collect as much information as possible on the political, social and economic situation within Afghanistan and in order to do so he called at every city, town and village on his route and spent time talking to the local rulers and chiefs and making friendly representations on behalf of the British Government.

One such village he called at was Nessar where he was the guest of the local chief and spent 28-29 September 1860 there en route to Herat.  His accommodation whilst there was a mud wall clad room with open spaces for windows and a hole in the roof for the chimney.

Each evening at meal time Pelly witnessed a curious display:
“A cat comes down the chimney, stares at me in amazement, secures one of my slippers in full flight and disappears god knows where.  Sometimes he takes a deep leap through the round air hole in the mud roof, sometimes as today, he comes down the fireplace.  But come when he will, I go where I may, there is always a large cat ready to appear quickly the kab’al comes on the carpet.”

Otto the cat stretching and showing his teethNocOtto by Andrea Deans

The antics of the cat intrigued Pelly enough to not only note the event in his official diary but even to record the different colours of cat trying to steal his dinner, the ways in which they attempted to gain access to his accommodation and how he would use his carpet slippers to try and scare the cat away.

Following the completion of Pelly’s journey through Afghanistan he made several ‘fair’ copies of the diary for submission to the British Government and the story of the cat was even included in these and maintained as part of the official record of this diplomatic mission.

Karen Stapley
Archival Specialist, Gulf History Project  Cc-by

Further reading:

IOR/MSS Eur F126/29 f. 12

 Qatar Digital Library

12 November 2013

“Is this my best side?” – George VI on Indian Banknotes

In 1936 the United Kingdom had three different monarchs.  King George V died on 20 January 1936, and his oldest son, Edward VIII, succeeded him.  But Edward abdicated on 11 December of that same year, and his younger brother, George, ascended the throne.  George VI (r.1936-1952) became the last British monarch to be Emperor of India.

The unexpected and rapid chain of events raised many questions regarding the design of India’s banknotes.  When a new monarch came to power, he or she would traditionally be shown in profile, facing the opposite direction from the previous monarch.  On India’s colonial currency, George V had faced left.

Portrait of Emperor George V of India
Portrait of Emperor George V of India on a specimen bank note. (F5064)  Noc

The next king, Edward VIII, should have faced right, but there hadn’t been time to issue Indian banknotes with his portrait.  Should his brother, and successor, George VI, face left or right?  Both designs were considered, as can be seen in these photo montages of George VI’s face, pasted over the print design for George V’s portrait.

Left facing portrait of George VI.   Right facing portrait of George VI.
Noc   Left and right facing portraits of George VI.   Photo montage of a possible design, showing George VI’s face pasted over a portrait of George V in ceremonial attire.  (F5145)

Another suggestion was to not bother showing George VI in profile at all.  Instead, he could be shown staring straight out of the banknote.

Frontal portrait of Emperor George VI of India wearing ceremonial attire.Frontal portrait of Emperor George VI of India wearing ceremonial attire. Detail from a specimen bank note. (F5112)  Noc

In 1944, some notes with this frontal portrait were printed.  Another proposed design, which was a further departure from tradition, was a frontal portrait of George VI without the ceremonial crown and collar worn by the Emperor of India.  This portrait was never used.

Frontal portrait of Emperor George VI of India without his crown
Frontal portrait of Emperor George VI of India without his crown. Detail from a specimen bank note that was never issued. (F5119)  Noc

In 1938, the most conservative, predictable portrait of George VI was used, showing him facing left, wearing full ceremonial gear, just like his father, George V.  Most Indian banknotes during the final years of colonial rule showed this portrait.  Some of the bank note portraits also showed him seated inside a stylised window, just like a Mughal Emperor.

Portrait of Emperor George VI looking left, wearing ceremonial attire, and framed by an ornate window
Portrait of Emperor George VI looking left, wearing ceremonial attire, and framed by an ornate window. Detail from a specimen bank note. (F5092)  Noc

Jennifer Howes
Curator Visual Arts   Cc-by

Further reading:

All of the portraits shown here are from the British Library’s India Office Currency Collection.
Giordano, J.S. Portraits of a Prince: Coins, Medals and Banknotes of Edward VIII. London: Spink, 2009.
Razack, Rezwan and Kishore, Jhunjhunwalla. The Revised standard reference guide to Indian paper money. Mumbai: Currency & Coins, 2012.


08 November 2013

Katie MacIntyre’s exotic taste

Katie MacIntyre was a fashionable middle class lady of the eighteenth century, and one who was excited by the goods imported from India and China by the East India Company.  These consumer products comprised fine silks, tea of several types, coffee, spices, silks, cottons, muslins and fine porcelain, all expensive items highly prized for personal and domestic use.  Katie was able to secure these luxury wares from her husband John who was in the service of the East India Company.  Letters written to Katie between 1776 and 1777 certainly indicate that he was able to send her a great quantity and variety.  As a merchant John would have been permitted to purchase a certain amount of goods for his own purposes.

Letter to Katie MacIntyre from her husband JohnNoc

Letter to Katie MacIntyre from her husband JohnNoc
IOPP/MSS Eur F 558  ff.20-20v

A letter of 1776 addressed to Katie when she was living in Pimlico, London, refers to the 'cart load of china' John will send.   Chinese blue and white porcelain, or ’China’ ware, was especially prized for its thin, transparent, eggshell like quality and for its delicate hand painted decorations that represented traditional scenes of Chinese everyday life, interpreted for the export trade.  If Katie had a cart load of porcelain, her collection is likely to have included pieces of varying qualities, suitable for both everyday and special use.

List of goods sent home by John MacIntyre in 1777Noc

List of goods sent home by John MacIntyre in 1777Noc
IOPP/MSS Eur F 558 ff. 23-23v

In a letter written the following year, John made a shopping list of the ‘necessarys’ Katie had requested.  He carefully noted the quantities and different types of Chinese tea – Hyson (a green tea with a particularly pleasant aroma and colour) and Souchong (a black tea with a much stronger, smoky flavour and aroma) – along with the silks, cottons, gingham, Madras and Nankin (or Nankeen) cloth, he sent home.  The initials along the left hand side indicate which member of the MacIntyre family these gifts were intended for.

Such expensive imports could indeed be necessary luxuries for the upper and wealthy middle classes who desired them all the more for the sense of exotic style they evoked.  However technological progress during the eighteenth century allowed British manufacturers to produce goods in greater quantities than before and, inspired by imported products, they were able to create consumer wares of equal style and luxury that were much more affordable to a larger section of the population.

Helen Peden
Curator Printed Historical Sources 1801-1914  Cc-by

Georgian Britain - discover prints, drawings, documents and articles which delve into the lives of the Georgians.

06 November 2013

Black Georgians? An ‘Affrican’ in Georgian London

Our new exhibition, ‘Georgians Revealed: Life, Style, and the Making of Modern Britain’, which opens at the British Library later this week, might not seem to have much in common with the harsh world of Atlantic slavery.  In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is greeted by a ‘dead silence’ when she asks her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram about the slave trade – a silence which the critic Edward Said famously interpreted as a sign that ‘one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both’.  But the life of Ignatius Sancho (1729-80) suggests otherwise.

Portrait of Ignatius SanchoNoc

Sancho was born on an Atlantic slave ship, was brought to England from the Spanish West Indies at the age of two, and grew up as a household servant in Greenwich (though still, in English law, with the status of a slave – it wasn’t until 1772 that Lord Mansfield’s judgement established the legal precedent that no man could be a slave on English soil).  The Duke of Montagu took an interest in Sancho and paid for his education, and after the Duke’s death in 1749 his widow took him into her service as her butler, leaving him a small annuity which eventually enabled him to set up in business as a grocer in Westminster.  He became well known in London’s literary and artistic circles (Gainsborough painted his portrait; Sterne corresponded with him), and a collection of his letters was published posthumously in 1782.

Sancho blazed a trail for black Africans in Britain.  He was the first black man to vote in a British parliamentary election, the first to publish any critique of slavery and the slave trade – preceding by some years the autobiography of the ex-slave and anti-slavery activist Olaudah Equiano – and the first to be accepted into London literary society.  Even Thomas Jefferson, who complained that his letters were the product of a ‘wild and extravagant’ imagination, admitted that Sancho held ‘the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the public judgement’.

The British Library has recently acquired the archive of Sancho’s letters to his friend and patron William Stevenson.  These are the only manuscripts by Sancho that are known to survive, and the largest single collection of letters by any black Anglo-African of this period.  In one unpublished letter, Sancho describes himself as ‘an Affrican – with two ffs if you please – and proud am I to be of a country that knows no Politicians nor Lawyers’.  To learn more about this exciting new acquisition, come along to the British Library Conference Centre this Friday, 8 November, at 18:45, when Prof Vincent Carretta, editor of Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (2004), will be giving a public lecture on ‘Ignatius Sancho: Britain’s First African Man of Letters’.

Arnold Hunt
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts  Cc-by