Untold lives blog

13 posts from February 2014

28 February 2014

Treating the Kaiser’s Withered Arm

On 27 January 1859 in the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin, Prince Friedrich Victor Wilhelm Albert Hohenzollern – Queen Victoria’s first grandchild– was born with his left arm around his neck.  It took three days for anyone to notice the arm had been damaged, but it was a problem which the future Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia would spend the rest of his life trying to conceal.

Prince Wilhelm was left with Erb’s Palsy after a protracted breech birth during which the two attending doctors were hamstrung by royal etiquette forcing them to work beneath the mother’s skirts, and the message summoning Berlin’s foremost obstetrician got lost.  Permanent withering of the arm was probably caused by damage done to the nerves in his arm and neck by the forceps which dragged him out.  Born blue, he was initially presumed dead and only brought round by vigorous rubbing which probably only made the nerve damage worse.  It has often been speculated that oxygen deprivation at birth also left him with minor brain damage, a theory which certainly would explain the unstable personality for which he would become infamous.

In early infancy, it became clear that the young Prince’s left arm was not growing properly.  His left hand was a claw and the arm a shrunken dead weight. Physical prowess was prized amongst the Prussian royals, so from the age of six months the Prince began to undergo arcane but undeniably imaginative treatments intended to fix his damaged arm.  Some treatments were inoffensively useless – the arm was sprayed with seawater, massaged and wrapped in cold compresses – but others were more macabre.  The practice of weekly “animal baths”, which essentially required the arm to be shoved inside the carcass of a freshly killed animal so that the heat might galvanise the shrivelled tissue, was thought by Queen Victoria to be revolting and idiotic.  The method of binding the young Prince’s good arm to his body so that his left arm would “have to work” did little except compromise his balance, whilst drastic electric shock therapy was administered when he was barely a year old.  At the age of four, he was placed in a body-stretching machine akin to a medieval rack to correct the various muscular problems that had developed in his neck and shoulders.

Kaiser and Prince Henry of PrussiaNoc
'The Kaiser and Prince Henry of Prussia arrive to-day'. Report for Thursday 19 May 1910. Image taken from Daily SketchImages Online 

As an adult, the Kaiser was semi-successful in hiding the withered arm.  In formal pictures, he typically posed with his left hand resting on his sword with the right on top, and with gloves to provide distraction. His clothes were tailored with higher pockets to disguise the length of his left arm and he grew adept at shooting and riding with his right arm.  Historical videos show passable movement in his left arm and a 1915 edition of the Toronto World even claimed that  “a series of string and cords, acting like muscles…connected with the good muscles of the shoulder most adroitly, enable him to impart to it movements that are almost life-like”.  The Kaiser’s physical deficiency has often been identified as the key to his lust for military and imperial power and it is interesting to speculate on the course European history might have taken had he not had such a traumatic entry into the world.

Julia Armfield
Former Intern, Printed Historical Sources

Further Reading

Miranda Carter, The Three Emperors (London, 2009)

World War One on the British Library website


26 February 2014

The Beauties of the Male Leg

The young French dancer Auguste Vestris made his London debut on 16 December 1780 at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket (the capital’s opera house). He immediately drew audience attention through his combination of dance virtuosity, youth and good looks. The Morning Chronicle for 19 December 1780 tried to describe his talents:

It is impossible for words to convey an adequate idea of the strength, grace, and agility of this wonderful performer. … His entrechats were lofty and neat beyond imagination, and his balance appeared almost the effect of enchantment. Both in the serious and comic dances his attitudes were perfect models of elegance and picturesque expression.

Monsieur Vestris Junior

Monsr. Vestris Junr. London Magazine, May 1781 (P.P.5437).  Noc

Some months later, a pamphlet entitled An Heroic Epistle, from Mons. Vestris, Sen:  was published in London. Ostensibly written by his famous father Gaetan Vestris (but probably by the classical scholar John Nott), it was as much concerned with Vestris Junior’s  sex-appeal as his dancing prowess. After disparaging the home-grown dancers and dismissing other local entertainments, the writer turns to the new sensation whom he calls a ‘young Adonis’. The poem details the young man’s effect on the women in his audiences. Ogling the beautiful youth, one ‘hot matron’ exclaims  ‘Then what firm legs, and what delicious thighs!’.  

PP5437 Vestris SenSignor Vestris Senr. London Magazine, April 1781 (P.P.5437) Noc

Vestris Senior (then the leading dancer at the Paris Opera) did not appear at the King’s Theatre until 22 February 1781, when he and his son danced leading roles in the ballet Ninette à la Cour.  The performance was a benefit for Vestris Junior and drew vast crowds of would-be spectators. The London Courant and Westminster Chronicle for 23 February 1781 marvelled that ‘The passion for seeing a Frenchman dance, has thrown the town into a kind of delirium’. The opera house had been ‘literally besieged at five o’clock’ by people wanting tickets.  According to St James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post for 17-20 February 1781 the benefit was even mentioned during a debate in the House of Commons. So many members wished to attend that Parliament took a recess. On the night the theatre was so full that, inevitably, there was a disturbance when the curtain rose. Nevertheless the concluding ballet with its French stars was a great success. Auguste Vestris was said to have made £1000 from the performance. For the moment at least, he became London’s leading celebrity.

 Moira Goff
Curator Printed Historical Sources 1501-1800 Cc-by

Further reading

Judith Milhous, ‘Vestris-Mania and the Construction of Celebrity: Auguste Vestris in London, 1780-1781’, Harvard Library Bulletin, 5 (1994-5): 30-64.

Curtis Price, Judith Milhous, Robert D. Hume, Italian Opera in Late Eighteenth-Century London.  Vol. 1. The King’s Theatre, Haymarket, 1778-1791. Oxford, 1995.


24 February 2014

The age of the train - British Railways ephemera

Much has been written about the history of rail travel and British Railways in particular, with transport-dedicated bookshops still existing when conventional booksellers have gone out of business.  After nationalisation of the lines in 1948, rail was promoted in various ways and, fortunately, British Railways made sure that the resulting ephemera were deposited with the British Museum (as the British Library was until 1974).  The leaflets generally thrown away by the public were preserved here at the Library (shelfmark WP14515) and they reveal how society has changed in terms of mobility, demographics, and family life.

  British Railways - spread of leaflets



The BR pamphlets started out in the 1950s as a way to convey basic information.  Timetables aside, they were a means to announce technical improvements such as electrification, which would of course derail the age of steam trains.  By the 1960s, the Government-run system started to describe itself as more than a practicality of life, re-inventing the service as one offering possibilities to anyone with the correct fare. 

There were a variety of ways that the united rail service promoted itself, appealing to both the single and the married, the holidaymakers and shoppers, the football fans keen to follow their teams in person, and those who could be induced by bargain fares.  Group outings were encouraged, school trips for the children and conferences for adults. 

Although mystery tours are nowadays often themed as outings-on-foot, to see architecture or ‘ghosts’, or organised by niche holiday companies, modern railways seem to have abandoned the pitch.  But there was a time when people paid for rail journeys not quite knowing where they’d be going!

Occasionally, BR printed non-trendy leaflets, such as a self-congratulatory one announcing the very first automatic level crossing barriers (1961), and an apology for “teething troubles” with the new diesel service (1960).  And the company needed staff and so in the early 1960s printed leaflets such as Girls, Look Ahead and There’s a Job Here for You!

It’s easy to be fooled by old prices.  Travelling from Leeds to Burnley for a football match cost just £1 return in 1974, but that special price would be about £18 today.  A return journey from Newcastle-Sunderland to London was only £16 back in 1981, which translates to £126 today. 

And for particular schedules, the Library has retained many, from branch lines to major routes.  As British Railways reminded the public, This is the age of the train.

Andy Simons
Curator, Printed Historical Sources  Cc-by

21 February 2014

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Wills are a wonderful resource for researching individuals and families.   They can reveal places of residence and birth, occupations, family relationships, friendship groups, property, and personal possessions.  Dark secrets concealed for many years may come to light through an urge to resolve matters once and for all at death.

A large collection of wills and estate papers for British India has recently been put online by find my past. Spanning a 250- year period, they include wills written by civil, military and maritime employees of the East India Company and India Office, as well as private individuals such as merchants and planters, and women.


  Page from will of William Cooke
IOR/L/AG/34/29/27 f.629  Noc

One of the wills which has been digitised is that of William Cooke, a surgeon on the East India Company’s Bengal establishment.  The document reveals a great deal about Cooke and his family, and provides many clues for further research.  When he wrote the will on 24 March 1808, Cooke was living in London at Gerrard Street Soho, but he formerly lived in Barnstaple Devon. There are details of the marriage settlement made for the benefit of his wife Jane and any children they might have together. Cooke made arrangements for a pension to be paid for the maintenance of Bebee Nancy of Monghier in the East Indies.  Bebee Nancy is described as nurse to Cooke’s ‘reputed natural son’ Charles Cooke, otherwise known as William Henry Cooke.  Cooke also made provision for three other natural children ‘begot in India’: Eliza Douglas Cooke, Henry Cooke (now in Bengal), and Susan Cooke. Other family members in England are mentioned, including Cooke’s sister Susan who was married to Philip Peard, an attorney at law residing at Ely Place, London.  At the time of making his will, William Cooke was about to sail to Bengal with his daughters Eliza and Susan on board the Sovereign, Captain Alexander Campbell.

A codicil made at Cawnpore on 18 August 1809 makes specific bequests of a number of William Cooke’s personal possessions. His wearing apparel, jewels, trinkets and ornaments, books and a piano forte were to be shared by his daughters Eliza and Susan.  His son Charles was to receive a fowling piece, a silver gilt snuff box, and a pair of sleeve buttons. His son in England, William Owen Cooke, was to have the seal which was a gift from the Nawab of Oudh, a small cornelian ring, and a mourning ring of his dead parents.

By the time Cooke wrote a second codicil on 2 April 1813, his son Henry was dead, and both daughters had married. Eliza was the wife of John McDowell a Captain in the East India Company Artillery, and Susan was now called Chadwick.  Probate of the will was granted to Eliza in November 1815 after William Cooke died in India.

There are many leads to follow up: William’s marriage to Jane; the baptisms of the children in India and England; the voyage to India; Henry and William’s deaths; Eliza and Susan’s marriages.  So where there is a will, there often is a way to make progress with your family history research!

Margaret Makepeace
Curator, East India Company Records  Cc-by

Further reading

Will of William Cooke IOR/L/AG/34/29/27 f.629 one of 2.5 million records digitised by find my past

Bear’s grease, bonnets, bellows, biscuits and Bibles – an inventory of a Simla merchant’s possessions at death

19 February 2014

Very strange if true

We return to the theme of unfortunate deaths in India with the following story which appeared in many British provincial newspapers in October 1887 having originally been published in the Lahore Tribune. The Reading Mercury cast some doubt on the veracity of the tale, saying it was ‘very strange if true’.

 ‘The son of a well-known Londoner went to India last summer to make his home with an uncle who had grown rich in the Orient.  Some time ago the family received a letter from the uncle to say that his nephew was dead, and that his body had been sent home in a sailing-ship.  The vessel duly arrived, and a peculiarly-shaped box was delivered to the relatives.  The undertaker examined this case, and the coffin contained a Bengal tiger.  Upon this the surprised father at once cabled to his brother in India:- “Some mistake.  George’s body not arrived.  Coffin contained Bengal tiger”. He replied – “No mistake. George inside tiger”.'


Bengal Tiger
'The Royal Bengal Tyger' © Florilegius / The British Library Board   Noc

Margaret Makepeace
Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:

British Newspaper Archive

Untold Deaths


17 February 2014

Fanny Murray, Fair and Reigning Toast

A unique illustrated broadside in the British Library’s collections shows the courtesan Fanny Murray (1729-1778) in two guises. In one woodcut she appears ‘in her primitive innocence’, which in this case means a fashionable gown designed to demurely cover her charms. She holds a sheet of music in her hand and a fan and a book lie on the table before her.  This is an image of a genteel and accomplished young lady.

 Fanny Murray ‘in her primitive innocence’ Fanny Murray ‘in her primitive innocence’  Noc

 The woodcut is accompanied by verses which point a moral. Above the picture the lines refer to youthful, happy love. Below, they describe Fanny’s haughty disdain towards would-be lovers and how as she ages and loses her beauty they desert her, until she is forced to turn ‘monstrously devout’.  The stomacher and fichu of her dress appear to be English in style. They resemble those in her well-known mezzotint portrait, which must have had a wide circulation given Fanny Murray’s undoubted celebrity.

In the other woodcut, titled the ‘Careless Maid’ she is dressed en deshabille and has her skirt hitched up to adjust her garter. Her neckline is low and she shows a great deal of leg. She is, apparently, standing before her dressing table. This is an image of the courtesan preparing for work.

Fanny Murray - ‘The Careless Maid’
 ‘The Careless Maid’  Noc

The text below compares and contrasts the fashions of English and French women. ‘Elegant Shapes have always been reckoned the peculiar Perfections of English women’, it begins. French ladies ‘invented a Dress to disguise the Shape’ in a bid ‘to hide the Defects of Nature’. Neatness, shown by ‘good Linen, and a great deal of it about their Persons’ is among the excellences of English women. French ladies, on the other hand, favour the latest fashions ‘dingy Gauze, taudry Ribbons, Peten-lairs, Negligees, Sacks, Half-Sacks, and Bed-Gowns’. Miss Murray appears to be dressed in the French style, with a ‘Peten-lair’, a short jacket with a sack-back, over a ‘Negligee’ if not a ‘Bed-Gown’.

She must also be advocating the advice in the text on how to become a ‘compleat’ French lady. ‘

1st. The free Privilege of receiving in their Beds all Visits, as well from their Male as Female Acquaintance.

2dly. A sufficient Number of Male Bedmakers and Valet de Chambres, for their own personal and particular Service.

3dly. The Right of lolling upon Fellows without Controul, nay of kissing ‘em, chucking them under the Chin, and fingering them as much in publick as they please.

4thly. The free Liberty of talking aloud in publick Places of, and laughing at, the Amours of Men, and more particularly those of their own Husbands.

5thly. The full Privilege of openly gartering up their stockings in all publick Assemblies, without being so much as obliged to turn about towards the Wall.’

And 6thly. The free use of the Jordan in all mixed Companies whatever.’

Fanny Murray was definitely in the forefront of fashion, both in her dress and her behaviour.

Moira Goff
Curator Printed Historical Sources 1501-1800  Cc-by

Visit our exhibition Georgians Revealed

Further reading:

E.J. Burford. Wits, Wenchers and Wantons. London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century. London, 1986.

Memoirs of the celebrated Miss Fanny M-. 2nd edition. London, 1759.

14 February 2014

The British Tars’ Valentine

On 14 February 1797, the British and Spanish naval fleets met off the south-west coast of Portugal at the Battle of Cape St Vincent.  The Spanish were allied with France against Britain in the Revolutionary Wars.  Although the Spanish fleet was much larger, the British Navy under the command of Admiral Sir John Jervis was victorious.  Horatio Nelson in the Captain led the boarding parties which took the San Nicolas and the San Josef

Battle of Cape St. Vincent - Nelson boarding the San Josef and receiving the Spanish Admiral's sword
Battle of Cape St. Vincent - Nelson boarding the San Josef and receiving the Spanish Admiral's sword. ©Lessing Archive/British Library Board Images Online  Noc

The Captain of the Fleet Robert Calder was chosen to carry home the welcome news of victory. Calder was knighted for his services on 3 March 1797.  A rousing song was soon written by J Ogden junior to celebrate the victory.  One of the ways in which the words of the song were disseminated was through publication in regional newspapers, such as the Leeds Intelligencer of 20 March 1797 and the Chester Courant of 18 April 1797.  The words were to be sung to the tune of Valentine’s Day.

The British Tars’ Valentine

Or, the glorious 14th of February


When Morpheus veil’d the briny deep,

And landsmen all were gone to sleep,

Brave Jervis, with his gallant few,

Kept watch, in hopes the Dons to view.

For though their ships were three times nine,

Our Tars would have a Valentine.

    And pledg’d themselves ere they did dine,

    To send us home a Valentine.


When grey-ey’d morning dawn’d her light,

The Spanish squadron hove in sight;

Brave Jervis form’d two lines compact,

That with more vigour they might act:

For though their ships were three times nine,

Our Tars would have a Valentine.

    As they had pledg’d ere they did dine,

    To send us home a Valentine.


Our Tars quite bent upon their prey,

Impatient lest they’d skulk away:

Then Jervis bravely led them on;

‘Twas near the time of mid-day sun:

And though their ships were three times nine,

Undauntedly he broke their Line.

    For he stood pledg’d ere they did dine,

    His Tars should have a Valentine.


The Spanish fleet could not unite-

Such was the fury of the fight;

For every effort which they try’d

Serv’d only more to curb their pride;

And though their ships were three times nine,

Our Tars fought for a Valentine.

    For they stood pledg’d ere they did dine,

    Britain should have a Valentine.


Just at the time of setting sun,

The Spaniards on all sides did run;

Leaving behind their Salvadore,

St. Joseph, aye, and two Saints more;

Our Tars then wash’d their throats with wine,

While Jervis form’d the Valentine.

    Then all in triumph went to dine,

    And Calder bore the Valentine.


Margaret Makepeace
Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by


Further reading

British Newspaper Archive

A garland, containing seven choice songs, viz. 1. Young roger the Ploughman. 2. Good humour and wit. 3. The British tars Valentine. 4. Feather Paul. 5. The dumb wife cur'd. 6. A favorite song. 7. The Cobler. Preston : printed by E. Sergent, in the Market-Place; where may be had, the greatest Assortment of Songs and Histories, Wholesale & Retail, [1800?].


12 February 2014

Piracy and Plunder off the Oman Coast

On 19 May 1852, 47 destitute and desperate seamen turned up at the British Government’s Political Agency in Muscat in Oman, having been shipwrecked 120 miles off the coast two weeks previously.

Bengal indigo factory
WD 1017  An indigo factory in Bengal, 1863 Images Online  Noc

The story that the seamen had to tell was a not unfamiliar one to British officials based in ports around the Arabian peninsula in the 19th century – that of shipwreck and then plunder at the hands of the native seafaring tribes. In this particular instance the unfortunate sailors, who had been carrying over 1,600 casks of valuable indigo from Calcutta to Basra on the British merchant ship Centaur, ran aground in thick fog at night. Captain Salmon, the Centaur’s first officer, later recounted that when dawn broke, he and his crew found themselves at the mercy of the notorious Bani Boo Ali tribe of Arabia, with whom the British had had a number of clashes, sometimes bloody, since the 1820s.

  Page of letter from Major Atkins Hamerton to Arthur Malet

Page of letter from Major Atkins Hamerton to Arthur Malet
Page of letter from Major Atkins Hamerton to Arthur Malet
IOR/R/15/1/130, ff 129-30 - Letter from Major Atkins Hamerton, Her Majesty's Consul and Honourable Company’s Agent in the Dominions of His Highness the Imam of Muscat, to Arthur Malet, Chief Secretary to the Government Bombay, 1 June 1852  Noc


Unsurprisingly then, Salmon and his crew thought it prudent not to resist the tribesmen that had sailed out to meet them. For their part, the Bani Boo Ali allowed the crew to leave the ship with their lives, provided they left their precious cargo behind. Two weeks later, when news of the Centaur’s plunder reached Muscat, British officials despatched a naval patrol to ascertain the shipwrecked vessel’s fate. All they found were the vessel’s charred remains, which had been completely stripped of its cargo and fittings.

The loss of 1,600 casks of indigo was a huge loss to British traders in India and the Middle East. With a value of nearly £11 million in present-day terms, the Centaur’s cargo of indigo represented an entire season’s supply for the Persian Gulf.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Qatar Foundation-British Library Partnership 

Qatar Digital LibraryCc-by