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11 posts from April 2014

07 April 2014

The Talented Mr Fox Talbot Part 2 - Botany

Continuing with the series on William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), we look here at his lifelong interest in botany and some of the items now available to researchers through the British Library catalogue.

Botany was one of Talbot’s favourite fields of study although he pursued it only as an occasional interest. Nevertheless he was extremely knowledgeable and held in high regard. In 1829 he was elected to the prestigious Linnean Society, today one of the oldest active botanical societies in the world. Talbot was also a member of the Horticultural Society of London, the Royal Botanic Society of London, and the Botanical Society of Edinburgh.

From the age of 14, Talbot maintained a lively correspondence with eminent botanists such as Lewis Weston Dillwyn (1778-1855) and Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), and later with Reverend James Dalton (1764-1843). Talbot’s particular interest at this time was British mosses, an extremely demanding taxonomic speciality.

In 1823 and 1826 Talbot chartered expeditions to Corfu and the Ionian Islands collecting plants which he then spent the following years studying and classifying. One of the plants discovered on these expeditions ‘Sideritis purpurea Talbot’ still bears his name as does ‘Talbotia elegans Balfour’ named years later in his honour by the Scottish botanist, Professor John Hutton Balfour (1808-1884). Below is part of Talbot’s list of plants collected for either Sir William Jackson Hooker or his son Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911).

  Talbot’s list of plantsMS 88942/1/364  Noc

Talbot was also interested in botanical specimens collected by others and he often exchanged notes, seeds and herbaria with other botanists, both amateur and professional. He also maintained a small botanical garden at Lacock Abbey, his family home in Wiltshire, where he grew many of the seeds and plants he received. Below are several examples showing his enthusiasm for collecting plants and seeds from different parts of the world as well as his keen interest in studying them.

List of plants sent from Naples  MS 88942/1/364Noc

List of seeds from Australia  
MS 88942/1/364 Detail of Talbot’s note on seeds sent to him by his nephew, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Edgcumbe (1838-1915)


  Talbot’s note on the vitality of seeds
MS 88942/1/364 Talbot’s note on the vitality of seeds, created, as he records, in the interests of the British Association (for the advancement of Science) Noc

One of the least known facts about Fox Talbot is his role in the preservation of the Royal Gardens at Kew.

albot’s note, dated 29 August, 1845, made of plants at ‘Kew Gardens’
 MS 88942/1/364 Detail of Talbot’s note, dated 29 August, 1845, made of plants at ‘Kew Gardens’ Noc

In 1837 the Royal Gardens at Kew, whose greenhouses contained many rare and exotic species of plants, were under threat of being turned into vineries. As the decision would need parliamentary approval Talbot, on the advice of Thomas Spring Rice, Chancellor of the Exchequer, persuaded the Council of the Linnean Society to petition the House of Commons so that the gardens might be preserved as a national botanic garden. This was granted in 1840 and the Royal Gardens at Kew were saved.

Jonathan Pledge
Cataloguer, Historical Papers  Cc-by


03 April 2014

‘The Jewish State of Eastern Arabia’

In September 1917, Lord Francis Bertie, British Ambassador to France, received an unusual proposal from Dr M L Rothstein, a Paris-based Russian Jew.   Bertie explained to the Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, that Rothstein proposed the Entente Powers should equip and organise an army ‘for the conquest of the Turkish province of El Hassa [Hasa]’, an oasis region on the east coast of modern-day Saudi Arabia, for the ‘creation of a Jewish State on the Persian Gulf’.

Proposal from Dr M L Rothstein
IOR/L/PS/11/127 Noc

Rothstein sets out his proposal thus: ‘I undertake to assemble, for next spring, a Jewish fighting troop, a force of 120,000 strong men’ which would double ‘in cooperation… with the troops of the Entente’.  At first glance, he admits, his plan ‘may appear unrealistic’, but this would cease ‘as soon as the first thousand men have arrived on the scene’.

The troops would gather at Bahrain and, as soon they reached 30,000, a ‘coup de main’ (swift attack) would ensue, taking the ‘Turkish province of Al Hassa, near the Persian Gulf’, which ‘will become a Jewish State (un État juif)’.  He predicts an ensuing ‘state of war’ with Turkey due to the invasion.  Therefore, ‘the Jewish troops will immediately enter into a campaign… until the final victory of the Entente or until their destruction’.

Map of the oases of El Hasa
Detail from IOR/X/3214 Noc

Besides his self-description as a ‘Russian medical doctor’ and a 1938 description by Juda Tchernoff, little is known about Rothstein.  He prefaces his proposal with his family’s ‘moral qualities’ and refers to Maurice Barrès who cites Rothstein’s son, Amédée, a young Russian Zionist, in his book Les Diverses familles spirituelles de la France.  Although Barrès was a famous anti-Dreyfusard and popularised French nationalism, he considered Amédée as exemplifying Jewish loyalty to France due to his patriotic death at the Battle of Verdun in 1916.

The British rejected Rothstein’s plan outright, dismissing it as ‘wholly inappropriate’.  Balfour’s private secretary wrote to Bertie on 3 October 1917 requesting that he reply to Rothstein, informing him that the British government could not give effect to his proposal.

Balfour’s private secretary' letter to Bertie 3 October 191

Lacking further documentary evidence or biographical details concerning Rothstein, we can assume his plan was not part of any formal movement possessing influence or power.  Moreover, we do not know what led him to devise a proposal so at odds with Britain’s longstanding strategy for imperial control in the region.  Indeed, the India Office’s Thomas William Holderness reflected that Hasa had ceased to be a Turkish province in 1913 with the conquest of Ibn Saud, a British ally, and Bahrain’s Al Khalifah rulers had been in treaty relations with Britain since 1820.  ‘His Majesty’s Government’, he wrote, ‘could not countenance… any proposal affecting their territorial rights or the status quo…’

Balfour Declaration
Add. 41178, f.3 Letter from A. J. Balfour, Foreign Secretary  - the formal declaration of the British Government in favour of establishing a national home for the Jews in Palestine, 2 November 1917.  Images Online Noc

Although Rothstein’s proposal appears obscure and has been almost entirely forgotten by history, it reflected an historical momentum for the establishment of a Jewish national home, ideologically grounded in European nationalism and seeking legitimacy from European imperial powers.  Various locations were mooted for such a project, including Uganda, Argentina, Russia, Cyprus and, of course, Palestine.  Indeed, just a month after dismissing Rothstein’s plan, Balfour himself wrote his now-famous declaration expressing Britain’s favour for the Zionist aim of ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’.

Daniel Lowe
Arabic Language and Gulf History Specialist, BL/Qatar Foundation Partnership Cc-by

Qatar Digital Library

Twitter : @dan_a_lowe

Further Reading:

IOR/L/PS/11/127, P 3870/1917, ‘Arabia: proposed establishment of a Jewish State in El Hasa’, 12 September 1917- 6 October 1917

Add. MS 41178, f. 3, ‘The Balfour Declaration’, 2 November 1917

Maurice Barrès, Les Diverses familles spirituelles de la France (Paris: 1917)

Léon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism: Suicidal Europe, 1870-1933 (Philadelphia: 2003)

Juda Tchernoff, Dans le Cruset des Civilisations: Des Prodromes du Bolchévisme à une Société des Nations (Paris: 1938)


01 April 2014

The deliberately dangerous beard

In April 1843, the Right Reverend George Spencer, Lord Bishop of Madras, wrote to the Governor of Madras complaining of the conduct of the Chaplain of Quilon.  It had been brought to the Bishop’s attention in late 1842 that the Chaplain, the Rev. Robert Wells Whitford had ‘…been making himself ridiculous and was disgracing the Office of a Clergyman of the Church of England by wearing a long beard and moustaches in consequence as I was given to understand of some vow whereby his people were greatly scandalised’.  The Bishop wrote repeatedly to the Chaplain admonishing him over his facial hair, but was ignored.  This slight to the Bishop’s authority would ignite a fascinating row between the two, the papers of which are in a collection of correspondence in the India Office Records on the general question of the right of Bishops in India to nominate Chaplains.

Caricature of 5th Earl Spencer with a very long beard

Caricature of 5th Earl Spencer, Vanity Fair [P.P.5274.ha.4] Images Online  Noc

Hearing further that the Rev. Whitford was becoming an object of disgust to his congregation who were deserting his Church, the Bishop asked the Lord Bishop of Calcutta, who happened to be visiting Travancore in his capacity of Metropolitan of India, to intervene.  The Rev. Whitford then consented to shave of the offending whiskers, but grew them back the moment the Bishop of Calcutta had left, and presented himself to the Bishop of Madras as ‘…in appearance I might almost say, like a shocking Mountebank but certainly most unlike an English Clergyman.’ 

Further belligerent communications passed between the two, culminating on 9 April 1843 in an angry scene at the Church in Quilon during a Sunday service in front of the entire congregation!  An account of the incident by the Bishop’s Domestic Chaplain was sent to the Madras Government, which stung the Rev. Whitford into a furious defence of his position in which he portrayed himself the victim of slander and declared ‘Condemn me if you will, & law requires, I refuse not to incur the utmost penalty of guilt, but let it first be proved.’  Viewing the Rev Whitford as a ‘deliberately dangerous man’ Bishop Spencer recommended to the Court of Directors of the East India Company that he be removed from the Diocese.

St George's Cathedral, Madras
St George’s Cathedral, Madras [WD 4294]  Images Online  Noc

Robert Wells Whitford had been appointed a Chaplain by the East India Company in 1839, and had served with missionary spirit at Secunderabad, Mangalore, Quilon and Poonamallee, where he took an interest in the local mission at Kurnoul.  Bishop Spencer eventually succeeded in having him dismissed for insubordination in 1848, but he continued in the service of the Church in England, and as British Chaplain at Leipzig in 1869, before becoming Vicar of Lyminster in Sussex in 1877. He died in 1881 aged 77.

Despite Bishop Spencer’s low opinion of him, he seems to have been well liked and remembered in India, as Frank Penny in his history of the Madras Church points out “His dismissal might lead one to suppose that he did something unworthy of his calling; but this was not the case; he was only a little eccentric.”

John O’Brien
Post 1858 India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:

Correspondence regarding the case of the Reverend R W Whitford, Chaplain of Quilon, December 1842 to June 1843 [IOR/F/4/2058/94305 pp.67-101]

Rev. Frank Penny, The Church in Madras: being the history of the ecclesiastical and missionary action of the East India Company in the Presidency of Madras in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 3 vols (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1904-22) [British Library reference: 4744.gg.22.]


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