Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

11 posts from May 2014

05 May 2014

Dipping into the archives with Dan Snow

You may have spotted that the British Library’s East India Company collections were featured in The Birth of Empire: The East India Company with Dan Snow on BBC2 last week. If you happened to miss it, here’s a fantastic clip showing what was on offer, and giving a glimpse of the British Library archives themselves!

Download BL_clip

You can watch last week’s programme online here. Look out for more of the British Library collections in the second and final episode of the series which airs this Wednesday at 9.00pm on BBC2.

  Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 1663 decorated with a bird From the minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors, 1663 [IOR/B/26]


02 May 2014

Pushing the boundaries

Adult and contentious themes such as sex and violence are a feature of Comics Unmasked at the British Library. If you want to understand how moral and social values have changed, if you want to see how under-represented sections of society have expressed themselves, and if you want to see what political issues have exercised people’s minds, then comics are a source not to be overlooked.

There are three broad categories of content in the exhibition that might be considered ‘difficult’. The first is material that reflects the period in which it was published. Britain has changed considerably since the 1950s, for example, and the treatment of race in Enid Blyton’s Mandy, Mops and Cubby stories makes uncomfortable reading today. But it reflects views that were current at the time and the stories, illustrated by Dorothy M. Wheeler, were published in a leading London newspaper as well as being issued as children’s books: they were therefore considered mainstream and are an example of how the library’s collections can help gain a historical perspective on society and its changing values. 

  Cover of Torrid Erotic Art, 1979
Torrid Erotic Art, 1979 © Erich von Götha (Robin Ray)

Next there are comics that aimed to shock at their time of publication. Skin (1992), written by Peter Milligan with artwork by Brendan McCarthy, uses graphic violence as part of a reaction against the gentrification of comics into respectable graphic novels. It’s part of a bigger picture. The pages from Skin that we have selected to display are upsetting, but they illustrate the power of comics and why writers and artists so often choose to work with this medium.

Finally, there is material that was originally produced for a relatively closed audience of like-minded people, but which we are displaying to the wider public. Much of the erotica falls into this category, such as the comics that appeared in a range of ‘top shelf’ magazines. While some visitors may be bemused by the explicit drawings of a rough sex fantasy in the 1970s gay title Him International, others may be offended. In the section ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ we consider how erotic comics have developed over time: how they are a reflection of changing attitudes in society, how they altered with arrival of HIV/Aids, and so forth. The curatorial team feel that this is an important topic to address. Nevertheless, the design of the gallery space allows visitors to walk straight past this entire section should they wish.

Adult and contentious they may be, but these comics are an important historical resource. Comics creators have often pushed at the boundaries, and through them, we can all be inspired to think about these boundaries and how they have always changed with time.

Adrian Edwards, Paul Gravett, John Harris Dunning.  Cc-by

Visit Comics Unmasked


01 May 2014

May Louise and the Marylebone midwife

My grandmother May Louise Smith was born on 1 May 1885 in Marylebone, London.  She was very pleased with her middle name, thinking it unusual and interesting.  Louise was chosen because it was the name of the midwife who delivered her.  But would my grandmother have told us this if she had known more about the woman?

Photo of May Louise SmithNoc

May Louise Procter, née Smith (1885-1977) 

Marylebone midwife Louise Rose Mourey or Mourez was born in Paris in 1811. By 1871 she was a widow practising as a midwife in Paddington.  In 1873 Louise Mourey was charged with murder.   Anna Simon died at Twickenham on 18 February at the age of 38, a week after she had been visited by the midwife.  A neighbour told the coroner’s inquest that the dead woman had said that she would have no more children born alive.  Madame Mourey appeared before the coroner’s jury, showing specimens of her potions.  The jury decided that the midwife had administered drugs to bring about an abortion and in April she was tried for murder at the Old Bailey.  However the prosecution submitted that there was no real evidence to support the charge and Louise was found not guilty.

After this brush with the law, Louise continued to work as a midwife.  By the time of the 1881 census she was working from a house in Milton Street Marylebone.  Just one month after delivering my grandmother, Louise became involved in a scandal which was to prove her undoing.   Journalist William Thomas Stead set out to highlight the scandal of child prostitution by arranging to buy a girl of thirteen from her mother through an intermediary. Rebecca Jarrett took Eliza Armstrong from her home in Charles Street Marylebone on 3 June 1885 on the pretext of placing the child in domestic service.  Louise Mourey examined Eliza to confirm her ‘purity’ before she was delivered to a client.  Louise also provided a bottle of chloroform to incapacitate Eliza.

In October 1885 Louise Mourey faced her second trial at the Old Bailey, this time for indecently assaulting Eliza Armstrong.  She was found guilty and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment with hard labour, a harsher punishment than those imposed on the other defendants.  The judge said that he looked at her case differently: the court had been told repeatedly that Madame Mourey was a professional abortionist although there was no positive proof; he believed that she knew that the child was ‘intended for outrage’; and she was paid for her part in the abduction. 

Louise Mourey was committed to the Millbank Penitentiary on 10 November 1885. At first she was required to pick a pound and a half of coir per day.  When she could not cope with this, the task was changed to knitting. On 25 November, she was admitted to the prison infirmary suffering from ailments affecting her kidneys, lungs and heart.  Friends visited her, and she was well cared for, nourished with meat, wine and various kinds of fruit.  Louise Mourey died in prison on 20 January 1886 aged 74, a wicked woman in the eyes of many. Yet we have seen that one mother she attended was grateful  enough to name her daughter after her.

Margaret Makepeace Cc-by
Curator, India Office Records  

Further reading:

British Newspaper Archive – for example, the  inquest into the death of Louise Mourey is reported in Worcester Journal 30 January 1886.

Whatever happened to Eliza Armstrong?