Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

9 posts from August 2014

28 August 2014

A Polymath in Muscat

As his British superiors came and went, one long-serving Indian Medical Service officer, based at the Political Agency in Muscat, created a rich and enduring legacy.

Many of the British officers who went on to serve as Political Resident in the Persian Gulf or as Political Agent in Bahrain started off their careers in the Gulf in the post of Political Agent in Muscat.  The Political Agent’s second-in-command was the Agency Surgeon. Between the years 1873 and 1900 this post was held by one man: Atmaram Sadashiva Grandin Jayakar (1844-1911). Jayakar was said to have preferred Muscat to anywhere else in the world, and remained long enough to see no fewer than twelve British Political Agents pass through the town.

View of the waterfront at Muscat, View of the waterfront at Muscat, 1900s  Photo 206/(6) Images Online Noc

A Maratha by origin, Jayakar completed his Bachelor in Medicine and Surgery in India before studying to pass the Indian Medical Service exam at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Southampton, England. He was posted to Muscat in 1873, promoted to Surgeon Major around 1880 and then to Surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel ten years later. He also worked as the Acting Agent at Muscat, and personally attended to the Sultan of Muscat, Turki bin Sa’id, when he was sick.

While at Muscat Jayakar wrote a number of papers on the hygiene conditions in the town and its vicinity which appeared in Indian Government publications. These include a Medical Topography of Muscat in 1877 and a Report on the Recent Epidemic of Cholera in Maskat and Matrah in 1900.

Described by his one-time Muscat colleague Percy Cox as ‘a man of great industry and scientific bent’, Jayakar dedicated his spare time to the pursuit of scientific exploration and understanding. He collected scores of wildlife specimens from the desert sands, as well from the shores and waters off the Oman coast. The English explorer Theodore Bent, who visited Muscat in 1899, described Jayakar’s house as being ‘filled with curious animals from the interior, and marvels from the deep’. Jayakar sent many specimens not previously collected or studied to the British Museum in London. Numerous species are named in Jayakar’s honour, including the Arabian Sand Boa (Eryx Jayakari), a lizard (Lacerta Jayakari), a species of goat (Arabitragus Jayakari), a scorpion (Hottentotta Jayakari) and several fish, including the seahorse Hippocampus Jayakari.

Goat - 'Hemitragus [or Arabitragus] Jayakari’
‘Hemitragus [or Arabitragus] Jayakari’ from Proceedings of the General Meetings for Scientific Business of the Zoological Society of London for the year 1894, facing p.448. Noc

Jayakar also studied the Arabic language spoken by his fellow inhabitants in Muscat. His paper on the ‘Omani dialect of Arabic’ was published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1889. He also published The Shahee dialect of Arabic in 1904, and the Arabic zoological lexicon A̲d-Damîrí's Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān in 1906. A paper entitled ‘Omani Proverbs’ appeared in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and was published in book form in 1987.

Given the number of native animal species that Jayakar gave his name to, there is a pleasing symmetry to the fact that the townspeople of Muscat bestowed their own epithet of ‘Muscati’ upon the Indian surgeon who lived amongst them.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project 

Qatar Digital LibraryCc-by

Further reading:

Medical Topography of Muscat – IOR/V/23/29, No 138

Report on the Recent Epidemic of Cholera in Maskat and Matrah - IOR/V/23/77, No 379

The Shahee dialect of Arabic (AC.8827)

A̲d-Damîrí's Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān [a zoological lexicon] (306.47.H)

Omani Proverbs (YC.1987.a.3255)

26 August 2014

Buffoons, ear-pickers and sherbet-sellers

Specialist professions such as these are just some of the fascinating details about life in India which are revealed by the reports of the ten-yearly Census of India. It’s a familiar source of information, but each time I look at it, I am amazed by the way in which it records minute details about everyday life. The buffoons, ear-pickers and sherbet-sellers feature in the tables of occupations in the 1891 report on the Punjab. Barber-cropped Interestingly, the table of statistics records the number of people dependent on an occupation, including women and children, not just the people employed in the work. Buffoons were a great rarity with just 20 people in the British territory in the Punjab supported by their efforts to entertain. Ear-picking supported 144 people so this was also a minority profession compared with selling and preparing sherbet which provided for 2,047. ‘Undefined and disreputable’ occupations are listed, including prostitution which supported 6,193 men, women and children.

A Muslim barber, Add. 27255 f.211v
Images Online

 Education and literature supported 11,752 and 6,650 people respectively, and included teachers, authors, reporters, private secretaries and clerks, students and pandits. It is pleasing to note the inclusion of 'library service' under literature. However, people working in libraries may have been even more rare than ear-pickers, supporting only 121 people!

Diwan Babu Ram K90086-32

Portrait of Diwan Babu Ram with papers, books, pen-cases and spectacles, Add. Or. 1264
Images Online

Agriculture, manufacturing and commerce were of course the major sources of income. Civil and military service, ranging from people employed as officials and officers to ‘menials’, provided for 182,239 people while ‘professional’ occupations supported 135,834. Reflecting the almost obsessive drive to gather and organise information, these figures are broken down into sub-sections. For example, professional occupations include religion, education, literature, law, medicine, engineering and surveying, other sciences, pictorial art and sculpture, music, acting and dancing, sport, and finally exhibitions and games, which is where I found the buffoons. A separate table shows how people combined an interest in the land with other occupations. Regional variations are revealed by the statistics for individual districts. These statistics, far from being dry and boring, provide a fascinating snapshot of life in the Punjab in 1891. Census-occupations

Summary created from the detailed statistics relating to Districts and States 
Census of India, 1891: the Punjab and its Feudatories
, Vol XIX Part II: Imperial Tables and Supplementary Returns, IOR/V/15/46

The Punjab volume of the 1891 Census of India includes text which explains the methodology underlying the statistics and makes observations on history and society. Subjects include population, religion, marriage, health, language, migration, occupations, and of course the perennial obsession – castes, tribes and races. Maps illustrating population changes, migration, religion, the distribution of lepers and blind people, and the proportion of male to female children highlight the interests of the British information-gatherers.  
Census map-religion

Frontispiece to Census of India, 1891: the Punjab and its Feudatories, Vol XIX Part I, IOR/V/15/46

Although the Census of India reflects British preoccupations, observations and understanding of India, imaginative reading of the source provides marvellous insights into how people lived and worked. It is also a reminder of the importance of knowledge in maintaining a position of power.

Further reading
IOR/V/15 Census Reports 1853-1944
These comprise the decennial census of India 1871-1941 and a few earlier provincial census reports.

Penny Brook
Lead Curator, India Office Records

Text    Cc-by

Images    Noc


21 August 2014

Raising the Dead: Tales of Untold Lives

One of the aims of this blog is to inspire new research and encourage enjoyment, knowledge and understanding of the British Library and its collections.  So we are delighted to tell you about the work of writer Jamie Rhodes which ticks all those boxes!

Jamie Rhodes
Jamie has written several short films and teaches creative writing and screenwriting at school and community group workshops.  He is a folklore enthusiast and his writing is often inspired by rare and unusual stories. So collaboration with Untold Lives is a match made in heaven! 

Jamie contacted us through Twitter in June 2013 and we met for a chat which resulted in Jamie contributing guest posts to the blog.  Then in 2014 Jamie received a grant from the Arts Council to write a book of historical fiction inspired by stories which have been posted on Untold Lives.  Each of the short tales uses the archive collections as a starting point and seeks to explore how ‘a writer can bring alive a not altogether impossible re-imagining of our past’.  Jamie believes that in order to create good fictional characters, it is necessary to observe ‘the small but beautiful details of real lives’.  Documents in the British Library have given him a window to observe people of the past and he has imagined the personalities behind the pens.

Dead Men’s Teeth and other stories from Voices Past will be published later this year.  The stories in the collection are - Dead Men’s Teeth; Quarantine; Arrowhead; Mary March; How I Did Long fer a Tattie Pasty!; Death or Australia; Printed on the Thames; Ignatius Sancho’s Shop; Vulture Temple; and Stolen from India. Fans of this blog will spot some familiar titles there! 

Story telling in a Victorian family
J E Millias, Christmas Story Telling from The Illustrated London News (1862) Images Online Noc

Jamie Rhodes will be hosting an event at the British Library on Monday 20 October 2014 at 18.00 Raising the Dead: Tales of Untold Lives.  Join us for a spine-tingling evening of Gothic horror-themed readings from his collection of short tales.

And please do let us know if you have been inspired by Untold Lives!

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

19 August 2014

Mabel Dearmer in Serbia

Amid the more famous items in Enduring war such as Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ and Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement nestles a letter from Mabel Dearmer dated March 1915 (Society of Authors Collection, Add MS 56690, f.151) which refers to the fact that both she and her husband were imminently going to Serbia to work for the field hospitals there. How did this children’s writer and artist come to serve as a linen orderly in Serbia for a unit of women doctors and nurses led by another Mabel - Mrs Stobart? 

   Child playing with a hoopFrom: Round-about Rhymes. Written and pictured by Mrs. Percy Dearmer. London: Blackie & Son, [1898]. (B.L. shelfmark: 12809.u.27.). Dedicated to Geoffrey and Christopher.  Noc

Mabel Dearmer, born in 1872, was primarily known as a dramatist, writer and artist. She was opposed to the war on the basis of her Christian faith but threw herself into work with the Women’s Emergency Corps, as Chairman of the Publicity Department, and into fundraising for Belgian refugees. Her younger son Christopher enlisted soon after the outbreak of war followed by his elder brother Geoffrey (subsequently renowned for his war poetry). In March 1915, busy organising the production of one of her own plays, she attended a farewell service for the Third Serbian Relief Unit to support a friend. There she heard her husband, Percy, then vicar of St. Mary’s Primrose Hill, announce that he had just been appointed Chaplain to the British units in Serbia and would soon be departing there. 

Mabel made the sudden and dramatic decision to volunteer to join the Third Serbian Relief Unit and approached Mrs Stobart at the end of the service. Although Mabel’s own account, quoted in Letters from a field hospital and Mrs Stobart’s in The Flaming sword in Serbia differ in a few details, both agree that Mrs Stobart was not gripped with instant enthusiasm for the idea and made a few brisk observations about Mabel’s suitability. However, she agreed to take her as a hospital orderly.

Mabel left for Serbia in early April, appointed orderly in charge of linen. She proved an efficient and effective member of Mrs Stobart’s team in Serbia and describes her happiness there (slightly guiltily) in a letter of 16 May. However, by June 1915 she had fallen ill with enteric fever (typhoid). Although she subsequently appeared to rally, another letter in the Society of Authors Collection, dated 23 July, tells of the sad conclusion to this story, namely that Mabel died in Serbia on 11 July 1915 (Add MS 56690, f.153). Poignantly her son Christopher died at Suvla Bay (Gallipoli) only a few months later in October 1915.

Alison Bailey
Co-Curator, Enduring war

Further reading:
Mabel Dearmer, Letters from a field hospital. With a memoir of the author by Stephen Gwynn. London: Macmillan and Co., 1915. British Library shelfmark: 9082.gg.34.
Mabel Annie Saint Clair Stobart, The Flaming Sword in Serbia and elsewhere. London; New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916. B.L. shelfmark: 09082.cc.12.

Enduring war: Grief, grit and humour until 12 October 2014
The Folio Society Gallery - admission free


14 August 2014

The Rainsford Papers: Soldiers, sailors, ship-owners and mystical goings-on

General Charles Rainsford was a remarkable man in many ways. A professional soldier, diplomat, politician and inveterate traveller, he was also a well-connected man of the enlightenment interested in many aspects of science.

Fortunately Rainsford left behind a huge archive, held primarily at the British Library.  This includes papers on freemasonry, magnetism, and alchemical processes, and a journal of Rainsford's travels with the Duke of Gloucester.

Charles Rainsford was Commissary of Troops in the Low Countries in 1776–78. There he was charge of the shipping and transportation of mostly German/Hessian mercenaries, recruited to supplement British Army forces fighting in North America during the Revolutionary War. This posting bought Rainsford into contact with many prominent London ship-owners, merchants and their continental agents who supplied him with the necessary merchant ships.

Rainsford was a cousin of Sir Joseph Banks, another colossus of the enlightenment and they lived close to one another in Soho Square, London.  Both men were Freemasons with Rainsford taking a very active role through membership of several lodges both in England and on the continent.  Rainsford was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 13 May 1779, and he was also a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

  Alchemy furnace
Alchemy furnace, from Alchemical Discourse, Latin manuscript, 15th century ©De Agostini/The British Library Board Images Online

General Rainsford was deeply interested in religion and the occult.  He was a Rosicrucian and a Swedenborgian, having Carl Wadstrom as a friend and correspondent. He sought out mystics such as the London based Rabbi Dr Samuel Falk, the celebrated 'seerer' of Wellclose Square, and the mysterious Scandinavian Alchemist and ship’s surgeon Dr Sigismund Bacstrom. Rainsford was aware that Bacstrom was an excellent Chymist having had dealings with him through his alchemic interests and his close friend Peter Woulfe FRS, a Swedenborgian and inventor.

East London in the eighteenth century has until now often been portrayed by historians as a 'dank, dark and dangerous place'. But recently Derek Morris and I have discovered new evidence to challenge this view.  General Rainsford was a friend of the renowned naturalist Daniel Solander, secretary to Sir Joseph Banks and patron of the Swedish Church which was located in Princes Square close to Wellclose Square where many prominent sugar refiners lived.

This church was a hub for the Scandinavian merchant community in London. Many Scandinavian merchants and ship-owners had businesses based in Wapping. Some were engaged in the Scandinavian timber trade, so important for the building of British navy warships, for example the Lindgrens, Gustavas Brander, and Abraham Spalding.  Brander was a patron of the British Museum and friend to Daniel Solander and Sigismund Bacstrom, both of whom accompanied Sir Joseph Banks on his voyage to Iceland in 1772.  Rainsford no doubt used these circles for intelligence on shipping as well has for keeping tabs on certain scientific work which was at this time still in its infancy.  

I am currently engaged in further research on General Rainsford and Sigismund Bacstrom. The British Library’s Rainsford Papers are an important resource for everyone who is interested in this complex and remarkable man.

Ken Cozens
Greenwich Maritime Institute Associate


Further reading:

Rainsford Papers BL, Add. MSS 23644–23680

Derek Morris and Ken Cozens, Wapping 1600-1800: A Social History of an Early Modern London Maritime Suburb

East London stereotypes challenged - a previous blog post by Derek and Ken


11 August 2014

Women make comics: from Marie Duval to Janine

The presence of women writers and artists stands out among the recent publications on display in the ‘Comics Unmasked’ exhibition at the British Library. Our favourite pieces include works by Laura Oldfield Ford, Nicola Streeten and Katie Charlesworth. As you go back in time, however, it can become difficult to see the creative minds of women at work in British comics.

Ally Sloper was one of Britain’s first comic heroes: in the course of the second half of the 19th century, this endearing chancer invented by Charles Ross made the transition from the printed page to music, theatre and merchandising. Beginning in 1869/70 the stories are drawn by Ross’s future wife, Isabelle Émilie de Tessier (1850-1890), using the pen-name ‘Marie Duval’. Although other artists later take over, it was de Tessier’s character who first caught the public’s imagination.

  Ally Sloper’s Summer Number (1882), with artwork by Marie DuvalAlly Sloper’s Summer Number (1882), with artwork by Marie Duval. BL shelfmark: 12315.l.47  Noc

In the subsequent decades we found surprisingly little that was explicitly by women. There are a few children’s comics by creators such as René Cloke (1904-1995) and Teresa Wilkinson (born 1903), but we felt that this work wasn’t core to the exhibition themes of subversion and protest. The only exhibit from the early 20th century that is likely to have been created using female talent is a 1913 women’s suffrage poster, lent by the V&A: this was printed by the Suffrage Atelier collective, co-founded by the author and wood-engraver Clemence Housman (1861-1955).

The visibility of women creators improves suddenly in 1950/51. Enid Blyton (1897-1968) and Dorothy M. Wheeler (1891-1966) produce the London Evening Standard children’s strip ‘Mandy, Mops and Cubby’, probably Britain’s first comic created by an all-female team. Early issues of Eagle feature work by Jocelyn Thomas (born 1920s?) and Greta Tomlinson (born 1927). And for adult audiences, The Daily Express begins to publish ‘The Gambols’, humorous tales about domestic middle-class life. Although Gambols stories in 1950 are signed Barry Appleby, his wife’s name is eventually added alongside and it is now generally acknowledged that Doris ‘Dobs’ Appleby (1911-1985) created the characters with her husband and was probably the principal writer all along. A more select adult audience in 1950 might also have encountered the erotic magazine Fads and Fancies, which contains stories drawn by ‘Janine’, a pen-name for Reina Bull (1924-2000). Unlike her cover artwork for science fiction magazines and pulp fiction novels, Bull’s contribution to erotic comics is largely unrecorded. The writer of the story on display (‘Delia’) is Aubrey Lamonte, a potentially gender-neutral name for an author who doesn’t appear to have been identified yet.

In ‘Comics Unmasked’ we show a range of older comics from the British Library’s collection that feature work by women creators, but in the 80 years between Marie Duval and Janine there must have been many more. We were on the lookout whilst selecting material for display, but pseudonyms, initials and pen-names are common and many stories are unsigned and uncredited. The range of published reference sources is growing but still limited, and academic interest in this field is fairly new. We’ll need to assess the findings of a new generation of researchers before the role of women creators in British comics of the 19th and early 20th centuries can be properly celebrated.

Adrian Edwards
Co-Curator, Comics Unmasked  Cc-by

Further reading:
UK Comics Wiki
Alan Clark. Dictionary of British comic artists, writers and editors (1998)


08 August 2014

The King’s Indian Orderly Officers

In 1903, the Viceroy of India issued a General Order establishing the annual appointment of Indian Orderly Officers to act as the King’s honorary bodyguard in the UK. Each year four officers from the Indian Army were selected by the Commander in Chief to attend the King at Court, and at any reviews or ceremonies that the King attended during the London season. When in London, the Indian Orderly Officers (IOOs) were looked after by a British Officer, who would take them to be fitted for their ceremonial uniforms, show them around London, accompany them on their official engagements and generally see that they had everything they needed during their stay.

  King’s Indian Orderly Officers 1923 Frank O Salisbury, King’s Indian Orderly Officers 1923 (Foster 664) Images Online   Noc

In 1926, the four IOOs were Risaldar-Major Nur Khan of the Corps of Guides Cavalry, Risaldar-Major Faujdar Khan of Skinner's Horse, Subedar-Major Ahmed Din of the 1/4 Bombay Grenadiers, and Subedar-Major Tikka Khan of the 3/2 Punjab Regiment. They were met at Tilbury Docks on the morning of 22 April by the British Officer who would look after them for the summer, Major F M Matthews, 14th Punjab Regiment. The IOOs’ first days in London were spent being fitted for uniforms and boots, shopping in Oxford Street (Selfridges amazed and interested them), and sightseeing (Hyde Park, Natural History Museum, Kew Gardens). In May, Major Matthews’ plans were upset by the General Strike. With transport disrupted, little could be done other than rather stroll around central London. Matthews wrote in the official diary: “Not knowing London they didn’t realise the changes in traffic etc which an Englishman would do. The activity with tanks, armoured cars etc in Wellington Barracks interested them”.

On 30 April, the IOOs visited Woking Mosque. Major Matthews wrote that they had been hospitably entertained and were very pleased with the whole visit. Matthews noted that: “They enjoyed the railway journey. Foggy in London but clear outside, & the green fields, cattle & sheep gladdened their hearts…Ahmed Din took snuff & slept peacefully throughout the journey. The others were interested in everything, Faujdar being impressed with the beauty of it all”.

Once suitably equipped with uniform, the IOOs had a long summer of engagements ahead of them. They were officially presented to the King on 19 May, and over the next two months regularly attended Court at Buckingham Palace, levees at St James’s Palace, the unveiling of the Kitchener Memorial at Horse Guards Parade, the opening of the Military Tournament, an investiture at Buckingham Palace, and the Buckingham Palace Garden Party. They were also taken to various social events, such as the Chelsea Flower Show, Ascot Gold Cup, Aldershot Tattoo, Gala Day at the International Horse Show, the Indian Empire Garden Party, the Olympic Horse Show, and the Royal Agricultural Show.

After what must have been an exhausting but exciting summer, Major Matthews saw the Indian Officers off at Tilbury Docks on 30 July 1926.

John O’Brien
India Office Records  Cc-by

Further Reading:

Diaries of the British officers of the Indian Army in charge of the King's Indian Orderly Officers 1904-1939 [IOR/L/MIL/5/713-715]



06 August 2014

'The World’s War' on BBC2: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire

Tonight BBC2 broadcasts the first episode of a new series presented by David Olusoga, 'The World’s War', which explores the contribution of the millions of Indian, African and Asian troops who fought during the First World War.

The Indian contribution to the First World War is documented in the India Office Records, the vast archive of the British administration of India, which is kept at the British Library in London.

Tonight’s programme features an exceptional collection of reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France held at the Library, filled with extracts from letters of Indian soldiers writing home to their families during the War.  The chief purpose of the Censor’s Office was not to suppress letters, but to gather information about the morale of the soldiers. The British Government feared that uncensored letters detailing Indian soldiers suffering in France could distress their families at home, and so lead to political instability in India, and also might provide military information to the enemy.

You can see a sneak preview of Santanu Das examining the letters in the British Library in the first episode of 'The World’s War', which airs tonight:


The hundreds of letters testify movingly to the trauma the soldiers experienced fighting in France.

One soldier named Bachetar Singh, recovering from an injury to his foot in the Indian Hospital in Brighton in March 1915, wrote to a friend in India: “How can I describe this war?  It is like a furnace in which everything becomes ashes on both sides. When will Ishwar (God) have mercy so that this furnace will be stopped?”.  Murli Dhat Chandola wrote in April 1915: “I have simply come here to die because of my sins, but this is now the last time that I am writing you”.

In the same month, Giyan Singh, stationed at the Indian Artillery Depot in England, described the terrifying weaponry which the Indian soldiers faced on the battlefields of France: “The German is very strong. His ships sail the clouds and drop shells from the sky; his mines dig up the earth, and his hidden craft strike below the sea. Bombs and blinding acid are thrown from his trenches which are only 100 or 50 yards from ours. He has countless machine guns which kill the whole firing line when in attack. When he attacks we kill his men. The dead lie in heaps”.

The Indian soldiers also wrote about the many strange sights they saw. Zabu Shah, a Lance Daffadar with the 6th Cavalry, wrote excitedly in June 1917 to tell his mother about having been in an aeroplane: “I have been up in an aeroplane and was above the clouds for a long time. I am the first native of India to go up in an aeroplane in France but after me I think two or three more have gone up. It is a first class way of travelling particularly in hot weather. Very soon there will be so many aeroplanes that in India people will travel by them instead of by train”.

Description by Zabu Shah, a Lance Daffadar with the 6th Cavalry, of a flight in an aeroplane
IOR/L/MIL/5/827/3, f.416  Noc

'The World’s War' starts tonight on BBC2 at 9.00pm. See more details here.

The entire collection of the Censored Indian Mails is digitised and available to view for free online.


John O’Brien
India Office Records  Cc-by

Read the letter of an Indian Muslim soldier writing from Marseilles