Untold lives blog

10 posts from September 2014

30 September 2014

An insubordinate cricketer

A cursory examination of any memoir describing time spent in the military, civil or medical services in India will reveal a wealth of detail about the leisure activities pursued by members outside of their regular duties. Typical activities included cricket, polo, racquets and hunting.

Whilst researching the plague in India I came across a gentleman who appears to have been a little too dedicated to his sporting activities.

Colonel Harry Ross (1869-1938) attended Sandhurst and served briefly with the Somerset Light Infantry, before joining the Indian Army. Whilst stationed in Simla with the 18th Hussars he occupied himself with cricket and polo, in addition to studying for the Staff College Examination.

An extract from his memoirs shows how far he went in pursuit of his leisure activities:

“During the Simla week which took place at the height of the hot season there was always a cricket match – Outstations v. Simla, & I was invited to play for the former, but my chief would only allow me 2 days leave. This of course was no use at all, as it took a day to get there, an-other to come back, while the match itself was a two day one. I took the 2 days leave, and I’m afraid in a very insubordinate manner stayed away 4”.

  Cricket match at Naini Tal
Cricket match at Naini Tal c. 1885 from the Mcnabb collection. Online Gallery  Noc

Was it worth it? Ross describes his journey to the cricket match and the change in climate, noting:

“The atmosphere there was delightful after the sultry heat of the plains, but it takes some time to get used to the sudden change to the rarefied air which affects one’s breathing. This probably accounted for the poor display I made in the cricket match. I cannot remember the scores, but I know that the “Outstations” were beaten”.

Expecting trouble for his unannounced absence without leave, Ross decided to strike first:

“I fully expected a row on my return to Amballa, so determined to be first in the field with my resignation from the commissariat Department. I wrote this out & handed it in as soon as I reached office & it was not many weeks before I received orders to return to Regimental Duty & join a new Regiment – 1st Bombay Grenadiers…”.

   Harry Ross with horses and Indian handlers
 Harry Ross - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur B235/1  Noc

Ross would later be stationed on Plague duty at Satara, before proceeding to Bijapur as Plague Duty Officer. He was later commended by the Government for his services during the plague.

Alex Hailey
Cataloguer, India Office Medical Archives Project  Cc-by

Further reading:

Memoirs of Colonel Harry Ross-  India Office Private Papers Mss Eur B235

Eugene O’Meara, I’d live it again. Reminiscences of life in the Indian Medical Service (London: Jonathan Cape, 1935)

Edward Braddon, Life in India: a series of sketches showing something of the Anglo-Indian, etc. (London: Longmans & Co., 1872)


26 September 2014

Engineering a career in India, part 2

Dipping into another part of the surviving records of the India Public Works Department enables us to enhance the picture of the lives of engineering students on the cusp of careers in India that we began in May this year.

In this instance we fast forward to 1912 and specifically to the report of the Committee which recommended suitable candidates for posts in the sub-continent. H.S. Barnes, John W. Ottley and Alexander R. Binnie had been informed by the authorities that there were a total of nineteen vacancies to be filled in government service that year. A gratifyingly large number of applications were received, and accordingly over four days in late May and early June they interviewed 92 wannabe engineers. (It would have been more, but 35 applicants were found not to have the appropriate qualifications, six withdrew their applications and three were unable to attend.)  Unsurprisingly all were men; the great majority were British, but sixteen Indian candidates also put themselves forward, probably knowing that a small proportion of the available posts had to be filled by non-Europeans. The Committee could not resist making the rather patronising comment that “We are glad to record that the standard attained by the native candidates who appeared before us showed a marked improvement this year”.

Group of four railway engineers and a white dog
Photo 798 (29) Group of railway engineers 1860s Images Online   Noc

The file includes an example of the four-page form which each candidate had to fill in. As well as the standard boxes for full name, details of education from the age of fifteen and the names of up to three referees, etc., the form demanded details of the profession or occupation of his father, and even the parentage of each parent. There was also the requirement to divulge “the names of any near relatives who have been, or are now, in the service of the Indian government.” (Whether this encouraged or discouraged nepotism is no doubt a moot point.)

When the dust settled seventeen British and two Indian candidates were deemed to have passed, subject to a medical examination and their providing proof of age, and their full names, dates of birth and tertiary education are listed in the file. The Committee was prudent enough to select a reserve list of eight Europeans and four Indians, and their details are given in order of merit. Eight of the lucky nineteen were to be on one year’s probation after their arrival in India; it was recommended that six “be favourably considered in connection with the applications to State Railways”; three had the more dubious honour of being considered best fitted for careers in sanitary engineering.

  Hyderabad-Kotri bridgeNoc
Photo 940/1(34) Hyderabad-Kotri bridge in the Sindh province of Pakistan c. 1900 from an album compiled by P. J. Corbett, a Public Works Department engineer  Online Gallery   

There is one final observation to be made. Why, one wonders, were no fewer than three out of the nineteen successful applicants – Alfred Stuart Manger, Kenneth Eustace Lee Pennell and Francis Vaughan Simpkinson – holders of Third Class degrees in Cambridge University’s  Mechanical Science Tripos?’

Cc-byHedley Sutton
Asian and African Studies Reference Team Leader 

Further reading: IOR/L/PWD/5/29



24 September 2014

The Endangered Archives Programme - your chance to apply!

The Endangered Archives Programme is now accepting grant applications for the next round of funding. Since it was established ten years ago, the Programme has so far funded 244 projects in 77 countries worldwide, with grants totalling over £6 million.

The Programme is funded by Arcadia, in pursuit of one of its charitable aims to preserve and disseminate cultural knowledge and to promote education and research. The aim of the Programme is to contribute to the preservation of archival material worldwide that is in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration. The endangered archival material will normally be located in countries where resources and opportunities to preserve such material are lacking or limited.

Manuscript collection at Santipur Bangiya Puran Parishad, West Bengal, IndiaNoc

EAP643 Manuscript collection at Santipur Bangiya Puran Parishad, West Bengal, India

The Programme’s objectives are achieved principally by awarding grants to applicants to locate relevant endangered archival collections, where possible to arrange their transfer to a suitable local archival home, and to deposit digital copies with local institutions and the British Library. The digital collections received by the British Library are made available on the Programme’s website  for all to access, with currently over 3 million images from 106 projects online. Pilot projects are particularly welcomed, to investigate the survival of archival collections on a particular subject, in a discrete region, or in a specific format, and the feasibility of their recovery.

19thC documents in Sierra Leone Public Archives relating to Liberated Africans & the slave trade
EAP443/1/3/2: Births; District Freetown [13 Apr 1857-12 Apr 1860] 19thC documents in Sierra Leone Public Archives relating to Liberated Africans & the slave tradeNoc

To be considered for funding under the Programme, the archival material should relate to a ‘pre-modern' period of a society's history. There is no prescriptive definition of this, but it may typically mean, for instance, any period before industrialisation. The relevant time period will therefore vary according to the society.  The term ‘archival material’ is interpreted widely to include rare printed books, newspapers and periodicals, audio and audio-visual materials, photographs and manuscripts.

Three children from Esfahan, two boys playing instruments and a younger girl holding out the skirt of a white dress
EAP001/1/1: Photographs from Esfahan taken by Minas Patkerhanian Machertich [1900-1970s]Noc


It is essential that all projects include local archival partners in the country where the project is based as the Programme is keen to enhance local capabilities to manage and preserve archival collections in the future. Professional training for local staff is one of the criteria for grant application assessment, whether it is in the area of archival collection management or technical training in digitisation. At the end of the project, equipment funded through the Programme remains with the local archival partner for future use.

Horn Manuscript

EAP117/2/1/1: Horn Manuscript TK 37 (Manuscripts from the highlands of Sumatra, Indonesia) Noc


The Programme is administered by the British Library and applications are considered in an annual competition by an international panel of historians and archivists. Detailed information on the timetable, criteria, eligibility and application procedure is available on the Programme’s website. Applications will be accepted in English or in French. The deadline for receipt of preliminary grant applications is 7 November 2014.

How many Untold Lives could you help to preserve and share?



22 September 2014

Bringing Archive Catalogues to Life – the SNAC Project

Some readers of this blog will know that we at the British Library have spent the last few years developing an integrated catalogue for our archives and manuscripts collections which is made available online as Search our Catalogue Archives and Manuscripts.  A bonus of having all the catalogue records in one system is that we can now share them with projects en masse beyond the British Library, and this includes the 300,000 or so records of the people who were involved in the creation of, or who are the subject of, the archives and manuscripts.

These records then have been included in the US based Social Networks and Archival Context project – more memorably known as SNAC.  Part of this is looking at how to help researchers find all the relevant material relating to a particular person, both archives and publications and so has developed a ‘Prototype Research Tool’  with this in mind: 

  Screenshot of SNAC website Noc

The British Library’s records are included alongside those from many US institutions and data is being loaded from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and university repositories in the UK. Anyone can click one of the ‘featured’ images on the front page or search for an individual they are interested in. The result will be a page for an individual such as this entry for Robert Clive:

Screenshot of SNAC page on Robert CliveNoc

 Here information about related archive collections is presented with links back to the originating repository’s catalogue, where details of how to get access to the material can be found. There are also links to publications and other resources relating to the person with links to WorldCat  which again can help with accessing the material.

The project is also interested finding out if the links between people found in catalogues when they are brought together in this way might help researchers navigate around all this data, so as well as providing links to related people the project provides a visualisation for the social and professional ‘network’ of individuals in a ‘radial graph view’ such as this one again for Robert Clive:

  SNAC ‘radial graph view’ for Robert CliveNoc

Given the richness of the catalogues and the millions of records included links can be found to the humble individual as well as the ‘great and the good’, so here can be seen a link between Lord Clive and one Mrs Bayly Brett, whose commonplace book includes a copy of a letter written by him to his mother in 1757.

Please have a look at SNAC and tell us what you think. Happy hunting!

Bill Stockting
Cataloguing Systems & Processing Co-ordinator Cc-by


18 September 2014

Arsenic, Cyanide and Strychnine - the Golden Age of Victorian Poisoners

In July 1857 a sensational murder trial swiftly became the most talked about case in the country. The accused was Madeleine Smith, a young middle-class woman charged with murdering her lover with arsenic.  

Pierre Emile L'Angelier had attempted to blackmail Smith with their old love-letters once she tried to end their relationship. The Illustrated London News described in detail “the violent illness and sudden death of L’Angelier”, and “the prisoner’s declaration in which she admitted having purchased arsenic but stated that she used it in washing, as a cosmetic…for the alleged purpose of killing rats”.  The post-mortem found approximately 88 grains of arsenic in the stomach of the victim, a hitherto unheard of amount, whilst L’Angelier’s diary alluded to feeling ill after being served coffee by Smith. Smith was found not guilty, but the case still gained a lasting notoriety, fed by the Victorian fascination for a new ‘Golden Age’ of poisoning.

  Joanna preparing the poison for Sir John Cleveland
Noc  Joanna preparing the poison for Sir John Cleveland - Reynolds’s Miscellany [PP.6004.b Vol.21 No 525 p.1] Images Online 

One of the main reasons why poisoning became such a common means of murder in the Victorian era was, quite simply, ease of access. Cyanide was everywhere, in everything from paints to daguerreotypes to wallpapers. As a poison, its effects were unmistakable, including unconsciousness, convulsions, nausea, cardiac arrest and death, often in a matter of seconds. Its speed, from a poisoner’s point of view, was a plus, but its distinctive effects were easily recognisable and hard to pass off as anything but murder.

Strychnine, meanwhile, was broadly used as a form of pest control in big cities. In humans, it caused frothing at the mouth and muscle spasms which increased in intensity until the victim died from asphyxiation due to paralysis of the neural pathways. Although a fairly unsubtle way to kill someone, strychnine was a popular poison for some years, favoured by murderers such as Thomas Neil Cream and Belle Gunness. In a particularly sinister instance, The Penny Illustrated reported a case in 1871 in which poisoned food parcels were sent to families in Brighton bearing the message: “A few home-made cakes for the children; those done up are flavoured on purpose for yourself to enjoy. You will guess who this is from; I can’t mystify you, I fear”.  As the paper noted, a large quantity of strychnine had recently been obtained from a local chemist by way of a forged order.

Despite the popularity of Cyanide and Strychnine, Arsenic was nonetheless the chief poison of the Victorian era. Readily available in a staggering array of forms from flypaper to cosmetics, it was comparatively difficult to detect. A tasteless, odourless compound, its effects could often be written off as food poisoning, making foul play harder to trace. Its popularity led to the Arsenic Act of 1851, which enforced tighter restrictions on its sale and required most arsenic to be coloured indigo to make it harder to disguise. Measures like this, as well as development in the fields of toxicology and pathology, marked the beginning of a decline in the poisoner’s free-for-all of the early 19th century. With poisons becoming more easily traceable and mass media broadcasting their effects more widely, old favourites such as cyanide, strychnine and arsenic gradually became less commonly used. However new drugs and new poisons were developed, with figures such as the notorious Doctor Crippen representing further flowerings of disturbing invention on the 19th century murder scene.  

Julia Armfield
Former Intern, Printed Historical Resources     Cc-by

Further reading:  

Esther Inglis-Arkell, The Deadliest Poisons in History 

Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, A Poisonous History of Victorian Society

Royal Holloway Victorian MA Blog, Murder! The Glasgow Poisoning Case, July 1857

Douglas McGowan, The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith (Edinburgh: 2007)

15 September 2014

King Silence - the lives of Victorian deaf children

As a historical source, an autobiographical novel presents the problematical challenges of both fiction and autobiography, and often doubles as a polemic for the author’s own world view. However, King Silence: A Story written by Arnold Hill Payne has provided me with insight into the lives of Victorian deaf children that I did not find in more traditional sources. 

  Title page of King Silence Title page King Silence Noc


Arnold Payne was the hearing son of Benjamin Payne who was the deaf principal of the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Swansea between 1876 and 1909.  Prior to attending a local school at the age of seven, Arnold’s everyday companions were deaf children boarding in this very well respected institution. Like his parents he was a passionate advocate for sign language in a time when ‘oralism’, or teaching the deaf to lip read and speak, was decreed to be the better method of communication.

Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb Noc

The Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb - from Annual Reports of the Cambrian Institution at Swansea Central Library 

Arnold Payne became assistant chaplain to the Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb in London, regularly speaking against oralism as he believed that signing enabled deaf people to be better educated and to interact with each other. He also wrote a comprehensive entry for ‘the deaf and dumb’ in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica and spent a year at Gallaudet College in Washington DC, the leading higher education establishment for deaf students.

The descriptions of the fictional ‘Sicard College’ in Washington DC which featured in King Silence were recognisable as Gallaudet College. His father, Benjamin Payne can also be identified in the book as ‘Mr Gordon’, the principal of the fictional institution remarkably similar to the Cambrian Institution in Swansea.

Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb schoolroom Noc

Cambrian Institution Schoolroom - from Annual Reports of the Cambrian Institution at Swansea Central Library 

The depiction of one pupil in King Silence highlights the loneliness and isolation experienced by a deaf child. A seven year old boy who had been born deaf stood ‘silent, lonely, passive, patient’ while his mother discussed his admittance to the institution with the principal. When another pupil entered the room and used signs and gestures to the boy, he was transformed by the ‘sudden revelation that there was someone here who talked in a language he could comprehend’. He had been accustomed to people around him talking about him, while keeping him ‘in ignorance’ of what they discussed. Here however were children who could communicate with him and had also experienced his isolation, ‘the sensitiveness, the shame, the loneliness’; the boy burst into tears because he felt he was ‘no longer alone!’.

Principal Benjamin Payne would have been familiar with these feelings of isolation, even though he had not been born deaf, and although the above account in King Silence is tinged with sentimentality, it is nevertheless a recognisable portrayal of discovering one is not alone. Indeed, Benjamin Payne used isolation as a punishment, preferring to forbid pupils from talking to a miscreant for a short while, rather than using corporal punishment. Some institutions beat pupils for using forbidden sign language and some reportedly tied the pupils’ arms to their sides for the same ‘offence’.

In King Silence, Arnold Payne enhances our understanding of the feelings and emotions of deaf children sent away from home in the nineteenth century. For many children, the experience was a positive one which enabled them to befriend and communicate with other deaf children, possibly for the first time.

Lesley Hulonce
Historian and Lecturer, Swansea University


Further reading:

Arnold H Payne, King Silence: A Story, London: Jarrolds, 1919. British Library 012603.g.16.

Paddy Ladd, Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2003.

Lesley Hulonce, ‘”Likely to conduce to the happiness and advantage of the inmates”? Victorian Education for Deaf Children’, Workhouse Tales



11 September 2014

Introducing the India Office Medical Archives Project

Are you interested in the history of medicine? Fancy getting your teeth into treatments for snake bites?  Ever wondered how the perceived relationship between climate and disease influenced the practice of medicine in British India?

The India Office Medical Archives (IOMA) project has been funded by the Wellcome Trust to increase the visibility and accessibility of sources for medical history within the India Office Records.

Doolie for carrying patients
IOR/F/4/2398/129162 Regarding a Doolie of very ingenious construction invented by Surgeon J S Login 25 Oct 1850


The project builds upon the work of a previous AHRC-funded project – Sources for Science and the Environment in the India Office Records – and its resulting publication Science and the Changing Environment in India 1780-1920, (London: British Library, 2010).

Over a 15 month period the IOMA project will:

• Add over 2000 electronic catalogue records to the online Search Our Catalogue Archives and Manuscripts

• Expand entries that are particularly rich in detail or illustration

• Create authority files for key individuals, institutions, subjects and places within the collections

• Identify additional material on infectious disease across the India Office Records and India Office Private Papers


Hakeem and Coolie with medicine basket
 Add Or 1586 Hakeem and Coolie with medicine basket


The records illuminate a diverse range of subjects, including:

• Medical topography

• Diseases, including smallpox, bubonic plague and cholera

• Drugs and cures

• Medical education

• Institutions, including asylums, lock hospitals and laboratories

• Public health and sanitation

Keep an eye out on the Untold Lives blog and Twitter account @UntoldLives for project updates and interesting links.

If you have any questions about the project or the India Office Records in general, please leave a comment below or contact us at the British Library.

Alex Hailey
Cataloguer, India Office Medical Archives Project


09 September 2014

Finding Indian soldiers who served in World War One

Finding information in the India Office Records about the native soldiers serving in the Indian Army is very difficult. With a growing interest in genealogy in India and Pakistan and the Asian community here in Britain, we receive more and more enquiries relating to Asians. In most cases we are unable to help as the biographical records relating to native Indians were not generally sent to London, but there are exceptions.

At a time when many people are looking for their ancestors fighting during the First World War, the Casualty Appendices to the War Diaries are a great source of information for Indian soldiers who were killed or injured.

There are dozens of volumes covering various fronts:  France, East Africa, Egypt, Aden and Persia. Strangely there are not any casualty appendices for the Force D station in Mesopotamia. The War Diaries exist for the force, but it is quite difficult to extract the names of the killed and wounded. The volumes are not indexed, so it might take days to find a soldier.  The fact that some deaths are reported much later adds yet one more obstacle.

  Front cover of Casualty Appendices to the War Diaries
 IOR/L/MIL/17/5/4194  Noc

 The entries are brief, but give the most important details: name, rank, regiment, whether killed or wounded, cause of death and the date. All ranks are included: the death of Sepoy Bharat Singh of the 16th Rajputs was recorded on 12 September 1917. Even followers are listed, for example Naik Moonsamy of the 23rd Field Veterinary Section, who died of acute lobar pneumonia at Ronen on 3 July 1916.

There are weekly summaries of casualties and losses from particular actions,such as Nanyati on 5 August 1917.

Casualties and losses from action at Nanyati  Aug 1917Noc

Casualties and losses from action at Nanyati  Aug 1917Noc

There are reports of deaths that occurred years earlier.  In telegram No. 244-A, which was sent on 7 October 1917, Subadar Ramji Savant witnessed that Private Ismail Khan died at Karagoro in January 1915 and Private Suleman Khan died in November 1915 at Tabora. They were prisoners of war in German East Africa.

There are also accounts of casualties by regiments:

Summary of casualties by regimentsNoc

Not all news was bad news. For example Sepoys Firoz Khan of the 51st Sikhs and Indar Khan of the 53rd Sikhs were removed from the dangerously ill list on 25 August 1915 and Havildar Mohammed Ali of the 17th Infantry was invalided to India in August 1917 because of  problems with his ankle.

Dorota Walker
Reference Specialist, Asian and African Studies Cc-by

Further reading:

Volumes used in the article: IOR/L/MIL/17/5/3134, 3135, 3212, 3258, 3938 and 4010.

Casualty Appendix to War Diary:

Indian Expeditionary Force ‘A’ France 1914-1919 IOR/L/MIL/17/5/3112-3149

Indian Expeditionary Force ‘B’ East Africa 1914-1919 IOR/L/MIL/17/5/3182-3218

Indian Expeditionary Force ‘E’ Egypt 1918-1919 IOR/L/MIL/17/5/3938-3949

Aden Force 1915-1919 IOR/L/MIL/17/5/4009-4055

Persia 1916-1919 IOR/L/MIL/17/5/4182-4216