Untold lives blog

11 posts from December 2014

30 December 2014

The Psycho Bicycle

Were you given a bicycle for Christmas?  Was it a Psycho bike?

The Psycho bicycle was designed by Starley Brothers, a pioneering cycle manufacturer based in Coventry. The Ladies’ Psycho had a step-through frame so that there was no need to hitch up skirts to ride.  It was the first mass-produced bicycle for women.

Advert for a Psycho bicycle
From Chilosà, Waif and Stray. The adventures of two tricycles. (1896) Noc

James Starley was born in Sussex in 1831. He worked on his father’s farm and then as a gardener in Kent. Young James spent his spare time mending umbrellas, clocks and watches, and inventing mechanical devices such as a one-stringed window-blind, an adjustable candlestick, and a self-rocking pram (said to be guaranteed to soothe and lull the most tiresome of infants). 

Starley then secured a job with a sewing machine manufacturer in London. He moved to Coventry as the mechanical genius for the Coventry Sewing Machine Company established in 1863.  This firm evolved into the Coventry Machinists’ Company making bicycles and tricycles. James Starley both designed and tested bicycles: in 1869 he and William Hillman rode from London to Coventry in one day, a gruelling journey to undertake on such an early bicycle.  

  James Starley
James Starley - from the front cover of The life and inventions of James Starley, father of the cycle industry (1902)  Noc

James Starley set up his own business in Coventry in 1869, manufacturing both bicycles and sewing machines. His sons James, John and William and his nephew John Kemp Starley all worked under him. It was said that James Starley so improved the bicycle that the ‘bone-shaker’ bore the same relation to the bicycle of the 1880s as a cart horse did to the winner of the Derby (Pall Mall Gazette 23 June 1881).

Queen Victoria saw a woman riding a Starley ‘Salvo Quadricycle’ on the Isle of Wight and ordered one for the royal princesses.  It was delivered to Osborne House in person by James Starley just a few months before his death from cancer in June 1881.  His obituary noted that, although successful, Starley had not made a fortune: ‘Mr Starley patented a number of his inventions; but he had little commercial keenness, and, speaking broadly, his inventive genius was freely given to the world’ (Pall Mall Gazette 23 June 1881).  His estate was valued for probate at £2322 13s 1d.  A memorial to James Starley was unveiled in Coventry on 8 November 1884.

Memorial to James Starley
Memorial to James Starley - from The life and inventions of James Starley, father of the cycle industry (1902)  Noc

The family business continued after his death. New models such as the Psycho were developed and the firm continued to supply cycles to the royal family.  In 1900 William Starley advertised a hire-purchase scheme for men and women’s bicycles costing fourteen guineas:  ‘’the value of a really reliable bicycle is still such as to make its acquisition difficult or impossible to many who desire to ride’.  Credits were given for introducing new customers.

  The Starley Lady's Cycle
From The William Starley Cycle Purchase System (1900) Noc


But why was the name ‘Pyscho’ chosen for the bicycle?  According to Grace’s Guide to British industrial history, the name was taken from illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne’s mechanical figure Psycho now on display at the Museum of London.  

  Maskelyne’s mechanical figure Psycho

British Library Evanion Collection (Evan.140) Online Gallery Noc


Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
The life and inventions of James Starley, father of the cycle industry (1902)
The William Starley Cycle Purchase System (1900)
British Newspaper Archive

Princess Victoria's Cycling Adventure


25 December 2014

Happy Christmas from MI5!

Did a Christmas card from the intelligence services drop through your letter box this year? No? Disappointed? Well, here is one sent by MI5 to Sir Malcolm Seton in 1923. 


MI5 Christmas card

Mss Eur E267/224 Papers of Sir Malcolm Seton, India Office official 1898-1933


Happy Christmas from Untold Lives!


24 December 2014

A wartime Christmas party

In 1943 it was decided to hold a Christmas party in London for the evacuated children of British prisoners of war in Malaya.  It was funded by the officers and men of HMS Malaya and held in the Royal Empire Society’s Hall in Northumberland Avenue off Whitehall on the afternoon of 4 January 1944.  Nearly 200 children aged between four and sixteen attended, including six sons and daughters of the ship’s crew who lived in London. The crew members’ children wore tickets bearing the name HMS Malaya so they were easily distinguishable. 

From Lizzie Lawson and Robert Ellice Mack, Old Father Christmas. Picture-Book (1888) British Library flickr  Noc

The party was deemed a great success. It started with cine films of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Ferdinand the Bull.  Music was provided by Mr E J Smith’s Orchestra. After a very good tea, the children were entertained by conjuror Col Ling Soo with a performance of Chinese magic.

Col Ling Soo was the alter ego of Herbert J Collings (1881-1958). He told the party organisers that his fee for performing would be five guineas and no lower as he was sure of several other enquiries about bookings.  Collings was well-known, a founder member of the Magic Circle who was President for two terms.  He served in World War One as a soldier in the Artists Rifles Officer Training Unit.   The Artists Rifles gave a ‘splendid’ fundraising concert in Chelmsford in May 1917 and Corporal Collings contributed his ‘Merriemysticisms’.   Collings appeared before the King and Queen on more than one occasion and newspaper advertisements for his shows refer to a demonstration of Chinese magic given by royal command at Windsor Castle.

At the end of the party Father Christmas appeared and each child was given a present from under a beautifully decorated tree.  A message of thanks was drafted for HMS Malaya:
'The children of Malaya send their greetings to the battleship.  They wish the officers and men of H.M.S. Malaya could be with them this afternoon.  Everyone is enjoying the party and we, one and all, send our heartiest thanks for this splendid entertainment'.
The celebration ended with three rousing cheers for HMS Malaya.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur F168/53
British Newspaper Archive for Herbert Collings/Col Ling Soo


22 December 2014

Season’s greetings at Gombroon

The Persian factory of the East India Company at Bandar Abbas was known for being “but an inch-deal from hell”.  However in the 1740s there was a rather heart-warming and very seasonal event. Bandar Abbas, or Gombroon, was home to the factory of not only the British but the Dutch and the French. As the Dutch and French had changed to the Gregorian calendar and the British stuck with the Old Style, Julian one, it was customary for each to give season’s greetings to the others on “their” Christmas days.

Table with drink jugs, plates and cutlery
Image from Thomas C. Croker, Recollections of Old Christmas (1850) Noc  British Library flickr

The Persians sent greetings and compliments to all three nations on their respective festivities. Despite enmity and rivalry between these European powers both at home and abroad, it seems that being far from home at this time of year had a softening effect on these hard attitudes and allowed for a degree of amity and friendship to shine through.

Merry Christmas. Joyeux Noel. Vrojlijk Kerstfeest.  کریسمس مبارک

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library

Cc-byFurther reading: IOR/G/29/6 ff.75-77

19 December 2014

The Poisoned Mince Pie

Here’s a cheery tale from the British Library collections to entertain you as you tuck into tasty seasonal fare.  A Romance of a Mince Pie involves a pastry cook, a dog, and some arsenic.

Travel back with us to Victorian England, to the town of Forty Winks.  In the High Street lived pastry cook and confectioner John Chirrup and his niece Pattie.  John was a popular man ‘of easy and festive disposition’ and ‘merry good-heartedness’, famed for his Christmas mince pies.  

  Pastry cook and confectioner John Chirrup
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie    Noc

Next door lived ‘snarling, sulky, ill-tempered’ Snitch and his vicious dog Angel.  Angel’s  howling kept John Chirrup awake at night, so grocer Bob Tanks suggested that Chirrup should feed Angel a mince pie made especially for him: ‘There is some things - as a dog don’t bark arter eating them -’. 

Figure of death with a glass jar of poison
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie  Noc

So Chirrup ‘bent his furtive way’ to the local druggist and bought some arsenic, claiming it was needed to kill rats.  Returning home, he sprinkled arsenic into a mince pie, spurred on by the sight of Angel biting young Tommy Sawyer. 

Angel the dog biting young Tommy Sawyer
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

Chirrup was about to lock away the pie when he was distracted by Pattie and left the shop. Returning, he was horrified to glimpse a hungry boy running away with the poisoned pie.  Chirrup ‘was not given to gymnastics, but he vaulted into the public part of the shop, and rushed into the street’.   

Chirrup chasing the boy who stole the poisoned pie
 Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

However Chirrup lost sight of the thief.  He was convinced that he was culpable of murder and wrote a confession note before attempting suicide by jumping into Drowned Man’s Hole. Luckily he was saved by some fishermen.

  Chirrup attempting suicide by jumping into Drowned Man’s Hole.
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

Meanwhile Snitch had come across the mince pie thief ‘in the act of opening a pair of pretty capacious jaws for the first bite’. Snitch grabbed the pie and the boy ran off pursued by Angel ‘who always followed any retreating object with cannibalistic designs’.

Soon afterwards Snitch found Chirrup’s confession and had the pastry cook arrested. Wild rumours swept through Forty Winks as to how many people Chirrup had poisoned.  After a few hours ‘it was announced on good grounds that the confectioner had entered into a contract with a wholesale London chemist for regular supplies of arsenic and prussic acid’.  

Crowd of people in the street
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

Pattie suddenly realised that no-one had actually named her uncle’s victim. Who was dead? The mayor went to the prison to ask Chirrup. Then Mrs Groats, the baker’s wife, found Angel dead after Snitch had fed the poisoned pie to his dog. She realised what must have happened and explained this to the townsfolk. The mayor said he was glad that the troublesome Angel was dead and immediately freed Chirrup.

And there our story ends.  Still planning to reach for that second mince pie?


Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by

For the full story, see- Angus Bethune Reach, A Romance of a Mince Pie (London, 1848) with illustrations by Phiz


17 December 2014

Santa Claus’s coming to Britain

The modern Santa Claus originated in the New York area where he evolved from Dutch gift traditions surrounding St Nicholas.  His name, spelt Sancte Claus, first appeared in print in a poem in the New York Spectator in 1810.

But it was another poem that helped spread his fame.  What became known as Twas the Night before Christmas was probably written by Clement Clarke Moore and quickly became popular after being published anonymously in 1823.  Although it refers to him as St Nicholas rather than Santa Claus, the poem helped fix the idea that he was a plump, jovial figure with a sleigh and reindeer.

The first mention of Santa Claus in the British Library’s British Newspaper Archive comes from Wick in Scotland in 1852, where children told a reporter that he filled the stockings they hung by the fireplace with presents. 

  First mention of Santa Claus in the British Newspaper ArchiveNoc
Santa Claus’s first appearance in British print culture? John O’Groat Journal, 9 January 1852 British Newspaper Archive  

But how Santa made his way across the Atlantic and then established himself in Britain is unclear. His tale may have spread via the letters home of those who had emigrated to the States.  Some may have enquired after the meaning of the American ship Santa Claus that visited England in the early 1850s or the 1860s' racehorse of the same name.  British newspapers reproduced Moore’s poem a number of times from as early as 1855. 

Books also played their part in spreading his fame and encouraging children to hang stockings. In 1853 an American short story by Susan Warner entitled ‘The Christmas Stocking’ was published in London. It was performed at penny readings, and at least five editions of it were published in Britain in the next three years.

His trip across the Atlantic did not leave Santa Claus unchanged. In Scotland, his gift deliveries were often made at Hogmanay.  Most importantly, he often found himself merged with Father Christmas, an unruly and sometimes even debauched figure who had long since symbolised festive celebrations in England.  The two names quickly became interchangeable but Santa Claus was the most commonly used, perhaps until as late as the 1950s when the middle classes became more sensitive about the Americanisation of popular culture.

Shops adopted Santa Claus and used him to sell their festive wares and by the 1890s it was possible to visit him in department stores.  Advertising, like storybooks and Christmas cards, also began to show people what he looked like.  Whereas in America he tended to wear a suit, in Victorian Britain he was usually depicted in a long robe. Nor was it always red, although that colour did predominate long before the interwar Coca-Cola advertisements that are sometimes thought to have changed his sartorial preferences.

Santa Claus in yellow          Santa Claus in mauve
Images Online © Collection IM/Harbin-Tapabor/British Library c.1907 & 1908 Noc

Santa was an ideal way to indulge the growing Victorian reverence for the innocence of childhood. It also had the practical benefit of helping control children’s behaviour.  The mix of commercial and cultural pressures meant that by the end of the 19th century a majority of middle-class families were playing along. So, too, were some working-class ones, although economics curtailed his visits to the poorest of society, causing consternation amongst their children.

Santa Claus’s Victorian journey from the USA to the heart of the British Christmas remains shrouded in some mystery. Newspaper digitisation is allowing that journey to be better charted.  Yet, undoubtedly, hidden in the millions of the British Library’s Victorian pages are further clues as to how he came to, as one 1931 writer put it, ‘reign all over Christendom as the King of Christmas’.

Martin Johnes
Reader in History, Swansea University 

Martin is currently writing a history of Christmas in Britain since 1914 and his previous publications include Wales Since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012).

Further reading:

Neil Armstrong, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England (Manchester University Press, 2010)

Gerry Bowler, Santa Claus: A Biography (McClelland & Stewart, 2005)

15 December 2014

The talented Mr Fox Talbot Part 5 – Photoglyphic engraving

In the last of this series on William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), I look at his development of photoglyphic engraving the forerunner of what we today know as photogravure. The photogravure process involves the printing of a photographic image onto paper with ink using a plate onto which the image has been etched.

Talbot started his photoglyphic experiments primarily because he wanted to produce a photographic image which was not subject to fading as sometimes happened with his Calotype photographs. There had already been limited experiments with printing photographic images. As early as 1826, the Frenchman, Nicéphore (Joseph) Niépce (1765-1833) developed a process called héliogravure and there were some attempts to use Daguerreotype plates, the work of Hippolyte Fizeau (1819-1896) in particular being noteworthy. In both cases the results were extremely variable. The primary problem with reproducing a photograph as a printed image was the reliable reproduction of the intermediate tonal areas on the plate (known as halftones). In order to overcome the technical issues Talbot initially sought advice from master-engraver George Barclay (b. 1802) and in later years received advice from Thomas Brooker (1813-1885) and William Banks (b. 1809).

   ‘Proposed method of transferring Photography to Steel Engraving’
 ‘Proposed method of transferring Photography to Steel Engraving’. (28 November, 1847). Early notes regarding photo-engraving. (Add MS 88942/1/350).  Noc

Talbot developed his process gradually taking out two patents, for photographic engraving (1852), and photoglyphic engraving (1858). It was this second patent that established the basis for photogravure. Talbot’s innovations included the use of potassium bichromate sensitized gelatin for fixing the photographic image to the plate and perhaps more importantly the use of a screen to enable the accurate reproduction of the halftone areas within an image. Both of these innovations are still used in non-digital reprographics today.

After encouragement from the editor William Crookes (1832-1921), Talbot allowed a series of his photoglyphic engravings to be published in Photographic News (22 October, 1858) although he used images by the French photographers Soulier and Clouzard, rather than his own. This increased public awareness of the process and drew praise from many people including Prince Albert (1819-1861). Talbot was asked to exhibit his work and won medals at the 1862 International Exhibition of London and at the 1865 Berlin International Photographic Exhibition.

View in Java
One of two of Talbot’s photoglyphic engravings published posthumously in the second edition of Gaston Tissandier’s A History and Handbook of Photography (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1878). (Add MS 88942/3/1/21). Noc

Unfortunately like many of his other ideas Talbot failed to develop photoglyphic engraving into a business and from 1865 he increasingly turned his attentions to Assyriology and mathematics instead. However Talbot’s work was instrumental in the development of the modern photogravure process, perfected by Karl Klíč in 1879 and still known to this day as the Talbot-Klič process.

  Part of a letter, with examples of photoglyphic engraving, sent by Paul Dujardin to Charles Henry Talbot Part of a letter, with examples of photoglyphic engraving, sent by Paul Dujardin to Charles Henry Talbot (William Henry Fox Talbot’s son) in 1880. In his letter Dujardin praises Talbot’s process as superior to others and laments the fact that his name is not more widely known. (Add MS 88942/2/173). Noc


Jonathan Pledge
Cataloguer, Historical Papers  Cc-by

Further reading on William Henry Fox Talbot:
William Henry Fox Talbot; Pioneer of Photography and Man of Science (Hutchinson Benham, 1977) by H. J. P. Arnold.
William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography (Yale University Press, 2013), ed. by Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, and Chitra Ramalingam.

11 December 2014

Victorian children - lost and found

The lost and found columns in Victorian newspapers offer rewards for the return of lost dogs, silver lockets, watches, overcoats, sheep, and pigeons.  But tucked away amongst these are pitiful announcements about lost children.

STRAYED, about Half-past Five o’clock YESTERDAY (THURSDAY) Evening, from Hercules Street, a LITTLE GIRL, about three years of age.  Had on a black silk dress, with a little grey stripe on the bottom; hair fair; no hat; wore boots. Information to be given at 29, Hercules Street; to FRANCIS KANE, 47, Mill Street; or the Police.
(Belfast Morning News, Friday 31 August 1866)

LOST, on Saturday afternoon, at 2 p.m., ELY ENGLEBERG, 4 years old, round face, blue eyes, dressed in black mixture trousers, grey jacket, red stockings, clogs, and soft billycock hat. – Any person finding him bring him to 21, Johnson-street, off Red Bank, Manchester.
(Manchester Evening News, 22 February 1881)

Victorian children
From Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song. A nursery rhyme book (1893) British Library on flickr  Noc

The disappearance of ten year old James Robert Leach was reported in the news columns of the Portsmouth Evening News in July 1894. James had left his home in Landport in Hampshire at about 10am on 18 July to buy a loaf and some milk. When he failed to return, his anxious parents Richard and Louisa Leach began to search for him.  They were told that their son had been seen at Hilsea with a man and woman who sold umbrellas. The police were then informed. The newspaper printed this description of the boy:

    When he left home he was without boots, stockings, cap, or collar. He was wearing a brown reefer     coat with an odd black sleeve, and trousers of a dark pepper-and-salt pattern.  He is short and     small for his age, has black hair and dark eyes, and on one of his little fingers is a bony     protuberance at the lower joint.  His back is scarred with burns.

His parents advertised widely and had photographs circulated in London by the Salvation Army.  Nothing was heard until November when James was found sleeping under a hedge in Chatham in Kent. An inspector for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children took him to the workhouse.  The poor boy thought that he had been missing for three years.

James had wandered off to play on Portsdown Hill when Thomas and Florence Cannon abducted him.  Thomas Cannon had threatened to cut his throat if he raised an alarm.  The boy was sent out to beg and thrashed if he did not take back threepence daily. His body was covered with bruises and wounds. When a School Board officer began to investigate, the Cannons took him out one night and deserted him.

Urchin asleep in the street
Urchin asleep by Antonio Mancini (1852-1930) ©De Agostini/The British Library Board Images Online  Noc

The Cannons were each sentenced to three months’ hard labour for employing James Leach for begging purposes.  At the end of their sentence they were sent back to court to face kidnapping charges but the Public Prosecutor decided not to proceed.

Sadly, our story does not have a happy ending. James Leach enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1901. He was killed on 9 November 1918 when HMS Britannia was sunk by a submarine off Cape Trafalgar. He left a widow Florence and two children.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Noc

Further reading:

British Newspaper Archive

Portsmouth Evening News 31 July 1894, 9 August 1894, 28 November 1894, 11 March 1895