Untold lives blog

9 posts from February 2015

26 February 2015

Powders, leeches, and castor oil

The East India Company provided free medical treatment to their London warehouse labourers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  The sad story of William Poulson shows that the Company took their duty of care towards their workers very seriously.

In the winter of 1838, cloth drawer William Poulson was on sick leave from the East India Company Military Store in Leadenhall Street. On Monday 26 February he was visited by a colleague John Strange, the kind of routine visit made to all those being paid sickness benefits by the Company.  Strange reported that Poulson was in a ‘very dangerous state’, suffering from an inflammation of the lungs.  The sick man had complained in strong terms of the inattention of Company surgeon James Hume Spry who had sent a Mr Clutterbuck to see him. Clutterbuck had only called once, on 22 February.  Poulson had then written to Clutterbuck describing as best he could his state of health. The surgeon sent him some powders and directions to apply six leeches to his temples and to take castor oil.  When his condition deteriorated, Poulson called in a local doctor whose medicine did him a little good.

 From James Rawlins Johnson, Further observations on the Medicinal Leech (1825) BL flickr  Noc


Colonel John George Bonner, Inspector of Military Stores, immediately wrote to Spry asking him why he had not visited, and pointing out that the patient had been obliged to procure leeches and medicine at his own expense and to call in a neighbourhood doctor.

Strange reported in the morning of Tuesday 27 February that he had just visited Poulson again and he was sorry to say that the man was evidently dying.  Neither Spry nor anyone sent by him had been to see Poulson for the past five days.  William Poulson died that afternoon.

Bonner wrote a report for the Company’s directors: ‘Without presuming to imply that any human skill could have saved the deceased it is my duty to bring to notice that he does not appear to have received that prompt medical attendance during his illness which the Honorable Court in their liberality expect should be extended to the Laborers in their Employ’.

The Company’s Finance and Home Committee forwarded the papers to Spry.  The surgeon replied that his own state of health had led him to move to Kennington for a change of air.  Clutterbuck had taken over his private business and often saw Company labourers when Spry was too ill to visit them himself.  Bonner’s letter had reached him late and Poulson was already dead when Spry went to visit him.

The Committee took a dim view of the case: Spry was to be informed that the directors expected him to take measures in future to secure prompt medical attention to Company servants.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
East India Company Finance and Home Committee Minutes IOR/L/F/2/27 No.251 of February 1838

24 February 2015

Serving the East India Company in Persia

In an East India Company letter book, there is a list of men working in Persia in 1721. These fifteen men had entered into a covenant of good behaviour with the Company.  Two were destined for service in Bombay. The list includes their salaries but more interestingly the date they entered service in Persia and their starting salary. Some like John Myngs and Francis Cuthbertson were recent arrivals.  They were both writers, (the lowest rank of Company servant), despatched in order to learn Persian on the meagre salary of £5 a year. Others like Edmund Wright and Styleman Gostlin had been promoted from factor to senior factor over the course of only eighteen months. This might suggest that taking service in Persia, despite its insalubrious reputation as being “an inch-deal from hell”, gave opportunity for Company servants to gain rank in exchange for sacrificing the dubious comforts of Bombay or Madras.

Most interesting perhaps was Owen Phillips, Agent in Persia, who had started his service there as a lowly writer in 1709. Phillips had therefore risen to the top post in Persia over the course of twelve years, seeing his salary soar from £5 to £150.  There was a small English community in Persia, relatively diverse in terms of age and experience, ranging from young writers learning their Persian script and alphabet to seasoned Persia hands.

  Books & pen
From Life's Roses: a volume of selected poems (London, 1898) BL flickr Noc

Some of these men were separated from their colleagues by hundreds of miles. Writer John Hill was stationed at Kerman, the main source of valuable wool much prized back in England, whilst John Horne was the Chief at Isfahan. The rest of the employees on the list fulfilled various roles at the Company’s main factory at Bandar Abbas on the south coast of Persia. For the men stationed away from Bandar Abbas, it was no doubt exceptionally lonely.  Although other Europeans were present, especially in Isfahan, the lack of fellow Englishmen was no doubt felt most keenly. Many of the other Europeans in Persia at the time were either Dutch commercial rivals or French, those perennial enemies of the English.

Peter Good  
PhD student University of Essex/British Library

Further reading:
IOR/G/29/15 ff.25-27v


19 February 2015

Sage advice regarding snakes

It’s that time of year again, when our friends and colleagues trade coughs and sneezes, and give advice on the best ways to banish them or keep them at bay. Whilst cataloguing the Medical Proceedings of the Government of India as part of the IOMA project I’ve found that the Indian Medical Service were also inundated with information on “miracle cures” and “proven treatments” on a regular basis.

These were received for a range of maladies – dysentery, cholera, plague – but the subject that received the most attention was snakebite. Remedies and prophylactics against snake venoms were sent in by doctors and laymen alike, and a large number were dutifully tested by members of the Medical Service.

In one instance the King of Siam sent his own remedy to be tested:

“The remedy received consisted of two small pieces of a root of a tree with a slightly aromatic odour. The only instructions sent with it were the following: A small quantity of the root to be grated and given to the patient in a liqueur glass of brandy and a little to be applied externally to the wound. Should brandy not be available, tobacco water to be used”.
(Government of India Medical Proceedings, IOR/P/1005 Feb 1877 nos 10-11.)

Unfortunately the results were not positive.

Serpent - Coluber naja
Coluber naja, from Patrick Russell, An Account of Indian serpents collected on the coast of Coromandel (London: 1796-1809)  Noc

Other treatments tested by the Indian Medical Service included ammonia, a preparation made with the seeds of the Impatiens fulva, and even (carefully-measured) doses of strychnine. You can read more about this treatment in the following publication by A Mueller, On Snake Poison. Its action and antidote (1893), digitised as part of the Medical Heritage Library.

Indian cobra, Naja naja. Natmis181 ©Florilegius/The British Library Board Images Online

In 1895 an anti-venomous serum was developed by Albert Calmette at the Pasteur Institute Lille, and was subject to widespread testing in Indian laboratories. In one instance a rushed experiment had to be conducted after IMS officer George Lamb was bitten whilst trying to extract venom from a cobra. Lamb lived to conduct further laboratory work, and the published report on the incident contained the following piece of timeless practical advice:

Note that great care is required in handling poisonous snakes
IOR/P/6114 May 1901 nos 99-101 Noc


Alex Hailey
India Office Medical Archives Project


16 February 2015

Edward Lloyd and the ‘Penny Bloods’

Edward Lloyd was born on 16 February 1815. He was a publisher and newspaper proprietor, and the founder of two large paper mills.  Here we give you a glimpse into his remarkable career.

Lloyd was a pioneer of cheap popular literature.  His ‘Penny Bloods’ were a great success with working class readers.  From 1835 he published titles such as Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads etc, and History of the Pirates of All Nations.  He and writer Thomas Peckett Prest then produced imitations of the works of Charles Dickens, for example The Life and Adventures of Oliver Twiss the Workhouse Boy, and Memoirs of Nickelas Nicklebery.  These stories sold many thousands of copies each week.

  Two men fighting in front of a woman and children
From The Gambler’s Wife; or, Murder will Out Noc

Lloyd issued works of history, horror, and romance.  Stories were published in instalments, and all featured plenty of drama and bloodthirsty action.  It was Lloyd who introduced vampires to a mass readership with Varney the Vampyre; or, the Feast of blood.

Varney the Vampyre attacking a woman in bed
From Varney the Vampyre  Noc

Lloyd’s Weekly Newpaper was founded in 1843. Lloyd put a good deal of effort into promotion and it was claimed in the 1890s: ‘The pictorial advertisements of Messrs. Lloyd’s journals  - themselves works of art – are prominent at all stations and throughout the country, and there is no village in England so obscure as to be unaware of the existence of Lloyd’s News’.  Circulation grew to a huge 930,000 copies weekly. Stories deemed to be of particular importance were illustrated by artists kept on the staff.  There was a successful ‘Lost Relative’ column: people wrote in from every part of the world and a shortened version of the letters was published for free.

By 1861 Lloyd was using so much paper that he started his own paper mill on the River Lea at Bow in East London. As it was becoming difficult to obtain sufficient supplies of rags, esparto grass was brought in as a raw material from Algeria and Spain.  Soon Lloyd’s mill was expanding to make paper for rival newspapers.

In 1877 Lloyd’s firm purchased the Daily Chronicle. Much of this newspaper was devoted to events in London, but it also gathered news from the rest of the UK, and from abroad via daily cables. Circulation was increased from 8,000 to 140,000 in the space of eight years, and to meet demand a second mill was opened at Sittingbourne in Kent which produced a wide variety of paper types.  By 1895, Lloyd’s were employing over 700 people at the mills and 500 at the newspaper offices and home and export departments.

  Cover of Miranda
From Miranda, or the Heiress of the Grange  Noc

It has been claimed that having established himself in ‘higher’ publishing circles Lloyd then tried to supress the ‘Penny Bloods’, sending out agents to buy up and destroy the stocks at coffee shops and circulating libraries.  Whether or not this is true, many 'Bloods' have survived and a good number can be found at the British Library, some in digitised format.

Edward Lloyd died on 8 April 1890 having amassed a fortune from his various business ventures. The value of his estate at death was £563,000.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
Edward Lloyd Ltd, A glimpse into paper making and journalism (1895)
John Medcraft, A bibliography of the penny bloods of Edward Lloyd (1945)

Further reading:
Edward Lloyd Ltd, A glimpse into paper making and journalism (1895)
John Medcraft, A bibliography of the penny bloods of Edward Lloyd (1945)
Varney – an early vampire story
Edward Lloyd


14 February 2015

St Valentine's Day customs

Today we help you to discover the identity of your true love by sharing some old St Valentine's Day customs gleaned from the British Library collections.

On the night before Valentine’s Day, take five bay leaves, pin four of them to the corners of your pillow, and the fifth to the middle. If you dream of your sweetheart, you will be married before the year is over. To stimulate dreams, hard boil an egg, take out the yolk, and fill the egg with salt.  When you go to bed, eat the egg, shell included.  Do not speak or drink afterwards.

Write your admirers’ names on pieces of paper, roll them up in clay, and put them into water.  The first name to rise to the surface is your Valentine.

Young man leaping towards a young woman
From E. M. Davies,  Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old (London, 1872) British Library flickr  Noc

In Devon, girls gathered in the church porch on Valentine’s Eve waiting until the clock struck twelve.  They then slowly returned home, scattering hempseed and reciting:

Hempseed I sow, hempseed  I mow,
He that will my true love be
Come rake this hempseed after me

It was said that the girl would then see the form of her intended husband walking behind her. In Derbyshire this apparition was conjured up if a woman ran around the church twelve times without stopping.

Some places, including London, held that a lad’s Valentine was the first lass he saw on the morning of Valentine’s Day who was not of his own household.  A lass took as her Valentine the first youth she saw. 

Little boy kissing a little girl on the cheek
From E. M. Davies,  Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old (London, 1872) British Library flickr Noc

A custom in the west of England was for three single young men to go out together before dawn on St Valentine’s Day to catch an old owl and two sparrows in a neighbour’s barn. The birds were supposed to be symbolic of wisdom presiding over love.  If successful and able to bring the birds uninjured to the inn before the females of the household had risen, the lads were rewarded in honour of St Valentine with three pots of purl, a drink of hot beer mixed with gin.

Children in Hertfordshire went to the home of chief person in the village who threw them a bundle of wreaths and lovers’ knots.  The children then marched these around the village, stopping at houses to sing:

Good morrow to you, Valentine,
Curl your locks as I do mine,
Two before and three behind,
Good morrow to you, Valentine

Presumably some sort of treat or reward was given in return for the serenade.

At one village in Kent the girls assembled an ‘ivy girl’ and the boys a ‘holly boy’. Each group then stole the other’s effigy and burned them in separate parts of the village with ‘acclamations, huzzas, and other noise’.  Local people could offer no explanation– it had been a part of village life as long as anyone could remember.

The North Wales Chronicle ran an article in February 1861 describing some of the strange customs connected with St Valentine’s Day.  The newspaper stated that the annual celebrations were to be welcomed because the mass manufacture of Valentine cards gave employment to hundreds of women and children. 

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper ArchiveKentish Gazette 2 February 1808; North Wales Chronicle 27 February 1861; Birmingham Journal 14 February 1863


12 February 2015

The plunderers’ cunning plan

Plundered a ship of all its cargo, but want to look innocent? You could try what members of the Dashti tribe came up with when they seized a vessel laden with British goods that ran aground on the coast of Persia in 1826.

The vessel, an Arab merchant craft known as a buggalow, was bringing a cargo of linens, pepper, glass-ware and other goods from Bombay, and had almost reached her destination of Bushire in Persia, when she ran into a strong north-west wind. The captain, or nakhoda, began hugging the coast, when the buggalow struck a rock and started to take in water. Afraid that the vessel would sink, the nakhoda decided to run her aground at a place called Bordekhan in the territory of the Dashti tribe.

 The crew of 38 Arabs and eight Indian passengers proceeded to go ashore in a boat, but were immediately surrounded by a party of about 300 men, who stripped them of every article of clothing and left them ‘entirely naked’. They then threatened to behead the nakhoda on the spot, unless - and this is the ingenious part - he gave them ‘a paper to the effect that his vessel by the power of the Almighty had been wrecked off that coast, and that every article on board had been lost; that he had not sustained the slightest inconvenience from the hands of the inhabitants, and that neither he nor his men had been plundered of a single article of dress’.

Using a similar threat they compelled the ‘crany’ (the ship’s writer) to put the required statement in writing, obtained the signature of the nakhoda, and forced five of his crew to witness it. The Dashtis then told them that ‘they might go about their business’ (although how, exactly, they were supposed to go about their business stark naked on the Persian coast is not clear), and immediately commenced plundering the vessel.

Five black crew members were not so lucky. The Bordekhan people seized them and retained them as slaves.

However, the Dashtis’ cunning plan failed to work, as the nakhoda went straight to the East India Company Resident at Bushire and made a full statement of what had happened. A transcript of the statement is contained in the India Office Records letter book cited below.

Statement regarding the wreck and plunder of the bugla lately lost off Dashtee
Statement regarding the wreck and plunder of the bugla [buggalow] lately lost off Dashtee [Dashti], Bushire, 18 June 1826: IOR/R/15/1/36, f 89v Noc

The Resident recruited the services of the British Envoy to the Court of Persia, Colonel John Macdonald, to make representations to the Persian authorities and demand the restoration of the vessel’s goods.

In reply, the Persian minister Zaki Khan was inclined to defend the actions of the Dashtis: within the preceding 22 years, over 20 vessels had been wrecked on the coast in question, in which cases it had been an ‘established custom’ for the inhabitants of the neighbourhood to take possession of all the goods contained in the ship. Rather like Cornish wreckers, the minister clearly thought that the locals were entitled to a bit of plunder. However, to preserve good relations with the British he was prepared to order the return of the goods - in exchange for a full receipt, ‘in order to prevent any further discussion’.

Translation of a letter from His Excellency Zekee Khan [Zaki Khan] to Colonel Macdonald, Envoy to the Court of Persia
Translation of a letter from His Excellency Zekee Khan [Zaki Khan] to Colonel Macdonald, Envoy to the Court of Persia [June 1826]: IOR/R/15/1/36, f 106r  Noc

Martin Woodward
Archival Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership  Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/R/15/1/36  ‘Outward Letters Book No 42, 1st January 1826 to 31 July 1826’


10 February 2015

An English Convert to Islam in Kuwait

In June 1907, an Englishman named Gabriel Joseph Edmund Trevor Guays arrived at the British Political Agency in Kuwait and declared his intention to travel to Riyadh in the centre of the Arabian Peninsula in order to improve his Arabic. Guays claimed to have converted to Islam two and a half years previously in Rangoon and to have adopted the ‘Muhammadan’ name, Haji Abdur Rahman, the ‘Haji’ signifying that Guays had made the hajj to Mecca. He had been Assistant Manager of a mining syndicate in Gujarat before departing for Kuwait.


First page of letter from the British Political Agent in Kuwait, Stuart George Knox, to the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Zachariah Cox
IOR/R/15/1/508, f. 166 First page of letter from the British Political Agent in Kuwait, Stuart George Knox, to the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Zachariah Cox, 19 June 1907 Noc

At this time, central Arabia was in a tumultuous state due to the conflict between the Emirate of Ha’il and the newly-formed Emirate of Riyadh of the Al Saud. A British subject entering Al Saud territory could easily be suspected of espionage, complicating the British Government’s relationship with Ibn Saud.

Raiding Party of Ibn Saud
 Raiding Party of Ibn Saud: Wikimedia commons image from Riyadh National Musuem Noc

Stuart George Knox, British Political Agent in Kuwait, reported the incident to his superior, Percy Zachariah Cox, the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf:  Guays had “no qualifications whatsoever, except apparently a limited sum of money, good health and plenty of enterprise”. Knox had “tried to persuade him what a silly thing he was doing” but Guays had remained undeterred. Knox took Guays to talk to the ruler of Kuwait, Shaikh Mubarak Al Sabah, who informed Guays that he was on a “mighty risky venture” and he would be wise to “sit in Koweit [Kuwait] until the extreme heat wore off, perfect his Arabic and think over his plan”. Guays responded that he did not have sufficient funds for this, so Shaikh Mubarak offered to write a letter to Ibn Saud. Knox also agreed to write a letter making it clear that Guays “was not in any shape or form deputed by [the British] Government”.

Copy of the statement of Gabriel Joseph Edmund Trevor Guays sent from  Knox to Cox

IOR/R/15/1/508, f. 169 Copy of the statement of Gabriel Joseph Edmund Trevor Guays sent from  Knox to Cox, 19 June 1907 Noc

Knox concluded his letter to Cox by questioning how sincere Guays’ religious faith was, stating “I think his Islam sits lightly on him. There is something a little incongruous in a Muhammadan being interested in the Derby list [the list of horses participating in the Derby horse race]”.

Cox rebuked Knox for his actions, finding it difficult to reconcile Knox’s diary entry (“The general impression among the Arabs is that he is an English spy and that Islam is a pretence”) with his actions of introducing Guays to Shaikh Mubarak and offering to write a letter to Ibn Saud.  Although Cox had “every personal sympathy” with Guay’s “enterprising aspiration” he had embarked upon it at an “inopportune juncture”. If Guays was likely to attempt to continue on to Riyadh, Knox would be “well-advised to arrange that he receives an unmistakeable hint from Sheikh Mubarek to leave by the next British India steamer”.


Copy of a letter written to Ibn Saud by Knox on behalf of Guays
IOR/R/15/1/508, f. 168 Copy of a letter written to Ibn Saud by Knox on behalf of Guays, 15 June 1907 Noc

Knox apologised to Cox for his “error of judgement”. He had told Guays that if he persisted with his plan Knox would inform Shaikh Mubarak that the British Government objected and “expected that he would use every means in his powers to prevent it”. Guays “grudgingly” gave Knox his word that he would not follow through and would inform Knox when he was leaving Kuwait. The papers do not record what Guays did next.

Exploration of central Arabia by government employees such as Bertram Thomas or William Shakespear was welcomed as it was understood that they would act in Britain’s interests and that any knowledge gained in their endeavours would be put to service of the empire. Guays was an unknown entity and it is unlikely that he ever made it to Riyadh.

Louis Allday (@Louis_Allday)
Gulf History/Arabic Specialist, Gulf History Project  Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/R/15/1/508 'File 53/37, 61/5 (D 17) Kuwait: British Representation'
Madawi al-Rasheed, Politics in an Arabian Oasis: The Rashidi Tribal Dynasty (I.B Tauris, London, 1997)

05 February 2015

How an Indian performance troupe found itself destitute in Victorian London

In November 1899 Major General Chamier, Honorary Secretary of the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders in Poplar, East London, gave refuge to a troupe of 18 destitute performers. The troupe was comprised of men, women and children from India and Sri Lanka, and had been found at Marylebone Station, lost and penniless, after travelling by train from Grimsby.

Strangers' Home
The Strangers' Home - from Joseph Salter, The Asiatic in England (1873) Noc

At the Strangers’ Home, Abeya Krania, the one member of the troupe who spoke English, made a statement to Chamier. Krania described how he and his associates had sailed from Singapore the previous March, under the care of their ‘manager’ Mr Fairlie, who had engaged the group as a travelling show, performing dances and demonstrations of Indian village life across Europe.  

  Extract of a letter from Major General Chamier to the India Office, reporting the arrival of the eighteen persons, ‘in a state of destitution’
Extract of a letter from Major General Chamier to the India Office, reporting the arrival of the eighteen persons, ‘in a state of destitution’, 30 November 1899. IOR/L/PJ/6/525, File 2273. Noc

Such attractions, frequently described as Human Zoos or Ethnological Exhibits, were not uncommon across Britain and Europe at the end of nineteenth century. They were a product of Europe’s colonial expansion, and an articulation of the European fascination with so-called ‘primitive cultures’. Countless men, women and children from Africa and Asia were recruited by European impresarios and brought back to Europe’s towns and cities, where they were exhibited for the amusement of a paying audience.  

  Indische Dorf
“Das ‘Indische Dorf’ im Albert-Palast in London” Die Gartenlaube No.6 (1886), p.100 Noc

Many, like the troupe that found themselves at Marylebone Station, were exploited by unscrupulous promoters. In his statement, Krania described how the troupe had travelled from Singapore to Vienna, where they had performed in the city’s Tiergarten, and then onward to Hamburg, Kiel, Bremen and Magdeburg. Along the way however, Fairlie fell out with the troupe’s ‘proprietor’, a Mr Bamburgh, the result being that the troupe were finally despatched by Fairlie to Hamburg, without having been paid for four months. With no means of getting home the troupe sought the help of the British Consul in Hamburg, who sent them to London via the Hamburg to Grimsby steamer service.

Chamier housed the troupe in the Strangers’ Home – a Christian boarding house used by foreign sailors arriving on East Indiamen at London’s docks – throughout January 1900. During that period five of its members were repatriated by the Government of India. In the meantime, two of the remaining 13 absconded to Paris, where they turned up at the offices of Thomas Cook & Son on Place de L’Opera, which they understood to be a forwarding address for Fairlie. Unsurprisingly, Fairlie declined to see the two, who were sent back to London by the British Consul in Paris.  

Extract of a letter to General Chamier, reporting the appearance of two of the troupe in Paris,
Extract of a letter to General Chamier, reporting the appearance of two of the troupe in Paris, 20 January 1900. IOR/L/PJ/5/525, File 2273. Noc

Correspondence on the case in the India Office Records doesn’t indicate what happened to the remaining members of the troupe, and if they ever got back to Singapore as they desired. However, Foreign Office correspondence on the case does suggest that one or more of the troupe did made it as far as Marseilles.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project

Further reading:

British Library, London. ‘Disposal of a troupe of 18 destitute performers from the Strangers Home for Asiatics’ IOR/P/PJ/6/525, File 2273.

Robinson, Amy Elizabeth. 2005. Tinker, tailor, vagrant, sailor: Colonial mobility and the British imperial state, 1880-1914. Ph.D. diss., Stanford University.