Untold lives blog

9 posts from April 2015

28 April 2015

Librarians who died at Gallipoli

On the First World War memorial at the British Library are the names of two Australian librarians who died at Gallipoli in 1915: Sylvester Sydney Day and Samuel Douglas Johnstone Figgis.

Sylvester Sydney Day worked at the Public Library of South Australia in Adelaide.  He married Rosalind Mary Robertson in 1910 and they had two children: Robert Sydney born in 1911 and Patricia Florence born in 1914. Day joined up on 11 September 1914 at the age of 27. His colleagues at the Library organised a party before he left as a mark of their admiration of his volunteering to fight. ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ was sung, and Day was presented with a plum pudding, a wrist watch, pipes in a case, and a purse of sovereigns. Whilst on active service, the Library paid him a weekly salary of £1.

  Sylvester Sydney Day
Sylvester Sydney Day - image courtesy of State Library of South Australia via flickr

Day served as a Lance Corporal with the 16th Infantry Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. His unit embarked from Melbourne on board His Majesty's Australian Transport Ceramic on 22 December 1914, arriving in Egypt in early February 1915. His battalion became part of the 4th Brigade which landed at Gallipoli in Turkey on 25 April. They faced constant action, with many men lost through sniper fire. Day was killed on the night of 2 May when his battalion was fighting and digging trenches under attack from the enemy.  His name is recorded on the Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli which commemorates the Australians and New Zealanders who have no known grave or who were buried at sea after being evacuated because of wounds or disease. Colleagues at the Library in Adelaide hung up a photograph of Day and draped a Union flag over it every year on the anniversary of his death.

Samuel Douglas Johnstone Figgis was the son of Arthur Johnstone Figgis and Ada Jane Figgis of Canterbury Victoria. He joined the Public Library of Victoria in Melbourne as a Library Assistant in August 1914 aged 19, but he was also a trained machine gunner having served for two years in the Citizen Military Forces at Kooyong.  On 13 March 1915 he enlisted in the 5th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. His unit sailed from Sydney on HMAT Ceramic on 25 June 1915 for service in Egypt and Turkey as part of 6th Reinforcements. Figgis died on 10 August 1915 of shell wounds to his neck sustained in action and was buried on the same day at Beach Cemetery Gallipoli.  It was his 20th birthday.

Some months later Samuel Figgis’s personal effects were sent to his father from Egpyt in two brown paper parcels: a purse, three coins, a gold ring, a watch, a badge, keys, a whistle, scissors, a knife, three wallets, a diary, a booklet, letters and postcards, and, perhaps most poignantly, a school badge.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
First World War Army records from the National Archives of Australia
The war memorial for librarians at the British Library
Commonwealth War Graves Commission: ommonwealth War Graves Commission: Sylvester Sydney Day and Samuel Douglas Johnstone Figgis.
Carl Bridge, A trunk full of books: History of the State Library of South Australia and its forerunners (1986)


23 April 2015

India and St George!

On St George’s Day we look at the lives of two appropriately named brothers who served as officers in the East India Company’s armies. Their careers were very different: one died as a young man whilst the other had a long and distinguished career.

Etienne and George St George  were the sons of Edmond St George, ‘a private gentlemen’, and his wife Mary. They were born in London in 1827 and 1830 respectively.  At the time of the 1841 census Etienne and George were boarding with their sister Louisa at the house of Mary Woodman in Westbourne Sussex.  Both boys attended Mr Roberts’s school at Eagle House in Mitcham Surrey, but by January 1845 they were in Paris.  Etienne was baptised there at the age of seventeen and there is nothing to indicate in the register entry that his father was dead.  However when Etienne passed as a cadet for the East India Company’s Bengal Army in April 1845, he said his father was dead and his mother was living at Rue de Grenelle, Paris.  Etienne was put forward for a cadetship in the Bengal Infantry by Company director Major General  Archibald Galloway on the recommendation of his aunt Miss M Barwell.

George spent the year 1845-1846 at the Institut Boniface in Paris, following a course in elementary mathematics.  He was given a good report: he was always regular in attendance, industrious and well-behaved.  In 1847 his aunt Miss Barwell secured him a nomination for the Bombay Army from director Sir James Law Lushington. George served with the 25th Regiment Native Infantry, rising to the rank of Lieutenant before his death at the age of 27 on 4 July 1858 whilst on furlough and living with Louisa at Montpelier Crescent in Brighton.  Etienne was also on leave that year. The Brighton Gazette records that he arrived at Montpelier Crescent shortly after George’s death, on 12 August 1858.


  Bengal Fusiliers
1st Bengal Fusiliers - from George Francklin Atkinson, The campaign in India 1857-1858 (1859)  NocImages Online

Etienne served with the 1st Bengal Fusiliers at the siege of Lucknow and was subsequently seriously wounded in action. He spent the rest of his life suffering the effects of  a bullet wound in his liver.  He rose to the rank of Colonel, ending his career as assistant secretary to the Government Legislative Department. Colonel St George retired on 1 April 1875 after 30 years’ service in the Bengal Army.

During the 1880s Etienne St George moved to New York,. In July 1891 he married Alice Lee Eldridge (née Goodrich) the widow of Frederic G Eldridge, President of the splendidly named Knickerbocker Trust Company.   Etienne died at home in New York City on 1 May 1902.  His will bequeathed his entire estate to Alice, who died on 17 August the following year.

Etienne St George death notice
Western Times 5 May 1902 Noc

A death notice for Colonel St George was published in the Western Times,  immediately above an advertisement for Carter’s Little Liver Pills. This was unfortunate given that Etienne St George died of cirrhosis of the liver as a result of the wound he had sustained more than forty years earlier.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/L/MIL/9/209 ff.623-627 Cadet papers for Etienne St George
IOR/L/MIL/9/217 ff.100-105 Cadet papers for George St George
British Newspaper Archive
New York Times obituary 3 May 1902


21 April 2015

Memories of Reading needs you!

Memories of Reading is the name of a new research project conducted by the School of Education, University of Sheffield. The project seeks narratives, stories and anecdotes from all sections of the community, focusing on reading experiences and adventures spanning the past 100 years. The project evolved from a Booktrust-funded evidence review, entitled "Attitudes to Reading and Writing and their Links with Social Mobility 1914–2014" (Levy et al, 2014). This evidence review was mainly based around literature searches and data drawn from the Mass Observation Archive, as well as a small number of intergenerational family interviews.

Memory of reading Paddington Bear as a child

During the interviews, we found that people came to life when they shared their stories about reading - whether they talked about visiting the library as a child, learning to read in school, or about their favourite books and stories, people's memories of reading are vivid and descriptive, linked to their identities and personal histories. In order to focus on these stories, "Memories of Reading", led by Dr Sabine Little, was launched at an event as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science at the University of Sheffield last November. In a "Story Hut", members of the public were invited to share their memories. The event led not only to a number of wonderful narratives, but also to intergenerational communication - grandparents took their grandchildren in and explained to them how they learnt to read as children, children spoke about their favourite books and explained to their parents what they liked about them. Together, the Memories of Reading form a social commentary on reading in school, in families and at home, using technology, visiting libraries, arriving in the UK, or establishing an identity as a reader. Spanning 100 years, some decades are obviously better represented than others, and the search is on to make sure that each decade is fully explored!

Talking Books scheme run by R.N.I.B.

Your input is needed!  It is intended for the Memories of Reading to be published in book format, alongside a narrative analysis and referenced commentary linking the memories to historical events. In order for the project to be successful, many, many more memories are needed! Anybody willing to be a part of the project can add their memory here   - Please share the link with any organisation, school or initiative you feel would be interested! Memories will be gathered throughout 2015, to maximise opportunities for the project to become known across all sections of the community. We will keep you posted on the results, or follow #memoriesofreading on Twitter!

Sabine Little
Lecturer in Educational Studies, University of Sheffield

Further reading:
Memories of Reading website
Levy, R., Little, S., Clough, P., Nutbrown, Bishop, J.,  Lamb, T., and Yamada-Rice, D. (2014a) Attitudes to Reading and Writing and their Links with Social Mobility 1914-2014 – An Evidence Review.  London: Booktrust.


16 April 2015

'Fifth rate accommodation' in Sharjah

The Political Agent at Bahrain, Hugh Weightman, went on an official visit to the Trucial Coast in February 1940 to discuss the business of the British Overseas Airways Corporation. BOAC was the British state airline created in 1940 by the merger of Imperial Airways and British Airways. 

Weightman stayed as usual in the BOAC Rest House at the Fort in Sharjah which was built in 1932 to host airline guests who were stopping overnight. The airport and the Rest House were built in the form of a fort to protect travellers against the possibility of attacks from the Bedouin.  The Rest House was at that time the only hotel to guarantee ‘Western’ standards to travellers in Sharjah.


Air Outpost  A rare 1930s film showing a day at the Fort from youtube.com

Weightman was billed Rs 60 by BOAC for two nights spent at the Rest House.  He refused to pay the full tariff:  ‘they should understand that the Political Agent does not intend to pay luxury hotel rates for accommodation and food in the Sharjah Rest House, especially when he goes there mainly for the purpose of serving the interests of Imperial Airways’ (IOR/R/15/2/502 f 93).

His superior, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf Charles Geoffrey Prior, also confirmed: ‘I refuse absolutely to pay luxury hotel rates for the fifth rate accommodation which one gets there’.

The maintenance of the air route to India was in fact one of the main purposes of their trips to Sharjah.  BOAC apologized and sent a refund, suggesting that in future the accommodation charge should be waived, local mess rates applied for food, and the cost of drinks paid.


Sharjah officers' mess
Officers relax outside the Officers' Mess at Sharjah, Trucial States. © IWM (CM 6008)

 Valentina Mirabella Cc-by

BL/Qatar Foundation Partnership


14 April 2015

‘A smack at the Chikor’

Wading through the seemingly endless procession of official letters, telegrams and Government notices that fill the subject files of Britain’s Political Agencies in the Persian Gulf, the occasional discovery of a demi-official letter can bring light relief. Like a glimmer of gold in a black seam of coal, they’re capable of cutting through the relentless monotony of imperial bureaucracy to reveal refreshing insights into life in British India.

Desert sunrise 
Desert sunrise - Illustration by Herbert Walker from Harry De Windt, A ride to India across Persia and Baluchistan (1891) Noc

It only needs a sentence or two. For example these found at the end of a letter (demi-official, still marked confidential) sent by Oliver St John, Political Agent at Sibi in Pakistan (formerly in British Baluchistan), to his colleague, Hugh Weightman, Political Agent at Bahrain, dated 26 January 1940. The letter refers to the prospect of recruiting Baluchis to form a wartime security force in Bahrain, but it is the last paragraph of the letter that provokes a smile and piques curiosity:

Last paragraph of Oliver St John's letter
IOR/R/15/2/657, f 7 Noc

With the help of The Imperial Gazetteer of India and a copy of the Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary, St John’s letter can be deciphered. The Sibi week to which he refers is the annual festival held in Sibi each February (the Sibi Mela, still held today), which stems from a tradition dating back to the fifteenth century, in which Baluchi tribes from across the region converged on the town. The main features of the modern incarnation of this event were the cattle and horse fairs, to which it was reported that some 1,800 horses were brought.

The Wam Tangi to which St John appears desperate to escape to in order to avoid the ‘horrors’ of the Sibi fairs, is a river flowing amongst the forests and mountains north of Sibi. And the Chikor he hopes to ‘smack’ is the name given to an Indian partridge that, as with so many other wild animals of the Indian subcontinent, the British tried their best to hunt into oblivion.


Chukar partridge

Alectoris chukar (Chukar Partridge) - adult and egg, from  Illustrations of Indian Zoology from the collections of Major General Hardwicke - volume 1. Source: Wikicommons.  Noc

Thus, in the sign-off to a single letter, the rather stereotypical attitude of the British colonial administrator in India – demonstrating not only his dislike of local custom but also his disdain for the local fauna – is succinctly presented.

Mark Hobbs Cc-by
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project
BL/QF Partnership

Further Reading:
British Library ‘‘File 28/1 G Bahrain Special Police’ (IOR/R/15/2/657).
Imperial Gazetteer of India. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907-09)
Concise Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary (Wordsworth Editions, 2008)
“Sibi Mela” Tourist Development Corporation of the Punjab 


09 April 2015

Social life in Simla

Inspired by the TV drama Indian Summers, I decided to investigate the social life in Simla under British rule. Was it dominated by eating, drinking, playing cards, gossiping and arguing, interspersed with some amateur dramatics?

  Story about Simla from The Delhi Sketch Book 1 January 1855
From The Delhi Sketch Book 1 January 1855 Noc

Simla was a hill station in the Himalayan foothills popular with convalescents. It then developed into the summer capital of the British administration in India. There was a variety of clubs in Simla to help the Europeans pass their time pleasantly. The oldest was the United Services Club founded in 1844, with membership restricted to commissioned military officers, army or navy chaplains, members of the Indian Civil Service and judges.  Indians and women were not permitted to join, although guests were admitted.  The Club boasted a racquet court and rooms for playing billiards and cards, as well as a reading room and a library packed with books for members to enjoy.

In the late 1880s the New Club opened as a rival attraction.  It had well-built premises with spacious rooms and a fine dining room with an excellent dance floor. Popular smoking concerts were held, where members of the Viceregal Council enthusiastically joined in the choruses.  However the United Services Club was stung into action by the competition. Extensive improvements were made, and private pressure was brought to bear on government officials to support the older club. The New Club was forced into liquidation and the buildings became a hotel.


'Such a Jolly Ball' from The Delhi Sketch Book 1 January 1855
From The Delhi Sketch Book 1 January 1855  Noc


Men could also belong to one of several Masonic lodges which held meetings in Simla. The oldest of these was the Himalayan Brotherhood founded in 1838.

An area of flat land known as Annandale became the ‘public play-ground at Simla’.  Picnics, fairs and dances were held there, as well as horse races, gymkhanas, and dog shows.  Sports included polo, cricket, football, archery, rifle-shooting, golf, and croquet.  In 1911 there was a Simla Winter Amusement Club offering badminton, a skating rink, and toboganning.

Amateur dramatics were very popular.  In the late 1830s Emily Eden watched performances in a ‘small and hot, and somewhat dirty’ theatre in Simla.  She wrote of a falling-out amongst the gentlemen actors: ‘One man took a fit of low sprits, and another who acted women’s parts well, would not cut off his moustachios, and another went off to shoot bears near the snowy range’.

A major event of the Simla season was the annual Fine Arts Exhibition.  In the 1860s there was said to be ‘a galaxy of amateur talent in water-colour painting then at Simla’. Money prizes were offered and pictures were sent in from all over India.

The Simla United Services Club closed in 1947 and its collection of books was dispersed. A large number went to the House of Commons and the Empire Society, and the fiction was taken by the Punjab Club. There were thousands of non-fiction books on a wide variety of topics, some perhaps predictable, others less so.  Alongside works on history, government, politics, war, military and naval strategy were books about hypnotism, crime, psychology, psychotherapy, feminism, witchcraft, and spiritualism. The homesick reader of A lonely summer in Kashmir could seek solace in one of a number of works on life back in Britain, such as The Glory of Scotland, Irish bogs, The England I love best, or A dull day in London.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
Edward J. Buck, Simla Past and Present (Calcutta, 1904)
India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur D 957 List of books in the reading room and library of the United Services Club Simla, 1947
India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur D 1236/4 Simla Winter Amusement Club  1911-1912

Bear’s grease, bonnets, bellows, biscuits and Bibles - a merchant in Simla in the 1850s

07 April 2015

Gandhi’s Salt March, Part 3: 27 March to 6 April 1930

We rejoin Gandhi’s salt march on 27 March 1930, with the party passing through Sajod, reaching Mangrol that evening. The resignations of village headmen continued, and it was reported that local agitators in Jalalpur had started a boycott of local officers at Dandi where Gandhi planned to break the salt laws. The next day Gandhi crossed into the Surat District, reaching Umrachi that evening. He addressed a gathering of 2,000 people, and reportedly took a new line in his speech “…saying that from April 6th Congress would start own programme and salt would be manufactured all over the country on that date. Women should turn their attention to picketing liquor shops”. The march continued through Erthan the next day, reaching Bhatgam by nightfall. The Governor of Bombay reported that a total of 85 headmen had resigned their positions in Surat District.

At Bhatgam, Gandhi addressed the crowd on the subject of temperance, and warned against the dangers of luxuries. The march then continued its progress to Delad, which it reached on the evening of 30 March, and Gandhi addressed a crown of 5,000 people on social subjects such as extravagance and temperance. The next day there was a halt for Gandhi’s day of silence. The march resumed on 1 April, reaching Surat City that evening, where Gandhi spoke to a large crowd of reportedly 30,000 people. The march continued the following day, crossing a portion of Baroda territory. By now, reports were reaching the Bombay Government of various parties who intended to break the salt laws in other districts, and there were further reports of boycotts of Government officers. On the evening of 4 April, Gandhi’s party reached Matvad, only 3 miles from Dandi. 140 village headmen, out of a total of 760 had reportedly resigned in Surat District.


  Telegram from the Governor of Bombay to the Secretary of State for India, 6 April 1930

Telegram from the Governor of Bombay to the Secretary of State for India, 6 April 1930, reporting that Gandhi picked up pieces of salt at Dandi. IOR: L/PJ/6/1998. Noc

The Bombay Governor’s telegram of 6 April reported the momentous news: “This morning, accompanied by about 2,000 persons, Gandhi bathed in the sea. Afterwards he and his party picked up pieces of salt near his house declaring the salt law broken. Later batches of five or six fetched sea water which it is understood is to be boiled in large sugar boiling receptacles at his camp”.

Gandhi continued to address large crowds and break the salt laws in the Surat District. Increasing acts of civil disobedience around the country put pressure on the Government to act, and there were widespread arrests of Indian political leaders and activists. Finally, on 5 May 1930, the Governor of Bombay sent a telegram to London reporting “Gandhi’s arrest was carried out without a hitch at 1am this morning, and he arrived at Yeravda prison in good health and spirits shortly before 11am”.


Telegram from the Governor of Bombay to the Secretary of State for India, 5 May 1930
Telegram from the Governor of Bombay to the Secretary of State for India, 5 May 1930, reporting Gandhi’s arrest.
IOR: L/PJ/6/1998 Noc

Gandhi’s march had been a huge success, attracting great interest in India and around the world, and keeping the issue of Indian independence on the front page of Indian and international newspapers.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by


Further Reading:
Civil Disobedience Campaign Events in Bombay: reports on demonstrations, rioting and police action; arrests, trials and judgments passed; Parliamentary questions and replies, March 1930 to October 1931 [IOR/L/PJ/6/1998]

 Gandhi’s Salt March, Part 1: 12-19 March 1930

Gandhi’s Salt March, Part 2: 20-26 March 1930



03 April 2015

Hot Cross Buns!

Hot cross buns are a traditional Easter treat.  They are distinguished from other buns by the flavour of all-spice and a pale cross baked into their top.  Although they now appear in the supermarkets as soon as the Christmas mince pies have been cleared, hot cross buns used to be associated particularly with Good Friday.

In the early 19th century, Good Friday and Christmas Day were the only two ‘close holidays’  observed throughout London, with shops shut and churches open.  From dawn, street sellers were busy crying ‘Hot cross buns! One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot cross buns!’ They carried their wares in baskets, with the buns covered first by a flannel or green baize, with an outer white cloth. As customers were served in the street or at their front door, the coverings were slowly and partially removed lest the buns should cool. The ‘hot’ aspect of the buns was evidently considered more important that it is today! The sellers’ ‘volume of concerted sound, unequalled by other rivals in the ephemeral Good Friday trade’ continued until it was time for church. Bun selling then resumed in the afternoon.

  Hot cross bun seller
From Walter Crane, Triplets (1899) Images Online  Noc

According to William Hone, the quality of hot cross buns was in decline in the 1820s as demand decreased. In the late 18th century pastry cooks and bakers had competed for excellence in making the buns, and ‘the great place of attraction for bun-eaters’ at that time were the two Chelsea ‘royal bun houses’.   Hundreds of square black tins with dozens of hot buns on each were produced for sale at Chelsea from six in the morning until the evening of Good Friday.

A Good Friday bun was sometimes kept for luck and hung from the ceiling until replaced by a fresh one the following Easter.  The hanging bun was supposed to protect the house from fire.

Not everyone was a fan of hot cross buns.  On 23 March 1826 The Morning Post published a letter from ’A Friend to Reverence’ who believed the practice of ‘crying the crossbuns’ through the streets of London and the neighbouring villages on Good Friday to be ‘irreverent and profane’.  Good Friday should not be celebrated as a day of feasting: ‘I have myself a family of little ones, who…are naturally fond of the produce of a confectioner’s shop; but I never allow of any of the cakes so marked, to be brought into my house. My motive is explained to them, and the temporary disappointment is repaired on the Easter Monday’.

The next day (Maundy Thursday) the newspaper published an opposing view: ‘I have no children to have the pleasure of giving them, to-morrow morning, as many cross buns as I would kisses.  Whatever, therefore, the origin of cross buns, the intention manifested by them is good; no argument is so powerful as that which gratifies the taste and liking of man or child; let cross buns be cried about as usual, to-morrow morning’.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper ArchiveThe Morning Post 23 and 24 March 1826