Untold lives blog

11 posts from May 2015

28 May 2015

The unfortunate Matthewman; how a bookbinder failed against all the odds

If a lowly bookbinder in Georgian London acquired a wealthy patron who needed hundreds of books bound, his business was surely set up for life.  How then did John Matthewman who worked for the prosperous Dissenter and Republican Thomas Hollis find himself bankrupt?

Bookbinders were ill regarded by many in their trade guild, the Stationers’ Company, due to their low earning ability.  They often had to practise related additional trades, for example book or stationery selling, to make ends meet.  One way to ensure a workshop flourished was to gain a steady stream of work. 

Hollis (1720-74) promoted his beliefs by having books favourable to his views suitably bound and dispatched to friends and institutions throughout the world.  Initially, he employed Richard Montagu (c1756-8) and John Shove (from about c1756).  Both binderies were located near Hollis’s workplace in Lincoln’s Inn.  In 1759, the volume of work was such that Hollis turned to Montagu’s former apprentice, Matthewman and his business partner John Bailey, who also traded nearby.

  Thomas Hollis
Thomas Hollis from Francis Blackburne, Memoirs of Thomas Hollis (1780)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Hollis was a demanding taskmaster.  He instructed the binders on technical and aesthetic issues and advised which of his specially- cut emblematic decorative tools (designed by Cipriani) should be applied.   After a fire in January 1764 destroyed the library of Harvard College in the USA, Hollis began shipping thousands of specially chosen books to the institution. W. H. Bond speaks of Matthewman and Shove producing bindings “in wholesale quantities”. 


  The Life of John Milton  (1761) with Masterman binding
John Toland, The Life of John Milton  (London, 1761) with Masterman binding - British Library Database of Bookbindings Davis 163    Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Harvard fire may have benefitted Matthewman indirectly but later in the year fire was to play an equally destructive part in his own professional life.  In June 1764 “ a great fire broke out at the house of messers Matthewman and Bailey booksellers and bookbinders in Great Wild Street which consumed that and many other dwelling houses in the said street…”  An elderly lady, a maidservant and a child perished.  Matthewman’s apprentice narrowly survived via a daring escape over the roof.  The next day, Hollis related “cheering Matthewman” in his diary but lamented the destruction of his own books awaiting binding and the loss of his special bindings tools. Later, Bailey paid Hollis insurance as compensation and Hollis had the engraver Thomas Pingo cut new emblematic tools which Matthewman put into use. 

In March 1766 the workshop was afflicted by another misfortune.  The exact details are a mystery but John Shove reported that the unreliable Bailey had led the partnership into severe financial difficulties.  Bankruptcy was announced in the newspapers.  A solution must have been found because bookbinding continued but it was temporary.  The same year saw another reverse.  Prynne’s book on parliamentary history was bound without a section which happened to reflect an anti-catholic sentiment.  The pages could not be found. Hollis blamed Matthewman and accused him of being a papist.  The binder is described as being somewhat disconcerted by the misadventure, but “not enough”, according to Hollis, who hinted that the earlier fire may have been set to destroy the more liberal of Hollis’s books!  Matthewman’s religious and political beliefs are not recorded but such behaviour would not have been in his own interest.  Hollis’s diary implied that Matthewman would have been reimbursed by sympathisers but in reality his business never recovered.

On 21 June 1769, Matthewman absconded to avoid being imprisoned for debt.  Hollis never referred to Matthewman again in his diary. 

PJM Marks
Printed Historical Sources

Further reading:
W. H. Bond, (William Henry), Thomas Hollis of Lincoln's Inn : a Whig and his books Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1990.

British Newspaper Archive -
Thursday 07 June 1764, Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, Somerset, England
Saturday 15 March 1766, Oxford Journal, Oxfordshire, England

Francis Blackburne, Memoirs of Thomas Hollis, Esq. London 1780


26 May 2015

Vengeful barbers and crime-fighting magicians

This week Untold Lives brings you two tales of poisoning found in the annual reports of the Chemical Examiner to the Government of Madras for 1901 and 1902.

Our first example concerns an overzealous attempt to catch a thief:

        Story of attempt to catch a thief by a magician
 IOR/P/6347 Jul 1902 nos 53-60 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The second concerns an attempt to poach a neighbour’s business:

  Story of an attempt to poach a neighbour’s business
 IOR/P/6579 Jul 1903 nos 101-07 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These cases of poisoning were highlighted by the Chemical Examiner in his annual report as being particularly note-worthy, and appear in the section on Medico-Legal Investigations. Alongside human and animal poisonings the Examiner investigated a number of miscellaneous cases, including counterfeit coining, a case of disputed handwriting, and the examination of a number of articles concerned in a case of explosion and suspected incendiarism.

By far the largest section of the report concerns analyses performed for the Customs Department and the Board of Revenue:

  analyses performed for the Customs Department and the Board of Revenue:
 IOR/P/6579 Jul 1903 nos 101-07  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Reports of the Chemical Examiners can be found via the online catalogue in the IOR/V/24 series, and scattered through the IOR/P Proceedings.

Alex Hailey
India Office Medical Archives project 


Also on Untold Lives -

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


23 May 2015

Waterloo and its legacy

Shocking contemporaries and participants alike by the scale and carnage of the battle, Waterloo ended Napoleon’s imperial ambitions and helped to shape the political map of modern Europe. To commemorate the bicentenary of this momentous battle, leading academics and writers, in partnership with History Today, will discuss its legacy, from the forging of a British identity to the rise of a cult of Napoleon.

Poster for Waterloo exhibition 1845
Evan.2510  Online Gallery  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Paul Lay (editor, History Today) will chair a discussion between

• Michael Broers, Professor of Western European History at the University of Oxford
• Robert Eaglestone, writer and Professor of Contemporary European Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London
• Alan Forrest, Emeritus Professor in Modern History at the University of York
• Jenny Uglow, biographer and historian.

This event will take place at the British Library on Monday 8 June 2015, 18:30 - 20:00.  See more details here.



21 May 2015

The People’s Charter

The People’s Charter, first distributed on 21 May 1838, consciously drew its name from Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, sealed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. This small book launched the Chartist movement – the first mass working class movement in British history – that agitated to achieve radical political change 1838-1858. Whereas Magna Carta secured the elite barons their liberties and rights, this People’s Charter hoped to win political rights for the working class and complete the process begun in 1215. In allying themselves with Magna Carta, the Chartists cleverly represented their cause as one that was based in historical precedent and which had an ancient authority that was the ‘birthright’ of all British citizens.

Working Men's Association , The People's Charter; c.1838
Working Men's Association , The People's Charter; c.1838 , London. British Library  C.194.a.938  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Chartists were not always strictly accurate in their historical interpretation of Magna Carta and what it actually said, but they were effectively using Magna Carta as a symbol of freedom upon which they could graft their own political ideas. One Chartist demagogue – Joseph Rayner Stephens – erroneously invoked Magna Carta as enshrining a right to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of worship, none of which were mentioned in Magna Carta. Yet, the simple invocation of this document lent his claims legitimacy. At a great Chartist meeting near Leeds, Stephens announced:
We are seeking nothing new…Our forefathers have set up landmarks – landmarks of law – landmarks of right, landmarks of liberty; these landmarks we are determined to have restored. (Cheers) We stand upon our old rights – we seek no change – we say give us the good old laws of England unchanged (Cheers)…and what are those laws? What is that constitution by which we seek to abide? – (Magna Charta) – Aye, Magna Charta! The good old laws of English freedom – free meetings – freedom of speech – freedom of workshops – freedom of homesteads – free and happy firesides, and no workhouses. (Cheers)


Poster for public meeting for the People's Charter, Carlisle, 1839
Poster for public meeting for the People's Charter, Carlisle, 1839 © National Archives HO 40/41/390


The six points outlined in The People’s Charter, were:
1. Universal male suffrage
2. No property qualification to be a Member of Parliament
3. Annual Parliaments
4. Equal representation 
5. Payment of MPs
6. Secret ballot

Radicals had been pushing for this reform programme since at least the 18th century. What was new was the pithy name and the sophisticated manner in which they agitated for them. The invocation of Magna Carta was crucial in this and certainly caught the public imagination. 

The Radicals’ interest in Magna Carta had grown over the previous quarter century, fuelled by an explosion of radical reform publishing which almost always invoked the Great Charter as a symbol of ancient British liberties that were being infringed upon by a corrupt and unrepresentative political elite. To attract followers, the Chartists always inserted the ‘h’ in the word ‘Magna Charta’ to emphasise subtly the affinity between their Charter of liberties and the Great Charter of 1215. The Chartists principally agitated for reform through presenting petitions to Parliament, the largest of which was submitted in 1842, written on paper some 6 miles long, weighing 48 stones (more than 300kg!) and containing the signatures of upwards of 3,317,702 people, one third of the adult population of Great Britain.

  Procession Attending the Great National Petition to the House of Commons 1842
Procession Attending the Great National Petition to the House of Commons 1842  © Trustees of the British Museum and British Museum Standard Terms of Use. British Museum 1880,1113.2756


Ultimately, the Chartist movement would fail in its attempt to achieve lasting political reform. Yet the Chartists created a rich political culture that continued to question the social values dominant under industrial capitalism throughout the 19th century and placed the demand for universal suffrage at the heart of future debates concerning the amelioration of working class lives. 

Alexander Lock
Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1851-1950

Read more about Magna Carta

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy - our major exhibition running until 1 September 2015



19 May 2015

Famous friends

Do the names Michael Renshaw, Robert Ferns Waller, Ethel Ford, and Barbara Coombs mean anything to you?  If not, then you might be surprised to learn that the likes of Cecil Beaton, Clarissa and Anthony Eden, Ann Fleming (wife of Ian), T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and Ivon Hitchens were their friends and regular correspondents.  Four recently catalogued collections amongst the Library’s western manuscripts suggest that, at least in the early and mid-20th century, famous people did not mix only with other famous people.  So who were these less than household names, and how did they come to have such celebrated friends? 

  Michael Renshaw, by the pool al Leeds Castle
Michael Renshaw, by the pool al Leeds Castle, late 1960s/early 1970s. Published with the permission of the Trustees of the Leeds Castle Foundation and Anthony Russell.

Renshaw was, for want of a better phrase, a society figure.  He did have a day job, advertising director of The Sunday Times, but he spent most of his time mixing with high society and going to, and hosting, fabulous parties.  His correspondence is a ‘who’s who’ of the arts, fashion, politics, and the aristocracy.  The letters he received from his famous friends are a rich source of information about their writers.  They also give fascinating insights into life during, and just after, World War II in England and north-west Europe, the Cyprus crisis, and British politics and society in the turbulent 1970s.

Photo of Robert Waller, mid-1950s
Robert Waller, mid-1950s. Published with the permission of Anne Baillie.

Waller was a BBC radio producer, poet, and an early leader of the environmental movement.  He was the private secretary to the literary reviewer and critic Desmond MacCarthy, a role which introduced Waller to a wide literary circle.  Within this circle was T.S. Eliot, who, over 20 years, wrote to Waller with advice on literary and personal matters.

Barbara Coombs, photographed by Ivon Hitchens, circa 1950.
Barbara Coombs, photographed by Ivon Hitchens, circa 1950. Published with the permission of Jonathan Clark Fine Art.

Coombs’s entré into artistic circles came about by the accident of birth.  Her eldest brother was Frank Coombs, painter, and manager of the Storran Gallery with Eardley Knollys.  Although Frank died in World War II it can be assumed that his connection with the art world was the source of Barbara's long friendship with Hitchens, with whom she corresponded for 30 years.  Coombs sat for Hitchens; photographs of his portraits are in her papers, along with photographs, by Hitchens, of Coombs and Mollie, Hitchens’s wife.

Ford met Henry James by way of a different type of coincidence.  In 1907, she and her husband, Francis, who had played cricket for England, bought a Georgian farmhouse in Wittersham, six miles from Rye, where James was living.  The Fords and James became acquainted through a mutual friend, an architect who advised both parties on renovations and alterations to their homes.  This chance encounter led to an eight year correspondence in which James writes of family and friends (particularly the du Mauriers), health matters, and daily life. 

The letters in these four collections are invaluable sources for those researching their writers, but given their unlikely recipients they go to show that sometimes the best, and most useful, information is not to be found in the most obvious places.

Michael St John-McAlister
Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager

Further reading:
Rosalind Bleach, ed., Henry James's Waistcoat: Letters to Mrs Ford 1907-1915 (Settrington: Stone Trough Books, 2007).
British Library Add MS 71231, 89045, 89051, 89056, and 89068.
Philip Conford, ed., The Poet of Ecology: A Selection of Writings in Memory of Robert Waller (1913-2005) (Chichester: Norroy Press, 2008).
Michael St John-McAlister, 'Michael Renshaw: A Society Figure in War and Peace', Electronic British Library Journal


17 May 2015

The pill devourer

On 17 May 1817, farmer Samuel Jessup died at his home in Heckington Lincolnshire.  His death was widely reported in the press, not because of any suspicious circumstances, but as a result of Jessup’s remarkable ‘propensity for pills’.

The Lincoln Assizes of March 1817 heard an action brought against Jessup by John Wright, surgeon and apothecary of Bottesford.  Wright wished to recover a large debt of £787 18s for medicines and attendance provided to Jessup over a period of 25 years.  Jessup was described as ‘a bachelor of opulence… of an hypochondriacal turn’.  Besides real complaints, Jessup had also ‘a diseased fancy’. Wright used to send him from 600 to 2,000 pills at a time - in one year Jessup took 51,000.  In addition, Wright had supplied 40,000 bottles of mixtures. 

The Apothecary from The book of English trades, and library of the useful arts (London, 1821)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Jessup  described his daily routine since 1796: ‘At half-past two o’clock in the morning, I take two spoonfuls and a half of jalap, and then a quantity of electuary; then I sleep  till seven, and repeat the dose of both jalap and electuary: at nine o’clock I take fourteen pills of No. 9, and eleven pills of No. 10, to whet my appetite for breakfast; at breakfast I eat a basin of milk; at eleven, I have an acid and alkali mixture: afterwards I have a bolus: and at nine at night I have an anodyne mixture, and go to sleep’.

A compromise was reached whereby Wright accepted a verdict for payment of £450. Two months later, Jessup was dead. He was buried at Heckington on 20 May aged 64.  Newspapers expressed surprise that he had survived to such an advanced age nothwithstanding ‘a most inordinate craving for physic’. 

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive, for example Stamford Mercury 14 March 1817; Lancaster Gazette 29 March 1817; Staffordshire Advertiser 31 May 1817.


14 May 2015

Misplaced Suspicions: Counter-espionage in the Persian Gulf

During the interwar period the British endeavoured to retain their dominant status in the Persian Gulf and to promote their interests above those of other countries. They were thus sensitive to the activities – commercial or otherwise – of foreign nationals visiting the region. The build up to the Second World War, and the rise of Nazism in Germany, heightened this sensitivity, particularly towards those who might be German.

Cover of the file ‘Visits of German Agents’
The cover of the file ‘Visits of German Agents’, part of the India Office Record being digitised by the British Library-Qatar Foundation Partnership  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On 9 July 1937, Captain Gerald de Gaury. the Political Agent at Kuwait, wrote to his superior in Bushire, Lieutenant-Colonel Trenchard Fowle, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, with notes on the visit to Kuwait of August Lindt and his wife, Susan Dunsterville. Lindt, a Swiss subject, was in the region on behalf of the Swiss newspaper Bund. He had aroused British suspicions by also being employed as a correspondent for a Berlin news agency.

Evidently perturbed by the man’s behaviour, de Gaury described Lindt as ‘extremely journalistic in manner and generally very inquisitive’. The Political Agent fretted about having to accommodate the couple in the Agency with no advance notice, although, as he admitted, this wasn’t such a bad thing: ‘as I was able to keep an eye on them'. Despite Lindt’s Swiss nationality, de Gaury was convinced that he was in fact German.

Letter from de Gaury to Fowle
Extract from a letter from Gerald de Gaury, Political Agent at Kuwait, to Trenchard Fowle, Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, dated 9 July 1937. (IOR/R/15/2/540, f.5) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This belief was fuelled by Lindt’s ‘long talks’ with Dr Fritz Grobba, the German Minister in Baghdad. The fact that he could speak Arabic and had talked subversively about his plan to overthrow the Liberian Government – having previously visited the country – with the help of a ‘Hinterland chief’ all fed suspicions about his true intentions. Fowle’s verdict was unequivocal: ‘I have no doubt myself that […] he […] sends reports to the German Government’.

After a week in Kuwait, the Lindts travelled on to Bahrain, possibly allowed such freedom of movement only because of Dunsterville’s British origins. While in Bahrain they stayed in the home of the RAF Air Liaison Officer, Aubrey Rickards, who was absent at the time. Rickards complained that when alone in his house, the couple 'went over all his things that they could get at including the contents of his drawers and photograph albums'.

Much less suspicious of Lindt’s intentions, the Political Agent at Bahrain, Tom Hickinbotham nevertheless reported the journalist’s ‘great interest in the people and the place’ and that he asked ‘a series of questions’. During a visit to the pearling banks Lindt is said to have taken ‘a number of photographs’. However, he felt that they had ‘conducted themselves quite well’ and did not share de Gaury’s belief that Lindt was German, though he showed his British prudishness by noting with disapproval the ‘somewhat continental […] way in which they discussed their private lives’.

  August R. Lindt
August R. Lindt (photograph: Burgerbibliothek Bern)

Although clearly a man with a strong personality, an inquisitive nature, and colourful ambitions, the British were wrong to suspect August Rudolf Lindt of being a German agent. Not long after his tour of the Gulf he returned to his native Switzerland and became a leading figure of the Swiss resistance during the war and a critic of his government’s appeasement of Nazi Germany. After the war, as well as several diplomatic positions, his career was notable for its humanitarian work, including time as Chairman of the Board at UNICEF and an appointment as UN High Commissioner for Refugees between 1956 and 1960.

John Hayhurst
Content Specialist, BL/Qatar Foundation Partnership


12 May 2015

Must I break my promise or lose my bread?

In December 1832 the East India Company was accused of seeking to influence the outcome of the general election in Finsbury. A letter from ‘A.Z.’ appeared in The Times on 10 December: ‘I know the fact that the East India Company are requiring the people employed in their warehouses to vote for Serjeant Spankie and Mr. Grant for the borough of Finsbury; I ascertain it from several voters who had promised to give their votes for Mr. Babbage having, in consequence of orders from the Company, broken that promise’.

Candidate Charles Babbage, the mathematician and computer pioneer, published an address to the electors of the borough: ‘A powerful corporate body is exerting itself against me; but the people are too firm and too enlightened to allow themselves to be cheated out of their newly recovered rights’.

Robert Grant and Robert Spankie were elected as the two MPs for Finsbury.  Spankie was linked to the East India Company through his marriage to the daughter of director John Inglis and his service as Advocate-General in Bengal.  Babbage came third, nearly 400 votes behind Spankie. 

Cartoon of Middlesex Election 1802
From G. Huddesford, The Scum uppermost when the Middlesex Porridge-Pot boils over!!  (London ,1802)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The controversy rumbled on in the pages of The Times with James Bischoff, chairman of Babbage’s election committee, adding his voice.  Bischoff claimed that:  ‘…lists of persons employed in the warehouses of the company and having votes were made out, and cards were sent to those persons, requesting them to vote for Sergeant Spankie. Could these lists be made without the order of persons in authority? and would it not be a natural question for a man having a family dependent upon the East India Company, and having promised his vote to another candidate, to ask himself must I break my promise or lose my bread?’.

Peter Auber, Secretary of the East India Company, was outraged at the allegations and wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the newspaper which was published on 15 December.  He stated some ‘simple facts’ in opposition to Bischoff’s allegations.  There were 42 Finsbury voters employed in the Company’s warehouses.  Lists were made of voters in the warehouses for all places in the United Kingdom, and no addresses were included.  This had been the practice for the past 40 years or more, intended to allow voters unrestricted leave of absence on application.  The lists were kept by head clerk William Simons and not shown to anyone outside the office of the Committee of Warehouses – no director had ever asked to see them.  Simons had assured Auber that he had never interfered with the choices made: when a voter asked him about anything on the subject, he told him to do just as he liked.  Auber also said that it was his firm conviction that Spankie had not solicited, directly or indirectly, the vote of any individual, knowing him to be a servant of the Company.

Auber ended with this statement: ‘I have thought it my duty, in the station which I hold as Secretary to the Court of Directors, and in vindication of their officers, who appear to me to have been aspersed by Mr. Bischoff’s insinuations, to make this statement without any communication whatever with any member of the hon. Court, and for which statement I am alone responsible’. 

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The Times December 1832
British Newspaper Archive