Untold lives blog

14 posts from September 2015

29 September 2015

Metropolitan Police take to the streets

On 29 September 1829 the Metropolitan Police took to the streets of London for the first time.  The main purpose of the force was said to be the prevention of crime, with every officer responsible for the preservation of peace and order in the district within his care.  Promotion would be the reward for vigilance. No policeman was to enter a public house except in the performance of his duty, and publicans were liable to a penalty for allowing police to remain on their premises.


PolicemanPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Policeman from E M Davies, Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old (London, 1875), p.239 BL flickr 


The next day the Morning Post published this assessment of the new constables.

‘Last night the New Police appeared on duty for the first time.

From the slight observation we had an opportunity of making, they seemed well fitted for the discharge of the duties they have undertaken as far as regards bodily power.  Such as were stationed along the great thoroughfares of Holborn and the Strand moved backwards and forwards at a slow pace, without any indication of that offensive inquisitiveness and unnecessary meddling which too often marked the conduct of the watchmen.  Many of them have rather the appearance of respectable tradesmen than of persons taken from the more humble classes. Their dress is not so glaring as to attract notice, and their insignia of office are in a great measure concealed by a dark-coloured great coat.  In one of the narrow streets near Charing-cross, a silly and wanton trial of their assiduity was made by springing a rattle from one of the garret windows.  The Police in the neighbourhood were soon on the spot from whence the alarm proceeded, but found their attendance useless.  A crowd was collected, but soon dispersed, after indulging their curiosity by an inspection of the Police uniform.’

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper ArchiveMorning Post 30 September 1829; Bury and Norwich Post 30 September 1829.


27 September 2015

Crack-Nut Sunday

Today is Crack-Nut Sunday, the last Sunday before Michaelmas (29 September).  The name comes from an old English custom whereby the congregation took nuts with them to the parish church on this day and cracked them during the service.

It is said that the practice had its origin in the election of bailiffs and other members of the corporation on Michaelmas Day and the civic feast connected with this.  Young and old members of the congregation participated and the cracking noise often drowned out the words of the priest.

  Congregation in church

Image taken from Annals of the Parish and the Ayrshire Legatees ... Illustrated by C. E. BrockPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1907 a newspaper in New York State published an account by an American visitor who had attended a country church in the north of England on Crack-Nut Sunday.  He commented that the service ‘would have driven a New York preacher clean crazy’: ‘Nobody, no matter how pious he might be, hesitated to avail himself of the peculiar privilege granted him, and men, women and children came to church with their pockets stuffed with nuts, which they complacently cracked and munched during the sermon…It can be easily imagined that when forty or fifty people get to cracking nuts with all their might the noise is apt to be something terrific, and many times the minister was hard put to hear himself think’. The custom came to be looked upon as a nuisance but was suppressed with some difficulty ‘so firmly had the nut cracking fever taken hold of the fancy of the people’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
John Timbs, Something for everyone (1861)
The Kingston Daily Freeman 4 March 1907


26 September 2015

Letters from Indian Soldiers, 26 September 1915

On 26 September 1914, 28,500 Indian Army troops arrived on the Western Front to fill the huge losses suffered by the British Expeditionary Force. They arrived in the nick of time and played a vital part in the campaign.  Today we share letters written by Indian soldiers exactly one year later. 

  Indian soldiers in the trenchesPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence
Photo 24/294

Untold Lives has previously featured extracts of letters from Indian soldiers fighting in France during the First World War. A common topic of their letters was news from the other theatres of conflict in the war, and requests for information from family and friends in India.

On 26 September 1915, Alladitta and Mustafa, Gunners with the Meerut Divisional train, No.7, wrote to Nathu Khan, stationed at Jhelum in India, giving news of the war: “As to what you wrote asking who has won the victory in Africa, the fact is that the English are fighting in Africa, and here too, and everywhere against the German Emperor. The Sultan of Turkey, who is the sovereign of the Musalmans, is helping the German Emperor, and is fighting the English steadily. He is fighting the English Army in the neighbourhood of the city Basra. As to what you say that there is no fighting going on in France, whoever told you so is lying. The fighting is going on with great vigour and thousands of mothers’ sons perish daily. There does not seem to be any arrangement to bring the war to a decisive issue. The matter is in the hands of God”.

  Transcript of Indian soldier's letter Public Domain Creative Commons Licence
IOR/L/MIL/5/825/6, f. 942

“The victory in Africa is described in the newspapers. You have asked me to write about the war. There is no prospect of any decision being arrived yet. There is a strict order against writing about the war. And anyone who does so is severely punished. Our letters are sent in open envelopes which are closed afterwards.”

As this extract shows, the Indian soldiers were well aware that their letters were being censored and some attempted to get around this with codes. On the same day Alladitta and Mustafa were writing to their friend in Jhelum, Mela Singh of the 25th Cavalry wrote from Marseilles to Magar Singh in the Punjab: “We are still in Marseilles. The news of the war is thoroughly bad. Below I write the signs which will give you the news when we go forward (to the front). For our letters are examined.

The signs are as follows:- I The fighting is very mild. II The fighting is moderately severe. III Attacks and counter attacks. IV Heavy losses”.

He also gives various symbols for being ill, a bullet and dead!

Transcript of Indian soldier's letterPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

IOR/L/MIL/5/825/6, f. 960

It was not the intention of the British Government to hide the fact that the soldiers’ letters were read; it was after all standard military practice. Both these letters were passed by the censor.

John O’Brien
India Office Records 

Further Reading:
Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, Sep 1915-Oct 1915 [IOR/L/MIL/5/825/6, folios 942 and 960] online


25 September 2015

Librarians dying at the Battle of Loos

The Battle of Loos in north-eastern France in September and October 1915 was an attack by six British divisions as part of ’The Big Push’ by the Allied forces.  Before the infantry was given orders to advance on the morning of 25 September 1915, chlorine gas was released.  This was the first time the British Army had used poison gas in the War. On the first day of the attack 8,500 British soldiers were killed but only 2,000 have a known grave, such was the ferocity of the fighting.

Reverend John Gwynn, chaplain to the Irish Guards, giving the last sacrament to a dying German soldier just before he himself was killed on Hill 70 at the Battle of Loos, October 1915

Reverend John Gwynn, chaplain to the Irish Guards, giving the last sacrament to a dying German soldier just before he himself was killed on Hill 70 at the Battle of Loos, October 1915 from The War Illustrated Album deLuxe (London, 1916)  © UIG/The British Library Board Images Online


On the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle we remember two British librarians who died at Loos.

Harold Percival Bevis was born in Paddington in 1891, the son of insurance agent Charles Thomas Bevis and his wife Emily Adelaide.  At the time of the 1911 census, Bevis was living in Willesden with his parents and two of his four siblings, and working as an assistant librarian at Hampstead Library. He enlisted in the Army on 23 September 1914 as a private in the 19th (County of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (St Pancras). The Battalion was a Territorial unit with its headquarters in Camden Town.

Just over a year later, 24 year-old Harold Bevis died on the first day of the Battle of Loos from wounds received in action – a gunshot wound to his shoulder and shrapnel in his right side. He is buried in Noeux-les-Mines Cemetery. The possessions listed in his record of service are a wrist watch, a rosary, an identity disc, and a strap.

Reginald Thomas Mayrick was born in 1895, also in Paddington.  He was one of seven children born to John and Florence Mayrick.  His father worked as a hall porter in a club.  When Florence completed the form for the 1911 census she recorded her 16 year-old son’s name as just Thomas, so perhaps this is how he was known within his family. Soon afterwards Mayrick left Wandsworth School and joined West Hill Public Library as a temporary assistant librarian on a salary of 7s per week.

Mayrick enlisted at Kingston-on-Thames as a private in the 9th Battalion East Surrey Regiment.  He fought at the Battle of Loos and died aged just 20 on 26 September 1915. His name appears on the Loos Memorial which commemorates over 20,000 officers and men who have no known grave.

The names of Harold Percival Bevis and Reginald Thomas Meyrick are inscribed on the memorial at the British Library which honours librarians who lost their lives during the First World War. 

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


23 September 2015

A Caracal for the King

“The Keeper of the Beasts in the Tower is to wait upon you with the Indian who is to return to his country.”  So began a letter from Robert Wood, Under-Secretary to the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, to Robert James, Secretary to the Court of Directors of the East India Company on 18 March 1760.

Letter about Abdullah’s visit to accompany the caracal and arranging his return to Bengal

IOR/E/1/42 f 106 Letter from Robert Wood at Whitehall to the East India Company Court of Directors 18 March 1760 concerning Abdullah’s visit to accompany the caracal and arranging his return to Bengal. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The Indian in question was Abdullah, a member of the household of Nawab Mir Jafar Ali Khan, who had recently been chosen as Ruler of Bengal by Sir Robert Clive. The Nawab had already presented valuable gifts to the Company of clothes, jewels, essences, weapons and portraits, which had been sent to London for the attention of the Court of Directors. The Company kept the jewels and presented the clothes and essences to the ladies of the Royal Family and the weapons and portraits to the British Museum. The Nawab however was also keen to establish his own more personal direct relations with King George II, and offered him as a gift a rare syagush (more commonly known as a caracal) for the King’s menagerie, which he instructed Abdullah to accompany to London in 1759.


From The Land of the Lion; or, Adventures among the wild animals of Africa (London, 1876) BL flickr Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On their arrival in London King George, who was reported to be very taken with the gift, instructed his Secretary of State William Pitt not only to oversee the installation of the caracal in the Tower of London’s menagerie, but also to ensure that Abdullah received honoured treatment during his stay, paid for out of the royal treasury.  It fell to the Royal Keeper of the Beasts at the Tower of London not only to accept the caracal into his collection but also to personally escort Abdullah around London.

Abdullah spent a year in London before the East India Company were approached to assist in arranging his return to Bengal. The instructions given by Robert Wood to the Company on Mr Pitt’s behalf were for Abdullah to receive a ‘relatively luxurious’ passage home with any diet, liquor and accommodation requirements being met, and that on his arrival in Bengal he was to be given a gift of 50 guineas from Mr Pitt.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/E/1/42, f 106, f 208 Miscellaneous letters received 1760
Michael Herbert Fisher, Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain 1600-1857 (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), pp.63-64.


21 September 2015

St Matthew’s Day

Today is St Matthew’s Day.  Traditionally this was the day when the governors of Christ’s Hospital were elected with ceremonies involving the Lord Mayor and aldermen of the City of London.  Christ’s Hospital is now situated in Horsham Sussex, but the pupils still march each year through the City on or about 21 September to reaffirm the school’s links with the Square Mile.


Christ's HospitalPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Christ's Hospital - image from The Works of Charles Lamb. A new edition (London, 1840) shelfmark 12272.f.9 BL flickr

In 1825 William Hone wrote this description of the annual ceremonies:

‘On this day the lord mayor, aldermen, sheriffs, and governors of the several royal hospitals in London, attend divine service, and hear a sermon preached at Christ church, Newgate-street; they then repair to the great hall in Christ’s hospital, where two orations are delivered, one in Latin, and the other in English, by the two senior scholars of the grammar-school; and afterwards partake of an elegant dinner’.

The London Evening Standard published an article about the 1843 ‘annual scholastic fête’ attended by ‘a brilliant assemblage’.  The Lord Mayor was accompanied by the Earl of Grosvenor and ‘an individual in Turkish costume, who appeared to take considerable interest in the scene’.  No less than four orations were delivered on the subject of the benefits of the Royal Hospitals – in Latin, English, Greek, and French.  These were followed by several ‘poetic effusions’ including an ode to celebrate Queen Victoria and Prince Albert becoming governors of Christ’s Hospital, and Latin Sapphic verse on peace with China, ‘a pretty thing, trippingly recited’.

The day’s proceedings concluded ‘as usual, by contributions to the gloves of the orators’. Then the Lord Mayor left the hall ‘amid the shrill storm of cheers with which the young blue coats are in the habit of making their valedictory salute’.

Margaret Makepeace 
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper Archive – for example London Evening Standard 22 September 1843


18 September 2015

Samuel Johnson’s MA diploma

Today is the 306th birthday of Samuel Johnson, compiler of A Dictionary of the English Language and poet and moralist. Johnson was born on 7 September 1709, but after the calendar was adjusted in 1752 he celebrated his birthday on 18 September. Actually 'celebrated' is too strong a word, because Johnson didn't like to be reminded of the passing years.  When his friend James Boswell reminded him of his impending birthday in 1773, Johnson wrote:

The return of my birthday, if I remember it, fills me with thoughts which it seems to be the general care of humanity to escape. I can now look back upon threescore and four years, in which little has been done, and little has been enjoyed, a life diversified by misery, spent part in the sluggishness of penury, and part under the violence of pain, in gloomy discontent, or importunate distress.

    (from a letter to Hester Thrale, 21 September 1773)

Despite his gloomy thoughts, it was not the case that Johnson had achieved little. He had devoted nine years of his life to his dictionary; it was a brilliant achievement, and before it went to press his friends wanted his academic qualities to be recognised.  As a young man, Johnson had been to Pembroke College, Oxford, but he had not completed his studies and left without a degree.  His friends therefore approached the University of Oxford to seek a Master of Arts for Johnson. The university conferred the MA on Johnson in 1755 in recognition of his work on the dictionary. This was just in time for the letters ‘A.M’ to be added to the title page.

  Samuel Johnson's Dictionary - title page
Title-page of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). 70.i.12.   Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The university went on to confer a doctorate on Johnson in 1775, which pleased him greatly.

Johnson’s MA diploma is now preserved in the British Library.  After his death it was owned by his friend and biographer James Boswell, and it came to the Library in 1910.

  Samuel Johnson's diploma

Samuel Johnson’s MA diploma, Add MS 38063  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Sandra Tuppen
Lead Curator Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850



16 September 2015

From revolutionary to librarian: Sir Anthony Panizzi

Antonio Genesio Maria Panizzi (Sir Anthony Panizzi) was born on 16 September 1797 in Brescello, Modena. From 1814 he attended the University of Parma where he associated himself with secret societies working toward the unification of Italy. After members of these societies were put on trial and imprisoned or murdered for their revolutionary activities, Panizzi escaped to Switzerland in 1822 and travelled on to England in May 1823. Panizzi befriended Henry Brougham, later Lord Chancellor and a principal trustee of the British Museum.  It was Brougham and his fellow trustee Thomas Grenville who encouraged Panizzi’s application and selection as assistant librarian to the British Museum.  By 1837 Panizzi was keeper of Printed Books at the Museum and he was able to persuade Thomas Grenville to donate his collection of 20,000 books.  In 1856 Panizzi was appointed head of the British Museum and principal librarian.

  Sir Anthony Panizzi
Sir Anthony Panizzi (1797-1879) by George Frederic Watts, NPG 1010 © National Portrait Gallery, London CC NPG

The British Library holds significant archival material relating to Panizzi including his letters to Sir William Ewart Gladstone, trustee of the British Museum and later British prime minister. Within these letters, which are often self-deprecating and honest, a friendship between future prime minister and librarian is evident. Gladstone wrote extensively on Dante and sent his articles to Panizzi for review. In a letter of 3 April 1844 Panizzi responded to Glandstone’s latest article: “I beg to return you my best thanks for your kind note which I have received this moment. The enclosed article I shall read with great delight and tell you freely what I think of it. If I am allowed to tell you my opinion of Lord John’s [Lord John Russell] translation before seeing what you think of it, I must tell you I am not satisfied with it but I may be a difficult judge as well as an incompetent one” [Add MS 44274].

Panizzi’s legacy within the British Library and British Museum is far-reaching. He was responsible for the Reading Room in the Great Court of the British Museum while Grenville’s collection of books can be seen in the glass tower at the centre of the British Library, alongside the King’s Library. The British Library has a yearly Panizzi lecture series with past lectures available online.

Alexandra Ault
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1601-1850

Further reading: 
Edward Miller, ‘Antonio Panizzi and the British Museum’, Electronic British Library Journal, 1979.
Ilse Sternberg, ‘Whose Acquisitions Policy? Panizzi and his Predecessors’, Electronic British Library Journal, 2015.