Untold lives blog

16 posts from October 2015

31 October 2015

Nut-Crack Night

Hot on the heels of Crack-Nut Sunday comes Nut-Crack Night! On 31 October, Hallowe’en, nuts are tossed into a fire to determine which couples should marry.

Fireside scene
From Sir Walter Scott, Marmion - Introduction to Canto VI (1887) British Library 11647.f.22 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

According to one British tradition, unmarried men and women each have a nut named after them.  Two nuts are then put into the fire: if they burn quietly together, the courtship will be smooth; if they jump apart, the wooing will be rocky.  Another tradition has young women testing their sweetheart's fidelity by placing named nuts on the bars of the fire grate.  If a nut cracks or jumps, the lover will prove unfaithful; if it burns or blazes, he has a true regard for the girl making the trial.

Two hazel-nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweet-heart's name.
This with the loudest bounce me sore amaz'd,
That in a flame of brightest colour blaz'd.
As blaz'd the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For 'twas thy nut that did so brightly glow.

From John Gay, ‘Thursday; Or, The Spell’ from The Shepherd's Week (1742)


An appealing alternative to Hallowe’en trick or treat and ghosts and ghouls?

  Ghost scaring children at Halloween
From Charles Maurice Davies, Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old (1875) British Library 11652.bb.42 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper Archive


29 October 2015

Nine Lives – Cats in Literature

Cats put in their first appearance early on in Animal Tales (our Entrance Hall exhibition running until 1 November 2015) in the shape of a wonderful doodle of a cat drawn by Pieter van Veen in the margin of his copy of the 1602 edition of Montaigne’s Essais.

Marginal picture of a man with a cat, drawn by Pieter van Veen in his copy of Montaigne’s Essais

Marginal picture of a man with a cat, drawn by Pieter van Veen in his copy of Montaigne’s Essais (Paris, 1602) British Library C.28.g.7.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Then we have Nicola Bayley’s glowing double-spread illustration in Antonia Barber’s re-working of a Cornish tale, The Mousehole Cat, with the tiny image of Mowzer tossed about in a boat in the grip of the Great Storm-Cat, before we reach T.S. Eliot’s cats and SF Said’s Varjak Paw. I first heard about Varjak – rather than read about him – around seven years ago, listening in my car to a cassette borrowed from my local library. Varjak, a Mesopotamian Blue, has to leave the safety and comfort of his home, and find a dog (yes, a dog) to help his family. Said’s novel celebrates friendship and loyalty and, perhaps most of all, the willingness to be open to everyone and every experience. Beyond that, of course, it is a cracking story – with pace, action, adventure and tension, as Varjak bravely ventures forth and finds new friends and self-reliance - and the book itself is enhanced by Dave McKean’s striking illustrations.

    Varjak Paw
SF Said, Varjak Paw. Oxford: David Fickling, 2003. Nov.2003/1912. Image © Dave McKean

As for T.S. Eliot and cats, there are three ways to encounter them in the exhibition – we are showing the opening of “The Song of the Jellicles” from the edition of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats illustrated by Nicolas Bentley in 1940 together with a letter Eliot wrote describing the way cats attach themselves to you and you can listen to him reading about Macavity on one of the sound points.

More menacing cats appear in an issue of Funny Aminals from 1972, the first appearance of Art Spiegelman’s portrayal of his parents’ experience of the Holocaust, and finally we include William Burroughs’ The Cat Inside (1986) – a melding of memory and story about cats.

Then there are all the ‘big cats’ – lions, tigers, leopards - but what of the cats that got away, the ones we couldn’t include?

You will all have your own favourites – but here are some of mine from children’s literature. First, Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh, originally published in 1955 and known to me in the late 1960s. Carbonel, a cat with a fine, disdainful, turn of phrase, is a usurped prince who meets his match, and his emancipator, in the person of Rosemary, whose wealth of imagination and tenacity make up for her lack of material riches. More recently, I have pored (should that be purred?) repeatedly with small children over the board-book publications featuring Judith Kerr’s Mog and we have enjoyed the antics of Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore (the clue is in the title…).

Then, of course, there are Kathleen Hale’s Orlando, the Marmalade Cat, who first appeared in 1938, but continued to entertain throughout the Second World War and beyond, and Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams, first published in 1942, both of whom I only encountered as an adult. The list seems endless – but what have I missed?

Alison Bailey
Lead Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1901-2000

Animal Tales (7 August – 1 November 2015) curated by Matthew Shaw, Alison Bailey and Barbara Hawes
Full list of exhibits for Animal Tales


27 October 2015

Captain Cook – Endeavour and Resolution

Captain James Cook was born in the village of Marton in the North Riding of Yorkshire on 27 October 1728. He began his career at sea working in the North Sea coal trade, but in 1755 he enlisted in the Royal Navy. During the Seven Years War he served as the Master on the Pembroke, discovering and developing his talent for surveying.

Engraving of Captain James Cook Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Engraving of Captain James Cook, Add MS 23920 f.1r

The chart below was created by Cook in 1763. It shows the Islands of St Pierre and Miquelon just off the South Coast of Newfoundland.

   Chart of the Islands of St Pierre and MiquelonPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence
 Chart of the Islands of St Pierre and Miquelon, Add MS 31360 f.21

In 1767 Cook was appointed to command the Endeavour on a voyage commissioned by the Royal Society to observe the Transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti. On board were astronomer Charles Green and the wealthy naturalist Joseph Banks whose retinue included the artists Alexander Buchan and Sidney Parkinson (who both died on the voyage) and the naturalist Daniel Solander.

Sailing from Plymouth on 25 August 1768, Cook reached Tahiti on 13 April 1769. After successfully observing the Transit of Venus, Cook opened his secret instructions from the Admiralty which ordered him to search for the Great Southern Continent.  Having failed to find the continent Cook decided to investigate the land sighted by Abel Tasman in 1642, which Dutch cartographers had named New Zealand. The chart below was drawn by Cook and is accurate except for two mistakes: he charted Banks Peninsula as an island, and he charted Stewart Island as a Peninsula.

  Chart of New ZealandPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Chart of New Zealand, Add MS 7085 f.17

Cook carried onto the Eastern Coast of Australia, the first sighting by Europeans. After carrying out a running survey of the East Coast, Cook returned to England. The voyage was received by the British public as a great success. However Cook had not given up on the idea of finding a Great Southern Continent and proposed a second voyage circumnavigating the globe from west to east as far south as possible.

Captain Cook sailed in the Resolution in company with Tobias Furneaux in the Adventure. Whilst attempting to locate the fabled Southern continent Cook and his officers accurately charted the islands in the Pacific they came across including Vanuatu as shown below. This chart is attributed to Midshipman John Elliott.

A plan of Vanuatu with 4 viewsPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

A plan of Vanuatu with 4 views, Add MS 15500 f.17

Cook was appointed to the Resolution again early in 1776 to locate the North West passage, accompanied by Captain Charles Clerke in the Discovery.  Having failed to discover the passage, Cook was forced to return to the Hawaiian Islands with a damaged ship. Relations with the local people were hostile and took a turn for the worse when the one of the Discovery’s cutters was stolen and Cook planned to take an Hawaiian Chief hostage. When he went ashore on 14 February 1779 he was met by a volatile crowd. In the ensuing altercation Cook and four of the marines were killed.

View at Waimea in the Hawaiian Islands Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

View at Waimea in the Hawaiian Islands by John Webber, Add MS 15513 f.29

The British Library holds a world renowned collection of the charts, artwork (ethnographic and landscapes) and logbooks from Cook's three voyages. We are pleased to announce that we are curating an exhibition based on these collections which will be held in summer 2018.

Laura Walker
Lead Curator Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1850-1950

Further reading:
More information on James Cook can be found at: Andrew C.F. David, 'James Cook', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
An account of the second voyage by John Elliott is held at the British Library Add MS 42714 ff.7-45.


26 October 2015

An anthology of decorated papers

Many hidden narratives are wrapped up within the British Library’s collections of decorated papers.  Some are addressed in Thames & Hudson’s new book published in association with the British Library, An Anthology of Decorated Papers.

Making block printed papers was potentially fatal for workshop owner Jean-Baptist Réveillon (1725-1811) when the mob stormed his prosperous factory, one of the first incidents in the French Revolution.  His life was saved but his business was lost, taken over by others who concentrated on the production of patriotic red, white and blue printed papers!

In 18th century Germany youngsters, including the writer Goethe, collected brocade papers gold embossed with scenes from stories, trade, the New Testament and exotic animals (sometimes spending as much as a penny!).  A pattern in the Goethehaus in Frankfurt am Main depicts scenes found on Hirsch J303.  Less fortunate children had to help in the manufacture of decorated papers either in family workshops or large factories.

  Decorated paper from Hirsch Collection
British Library Hirsch J303 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Decorative paper wrappers were found in the possession of those with high status and low, from Queen Charlotte of England’s music manuscript book to the more modest  History of birds (price six pence).

This type of paper (J315) also celebrated topical events, including the building of the railway from Nuremberg to Fürth on 7 December 1835.

Paper celebrating topical events, including the building of the railway from Nuremberg to Fürth on 7 December 1835

British Library Hirsch J315  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Magic powers imbued some Japanese block-printed sheets which were affixed to doors to ward off earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Benjamin Franklin believed marbling would add an extra level of security in the printing of money and sourced the paper used for the production of three pence notes by his grandson.  The system was not without flaw.  In England the forger William Chaloner produced his own marbled £100 notes.  Isaac Newton, Master of the Royal Mint, kept a close eye on Chaloner’s scams and the counterfeiter was hanged in 1699.

There are as many stories as papers! 

PJM Marks
Curator of Bookbindings


Further reading:
Olga Hirsch Collection of Decorated Papers
Wolfe Richard J. Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns,  Philadelphia, 1990.
Porck, Henk J., and Krause Susanne Buntpapier : ein Bestimmungsbuch = Decorated paper: a guide book = Sierpapier: een gids , Hamburg, 2009.


25 October 2015

St Crispin’s Day

The Battle of Agincourt was fought between the English and French armies 600 years ago on 25 October 1415, St Crispin’s Day.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
(Shakespeare’s Henry V Act 4, Scene 3)

Plan of the Battle of Agincourt

Plan of the Battle of Agincourt from The Chronicles of E. de Monstrelet (London, 1840) BL flickr  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


St Crispin is the patron saint of shoemakers, cobblers, and leatherworkers.  In the third century two brothers, Crispin and Crispinian, went from Rome to France where they preached Christianity and worked at night making shoes.  The Roman governor had them put to death and they were made saints having been martyrs for their faith.


St Crispin and St Crispinian
St Crispin and St Crispinian from William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Shoemakers traditionally celebrated St Crispin’s Day with a day off work and much merrymaking. Newspapers often published stories of shoemakers ‘on the drink’ as they kept St Crispin’s Day. An old rhyme ran:

The twenty-fifth of October,
More Snobs drunk than sober.

If it rained on 25 October, St Crispin was said to be helping shoemakers by sending weather that made people think of buying new shoes and galoshes.

William Hone tells the story of Emperor Charles V roaming incognito in Brussels when his boot needed mending.  He found a cobbler but it happened to be St Crispin’s Day.  The cobbler refused to leave the jollities to carry out the repair in spite of being offered a handsome tip by the Emperor: ‘“What, friend!” says the fellow, “do you know no better than to ask one of our craft to work on St. Crispin?  Was it Charles himself, I’d not do a stitch for him now; but if you’ll come and drink St. Crispin, do and welcome: we are as merry as the emperor can be.”’ Charles accepted the offer.  The cobbler guessed that Charles might be a courtier and drank a toast to the Emperor. Charles asked if he loved the Emperor: ‘“Love him!” says the son of Crispin; “ay, ay, I love his long-noseship well enough; but I should love him much better would he but tax us a little less”’. The next day, Charles summoned his host to court.  When the man realised whom he had entertained the previous day, he feared his joke about the Emperor’s long nose would cost him his life. However Charles thanked the cobbler for his hospitality and as a reward ordered that the cobblers of Flanders should bear arms of a boot with the Emperor’s crown upon it, and that the company of cobblers should henceforward take precedence over the company of shoemakers in processions.

The Emperor Charles V
The Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) from Cassell's Illustrated Universal History (London, 1893) BL flickr Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


So we wish you a Happy St Crispin's Day!

Ho! workers of the old time styled
The Gentle Craft of Leather!
Young brothers of the ancient guild,
Stand forth once more together!
Call out again your long array,
In the olden merry manner!
Once more, on gay St. Crispin's day,
Fling out your blazoned banner!

From 'The Shoemaker' by John Greenleaf Whittier


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper Archive

22 October 2015

Early women travellers and the East India Company

In 1617 three unlikely travellers, Mariam Begum, Frances Steele (née Webbe), and Mrs. Hudson, arrived at the busy port of Surat on board an East India Company ship called the Anne. What made their journey so exceptional was that during the early years of its operation the Company expressly forbade women from travelling out to the East Indies, despite numerous pleas from its factors and sailors who did not wish to leave their wives behind.

Despite these severe restrictions, however, some women did manage to travel on Company ships, as is evident from this incident. What made it all possible was a loop-hole in the Company’s reasoning, and a fair amount of hoodwinking on the part of the women. Frances passed herself off as Mariam Begum’s servant although in reality she was secretly married to Richard Steele, a fellow passenger on the ship, whom the Company had employed in “a general capacity” to ascertain if the Mogul emperor might be interested in a water-works scheme on the river Jamuna.  To make matters worse, Frances was pregnant.

Illustration from Sir Thomas Roe's journal of his voyage to India as ambassador -elephant being presented to him.

From Sir Thomas Roe's journal of his voyage to India as ambassador (10057.bbb.9 p.19 detail) Images OnlinePublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

The man who found himself in the rather unfortunate position of having to sort out these developments was Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador at the Mughal court. His journal and letters offer fascinating glimpses of his desperate attempts to remedy what he saw as a dangerous breach of decorum. He even tried to keep Steele away from Frances and her newborn son, but they managed to set up their own house with servants and a palanquin (much to Roe’s chagrin). Frances’ son became the second English child to be born in the Indian subcontinent (the first was born to Sir Thomas and Lady Powell who were travelling with Sir Robert Sherley).


Jahangir in Darbar

Jahangir in Darbar, miniature of Mughal art, 1620, India. ©De Agostini/The British Library Board Images Online 

Frances stayed in Mughal India for the next two years. She became one of the first English women to enter a Mughal harem, having secured an invitation from the daughter of Abdurrahim, Jahangir’s Khán-khánán. Presumably it was her association with Mariam, an Armenian Christian, that made it easier for her to make in-roads into the Mughal world. Mariam herself had lived in Jahangir’s harem as his ward before her marriage to Captain William Hawkins, the first unofficial ambassador to the Mughal court. Around 1613 she had arrived in England, a young widow, for Hawkins had died on the voyage home. Shortly afterwards she had remarried Gabriel Towerson who would go on to become the chief factor in Amboyna and die there in 1623 at the hands of the Dutch. Mariam did not accompany Towerson to Amboyna, but stayed behind in India.

Regarding her brief stay in England Michael Fisher notes that “Mariam, as a Christian from birth and an Englishman’s wife, apparently entered London society more unremarkably” than other early Indian travellers. Mariam’s own journeys were thus no less remarkable, and she was certainly amongst the first women from Mughal India to arrive in England. What the subsequent adventures of Mariam and Frances hint at, however, are the bonds that were forged between women, and not just between Indians and the Company factors, during the initial decades of English contact with India.

Amrita Sen
Associate Professor, Department of English, Oklahoma City University

Further reading:
IOR/B/5 Court Book II: f.27 A Courte of Committees held the 4th of February 1613 [1613/14]; f.32. A Courte of Committees held the 11th of February 1613 [1613/14]
Fisher, Michael H. Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain 1600-1857. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004. 
Roe, Thomas. The embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619: as narrated in his journal and correspondence. Ed. Sir William Foster. London: Hakluyt Society, 1899.
Sen, Amrita. “Traveling Companions: Women, Trade, and the early East India Company,” Special Issue on “Transcultural Networks in the Indian Ocean, Sixteenth–Eighteenth Centuries: Europeans and Indian Ocean Societies in Interaction.” Edited by Su Fang Ng. Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture (Vol.48.2, July 2015), 193-214. 

Read what happened next - Further Adventures of the Intrepid East India Company Women


21 October 2015

Trafalgar and the death of Nelson

Today, 21 October, marks the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, fought by the Royal Navy in 1805 under the command of Viscount Horatio Nelson against a superior combined force of French and Spanish ships commanded by the French Admiral Villeneuve. It was the most decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, confirming British naval supremacy and ensuring that Napoleon was unable to progress his plans for an invasion of Britain.

In a letter written just before the battle Nelson informed his mistress Emma Hamilton:

'…the signal has been made that the enemy's combined fleet are coming out of Port. We have very little wind, so that I have no hopes of seeing them before tomorrow. May the God of Battles crown my endeavours with success; at all events, I will take care that my name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia, both of whom I love as much as my own life. And as my last writing before the Battle will be to you, so I hope in God that I shall live to finish my letter after the Battle'.

This was the last letter Nelson would write Emma.  

Horatio Nelson's letter to Emma Hamilton, 19 October 1805

Horatio Nelson to Emma Hamilton, 19 Oct. 1805. British Library, Egerton MS 1614, f.125 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Just before the two sides engaged at about noon on 21 October, Nelson sent round his famous flag signal: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. By 5pm the battle was virtually over with the British having captured seventeen prizes and burned another. Admiral Villeneuve was taken prisoner and taken back to Britain. Only eleven French ships escaped back to Cádiz and of those only five were considered seaworthy.

So comprehensive was the victory that Nelson’s unorthodox tactics have given rise to a great deal of controversy ever since, with some praising them as a masterpiece of naval strategy while others question how much control he had over his unusual plans. Nelson’s chief aim was to send the enemy into confusion. Twelve days before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson sent this memorandum to Admiral Collingwood: the British fleet was to be drawn up ‘in two lines of 16 ships each with an advanced squadron’. The intention was to ‘overpower from two or three ships ahead of the Commander-in-Chief’.  

  Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar Memorandum, 9 October 1805
Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar Memorandum, 9 Oct. 1805. British Library, Add MS 37953 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The victory at Trafalgar came at the cost of many lives including that of Nelson who was hit by a musket-ball fired from the mast of the French ship Redoubtable. In severe pain, he died three hours later at 4.30 pm. His body was preserved in a barrel of brandy for the voyage home.

Celebration of the great victory at Trafalgar was heavily tempered with grief at the news of Nelson’s death. On 9 January 1806 he was interred in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.  Huge, silent crowds lined the streets to watch the cortège go past. Even the captured French Admiral, Villeneuve, was present to pay his respects.  

Lord Nelson’s Funeral Procession by Water, 8 January 1806

Lord Nelson’s Funeral Procession by Water, 8 January 1806. British Library, K.Top.27.46. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Nelson's influence continued long after his death with great revivals of interest, especially during times of national crisis in Britain. Though it came at the cost of his life, his comprehensive victory over the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar ensured his reputation as one of Britain’s greatest naval heroes for many centuries to come.   

Alexander Lock
Curator Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1851-1950


20 October 2015

Happy Birthday Sir Christopher Wren!

Architect, mathematician and astronomer Sir Christopher Wren was born #onthisday in 1632.

We have a number of manuscripts by or relating to Christopher Wren in the Manuscripts Collection at the British Library. Probably the most beautiful are two drawings which relate to the Monument to the Great Fire of London which are housed in a volume of drawings once belonging to Sir Hans Sloane.  

There is a brilliant article by Matthew Walker about the design of the Monument and its attribution to Robert Hooke.  Among Hooke’s drawings, some of which were signed by Wren, are two advisory drawings by Wren himself. One depicts a statue of Augusta and the other depicts an urn, both for the termination of the Monument . 

Advisory drawing of a statue of Augusta for the termination of the Monument, 1675 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 Sir Christopher Wren, Advisory drawing of a statue of Augusta for the termination of the Monument, 1675. Sloane MS 5238 f. 69.


Advisory drawing of an urn for the termination of the Monument, 1675Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Sir Christopher Wren, Advisory drawing of an urn for the termination of the Monument, 1675. Sloane MS 5238 f. 77.


As well as these two beautiful drawings we also own the manuscript report by Wren on the Monument,  the manuscript for Parentalia or Memoires of the Family of the Wrens, and the accounts and estimates for Marlborough House.

Alexandra Ault
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850