Untold lives blog

17 posts from December 2015

31 December 2015

Wassailing on New Year’s Eve

Would you like to go wassailing to celebrate the New Year?  Maybe?  If you knew how? Read on!

It was a British custom on New Year’s Eve to fill a large bowl with wassail, a warm spiced ale concoction. The wassail bowl decorated with holly and ivy was carried from door to door by the young women of the village.  The women offered a drink to the master and mistress of each house, singing doggerel rhymes which wished health and prosperity.  They hoped to receive a small present or gratuity in return. 

  Wassailing - doorstep scene

Image from the Illustrated London News 22 December 1860 p.579

Sometimes the lord or squire assembled his tenants on New Year’s Eve. The wassail bowl was passed from lip to lip, and those who had quarrelled during the year made up their differences.

Wassali bowl being passed between a group of standing people

From  John Mills, Christmas in the olden time or The Wassail Bowl (London, 1846)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

There are many songs connected with wassailing.  Here is one from Gloucestershire that was noted down in the 1840s:

Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Out toast is white, our ale it is brown,
Our bowl it is made of a maplin tree,
We be good fellows, I drink unto thee.

Here’s to Dobbin and to his right ear,
God send our master a happy new year;
A happy new year as e’er I did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

Be here any maids – I suppose there be some,
So they will not let young men stand on the cold stone,
Sing hey maids, come trole back the pin,
And the first maid in the house let us all in.

Come butler, come bring us a bowl of the best,
I hope your old soul in Heaven will rest:
But if you do bring us a bowl of the small,
Then down fall butler, bowl and all.


Young men and women also exchanged clothes on New Year’s Eve, a practice known as ‘mumming’ or ‘disguising’. Dressed in each other’s garments, they went between neighbours’ houses, singing and dancing.

Enjoy your New Year celebrations, whether or not they involve wassailing and mumming!  I hope that you ‘end the old year merrily, and begin the new one well’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1826)
British Newspaper Archive Kentish Gazette 26 December 1843


30 December 2015

The wet, wild forest: Rudyard Kipling’s 'Just So Stories' in manuscript and print

On what would have been Rudyard Kipling’s 150th birthday #OnThisDay, I’m writing about one of his most famous stories and an old favorite of mine, The Cat that Walks by Himself, from the Just So Stories first published in 1902.

The British Library owns the manuscript printer's copy in Kipling’s hand and the printer’s proof corrected by him of the Just So Stories and it is through these that I will explore the spaces between script and print, writing and correcting, and private and public. 


Autograph manuscript printer’s copy of the Cat the Walked by Himself in the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, 1902, Add MS 59840 f. 120. Untitled

The manuscript for The Cat that Walks by Himself shows how Kipling developed the scene of the woman creating fire and magic. That Kipling was changing the order and emphasis of the words shows that even in what was a late draft, he continued to make amendments. 

Kipling develops a scene of untamed animals in a wet, damp, green and wild forest which he contrasts with the clean, domestic interior of the cave made warm by the woman casting magic and creating fire.

“She picked out a nice dry cave . . . and she lit a nice fire of wood at the back of the cave . . . and she said, ‘Wipe your feet dear . . . and now we’ll keep house.”

“That night Best Beloved, they ate wild sheep roasted on the hot stones . . . the Woman sat up, combing her hair . . . and she threw some wood on the fire and she made a Magic. She made the First Singing Magic in the world. "

“Out in the wet wild world all the wild animals gathered together where they could see the light of the fire a long way off.”

Such contrast reminds me of the delightful poem Romance by Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer who influenced Kipling’s work. In this poem, first published in 1885, Stevenson similarly places a scene of a domestic and well-kept interior in proximity to nature, forests and rivers.

Views of swept floors, warm fires and orderly interiors in Stevenson's poem call to mind Kipling’s description of the cave together with the similar juxtapositions of male and female, domestic and natural, and interior and exterior. 

Kipling designed the illustrations for Just So Stories which are included in the printer’s manuscript copy. Here, in the original illustration for the Cat that Walks by Himself it is possible to see Kipling working at speed as the ink is often unevenly applied.


Illustration for The Cat that Walks by Himself in the autograph printer’s copy of the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, pen and black ink, 1902, Add MS 59840 f. 118. Untitled


Detail from the illustration for The Cat that Walks by Himself in the autograph printer’s copy of the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, pen and black ink, 1902, Add MS 59840 f. 118. Untitled

The British Library also owns the first and second printer’s proofs for the Just So Stories. These proofs would have been one of the first times Kipling saw the stories and illustrations in printed form.


First and Second printer’s proofs for the Just So Stories, corrected by Rudyard Kipling, showing pages from The Cat that Walked by Himself, Add MS 55863. Untitled

One of the things I love about this printed proof is that it shows the writing process at a different stage from manuscript and published volume. Kipling is correcting the printed proof in pen and ink and instructing the printer to make amendments before publication. It is exciting to see the moment when an idea, sketch or sentence is solidified into the story we know today. This was the first time the illustrations would have appeared next to their descriptions, making both word and image function together. In the illustration below it is possible to see how the description supports and makes clear Kipling’s image of the cat and the view of the cave below.


First and Second printer’s proofs for the Just So Stories, corrected by Rudyard Kipling, showing the illustration and description for The Cat that Walked by Himself, Add MS 55863. Untitled

It is illuminating to see that Kipling’s well-known stories existed in different formats and that the manuscript and proof were just parts of a wider process, both temporal and physical, which encompassed writing, drawing, printing, correcting, publishing and ultimately dissemination across an empire.

CAT12844.a.12 front cover

Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling, London, 1902, 12844.a.12. Untitled

Alexandra Ault

Curator, Modern Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850, The British Library

Twitter @AlexandraAult @UntoldLives

#OnThisDay #RudyardKipling #JustSoStories #Cats

28 December 2015

‘Four Cheeses in Lead and a Harpsechord’

What essential items did a Christian missionary need to undertake his duties in India in the 1760s?

On 17 November 1762 Thomas Broughton, Secretary to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, wrote to the Court of Directors of the East India Company to ask that a number of goods required by their Protestant missionaries on the Coromandel Coast be taken out to India by a Company ship.

The list of goods was primarily focused on writing and reading materials –religious books and tracts, reams of paper, sealing wax, ink powder, parchment and 500 quills. Materials and supplies for their printing press were also in demand including tools for its repair and two pairs of iron chases.

Other supplies being sent included soap, penknives, a barometer and thermometer, foreign silver to be used locally as currency, and a harpsichord.


  Woman playing the harpsichord and man playing the flute

Image taken from Edward Eggleston, A history of the United States and its people, for the use of Schools (1888) BL flickr    Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 The food supplies were an unusual assortment; along with prunes and pearl barley were four cheeses in lead, lead being the preferred container method for shipping perishable goods at that time, four chests of beer and a case of red port.  The most surprising items being shipped however were indigo and cinnabar, bright pigment dyes which the East India Company obtained from their factories in India and South Asia, but which the Society chose to send to its missionaries from England rather than obtaining it locally on the Coromandel Coast.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading
IOR/E/1/44, ff. 634-635

25 December 2015

If Christmas Day on a Friday be


If Christmas day on a Friday be,  Winter snow scene in countryside

The first of winter hard shall be,

With frost and snow and with great flood,

But the end thereof it shall be good.

Again, the summer shall be good also;

Folk in their eyes shall have great woe;

Women with child, beasts, and corn

Shall multiply, and be lost none.

The child that is born on that day,

Shall live long, and lecherous be alway.

Who stealeth ought shall be found out,

If thou be sick it lasteth not.





12805.c.10. frontispiece The Boy's Winter Book Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Happy Christmas from Untold Lives!


Verse taken from 1347.l.14 Christmas with the poets (London, 1855), based on British Library Harley MS 2252 f.153v The Commonplace Book of John Colyns.

24 December 2015

Christmas 1857 in Calcutta

In December 1857, the British in India were still trying to suppress the military and civil rebellion which had broken out earlier that year in the north of the sub-continent.  The edition of The Bengal Hurkaru published on Christmas Eve 1857 gives an interesting insight into life in Calcutta at that time. 

  Front page of The Bengal Hurkaru and the Indian Gazette 24 December 1857
MSS Eur C124/34 The Bengal Hurkaru and the Indian Gazette 24 December 1857  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A first glance at the front page suggests that there was nothing worrying the British in Bengal.   There are adverts for shipping firms offering voyages to London and Australia; a notice for the annual general meeting of the Asiatic Society of Bengal; an announcement that a consignment of Stilton cheese had just arrived.  Bengal almanacs and souvenir diaries for 1858 were on sale, and the British Library Calcutta could provide ‘Illustrated Present Books’ including the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Purveyors D. Wilson and Co at ‘The Hall of All Nations’ had plentiful stocks of Christmas fare: turkey; ham; beef; and a wide variety of cakes, sweets and biscuits.

However Wilson’s advert had this statement tucked amongst the lists of treats on offer:
‘It is our hearty hope, that we may with our numerous Friends, join to celebrate a MERRY CHRISTMAS notwithstanding the heavy misfortunes that have befallen the Indian Empire since we last met to discuss the right good cheer which had been provided for all India AND its Inhabitants, in that Monster Establishment, “THE HALL OF ALL NATIONS”. Having however good reason to suppose that the British rule in India, is about being established in a firmer manner than ever it was before, we expect, not unreasonably, that our Friends will need the choicest and rarest Articles procurable, to enable them to usher in with great glee, A HAPPY NEW YEAR’.

The inner pages of the newspaper do carry detailed reports of military operations, including the relief of Lucknow, with lists of casualties and returns of guns and ammunition seized from rebels.  Several military promotions are announced to fill the places of those killed recently.  But these items are sandwiched between news of everyday life in Calcutta – the early closure of grog shops;  the routine comings and goings of East India Company personnel; commercial and shipping intelligence; and performances by Signora Ventura,  the Calcutta Town Band, and minstrels from New Orleans , as well as by ‘an actor of acknowledged Gymnastic abilities from France’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Read about Christmas in Calcutta in 1938

22 December 2015

Christmas Stock-Taking

Today we share a poem about a Victorian father's Christmas reflections on his children, both dead and alive.

I pass to my populous nursery,
I look round my circled hearth,
On this marvellous anniversary,
This time of the Wondrous Birth.


Christmas stocktaking illustration - father in armchair surrounded by children

The first I see is Charlie,
An urchin just fourteen;
I know he smokes in private,
And never washes clean.

And there was a second Charlie,
Who might have shared his sins,
But died without a name on earth
(N.B. – We started with twins).

Arthur, the lazy rascal,
Though sharp as any nail,
Brought face to face with a school-book
Collapses like a snail.

Johnny, how well I remember
His handsome boyish face!
All I can see is the little cross
That marks his resting-place.

Then Bob, a ten-year spalpeen,*
Is dirty as a grub,
And such a veritable imp,
We call him Beelzebub.

Polly, my eldest daughter,
Has eyes as black as sloes;
But where in nature did she get
That impudent pug-nose?

Dora, the next “young lady”,
 Is very prim and staid;
And weeps, though only six years old,
If we call her an old maid.

Freddy, four years, the “baby”,
Was getting rather a lout,
Till, a year ago, came Amy,
And his nose was clean put out.

Amy, asleep beside me,
Pouting, as if to be kissed,
Is the veriest darling among them,
And closes – at present – my list.


The poem and the accompanying illustration come from one of my favourite books in the British Library collections - Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses for young and old by E M Davies.  Fans of Victorian verse will be thrilled to learn that the book has been digitised to share its delights.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


21 December 2015

The Singing Bookbinder: Roger de Coverly

The bookbinding career of Roger de Coverly (1831-1914) seems to be characterised by a desire to leave it!  His apprenticeship with the flourishing firm of Zaehnsdorf’s was so “colourless and humdrum” that he petitioned for time off to study the violin. His name recalls a 17th century English folk dance but his passion was for music, not dancing, and this sustained him throughout his life.

Photo of Roger de Coverly

The British Book Maker vol V, no 6 Feb 1892 p179 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Roger completed his apprenticeship (but left early albeit with Zaehnsdorf’s agreement).   He decided to try bookselling and applied to Mr Lilley of Pall Mall who could not offer employment but strongly recommended that Roger stuck with binding!  After assisting in a stationer’s shop, Roger rededicated himself to his original trade.

His next employment at John and James Leighton’s of Brewer Street provided more fun.  His fellows there shared Roger’s love of chess, which they played during their lunch-break and at meetings of the Bookbinders’ Amateur Chess Club founded c1852. Music was not neglected and Roger’s solo performance for the Battersea Vocal Association was commended in the Music Times of 1 March 1861.

When Roger established his own workshop (in Leicester Square and later 6 St Martin’s Court and 91 Shaftsbury Avenue), there was little time for the extra- curricular activities he loved.  As a one man band, he had to ‘forward’ and ‘finish’ the bindings himself.  His wife Elisabeth contributed financially by opening a school for young ladies.  Slowly, however, the bindings business began to flourish.  It was patronised by aristocrats, noted writers (for example T E Lawrence) and artists.  His style was rather conservative and retrospective but the good quality materials used and his stated goal, to bind “excellently rather than cheaply” made up for lack of originality, for some at least.

  Grren book binding with gold decoration by Coverly
British Library c108d11  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


William Morris wrote to the poet Swinburne in April 1882; “I am sending you by parcels Delivery, the North's Plutarch I spoke of: it is a very pretty edition, I think the first. Item, the bookbinder I told you of really rejoices in the name (or says he does, which is the same for our purpose) of Roger de Coverly: his address is 6 St Martins Court. He is not a man of any taste … but is careful, & will do what you tell him, & is used to dealing with valuable books”. (Incidentally, birth records indicate that De Coverly was baptised Edward Roger.)

Despite this lukewarm opinion, Morris’s friend T. J. Cobden-Sanderson chose to serve a short apprenticeship there from 1883-4. He later became one of the most influential binders in England.

Fortunately, Roger’s sons Edward, Arthur and William proved adept at bookbinding and bookselling.  By 1892, Roger was able to confess in an interview that “he does not now give his whole attention to his binding business, having besides one or two hobbies; he is an enthusiastic amateur musician and collector of old music … ; he has founded  two or three glee and madrigal societies and loves above all to take part in orchestral concerts or string quartets, varied with glee singing. He is a member of the Royal Choral Society".

The connection between the name of de Coverly and bookbinding lasted into the 1960s when H[orace] A. de Coverly was known to have bound, taught and written about the subject.  An example of his work can be seen in the Library’s online image database of bookbindings.

P J M Marks
Curator, Bookbindings; Printed Historical Sources

Further reading;
Richard Ovenden, ‘An edition binding by Roger de Coverly for Alfred de Rothschild’ in Book Collector 47:1  1998 pp.79-82
The British Book Maker vol V, no 6 Feb 1892 p179-80.



19 December 2015

‘So I am to Become a Nonentity?’ – The Death of J.M.W. Turner

The death mask of the artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (b.1775), who died on 19 December 1851 at the age of 76, is held at the Tate Gallery in London.  An image of the mask can be seen here.

Taut and puckered, Turner’s skin appears tissue-paper thin; his eyes hollowed, nose pinched, his mouth a shrunken and toothless cavity. It gives nothing of the man who is widely regarded as one of the most important and imaginative painters of his age.

Rain Steam Speed

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London  Creative_commons


Joseph Mallord William Turner, Self Portrait, c.1799, oil on canvas, © Tate, London 2015

Much has been written about Turner’s career, his enigmatic character, prolific output and his ‘genius’. This blog explores the ‘twilight’ phase of the artist’s life, to the man aging and ailing. 

As Turner approached 70 he was beset by periods of ill health. He dreaded the physical deterioration associated with ageing, calling ‘Mr Time’ his ‘Enemy’. ‘Time always hangs hard upon me’, he wrote in one letter, ‘but his auxiliary, Dark weather, has put me quite into the background’. Winter’s chilly gloom and shortened days were Turner’s black beast, and the season’s ‘rigours’ rendered him physically vulnerable.

In a letter held here at the British Library Turner expresses his frustrations to a friend after having caught a bad flu, one of many illnesses to blight him during the winter months. ‘I am now more than an invalid and Sufferer’, he writes, ‘Sir Anthony Carlisle [a pioneer of geriatric medicine]...says I must not stir out of doors until it is dry weather (frost)...or I may become a prisoner all of the Winter’ (British Library, Add MS 50119).

Turner’s winter health never much improved. Though weakened, he lived on, even surviving a severe bout of cholera a year before his death. By then the artist is also thought to have suffered from diabetes, perhaps induced by his well-known propensity for sherry, and was toothless as the death mask shows. Gums tender, Turner survived on pints of rum and milk and sucked meat for sustenance.

In the winter of 1850 Turner found it increasingly difficult to walk. He complained of ‘Gout or nervousness...having fallen into my Pedestals’. Until it became impossible, however, the artist made every effort to attend Royal Academy meetings, lectures, student tutorials, and social gatherings with friends and patrons. His mind and creative faculties never diminished, though critics persistently associated the abstract painterly style of his later years with senility, even derangement.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Angel Standing in the Sun, exhibited 1846, oil on canvas, ©Tate, London 2015

Three weeks before Turner’s death Dr Price, the artist’s physician, diagnosed a heart ‘very extensively diseased’. When Turner was informed that his life was ‘fast ebbing’, he turned to his doctor, ‘looking hard at him with his little lustrous eye’ and said: ‘had you not better take a glass of sherry?’ When Price returned, sherry in hand, Turner asked: ‘so I am to become a nonentity, am I?’ in a dry retort. Price responded in grave tones, confirming the diagnosis. Turner replied, ‘I think you had better go and have another glass of sherry’.

Turner was by this point bed bound. He was restless and agitated, eager to sense weather, to see the sun, at least from his bedroom window if not from outside. At the Chelsea house in which he died the artist had very early on installed a roof terrace specifically for sky-viewing and ‘sun-staring’. He would wake before dawn and ascend to the roof with a pocketbook in hand to sketch the day’s sunrise. Turner’s life-long habit of doing just that, however, had resulted in cataracts. This impairment was another physical condition his detractors seized upon to account for the stylistic changes and apparent excessive use of yellow in his later paintings: the ‘fruits of a diseased eye’ they sneered.

Sun Sketches  

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Sun Setting (or Rising), from Lake of Zug and Goldau sketchbook (Turner Bequest CCCXXXI; folio 16 verso), c.1841, pencil on paper, ©Tate, London 2015

Chelsea House

John Wykeham Archer, House of JMW Turner at Chelsea, 1852, watercolour on paper, British Museum, London Cc-by

On the morning of 19 December 1851 Turner lay in bed attended by his partner Sophia Booth and the locum Dr William Bartlett. ‘Just before 9 a.m.’, Bartlett writes, ‘the sun burst forth and shone directly on him with that brilliancy which he loved to gaze on’. The artist died shortly after ‘without a groan’. Turner’s body was taken to his former house at Queen Anne Street and placed in the gallery he had established there, his coffin surrounded by paintings. Friends and family paid their respects before the funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral. 


WA1881.349 George Jones, Turner’s Body Lying in State, 29 December 1851, after 1851, oil on millboard, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The force that drove Turner in his later years came from a sense of responsibility to his fellow artists and to students at the Royal Academy of Arts where he had trained and where for 30 years he was Professor of Perspective and Geometry. He called this community ‘my brethren in the Vineyard of the Fine Arts’. The British Library holds important documents which demonstrate Turner’s commitment to art pedagogy: a series of 28 manuscripts, in draft and copy, which formed part of the six annual lectures he gave to RA students and fellows throughout his professorial post (Add MS 46151 A-BB). The artist also desired that his works be kept together after his death and exhibited for the benefit of the public in ‘Turner’s Gallery’. This body of work, of which works on paper alone comprise 37,000 accessioned items, was taken into the possession of the National Gallery after 1851. It is now held in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain. The material at Tate and the British Library is publicly accessible, available to view first hand, just as Turner had wished it in his will.

Perspective 1

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Lecture Diagram: Perspective Representation of a Triangle, c.1810-28, pencil and watercolour on paper, ©Tate, London 2015

Perspective 2

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Lecture Diagram 36: Basic Perspective Construction of a House, c.1810, pencil and watercolour on paper, ©Tate, London 2015

Alice Rylance-Watson
Transforming Topography Research Curator at the British Library and Turner Bequest Cataloguer at Tate Britan

#OnThisDay #JMWTurner #Turner #Deathmask #OTD