Untold lives blog

17 posts from January 2016

30 January 2016

A tradition of trade: the opening of the London Docks

January marks the 211th anniversary of the opening of the London Docks.

The London docks were built by John Rennie, the Scottish civil engineer also responsible for canals, aqueducts, bridges and other docks.  Before the docks were built, it could take up to three months for cargo to be unloaded, leaving precious goods at risk of damage or theft.  The construction of the docks allowed the London Dock Company to command a 21-year monopoly over ships carrying rice, tobacco, wine and brandy, from all over the world with the exception of the East and West Indies.

The British Library has material relating to the London Docks which can be found on Explore the British Library.

This includes a significant number of views as well as early printed material relating to its planning and opening such as 'Reasons in favour of the London Docks' by William Vaughan, 1797, a copy of which was presented to the British Musuem by Vaughan himself.


'Reasons in favour of the London Docks' by William Vaughan, 1797, in A collection of tracts on wet docks for the Port of London, 1797. British Library 1029.d.9.(5). Untitled

The docks fast became a part of London topography and images of them were included in published walking tours such as Walks through London by William Clarke and Views of London by Charles Heath.


The Shipping Entrance, London Docks, drawn and engraved by John Charles Varrall for the 'Walks through London', published by William Clarke, New Bond Street, January 1817, British Library 010349 n 22.   Untitled


'Entrance to the London Docks' engraved by Charles Heath, drawn by Peter DeWint, published by Hurst, Robinson & Co, London, 1829, in Views of London. British Library 010349.n.22. Untitled

Views of the Docks were produced in all shapes and sizes and at different prices. Probably the most impressive and expensive were the bird's-eye-views by William Daniell. These hand-coloured aquatints were large at 49 x 86 cm and were self-published by Daniell in 1808 as part of the series Views of the London Docks. Today, the area around Wapping and the London Docks is virtually unrecognisable from the scenes depicted by Daniell.


A View of the London Dock. Drawn, engraved and published by William Daniell, 1808. Aquatint with hand-colouring. British Library Maps K.Top.21.31.3.b.PORT.11 TAB.Untitled


An elevated view of the new dock in Wapping. Drawn, engraved and published by William Daniell, 1808. Aquatint with hand-colouring. British Library Maps K.Top.21.31.3.a.PORT.11 TAB.Untitled

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850, British Library.

29 January 2016

Edward Lear Breaks My Heart

Today is the anniversary of Edward Lear's death in 1888. Everything about Lear delights and surprises. From his limericks and stories to his ornithological watercolours and topographical landscape paintings, his work gently tugs at the very souls of children and adults alike.

I first came across Lear as the author of The Owl and the Pussycat and as a small child I had a porridge spoon which I named 'The Runcible Spoon'.


'The Owl and the Pussy-Cat', in A Book of Nonsense . . . with all the original pictures and verses, by Edward Lear. Published by George Routledge & Sons, London, 1910. British Library 12812.bb.26 13. Untitled

As an adult I remember being surprised to see a pen and ink landscape drawing by Lear as I'd had no idea that he was a topographical artist. This led me to delight in further watercolours, drawings and vast oil paintings. Some of the drawings are so immediate you can almost feel Lear sketching and making notes on the colours in the view before him.


Howatke by Edward Lear, 1867. Watercolour, graphite, pen and brown ink. Yale Centre for British Art, Gift of Donald C. Gallup. B1997.7.99.

Others views are so grand that they could rival the apocalyptical paintings by John Martin


Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling by Edward Lear, 1879. Oil on canvas. Yale Centre for British Art, Gift of Michael D. Coe, B2009.18.

The British Library owns a number of Lear's manuscripts including that for The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipplepopple, Add MS 47462.

In the story Lear states "There was a family of two old guinea pigs and seven young guinea pigs . . . the guinea pigs todddled about the gardens, and ate lettuce and Cheshire cheese". When the seven young guinea pigs were sent away to see the world, the "old guinea pigs said, 'Have a care that you eat your lettuces, should you find any, not greedily, but calmly". I love Lear's use of language here as he portrays animals with such sensitivity and humour.

I’m particularly obsessed with the manuscript sketch of the guinea pigs and it’s wonderful to be able to compare the ink drawing with the published illustration. The manuscript shows only the seven little guinea pigs, some of whom are running so fast their feet fail to touch the ground. The published illustration shows the older guinea pigs as well.


‘The History of the Seven Families’ from A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear, this edition published by George Routledge & Sons: London, 1910. British Library 12812.bb.26., 180. Untitled


Manuscript illustration for 'The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipplepopple' by Edward Lear, 1871, pen and black ink, British Library Add MS 47462. f. 37. Untitled

Not only do I love Lear, I also adore his pet cat, Foss who died just three months before him. Lear loved Foss so much that when the cat died he had a grave made for him in his garden.  Foss first arrived as a tiny kitten in Lear's household in 1873. He was evidently a lively cat who was caught shredding Lear's letters and stealing slices of toast from visitors.


'Foss Couchant' from 'The Heraldic Blazons of Foss'. Illustration taken from Nonsense Songs & Stories by Edward Lear. Published by Frederick Warne & Co, London and New York, 1898. Author's own copy. Untitled

I also own a cat called Foss, named in honour of Edward Lear's pet. Like his namesake, the 21st century Foss also shreds post and newspapers. While he doesn't care for toast he has been known to attack ham sandwiches.


Foss, 2015. Photograph author's own.

 Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850, British Library.


27 January 2016

London’s Sailortown (2) - Servicing the Merchant Navy

We now have much new knowledge on the men and women who from their shops and workshops in London's  Sailortown supported the thousands of vessels and ships from all over the world that in the eighteenth century made their way to the Pool of London.

Sailor heaving the lead

 ‘Heaving the lead’ from John Augustus Atkinson, A picturesque representation of the naval, military, and miscellaneous costumes of Great Britain (London, 1807) Shelfmark 146.i.4 Images Online  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

To make a financial ‘gain’ as distinct from a ‘loss’, the owners of a collier ship from Newcastle had to make eight or nine voyages in a year. Thus they were very dependent on the quality and speed of their suppliers on the north bank of the Thames. They needed the services of anchor smiths, mast makers, ship chandlers, blacksmiths, and sailmakers together with suppliers of short beer, cabbage, flour and potatoes.

Recent studies have placed an emphasis on unravelling the merchant networks based in Wapping and Shadwell that spanned the world. Two networks are of significance.

The Camden, Calvert and King partnership of Wapping between 1760 and 1824 was at the heart of a complex and significant network which had global reach. Important in their success was the patronage of Sir William Curtis, a well-known Wapping government contractor and Lord Mayor of London in 1795-96. The group's activities included the development of the Pacific whale fishery, convict transportation, and the settlement of Australia, in addition to fulfilling their ‘core’ business of providing ships for government provisioning contracts or transportation hire.

The second important network was based in Shadwell, and traded with Russia. William Hubbard, a linen draper and son of a dissenting minister in Mile End Old Town, went to Russia in about 1770. He established one of the leading British trading groups in St Petersburg that persisted for nearly 150 years. In Victorian times John Gellibrand Hubbard (1805-1889) was created first baron Addington. The family’s connections were with Wiltshire and New Stairs, Shadwell, as biscuit bakers, ropemakers and Russia merchants. Together, they are an excellent example of a merchant group firmly based on trusted family links in which they all prospered greatly.

Thanks to recent important studies of ports and their associated cultures we are beginning to piece together a better understanding of their inter-linked cosmopolitan populations and the expertise that these residents of 'Sailortowns' bought to maritime communities. Many of the 'merchants' who supplied the Navy in major Ports such as London and Portsmouth were also providing services on a regional basis through a system of 'Agents' based in places such as Falmouth, Plymouth and elsewhere. This system of agency worked well for both navies with the provisioning of Royal Naval Ships and services such as regional representation for merchants and the ships of the Merchant Navy.

This was particularly important for the East India Company who appointed regional agents based in 'Key Ports' where they dealt with crewing and last minute provisioning, as well as providing important services and help for many merchants with the sales of 'Prize' ships and their cargoes. The networks of men such as Charles Lindegren, East India Company Agent for Portsmouth, and Joseph Banfield of Falmouth allowed many London merchants and government provisioning contractors to offer a smooth and efficient all round service and was one of the major reasons for Britain's maritime supremacy.

Derek Morris and Ken Cozens
Independent scholars

Further reading:
P. Earle, Sailors, English Merchant Seamen, 1650-1775 (1998)


25 January 2016

London’s Sailortown (1) - Servicing the Royal Navy

The modern visitor to Trafalgar Square finds a striking reminder of the importance that the British have attached to the exploits and successes of the Royal Navy. But while admiring Nelson's Column the inquisitive visitor might ask three questions: where was London's Sailortown, and how were the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy supplied and serviced in the eighteenth century?

Traditionally, London's Sailortown was clustered in a narrow strip of houses, taverns and slums on the north bank of the Thames, down river from the Tower of London. The standard view is that sailors in such areas were looking for food, drink and women, and would often end an evening in a fight with sailors from all over the world. This view has been shown to be incomplete in the recent publications of the East London History Society and the continuing seminars on the Thames and its Shipping, now organised by the Docklands History Group. These have shown that the parishes of Wapping, Shadwell and Stepney, were also the centre for merchants, whose trading networks extended around the world from the Caribbean, to Hudson Bay, and to China and Australia. In addition, these merchants were important in keeping the navies supplied with everything needed for both long and short voyages.

  Wapping - sailor dancing with a woman
‘Wapping’ by Thomas Rowlandson (1807) © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The tactics used by generations of Admirals have been minutely dissected by maritime historians, but until recently we lacked knowledge about the vast logistical exercise that supported the Royal Navy in their battles in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. To illustrate the size of the problem between 1750 and 1757 the fleet were issued with:

Bread  54,642,437 lbs
Beer  110,049 tuns
Brandy  351,692 gallons  
Beef  4,498,486 lbs
Pork  6,734, 261 lbs  
Pease  203,385 bushels
Flour  6,264,879 lbs

Who supplied all this food and the many other services needed by the navy? This problem has attracted increasing interest in the past decade in the methods and organisations needed to ensure that the Royal Navy was victualled and supplied wherever it was in the world. A major study of victualling of the navy between 1793 and 1815 has shown that this was a huge undertaking, and could only work through the symbiotic relationship established between the state and private contractors. It also had to operate on a global scale as Britain expanded its empire. This was no mean feat when there were food shortages and civil unrest, particularly at times of war.

Many merchants based in London's Sailortown in Shadwell and Wapping on the north bank of the Thames, were deeply involved in these naval contracts. Whether it was for ships, timber, biscuits, meat, beer and spirits, flags, gunpowder, slops or many other necessary supplies these merchants were bidding for and obtaining significant contracts that had an important impact on the area and further out into Essex and Suffolk.

Derek Morris and Ken Cozens
Independent scholars

Further reading:
C. Ellmers, ed. Proceedings of the Fifth Symposium on Shipbuilding on the Thames (2012)
R. Knight and M. Wilcox, Sustaining the Fleet, 1793-1815: War, the British Navy and
the Contractor State (2010)
R. Knight, Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815 (2014)
J. Macdonald, Feeding Nelson's Navy; The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era (2006)
J. Macdonald, The British Navy's Victualling Board, 1793-1815 (2010)
P. MacDougall, London and the Georgian Navy (2013)
J. Marriott, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London (2011)

Docklands History Group 

East London History

Port Towns and Urban Cultures


London's Sailortown (2) - Servicing the Merchant Navy 

23 January 2016

Queen Victoria’s handwriting

As it is National Handwriting Day, we have decided to treat our readers to a letter by Queen Victoria from the India Office Private Papers.  Perhaps best described as ‘challenging’, this sample of the Queen’s handwriting dates from 24 June 1897, a few days after her  Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Here is a flattering portrait from that year of the 78-year-old monarch sitting beside an open writing box.

  Queen Victoria sitting on a throne

Queen Victoria - Illustrated London News: Diamond Jubilee Special (1897) Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence 

The Queen is writing from Osborne House, her holiday home on the Isle of Wight, to Lord George Francis Hamilton, Secretary of State for India 1895-1903.  Enjoy!

Page from a letter written by Queen Victoria

Page from a letter written by Queen Victoria

Page from a letter written by Queen Victoria

Page from a letter written by Queen Victoria

Letter from Mss Eur A147 ff.19-20v 

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
India Office Records and Private Papers -Mss Eur A147 Letters from Queen Victoria (1819-1901) to Lord George Francis Hamilton (1845-1927), Secretary of State for India 1895-1903, including comments on the treatment of her `munshi' and on arrangements for the Indian delegation to her Diamond Jubilee. 


22 January 2016

Passenger aviation across the Gulf during the 1930s - Bahrain

Having explored the passenger facilities at Sharjah aerodrome in an earlier post, we will now move to the next aerodrome on the Imperial Airways route - Bahrain.  Compared to Sharjah, the aerodromes in Bahrain offered relatively little in terms of conveniences for passengers. There were two terminals, one for flying boats and the other for conventional aircraft. The more developed terminal for landplanes was on Muharraq Island and the smaller flying boat terminal was at Manama.  The landing strip on Muharraq was delineated by a circular marking composed of ‘Portland Cement Concrete in the proportions of 1 part of cement to six parts of broken stone’ and this was topped with bitumen paint.

Bahrain’s position relative to Sharjah meant that it was either the penultimate stop or the lunchtime stop on the eastbound or westbound routes respectively. The aerodrome was described by through passengers as being a small part of a ‘sandy waste’. The only terminal building was a ‘barusti’ or thatched palm shack, with walls composed of 88065 cubic feet coral stone masonry built in mud.  There was a signpost outside, ‘one arm pointing to London and the other to Karachi’. Whilst wrapped up in their aviation adventure, through passengers would have consumed lunch for the 45 minutes it took to refuel the plane, the gentle desert wind wafting through gaps in the roof above their heads.

   Barusti hangar at Bahrain
Barusti hangar at Bahrain, watercolour by H.W Hailstone around the Second World War © Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM ART LD 5272

Five years after the first commercial flights from the landing strip at Muharraq, Imperial Airways’ Short brothers Canopus class flying boats started landing at Manama, just off the north-eastern edge of the city. The flying boat aerodrome at Manama offered a similarly rudimentary passenger experience to Muharraq: the map below shows the ‘suggested site for passenger shelter’ which sat on a small pontoon jutting out into the bay.

Manama map
Map from file IOR/R/15/2/517. f.124r dated 9 November 1937. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The lack of facilities for passengers at Muharraq is highlighted by correspondence concerning preparations for the fly through in 1934 of Lord Willingdon, Viceroy of India.  A letter from the Political Agency of Bahrain stated:  ‘I hope that His Excellency the Viceroy will permit those present at Bahrain aerodrome to wear hot weather lounge suits in view of weather’. So perhaps facilities for shade could have been improved!  In a letter from the Viceroy of India’s staff it is noted that Lord and Lady Willingdon ‘will be very pleased to accept the invitation of the Shaikh of Bahrain to take coffee with him in the tent which he proposes to pitch’ which does not sound exactly prepossessing for a Viceroy or other VIPs who would have been accustomed to 1930s elegance.

Manama maps 1934 and 2015Public Domain Creative Commons Licence  

Rolling forward into 2015, and unlike Sharjah, all traces of the former aerodrome have been obliterated as shown in the two maps above, the first dating from 1934. 

Ellis Meade
Imaging and Quality Assurance Technician, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership 

Further reading:
File IOR/R/15/2/517, f.124r
File IOR/R/15/2/590, f.35r, f.17r
Alexander Frater, Beyond the Blue Horizon (Penguin, 1986)

21 January 2016

Opportunity to discover Untold Lives in India Office Private Papers!

The British Library has recently advertised a series of PhD placements across its departments. One of these placements provides a PhD student with the opportunity to explore the rich and diverse India Office Private Papers Foundation Collections.


Title page of European Manuscripts printed cataloguePublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Foundation Collections include the papers of Sir Robert Orme (1728-1801), historiographer to the East India Company; and Colin Mackenzie (c1753-1821) Surveyor-General, initially of Madras, and later of India. Their papers help to tell the story of trade with the east, politics, the development of empire and the road to independence. They contain material on a wide range of subjects including politics and government, geography, culture and antiquities.

Portrait of Colonel Colin MacKenzie

Portrait of Colonel Colin MacKenzie by Thomas Hickey (1816) Foster 13 Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Also included within the Foundation Collections are the Kaye and Johnston Papers which contain smaller collections of notable figures such as Thomas Stamford Raffles, William Roxburgh, and Francis Buchanan-Hamilton.

The placement aims to make these Foundation Collections available for the first time online through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue,  providing researchers with new ways to access and make use of these rich and diverse collections.

The placement provides an exciting opportunity for a PhD student to work with and explore these fascinating collections, learn more about using archives and primary sources in research, and to help expand research use and knowledge of these valuable materials.

Further details of all placements on offer and information on how to apply can be found here.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records



20 January 2016

East India Company trade in West Africa

For a brief period from 1657 to 1666 the East India Company traded to the Guinea Coast of West Africa.  Cargoes of textiles and manufactured goods were sent from England to be exchanged for gold and ivory which were shipped to India to support Company commercial operations.

Map of Guinea Coast

Detail from facsimile map 1729 by d’Anville  in  George Peacock, The Guinea or Gold Coast of Africa  (Exeter, 1880)

The main English base was Fort Cormantine, but the East India Company also took over factories (trading posts) at Cape Coast and Wyamba (Winneba), and established new ones at Anto, Tantamkweri, and Benin. The factories were exclusively male domains – the Company had no intention of maintaining a proper settlement. Men were sent out to be merchants, soldiers and workmen.  Some did return to England, but the mortality rate from disease was very high. Over 50 deaths are recorded in the India Office Records, approximately half of those named as Company employees in West Africa. Frequent requests were sent to London for more men to be sent to replace the dead and sick. Agent Lancelot Staveley was given permission to return home in 1658: ‘I find my strength & ability of body soe much decayed by my long stay here that itt is dangerous for me to remaine longer’.

Rivalry between European powers on the Guinea Coast was keen, with each nation striving to gain the friendship of influential Africans. The English negotiated with  John Cloice (or Claessen), for the right to occupy Cape Coast Castle after it was surrendered by the Dutch.  Cloice was a powerful African merchant who was de facto ruler of Fetu from 1656 until his death in 1662. Friendly relations with the Africans were vital for successful trading, but disputes did break out from time to time.  Company merchant Nicholas Herrick’s behaviour offended the King of Aguinea and the factory at Wyamba was looted as a result.

The East India Company directors gave clear instructions that their merchants were not to participate in the slave trade supplying African labour to West Indian plantations, saying that this had previously proved very much to the Company’s ‘prejudice’. However the directors ordered the shipment of black labourers from the Guinea Coast to serve the Company elsewhere.  A total of 35 men and women are recorded as sailing for St Helena, Pulo Run and Bantam, some taken from the complement of labourers kept at Fort Cormantine. In June 1661 the Company merchants wanted to send a pinnace to Arda to procure black labourers since Africans recruited locally tended to run away.  The directors responded by stating that Africans must be willing to serve the Company and were not to be coerced. Captain John Mallinson of the ship American was instructed to take to St Helena twenty of the Africans at Fort Cormantine who could speak English, but the Company merchants refused to send away any of their labourers: ‘they have all wives and children in the country and will never thrive after beinge transported, and the sending away of some will cause all the rest to run into the countrey’.

The East India Company was forced to withdraw from the Guinea trade when Charles II granted a charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers into Africa.  Jean Barbot’s journal of his voyage to Guinea 1678-1679 and a plan of Cape Coast Castle made for the Royal African Company in 1740 are currently on display in the British Library’s fascinating exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song which is open until 16 February 2016.

West Africa exhibition publicity banner


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Margaret Makepeace, ‘English Traders on the Guinea Coast, 1657-1668: An analysis of the East India Company Archive’, History in Africa 16 (Atlanta, 1989).
Margaret Makepeace, Trade on the Guinea Coast 1657-1666: the correspondence of the English East India Company (Madison Wisconsin, 1991).