Untold lives blog

17 posts from January 2016

18 January 2016

Sources for Asian biography

Passport - barberWhat connects war heroes, a barber and campaigners for Indian independence? These people all appear in the India Office Records which are a rich source of biographical information about people from Asia and the Middle East c 1600 – 1947. South Asian heroes of the world wars are documented in the military records. The barber, together with many students, medical practitioners, merchants, agriculturalists, ayahs and people from a wide range of professions can be found among the duplicate passports 1932 – 1948. Campaigners for independence appear in many places in the archives, including the Politico-Criminal “Who’s Who” of the Bengal Presidency (1930).

Duplicate passport for Chet Singh, barber, IOR/L/PJ/11/4/2918  Noc

These are just some of the rich sources I have discovered since joining the British Library in 1996, which contradict the then widely-believed myth that the India Office Records contain little about individuals from Asia and the Middle East. Perhaps the myth was based on the lack of obvious series of well-organised military and civil service records such as there are for Europeans. Maybe the myth reflected the more diligent searching required to track down people from Asia and the Middle East, and the difficulty of predicting what you might find. Keen to dispel the myth and connect researchers to the material they need, the India Office Records team is using the Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue and the online India Office Family History Search to highlight sources for Asian biography.

Explore Archives and Manuscripts allows us to bring together material relating to a theme so we have set one up for “Asian Biography” to make it easier for people to identify the material scattered through the archive. We are in the early stages of linking the material we already know about and we are still learning about other sources so this is a work in progress; the beauty of this approach is that we can share information immediately rather than taking years to put together a definitive guide.  To find out what has already been linked to this theme, simply type “Asian Biography” into the search box in Explore Archives and Manuscripts, as shown in this screen shot below. We would love to hear from you if you know of important sources that we should link to this theme, so please e-mail us at ior@bl.uk

Screen shot - Asian Biography

We are using the India Office Family History Search to showcase information about Indians’ military service contained in the Bengal General Orders (1830 – 1834). This small sample contains over 10,000 entries relating to Indian soldiers, including details of pensions for dependants of men killed in action, promotions, court martial cases, invalids and pensioners. We have already added 2,300 entries to the database, including all details of pensions for soldiers’ dependants (1830 – 1834) and some of the copious records of soldiers awarded pensions. We are slowly adding the rest of the data. It is a tiny proportion of the information available but adding it is an important step towards making the India Office Family History Search more representative of the contents of the archives.

Screen shot - IOFHS


Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records

Further reading
Explore Archives and Manuscripts
India Office Family History Search
Duplicate passports 1932 – 1948, IOR/L/PJ/11
Bengal General Orders 1830-1834, IOR/L/MIL/17/2/279-283

Earlier Untold Lives stories about people from South Asia:
Award of Victoria Cross to Khudadad Khan
A tribute to forgotten heroes of the seven seas
Indian princess in suffragette march
Herabai and Mithibai Tata: British support for Indian suffragists
A tragic tale from Mysore


17 January 2016

Antarctic Anniversaries: Captains James Cook and Robert Scott

Today, 17 January, marks the anniversary of two major events in the history of Antarctic exploration. It was on this day that Captain James Cook (1728-1779), of His Majesty’s Ship Resolution, made the first recorded crossing of the Antarctic Circle in 1773 and, 139 years later, that the explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912), with his five man team, reached the South Pole in 1912. Though both Captains would ultimately lose their lives in the course of their explorations, they made a significant contribution to the exploration of Antarctica.


Robert Scott and his men at Amundsen's base, Polheim. Photograph taken by Lawrence Oates. 18 January 1912. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Untitled

Within a year of returning from his first voyage (Aug. 1768-Jul. 1771), that observed the transit of Venus, Captain James Cook was again commissioned by the Royal Society to lead another scientific expedition in search of the Terra Australis: an enormous land mass that had long been presumed to exist in the southern most extremities of the Southern Hemisphere. On his first voyage, Cook had chartered almost the entire eastern coastline of Australia and had circumnavigated New Zealand, demonstrating that neither was part of a larger southern continental landmass which all authorities now believed was to be found even further south. Setting out in July 1772 Cook and his crew circumnavigated the globe travelling as far south as possible to determine whether there actually was a great southern continent.

Ultimately, Cook’s voyage did not succeed in its aim of discovering a great southern landmass nor did it reach Antarctica. But, just as importantly, by crossing the Antarctic Circle on 17 January 1773 the ship and its crew became the first in recorded history to cross the line and had travelled further south than anyone in the world. In the ship’s journal, now held by the British Library, Cook confirmed that: 

At about a quarter  past 11 o’clock we cross’d the Antarctic Circle, for at Noon we were by observation four miles and a half south of it and are undoubtedly the first and only ship that ever cross’d that line.

Cook Add Ms 27886 f55

Logbook of Lieut. James Cook (1770), The British Library, Add Ms 27885, f. 55. Untitled

Cook and his crew would cross the Antarctic Circle three times during this voyage, and on its third attempt on the 30 January made their most southerly penetration but were ultimately forced back due to the solid sea ice. In his journal Cook admitted:

I who had ambition not only to go farther than anyone had been before, but as far as it was possible for man to go, was not sorry in meeting with this interruption…

Following Cook’s voyage, the international fascination with Antarctica increased with several expeditions to reach and map Antarctica emerging in the 1820s, followed some 80 years later by explorers such as Scott and Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922), attempting to reach the South Pole.

Named the Terra Nova Expedition after the vessel which took them to the Antarctic, the first successful British expedition to the South Pole was that led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and which reached the South Pole on this day, 17 January, 1912. Though the expedition aimed to fulfil a programme of scientific, zoological, geological, magnetic and meteorological studies it was principally motivated by a race to the Pole. However, when Scott’s expedition finally reached their target, to their dismay, they learnt that they had been beaten by Norwegian explorers led by Roald Amundsen (1872-1928). In Scott’s diary of 1912, now held at the British Library (and available online through ‘Turning the Pages’), the team’s disappointment at being beaten is palpable:

Wednesday, January 17 - Camp 69. THE POLE. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. We have had a horrible day – add to our disappointment a head wind 4 to 5, with a temperature -22 degrees, and companions labouring on with cold feet and hands.

  Scott 1 The Pole

Captain Scott's diary (1912),  The British Library, Add Ms 51035, vol. 2, f. 36.Untitled

Having failed to be the first to reach the South Pole, Scott’s team turned back. Losing two team members on their way to base, the remaining explorers were ultimately halted on 20 March by a fierce blizzard just 11 miles from their depot.  Scott's last diary entry, dated 29 March 1912, the presumed date of his death, ended famously with the words:

…we shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. Last entry. For God's sake look after our people.

Scott 2 Death

Captain Scott's diary (1912), The British Library, Add Ms 51035, vol. 3, f. 39. Untitled

The British Library will be holding a major exhibition on the voyages of Captain James Cook in the summer of 2018.

Dr Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Historical Manuscripts 1851-1950 @BL_magnacarta

#CaptainCook #Captain Cook #Antarctic

14 January 2016

Tipu Sultan’s favourite son

When Thomas Hickey sketched Prince Shukr Ullah on January 13 1801, this elegant ten year old boy’s life had just undergone a seismic shift. In 1799, when he was 8 years old, his father, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, had died in battle against the English East India Company.

Drawing of Shukr Ullah, 7th son of TipuPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

WD3213 - Shukr Ullah, 7th son of Tipu. Inscribed, “Shuk’r Ullah Saheb, 7th and favourite son of the late Tippoo Sultaun and aged about 10 ½ . Jan 13 1801.” 


Tipu Sultan’s death brought the turbulent Mysore Wars to an end. The East India Company now controlled most of southern India. To ensure this victory, the Company’s next move was to quietly destroy Tipu Sultan’s family. The British placed a new, compliant ruling family onto the throne of Mysore, and Tipu Sultan’s potential heirs, his thirteen sons, were moved to Vellore Fort, the East India Company’s strongest fortress in the Carnatic.

According to the inscription on the drawing of Shukr Ullah, he was the “7th and favourite son of the late Tippoo Sultaun”. It is entirely possible that Tipu wanted this “favourite son” to ascend the throne of Mysore, but instead, he lived the rest of his life under house arrest. It is difficult to understand why the British found Shukr Ullah so threatening; At his young age, he probably hadn’t lived beyond the palace confines of the zenana.

Thomas Hickey’s sketch of Shukr Ullah was made into an oil painting, which is now in the Victoria Memorial Hall, Calcutta. It was part of a set of 16 portraits by Hickey, which were sent to Calcutta in 1804 to be framed and displayed in the Governor General’s residence. All 16 portraits depict Indian men and boys whose fates were altered by the British after the Fourth Mysore War. Shukr Ullah’s six older brothers were painted as part of this set, but his six younger brothers were not. Today, the 16 Hickey portraits are in Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial Hall and in Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi.

In July 1806, Shukr Ullah’s older brothers were implicated into a Sepoy mutiny at Vellore Fort. Soon afterward, their place of internment was moved from Vellore to Rasapagla, in Bengal. Shukr Ullah died there on 25 September, 1837 at the approximate age of 47.

Jennifer Howes
Art Historian specialising in South Asia

Further Reading:
British Library, IOR/F/4/113, 2126. Pages 24L, 24M.
William Dalrymple. “Tipu Sultan: Noble or Savage?” The Open Magazine, 27 November 2015.


12 January 2016

Mud Hovels, Mean Houses and Natural Philosophy

John Michael Houghton was an important member of the East India Company’s expedition that surveyed the Persian Gulf during the 1820s. A talented draughtsman by trade (his fourth son was the painter Arthur Boyd Houghton), he drew many of the charts and maps produced by the survey, now held in the British Library’s India Office Records map collection. Houghton’s drawings of towns such as Dubai, Sharjah and Al Bida (Doha) are amongst the earliest-known visual descriptions of these places.

  Watercolour view ‘Debay in 6 ½ fathoms’

Lieutenant Houghton, ‘Debay in 6 ½ fathoms’ IOR/X/10310, f 15 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Houghton also wrote a ‘memoir’ which describes all that he saw on the survey between Musandam and Dubai. This memoir has been digitised and is now published on the Qatar Digital Library.

Houghton was born in London in 1797, the son of a naval surgeon employed by the East India Company.  He received a classical education before sailing for China on board the Elphinstone on 25 March 1812. In Canton he transferred to the Bombay Marine’s survey ship Discovery, which spent five years surveying the China Seas. By 1821, Houghton had risen to the rank of Second Lieutenant, and was working as marine draughtsman on the East India Company’s survey of the shores of the Persian Gulf.

  Houghton’s signature, in the introduction to his ‘Memoir’

Houghton’s signature, in the introduction to his ‘Memoir’ of the Arab coast of the Gulf. IOR/X/10309, f 4 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Lieutenant John Guy, commanding officer of the Discovery, engaged Houghton to produce an account of the voyage along the Arab coast of the Gulf.  In vivid detail he described the coastal landscapes he saw, and the human settlements and local rulers he encountered, writing from the perspective of an outsider encountering a foreign land. Houghton described the houses of Sharjah as ‘mean’ and the town of Dubai as ‘a miserable assemblage of mud hovels, surrounded by a cow mud wall’.

  View of part of coast from Jezeerat Gunnum to Ras Sheik Munsoud

Lieutenant Houghton, Extract of the coast from Jezeerat Gunnum to Ras Sheik Munsoud. ‘Continuation’. IOR/X/10310, f 7 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Of greatest interest to Houghton were the geological formations he saw from the deck of the Discovery.  Studying the cliffs and shallow inlets encountered along the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf, Houghton compared and contrasted what he saw with what he had read in the latest geological studies from Europe, including the works of  John Playfair, Erhard Georg Friedrich Wrede, Leopold von Buch, and John MacCulloch.

Plate showing a coastal view from John MacCulloch, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, including the Isle of Man
Plate from John MacCulloch, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, including the Isle of Man (1819) via archive.orgPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence


Comparing the southern climes of the Persian Gulf with the seas around northern Europe, Houghton began to formulate conclusions of his own. His observations led him to refute Wrede’s ideas that ‘the sea is retreating to the southern hemisphere’, and the Italian natural philosopher Paolo Frisi’s assertion that the sea appeared to be ‘sinking near the poles, and rising towards the Equator’.

Houghton continued his rise through the ranks of the Bombay Marine after the completion of the Persian Gulf survey. By 1833, he had risen to the rank of Commander, and was Auditor of the Indian Navy. Ill health forced him to retire in 1838, though it was not until 1874 that he died at his home in Hampstead, London.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership 

Further reading:
Maps and other records produced by Houghton on the Qatar Digital Library
‘Coast Views taken while employed on the Survey of the Arabian Side of the Gulf of Persia By Lieutenant M. Houghton, Draughtsman H.C. Marine’. IOR/X/10310. British Library, London
‘Persian Gulf single charts.–Memoir.–Lieut. Houghton’. IOR/X/10309. British Library, London
Paul Hogarth, Arthur Boyd Houghton (London: Gordon Fraser, 1981)
Maurice Packer, Officers of the Bombay Marine (London: c.2012)

11 January 2016

Plough Monday

Today is Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Day.  Traditionally this was the day when agricultural workers resumed their duties in the fields after the Christmas break.  In some parts of Britain the day was marked by a procession through the village.  A plough attached to long ropes was drawn by 30 or 40 men in clean white shirts with brightly coloured ribbons tied to their arms, shoulders, and hats.  The men were usually accompanied by an old woman, or a young boy dressed as one, known as the 'Bessy'.  Musicians and sometimes Morris Men  joined the celebrations, with a fool collecting money from spectators to spend on a convivial night in the local alehouse.

Merry-making on Plough Monday

 William Hone, The Every-day Book (1826) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

If a ploughman returning from work on Plough Monday came with his whip to the farm's kitchen hatch and shouted 'Cock in pot' before the maid could cry 'Cock on the dunghill', he won a cock to eat on Shrove Tuesday.

Celebrations could spill into towns.  On 17 January 1846, the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal reported: 'The annual invasion of Cambridge by the hard-handed sons of toil from the neighbouring villages took place last Monday, and our streets echoed from morn till night the strains of some vile fiddle, the jingling of bells, and the oft-repeated cry of "please remember the poor plough-boy"'.

In 1849, 115 unemployed filesmiths wearing costumes and accompanied by a band borrowed a plough and paraded through Sheffield.  They hoped to raise a few shillings to supplement the financial support being given to them by the file trade: 'We are the men who have not been burdensome to the parish, and have saved the ratepayers more than £10,000. God speed the plough. Remember the poor filesmiths'.  After paying for refreshments, each man took home about 1s 8½d, 'a small pittance, after so hard a day's exertion'.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1826)
British Newspaper Archive - for example, Cambridge Chronicle and Journal  17 January 1846; Sheffield Independent 13 January 1849

Twelfth Day



09 January 2016

‘The People Teaching Themselves’ – Marylebone Free Library

On Monday 9 January 1854 the Marylebone Free Library opened its reading rooms for the first time.  Situated at 27 Gloucester Place, New Road, in north-west London, it offered free admission to anyone above the age of fourteen from 10 in the morning until 10 at night every day except Sunday. 

  Newspaper notice about opening of Marylebone Free Library

Morning Post 4 January 1854 British Newspaper ArchivePublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Library was stocked with more than 3,000 volumes, comprising ‘works of interest and utility to every class of reader’. It relied entirely on voluntary subscriptions and donations of cash and books.  Amongst those responding positively to an appeal for book donations ‘for the information of the Working Classes’ was the East India Company. Below is the front page of the letter sent to the Company by E A Somers of the Committee of the Marylebone Free Library.


Marylebone Free Library - Appeal letter from E A Somers

Appeal letter from E A Somers preserved in East India Company Finance and Home Committee Papers IOR/L/F/2/169 No.53 of 1854  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Marylebone Free Library was an immediate success.   A week after the opening, Joseph Grote gave a progress report to the Marylebone Vestry.  In the first five days there had been 677 readers , 663 male and 14 female, identified as coming from the social group for which the Library was intended – the ‘respectable class of mechanics’.  Grote said that many came in wearing their paper caps and flannel jackets.  The readers' behaviour was impeccable: ‘as much quiet and order reigned every evening in the Marylebone Free Library as they would find in the library of the British Museum’.  A total of 687 books had been selected: 312 history; 289 literature, poetry, and drama; 40 science and arts; 19 philosophy; 17 theology; 12 law, politics, and commerce. Grote hoped that these figures would be publicised to encourage the help of benevolent individuals ‘desirous of improving the moral and social condition of their fellow-creatures’.

The rooms were well-lit and warm, furnished with baize-covered reading tables, and writing materials were provided.  Yet the public were keen to have the pleasure of reading at home so a lending library of 1,000 books was established and operated by working men.  In the first eighteen months, 5,732 volumes were taken out, none of which was lost or wilfully damaged.

The occupations of the people using the reading rooms were tabulated in 1855.  Male readers totalled 25,721 and of these the largest group was schoolboys and male pupil teachers (10,187) followed by carpenters, plumbers, painters, decorators, and the building trade (5,693). Other male users were identified as labourers, costermongers, clerks, shoemakers, tailors, smiths, artists, and missionaries. Amongst the female readers (444), the largest identified groups were governesses and pupil teachers (146) and schoolgirls (91). Dressmakers and servants were the other specified female occupations.

In spite of its popularity the Library lacked sufficient funds to survive.  Appeals for help in the summer and autumn of 1856 were ineffective and the local ratepayers refused to sanction a rate to support its activities.  The Library announced that it would be forced to close on 24 June 1857 and books would be returned to donors who applied before that date.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive
John Cowell, 'The rise and fall of the free public library movement in Marylebone, 1850-1860'



07 January 2016


According to Picasso, a picture can serve as a stepping stone to other worlds.  A picture of a bookbinding, in itself a work of art, can do the same.  The thousands of images of bindings which the British Library released on Wikimedia Commons in August 2015 can take the viewer on unexpected journeys: to discover what Queen Elizabeth I’s books look like or to answer the question when is a binding not a binding? When it comes from Mrs Wordsworth’s wardrobe!  Robert Southey’s female friends were reputed to have covered his library books using dress fabric.

Scholars who appreciate the relevance of bookbindings to their field of study are familiar with websites which can help their research, for example the British Library’s image database of bookbindings but you do not need specialist knowledge to admire a bookbinding. 

  Bookbinding Collage
Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Serendipity occurs when we happen upon something amazing while seeking something else, and Wikimedia provides an exciting opportunity for bindings to be discovered in this way.  Publishing the Library’s bookbindings images on Wikimedia Commons means that they can be readily accessed and be easy to browse.  Hopefully the creative copyright commons licenced pictures will be available on other sites, guiding people to this fascinating but little considered subject.

At a time of limited resource, institutions can achieve a great deal with existing digital material, if they are prepared to be cooperative and generous. With this aim in mind, Mahendra Mahey and colleagues in BL Labs have explored how the bindings database could be exploited to reach a wider audience.   With the help of knowledgeable volunteers and students, notably Dimitra Charalampidou, who were given the opportunity of working with the Library’s technicians on real data (images and text), existing treasure troves were assessed, and others like Ed King’s research on stunning Victorian trade bindings were added, to expand the resource even further. We particularly thank Ed for his wonderful contribution.

The images are out there. We hope you enjoy them!

PJM Marks
Western Heritage Collections

View the collection British Library Bookbindings


05 January 2016

A fowl quiz for #NationalBirdDay

Evidently the anticipation of commuting into central London after a twelve day break caused me to forget that today is #NationalBirdDay and that I had promised the Master of Untold Lives I would write a blog.

In haste, this is less blog and more collection of some of the amazing pictures of birds we have in our manuscripts collection here at the British Library. Rather than simply posting some images and captions, I thought it might be amusing to turn them into a quiz. It’s ‘just for fun’ and the answers are at the bottom. Give yourself a point for every bird correctly named. Award yourself extra smug points and a feather in your cap if you can identify either the artist or the date to within fifty years of each image. Have fun and no tweeting (sorry).

















1. Black and white petrel. Drawn from the ship Rochester, called a ‘Pantado Bird’ in the ship’s log, May 1710, sailing on the Cape Lagallus [Cape Agulhas] to China. Pen and black ink. IOR/MAR/B/137B . 

2. Kinmodsui or mandarin duck. By Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716). Illustration for 'History of Japan' 1727. Pen and black ink. Sloane MS 3060 ff. 428-559.

3. Male sparrowhawk.  From 'Watercolour studies of birds and animals, made in 1841-42 at the Surrey Zoological Gardens and British Museum' by Charles Buckler. Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour. Add MS 36427.

4. Male Gadwall. 'Drawings in Indian ink from the Collection of Sir Joseph Banks'. Pen and black ink with monochrome wash. Before 1820. Add MS 11807.

5. A large pigeon! From 'Alice's Adventures Underground' by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Pen and black ink.
"A large pigeon had flown into her face, and was violently beating her with its wings". Add MS 46700, f. 33.

6. Jackdaw. From Edward Lear's 'Nonsense Alphabet', February 1865, pen and black ink. Add MS 47462.

7. Brahminy Kite. Called 'The Brahminy Kite of Bengal in 'Miscellaneous Drawings bequeathed by Maj Gen Thomas Hardwicke'. Probably between 1777-1823.. Pen and wash.  Add MS 10985.

8. Young Dunlin. From 'Watercolour studies of birds and animals, made in 1841-42 at the Surrey Zoological Gardens and British Museum' by Charles Buckler. Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour. Add MS 36427.

All images Untitled

Alexandra Ault

Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850