Untold lives blog

14 posts from February 2016

29 February 2016

Leap Year Proposals

2016 is a Leap Year and so 29 February has been added to the calendar. Some may complain that they are working an extra day for nothing, but on the plus side anyone with a bill due on 1 March has another day to find the money.

Superstitions attached to Leap Year include the belief that beans grow in pods in the reverse position to usual, with the eye away from the stalk.  Leap Years are also regarded as poor years for lambing:
Leap Year
Was ne’er a good sheep year.

There is a tradition that it is the prerogative of women to propose marriage to men during a Leap Year. Guidance for this was given in a 1606 book entitled Courtship, Love, and Matrimonie:

‘Albeit it is nowe become a part of the common lawe in regard to social relations of life, that as often as every bissextile year dost return, the ladyes have the sole privilege, during the time it continueth, of making love unto the men, which they doe either by words or lookes, as to them it seemeth proper; and, moreover, no man will be entitled to the benefit of clergy who dothe refuse to accept the offers of a ladye, or who dothe in any wise treate her proposal withe slight or contumely’.

Should a man refuse the offer of marriage, he is supposed to make a gift of a scarlet petticoat or a silk dress to the disappointed woman. 

Cartoon - A Leap Year Proposal with a suffragette proposing to John Bull

A suffragette proposes to John Bull - Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 30 March 1912 British Newspaper Archive 

However in December 1931 Rev John A Mayo, rector of Whitechapel in London, declared that he was not expecting an increase in the number of weddings at his church in the following Leap Year.  After 40 years as a clergyman he found that Leap Year never affected the marriage rate whereas the state of trade did. If the economy picked up in 1932, more people would marry regardless of whether or not women were proposing.

Leap Year proposals are not limited to the young. Neighbours Thomas Towers, 83, and Eliza Ann Wilson, 80, were wed in October 1936 after she proposed to him when he asked her about providing lodgings: ‘I don’t want any lodgers, but I don’t mind marrying you’.

A widow in Birmingham seized the 1932 Leap Year opportunity to send a letter proposing marriage to an inmate of the Poor Law Institution in Barnstaple Devon. She had read newspaper reports of how the man was expecting a cheque for £1,000 in back wages from a former employer in America.  The managers informed her that he already had a wife.

I’ll give the last word to a wife at Shoreditch County Court in 1924 who made a different kind of Leap Year proposal. She declared: ‘A woman does not need Leap Years to get a husband. What she wants is an easier method of getting rid of them’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
John Timbs, Things not generally known, familiarly explained (London, 1857).
British Newspaper Archive - Inverness Courier 8 March 1892; Whitby Gazette 11 March 1892; Dundee Evening Telegraph 12 March 1924; Dundee Courier 28 February 1928; Gloucester Citizen 30 December 1931; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 9 January 1932; Dundee Evening Telegraph 17 October 1936.


27 February 2016

Official lines and John Pine: Stamp Office Engravers Part 1

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Britain needed money in order to participate in her long running wars against France. This compelled Parliament to pass a range of acts to increase revenue from taxation. The 1694 Stamp Act imposed duties upon a wide range of legal instruments and established a Stamp Office for its management. Proof of payment was provided by the application of an embossed revenue stamp made from a metal die impressed onto the paper or parchment. Therefore between 1694 and 1834, the Stamp Office was responsible for creating metallic revenue stamp dies from which the embossed revenue stamps were struck. The engravings on such dies had to be of the highest quality to deter counterfeiters, so the Stamp Office employed the best engravers, many of whom had official appointments in the Royal Court or Mint.

One such engraver of these stamps was John Pine (c. 1690-1756), who produced and collaborated on a large number of engravings for published works including Daniel Defoe’s: The Life and strange adventures of Robinson Crusoe (London 1719); James Anderson’s: The Constitutions of the Freemasons (London, 1723); Henry Pemberton’s: A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (London, 1728); the first printed edition of the Magna Carta (1733) and John Rocque’s: Plan of the cities of London and Westminster and borough of Southwark (London, 1749). Pine was a close friend of William Hogarth, working with him in lobbying for the Engraving Copyright Act of 1735, as well as a fellow governor of the Foundling Hospital in 1746. Additionally, Pine was engraver to the Masonic Grand Lodge, chief engraver of all his majesty’s signets, seals, stamps and arms as well as one of the country’s leading heralds being appointed as the Bluemantle Pursuivant of Arms in Ordinary in 1743.

John Pine Article Image 1

Samples of Pine’s engravings taken from Henry Pemberton: A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy, (London, 1728) [British Library Shelfmark: 535.1.13(1). Untitled

John Pine Image 2

John Pine and John Clark’s engraving of Robinson Crusoe taken from Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, (London, 1719). [British Library Shelfmark: G13265). Untitled

Pine created seven dies for revenue stamps, out of these the most significant are the VI pence duties, since they were the most widely used tax stamps used to pay duties on a wide range of legal obligatory instruments including affidavits, indentures, leases, deeds, original writs, common bail, court orders, notarial acts, policies of assurance, passports, bonds and contracts.

John Pine Article Image 3

Registration impression taken from John Pine’s VI Pence Die (FF) from the Board of Inland Revenue Stamping Department Archive, List 1, volume 1 f. 112. Untitled

In an age notorious for its alcohol consumption, Pine’s engraving of the XX Shilling stamp die was also socially significant since it was used as an additional duty on licenses granted to merchants authorising the sale of beer and ale. The designs on these stamps are decorated with heraldic devices as a visual means of underpinning the legality of the stamp for those encountering it.

John Pine Article Image 4

Registration impression taken from John Pine’s XX Shilling duty on Ale from the Board of Inland Revenue Stamping Department Archive, List 1, volume 1 f. 118. Untitled

Since many of Pine’s engravings were in expensive publications, few would have had the financial wherewithal to access them. However a large number of people would have encountered Pine’s engravings on the revenue stamps.

 John Pine Image 5

The "Armada 1588. 22 July: the burning and capture of Antonio de Oquendo's ship San Salvador" (Plate V, The Tapestry Hangings of the House of Lords)", published by Pine in 1739 [British Library shelfmark: Cartographic Items Maps C.8.d.8]. Untitled

Although they do not have his name upon them, these stamps were Pine’s most widely circulated and accessible engravings in the eighteenth century.


John Pine by James Macardell after William Hogarth, mezzotint, circa 1740-1765,  © National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D18727 NPG

References: Frank, S.B and Schonfeld, J: The Stamp Duty of Great Britain and Ireland, volume 1, (Mamaroneck, 1970); Worms, L. and Baynton-Williams, A: British Map Engravers: A Dictionary of Engravers, Lithographers and their principal employers to 1850 (London, 2011); The British Library, Philatelic Collections: Board of Inland Revenue Stamping Department Archive, List 1, volume 1.

Richard Scott Morel
Curator, Philatelic Collections

25 February 2016

Wren's a good time to talk about architecture?

With apologies for the dreadful pun, this blog celebrates the architect Sir Christopher Wren who died on this day in 1723. The British Library holds a significant amount of Wren material, distributed across different collections within Manuscripts.  As well as his involvement in the design of the Monument to the Fire of London which I wrote about on Wren's birthday last year, Wren and his son were tasked with the design and building of Marlborough House in St James's, London, for Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, a subject on which Arthur Searle wrote an article for the British Library Journal

Among the Marlborough House papers are a number of invoices and estimates including a bill for peach, cherry and fig trees, vines, red currants, honeysuckles and asparagus plants for the "use of his Grace, the Duke of Marlborough". This bill brings the house and gardens alive with scent, colour and most importantly, sustenance.

Marlborough Wren

A bill for trees sent to Marlborough House', 1710-1715, Add MS 61357, f 74. Untitled

Marlborough House featured in Vitruvius Britannicus of 17 67, copies of which are in the British Library. This particular version was owned by King George III.


'Elevation of Marlborough House to St James' Park', in Vitruvius Britannicus, Colen Campbell, 1767, 71, Volume I. British Library 55.i.9-13. Untitled

The house also featured in a number of views by British artists, including this watercolour by John Chessell Buckler of 1827.


Marlborough House by John Chessell Buckler, 1827, watercolour, British Museum 1880,1113.2273. BMuntitled

Marlborough House still stands and is now inhabited by the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850






23 February 2016

Pepys, pans and pretenders

To celebrate the birth of Samuel Pepys on this day in 1633, this blog looks at another more controversial birth - that of James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, on 10 June 1688. The reason for this seemingly arbitrary pairing is a manuscript, owned by the British Library, which connects Pepys, the Old Pretender and the 'Warming-Pan Scandal' of 1688.


Prince James Francis Edward Stuart by and published by John Smith, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, mezzotint, 1688, NPG D32651, © National Portrait Gallery, London  NPGCC

When James Francis Edward Stuart was born, doubt was cast as to whether he was the legitimate son of James II and Mary of Modena, not least because he was strikingly healthy compared to their other children, all of whom had died in infancy. Mary of Modena was a devout Catholic and there was a fear that a Catholic heir to the throne would threaten Protestant England. This led to James II's enemies creating an elaborate story that the heir was not legitimate. 

A rumour began that an imposter baby was smuggled into the palace via a warming-pan and brought to Mary who was feigning childbirth. The History of Parliament have written a brilliant blog on the subject here. One of Mary of Modena's ladies-in-waiting, Margaret Dawson, produced a testimony, which detailed the birth of the Old Pretender. The British Library owns this testimony in which Dawson states "I found it a duty incumbent upon me to bare true witness to the birth of the Prince of Wales giving and Eye witness of it". Dawson also mentions the warming-pan, making clear that no baby was hidden inside: "I did also see fire in the faimose warming pan for much talked on".


Margaret Dawson's testimony on the birth of James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender. British Library Add MS 26657. Untitled

Samuel Pepys borrowed Dawson's manuscript between 22-29 August 1695 and took notes in cipher from it. These notes can be found  among the numerous manuscripts written by Pepys which are held at the British Library.  Pepys visited Margaret Dawson on 22 August 1695 as she was the last surviving witness at the birth: "Notes taken from Mistress Dawson touching the birth of the Pr. of W., at a visit by me this day was made expressly to her to purpose, in order to my obtaining a full and impersonal judgement of the matter, while she the best living evidence may be resorted to in it."


Samuel Pepys's notes on the birth of the Old Pretender taken from Margaret Dawson's declaration. British Library Add MS 39882.Untitled

Pepys does not explain why he wished to obtain a full and impersonal judgement but it is clear that he spent some time investigating the birth, visiting Dawson and preparing follow-up questions.

Samuel Pepys's notes in cipher on the birth of the Old Pretender taken from Margaret Dawson's declaration.  British Library Add MS 39882. Untitled

The British Library also owns other material relating to the birth of the Old Pretender which can be found at Add MS 32096.

There's also an excellent exhibition on Pepys at the National Maritime Museum, to which the British Library have loaned a number of items.

Further reading:

John McTague, 'Anti-Catholicism, Incorrigibility and Credulity in the Warming-Pan Scandal of 1688-89', Journal for eighteenth century studies, 36, (2013), 433-448

Rachel J Weil, 'The politics of legitimacy and the warming-pan scandal' in Louis G . Schwoerer The Revolution of 1688-89: Changing Perspectives, (Cambridge, 1992)

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850



17 February 2016

Let the people speak: history with voices

For 135 years the Dictionary of National Biography has been the national record of noteworthy men and women who’ve shaped the British past. Today’s Dictionary retains many attributes of its Victorian predecessor, not least a focus on concise and balanced accounts of individuals from all walks of national history. But there have also been changes in how these life stories are encapsulated and conveyed.

In its Victorian incarnation the Dictionary presented each life as a double-column printed text. 2004 saw the publication of the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) with the addition of portrait images. Today the Dictionary includes portraits of 11,500 of its 60,000 subjects. Every image is a depiction of the sitter from life, so as to convey an aspect of his or her personality.

Now the Oxford DNB is moving on- this time with the inclusion of sound - in a project to link biographies to voice recordings made by an initial selection of 750 historical individuals. The earliest clips—including the suffrage campaigner Christabel Pankhurst and the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith - are held in the ‘Early Spoken Word’ archive at the British Library. 

Christabel Pankhurst

CC NPGChristabel Pankhurst by Lambert Weston & Son, c.1905 by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG x32605)


As the crackling on these wax cylinders makes clear, this was a pioneering form of communication reserved for periods of political drama. Speaking in December 1908, Christabel Pankhurst issued a rallying call to every ‘patriotic and public spirited woman’ to take up ‘militant’ tactics in the hope that ‘1909 must, and shall, see the political enfranchisement of women.’ In his speech on the 1909 ‘people’s budget’ Herbert Asquith acknowledged the intersection of technological novelty and looming political crisis: ‘I have gladly accepted this invitation to speak to you in this unusual manner to reach as many of my fellow countrymen as possible’.

Two decades later the availability of ‘wireless’ instilled a new pioneering spirit. It’s captured in George V’s opening words to the first Christmas message of 1932: ‘Through one of the marvels of modern science, I am enabled … to speak to all my people throughout the Empire’.

  King George V
King George V (1865-1936) ©Leemage/UIG/The British Library Board Images Online


Other British Library clips reveal how voice recordings took on new formats in the 1930s: the personal travel documentary by Amy Johnson; chef Marcel Boulestin’s guide to perfect omelettes (‘practice, quickness, a thick iron pan and a good fire’); and the celebrity interview with Arthur Conan Doyle (‘how I came to write Sherlock Holmes’). This ability to catch a person’s accent, and indeed to hear a person speak, is the principal attraction of linking ODNB biographies to sound recordings. Hearing the voice reminds us that a distant historical figure was a living person as well as the subject of a biographical text. Listening to voices recorded more than a century ago conjures up something of the ‘marvels’ and delight alluded to by George V.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) from Men and Women of the Day. A picture gallery of contemporary portraiture. Jan. 1888- July 1894 (London, 1888-94) 10804.i.3, 70 Images Online  Noc


The effect is particularly striking in the Oxford DNB’s earliest link to the British Library sound archive— that for Florence Nightingale who spoke in support of the Light Brigade Relief Fund in July 1890. Barely audible over the hiss, she concludes her short, carefully enunciated message: ‘When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore.  Florence Nightingale’.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale c.1860 Add. 47458, f.31 Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Philip Carter
Oxford DNB Senior Research and Publication Editor and a member of the History Faculty at Oxford University
More on the ODNB’s Sounds project, together with a list of all 750 links, is available here.


15 February 2016

Expired from eating too many pineapples

In South Park Street Cemetery Kolkata is the grave of Rose Whitworth Aylmer, a young girl aged 20 who died of cholera on 2 March 1800. On her monument are the following lines of poetry:
'What was her fate? Long, long before her hour, Death called her tender soul, by break of bliss, From the first blossoms, to the buds of joy; Those few our noxious fate unblasted leaves In this inclement clime of human life'.


Rose Aylmer tomb

Rose Aylmer’s tomb from The Calcutta Diaries blog, 19 February 2012 ‘Haunting the South Park Street Cemetery’.

Permission to use photo granted by Aniruddha Brahmachari.

The poetry, written by the poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), is a lasting testament to two young lovers separated by distance, never to see each other again.

Rose Aylmer was the only daughter of Sir Henry Aylmer, 4th Lord Aylmer and his wife Catherine Whitworth. Following her husband’s death in 1785 Lady Aylmer remarried to Howel Price and relocated to Pembrokeshire, Wales with her daughter and four sons. It was there that Rose met the young aspiring poet Walter Savage Landor.

As a 17 year old Rose was known to enjoy walking in the Welsh Hills with Walter.  However a year later in 1798 Rose was sent to India to join her aunt Lady Russell, a decision which some believed to be a move by her family to take her away from this unsuitable suitor. It was in Calcutta that she tragically died two years later.

Following her death Walter penned a poem in her honour:
Ah, what avails the sceptred race,
Ah, what the form divine!
What, every virtue, every grace!
Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep but never see
A night of memories and sighs
I consecrate to thee.

Rose is also credited with having inspired Walter’s poem Gebir having apparently loaned him The Progress of Romance by the Gothic author Clara Reeve which contained the story of The History of Charoba, Queen of Egypt upon which Gebir is based.

To explain the title of this blog: ‘expired from eating too many pineapples’ was the way in which locals explained Rose Aylmer’s death. The consumption of pineapples and other fresh fruit such as watermelons was at this time believed to have been one way in which people contracted cholera and many towns banned the sale of such fruits during outbreaks as a way of trying to stop the illness from spreading.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
Ashley MS A17-5678 The Ashley Manuscripts contain Walter Savage Landor’s poetry along with original correspondence and photographs.
Photo 430/73(81,82) Rose Aylmer’s tomb, South Park Street Cemetery, Calcutta, c.1900 from the Curzon Collection.
The poem ‘Rose Aylmer’ along with other poems by Walter Savage Landor and biographical information about him can be found on the Poetry Foundation website.


14 February 2016

Mangling the Baby

Last year we helped you to discover the identity of your true love by sharing some old St Valentine's Day customs. This year we bring you a very strange Valentine verse entitled 'Mangling the Baby'.  This is certainly not an old English tradition attached to 14 February!

  Mangling the BabyPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

You mangled your little baby
One morning – so say all
The neighbours dwelling round you,
They heard the infant squall.

You mangled that wretched baby,
You did, you wretch, you know!
We saw its knickerbockers
In the apparatus go.

And we thought as it quickly vanished,
And uttered a cry of pain,
What will the kidling look like
When it comes out again?

Did you iron it? Did you hang it
In the garden across the line?
Tell me – or lose all title
To be my Valentine.


'Mangling the Baby' comes from the splendid Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old, and is said to have been inspired by ‘the celebrated poem in  the “Hornet”’.  Can anyone shed some light on this? Or am I to stay permanently perplexed by one of the oddest poems I have ever come across?

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
E. M. Davies,  Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old (London, 1872) 

10 February 2016

The wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

On this day 176 years ago Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha were married in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert from Lady Waterpark's photograph album Add. 60751, f.1 Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


News of Her Majesty’s marriage arrived in India via overland mail in April 1840, where her faithful subjects celebrated the joyous news and planned ways to mark the occasion. The Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, instructed that a royal salute be fired from the ramparts of Fort William at 6am the following morning and that a feu de joie would be fired by the Troops of the garrison in honour of the happy event.

Lord Auckland also decided that, as well as the military display of joy, there would be a display of illumination and fireworks in front of Government House in June 1840 to mark the occasion instead of the more traditional ball and supper. His intention in marking the occasion in this way was that it could be appreciated by a larger number of people and was ‘particularly agreeably to Indian tastes’.  He also hoped it would bring together the ‘high and low, rich and poor of this city [Calcutta] and its neighbourhood’. 


Government House Calcutta

Photo 29(8) Government House Calcutta, South Front, 1860s Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The inhabitants of Bombay chose a different sort of celebration, preparing a congratulatory address to Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen and her illustrious consort on the occasion of her marriage. The content of these addresses was presented by the Chief Justice, Sir John Wither Awdry, and the Lord Bishop of Bombay, the Reverend Thomas Carr, at a meeting of the Bombay Council on 21 April 1840.

The address to Queen Victoria sends her loyal subjects' 'heartfelt congratulations on your Majesty’s auspicious union’ while the address to Prince Albert congratulates him ‘on the happy event of his marriage with our August Sovereign’.

Queen Victoria’s address includes the people of Bombay’s hopes of 'the continuance of that illustrious line, whose dominion over the British Empire has, by the divine blessing, been instrumental to the greatest amount of Civil and Religious liberty, of Intellectual Advancement, and (notwithstanding some serious Calamities) of Prosperity, public and private, ever enjoyed for so long a continuous period, by so large a portion of mankind'.

Prince Albert’s address tends more towards marital advice, including '...above all, being the object of the uncontrolled choice of Her, with whom you are to share the holiest domestic duties' and 'Your Highness offers the fairest outward hopes of those blessings to yourselves and to a loyal people for the actual attainment of which, we can rely only on that Divine Providence, which has hitherto, so conspicuously favoured the Empire under her Majesty’s Royal House'.

The address was subsequently engrossed on parchment and laid for signature at the Town Hall until the evening of 28 April before being transmitted to England on 29 April 1840.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
IOR/F/4/1902/81001 Address sent by the inhabitants of Bombay to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the occasion of their marriage, Apr 1840
IOR/F/4/1932/83331 Expenditure by the Government of India of the sum of 7645 Rupees on a display of illumination and fireworks to celebrate the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Apr-Sep 1840.