Untold lives blog

15 posts from March 2016

15 March 2016

Picking locks and foreign plots: ciphers in British Library manuscripts

In honour of British Science Week #BSW16 we are looking at examples of ciphers and codes in manuscripts from the British Library.

Add MS 32253 is part of a series of cipher letters relating to despatches from the English Foreign Office to British ministers at foreign courts 1760-1830. These volumes are a treasure trove of codes, letters and keys. Here is a letter from Secretary of State, Sir Francis Windebank (1582-1646) writing to his son from Paris in 1640 where he touches upon the competition between himself and English Ambassadors in the French court: “I stand telling him plainly that there is so much malice upon me”.

Detail of a letter from Sir Francis Windebank  to his son, 1640, Add MS 32257 f. 5v. Untitled

The letter begins in plain English but cipher is introduced on the first page. The cipher has been translated on the second page and a key added on the third.


Detail of a letter from Sir Francis Windebank  to his son, 1640, Add MS 32257 f  6v. Untitled

There is a delightful letter of 1657 from Richard Lawrence to John Wallis (1616-1703)  in Add MS 32499 which reads: “If you can finde out a key whereby to picke this locke you are able to reade any thinge”.


Detail of a letter from Richard Lawrence to John Wallis. 1657, Add MS 32499. Untitled

Another collection containing manuscripts in cipher is the Canning Archive which includes the papers of Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, George Canning (1770-1827). 

The letter below was sent from Paris in 1807 at the height of Napoleon’s military and political success in Europe, only two months ahead of the French invasion of Portugal, presumably at some risk to the sender. The letter was marked on receipt, probably by one of George Canning’s foreign office secretaries, as ‘Most Secret’. The hidden message has been written in sympathetic, or invisible, ink (blue text) with a second message then over-written in conventional ink. The hidden message has been revealed using a chemical reaction, by brushing on a liquid (apparent by the yellow staining), but messages were also sometimes revealed using heat. Sympathetic ink was used for the transmission of secret intelligence up until the late-19th Century.


Detail of a letter in sympathetic ink from Charles McMahon to George Canning via the Foreign Office, 19 September, 1807 Add MS 89143. Untitled

This next letter was written from St. Petersbourg by Stratford Canning, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and contains a message in cipher written between the lines of a standard letter. The use of cipher for the sending of confidential diplomatic messages was widespread and it seems as if Stratford has used the opportunity to send both a conventional letter with news of diplomatic negotiations along with a coded counterpart containing perhaps a more forthright opinion.

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Letter to George Canning from Stratford Canning, 30 March, 1825, Add MS 89143. Untitled

Stratford Canning had been sent by George Canning to initiate negotiations between Britain and Russia over the status of the border of Russian America (Alaska) and to seek support for the Greeks in their war of Independence against Turkey. Although his discussions with Tsar Alexander I and his chancellor Count Nesselrode were successful in relation to resolving the border issue, the hoped for bilateral agreement over the status of Greece, outside a planned Europe-wide conference, did not eventuate and Stratford left St. Petersburg during April 1825.

These are just a few examples of some of the exciting manuscripts in code and cipher that are housed in the British Library. More can be searched for and discovered on our online catalogue.

Jonathan Pledge, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Public and Political Life

Alexandra Ault, Curator of Manuscripts and Archives, 1601-1850


11 March 2016

Did he intend to blow the [insert film quotation here] doors off? An eighteenth-century powder mill in Germany.

King George III’s Topographical Collection, currently the subject of an ongoing cataloguing and digitisation project here at the British Library, contains some approximately 40,000 maps and topographical views from around the world. Amongst the collection are objects that suggest an interest, perhaps George’s own, in engineering and other technical endeavours; there are plans, projected and realised, for canals, roads, military fortifications, siegeworks and so on.

One recently catalogued item within the collection could be seen to embody this combined interest in maps and engineering. It is an eighteenth-century manuscript map showing a powder mill, for the manufacture of gunpowder, in Germany.

Maps K.Top.100.34.

PLAN DER IM AMTE HARBURG OHNWEIT MEKELFELD belegenenen Pulver Mühle / G. Braun fec. Maps K.Top.100.34. Untitled

Entitled PLAN DER IM AMTE HARBURG OHNWEIT MEKELFELD belegenenen Pulver Mühle, this map is signed at lower right by “G. Braun”. A date of about 1770 is attributed for the map’s production based on comparison with another map in the collection (Maps K.Top.100.33.) that is dated and also signed by Braun.

  Maps K.Top.100.34. [detail showing signature]

Maps K.Top.100.34. [detail showing signature] Untitled

The map shows the mill at Meckelfeld in present-day Lower Saxony, located south-east of Harburg in the borough of Hamburg. The mill buildings are shown on the river, the source of power driving the mill to grind the gunpowder.

Maps K.Top.100.34. [detail of mill buildings]

Maps K.Top.100.34. [detail of mill buildings] Untitled

The skill and care involved in the map’s production (it is certainly not a preliminary sketch) could suggest that it was intended to be seen (and used?) by a person or persons of note. Had George III himself, perhaps as King of Hanover, expressed an interest in this mill?

It is the decorated title cartouche at lower left that emphasises the map’s unusual subject matter.

Maps K.Top.100.34. [title cartouche]

Maps K.Top.100.34. [title cartouche showing an explosion] Untitled

Not only does this cartouche include a lettered key to the individual buildings shown on the map, which comprise the powder magazine, the drying house, the coal house and the saltpetar store (?), amongst others, it also depicts, quite fabulously, what happens when things, perhaps, don’t turn out exactly as planned. Given the look of mild surprise rather than abject horror and outright panic on the depicted gentleman’s face within the cartouche, one might conclude that such explosions were not uncommon!

Kate Marshall, Maps Cataloguer, King George III's Topographical Collection

10 March 2016

Global Voices in the Archive

Join the British Library’s collaborative PhD students – and other researchers from across the UK – for a special symposium on the theme of ‘translation’.

Drawing on their research at the Library, students at various stages of their PhDs will explore translation both in a literal sense and more broadly in terms of how languages, values, beliefs, histories and narratives are communicated and understood within, between, and across different cultures and contexts.  The event will also gather reflections on how working with the archives can change the direction of a research project. Archival research, especially when looking at previously unexplored collections, can open a wide landscape of enquiry, helping to further develop the understanding of a specific field, or of collections held by cultural institutions.


Global Voices artwork - face imposed on map of world Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The symposium was originally conceived by Deborah Dawkin who is currently working on a collaborative AHRC PhD project with UCL and the British Library focussing on the archive of Ibsen translator Michael Meyer. It was then developed with the help of Peter Good and Katie McElvanney, who are also undertaking AHRC research projects at the British Library. James Perkins, Research & Postgraduate Development Manager at the British Library, has assisted throughout the process to make the project a success.

It is hoped that this one day event will lead to a full academic conference in 2017 tackling the theme of translation and archival research. It will also provide current PhD students working with collections at the British Library with an opportunity to showcase the value and range of the research being undertaken with the generous support of the AHRC.

The event will take place 10.00-17.30 on Monday 21 March 2016 in the auditorium of the British Library Conference Centre. Register for a place here or contact our Research Development team - [email protected].

Peter Good, Deborah Dawkin, and Katie McElvanney
PhD students working on AHRC funded projects at the British Library


09 March 2016

Design for the Muslim Burial Ground, Woking

The Woking Muslim Burial Ground at Horsell Common, Woking, Surrey was originally created by the India Office, with War Office funding, in response to casualties amongst Indian Army soldiers on the Western Front.  The bodies of Muslim soldiers who died in hospitals along the south coast of England had to be buried in accordance with their beliefs, but there was very little such provision available. 

There was one Muslim burial plot within the private cemetery at Brookwood near Woking, not far from Britain’s only purpose-built mosque.  This was used at first and it was agreed that Woking Mosque would organise the individual burials. At first, Maulvi Sadr-ud-Din from the mosque arranged the troop burials at Brookwood and ensured that they were carried out with military honours.  However, costs at the private cemetery were found exorbitant and the War Office decided to requisition a plot of land for a dedicated military Muslim Burial Ground at Horsell Common near Woking. 

The army put up a 6ft high wooden fence round the new site and marked out some rough paths. A wooden hut was provided as a mortuary and shelter for mourners.  The ground was waterlogged and bare when they handed over the keys to Sadr-ud-Din  in May 1915.

Dissatisfied with this crude arrangement, Sadr-ud-Din campaigned to get a suitable permanent enclosure created which would also be a lasting memorial to the Muslim war dead.  He contacted leading Muslim converts such as Lord Headley, wrote to Lord Kitchener at the War Office and also got the Agha Khan to visit Woking.  He pushed the India Office to come up with plans for a properly built perimeter wall with “some oriental decoration including a gateway”.


Woking Mosque - coloured elevation drawing for the burial ground enclosure Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

IOR/L/MIL/7/17232  Coloured elevation drawing for the burial ground enclosure by T.H. Winney, India Office Surveyor  


The India Office, ever mindful of public opinion in the sub-continent, felt the necessity of improving the Horsell Common site and recommended that Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob be approached to design it.  Swinton Jacob had retired to Weybridge near Woking after more than 40 years in service as architect to the Maharajas of Jaipur.  He was a leading exponent of the “Indo-Saracenic” style based on historic Indian models.  In the event, Swinton Jacob could not design the Horsell Common burial ground enclosure because of failing health.  The work was done instead by T.H.Winney, India Office Surveyor, but the influence of Swinton Jacob’s “Jaipur Portfolios” is very evident in the detailing of Winney’s graceful design preserved in the India Office Records.

   Woking Mosque - plan of elevation to Monument Road
IOR/L/MIL/7/17232 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Recently, the Muslim Burial Ground has been restored as a Peace Garden to mark the centenary of the First World War.  Full details of the site and its history can be found here.

Rachel Hasted
Heritage and diversity consultant and researcher


07 March 2016

Award of the Victoria Cross to Indian Army Officers and Men

The India Office Records holds many files relating to the award of medals and honours to soldiers for bravery in battle. One interesting file on the subject of honours is from the India Office Information Department, which was responsible for communicating official policy to the press, advising on broadcasting and films about India, and liaising with the Ministry of Information and the Governments of India and Burma about publicity and propaganda.

The file contains a splendid booklet produced by the Inter Service Public Relations Directorate, India Command, in late 1945. Titled Officers & Men of the Indian Army who have been awarded the Victoria Cross for valour in the field it gives information on the 21 men who had been awarded the medal during the course of the Second World War (up to February 1945). Each page of the booklet gives a photograph of the soldier, with a description of the action for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross, and a dramatic drawing showing the action.

Included in the booklet is a page on the Indian Army’s second youngest winner of the Victoria Cross, 20 year old Sepoy Kamal Ram, 8th Punjab Regiment, from the small village of Bholupura, Karauli State, in what was then the United Provinces. The action for which Kamal was awarded the VC took place in Italy in May 1944 just after the Regiment had crossed the river Gari. Kamal’s Company found itself held up by four German machine gun posts, and he volunteered to deal with one of them. He attacked the post alone killing the two German gunners and a German officer who suddenly appeared from a trench. Kamal then successfully attacked the second post, and hurled grenades into the third. Not surprisingly the remaining Germans surrendered. He later rushed a house, killing another German soldier, and taking two more as prisoners. The VC ribbon was presented to Kamal by King George VI in Italy in July 1944.

King George VI pinning the Victoria Cross on Sepoy Kamal Ram

King George VI pinning the Victoria Cross on Sepoy Kamal Ram, 26 July 1944. © IWM (NA 17270)

Also in the file is a telegram from the Government of India War Department reporting on a letter received by the family of Kamal Ram from him following his act of bravery. Written for him in Hindi by a friend, it was intended for the whole village. In it he mentions nothing about his exploits, instead asks about news of relatives, their cattle, the crops and the weather. Clearly not wanting to worry his family he wrote to reassure them: “I am serving with great pleasure. I will never disgrace your name. I am at a great distance from you in Italian Raj. I have good food and I am quite fat”. His citation stated “His sustained and outstanding bravery unquestionably saved a difficult situation at a critical period”.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
India Office Information Department File 462/80(c) Honours, 1941-1944 [IOR/L/I/1/1034]

See my previous posting on the award of the Victoria Cross to the first soldier of the Indian Army during the First World War.


03 March 2016

Barut, Slave Governor of Kalba

How did a black African slave come to be chosen as the leader of an Arab Gulf sheikhdom in 1937?

When Sheikh Said, Ruler of Kalba died on 30 April 1937, the leading citizens (or ‘notables’) of this small Trucial State elected his 12-year-old son Sheikh Hamad as his successor. This meant that a regent was needed to rule over Kalba until Hamad came of age. The choice of the notables was Barut bin Yakut, an African, and a man whose official status was that of slave.

Slavery had been largely abolished in the British Empire in 1833, but the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, most of which later became an informal part of the British Empire, retained the custom. Indeed, slavery in some Gulf states was not formally abolished until the 1960s.

  Oilfields map of the Middle East

Oilfields map of the Middle East [detail], showing Kalba: IOR/R/15/1/700, f 248.Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

There was a long history of the enslavement of East African people by Gulf slave traders, and Barut would have been part of this trade. However, Gulf slavery at this period is not to be compared with the worst historical excesses of slave ownership, and the system also presented talented people with opportunities for personal advancement.

It seems that Barut had lived in Kalba since the end of the nineteenth century. The sheikhdom, on the Gulf of Oman, became independent from Sharjah in 1903. By then Barut had risen to be the head slave of Sheikh Said, and acted as governor of the state during the Sheikh’s absence.

In the uncertainty that followed Sheik Said’s death in 1937, Barut initially fled Kalba, fearful of who might take over power. But following the election of the young Sheikh Hamad, the inability of the notables of Kalba to agree on a suitable choice for regent from amongst their own number led them – unanimously – to choose Barut, on the grounds that he was ‘capable, experienced and well acquainted with the affairs of the state’.

Letter dated 1 July 1937 from the notables of Kalba to the Political Agent, Bahrain

Letter dated 1 July 1937 from the notables of Kalba to the Political Agent, Bahrain informing him of their choice of Barut as regent for the boy Sheikh Hamad bin Said: IOR/15/2/2016, f 148.Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The notables’ choice left the British authorities in the Gulf with a dilemma. Although there were precedents for slaves acting as heads of tribes in the region, any decision to formally recognise Barut as regent would be embarrassing given his legal status. The British also feared that the rulers of the other Trucial States (the modern United Arab Emirates) would be reluctant to accept a slave as de facto ruler.

Letter dated 13 August 1937 from the Secretary of the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf to the Political Agent, Bahrain,

Letter dated 13 August 1937 from the Secretary of the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf to the Political Agent, Bahrain, reporting the Political Resident’s view that official British recognition of a slave would appear ‘somewhat queer’ in the eyes of the Trucial Sheikhs IOR/R/15/2/2016, f 179. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


In the event, the British authorities put pressure on the notables of Kalba to choose someone else, and the decision led to the appointment as regent of Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed, the former ruler of Sharjah and a close relative of the young Sheikh.

Despite being appointed Regent of Kalba, Sheikh Khalid preferred to spend his time sorting out tribal differences elsewhere, and control over Kalba’s day-to-day affairs was again left to Barut.

Kalba’s independent existence came to an end in 1952, when the state came back under the direct administration of Sharjah.

Martin Woodward
Archival Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
British Library: 'File B/17 Kalba - Affairs regarding.'. IOR/R/15/2/2016
Frauke Heard-Bey, From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates (London and New York: Longman, 1982)
Jim Krane, Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City (London: Atlantic Books, 2009)
Rosemarie Said Zahlan, The Origins of the United Arab Emirates (London: Macmillan, 1978).


01 March 2016

Calculating Kindness: Meeting George Price

I’m currently making a new theatre production called ‘Calculating Kindness’ based on American evolutionary geneticist George Price (1922-1975) at Camden People’s Theatre, yards from where George lived, worked and died. Hardly known outside evolutionary circles, George’s story illuminates important questions about who we are.

I first stumbled across George in Readers Digest in 2011. Struck by his extraordinary story, I was compelled to find out more. This led me to the British Library where his manuscripts are held, together with  those of his collaborator William Hamilton.

Price was an eccentric American who arrived in London in 1968. He spent weeks going to libraries, until he discovered a paper by evolutionary biologist William Hamilton.  This talked about many things, one of which was that people are genetically predisposed to be kindest to kin. If this were true, George found the idea bleak. Did real selfless kindness exist?

In an attempt to prove this idea wrong, George taught himself evolutionary theory and formulated an equation widely acknowledged as the mathematical explanation for the evolution of altruism. The Price Equation proved Hamilton right and was so extraordinary that University College London gave George an honorary position within eighty minutes of him walking in off the street.

  Poster for ‘Calculating Kindness’   
‘Calculating Kindness’  - image by kind permission of Undercurrent.

Until now, George had been a militant atheist, but writing the equation had a strange effect on him. George began to calculate the probabilities of coincidences in his life, working out the probability of him being the man to write the equation. The outcome was so remote, George decided the equation was a gift from God and converted to fundamental Christianity overnight.

George then embarked on a radical phase of altruism - helping complete strangers. He gave away everything he had and ended up homeless. In America, George had undergone an operation for thyroid cancer. Now, testing God, he had stopped his thyroid medicine, which can contribute to depression. George was pushing the extremes of survival, living on a pint of milk a day and celebrating his last 15 pence.

A few years later, Price was discovered in a squat having slit his throat. Seven men attended his funeral - five homeless and two of our greatest evolutionary biologists, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.

‘Calculating Kindness’ weighs up the question: was Price mentally ill, or consumed by a spiritual desire to disprove his own theory: that man is kindest to his kin?

Whilst reading through the collection George began to come to life for me - with each document I got to know him a little more. I started to understand what preoccupied George and how he thought about things. This invaluable research has formed the bedrock for developing the show. It’s material I keep coming back to, and as my understanding of George’s science improves, so I see new things in his writings.

Laura Farnworth
Artistic Director of Undercurrent

Further reading :
The papers of George R Price and W.D. Hamilton are listed in the British Library catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

‘Calculating Kindness’ is at Camden People’s Theatre from 29 March – 16 April 2016.