Untold lives blog

13 posts from April 2016

28 April 2016

The Anglo-Burmese Handbook

A working knowledge of local languages was a skill which the East India Company valued in its army officers. Cadets newly arrived in India were often taught Hindustani, and officers were encouraged to learn new languages, especially if required for their postings and assignments.

Developing and promoting resources for the study and learning of these local languages was therefore an important objective of the East India Company. Officers with an interest in such languages were encouraged to develop vocabularies, grammars and other such aids for use by colleagues and successors to their position.

Dedication to East India Company Court of Directors by Dormer Augustus Chase of a copy of his Anglo-Burmese Handbook

Dedication to East India Company Court of Directors by Dormer Augustus Chase of a copy of his Anglo-Burmese Handbook Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

One such individual was Dormer Augustus Chase (1823-1860), who was stationed in Burma from 1847 until his death in 1860. Chase was born in November 1823, the son of John Woodford Chase, a Captain in the British Army, and his wife Louisa Anne Millicent, née Thomas.

He was nominated as a Cadet in the East India Company Army in 1840, joining his regiment, the 46th Bengal Native Infantry, in India in March 1842. He first arrived in Burma in 1847 as part of the Talain Corps, before joining the Arakan local battalion. In 1852 he obtained a civil commission as the Assistant Commissioner in Martaban, a position he held until his return to England on leave in 1856-1857. Chase returned to Burma following his leave, where he was promoted to Captain and served as the Acting Commissioner at Pegu.

Dormer Augustus Chase is today best remembered for his works on the Burmese Language. His most successful work was the Anglo-Burmese Hand-Book, or a guide to a practical knowledge of the Burmese language which was published by the American Mission Press in Burma in 1852.

Title page of Anglo-Burmese Hand-Book
Title page of Anglo-Burmese Hand-Book T 6855  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Chase’s immediate superiors were so impressed with the handbook that they convinced the Government of India to subscribe to 100 copies, 50 of which were then presented to the Commissioner at Pegu for use by officers posted to Burma. The book went on to have fourteen editions, and was revised in 1890 by Frank Dennison Phinney (1857-1922), the then superintendent of the American Mission Press.

The Anglo-Burmese Hand-Book was not the only language guide that Chase produced. The British Library also holds copies of two manuscripts produced by Chase, but never published. The first is a classified vocabulary of Burmese roots, which was completed by Chase in 1857 whilst in Pegu.

  Title-page of Classified vocabulary of Burmese roots

Title-page of Classified vocabulary of Burmese roots Mss Eur B35 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The second is a Siamese or Thai grammar, this work is undated but appears to have also been completed by Chase in about 1857.

  Cover of Siamese or Thai grammar
Cover of Siamese or Thai grammar Mss Eur F163 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Dormer Augustus Chase died at sea off the coast of Akyab, Burma in April 1860, and therefore didn’t get to appreciate the value that his handbook had to army officers stationed in Burma for well over 35 years.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
T 6855 - The Anglo-Burmese Handbook, Dormer Augustus Chase, 1852.
Mss Eur B35 - A classified vocabulary of Burmese Roots by Dormer Augustus Chase, 1857.
Mss Eur F163 - A Siamese or Thai grammar, by Dormer Augustus Chase c. 1857.
IOR/L/MIL/9/198/198-202 - Chase, Dormer Augustus, Cadet Papers, 1840-1841.
IOR/L/PS/6/465, Coll. 47/3 - Correspondence with Government of India regarding Captain Dormer Augustus Chase’s ‘Anglo-Burmese Handbook’ and the decision to subscribe for 100 copies, Aug 1857-Apr1859.


25 April 2016

The officer and the Anzac

Today is Anzac Day. On 25 April 1915 Australian and New Zealand forces landed at Gallipoli. Many lives were lost in the eight-month campaign. Since 1916 a day of commemoration has been held on 25 April to recognise the sacrifices of Australian and New Zealand servicemen and servicewomen.

During the First World War my great aunt Annie Procter worked at the Australian High Commission in London. Some months ago we discovered her autograph book in the loft at my parents’ home.  One of the contributions was this cartoon drawn by K A Tunks on 20 June 1916.  An army officer is addressing an Anzac: ‘Why don’t you salute? Can’t you see I’m an Officer?’  The relaxed Anzac replies: ‘Gee! You’re lucky. I’m only a bally Private’.

Cartoon The Officer and the AnzacThe Officer and the Anzac

Keith Aubrey Tunks was born in Parramatta, New South Wales.  He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 8 February 1915 at the age of 19.  In April 1915 Private Tunks left Australia for Gallipoli with the 1st Field Ambulance. He was wounded at Gallipoli and fell seriously ill with dysentery after the Lone Pine engagement. In August 1915 he was evacuated to England, contracting malaria on the way. On his discharge from a hospital in Wandsworth, he was sent to Monte Video Camp at Weymouth in Dorset. This camp was established for soldiers of the Commonwealth Military Forces who had been invalided to England from the Dardanelles with either sickness or wounds and who were almost fit for return to duty.  As he had been dangerously ill, Tunks was posted to the accounts section of the Australian Military Office at 130 Horseferry Road, London. This was how he crossed paths with Annie Procter, a 21-year-old Civil Service stenographer, and drew a picture in her autograph book.

  Photgraph of Annie ProcterAnnie Procter - family photograph

Tunks ended the war as a Lieutenant in the Australian Army Pay Corps. His eye-witness accounts of his experiences were published throughout the war in Parramatta’s local newspaper The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate. He arrived home in July 1920 to be met by the Parramatta Welcome Home Committee followed by a special reception at his sister’s house:
‘Lieut. Keith Tunks, of Parramatta, one of the last left in England, was the honored guest at a welcome home held on July 7 at the residence of his sister, Mrs. C. Woods, of May's Hill. The decorations were festive and specially the table, which was arranged artistically with the Lieut.'s staff colors. Toasts were given in honor of the King and the forces, and reference was made to the valuable services Lieut. Tunks had rendered to his country and the Empire both in the field and later in the more intricate establishment of the Australian Headquarters Staff, where work was always plentiful and fatiguing; and the least service we could render him was to welcome him heartily and sincerely’ (The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate,17 July 1920).

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records 

Further reading:
Discovering Anzacs – service record for Keith Aubrey Tunks
The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate via Trove
Fighting Australasia: a souvenir record of the imperishable story of the Australasian forces in the Great War
Europeana 1914-1918


23 April 2016

Selling the silver screen: poster stamps and lost films

Movie studios always promote their newest releases by advertising and merchandising which generates multi-billion dollar revenues. Yet the origins of movie merchandising remain unclear. In nineteenth century Europe, the postage stamp medium was adapted for non-postal purposes by businesses to create a new advertising medium, known as the poster stamp since they are essentially mini advertising posters.  This advertising practice spread to America and at its height prior to the First World War, collecting poster stamps actually eclipsed philately as a hobby with hundreds of thousands of them being issued to commemorate events and sell products.

In 1913 designers Oscar Wentz and Winold Reiss emigrated from Germany to New York hoping to make their mark on the American advertising industry. Wentz wasted no time establishing Wentz & Co., which by 1914 had signed contracts with most of the major movie studios to provide poster stamps depicting actors, actresses and serial movies. Designed by Wentz and Reiss, these were to be sold with accompanying albums by the movie studio to cinema owners, who would sell them to movie goers or give them away as promotional material to entice audiences back each week. 

The Campbell-Johnson collection in the Philatelic Collections possesses sixty-one poster stamps mainly produced by Wentz and Co., depicting prominent actors and actresses from the silent screen including Mary Pickford (1893-1979), the first great American movie star and co-founder of United Artists Studio with Charles Chaplin, D.W Griffith and her husband Douglas Fairbank in 1919; and G. M. Anderson (1882-1971) who is widely regarded as the first cowboy movie star. Here is a link to a silent movie of G.M. Anderson in the role of Broncho Billy in Broncho Billy's Fatal Joke, released in 1914.

Image 1  Image 2
Left: Poster Stamp depicting Mary Fuller taken from the British Library, Philatelic Collections, the Campbell-Johnson Collection, volume 28. Right: Poster Stamp depicting G. M. Anderson as his cowboy persona “Broncho Billy” taken from the British Library, Philatelic Collections, the Campbell-Johnson Collection, volume 28.

The collection also contains twenty-seven Wentz & Co., poster stamps depicting stills from episodes of The Goddess, six depicting stills from the adventure serial The Broken Coin, and thirty-six depicting stills from the detective serial The Black Box, all released in 1915 by the Vitagraph Company and Universal Studios.

 Image 3  Image 4

Left: Poster Stamp depicting a still from episode 14 of The Goddess taken from the British Library, Philatelic Collections, the Campbell-Johnson Collection, volume 28. Right: Poster Stamp depicting a still from episode 15 of The Broken Coin taken from the British Library, Philatelic Collections, the Campbell-Johnson Collection, volume 28.

As well as being examples of early movie merchandising these poster stamps are important as the Black Box and Broken Coin are believed to be lost films. Consequently, they offer a rare visual insight into their cinematography. Used in conjunction with published books upon which the films were based, and related movie song sheets, the poster stamps allow for a partial reconstruction of these lost works.

  Image 5 Image 6

Left: Poster Stamp depicting a still from episode 3 of The Black Box taken from the British Library, Philatelic Collections, the Campbell-Johnson Collection, volume 28. Right: Front book plate of E. Phillips Oppenheim: The Black Box (New York, 1915): British Library Reference NN 2868.

The Campbell-Johnson Collection of Cinderella and Poster Stamps can be viewed by appointment in the philatelic collections, by emailing philatelic@bl.uk

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections


The British Library Philatelic Collections, The Campbell-Johnson Collection, Volume 28
H. Thomas Steele, Lick ‘em, Stick ‘em: The Lost Art of Poster Stamps (Abeville Press, 1989)
Ken Wlaschin, The Silent Cinema in Song, 1896-1929 (McFarland Publishers, 2009)
Robert Whorton, 'The Master Key Serial: Wentz Master Stamp Set Instalment I' in  Cinderella Philatelist, Vol. 54, No. 4 (October 2014)

20 April 2016

Pioneering cybernetics: an introduction to W Ross Ashby

William Ross Ashby (1903-1972), or W. Ross Ashby as he preferred to be called, was a pioneer in cybernetics and systems theory. The term cybernetics is today somewhat devalued because of its overuse, particularly in popular culture – with derivative ideas such as cyberpunk and the ‘Cybermen’ of the science fiction series Dr Who being just two examples – but originally it referred to the science of cybernetics, the science of control and communication, in both animals and machines. As a science cybernetics was conceived as being cross-disciplinary involving elements of Physics, Chemistry and Biology.


Photograph of W Ross Ashby taken 1962, Biological Computing Laboratory, University of Illinois. Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby www.rossashby.info

W. Ross Ashby’s pioneering work in cybernetics began in 1928. While still a student at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London he began keeping a journal of his private interests, including work in advanced mathematics, as a means of relaxation. By 1936, while working at St Andrew’s Mental Hospital as a Pathologist, Bacteriologist and Biochemist, Ashby’s private research, reflecting his fascination with underlying organisation of the nervous system, gradually developed to the point where he conceived of developing a machine that would replicate the adaptive behaviour of the human brain.  Today we would recognise this idea as machine learning.



Image and circuit diagram of the Homeostat taken from Ashby’s lecture slides. (Add MS 89152/40) Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby www.rossashby.info

By 16 March 1948, with assistance from his laboratory assistant, Denis Bannister, Ashby successfully constructed and tested his machine which he called the ‘Homeostat’ the name taken from the word homeostasis, a term used in biology to refer to the control of internal conditions, such as blood temperature, within a living organism. The Homeostat became a minor sensation and was heavily featured in the popular press of the day being described variously as ‘the Robot Brain’ or ‘The Thinking Machine’. A very private man Ashby was somewhat uncomfortable with the attention although he presented the Homeostat at conferences, most famously the ninth Macy Conference on Cybernetics (1952). He also published two books Design for a Brain (1952) and An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956) where he detailed his ideas, including the Law of Requisite Variety’, for both academic and popular audiences.

Throughout the rest of his academic life and into retirement Ross Ashby continued to work on his journal, recording thoughts and ideas, and only stopping in March 1972 just three months before his death. By then his journal stretched to over 7,000 pages spread across 25 volumes.

W. Ross Ashby at the British Library

The British Library collection of W. Ross Ashby’s papers includes notebooks, notes, index cards, slides and offprints and is available to researchers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89153. The estate of W. Ross Ashby also maintains a website The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive which contains digitised copies of much of this material as well as a biography and photographs. It can be found at www.rossashby.info

An in-depth article on W. Ross Ashby and the Homeostat can be found on the British Library Science Blog

Jonathan Pledge, Curator, Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Politics and Public Life

18 April 2016

Mrs Ann Wood – an exceptional woman

Ann Wood is exceptional in the annals of the East India Company.  She was the first, and possibly only, woman approved by the directors to sign a charterparty agreement as Principal Managing Owner of an East Indiaman sailing for the Company. The ship was the Bridgewater commanded by her brother Captain Nicholas Skottowe. ‘Ann Wood of Stanhope Street, May Fair, Widow’ was approved on14 October 1772 together with Beeston Long of London, merchant.

The East India Company was an almost exclusively male preserve throughout its 250 year history. Women appear in its records as petitioners, wives, housekeepers, and charwomen. How was Ann able to hold her own in this man’s world?

Ann’s husband, Robert Wood MP, had built the Bridgewater, signing the charterparty agreement for the first voyage on 3 November 1769.  A few months earlier Robert had been involved in discussions with the Court about sending a ship and nominating a commander and officers for establishing a settlement at Balambangan, an island to the north of Borneo. This expedition was postponed but it appears he may have been using his position as Under-Secretary to Lord Weymouth, Secretary of State for the Northern Department, for his own interests. Wood is better known for his travels in the eastern Mediterranean. His publication on The Ruins of Palmyra in 1753 brought this magnificent site to the attention of the world.


East Indiaman Falmouth

East Indiaman Falmouth launched 1752  from Henry Green and Robert Wigram, Chronicles of Blackwall Yard  Part 1 (London, 1881) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The East Indiaman Royal George under Captain Nicholas Skottowe had called at Balambangan on 22 May 1766. Perhaps this voyage had been part of early investigations into the feasibility of establishing the settlement?  Skottowe commanded the Bridgewater on her 1769/70 voyage to Madras and China (under PMO Robert Wood) and her 1772/3 voyage to Madras and Bengal (under PMO Ann Wood). These were the last voyages Nicholas Skottowe undertook on behalf of the Company but on retirement he took over as the Principal Managing Owner of the Bridgewater. Her last two voyages were under Captain William Parker and she visited Balambangan in March 1780 after completing the Company’s trading in Madras and China.

Ann and Nicholas were children of Thomas Skottowe of Great Ayton (1695-1771). Their brother John was Governor of St Helena from 1764 to 1782, while another brother Thomas had been a senior official in South Carolina until the outbreak of the American War of Independence forced him to return home. They were clearly a family respected by the East India Company directors and her ability and willingness to take over after her husband died on 9 September 1771 shows that Ann had status in her own right.

When Ann died late in 1803 her will tells us that she was ‘late of Putney, now of Saint Nicholas, Glamorganshire’. However she requested to be buried ‘in the vault at Putney with my late dear husband Robert Wood Esq and my son Thomas Wood’. In 1784 Ann had made over the family mansion at Putney to her son Robert who also became an MP.  Her will also mentions a daughter Elizabeth Wood.

Georgina Green
Independent scholar

Further reading:
East India Company Court Books - IOR/B/85 pp.217, 287, 476; IOR/B/88  pp.202-203; IOR/B/92  p.374
East India Company correspondence - IOR/E/1/50 ff. 349-350v, 26 March 1768
Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke, The House of Commons 1754 – 1790 (London, 1964) Vol 2, p.655

The East India Company slaving voyage of Nicholas Skottowe 


15 April 2016

Kirby’s Coca Wine

What better way to end the working week than with a glass of Kirby’s Coca Wine?  This Victorian tipple was advertised as ‘an energizing and invigorating restorative, for mental and physical fatigue’.

The wine contained the active ingredients of the coca plant ‘which, it is well known, possesses powerful stimulating and strength giving properties’.  Coca was used in Bolivia and Peru to 'appease hunger and thirst', and to sustain those undertaking tiring journeys.  Clergymen, public speakers, and others engaged in exhausting work of any kind were said to find the wine a great help.  It contained less alcohol than sherry and was ‘invaluable as a substitute for spirits’, counteracting the craving for strong alcoholic drink by supplying the needed stimulant. Kirby’s Coca Wine cost 2s 6d for a pint and 4s 6d for a quart.

Advert for Kirby's Coca WineBritish Library X15/2023 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence 

I found this advertisement in the snappily titled A guide to proper remedies for common ailments, and the use of surgical appliances. Designed expressly for persons going abroad, residents in India and the Colonies; heads of families; clergymen and others unable to obtain medical assistance written by 'A Physician' (c. 1890).  As you might imagine, the book is full of useful advice and products, and we'll enjoy sharing more of these in later posts.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


How to stay healthy with homemade remedies

14 April 2016

Edward William Charles Noel – political officer and spy

Born on this day in 1886, Edward William Charles Noel remains one of the lesser known British political officers and spies who served in the Middle East during the First World War. In his book, On Secret Service East of Constantinople, Peter Hopkirk likens Noel to Ludovic ‘Sandy’ Arbuthnot, friend of Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s novels.

Noel began his career as a subaltern in the Indian Army and later served as British Vice-Consul at Ahwaz, in Persia. During the First World War he took part in various secret missions, one of which involved assisting the Russian Tsarist General Peter Polovstov and his wife (who were disguised as a United States missionary and his wife) in their escape from Russia. 

Personal file of Edward William Charles Noel

Personal file of Edward William Charles Noel IOR/R/1/4/1284Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As Hopkirk states, Noel remained throughout his life an elusive character. The British Library holds copies of a published official diary by Noel, which documents his activities on special duty in Kurdistan during 1919, but Noel kept no private diaries and despite living well into old age never felt compelled to write his memoirs.

However, there are various stories about Noel’s early career in the Indian Army. For instance, he may well have been the first (or at least one of the first) to cycle all the way from England to India, in 1909, and again in 1910.

David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership 

Further Reading:
Peter Hopkirk, On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire (Oxford, 1995)
Edward William Charles Noel, Diary of Major E.M. Noel, C.I.E., D.S.O., On Special Duty in Kurdistan from June 14th to September 21st 1919 (Basra, 1920).
Documents from the India Office Records about Noel's service are listed in Explore Archives and Manuscripts


13 April 2016

The Queen's visit to Karachi in 1961- the unofficial view

In February 1961 I was a young British geophysicist working on ground water exploration in the mountains of Baluchistan. Madeline was working at the High Commission in a secretarial role.

Much of my time was spent camping near the small town of Las Bela, some 100 miles north-west of Karachi. I lived in a tent with water from a well, no electricity, and it was necessary to return frequently to Karachi for food and other supplies.

Derek Morris in Pakistan

Derek Morris in Pakistan - photograph courtesy of author

On the day of the Queen’s Reception, Madeline and I made our way to the State Guest House. We were shepherded under the shamiana with hundreds of other guests. The shamiana was an extensive horizontal canvas supported at intervals by vertical poles – ideal for sunny days but not for rain. As the Queen's convoy arrived the sky was already very black, lightning criss-crossed the sky accompanied by thunder and torrential rain.

Very quickly the horizontal canvas was turned into a series of basins, each basin filled with water. The canvas was soon ripped open and everyone underneath was soaked, and the wives of the Burra Sahibs, who had probably been waiting for many years to meet the Queen, found their mascara running down their faces, and their beautiful dresses and hats ruined.

Reaction to the downpour was interesting. For the important guests the priority was to get to a dry place in the Guest House as quickly as possible.

However, for the experienced campaigners in the crowd the first priority was to turn to the tables laden with drink and to collect a bottle or two of whisky or wine as booty, to be of some comfort in the ensuring chaos.

We found ourselves lining a corridor in the Guest House, then everything went quiet as the Queen and her party started moving along the corridor, presumably on their way to meet the High Commissioners and other important guests. The Queen stopped and turned towards me.

‘And what are you doing in Pakistan?’ the Queen asked me.

I had no better or more accurate answer than to say 'I am looking for water, Ma-mm'.

The Queen's reaction was immediate and appropriate.   With a glance out of the window at the torrential rain, she smiled and said “It does not seem very necessary at the moment!”

Everyone laughed at this exchange. Then all quietened down as the Queen moved away and spoke to Madeline about the collapse of the shamiana.

The Duke of Edinburgh then appeared, and he in turn stopped and turned towards me. Before he could say a word, everyone was laughing aloud. Presumably, it is not often that people start laughing before the Duke has spoken, and rather quizzically he looked around for an explanation. He smiled when told of my exchange with the Queen.

  Madeline Morris looking through a surveyor's theodolite

Madeline Morris looking through a surveyor's theodolite - photograph courtesy of author

A few days later I returned to Las Bela to continue my work in the Porali River basin, and later in the mountains, closer to Quetta. The exchange with the Queen is but one of many memorable moments of a year in Pakistan.

Derek Morris
Independent scholar