Untold lives blog

10 posts from June 2016

30 June 2016

"We go into action in a day or two and I'm leaving this in case I don't come back". On the eve of the Somme.

On the eve of the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme, Laura Walker, our Lead Curator of Manuscripts 1851-1950, looks at diary accounts of the Battle. Tomorrow, on the day itself, Michael Day, our Digitisation Preservation Manager, considers the death of a British Museum clerk and soldier at the Somme.

The Somme is one of the most well-known battles of the First World War fought on the Western Front. It is chiefly remembered due to the scale of the casualties with over one million dead, wounded or missing by the end of the offensive. The British Library holds eye witness accounts of the fighting at the Somme from Major General Hunter Weston and Captain Roland Gerard Garvin.


Private War Diary of Major General Hunter Weston, Add MS 48365 f.53v Cc-by

Major General Hunter Weston was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1884 and saw active service on the North West Frontier, present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, in Egypt and in the Boer War before he was given a command on the Western Front in 1914. Hunter Weston kept two diaries of his experiences of the First World War one official and one private. These diaries provide us with a fascinating insight into the fighting in 1914 on the Western Front, in Gallipoli in 1915 and at the battle of the Somme in 1916.


 Private War Diary of Major General Hunter Weston, Add MS 48365 f.54 Cc-by

In his private diary for 1916 Hunter Weston has included photographs showing the advance of the troops under his command, the 8th Corps to their assault on the fortified hamlets of Beaumont-Hamel, Beaumont-sur-Ancre, and Serre on the first day of the battle on 1st July 1916. Despite their efforts the 8th Corp’s objective was not achieved and they suffered 14,581 casualties on that day alone.


 Private War Diary of Major General Hunter Weston, Add MS 48365 f.55v Cc-by

Captain Roland Gerard Garvin was the son of journalist and newspaper editor James Luis Garvin. The First World War broke out the week after his last day at Westminster School. Despite winning a history scholarship for Christ Church, Oxford, Garvin enlisted in the 7th Battalion South Lancashire Regiment.


Photograph of Captain Roland Gerard Garvin, Add MS 88882/10/2 Cc-by

Garvin attended a staff training course in Chelsea in December 1914 and this continued in Camberley in April 1915 before he was sent over to France on 17th July 1915. The Library holds his notes from both of these courses and diary extracts from when he was serving on the Western Front. The diary extracts below record his account of the first day of the Somme.


Field Message Book of Captain Roland Gerard Garvin, Add MS 88882/9/31 Cc-by


Field Message Book of Captain Roland Gerard Garvin, Add MS 88882/9/31 Cc-by

On 20th July Garvin wrote a letter to his family saying good bye as he knew he was going into action in a day or two. Three days later between 12pm and 1pm Garvin was killed by machine gun fire. His body was never found.


Letter from Captain Roland Gerard Garvin to his family, July 20th 1916, Add MS 88882/3/9 Cc-by


Letter from Captain Roland Gerard Garvin to his family, July 20th 1916, Add MS 88882/3/9 Cc-by

The complete diaries of Hunter Weston and the papers of Garvin can be found online at http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/.

Laura Walker, Lead Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1851-1950.

23 June 2016

Chronograms: dangerous dogs and escaping elephants

Chronograms are sentences, phrases or poems created so that the letters, which are also roman numerals add up to a certain date. In order to achieve this, the letters that are also roman numerals are attributed with a numerical value. So for example I is 1, V is 5 and X is 10. They can found in historical tracts, on buildings and grave stones.

James Hilton (1816-1907) was an avid collector of chronograms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He found and copied out examples from many different manuscripts but he also received new chronograms from chronogram enthusiasts.

Reverend Cecil Deedes (1843-1920) was a key contributor of chronograms to Hilton’s collections. His chronograms were based on local events and national news stories including the death of Gladstone, the situation in South Africa and escaped tigers.

One chronogram from 1898 reveals Deedes’ empathy for the dogs of Sussex who due to the persistence of rabies were ordered by magisterial powers to be muzzled. Any dogs found not wearing a muzzle were disposed of by the police. Deedes’ chronogram is as follows:


Detail from a chronogram in James Hilton's Papers, British Library, Modern Manuscripts Collection. Cc-by

Luckily for the dogs the order was revoked later on in 1898 by which time Hilton notes that many dogs had grown very fat due to a lack of exercise. Deedes celebrated with his canine friends with the chronogram below:


Detail from a chronogram in James Hilton's Papers, British Library, Modern Manuscripts Collection. Cc-by

A couple of years later in February 1900 Deedes was concerned with the fate of Archie the elephant. Archie was an elephant in Sangar’s exhibition at Crystal Palace, Sydenham. Irritated by his keeper prodding him with a spear, Archie crushed him under his foot and broke loose. Hilton reports that he caused ‘much mischief and alarm in the neighbourhood’. Deedes’ chronogram reports what happened next:


Detail from a chronogram in James Hilton's Papers, British Library, Modern Manuscripts Collection. Cc-by

Deedes enjoyed writing many of his chronograms in Latin but luckily Hilton includes a transcription for those like me who have trouble translating it. The translation is as follows:

‘From Sagars beast enclosure
Within the Crystal Palace
An elephant just bolted
Who bore the name of Archie
He levelled walls and fences
And ruined people’s gardens
In a big wood was concealment
Till here the herd revealed him
Now that his jaunt was over
To work returns the rover’

In order to draw Archie out, a number of other elephants were herded around the wood. On seeing the other elephants Archie emerged from his hiding place. Hilton and Deedes don’t record what happened to Archie but Hilton notes that at the coroner’s inquest ‘magisterial interference caused punishment to fall on certain of Sangar’s people’.

The British Library holds a number of volumes of Hilton’s published and unpublished works on chronograms, which include both historical and current affairs chronograms. Many can be found at Add MS 68939-68941. There are four more volumes from this collection currently being catalogued which will shortly be available.

Laura Walker, Lead Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1851-1950.

22 June 2016

National Insect Week

For National Insect Week, here is an extract from the very first volume of the Calcutta Journal of Natural History, published in 1841. The Reverend Frederick Hope, a well-known entomologist from Oxford, solicits information about insects in India and asks for specimens.


Hope's requests for information about insects in India

  Hope's requests for information about insects in India

 Calcutta Journal of Natural History 1841 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In the same edition are an article on a species of civet, a review of Robert Wight’s Illustrations of Indian Botany, and an account of a particularly ill-tempered meeting of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (‘A committee that would lay down rules for the direction of a curator, ought to know the difference between minerals and rocks’).

Many of Hope’s entomological collections are now in the Museum of Natural History, Oxford.

Antonia Moon
Lead Curator Post-1858 India Office Records


21 June 2016

‘A Violent Pauper’

Today we continue our sad story of poverty and destitution in Victorian London by focusing on the Chivers family of Marylebone.

Robert Chivers was working as a painter when he married Elizabeth Moulder at Christ Church Marylebone on 20 August 1865. They lived in Duke Street, a small turning off Lisson Grove in a poor area.  Their son Robert was born in October 1865 and they went on to have three more children: Ann/Annie, William/Willie, and Thomas.

On 21 July 1868 Robert and Elizabeth were admitted to Marylebone Workhouse with Robert aged 3 and Ann aged 9 months. Little Robert was moved to the workhouse school at Southall in Middlesex on 14 August 1868.

  Dore illustration of the London poor
Inhabitants of London. Image taken from London :a pilgrimage, illustrations by G. Dore Images Online

In January 1869 newspaper articles about Robert Chivers appeared under the headlines ‘A Violent Pauper’ and, with more than a hint of sarcasm, ‘A Model Pauper’.  Robert been taken to court for assaulting workhouse officer James Lockwood who had reprimanded him for not picking oakum properly. Robert complained that he had been insulted when he asked for an additional quantity of oakum to pick.  He had wanted to increase his earnings from 6d for a day’s work in order to support his wife and three small children. Having been unemployed since July 1868, he had asked the parish officers to grant him a few clothes to make him decent to apply for work outside.  His request was turned down because the Chivers family had been in and out of the workhouse for a long time and the overseer thought Robert lazy and sullen.  The jury found Robert guilty but recommended him to mercy because of his family.  He was sentenced to six months in the House of Correction.

Elizabeth Chivers also came into conflict with the workhouse authorities on more than one occasion  In April 1871 she was imprisoned for 21 days for disorderly conduct and using threatening language in the workhouse. The 1871 census shows Robert, Annie and William living at the workhouse school in Southall, and Elizabeth in the workhouse with four-month-old Thomas.  Robert senior seems to have disappeared and I have been unable to discover his whereabouts.

In July 1874 Elizabeth and her children were discharged from the workhouse so they could emigrate to Australia. Their ‘most distressing case of poverty’ was heard before the Melbourne City Bench in December 1874. Elizabeth said her husband had deserted her about four years earlier.  Her sister’s husband had been helping, but he could no longer afford to do so. Elizabeth applied to have her children admitted to the industrial schools but the bench was sympathetic and keen to keep the family together. Thomas was suffering from spinal disease and so he was remanded to the industrial schools for a month for medical treatment.  Elizabeth received £1 for her immediate wants, a charitable subscription was started with a £5 donation by the magistrate, and she was promised that ‘benevolent ladies’ would help her obtain a livelihood.

Unfortunately this story does not have a happy ending. Robert, William and Thomas were all living in the industrial schools by April 1875 when Elizabeth was summoned to pay towards their upkeep. The case was dismissed as it was shown that she was unable to contribute anything.  Thomas died in 1878 aged seven.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading;
British Newspaper ArchiveMorning Post 19 January 1869; Marylebone Mercury 19 January 1869; Bell’s Weekly Messenger 23 January 1869; Marylebone Mercury 8 April 1871.
TroveThe Age (Melbourne) 18 December 1874.

Poverty and destitution in Victorian London

More on William Chivers


16 June 2016

A dinosaur dinner and relics from 'one of the greatest humbugs, frauds and absurdities ever known'.

These are the words which Colonel Charles Sibthorpe (1783-1855) used to describe the Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace. His staunch opposition to any foreign influence, including a deep suspicion of Prince Albert, was the likely cause of his dislike of the Exhibition, which housed 13,000  exhibits from around the world.


Lithograph published by Day & Son, 1854, showing the Crystal Palace and Park in Sydenham. Add MS 50150. Cc-by

The British Library Modern Manuscripts Department owns two volumes of letters, ephemera and artwork relating to the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace and its life in Hyde Park and later in Sydenham, South London. The collection contains posters, letters, tickets, photographs, drawings, newspaper cuttings and advertisements.

One of my favourite items is a letter dated August 27 1862 from Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) to Edward Trimmer (1827-1904), secretary to the Royal College of Surgeons.

Hawkins was the designer and sculptor of the models of extinct animals and dinosaurs which were commissioned to stand in the grounds of the Crystal Palace after its move to Sydenham. To celebrate the launch of the models, Hawkins hosted a dinner on 31 December, 1853, inside one of the dinosaur models.


Baxter-type showing the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace, 1854. Add MS 50150. Cc-by

Trimmer had evidently asked Hawkins which dinosaur was the location of the supper party and Hawkins responded:

"In reply to your enquiry as to which of my models of the gigantic extinct animals in the Crystal Palace Park at Sydenham I had  converted into a sale á manger. I send you herewith a graphic answer in a miniature sketch of the Iguanodon as he appeared with his brains in and his belly full on the 31 of Decr 1853 and if you are further interested in the details of my whimsical feast you will find a good report in the London Illustrated News of July 7 1854 as its proprietor The late Mr Ingram was among the press of guests on that occasion; I had the pleasure of seeing around me many of the heads of science among whom in the head of the squadron was Professor Owen and the late Professor Ed forbes with eighteen other friends we were all very jolly to meet the new year 1854."

Hawkins' sketch of the Iguanodon shows a lively scene of people standing and raising glasses inside the body of the dinosaur.


Detail of the dinner party held inside the Iguanodon, from Hawkins' letter to Trimmer, Add MS 50150. Cc-by

The drawing is similar in composition to the wood engraving from the Illustrated London News which was taken from an original drawing by Hawkins, and shows the dinosaur surrounded by a wooden platform and steps.


 Wood engraving from the Illustrated London News, January 7 1854, showing 'Dinner in the Iguanodon Model, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham'. Add MS 50150, f. 225. Cc-by

The dinosaurs remain in the Crystal Park today and are Grade I listed. There's a brilliant Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs group who promote the long-term conservation of the models. A recent blog on the FCPD site shows images of the interior of the Iguanodon, the dinosaur in which Hawkins hosted his banquet.

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts 1601-1850.

14 June 2016

Failings of English Forestry Students

In a previous post I wrote about the examinations held in 1880 by the India Office to find suitable candidates for the Indian Forest Department.  Once candidates had been selected they were sent to the French National School of Forestry, which had been established at Nancy, in north east France, in 1824, and was regarded as the premier school of forestry in Europe in the nineteenth century.

Station square in Nancy in 1887

Station square in Nancy in 1887 by Jules Voirin - Images Online  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On 27 August 1880, the India Office received a report by the Director of the Forest School on the eight English students who had entered the school in 1879.  For the India Office the report made disappointing reading.  Despite obtaining more than the minimum number of marks required to continue their studies at the School, the students occupied almost all the lowest places in their class, and were trailing behind the French students.  The Director of the School largely put this down to carelessness in their studies, and he was unable to mention one English student who had distinguished himself.

The file on this report in the India Office Records contains the individual report cards for each student, giving marks for each subject studied, and a note on the student’s general progress over the year.  Some remarks on the students would have made uncomfortable reading, both for them and the India Office.  One student, Mr Lillingston, was described as “a charming young man, but giddy, thoughtless and wanting in application.  He is not wanting in intelligence and has a good knowledge of French, but he does not seem to appreciate the importance of learning”.  Another student, Mr Carr, was “intelligent but wanting in energy; he is less attentive to the practical than to the theoretical part of his studies”.  Mr Brasier was “wanting in quickness and energy, but he is attentive to his duties, and in his practical exercises, he has shown a certain aptitude for forestry work”.  Mr Rawbone’s conduct was good, and he was described as fairly intelligent, with the potential to occupy a good position in his class if he would take the necessary trouble, but “he is soft, indolent, irregular and not sufficiently attentive to his studies”.

However, some students were reported on more favourably.  Mr Hobart-Hampden was described as “slow, but conscientious and industrious”, and he had conducted himself very well.  He was expected to take a good position in his class in the next year.  Mr Lace’s conduct was excellent, although he was too fond of being alone and consequently his French had not improved as might have been expected, and he had not done well in his viva voce examinations.

In response, a stern letter was sent to Colonel Pearson, the officer tasked with supervising the English students at Nancy, expressing the Secretary of State’s displeasure at receiving so unsatisfactory a report on the students’ progress, and requesting him to inform them that a more favourable report was expected on their progress the following year.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Report on the eight students at the School of Forestry at Nancy, August to October 1880 [IOR/L/E/6/13, File 704]

See the previous posting on forestry students: Sturdy Scots and pale-faced Londoners


10 June 2016

Burma’s beautiful game

To mark the start of the Euro 2016 football tournament in France, we bring you this picture from the 1820s which appears to be a game of keepy-uppy.

  Playing chinlone

The image was drawn by Dr James Paterson of HM 13th Light Infantry and published in the Behar Amateur Lithographic Scrap Book  by Charles D'Oyly, founder of the Behar Amateur Lithographic Press.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The caption reads ‘National Burmese Game - played with a light open wicker ball by four Men & the art is in keeping it in the air as long as possible by striking it with any part of the foot or leg without using the hand’.

The game is chinlone, a traditional sport dating back many centuries and still played in Myanmar today.  Players stand in a circle and keep the ball from touching the ground by flipping it into the air or passing it to one another. 


  Playing chinlone

From Charles Alexander Gordon, Our trip to Burmah, with notes on that country  p.77 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Surgeon General Charles Alexander Gordon witnessed chinlone being played when visiting Burma in 1875. He described it as football.
‘The ball is made of strips of rattan; it is in the form of a hollow sphere, and very elastic.  The players have literally girded up their loins, the better to leave their limbs completely free; both arms and legs quite bare, showing on the latter that extraordinary amount of tattooing for which the Burmese are specially famous.  The ball is tossed in air; the players keep it up and pass it on from one to the other; nor are they permitted to touch it with the hand.  Apparently, however, this is unnecessary; for knee, ankle, sole of foot, shoulder – in fact, any part of the body – is equally ready; and thus the game goes merrily on, amid much laughter and high good spirits.’

Wouldn’t it be splendid if commentators for Euro 2016 matches quoted that last phrase from Gordon after every crunching tackle?  ‘Thus the game goes merrily on, amid much laughter and high good spirits.’

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Charles D'Oyly,  Behar Amateur Lithographic Scrap Book  (Patna, c. 1828)
Charles Alexander Gordon, Our trip to Burmah, with notes on that country (London, c. 1877)
Pekin pyan Win Ko, Facts about Myanmar traditional chinlone game and correct methods of chinlone playing (Yangon, 2013)


08 June 2016

Theodore and Mabel Bent in Southern Arabia

Could the Phoenicians, the ancient Mediterranean people who gave us the modern Latin alphabet and founded Carthage, have originated in Bahrain? A pioneering 19th century British archaeologist and his wife thought it possible.

Theodore Bent was born in Yorkshire in 1852. His marriage to landowner’s daughter Mabel Hall-Dare saved him from an intended legal career. The Bents shared a love of travel, and Mabel became a lifelong contributor to Bent’s work and writing.  Visits to Italy in the late 1870s were followed by extensive tours of the Greek Islands and Asia Minor in the 1880s, where the Bents developed a deep interest in archaeology. Bent’s researches led him to produce books and articles for both the popular press and learned journals.

In 1889 Bent visited Bahrain. Sir Henry Rawlinson, who had deciphered the cuneiform script of ancient Babylon, had recently suggested that Bahrain was the site of ‘Dilmun’. Sumerian poets had written of Dilmun as an abode of the blessed, the refuge of Ziusudra, the Sumerian Noah.

  Entry in the Persian Gulf Administration Report, 1888-89, recording the arrival of the Bents in the Gulf

An entry in the Persian Gulf Administration Report, 1888-89, recording the arrival of the Bents in the Gulf and the start of their excavations amongst the ancient tumuli at Bahrain: IOR/V/23/56, No 259, f.51r Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Bent’s excavations among the island’s ancient burial mounds led him to draw frequent parallels between the objects he found there and known Phoenician artefacts. His conclusion was that there had been close links between Bahrain and the Phoenicians, and that the Phoenicians might even have originated there.

  Theodore Bent receiving visitors at the mounds, Bahrein

‘Theodore Bent receiving visitors at the mounds, Bahrein’, from Southern Arabia, to face page 24: YC.1995.b.7122, f.24a Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Bahrain was indeed the epicentre of the Dilmun civilisation of eastern Arabia, a maritime trading culture that flourished from the third millennium BC, before being absorbed by the Babylonians in around 600 BC. However, despite the fact that a tradition of the Phoenicians originating in Bahrain (the Greek Tylos) is as old as the historian Herodotus, modern archaeology finds little evidence to support the theory.

Entry in the Persian Gulf Administration Report, 1889-90, recording the opinion of Mr and Mrs Bent that their researches had confirmed the statements of ancient writers that the Bahrain Islands were the original home of the Phoenicians

An entry in the Persian Gulf Administration Report, 1889-90, recording the opinion of Mr and Mrs Bent that their researches had confirmed the statements of ancient writers that the Bahrain Islands were the original home of the Phoenicians: IOR/V/23/58, No 274, f.201r Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

More journeys to southern Arabia followed in the 1890s, when the Bents did much to expand European knowledge of the Hadhramawt (Mabel becoming the first European woman to visit the area). They also visited Socotra and the little-known country around Aden.

Bent’s last journey was in southern Arabia in 1897. Here he and his entire party were struck down by malaria, which in Bent’s case turned into pneumonia. Bent died at his home in London four days after his return to England. In a memorial tribute Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society, mourned a ‘very accomplished man, both as an archaeologist and geographer, a charming companion and a true friend’.

Reference in Field Notes: Aden Protectorate (1917) to the death there in 1897 of Theodore Bent

Reference in Field Notes: Aden Protectorate (1917) to the death there in 1897 of Theodore Bent, after he and his wife had been ‘quite prostrated by malaria’: IOR/L/MIL/17/16/7, f.18r Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mabel Bent saw the account of their Arabian travels into print as Southern Arabia, which was published in 1900. Her book has been described as ‘a classic even of the great age of exploration’.

Martin Woodward
Project Officer, Gulf History Project
Archival Specialist British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
Southern Arabia, by Theodore Bent, F.R.G.S., F.S.A., Author of The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, The Sacred City of the Ethiopians, The Cyclades, Or Life Among the Insular Greeks etc. and Mrs Theodore Bent.. YC.1995.b.7122
 ‘37 File 483 Memorandum on Bahrain; Major E L Durand’s Notes on the Antiquities of Bahrain’. IOR/R/15/1/192
Elizabeth Baigent, ‘Bent, (James) Theodore (1852–1897)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)