Untold lives blog

9 posts from July 2016

28 July 2016

Words will eat themselves

There is something romantic and tragic about iron gall ink. It has allowed the most beautiful words to take form. The best and the worst words. Dull and incidental household inventories; execution warrants for kings; orders for wars; scientific discoveries; declarations of love. And some of the most incredible poems, prose, songs and stories known to man.

And yet iron gall ink is slowly destroying itself and the paper on which it sits. Words are literally eating themselves into oblivion. Even the ink's composition and ingredients are a result of irritation and death. A sting; a bite; a reaction; a tiny extinction.


Example of iron gall ink damage and subsequent 20th century repair on Add MS 38599 c. early 17th century. Cc-by

I recently attended an Iron Gall Ink Study Day with our brilliant Conservation Department. Three of our conservators have made a study of the ink and their knowledge and research on the subject is amazing. The following are a few images from the day and some manuscripts which show iron gall ink damage.


Example of iron gall ink damage on a vellum manuscript.  Cc-by

Iron gall ink is made from tannin (most often taken from oak marble galls), vitriol (iron sulphate), gum and water. The galls are a tree's reaction to the eggs laid by tiny wasps. The galls serve to protect the little wasps as they develop. One of the galls I picked up had the body of the wasp lying next to it. It must have emerged from the hole in the gall and expired almost immediately. Allegedly, the richest tannin was produced when the body of the wasp was trapped inside. The best galls were apparently from Aleppo as they have three times as much tannin as British galls (at only 17%).


Examples of oak marble galls. Cc-by

The way in which iron gall ink was applied also relates to levels of damage. If applied with a brush, the ink is less likely to eat through the page, whereas applied with a metal nib, the ink bites through.


Same iron gall ink but applied with a brush (left) and a metal nib (right). Cc-by

Similarly, the composition and recipe of the ink affects just how much damage it inflicts. A balanced recipe is more likely to be stable than one which contains larger proportions of gallotannic acid or iron sulphate. Here's a link to just one recipe for the ink. There were hundreds if not thousands of recipes in use at any one time.

  IronGall4  IronGall5

Ingredients in iron gall ink (left) and the colour of the iron sulphate and gallotannic acid when mixed together (right).Cc-by

Why, then, if the damage was evident, was iron gall ink in constant use until relatively recently? It was probably because paper (and indeed vellum) were of good quality up until the mass production of paper in the eighteenth century. Once the paper quality decreased, the effect of iron gall ink was particularly noticeable. Indeed, the most damaged manuscripts I have seen date from the nineteenth century. Wilkie Collins was a particular horror as he scribbled out his lines constantly. The paper on which he wrote was incredibly thin. Much of his manuscripts flake in places where he has crossed out. 


Add MS 41060, Drafts of Basil and Mr Wray's Cash-Box by Wilkie Collins. Cc-by

The ink's path of destruction moves in three dimension. It creeps through entire text blocks consuming the innards of volumes. Until recently, nobody knew that it was both the tannin and the iron sulphate which were damaging. Our Conservation Team are constantly looking at ways to stabilise, treat and better understand iron gall ink. But even then, they say that there is no stopping time: iron gall ink will eventually destroy the prose, poems, letters and warrants. Vitriolic words indeed.

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts 1601-1850.

To find out more about our Conservation Department their blog is here and their web pages are here

26 July 2016

‘Girls bowled, batted, ran and catched’

Are you surprised when I tell you that women’s cricket was played in the 1700s? The first recorded match took place in Surrey on 26 July 1745 between teams from Bramley and Hambleton.

Here is the match report from the Derby Mercury of 9 August 1745:

‘The greatest Cricket Match that ever was played in the South Part of England, was on Friday the 26th of last Month, on Gosden Common near Guildford in Surrey, between eleven Maids of Bramley, and eleven Maids of Hambleton, dressed all in White, the Bramley Maids had blue Ribbons, and  the Hambleton Maids red Ribbons on their Heads; the Bramley Girls got 119 Notches, and the Hambleton Girls 127; there was of both Sexes the greatest Number that ever was seen on such an Occasion, the Girls bowled, batted, ran, and catched, as well as any Men could do in that Game.’


  Girl swinging a cricket bat

An English Girl from  W S Gilbert, The Bab Ballads (1898) BL flickr  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Nearly 150 years later, two teams of women were formed as ‘The Original English Lady Cricketers’.  The aim was to prove the ‘suitability of the National Game as a pastime for the fair sex in preference to Lawn Tennis and other less scientific games’.  The young players were carefully selected and went through a rigorous programme of training and practice.

  ‘The Original English Lady Cricketers’
‘The Original English Lady Cricketers’ from Marjorie Pollard, Cricket for women and girls (London, 1934)

The elevens toured the main towns of the UK from 1890, putting on exhibition matches in a ‘select and refined’ manner.  The women were ‘elegantly and appropriately attired’, and accompanied by a matron at all engagements. 

Advertisements for the tour described the Lady Cricketers as a ‘Genuine Novelty’ but stressed that the entertainment was ‘Sport not Clowning’.  The women were ‘Refined Lady Athletes, not Burlesque Masqueraders’. 

  Advertisement for the tour of the Lady Cricketers

  British Newspaper Archive  The Era  15 March 1890  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Newspaper commentators greeted the formation of the troupe with some cynicism. One widely published report was condescending about the forthcoming matches: ‘when scrambling across the pitch to steal a short run, we fear that dignity and elegance can with difficulty be preserved.  The appearance of pads beneath a short skirt is very clumsy.  It will be curious, again, to see how many of the team can throw properly, without causing the ribald populace to snigger.  Of one thing there can be no doubt, that these lady cricketers are brave, very brave women, and also highly original’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Marjorie Pollard, Cricket for women and girls (London, 1934)
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Derby Mercury 9 August 1745; The Era 15 March 1890; Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette 1 April 1890

21 July 2016

Harry Michie - With the Roughriders in the Mediterranean

Earlier this month, we remembered Charles Robert Dunt, a museum clerk who became the first member of the library departments of the British Museum to die in the First World War. On 21 July the Museum also lost Sergeant Harry Michie, a clerk in the Department of Printed Books, Maps, Charts, and Plans. Sergeant Michie served in the 1st City of London Yeomanry, a territorial cavalry regiment known as the "Roughriders".


City of London Yeomanry war memorial in Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London

City of London Yeomanry war memorial in Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London - picture courtesy of author

The City of London Yeomanry spent most of the opening years of the war in the Mediterranean.  They operated in Egypt as part of the force defending the Suez Canal. From mid-August 1915 the regiment took part in the Gallipoli Campaign, suffering severe casualities in the Battle of Scimitar Hill. Returning to Egypt in November, the regiment had to deal with high-rates of sickness in the extreme heat of the Sinai Desert. By June 1916, the regiment had almost 100 "ineffectives”, 20 of whom were in hospital.

The regimental history records the death of two of those that had been admitted to hospital: Sergeant Harry Michie and Private William James Pitt. Michie died in the 17th General Hospital in Alexandria from enteric fever (typhoid). He is buried in the Alexandria (Hadra) War Memorial Cemetery.

Harry Michie was born at Stratford, Essex in 1886, the second youngest of the ten children of Duncan and Lucretia Michie. His mother Lucretia Joy was born in Kent in 1844, the daughter of Charles and Harriet of Charlton, near Dover.  His father Duncan Michie was born at Lochlee in Angus in 1844 or 1845, the son of a gamekeeper. At the time of the 1861 Census, Duncan was working as a footman at Brechin Castle. He married Lucretia in Kent in 1865. By 1871, the couple were living at Stratford, Essex, while Duncan was working as a railway porter. He joined the British Museum in 1874, working first as a 2nd Class Attendant in the Zoological Department, before moving to the Department of Oriental Antiquities (presumably after the zoological collections moved to the new museum at Kensington).   Duncan died in 1898 aged 54, by which time the family had moved to Leytonstone, where the widowed Lucretia and her remaining children were still living in 1911. Lucretia died in 1922, aged 77.

Harry Michie followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the British Museum as a boy attendant in the Department of Printed Books on 5 March 1900. He became part of the adult staff on 25 September 1905. Unfortunately Michie's army service records do not seem to have survived, so we do not know the exact date he enlisted at Stratford for the City of London Yeomanry.


Michie's name on City of London Yeomanry war memorial in Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London

Michie's name on City of London Yeomanry war memorial in Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London - picture courtesy of author

Harry Michie's name can be found on the City of London Yeomanry memorial in the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, as well as on the British Museum war memorial at Bloomsbury and the memorial for British Librarians at the British Library at St Pancras. His name also features on the British Museum's roll of honour, which is at the Natural History Museum in Kensington.


British Museum's roll of honour at the Natural History Museum, Kensington, London

British Museum's roll of honour at the Natural History Museum, Kensington, London - picture courtesy of author

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager

Further reading:
A. S. Hamilton, The City of London Yeomanry (Roughriders) (London: Hamilton Press, 1936).
Stuart Latham, Roughriders: the City of London Yeomanry during the First World War (Swindon: S&T Sales and Marketing, 2012).


19 July 2016

Walter Thom’s 'Pedestrianism'

Walter Thom’s Pedestrianism; or An Account of the Performances of Celebrated Pedestrians during the last and present Century was published in 1813, an extraordinary survey of records of matches and athletes, and the application of enlightenment thinking to the documentation of sport. Thom’s intention was to celebrate the achievements of Captain Barclay, but in order to give Barclay’s achievements greater meaning he discussed the athlete’s predecessors with a diligence that provides a model for today’s sports statisticians. He categorised records according to the timescale of the race: 1) matches lasting several days, 2) matches lasting one day, 3) matches completed in an hour or more, requiring stamina, and 4) matches completed in seconds or minutes, requiring sprinting skills.


  Walking race

 Walking Match from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. 22 November 1875, page 185 Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Thom focuses on the life, genealogy, skills, training and achievements of Captain Barclay Allardice, whose competitive career began at the age of 15 in 1796, when he walked six miles in an hour for a prize of 100 guineas. He followed this two years later with a 70-mile walk in fourteen hours. While the records for the shorter distances are likely to have been possible – umpires were present when Barclay did a quarter mile in 56 seconds - it is the longer distance matches that raise questions. Thom reported that Barclay walked 150 miles from London to Birmingham via Cambridge in two days; 64 miles from Charing Cross to Newmarket in ten hours in 1803; and from Charing Cross to Colchester in June 1806 without stopping for breakfast. Barclay also rowed and ran, but he was marked out by his incredible stamina, being able to maintain a walking pace of 4-5 mph on the flat or over hills.

  Captain Barclay

Captain Barclay from Walter Thom, Pedestrianism (1813)   Images Online  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Barclay’s most famous achievement was the celebrated ‘1,000 miles in 1,000 consecutive hours’ walking race against the clock, in 1809. The event stretched over 42 days, and Thom tells us what Barclay ate, how he slept, his muscular pains, digestive powers, and whether he perspired. He describes Barclay’s style as ‘a sort of lounging gait, without apparently making any extraordinary exertion, scarcely raising his feet more than two or three inches above the ground’, and bending his body forwards so as to ‘throw its weight on the knees’. He gives us details of the athlete’s clothes, ‘strong shoes and lambs-wool stockings’, his weight loss (two stones and four pounds, 14.5 kilos), and his morale – ‘not so cheerful as during the day’, ‘in good spirits’. The athlete inevitably slowed during the course of this endurance trial, slowing from a speed of over four mph to under three mph by the final week. The account ends with the statistics of each day’s performance: distance covered, conditions, time taken, average time per mile, down to seconds.

For Thom, Barclay was not just an outstanding athlete but a man of ‘inflexible adherence to strict principles of honour and integrity’. However Thom was primarily fascinated, even obsessed, with the athlete’s body, his weight, pains, size, digestion, perspiration levels, speed. The publication of Pedestrianism marked a new kind of public ownership of the body of the athlete. By the end of this summer those of us who watch sport on television will feel we have got to know some athletes’ bodies quite well; a major landmark in history of this process is Walter Thom’s celebration of Captain Barclay.

Julian Walker
Writer and artist - leads workshops at the British Library on literature, art, history, printing and the English Language.

Julian’s latest book The Roar of the Crowd is published by the British Library. This is an illustrated anthology of sports writing, featuring writers as diverse as P.G. Wodehouse on cricket, Ernest Hemingway on sport fishing, Doris Lessing on swimming, Homer on wrestling and Joyce Carol Oates on boxing.

Further reading:

Victorian Pedestrianism (1) – Robert Makepeace aka ‘The American Stag’

Victorian Pedestrianism (2) – 1,000 Miles in 1,000 Hours


14 July 2016

The high cost of life in India

Whilst attempting to research a general who had died in India in 1812, and whose death was allegedly attributed to the eating of radishes, I came across two pages of the burial register for Bombay covering 26 March 1812 to 9 July 1812. These two pages, as a sample of the burials occurring in India at this time, provide a stark reminder of the high cost of life for Europeans living and working there, including those serving in the Army or on the East India Company’s ships.



Old Cemetery tombstones from Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto (1894) BL flickr  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This seems to have been particularly the case for His Majesty’s 47th and 2/56th Regiments.  Inspection of two pages of the Bombay Burial Register, covering 26 March-9 July 1812 reveals nineteen entries for burials of individuals connected with the 47th Regiment, and a further 15 for the 2/56th Regiment.

These numbers are particularly stark when you consider the fact that there are only 77 burials listed on these two pages of the register, meaning that the burials for the 47th Regiment account for over one quarter of all the burials at that time, and that both regiments together account for just shy of half of all the burials for that three-month period.

Of the 34 burials for the two regiments, fourteen were for infants or children, four for women and a further fifteen for men serving as private soldiers. The women and children were mostly the families of the soldiers, although some appear to have been camp followers too.

The most tragic appearances in this index however relate to the Quarter Master of the 47th Regiment, Sergeant Underwood. His name appears twice in less than two months: first on the death of his infant son James on 22 April 1812, and subsequently on the death of his wife Mary on 20 June 1812.

Life as a seaman at this time could be equally dangerous, with an additional eleven names on the burial register being for those employed on the East India Company’s ships. Of these, six were seamen from the ship Doris, all of whom died within an eleven-day period between 3 and 14 May 1812.

These records also highlight the lack of information sometimes available about individuals, and the way in which lives could be viewed. This can be seen from two particular entries:

19 May 1812 “A Child from H. M.’s 65th Regiment”


7 July 1812 “The housekeeper of Mr Charles Whitehill”

It seems tragic that either no-one knew the names of these two individuals, or worse, the possibility that no-one deemed it important enough to record them.

Karen Stapley,
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
Bombay Burial Register:  IOR/N/3/4, p. 510 available online via findmypast


12 July 2016

Desert Encounter - Knud Holmboe

On 10 November 1929 the Colonial Office received a letter from Philip Perceval Graves of The Times asking whether the Government held any information on a Danish author and traveller named Knud Holmboe.  Holmboe had written to The Times the previous day, briefly describing his plans for a trip across the Arabian Peninsula. He hoped to visit Palestine, Mecca, Medina and Oman, before reaching Aden.  Holmboe requested an appointment with the newspaper’s foreign news editor.  Graves told the Colonial Office that since he assumed that British permits would be required for parts of Holmboe’s proposed trip, it might be interested to know of the Dane’s intentions. 

Graves also wrote:

'[h]ow he means to reach Mecca and Medina is his affair and perhaps "it is his funeral" is all that need be said of that part of his scheme. The rest might be possible'.

Graves’s words would prove to be sadly prescient, although perhaps not quite in the way that he might have imagined.

Knud Holmboe

Knud Holmboe from Desert Encounter (London, 1936)

A fluent speaker of Arabic, Holmboe, who was born in 1902 into a Danish middle class family, had converted to Islam a few years previously.  He had already travelled extensively in the Middle East. The initial part of his proposed journey took him by car from Morocco to Libya, where he witnessed the shocking treatment that was inflicted upon the Libyan Muslim population by its Italian colonial rulers: thousands of Bedouins were imprisoned in concentration camps and summary executions occurred on a daily basis.  According to Holmboe, during his time in Cyrenaica there were thirty executions a day.

Holmboe was deported from Libya to Egypt, where he was imprisoned before being sent back to Denmark.  He recorded his observations in a book Ørkenen Brænder (English title: Desert Encounter), which was first published in 1931. In the book, Holmboe writes:

'[i]t became more and more clear to me that the Italians understood nothing of the soul of this people, of whom they had appointed themselves rulers'.

Predictably, the book was banned in Fascist Italy (it would not be translated into Italian until 2004) but sold well elsewhere in Europe. However, Holmboe did not live to enjoy his book’s success. Having returned to the Middle East in late 1931, intent on completing his pilgrimage to Mecca, he was killed in Aqaba, in modern-day Jordan, allegedly by members of a local Bedouin tribe in the employ of Italian officers, although this claim has never been verified.

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

Further reading:
IOR/L/PS/12/2071, ff 401-402
Knud Holmboe, Desert Encounter (London, 1936)


07 July 2016

“Pre-packed airports” for the Persian Gulf?

‘We regret that no-one in Bahrain is interested in “pre-packed airports.”’ So ran the briefest and most succinct of letters from the Political Agent in Bahrain to the Board of Trade in London, in December 1949. What were “pre-packed airports”, and why was no-one in Bahrain interested in them?


IOR R 15 2 508, f 193

Extract of a letter from the Political Agency in Bahrain to the Commercial Relations and Exports Department of the Board of Trade, London, 1 December 1949. IOR/R/15/2/508, f 193  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Political Agent’s note was in response to a letter, sent by the Board of Trade in London in September 1949, reporting on a combined Dutch-US company that was comprised ‘of specialists in each constituent field of airport construction’, and who were offering the ‘pre-packed airport’, which could be built in any place as required.

This approach was in stark contrast to the way in which the British-administered airports in the Persian Gulf, at Bahrain and at Sharjah (in the United Arab Emirates), had developed. These sites, established by the British in the 1920s and 1930s, had grown up in an ad-hoc and oftentimes haphazard manner, in response to wartime as much as peacetime needs. Moreover, in the wake of India’s independence in 1947, and as the Royal Air Force scaled back its operations in the Gulf, a host of commercial aviation concerns – both British and foreign – were demanding access to improved airport facilities across the region.

British officials in the Gulf were unprepared and uncertain about how to respond to these changes. One Government official in Bahrain noted in 1949 that ‘we have no clear picture of the respective functions of the R.A.F., I.A.L. [International Aeradio Limited] and B.O.A.C. [British Overseas Airways Corporation] at Muharraq [in Bahrain].’ In official correspondence of the same year the Political Resident Rupert Hay conceded that ‘far more foreign aircraft are using the airfields without permission than with it’.

IOR R 15 2 508, ff 164-168

Extract of a letter from the Political Resident, William Rupert Hay, to the Foreign Office, 9 July 1949. IOR/R/15/2/508, ff 164-168 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


There was a gross underestimation on the part of British officials over the future potential of air travel, as well as a clear lack of understanding of the Gulf’s future potential as an international hub for air travel, and of the safety implications this raised. In October 1949 the newly installed Political Officer in Doha concluded that the future prospects for an expansion of ‘air traffic [in Qatar] is unlikely’, and that he did not think ‘there would ever be a demand in Qatar for a complete “pre-packed airport” installation.’


IOR R 15 2 508, f 190
Extract of a letter from the Political Officer in Doha to the Political Agent in Bahrain, 29 October 1940. IOR/R/15/2/508, f 190 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Meanwhile, British Government officials were meeting at the Ministry of Civil Aviation in London, to discuss airfield crash facilities at Bahrain. The facilities at Muharraq, the meeting’s minutes noted, are ‘quite hopeless for any aircraft emergency.’ Proposals made during the meeting included the installation of ‘two standard RAF foam tenders, plus two water bowsers’.


  IOR R 15 2 508, ff 185-189
Extract of advance notes from a meeting held on 19 October 1949, on Bahrain (Muharraq) Airfield Crash Facilities. IOR/R/15/2/508, ff 185-189 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Such equipment could deal with, but not prevent accidents occurring, and, less than a year later, in June 1950, a double tragedy occurred when two Douglas DC-4’s, both operated by Air France, crashed on the approach to Bahrain within two days of each other. A total of eighty-six people died in the two incidents. While investigators attributed the cause of the accidents to bad weather, the tragedies were a wake-up call to British officials, who acted quickly to equip the airfield at Muharraq with radio landing aids and runway approach lights.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project

British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further Reading:
British Library ‘File 13/2 VIII Air facilities in Arab shaikhdoms’ IOR/R/15/2/508 

05 July 2016

Death by food and drink

Following on from Rose Aylmer, the young lady described as having expired from eating too many pineapples, we bring you stories of deaths caused by the consumption of other food items.

The Cheltenham Chronicle of 8 April 1899 carries the story of the ‘supposed death from eating tinned salmon’.  An account of George Perry, a young soldier formerly of the Devonshire Regiment recently invalided from India, who it was believed had died from eating tinned salmon.  The newspaper report states that he and his father had both eaten the tinned salmon and become very unwell and that the son had subsequently died. The post-mortem showed signs of poisoning.


Newspaper report on death from tinned salmon

Cheltenham Chronicle, 8 April 1899, from British Newspaper Archive Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail of 7 June 1920 reports the tragic story of the death of Irene May Banks, age 7, from Hersham, Surrey, who had died suddenly from convulsions following a meal of shrimps and radishes. At the inquest the coroner, in recording his verdict of death from natural causes, noted: “The girl swallowed radishes whole, and must have eaten most ferociously”.  Irene was the eldest daughter of William Ernest Matthew Banks, a grocer’s porter, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Lane.

    Bunch of radishes

  Radishes - image courtesy of Clip Art

It wasn’t just the consumption of food however that led to sudden and unexpected death -  liquids were often also to blame! Alfred Burge, a chemist in Allahabad died on 4 July 1875 from a ‘wound of the face caused by his soda water machine bursting’.  Alfred’s death was particularly tragic as he had only been married a year and left not only his widow Annie, but a 5 month old daughter Mary Alice.  Mr Burge had, the previous year, purchased the chemist’s business of Messrs Buncombe & Co in Allahabad (according to brief obit. The Chemist & Druggist magazine August 1876).

  Burial register entry for Alfred Burge
IOR/N/1/153, p. 280, image available via findmypast Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


A more disturbing account can be found in Theon Wilkinson’s book, Two Monsoons, and relates to the local ale produced in Mussoorie, a hill station whose only manufacture was beer from its two breweries and which by 1903 employed 131 men and produced nearly half a million gallons of beer.  Local ale was usually considered to be inferior to British ale, but one year the local ale produced at Mussoorie was found to be good quality. An investigation was held to look into this, which discovered that one of the coolies (labourers at the brewery) had fallen into the beer vat and drowned, which had added to the fermentation of that year's brew, thus allegedly improving its quality.

Karen Stapley,
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive: Cheltenham Chronicle, 8 April 1899; Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 7 June 1920
Theon Wilkinson, Two Monsoons, London, Duckworth, 1976, p.181
Burial register entry for Alfred Burge, Allahabad July 1875 IOR/N/1/153, p. 280