Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

10 posts from August 2016

30 August 2016

A British First World War hero with roots in India

The India Office Records are able to shed some light on the sadly short life of a World War One military hero.

Rex Warneford was commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service in February 1915. After the obligatory period of training, late on 6 June 1915 he took off from an Allied air base at Dunkirk to attack Zeppelin sheds outside Brussels. Becoming separated from the rest of his squadron, through the darkness he made out the forbidding shape of an enemy craft, Zeppelin LZ-37. Shots from his rifle and pistol did no damage, so he tracked it for more than an hour before steering his plane above and taking the opportunity to drop six twenty pound bombs. Most of the crew were killed in the ensuing explosion.  Unfortunately a number of Belgian civilians died on the ground when the vessel crashed to earth.


Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford VC (1891-1915) bombs and destroys a Zeppelin airship 1915

Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford VC (1891-1915) bombs and destroys a Zeppelin airship 1915 - from
The War Illustrated Album (London, 1916) Images Online  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Running low on fuel, Warneford was forced to make an emergency landing miles behind enemy lines before taking off again and landing safely mid-morning on 7 June. He was the first British pilot to destroy a Zeppelin single-handed. Recognition was swift, and his award of the Victoria Cross was gazetted on 11 June.  It was announced that he would also receive the French Legion d’honneur.

Tragically, only six days later Rex was killed in a flying accident on his way from Paris back to Dunkirk. He was buried in Brompton Cemetery on 21 June.

Although he spent his boyhood in Stratford-on-Avon and Exmouth, Devon, Warneford was actually born on 15 October 1891 in Cooch Behar, Bengal.  He was the son of Reginald and Alexandra Warneford, his father being a civil engineer (our ref. IOR/N/1/218/32). ‘Rex’ is a conflation of his two Christian names, ‘Reginald’ and ‘Alexander’.   His parents married in Darjeeling on 3 September 1890 (IOR/N/1/213/220), when his mother was seventeen years old. The archive also contains an entry for the burial of his father in 1904 (IOR/N/3/92/102) and the re-marriage of his mother in October 1908 (IOR/N/1/356/12).

Belgium has honoured him with ‘Reginald Warnefordstreet’ in Sint Amandsberg, Ghent.

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services       

Further reading:
Deeds that thrill the Empire, (London, 1917), 2 volumes  shelfmark 9081.ff.17.


25 August 2016

‘One heap of stones as good as another’ – Bahrain’s disappearing burial mounds

One morning in May 1944, the British Adviser to the Government of Bahrain, Charles Belgrave, was wandering amongst the stone burial mounds near the Bahrain village of A’ali.  He noticed ‘an elaborate stone crushing’ machine set up on one of the largest and most-valued stone monuments.  ‘I consider it most improper’ he complained in a letter to the British Political Agent, ‘that [the A’ali tombs] should be interfered with’.


  The burial mounds at Bahrain

The burial mounds at Bahrain. Photograph by the Rev Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox, 1918. Photo 496/6/30 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Enquiries revealed that the Royal Air Force (RAF) was the culprit, and was taking stones from A’ali for use as construction materials at their air base at Muharraq.  The RAF’s Air Liaison Officer in Bahrain conceded that the Air Ministry’s ‘lack of historical knowledge’ of the area meant that ‘one heap of stones was as good as another’.

Extract of a letter from the Air Liaison Officer to the Political Agent at Bahrain, 23 May 1945

Extract of a letter from the Air Liaison Officer to the Political Agent at Bahrain, 23 May 1945. IOR/R/15/2/1513, f 11.Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Belgrave’s objection was not without a touch of hypocrisy. Seven years earlier, in 1937, he himself permitted the demolition of several mounds to make way for a new road on the island. On cutting through the condemned mounds it was discovered that they had been hitherto untouched, with skeletons and grave goods, including pots, dishes and other metal and glass objects all found inside.

Extract from a note on antiquities at Bahrain by Charles Belgrave, 1937

Extract from a note on antiquities at Bahrain by Charles Belgrave, 1937. IOR/R/15/2/1513, ff 6-7 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Bahrain’s burial mounds, assumed in Belgrave’s time to have been created by the Phoenicians, are now known to date from the Dilmun civilisation that inhabited the region between 4,000 and 500 BCE. Documents in the Qatar Digital Library record the encounters that British explorers and archaeologists had with the mounds from the latter half of the nineteenth century onwards.

Edward Law Durand was the first to come across the mounds in 1879, while exploring Bahrain in his capacity as First Assistant to the Persian Gulf Resident. He drew sketches of the structures and wrote: “This large series of mounds packed together, and of regular rounded shapes, cannot be the ruins of houses, as asserted by the Arabs, tombs they simply must be”.


Burial mounds at A’ali,

Drawing by Durand, from his visit to the burial mounds at A’ali, 1879. IOR/L/PS/18/B95 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Durand’s report, which offered the tantalising prospect of relics and other treasures in the tombs, prompted the British Museum to subsidise excavation works to the cost of £100. A decade passed before any more excavations of note took place, this time under the guidance of Theodore and Mabel Bent, in February 1889. The Residency Agent at Bahrain reported back to the Resident on the Bents’ excavations, writing of earthenware finds, and bones and ‘a greasy earth of dark colour’ that ‘belonged to a human body'.

  Extract of a letter (Arabic, with English translation) from the Residency Agent at Bahrain, on Theodore and Mabel Bent’s excavations at Bahrain
Extract of a letter (Arabic, with English translation) from the Residency Agent at Bahrain, on Theodore and Mabel Bent’s excavations at Bahrain, 20 February 1889. IOR/R/15/1/192, f 98 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Bahrain’s burial mounds have been repeatedly excavated ever since, for example by British Political Agents Colonel Francis Prideaux, between 1906 and 1907, and Major Clive Daly, between 1921 and 1926; the British archaeologist Ernest Mackay in 1925; a Danish archaeological team in the 1950s; and the Bahrain Department of Antiquities in the 1970s.

The protection and understanding of the burial mounds at Bahrain was paramount to Bahrain’s first National Museum, which opened in the Bahrain Government’s headquarters in 1970. The museum’s later move into a building that had formerly been the RAF Officers’ Mess at the Muharraq air base is not without some irony, given the RAF’s earlier attempts to use the burial mounds’ stones as construction materials.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project

British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
British Library, London, ‘37 File 483 Memorandum on Bahrain; Major E L Durand’s Notes on the Antiquities of Bahrain’ (IOR/R/15/1/192)
British Library, London, 'Notes on the Islands of Bahrain and Antiquities by Captain E. L. Durand, 1 Assistant Resident, Persian Gulf.' (IOR/L/PS/18/B95)
British Library, London, ‘16/16 Miscellaneous – Archaeological excavations at Bahrain’ (IOR/R/15/2/1513)
D T Potts, The Arabian Gulf of Antiquity Vol.1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)
Michael Rice, The Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf, c.5000-323BC (New York: Routledge, 1994)



23 August 2016

Gone for a soldier

The British Army was a popular career choice for young men in the late 1800s, however not everyone was ideally suited to it. Take James Henry Baker and Harry Baker, who both enlisted in the Army in 1890, as examples:

James Henry Baker, born 1872 in Islington, London. He enlisted in the 4th Hussars in December 1890.  His statement of service states:
• 22 December 1890: Attested as a Private in 4th Hussars
• 16 February 1891: Awaiting trial
• 20 February 1891: Tried by Court Martial and Imprisoned
• 20 March 1891: Returned to duty
• 1 April 1891: Imprisoned by the Crown
• 1 May 1891: Returned to duty as a Private
• 5 June 1891: Imprisoned by the Crown for making false answer on attestation
• 29 June 1891: Discharged from serviceBritish soldiers playing card game France 1915

British soldiers at play [France]. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood.Photo 24/(320)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Harry Baker, born 1872 in Birmingham. He enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in July 1890. His statement of service states:
• 17 July 1890: Attested as a Private in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment
• 20 July 1890: Absent from regiment
• 28 August 1890: Awaiting trial
• 3 September 1890: Trial
• 4 September 1890: In prison
• 25 September 1890: Returned to duty as a Private
• 14 November 1890: Transferred to 1st Battalion as a Private
• 29 December 1890: Awaiting trial
• 30 December 1890: Tried by Regimental Court Martial and sentenced to 28 days imprisonment
• 26 Jan 1891: Released from imprisonment
• 29 Jan 1891: Awaiting trial
• 3 February 1891: Tried by Court Martial and sentenced to 6 calendar months imprisonment
• 3 August 1891: Released
• 19 February 1892: In confinement
• 25 February 1892: Tried by Crown Prosecution, convicted of felony and sentenced to 9 calendar months imprisonment
• 23 March 1892: Discharged the service on conviction by the civil power of felony

The circumstances around their respective decisions to enlist in the Army in the first place are unknown, but clearly they either did not wish to be there, or were simply not cut out for a life of military service given their records as shown above.
In the case of James Henry Baker, the false answer on his attestation, for which he was discharged from service, appears to have been in relation to his age.  He had declared himself to be 18 years old and born in 1872, whereas birth records suggest he was probably only 16 at the time and born in 1873/1874.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
British Army Service Records,  1760-1913 via findmypast for James Henry Baker and Harry Baker
David Scott Daniell, Fourth Hussar: The story of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars 1685-1958 (Aldershot, 1959)
Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, The Story of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, formerly the sixth foot (London, 1921)


18 August 2016

Rescue of an Indian Seaman

On 23 July 1924 the Under Secretary of State for India received a letter from T W Moore, Secretary of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild.   Moore informed him of the rescue of an Indian seaman, bringing to his attention the prompt action taken by Captain Robert Greenhill Hanna of the merchant ship S S Mathura, which had been steaming from Calcutta to Colombo at the time.  The Guild felt that Captain Hanna was to be highly commended for his determination to do all that was in his power to save the man’s life.  They believed that the India Office or the Government of India might like to show their appreciation in some way.


Newspaper report of rescue

Nottingham Evening Post 25 July 1924 British Newspaper Archive 

The curious, and almost fatal, incident began in the early hours of 25 May.   At 6.30am the Chief Engineer of the Mathura reported one of his men missing, a 3rd Fireman Tindal.  On investigation it turned out that after a quarrel in the engine room with another fireman at around 3.30am, the missing man had deliberately jumped over the side! 

No one on board had witnessed this, and the ship had continued on its way with its crew unaware of the seaman’s rash action.  Captain Hanna immediately ordered the ship to be turned around, and a search was undertaken on the course opposite to that she had been steering.   At just before 10.00am the man was sighted in the water, and a small boat was sent to fish him out.  He had been in the water for almost 6½ hours, but seemed very little the worse for the experience.  Alarmingly he reported that while in the water he had several times been “nosed” by what he described as “big fish”, very probably sharks, but he had scared them away by splashing with his legs and arms.  His rescue was even more remarkable as the ship had steamed about 78 miles from the time the man entered the water to being picked up again, and the ship’s log shows that the weather at the time was overcast with heavy rain.

Collage featuring lascars at work and in their lodgings on shore

Collage featuring lascars at work and in their lodgings on shore, Illustrated London News, 1906. Shelfmark: P.P.7611 

SS Mathura had a mostly Indian crew, and it was reported that they were delighted at Captain Hanna’s actions to save their crewmate.  The Secretary of the Guild felt that the incident might be useful to the Government of India in demonstrating to the Indian population that a human life at sea was reckoned by a British shipmaster to be of equal importance, irrespective of colour or station in life.  For his excellent piece of seamanship, Captain Hanna was presented with a gold cigarette case by the Governor of Bengal at a police parade at Lal Bazar Police Headquarters, Calcutta, on 21 January 1925.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
File 2629: Captain R G Hanna, Mercantile Marine: life-saving at sea, 24 July 1924 to 7 March 1925 [IOR/L/E/7/1350, File 2629]


16 August 2016

Mud, Blood, and Vegetables

During the First World War soldiers needed entertainment; a distraction, something to brighten up their time away from the front line. There were journals to write, plays to perform, even a moving cinema. There was also gardening to do. In places that had extra land, and were in a (reasonably) secure location, soldiers grew anything from turnips to tomatoes.

On 5 May 1917 the British Expeditionary Force, Base 1, situated in Le Havre, in recognition of this, sent word to all units permanently stationed in the region ‘to cultivate all vacant land for the production of vegetables, and to encourage the continuity of this work, the Base Commandant proposes to hold a “vegetable show”’.

The type of troops that were stationed in Le Havre supported soldiers who were in the thick of it. There were Convalescent Camps, a Rest Camp, and the Army Service Corps Base Depot. There was an international flavour to the Base, as the Canadian Veterinary Hospital, the Australian General Base Depot and the Chinese Labour Corps were also stationed there.

All units were encouraged to enter the show, as were the Belgian military and French civilians (French troops were excluded). Those wanting to enter could choose to display nearly any vegetable, lists of categories were sent around beforehand and included potatoes, radishes, and kale. There were also general categories, such as flower arranging, or an award for the best garden.

The show was held on the 14, 15 and 16 August in a local garden (Jardin St Roch). Regimental bands provided musical entertainment each day and the event was advertised in a local newspaper (the Havre Éclair). On the last day of the show prizes and medallions were awarded to the best in each category in an awards ceremony.


  Certificate for the 1917 British Expeditionary Force vegetable show

A letter from Captain P.H. Browne informs us that this certificate for the 1917 show was engraved by a soldier who in his civilian life was a clerk at a gas company.

In spite of ‘deplorable weather’ 9,000 people visited over the three days. Officers had donated money to pay for the show and prizes, to allow all profit to be given to the needy. The money raised amounted to 3,000 francs, which was donated half to the British Red Cross, and half to the French Oeuvres de Guerre.

In the second year of the show 11,000 people visited, and nearly 4,000 francs were raised. This year an extra competition was announced, to see who could produce the most vegetables per acre throughout the year. A Depot Company of German Prisoners of War won, with an average of 26 tons of vegetables produced per acre (compared to the 2 tons produced by the lowest ranking units).


Certificate for the 1918 British Expeditionary Force vegetable show

This 1918 certificate shows the inclusion of poultry and rabbits into the competition.

The shows could become rather competitive. Miss J M Wilson, a volunteer with the YMCA in Le Havre during the war wrote in her memoirs about a garden she cultivated. She described one vegetable that reached an ‘enormous size’ which they hoped to compete with in the show, but it was stolen, and there was a rumour that the thief exhibited it as his own.

The British Library has a collection of letters and ephemera about these shows, all donated at the time by senior ranking officers, and now in a guard book volume at shelfmark Tab.11748.aa.4.(88-117), which is where the information for this blog originated. They also donated copies of the victory medallions which are currently on display in the First World War gallery at the Imperial War Museum.

Ann-Marie Foster
PhD placement student Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Aunt J: Jessie Millar Watson MBE: Wartime Memories of a Lady YMCA Volunteer in France 1915-1918, edited by Joan E. Duncan (Privately Published, 1999) British Library shelfmark: YC.2000.a.1675.
Information about the medallions awarded 1918 now held at the Imperial War Museum.


12 August 2016

Robert Clive – ‘Rio Janeiro was my choice’

As the eyes of the world focus on the Olympic Games in Brazil, I thought I’d share a story about Robert Clive’s stay in Rio de Janeiro in 1764. It was not a happy experience! 

Here is Clive telling us what happened - can you hear a tone of haughty disdain echoing down the years? 

Letter from Robert Clive to the Viceroy of Rio de Janeiro, dated St Christovo 5 November 1764 -

‘Distress of weather, and a tedious passage to my Government in the East Indies, obliged me to put into some port, for refreshment.  Rio Janeiro was my choice... Considering the very great and recent services rendered by the British nation to that of Portugal, it was reasonable to suppose that a man of my station and dignity, would be entitled to every mark of distinction from the Viceroy of this place.  As an Englishman, however, I at least expected security for myself and for my family in a Portugueze settlement.  How far these expectations…have been answered, cannot, I think, be determined by a few superficial marks of shew and ceremony; because civilities of the most obvious nature have been, as it should seem, purposely omitted.  Over this, however, I am content to draw a veil, having a much stronger ground for complaint. 

Among my domestic servants, there were four musicians, whom I hired in England, at a great expence, for the amusement of the Government of Calcutta.  These I brought on shore, merely to entertain this town; and being informed that the inhabitants were admirers of music, I permitted my band to go to any private families who might be desirous of hearing them perform… They were found to excell all those of their profession in the settlement and priests and others were, hereupon, instructed to seduce them.  I had indeed been frequently informed, that such an attempt would be made, nay I received several intimations of Your Excellency’s intention to facilitate and encourage the execution of the design, that they might be inveigled to stay here, and be employed at the opera after my departure.  But as it was impossible for a liberal mind to entertain so mean a suspicion against a man in your exalted station, I still continued to let my servants go at large.’


   The church of Our Lady of Glory at Rio de Janeiro

The church of Our Lady of Glory from Views and costumes of Rio de Janeiro painted by Lieutenant Henry Chamberlain, 1822.

©De Agostini/The British Library Board  Images Online

Once Clive was convinced that his musicians were being lured away, he tried to have them seized.  The men took refuge in a church and were then allowed to escape.

‘Could it be conceived that your Excellency’s authority, which cannot be eluded by the meanest slave in the remotest part of your government, would be baffled by three fiddlers, dressed in laced cloaths, carrying with them a large quantity of baggage, and escorted into the country by a priest?...These men, Sir, are not only my servants; they are also British subjects; and you cannot be ignorant, that the seduction of them, will neither be looked upon with indifference by the King of England, nor countenanced, much less approved of by the King of Portugal.'


Letter from Robert Clive to the Viceroy of Rio de Janeiro

India Office Private Papers MSS Eur G 37/3/1 f.64v     Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Clive ends with this postscript, lofty to the last: ‘To prevent any misinterpretation of this letter, I have enclosed an accurate translation of it into French, a language with which your Excellency is not unacquainted’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The letter comes from the papers of Robert Clive in India Office Private Papers MSS Eur G 37/3/1 ff.61-64v.

Robert Clive arrives in India

10 August 2016

Scrapbooking Waterloo: Thomas Pickstock’s travel journal

When the London-based merchant Thomas Pickstock (1792-1864) presented his son George with a travel journal recounting his '91 days ramble’ in France and Belgium between July-October 1843, he expressed the hope that the recipient could find it 'amusing...however unconnected as you’ll find it throughout'.


Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Cc-by

The concern expressed by Pickstock was not completely unjustified. His journal, far from being a neat and systematic account of his adventures abroad, appears like a scrapbook. Nearly every page presents a mixture of manuscript, drawing and printed material. Pickstock did not simply rewrite his travel annotations in a fair copy. Instead, he took great care in illustrating his writing with several watercolours and the keepsakes that he collected during the trip.


Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Detail showing a watercolour. Cc-by

Towards the end of his travels, Pickstock visited the battlefield of Waterloo. This was an experience that struck him ‘with ideas and sentiments…impossible to record, or give a fainting idea of’. Though perhaps difficult to convey with words, Pickstock’s emotional response to this experience can be grasped thanks to the numerous pieces of ephemera relating to the battle inserted into his journal: business cards for tour guides, engravings, maps, and even a note from his uncle, who had visited the battlefield years earlier and had brought home a branch taken off the famous tree under which the Duke of Wellington allegedly held his headquarters. When Pickstock visited the field the tree was not there anymore, as it ‘was removed and transported to England by an individual who purchased the right to do so’.


Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Page showing the description of Wellington's tree. Cc-by

The popularity of Waterloo as a morbidly fascinating tourist attraction resonates in Pickstock’s narration of his visit, which included an encounter with ‘a peasant ploughing and expecting to find bullets’ and an instructive visit to the tour guide’s hut, ‘full of Skulls and other Bones with Sabres for sale – all gathered by his own Children from the fields’.


Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Detail showing trade cards. Cc-by

The narration of Pickstock’s adventures is enriched with a meticulous recording of his expenses during his three-month-long journey and an explanation of the differences between the French and Belgian currencies. This attention to budgetary matters might be explained by the financial misfortunes experienced by the merchant during the summer of 1841, when he very narrowly escaped bankruptcy.

Image 3

Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Detail showing Pickstock's accounts. Cc-by

Although Pickstock feared that the slightly overwhelming amount of information that he packed in his journal could deter his son from reading it, he also cautiously envisioned that there would be others which ‘might take some pleasure in perusing the same’: an invitation that can now be accepted, as the British Library recently acquired the third volume of Pickstock’s travel journal and it will soon be available to consult under the reference number Add MS 89188.

Add MS 89188. Thomas Pickstock's Journal. Cc-by


By Alessandra Rigotti, MA Early Modern English Literature, King's College, London, & Work Placement Student, Modern Archives and Manuscripts, British Library.


08 August 2016

The surgeon’s porcupine

Sometimes a single page captures a small life. Here John McCosh, East India Company surgeon in Assam in the 1830s, recalls an unusual pet. McCosh was reporting to the Government of India on the topography of Assam. Topography encompassed history, geography, people, customs, economics, and natural history: indeed, anything which a reporter on an area thought worth recording. This topography would have been a valuable work of reference for government officials. But two centuries later, it is the unexpected glimpse into McCosh’s domestic life which stands out.



Porcupine from Burney 97, f.26v De animalium proprietate BL flickr Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

‘I once had a pet porcupine at Goalpara, I got him or her (for I could never use the freedom of ascertaining the sex) when very young.  It afterwards became so tame as to run out and into the house like a dog, and was wont to make its appearance regularly at meals, and ate from my hand any thing that was at table, whether flesh or vegetable.  It had a great deal of comic humour if I might so call it, and whether to gratify this whim, or from love of stolen treasure, became a great thief.  Nothing that it could carry away was safe; a stick or a shoe, a boot-hook or a broken bottle, was dragged to its nest, but as it never meddled with any thing that was not on the floor, we were easily able to keep things out of its reach.  Latterly this habit became very inconvenient; if any thing fell off the table and was neglected, it was certain to be carried off.  On searching its hoard the lost article was frequently found, but I had sometimes reason to think, the porcupine was blamed for taking away things he had no share in.  It became the torment of the dogs, and was wont to take a fiendish pleasure in pricking and annoying them.  It had a large share of courage, and in fair field was more than a match for any one dog, for it had only to keep its tail towards him to save its head, the only defenceless part about it; sometimes two dogs set upon it at once, and on such occasions it took to its heels, but it only ran to the nearest corner of the room and spreading out its quills, so as to fill the corner, looked back at its persecutors with cool contempt.’


Section about the porcupine in report to Government of India on the topography of AssamPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Antonia Moon
Lead Curator, post-1858 India Office Records

Further reading:
John McCosh, Topography of Assam (Calcutta: Bengal Military Orphan Press, 1837)