Untold lives blog

10 posts from September 2016

29 September 2016

Persian carpets for European consumers

Sir Trenchard Craven William Fowle spent twenty-four years working as a British colonial administrator in the Persian Gulf before retiring in the summer of 1939. During that time he amassed a collection of thirteen Persian carpets.

  Extract of an advert from the journal The Nineteenth Century, dated 1892, about carpet imports

Extract of an advert from the journal The Nineteenth Century, dated 1892. Mss Eur F126/28, f 16  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Prior to returning to England, Fowle put the carpets up for sale at the Political Agency in Bahrain. A list in an Agency file offers details of Fowle’s carpets. Five of the cheapest were described as Baluchi (i.e. made in Baluchistan), their price likely reflecting their small size. Four further carpets originated from Turkmenistan, while the two most expensive items were manufactured in the city of Kashan, renowned for its superior carpets of intricate design.

 List of carpets for sale at the Bahrain Political Agency

 List of carpets for sale at the Bahrain Political Agency. IOR/R/15/2/1531, f 26.Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Europe’s affluent middle-classes became avid collectors of Persian carpets in the nineteenth century. Letters from the East India Company Resident in the Persian port of Bushire indicate that carpets were being sourced for European markets as early as 1813. In the meantime, a succession of European travellers to Persia, including the novelist James Morier and colonial administrators Henry Pottinger and John Johnson, penned narratives in which richly decorated carpets were closely associated with the opulence of the Persian court.

  Extract of a letter from William Bruce, Acting Resident at Bushire to Francis Warden, Chief Secretary to the Government, Bombay, 17 January 1813

Extract of a letter from William Bruce, Acting Resident at Bushire to Francis Warden, Chief Secretary to the Government, Bombay, 17 January 1813.

IOR/R/15/1/12, ff 156-157  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The European (and American) market for carpets had grown to such an extent that by the 1880s, demand outstripped supply. ‘Very old carpets are now extremely rare,’ reported Robert Murdoch Smith in 1883, while sourcing Persian carpets for the South Kensington (now V&A) Museum. In response to a diminishing supply of carpets, commercial companies, including manufacturers from England, set up carpet-making factories in Persia, with the intention of catering specifically to their domestic markets.

In 1883 the Manchester firm Zielger & Company established premises at Sultanabad (now Arak) consisting of houses for their employees, offices, stores and dyeing rooms. This was no factory though; carpets continued to be hand-woven by women and children in the home, although now according to orders and designs stipulated by the Company. Between 1894 and 1914 the number of looms in Sultanabad increased thirty-fold, from 40 to 1,200 (equating to one loom for every 5.8 persons in the town).

 Nineteenth century Kashan carpet.

 Nineteenth century Kashan carpet. Source: ArtDaily.com (Public Domain) 

Although one British colonial administrator reported that the firm was ‘much liked by the villagers’, evidence of the exploitation of weavers elsewhere was reported. The impressions of other visitors to Persia suggest that some carpet production had shifted to grim karkhanas (or manufactories), described as ‘low, dark, miserable rooms’, often with a ‘sour and sickening atmosphere’, in which ‘weakly children of ten or twelve years’ laboured on carpets, under pressure to complete ‘a certain allotted portion per diem’. In 1913 the British Resident at Bushire noted there was ‘no doubt that the industry as carried on is responsible for a great deal of human misery, in deforming and arresting the development of children, especially the girls’.

Of Fowle’s carpets, the expensive Kashanis remained unsold. They were returned to Fowle’s widow after the War (Fowle himself having died suddenly in 1940), but not before being lost by staff of the Southern Railway Company, and spending two months in the lost property office at Waterloo Station.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project

British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
British Library, London, Volume 12: Letters outward. IOR/R/15/1/12  – East India Company correspondence dated 1811 to 1813.
British Library London, ‘Gazetteer of Persia. Volume II’ (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/3/1) – for a description of the Ziegler & Co.’s activities at Sultanabad.
British Library, London, ‘Administration Report of the Persian Gulf Political Residency for the Years 1911-1914' (IOR/R/15/1/711) – reporting attempts to reform conditions in carpet-weaving factories at Kerman, 1913.
British Library, London, ‘File 16/32-II Miscellaneous. Correspondence with the Residency, Bushire.’ (IOR/R/15/2/1531) – correspondence relating to Trenchard Fowle’s carpets.
George Nathaniel Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1892), 523-525.
Frederic John Goldsmid, Telegraph and Travel (London: MacMillan & Co., 1874), 586-587.
Edward Stack, Six Months in Persia Vol. 1 (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1882), 209.
Leonard Helfgott, “Carpet Collecting in Iran, 1873-1883: Robert Murdoch Smith and the Formation of the Modern Persian Carpet Industry” Muqarnas Vol.7 (1990), 171-181.


27 September 2016

Report on Boiler Explosions in Britain, 1880

Last week we told you about an explosion at a Marylebone gunmaker's workshop in 1822 which killed two child workers . Today we look at industrial accidents in 1880 involving boiler explosions.

While cataloguing some India Office Revenue files recently, I came across a copy of the Journal of the Society of Arts, dated 14 May 1880. A short article in it was a reminder of how lethal a place the working environment was in late 19th century Britain.  The article was an abstract of a report containing particulars of visits of inspection and a record of boiler explosions for January to April 1880, presented at a meeting of the Manchester Steam Users’ Association by Lavington Evans Fletcher, the Association’s Chief Engineer.

Mr Fletcher reported that in the first four months of 1880 there had been 2,129 visits of inspection made and 3,830 boilers examined. The inspections had uncovered a total of 448 defects, with 4 described as dangerous, including:
• Furnaces out of shape
• Fractures
• Corrosion
• Blistered plates
• External and internal grooving
• Safety valves out of order
• Blow out apparatus out of order or missing altogether
• Pressure gauges out of order and boilers without such gauges
• Boilers without feed-back pressure valves
• Cases of over pressure and of deficiency of water

Exterior of the Mersey Steel and Iron Works in Liverpool 1863

Exterior of the Mersey Steel and Iron Works in Liverpool 1863 Online Gallery

It was reported that the year had started badly with eight steam-boiler explosions killing 33 people and injuring another 32, while a tar boiler had burst killing 11 people and injuring 6. Despite there being a high loss of life, investigating the causes of such explosions wasn’t always easy. An explosion at an ironworks in Glasgow killed 25 people and injured another 23, but the inspector sent by the Association was refused permission to examine the boiler both by the owner and the Procurator-Fiscal, and was obliged to return to Manchester without any information on the incident. The disaster was reported on extensively in UK and international newspapers.

When a negligent owner was brought to court, it could be difficult to secure a guilty verdict. A boiler explosion at Ormskirk killing three men had been caused by the wasting away of the plates at the bottom of the boiler till they were as thin as a sheet of paper, yet the jury had returned a verdict of accidental death. However, as the report pointed out, competent inspection would have prevented the explosion, and the owners neglected this simple precaution which cost three men their lives. Another explosion at Cork was caused by an inoperative safety valve, yet the Coroner stated that there was no negligence on the part of any person. However as the report stated, safety valves are not inoperative without someone being negligent, and it is the duty of those in charge to see that such valves are free.

On the basis of decisions such these, Mr Fletcher concluded that “The verdict by a coroner’s jury is so constantly one of Accidental death, even though the boiler is worn out and unfit for use, that the coroner’s court becomes to the reckless boiler owner very much what the debtor’s sanctuary in the old days was to the spendthrift”.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Journal of the Society of Arts, No.1,434, Vol.XXVIII, May 14, 1880, pages 588-589 [IOR/L/E/6/19, File 1161]

A description of the Glasgow disaster can be found on Trove


26 September 2016

Foreign Names and Flatulence: Dodging Censorship in the Book Trade

For centuries authors and printers struggled under strict laws and regulations that censored the printing trade. The Pope’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) was first published in 1559 and only abolished in 1966. Printing continued to be subject to strict censorship via an elaborate system of licensing from the Church and State through the 16th and 17th centuries. The last act under this system was the Licensing of the Press Act (1662), under which the printing of “seditious treasonable and unlicensed books and pamphlets” was banned, punishable by fines and imprisonment. The Stationer’s Company, formed in 1403, enforced these laws. Parliament refused to renew the Licensing Act in 1694 but an umbrella of libel laws still existed that censored any material deemed defamatory, seditious, obscene and blasphemous. Despite these minefields, the print trade continued to grow. By the 18th century a steady stream of books, pamphlets, chapbooks, ballads, broadsides and newspapers were being produced to meet rising demand from an increasingly literate public.

So how did authors, printers and booksellers get away with producing illicit material?

Some material was imported from the continent. The Netherlands in particular benefitted from having an unregulated print trade, a stable economy and no censorious state religion. Some authors remained anonymous. Jonathan Swift, who had already faced prosecution for writing a number of politically controversial pamphlets, published his Gulliver’s Travels anonymously as it was a transparently anti-Whig satire.


[Jonathan Swift’s] Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world, London, 1726, British Library 12612.d.24(1) Cc-by

In some cases works were deemed too dangerous for even printers and booksellers to put their name to. Some remained anonymous, like in the Gulliver’s Travels imprint seen above. Others made up the imprint altogether, fabricating the printer’s name and, in extreme cases, the place in which they were based to mask their identities. The most routinely used fictitious imprint in this period was “A. Moore, near St. Paul’s [Cathedral]”. This imprint was often used simultaneously by more than one bookseller and even became a sort of in joke.  As Bookweight, the bookseller in Henry Fielding’s anonymous play The Author’s Farce, says knowingly, “sometimes we give a foreign name to our own labours… so we have Messieurs Moore near St. Paul’s, and Smith near the Royal Exchange”. It was used to print all manner of works, from political pamphlets to erotica (note the “amour” pun on the imprint) and bawdy scatological works like this one:

[Pseudonym] Puff-Indorst Fart in Hando’s The benefit of farting explain’d, Printed for A. Moore, 1722, British Library RB.23.a.8816 Cc-by

There are almost three hundred works listed on ESTC with this “A. Moore” imprint and, as it was then so it is now, it’s difficult to decipher who actually was responsible for printing these works. Current research focuses on matching woodcut ornaments found in these items to other known works by particular printers. However, this is laborious and many of the ornaments used at the time are almost identical. Still, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing; fictitious imprints give us a fascinating insight into the strict regulations that governed the 18th century book trade and solving all their mysteries might somewhat spoil the fun!


[Jonathan Swift’s] Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world, London, 1726, British Library 12612.d.24(1)
[Henry Fielding] Scriblerus Secundus’ The author’s farce, Dublin, George Risk, etc., [1730] , British Library 11774.aaa.27(2)
[Pseudonym] Puff-Indorst Fart in Hando’s The benefit of farting explain’d, Printed for A. Moore, 1722, British Library RB.23.a.8816

By Maddy Smith, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

22 September 2016

Employing children in dangerous trades

When we think of children working in dangerous occupations in the 19th century, perhaps the first things that come to mind are chimney sweeps and mill workers.  I was surprised to learn that young children were employed to make priming for guns. This involved handling percussion powder, a highly inflammable preparation of potash, sulphur and charcoal.


  Recipe for percussion powder

Recipe for percussion powder Philosophical Magazine and Journal vol. LVI (London, 1820) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A terrible accident occurred in London on 12 November 1822.  Collinson Hall, a gunmaker in Upper Marylebone Street, arrived home about six o’clock in the evening  to find a crowd outside his front door.  He was told that there had been an explosion.

Alexander Bettie, aged 12, and his brother John, 10, had worked for the gunmaker for nearly two years.  Their job was to prepare black cakes for priming percussion guns and to fill copper caps with priming composition.  Hall had gone out for the day leaving the boys with instructions to make up about five or six ounces of the priming composition.

At teatime, Hall’s son Collinson left the workshop and went downstairs.  As he was returning about twenty minutes later, there was a fierce explosion in the workshop.  The stone fireplace was torn down; the doors were off their hinges; the ceiling of the room underneath fell; and windows on the staircase were blown out.  Collinson Hall junior found the brothers in the workshop, alive but burned and terribly injured.

Alexander and John both died shortly after being taken to nearby Middlesex Hospital. An inquest was held at the hospital. The Coroner’s jury were taken to the ‘dead room’ to see the boys’ maimed bodies laid together in one coffin, ‘a truly shocking sight’. 

Both Hall and his son were questioned.  Collinson Hall senior said that the workshop was never locked, but the boys were not generally allowed to be in there unless the adult workmen were present.  The boys’ work was expected to be finished and taken from them before candlelight was needed.  He believed it was common practice in the gun making trade to employ children on such work – his own daughter aged 15 and another 16-year-old girl also worked for him - ‘He, however, felt confident that there must have been less caution used on this occasion in his absence than if he had himself been at home’.  The cause of the accident could only be guessed at – perhaps the boys took the cakes they had made that day out of the drawer, and perhaps a spark from a candle had ignited them.

  Percussion gun lock

Percussion gun-lock in Transactions of the Society instituted in London for the encouragement of arts, manufactures and commerce vol. XXXVI (London, 1819)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A verdict of accidental death was returned.  The coroner explained that the jury could only punish the gunmaker by sending him for trial for murder or manslaughter. However that would imply that the powder had been deliberately placed in the children’s way and there was no ground to presume this.

Both the coroner and jury were disturbed by the case.  The coroner said he hoped that the accident would act as a warning: parents should not allow their children to be employed in such work, and employers should not take on children so young that they were incapable of judging the danger to which they were exposed.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper ArchiveMorning Chronicle 14 November 1822, Evening Mail 15 November 1822, The Examiner 17 November 1822.
‘Percussion gun-lock’ in Transactions of the Society instituted in London for the encouragement of arts, manufactures and commerce vol. XXXVI (London, 1819)
‘Description of the percussion gun-lock invented by Mr Collinson Hall’ in Philosophical Magazine and Journal vol. LVI (London, 1820)


20 September 2016

Letters from Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, September 1916

In September 1916, the Battle of the Somme was still raging violently. By that point in the First World War, the Indian infantry regiments had been transferred from France to fight in the Mesopotamian campaign, but the cavalry regiments remained on the Western Front.  The Censor of the Indian Mails reported that the mail for the past week, ending 23 September, had been very light owing to the Indian Cavalry being very much on the move.  One division was still encamped in a “somewhat unhealthy spot” just behind the firing line.  He admitted that the moves had caused unsettled feelings among the Indian troops.

Indian Cavalry Western Front World War I

First World War Official Photographs: Indian Cavalry Western Front World War I Shelfmark X.34023. Images Online

This can be seen in an extract from a letter from Jemadar Indar Singh to a family member in Ludhiana, India, originally written in Urdu, and dated 15 September 1916:

“I am off for a Cavalry attack on the enemy on the 15th September.  It is quite impossible that I should return alive because a Cavalry charge is a very terrible affair and therefore I want to clear up several things which are weighing on my heart at present.  Firstly, the sharp things you have written to me have not annoyed me.  Don’t be grieved at my death because I shall die arms in hand wearing the warrior’s clothes.  This is the most happy death that anyone can die.  I am very sorry that I have not been able to discharge my obligations towards my family because God has called me already.  Well, never mind you must forgive me.  I have abandoned to you all my worldly possessions which you must make use of without hesitation.  Don’t worry your grandparents after I am gone.  Give my love to my parents and tell them not to grieve as we must all die some day. Indeed this day of death is an occasion for rejoicing”.

In his report, the Censor was rather unimpressed by this letter, commenting that the writer “…is certainly a pessimist of the deepest dye and obviously mistook his vocation when he entered the Indian Cavalry”.

The anxious mood among the Indian Cavalry was also reflected in an extract from a letter by Bawat Singh, a Risaldar in the Poona Horse, writing on 20 September 1916:

“The fighting has been very violently lately and it is hoped that it will bring matters to an end.  I constantly pray God that I may speedily be removed from all these calamities and taken home.  Without God nothing can be achieved and we do not know when it will please him to finish the war.  At the present time the whole world is like a field of carrots and turnips which is being rooted up on all sides.  The day that God wishes it to be so, the war will cease, and the troubles and trials of the people of the world will be removed”.

The reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, including extracts from soldiers’ letters, are held in the India Office Records and can be found online.
John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, Aug-Oct 1916 [IOR/L/MIL/5/826/7, folios 1166, 1171 and 1178] online



15 September 2016

Recruiting an Iraqi Judge in Bahrain’s Shia Court

On 13 June 1938 Shaikh Abdul Husain Al-Hilli, originally from Hilla in Iraq, arrived in Bahrain to act as the Head Shia Qadi (judge) at the Shia Court in Bahrain.  The appointment begs the question: given that Shias were a majority in Bahrain at the time, why was a Qadi brought all the way from Iraq and not appointed locally?


Shaikh Abdul Husain Al-Hilli

 Shaikh Abdul Husain Al-Hilli from Al-Wasat News, No 1628, 20 Feb 2007.

The India Office Records provide the answer to this question, in correspondence exchanged between Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, the Adviser to the Bahrain Government, Shaikh Hamad bin ‘Isa al-Khalifa, the Ruler of Bahrain, and the Political Agent in Bahrain. Between 1935 and 1937 enquiries were raised regarding the recruitment of a third Shia Qadi in Bahrain’s Shia Court. However, the possibility of this Qadi being a Bahraini subject was dismissed due to a number of cases involving the misappropriation of money by local Qadis. The Bahrain Government raised concerns about the local Qadis, who had been quarrelling amongst each other and allowing their personal animosities to influence their legal decisions.

Extract from document about the Shia Court
IOR/R/15/2/1941, f 27. The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Applications for the job were subsequently opened to foreigners. Shaikh Hamad was very keen for the candidate to be from one of the Shia holy cities of Najaf or Karbala’ in Iraq. He asked Mr. Belgrave to pass his request to the Political Agent in Bahrain to enquire from the Government of Iraq whether they could recommend a candidate. The job description drawn up by Shaikh Hamad stated that the candidate must have been educated in Sharia law either from a Waqf Department (responsible for the donation of land for charitable purposes) or from one of the schools in the Shia holy cities. The new Qadi was to be paid a larger stipend than the 100 Rupees paid per month to the local Qadis. This was to cover his travel expenses.

Request to the Political Agent in Bahrain whether the Government of Iraq could recommend a candidate

IOR/R/15/2/1941, f 10. The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Amongst the four candidates for the job, Shaikh Abdul Husain Al-Hilli (1883- 1956), a Najaf graduate, proved to be an authority in the field. Soon afterwards, Al-Hilli was appointed to act as Qadi and teacher of religious law in Bahrain. Upon moving to Bahrain, Al-Hilli opened a religious school in Manama near the Al-Khawaja Mosque. The school was mainly established to teach the principles of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Many of Bahrain’s religious scholars, including Shaikh Ahmad Al-‘Usfoor and Al-Sayid Muhammad Saleh al-Adnani, benefited from Shaikh Al-Hilli’s school. A man of letters, Al-Hilli became known for his literary contributions in various Bahraini based magazines, literary clubs, and cultural institutions. He died in 1956 and was buried in Bahrain, the country which became a second home to him for nearly two decades. Interestingly, his place of burial is disputed. Some religiously affiliated online sources claim that Al-Hilli was buried in the holy city of Najaf, which reflects his significance and acclaim.  


Note on Shaikh Abdul Husain Al-Hilli

IOR/R/15/2/1941, f 51. The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Ula Zeir
Content Specialist/ Arabic Language
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
Al-Wasat News, No 1628, 20 Feb 2007.
Al-Wasat News, No 4028, 17 Sep 2013.
IRIB World Service http://arabic.irib.ir/programs/item/2339
Belgrave, Sir Charles Dalrymple. Personal Column. London: Hutchinson, 1960.
IOR/R/15/2/1941 File No. G/6 V. O. Appointment of Qadhis.


13 September 2016

Life at the fringes of empire: Edward Eastwick in Sind

Edward Eastwick (1814-1883) entered the service of the East India Company at the comparatively late age of 22, arriving in Bombay in the summer of 1836.  This was not Eastwick’s first trip abroad.  Following the unlikely advice of a family doctor and the ‘earnest solicitations’ of his wife, Eastwick’s father Robert had taken his sickly ten-year-old son on a year-long opium-trading voyage to China in 1825. Eastwick caught the travel bug, and probably many others besides.

The privations of this early voyage may have gone some way to prepare Eastwick for his first posting in India as ‘Assistant Political Agent, Upper Sindh’.  After an exhausting two-month journey from Gujarat, by boat, camel and foot, Eastwick arrived at Sukkur on the bank of the Indus and set about securing lodgings.  With daily temperatures hovering around 40°C in the shade, and already suffering from regular bouts of fever, he rejected the canvas tents of the other officers and opted instead to have the long-abandoned tomb of a Mogul Princess cleared of rubbish for his own habitation.  This action seems to have gone down very badly indeed with his new boss, the firebrand Scot, Andrew Ross Bell (1809-1841). Bell, suffering terribly from fever himself, was frequently absent from his post as he attempted to recover his health in the hills at Simla. Before one such sojourn he summoned his new recruit for what Eastwick imagined would be a formal handover of duties.

“I have sent for you,” Bell said, with a thoughtful and anxious air, “to beg you will lay the camel dák with care, and use every exertion in order that the produce of the vegetable garden, particularly green peas, may reach me as often as possible!!” 

Eastwick – not, one senses, a natural gardener – had barely got started with the peas when he received orders to abandon his post and move on to the town of Shikarpore. His commodious tomb was to be replaced by a ‘miserable’ bungalow, ‘densely populated by hordes of ants’.


Map of Shikarpore area

Enclosure to Selections from the records of the Bombay Government, No. XVII - New Series, Vol. II (1855) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Entrusted from arrival with running the Shikarpore post office, treasury and prison, Eastwick was hard pressed to meet Bell’s other sundry requests. ‘You must therefore sink such a number of wells’, began one, particularly demanding order, ‘as shall furnish an ample supply of water for 2000 men and 500 camels.’ Even the most competent administrator would have been challenged, and Eastwick appears to have been anything but.

A constant refrain of the absent Bell was that his assistant seemed unable to keep accurate paperwork. As Bell noted in a hastily scrawled note of September 1840, the Shikarpore diary was ‘very incorrect’. With cholera ravaging his station, an escaped prisoner at large, and a drunken European clerk in residence who was apparently fond of charging around the cantonments at night with a drawn sword, the diary was probably the last thing on Eastwick’s mind.


Bell's note to Eastwick

 IOR/H/797, p. 360. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The parties thrown by local worthies may also have proved distracting for the young Lieutenant. Still in recovery for a concussion sustained when riding his camel under a low wooden arch, Eastwick received an invitation to the Minister of Hyderabad’s residence for a nâch. Of the Sindhi dancing girls present, one ‘whose name was “Moonbeam” (Mahtab) was rather pretty’, he ruminated afterwards, ‘but on the whole, there was no great risk of being fascinated’.


  Natch girl

WD485 A natch girl (Moonbeam?) of Shikarpore, Sindh - Thomas Postans - c.1838 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Tom Sharrad
History PhD student, University College London

Further reading:
Eastwick, Robert, A Master Mariner. Being the life and adventures of Captain R. W. Eastwick. Edited by H. Compton, T10930
Eastwick, Edward, Dry Leaves from Young Egypt: Being a glance at Sindh before the arrival of Sir Charles Napier. By an Ex-Political, T37223
Letter Books of Andrew Ross Bell – Political Agent Upper Sind, IOR/H/797-798
Stanley Lane-Poole, ‘Eastwick, Edward Backhouse (1814–1883)’, rev. Parvin Loloi, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008


08 September 2016

Dinners, mortars, and cinema trips: the Afghan Military Mission to India

From 4 December 1944 to 30 January 1945 an Afghan Military Mission to India toured the country, visiting army and air force divisions, witnessing weapon demonstrations and training events, and meeting military and civil functionaries.

A stable, independent Afghanistan on friendly terms with India was seen as vital to the defence of India and the Empire.  Led by Lieutenant General Muhammad Umar Khan, Chief of the Afghan General Staff, the tour was an opportunity to strengthen military and political ties between the Government of Afghanistan, the Government of India, and the British Government.

The Military Attaché at Kabul, Colonel Alexander Stalker Lancaster, had been heavily involved in the preparation of the tour programme, and accompanied the Mission group throughout their stay.  He submitted an incredibly detailed report following its completion, which makes for interesting reading.

Cover of report on Afghan Military Mission to India
IOR/L/PS/12/2217, f 37r Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The report consisted of a tour summary, notes on Lancaster’s impressions of the Mission delegates, and a fully annotated tour programme, providing a timeline of events and visits alongside Lancaster’s comments.

  Itinerary from report on Afghan Military Mission to India
IOR/L/PS/12/2217, f 58r  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As might be expected, the report contains details of weapon demonstrations, tours of barracks and ammunition factories, and includes details of the scale of the preparations for war against Japan.  According to Lancaster the Afghan Mission were suitably impressed, although the report does provide information on one hair-raising incident at a firing demonstration for the 4.2” mortar:

  Report of firing demonstration for the 4.2” mortar
IOR/L/PS/12/2217, f 82r Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Interestingly, the report also provides details of the entertainments laid on for the Mission.  These included regular dinner engagements with army and air force personnel, diplomats and Government Officials, and even a number of cinema trips.

On 20 December, following a day of weapons demonstrations, the Mission were shown “Training films on Camoflage [sic] and Use of Compass, War News Reels and an entertainment film”.  On 4 January “[the] Mission attended Dinapur Cinema. By chance a colour film of Afghan scenes taken by the Thaw Caravan expedition in 1939 was shown.  The commentary was given by Lowell Thomas in his well known [sic] style. Fortunately the Afghans treated it as a joke”.  During their trip the Mission saw several other films, including Kismet, Get Cracking (starring George Formby), Lady in the Dark, and the play adaptations Bhagwan Buddha and Charlie’s Aunt.

  Cover of a promotional leaflet for the film Kismet

Cover of a promotional leaflet for the film Kismet, digitised as part of the Endangered Archives Programme project ‘Collection of books and periodicals at the Bali Sadharan Granthagar, Howarh’, reference EAP/341/5/473

Lancaster judged that the Mission had been “an unqualified success”, and positive reports appeared in the Afghan publication Islah.  In the years that followed the Mission, the Government of India agreed to supply arms, equipment and training at a discounted rate to Afghanistan, in what became known as ‘Scheme Lancaster’.

The file containing the report, IOR/L/PS/12/2217, is part of a series of records compiled by the India Office Political (External) Department related to arms, ammunition and arms traffic.  These records are currently being catalogued and digitised, and should be available for access through the Qatar Digital Library portal later in the year.


Alex Hailey
Content Specialist / Archivist
British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/2217
British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/2218
British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/2204