Untold lives blog

12 posts from October 2016

31 October 2016

The Dumb-Cake

Women!  Dump the pumpkin this Hallowe’en!  Revive an old tradition!  Hurry away and bake a dumb-cake.

The dumb-cake was a method by which unmarried women tried to discover the identity of their future husbands. The ritual is linked to several dates in the calendar: Hallowe’en, Christmas Eve, the Eve of St Agnes (20 January), St Mark’s Eve (24 April), and Midsummer Eve. There were variations in practice in different parts of the UK but all agreed that that not a word must be spoken throughout.  The slightest whisper would break the spell. 

According to the Preston Herald, a large sheet of white paper was spread on a table and three girls each placed on it a handful of flour and a pinch of salt. A dough was made and the girls took turns to roll it out. They then marked the dough with their initials and put it before the fire to bake. The girls sat in a half-circle as far away from the fire as possible. Between 11pm and 12am each girl had to turn the cake once. On the last stroke of midnight, the future husband of the girl to be married first would stride into the room and point at her initials.

A Scottish version of the cake recipe was far more inventive.  The Aberdeen Evening Express gave instructions for four girls to prepare thimblefuls of sand, flour, bran, salt, and brick-dust, with parings of their nails and some hair from the back of their head.  So not something you’ll ever see show-cased on the Great British Bake Off.


Girl sleeping in bed

From Norman Rowland Gale,  Songs for Little People (London, 1896) BL flickr  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Dumb-Cake rules in Yorkshire decreed:
Two to make it,
Two to bake it,
Two to break it.
A third girl put a piece of the cake under the pillows of the two bakers.  When they dreamed, the girls would see the face of their future husband.

In Leicestershire, dumb-cakes were intended to be eaten.  The girls ate their share whilst walking backwards to bed.  If a girl was destined to be married, she would see her husband rushing in pursuit.

Title page of The Dumb-Cake  - A play in one act

The Dumb-Cake  - A play in one act (1907)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A one act play entitled The Dumb-Cake was first produced at the Hicks Theatre in London on 19 June 1907. It is set at Hallowe’en at Webster’s Almshouse in the Borough where Martha Hardy has been nursing her bed-ridden mother for some years.  A neighbour, Mrs Nye, has encouraged Martha to bake a dumb-cake. When Spotto Bird, a pickpocket seeking refuge from the police, ducks through Martha’s open door, she believes the cake has worked its spell...

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records 

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Aberdeen Evening Express 26 April 1894; Preston Herald 25 July 1903; Leeds Mercury 24 June 1913; Leicester Daily Mercury 25 April 1939.
Arthur Morrison and Richard Pryce, The Dumb-Cake  - A play in one act (1907)


27 October 2016

Evanion the Royal conjuror plays with fire

Henry Evans Evanion (1832-1905), a conjuror from Kennington, South London, enjoyed a successful stage career in which he presented a full programme of magical effects, illusions, juggling and ventriloquism.

Mr Evanion, Royal Conjuror and humourist

M. Evanion, Royal Conjuror and humourist. Poster, 1870 Evan.2589a Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


An added touch of humour ensured that during a typical performance 'trick followed trick with wonderful rapidity, and a profusion that speaks highly for Mr. Evanion's resources', as the Morning Advertiser reported on 23 December 1873.


Ticket for Evanion’s wonderful and amusing entertainment

M. Evanion’s wonderful and amusing entertainment. Ticket, 1865 Evan.4441  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Evanion probably learnt to be resourceful at a young age. As a boy he liked to entertain the youngsters of the neighbourhood while his father was out at work and he assembled a small stage in the loft of the family house for the purpose. The loft was also where Evanion’s father housed his pigeons. On one occasion Evanion created the startling illusion of fire and caused such a bright red glow to be seen from the window that a neighbour, thinking the house was on fire, alerted Mr. Evans. Evanion’s father rushed home in a terrific rage to find the pigeons he loved like life “sneezing fit to break their necks”. He savagely kicked the boys downstairs.

However his father’s lack of enthusiasm did not deter Evanion in any way and just two years later in 1849 he gave his first professional magic show. Evanion continued to present his ‘evenings of illusions’ to many audiences up and down the country and, as notices and programmes in the Evanion Collection show, he was still active in the 1890s.


Notice for Evanion's entertainment at the Pier Pavilion, Hastings

Evanion's entertainment at the Pier Pavilion, Hastings. Notice, 1891 Evan.1616  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


  Programme for Evanion's entertainment at the Central London District School, Hanwell.

Evanion's entertainment at the Central London District School, Hanwell. Programme, 13 January 1893 Evan.58 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


One performance defined Evanion’s career. This took place 150 years ago on Saturday 27 October 1866 when he entertained a distinguished audience at Sandringham that included their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward VII and Princess Alexandra of Denmark), and members of the Danish Royal family. This gave Evanion the status of ‘Royal Conjuror’ – a title that he naturally continued to exploit in publicity material for the rest of his career.


  Poster of Evanion performing the ‘Globes of fire, fish and birds’ illusion

Evanion performing the ‘Globes of fire, fish and birds’ illusion. Poster, c. 1866 Evan.2586 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This poster shows a performance of the illusion ‘Globes of fire, fish and birds’ before an eminent audience. Evanion is pictured at the spectacular magic moment when the final large bowl – of fire – has just been miraculously produced from beneath his coat.

Throughout his life Evanion had also been fascinated by the variety of printed material in general circulation. He collected posters, playbills, programmes and associated ephemera relating to magic and a variety of other entertainments. In 1895 Evanion offered part of this now vast collection to the British Museum and some 6,000 items were subsequently purchased. This was a remarkable acquisition at a time when such contemporary, ephemeral pieces were not considered significant. Today the vibrant Evanion Collection at the British Library brings us particularly close to everyday life in Victorian Britain.

Helen Peden
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 and British Library curator of the exhibition Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun


Visit There Will Be Fun – a free British Library exhibition on Victorian popular entertainments, open until March 2017, and see many other rare and wonderful treasures from the Evanion Collection.


26 October 2016

An abandoned ayah

Imagine being abandoned at London’s King’s Cross railway station with just one pound in your pocket. In 1908, this is exactly what happened to an ayah who had travelled from India to Britain to look after a family’s children on the journey home.  An India Office Records file reveals the details of this story which was told in last night’s Sky Arts programme ‘Treasures of the British Library’ featuring Meera Syal.

Many British people employed an ayah to look after their children on the long voyage from India to Britain. The ayahs were at the heart of the family during the voyage, and their employer was supposed to provide for their passage home. However it was not unusual for ayahs to be dismissed once in Britain and left to fend for themselves. There were many critics of this callous behaviour because ayahs often suffered poverty and poor living conditions. In the late nineteenth century, these concerns led to the founding of the Ayahs’ Home in East London. Such was the demand that it moved to larger premises in 1921. They could enjoy a safe place to stay in the company of other ayahs and Chinese amahs, with food and décor that was intended to make them feel at home.


Ayahs in the Hackney Home

Inside the Ayah's Home in East London from G Sims Living London (1904-06) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The ayah highlighted in the broadcast arrived in England from Bombay with a Mrs Catchpole in May 1908. Mrs Catchpole asked Thomas Cook and Son to find the ayah another employer returning to India. The ayah’s services were duly transferred to a Mrs Drummond and she journeyed to Scotland where she spent fifteen days with the family.  On 24 June the Drummonds came to London to take passage to Bombay the following day on SS Arabia. The family left the ayah at King’s Cross Station, giving her £1.


  Ayahs' home entrance

The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney East London, London City Mission Magazine (1921) PP.1041.C 

From King’s Cross, the ayah managed to find her way to the office of Thomas Cook at Ludgate Hill. She was advised to go to the Ayahs’ Home in King Edward Road, Hackney.  The matron of the Home, Sarah Annie Dunn, wrote to the India Office on 16 July reporting the case.  Although the Home did not take charge of destitute ayahs, it would not turn the woman away. Mrs Dunn questioned whether it was against the law for a native of India to be abandoned in such a manner.


Sarah Annie Dunn’s letter 16 July 1908

Sarah Annie Dunn’s letter 16 July 1908 IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The India Office believed that the ayah had no legal remedy unless she had a written agreement that she would be taken back to India. The file notes that the India Office had declined to take responsibility in a previous case in 1890, and that the Government of India had then also refused to intervene. However Council of India member Syed Hussain Bilgrami recorded his disagreement with the proposed response, writing of ‘dishonest and cruel’ European employers inveigling Indian servants to travel with them and then abandoning them on arrival.


Syed Hussain Bilgrami’s dissenting minute 24 July 1908

Syed Hussain Bilgrami’s dissenting minute 24 July 1908 IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Nothing more is written in the file about the destitute woman. Perhaps she was one of the ayahs who developed a special expertise in looking after children on voyages and travelled regularly to Britain. But if it was her first voyage, then her experience of being abandoned must have been truly terrifying.

Penny Brook and Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records

Further reading:
Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (Pluto Press, 2002)
Learning website: Asians in Britain 
Making Britain
Judicial and Public Annual Files 2575-2672: Case of an ayah abandoned in London, 16 Jul 1908, IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622 Explore Archives and Manuscripts
London City Mission Magazine, report on the opening of the Home of Nations (Ayahs’ Home) on 4 King Edward Road, Hackney in June 1921 (Dec 1921 issue, page 140) PP.10451.C


24 October 2016

Tagore Meets an Old Friend in Iran

After ousting the young Ahmad Shah from the imperial throne in 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi determined to once again assert Iran as a world power on the global stage. Gone were the Qajars, who had reduced Iran to a mere plaything in the hands of the English and the Russians; their reign had been replaced by a new order, which sought to modernise Iran, embolden a national identity, and salvage the nation from the ideas and institutions that had so entrammelled it for centuries.

In 1932, Reza Shah invited the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore to Iran. Ties between Iran and India stretch back to time immemorial, a fact of which the Shah and the poet were well-aware. The Shah, on one hand, sought to promote and celebrate Iran’s Aryan (or, Indo-Iranian) identity, while Tagore saw Aryan kinsmen in the Iranians. ‘In me they saw a poet, and that too an Eastern poet, an Indo-Aryan poet like themselves’, he noted. Issues of ethnicity, however, constituted only a part of Tagore’s interest in Iran. The poet was familiar with Iranian history and literature, and was also curious about the Pahlavi dynasty.

On 11 April 1932, Tagore and his daughter-in-law Pratima Devi set out for Iran by air, and reached the port city of Bushehr on the 13th. Although Tagore would later visit the ruins of Persepolis and the Iranian capital, Shiraz (in which he arrived on the 16th) undoubtedly marked the raison d'être of his trip.


  Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran
Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran Wikimedia Commons


In Shiraz, Tagore visited the tombs of the revered Persian poets Sa’di and Hafez. Unlike Voltaire, who had been nicknamed ‘Sa’di’, Tagore – like Goethe before him –felt more of a kinship with Hafez (here is a Mughal-era commentary on his Divan).  Could this have been because of his upbringing? Tagore’s father was a known lover of Hafez. ‘I spent half the night reciting hymns and the verses of Hafez’, he remarked of his childhood evenings. This love was later passed down to his son: ‘… I had my first introduction to Hafez through my father, who used to recite his verses for me’, Tagore recalled in Esfahan. ‘They seemed to me like a greeting from a faraway poet who was yet near to me.’

Indeed, the bond between the two poets extended far beyond verse. At Hafez’s tomb, Tagore sat and read the bard’s poems alone with eyes closed. ‘I had the distinct feeling that after a lapse of many centuries, across the span of many births and deaths … another wayfarer … had found his bond with Hafez’, he afterwards wrote. Echoing the florid imagery of Hafez’s poetry, Tagore penned a eulogy of Iran before leaving for Calcutta in early June:

Iran, all the roses in thy garden
and all their lover birds
have acclaimed the birthday
of the poet of a far-away shore
and mingled their voices in a pair of rejoicing.

… And in return I bind this wreath of my verse
on thy forehead, and I cry: Victory to Iran!

Joobin Bekhrad
Founder and Editor of REORIENT, a publication about contemporary Middle Eastern arts and culture

Further reading:
Das, S.K., ed. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Volume Three: a Miscellany. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996.
Marashi, A. Nationalizing Iran: Culture, Power, and the State, 1870 – 1940. Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press, 2008.
Mukhopadhyaya, P. & Roy, K. in Radhakrishnan, S., ed. Rabindranath Tagore: a Centenary Volume 1861 – 1961. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961.


20 October 2016

Dame Anne McLaren: a noted career

To celebrate the broadcast of the Sky Arts series, Treasures of the British Library, we are publishing a number of articles in the coming weeks on people whose work features in the six-part programme. We begin today with Dame Anne McLaren whose notebook was one of the items chosen by Professor Lord Robert Winston.

Dame Anne McLaren (1927–2007) was a developmental biologist who pioneered techniques that led to human in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

Emma Wesley's portrait of Dame Anne McLaren
Emma Wesley, ‘Dame Anne McLaren DBE, FRS, FRCOG’ (2010). Collection of the Royal Society, London. Copyright Emma Wesley

McLaren studied Zoology at Oxford and received a DPhil in 1952. In the same year she moved to UCL and began research with her husband Donald Michie into the skeletal development of mice. In 1955 she and Michie moved to the Royal Veterinary College and it was in 1958, while working with John Biggers, that McLaren produced the first litter of mice grown from embryos that had been developed outside the uterus and then transferred to a surrogate mother. This work paved the way for the development of IVF technologies and the birth of the first IVF baby Louise Brown some 20 years later.

McLaren 1Detail from McLaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1955-1959 recording her experiments concerning embryo transplants in mice
Detail from McLaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1955-1959 recording her experiments concerning embryo transplants in mice. (Add MS 83844). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

Detail from Mclaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1968-1976
 Detail from Mclaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1968-1976. (Add MS 83854). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

In later years Anne’s career took her from Edinburgh to Cambridge via UCL where she continued her work into fertility and reproduction. As well as undertaking research she was a keen advocate of scientists explaining their work to the population at large and being involved in the formation of public policy. McLaren was a member of the Warnock committee whose advice led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 as well as the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulated in vitro fertilization and the use of human embryos, on which she served for over 10 years.

Selection of lectures dating from 1977-78 including a ‘Lecture to girl’s school near York’

Selection of lectures dating from 1977-78 including a ‘Lecture to girl’s school near York’ (Add MS 83835). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

The Anne McLaren papers at the British Library consist of letters, notes, notebooks and offprints. These are currently available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 83830-83981.

Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1953 to 1956 (Add MS 83843) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.

Anne McLaren’s scientific publications and books are available to readers via the British Library Explore catalogue.

Jonathan Pledge
Curator, Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts


18 October 2016

Pageantry and Parade in Persia

In February 1809, the Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe. The Ottoman Empire and Britain had just concluded the Treaty of the Dardanelles, while in Spain a British army was forced from the shores of Northern Spain at the Battle of Coruna. Meanwhile, the French, British and Russians were also fighting for influence and control in the Persian Empire. The Russians and Persians fought a bitter war for control of the Caucasus, the French sought to threaten India with a Franco-Persian alliance, and Britain looked to prevent both while also drawing away attention and resources from Europe.

In order to do this, a letter was prepared by the British from George III to the Shah of Persia, Fath Ali Shah Qajar. This letter was delivered by the representative of the East India Company and British government  in Persia, Sir Harford Jones. Being an old hand in Persia, Jones appreciated that it wasn’t just the letter that was important, but also how it was presented. A record of the procession organised by Harford Jones is written in the East India Company’s records. It gives an impression of the importance that such pageantry held in the workings of diplomacy in Persia and elsewhere at this time.

“The Procession to the Palace began in the following manner: Officers belonging to the King of Persia. Led horses belonging to the Envoy [Harford Jones]. Native officer of Cavalry, sword drawn. Trumpeter. The Letter with HM Letter and Present. Guard of Native Cavalry, swords drawn. Persian Officers of the Envoy’s Household mismounted. The Envoy. Secretary and Gentlemen belonging to the mission. Guard of Native Cavalry…”


  The court of Fath Ali Shah with foreign ambassadors

Add.Or.1241 The court of Fath Ali Shah with foreign ambassadors - from a reduced copy of the Nigaristan Palace mural. Images Online


It’s not always what you say, but the way you say it. The embassy of Harford Jones was not just impressive in terms of its personnel either, as it carried with it an array of expensive gifts from India and London. The procession was calculated to look impressive, being a display of wealth and military strength to assuage any doubts as to Britain’s ability to defend herself or her Empire in India. The situation in Persia was complicated by constant shifts in the interests of each power in Europe, with both the French and British wishing to bring Russia onto their side while knowing that any agreement with Russia would abrogate the chances of a treaty with Persia. Displays of power and prowess were therefore seen as a necessary ingredient in diplomacy with Persia.

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library

Further reading:


16 October 2016

A Cornish smuggler

For those of you eagerly awaiting the next episode of Poldark, here is the story of a real Cornish smuggler.


  Smugglers sitting with their barrels

'Smugglers' from Clara L Matéaux, Round and about Old England (London,1876) BL flickr


In June 1801 the Revenue gun-ship Hecate had taken possession of a smuggling lugger laden with spirits which had been run ashore at Mullions in Mounts Bay on the coast of Cornwall.  A boat crew belonging to Hecate was on the lugger when a large party of men began firing muskets at them from the cliff.  Fearing for their lives, the sailors were forced to leave the lugger and take to their boat. The armed men continued to fire, in particular one William Richards alias Payow.  Richards, thought to be part-owner of the lugger or her cargo, absconded afterwards.

The Admiralty in Whitehall issued a notice on 27 October 1801 offering £100 to anyone apprehending or informing against Richard and his accomplices.  The reward was payable on the conviction of the offenders. If any of the smugglers informed against their fellows, they were to be given a royal pardon.  This offer was not extended to Richards, a notorious offender.

A description of Richards’ appearance was circulated to aid his capture. 

‘The said Richards, alias Payow, is about 52 years of age, five feet seven inches high, stout made, dark hair, straight and short; dark complexion, dark grey full eyes, with reddish eye lashes and eye brows: his beard also red, and remarkably thick and large, large mouth, and teeth discoloured; voice sharp and shrill.’

Nothing to rival the charms of Ross Poldark there then.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive Royal Cornwall Gazette 21 November 1801


14 October 2016

A case of mistaken identity

On 17 August 1932, the Italian Fascist newspaper, Il Lavoro Fascista, reported that a special envoy to ‘Abd al-‘Azīz bin ‘Abd al-Raḥmān bin Fayṣal Āl Sa‘ūd, King of the Hejaz (and soon to be proclaimed King of Saudi Arabia), had arrived in Turin for a special visit. Such a visit might have been expected, given the fact that treaties of friendship and commerce between the two countries had been signed earlier that year.


Document about article in Il Lavoro Fascista

IOR/L/PS/12/2062 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

However, all was not as it seemed. A translation of the article had been sent by the Foreign Office to His Majesty’s Chargé d’Affaires to Jeddah, Cecil Gervase Hope Gill, who replied some weeks later with a few details that appeared to contradict Il Lavoro Fascista’s version of events. According to Hope Gill, the purported special envoy, named as Mohamed Rafaat El Ahdale in the translated article, was in fact a Syrian chauffeur who had formerly been employed by the ex-King of the Hejaz, ‘Alī bin Ḥusayn al-Hāshimī, and had more recently been engaged to drive the Mecca Municipality’s water sprinkler.  He had since gone on to open his own repair shop, concentrating on ‘worn-out Fiats’.


Fiat 508 Ballila 1932

Fiat 508 Ballila 1932 Wikimedia Commons

Hope Gill’s letter continued by reporting that the Hejazi Government, which owned a number of Fiat cars, had contracted the former chauffeur for the maintenance of its vehicles, and had later assisted him financially so that he could visit Italy in search for spare parts.

Either Il Lavoro Fascista was misinformed, or it was determined not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

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

Further reading:
IOR/L/PS/12/2062, ff 141-143