Untold lives blog

9 posts from December 2016

29 December 2016

Sanger’s Circus in Sheffield

Showman John Sanger’s newly-built Royal Hippodrome in Sheffield promised to provide splendid entertainments in December 1888.  The programme at Sanger’s New Royal Circus was regularly changed but additional attractions were brought in for the Christmas season.

The Marvellous Eugenes trapeze artists

The Marvellous Eugenes c.1885 Evan.444 Images Online

Sanger's Sheffield acts in December 1888 included –
• The Marvellous Eugenes -  ‘the greatest living gymnasts’
• Borkoff the equestrian bear who could ride on horseback with ease and grace
• Engist and Orsa, -‘Continental Musical Grotesques’
• Hadjalhi’s Troupe of Arabs – a novel and daring acrobatic performance
• The Martinette Troupe - ‘Pantomimists and Musical Marvels’
• Dezmonti, Alexandre, and Miss Maude - the greatest aerial bar performers in the world
• ‘Educated’ horses, elephants, bears and kangaroos
• Etherdo and Pugh - ‘the flying batsmen’
• Miss Lavinia Sanger and Herr Hoffman – a classical act of school riding.

On Christmas Eve Sanger staged a ‘gorgeous‘ spectacle, The Carnival on Ice or Fete in St Petersburg, modestly promoted as ‘the grandest production ever introduced into an arena’.  No expense had been spared, with lavish costumes and sensational effects.  The arena with sawdust had been transformed into a scene of Russian winter.  A packed appreciative crowd was treated to sleighs drawn by ‘diminutive symmetrical ponies’; ‘fancy and scientific skating’ by the Lisbon Troupe; snowstorm scenes; fights with bears; a snow ballet; and a harlequinade.

Advert for Sanger's Circus 1888

British Newspaper Archive Sheffield Daily Telegraph 20 December 1888

Crowds spilling out of the circus could roam the streets in search of further seasonal delights to sample. They might wish to fortify themselves with one of G Hiller and Son’s celebrated pork pies – over one ton of these had been sold at Christmas 1887.  Or they might browse in the showroom of J S and T Birks who were offering crystallised fruits; calves’ feet and other jellies; magic bouquets; bon-bons; Chinese and Japanese lanterns; wreathes; French and fancy confectionery.  Young and old were invited to walk around T and J Roberts’ Christmas bazaar at The Moorhead.  On display were 10,000 gifts - dolls; musical toys; ornaments; work boxes; and fancy baskets. And I do hope that shoppers remembered to pick up a copy of the Christmas number of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph. This comprised seventeen original complete stories for just one penny, including A Prince of Spoons; The Voice from the Dead House; Mr Buffrog Scalped; and Hah Aw Killed a Tiger at T’Owd Casino.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive - Sheffield Daily Telegraph December 1888

The Sanger family features in  There Will Be Fun – a free British Library exhibition on Victorian popular entertainments, open until March 2017. See rare and wonderful treasures from the Evanion Collection.

Evanion the Royal conjuror plays with fire

27 December 2016

Library closures at Christmas

If you’re feeling at a loss because the wonderful British Library is closed for five days over Christmas, spare a thought for the residents of Sheffield in 1888.  The reading rooms of the city’s free libraries were shut for a fortnight in December.

  Mechanics' Institute Sheffield

Sheffield Mechanics' Institute which housed a Free Library - image from Pawson and Brailsford's Illustrated Guide to Sheffield and neighbourhood (1862) BL flickr

Protest letters were sent to the editor of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.  Mr J Thornton of Whitham Road asked why the reading rooms were closed for more than two or three days and complained that the free libraries were being mismanaged.  Money could be saved by reducing the number of assistants at the Central Library from seven to three – they had little or nothing to do half the time. If Mr Thornton was known to the assistants, I do wonder how he fared on his next visit to the library.

‘Pro Bono Publico’ supported Mr Thornton, suggesting that the libraries be kept open all year round except for a few days’ closure for cleaning and painting.  Extra hands could be employed to cover for attendants taking holidays.  It would greatly help those seeking work if the reading rooms opened at 08.30 instead of 10.00. Half the day had gone before job seekers could get to a place any distance away, and they also missed the morning post. 

‘A Burgess’ added his voice to the protest.  Perhaps the library committee thought it did not much matter to close when people were preparing for Christmas, but ‘in this large town there are always a number of people unemployed, and others who are incapacitated from work, &c, to whom the reading rooms are a benefit and pleasure’.

The environment of the reading rooms also came in for criticism.  ‘Pro Bono Publico’ complained of the lack of ventilation: ‘When the gas is lit, and the windows closed, the atmosphere is something awful.  I should think the gas-burners and check valves want seeing to.  After I have been in a few minutes my eyes smart, and my nose certainly tells me the air is vitiated to a great extent’.

We look forward to welcoming our readers back to the well-ventilated rooms of British Library on 29 December, and hope that our services also provide pleasure as well as benefit. 

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive -  Sheffield Daily Telegraph 17 & 19 December 1888

22 December 2016

Charades – a Christmas game to make a long evening short

The game of Charades originated in France and became popular in England in the second half of the 19th century.  The Brothers Mayhew published a guide to the new game in 1850 - Acting Charades or Deeds not Words – A Christmas game to make a long evening short. Cards, blind man’s buff, and forfeits are said to have been dropped in favour of Charades: ‘On Christmas day, it has been looked forward to, and entered into with as much energy as the sainted plum-pudding itself’.

  Tilte page of Acting Charades or Deeds not Words
Acting Charades

Players form themselves into teams.
‘A word is then fixed upon by the corps dramatique; and “my first, my second, and my whole” is gone through as puzzlingly as possible in dumb show, each division, making a separate and entire act. At the conclusion of the drama, the guessing begins on the part of the audience. The great rule to be observed in acting charades, is—silence. Nothing more than an exclamation is allowed.’

Placards may be used to set the scene:
‘It would be utterly impossible for the audience to know that the drawing-room wall before them is meant to represent a “magnificent view on the Rhine,” or “the wood of Ardennes by moonlight,” unless some slight hint to that effect is dropped beforehand’.


Illustrations of suggested actions form Acting Charades or Deeds not Words

Gestures and facial expressions are very important.
‘The pressing of the left side of the waistcoat, …the tender look at the ceiling, and the gentle and elegant swinging of the body, have…always accompanied the declaration of a true devotion.’

‘It may be pictured to an almost maddening amount by the frequent stamping of the foot, and the shaking of the fist. Frowning, and grinding of teeth, should be accompanied by opening the eyes to their greatest possible size.’

‘The limbs must almost seem to have lost their power. The actor must sink into a chair, pass his hand through his hair, with his five fingers spread open like a bunch of carrots, or else, letting his arms fall down by his side, remain perfectly still…either gazing at his boots or the ceiling.’

‘Here there must be no violent gestures—everything must be soft and pleasant. The finger must be occasionally raised to the ear, and the performer's countenance wear a bright smile and a look of deep intensity, as if listening to the soft still voice within.’

‘The dignified waiving of the hand, and the scornful look, gradually descending from top to toe, are well known to all who have been mistaken for waiters at evening parties. The eyes should be partly closed, the nose, if possible, turned up, the lips curved, and the countenance gently raised to the ceiling.’

  Illustration showing a coal scuttle for helmet
Costumes can be created.
‘A sheet will do for a toga; in the knight, the coal scuttle for helmet, and the dish-cover for breast-plate, make capital armour.’

Here is a list of words for Charades provided by the Mayhews.

list of words for Charades
We hope many of our readers will insist that guests this festive season play Charades using the Mayhews’ words.  Good luck with blis-ter, corse-let, crack-nell, cap-tain, and cat-sup. May all your long evenings be short.

Happy Christmas!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


20 December 2016

Exploring emotional worlds: Indian soldiers’ letters from the Second World War

“I have written to you many times but God alone knows why I don’t get your letters.  You say you write regularly.  Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us.”
- Written in Urdu by an Indian sepoy from Tunisia on 16 May 1943.

Indian forces in North Africa during the Second World War
An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk -Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 7180)

Two-and-a-half million men from undivided India served the British during the Second World War.  Their experiences are little remembered today, neither in the UK where a Eurocentric memory of the war dominates, nor in South Asia, which privileges nationalist histories of independence from the British Empire.  And yet military censorship reports from the Second World War, archived at the British Library’s India Office Records and containing extracts from Indian soldiers’ letters home, bear witness to this counter-narrative.  What was it like fighting for the British at a time when the struggle for India’s freedom from British rule was at its most incendiary?

   An Indian soldier guarding an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Persia, 4 September 1941
An Indian soldier guarding an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Persia, 4 September 1941 - Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 5330)

Letters were written in Indian languages – Hindi, Gurmukhi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil – and often dictated to scribes by Indian sepoys who were illiterate.  They were then translated into English for the censor, who compiled selected quotations from the letters into a report testifying to the spirit or ‘morale’ of the soldiers.  Soldiers’ names have been anonymised in these reports, and so it is virtually impossible to trace the letters to their writers.  All that remains are evocative textual shards – a portal into the soldiers’ emotional world.

The letters forge a material and emotional connection between the home front and the battlefront.  In the sentence, “Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us” with which this post begins, the unknown Indian sepoy links the letter’s affective impact – its “consolation”, assuaging loneliness, homesickness and longing – to its inherent physicality – “half meetings”.  An intimate moment is captured between the home front and the battlefront, a negotiation between distance and proximity created by the act of letter writing.

Letter writing is foregrounded again in the only love letter among the censorship reports.  Written in Urdu by an Indian Lieutenant – part of the rising Indian officer class making inroads into the Indian Army – the extract is addressed to the soldier’s beloved during the Allied invasion of Italy: “Here I am penning this to you in the middle of one of the biggest nights in the history of this war.  Love, I am sure by the time you receive this letter you will guess correctly as to where I am. … You would feel that the whole world were shaking with an earthquake or probably the sky were falling over you…Yet in the midst of this commotion, I sit here, on my own kit-bag and scribble these few lines to my love for I do not really know when I will get the next opportunity to write to you.”

Here, writing itself becomes an source of solace amidst the frenetic sounds and activity of the war.  It also embodies presence.  With the image of the soldier sitting on his kit bag and scribbling, this wartime love letter becomes a remarkable testament to the forgotten experiences of the Indian soldier, and the articulation of his complex inner life, during the Second World War.

Diya Gupta
PhD researcher, Department of English, King’s College London

Further reading:
Middle East Military Censorship Reports: Fortnightly Summaries Covering Indian Troops, April-October 1943, IOR/L/PJ/12/655

We become crazy as lunatics’: Responding to the Bengal famine in Indian letters from the Second World War

The ‘Kashmir of Europe’ and other exoticisms: Indian soldiers’ tales of travel in the Second World War

Find out more in this short film


15 December 2016

Christmas in Bahrain

In the spring of 1949 the Bahrain Political Agency, in a typically organised fashion, began to make arrangements for the production of its very own Christmas card.  At the Agency’s request, the appropriately titled Christmas Card Manager at Gale and Polden Limited sent to Bahrain two folders containing specimens of Christmas cards that the company had produced for various British embassies, consulates, and colonial protectorates.

After receiving the specimens, the Political Agent, Cornelius Pelly, made a request for 200 Christmas cards, similar in style to a card produced for the British Embassy in Washington DC, which features in one of the specimen folders.

British Embassy Washington Christmas Card Cover

IOR/R/15/2/1626, f 152: front cover of the British Embassy in Washington’s Christmas card Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


British Embassy Washington Christmas Card Greeting
IOR/R/15/2/1626, f 153v: the greeting inside the British Embassy in Washington’s Christmas card  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


British Embassy Washington Christmas Card Photo

IOR/R/15/2/1626, f 154: the photograph inside the British Embassy in Washington’s Christmas card  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Pelly sent a photograph (and its negative) of the Political Agency building, which he asked to be included in the card.  Sadly, as of yet, no surviving copy of the resulting card has been uncovered in the Bahrain Agency files.  However, Gale and Polden did return the photograph and negative, and these have been retained with the correspondence.

Bahrain Political Agency

IOR/R/15/2/1626,  f 124: photograph of the Bahrain Political Agency  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The photograph of the Agency building, whilst being rather unimpressive in comparison with that of the British Embassy in Washington, does show how the building, which today is home to the British Embassy, once looked, in a landscape that has changed beyond recognition, following extensive land reclamation.

Images of the specimen folders, along with those of the Agency photograph and negative, will be made available on the Qatar Digital Library website in 2017.

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

Further reading:


13 December 2016

The Power of Faith: Maurice Wilson’s Flight to the Top of the World

Bahrain is a far cry from Mount Everest.  Hot, humid and surrounded by shallow seas, the island reaches a modest 439 feet in height.  Yet Bahrain played its part in one of the more unusual tales to have made it into Everest lore, and the mountain’s symbolism indirectly contributed to the formation of aviation policy in the Persian Gulf before the Second World War.

A view of Everest from Darjeeling

A view of Everest from Darjeeling, taken from Pictorial Tour Round India by John Murdoch, (1894) BL flickr

On 31 May 1933 a Gypsy Moth plane landed at the Imperial Airways aerodrome in Muharraq.  The pilot, Maurice Wilson, was a British civilian who intended to refuel at Bahrain before continuing on to India, via Sharjah.  The British and Bahraini authorities had caught wind of Wilson’s arrival and given strict instructions to Imperial Airways that he should not be allowed to refuel or leave the country.

Maurice Wilson in flying gear standing with his aeroplane

Maurice Wilson with his aeroplane, Ever Wrest, before his flight to India - Wikipedia

Wilson was interviewed by Imperial Airways staff and the Political Agent in Bahrain, Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon Loch.  His intention was to fly his plane 10,000 feet up Mount Everest “and then to walk the odd 19,002 feet to the summit”.  Badly injured in the First World War, Wilson claimed he had been healed by fasting and prayer when conventional doctors had been unable to help.  His mission, he believed, was to be the first to climb Everest to show the world the power of such faith.

Loch was justifiably sceptical. “He [has] never seen the Himalayas and [has] never been above 18,000 feet”.  All he had to assist him was “an oxygen apparatus weighing 18 pounds which was to supply oxygen for seven-and-an-half hours”.  Loch did not know that Wilson’s training had only involved hiking the hills of Snowdonia and the Lake District, hills that barely reached a tenth of the height of Everest.  Wilson’s preparations for flying were not much better, obtaining his pilot’s licence in twice the average length of time.

  Map showing air routes along the Persian Gulf 

Map showing air routes along the Persian Gulf  IOR/R/15/1/730, f 88

Wilson had ignored an Air Ministry ban on civilian flights along the Arab coast, hence the attention from the authorities.  While special permission was sometimes given, only the Royal Air Force and the government-backed Imperial Airways were routinely allowed to fly the route.  Wilson’s journey prompted deliberation at some of the highest levels of government and triggered a flurry of correspondence that led to tighter controls and a change in policy.  Sensitive to the “political complications” that the activities of those such as Wilson might cause, and conscious of maintaining the illusion of the Gulf States’ independence, the Political Resident was instructed to obtain letters from the Arab rulers of Kuwait, Bahrain, the Trucial Coast, and Oman explicitly banning all private and civil travel over or into their territories.  These instructions were then incorporated into the Air Navigation Regulations of each country and notices of the ban were posted in airfields in Iraq and India.

  Notice to Airmen posted at airfields in India

Notice to Airmen posted at airfields in India IOR/R/15/2/1677, f.76.

Wilson ignored his orders to return to Basra, instead flying directly on to Gwadar. He succeeded in sneaking into Tibet disguised as a Buddhist monk and pretending to be deaf and dumb. He made several attempts at the summit, sometimes alone, sometimes with a few companion Sherpas. He never returned from his final solitary attempt on 29 May 1934. His last diary entry, made two days later and exactly a year after landing in Bahrain, read simply “Off again, gorgeous day”.

John Hayhurst
Project Officer – Gulf History Specialist

British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
IOR/L/PS/12/1981 ‘Coll 5/31 ‘Air Route to India: Prohibition of private flights along the Arabian Coast of the Persian Gulf’’
IOR/R/15/1/715 ‘Administration Reports 1931-1935’
IOR/R/15/1/730 ‘Historical Summary of Events in Territories of the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Arabia affecting the British Position in the Persian Gulf, 1907-1928’
IOR/R/15/2/1677 ‘File 21/20 Airways, Private Aviators’

Qatar Digital Library

Dennis Roberts, I’ll Climb Mount Everest Alone: The Story of Maurice Wilson, London: Robert Hale (1957)


08 December 2016

Anglo-Italian Competition: The sale of military aircraft to Kabul

In 1937 the Government of Afghanistan purchased 24 aircraft from Italy.  Provision was made for an Italian Air Mission to be deputed to Kabul for the purpose of assembling and maintaining the aircraft, and for training Afghan personnel.  The Political (External) Department of the India Office maintained a file to keep track of the situation.

This development placed the Italians in direct competition with Britain and caused concern amongst British policy makers.  Hawker Aircraft Limited had recently negotiated the sale of eight Hind aircraft to the Afghan Air Force, and was similarly engaged with supplying its own instructors for the same purpose.

Hawker Hind

Hawker Hind - British official photographer: Imperial War Museum © IWM (ATP 8882B)

British policy favoured the maintenance of a stable, independent, and friendly Afghanistan as the best means of securing its Indian Empire.  Meanwhile, Afghan officials feared being outclassed in the event of war by a larger Iranian Air Force, but lacked the resources and expertise to compete with their neighbour.  British policy makers were therefore in favour of the development of a small but efficient air force in Afghanistan for internal security purposes, being both within Afghan means and no threat to India.  Their strategy for achieving this lay with encouraging the Afghans to develop their air force along the lines of the Royal Air Force using supplies from British sources.

The Afghan authorities had expressed an interest in purchasing British aircraft as far back as 1935.  However, the demands of Britain's own re-armament programme limited the number of aircraft which could be supplied to Afghanistan.  Restrictions over the credit which could be provided to Afghanistan by the Government of India provided a further limitation.  Thus the British were hardly in a position to object when the Afghans turned to the Italians to fulfil their requirements.

The British feared that the Italians would send out an imposing mission to Kabul in view of the larger number of aircraft being supplied, and considered sending out a senior British officer to bolster the British mission.  Such fears turned out to be unfounded, the maximum size of the Italian mission being seven personnel to Hawker’s four.

The result was a scene at Kabul’s aerodrome described as peculiar by William Kerr Fraser-Tytler, Britain's Minister at Kabul.  An Italian delegation was assembling and testing aircraft next to a similarly engaged British contingent, while two German mechanics were busy restoring Junkers aircraft supplied in previous years to serviceable condition.

1938 would however turn the situation entirely to Britain's advantage.  The Italian aircraft sold to the Afghans were powered by engines entirely unsuitable for use at high altitude, and were easily outperformed by Hawker’s Hinds which were much more suited to Afghan conditions.  The Italian supplied aircraft experienced difficulties taking off, and were not able to carry a full load.  As a result, crashes and forced landings were common, and the aircraft became unpopular with Afghan pilots.

Hawker Hind - Afghanistan Air Force

Hawker Hind - Afghanistan Air Force. Image via Wikimedia (copyright Alan D R  Brown)

The Italian Mission was withdrawn in 1939, following the German instructors who had been withdrawn the previous year.  Thus Britain was left as the only nation maintaining an air mission at Kabul during the Second World War.  Fraser-Tytler was entirely happy with developments and claimed in a dispatch dated 10 May 1938 to the Foreign Office that ‘This practical demonstration of British superiority could not have been achieved had we been alone in the field’.

Britain had thus achieved an advantageous position in Afghanistan. However the outbreak of the Second World War, and subsequent restrictions on Britain’s ability to supply aircraft and equipment, meant this position could not be fully capitalised on.

Robert Astin
Content Specialist, Archivist
British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
British Library, Coll 5/48 ‘Afghanistan: Supply of military aircraft to the Afghan Government; Supply of maps etc. to the Afghan Govt.’ IOR/L/PS/12/2001
British Library, Coll 5/53 ‘Afghanistan: Employment of British nationals in various branches of the Afghan air services; Air instructors’ contracts’ IOR/L/PS/12/2006
British Library, Coll 5/53(2) ‘Afghanistan: Employment of British nationals in various branches of Afghan air services; Air instructors’ contracts’ IOR/L/PS/12/2007
British Library, Coll 5/55 ‘Afghanistan: Supply of Aircraft to Afghan Govt: Contract between Air Ministry & Hawker Aircraft Ltd’ IOR/L/PS/12/2009
British Library, Coll 5/55(2) ‘Afghanistan: Supply of aircraft to the Afghan Govt. Supply of spare parts’ IOR/L/PS/12/2010 IOR/L/PS/12/2010
British Library, Coll 5/55(2) ‘‘Afghanistan: Supply of aircraft to the Afghan Govnt. Supply of spare parts’ IOR/L/PS/12/2011
British Library, Coll 5/60(1) ‘Afghanistan: Purchase of aircraft from foreign sources (1) Italy (2) Germany’ IOR/L/PS/12/2020


06 December 2016

Pageantry, Parade and Presents in Persia

In February 1809, a delegation from the British Government and the East India Company presented the Shah of Persia with a letter proposing an alliance between the two powers. This alliance was intended to thwart French attempts to use Persia to threaten Britain’s Indian Empire, as well as offer Persia military assistance against the Russians in the Caucasus.

Nigaristan Palace mural showing Fath Ali Shah enthroned with his sons

Nigaristan Palace mural showing Fath Ali Shah enthroned with his sons - British Library Add.Or.1239 BL flickr

The envoy, Harford Jones, arranged for a display of strength in the form of a procession consisting of troops and members of his staff to impress the Persians. With this procession came a train of gifts, even the letter Jones was tasked to deliver was richly appointed. The records of the East India Company contain a list of these gifts, including firearms produced by the famous gunsmiths Manton.

The records also contain a set of receipts for some of the gifts, including a bill from Nunn and Barber Haberdashers of London for three letter bags: “…A very elegant white satin bag embroidered in gold extremely rich with gold cords of four tassels…”. This, along with two other bags cost the princely sum of £32.12s, the equivalent of over £1,000 today.

As well as these lavish letter bags, Mr Sydon Williams was paid £7.17s.6d for a “drawing of flowers… envelope… and trim”. There is also a bill for “Turkey boxes with velvet” and “cedar boxes” costing £9.0s.6d, presumably to carry everything else.

These gifts were intended to impress the Persian Shah and his court, demonstrating that the military strength shown in the parade to the palace was supported by the cash to back any promises made to the Persians, should they side with Britain.

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library  

Further reading:
India Office Records - Persia Factory Records IOR/G/29/37; IOR/G/29/32 f.530
Sir Harford Jones Brydges, An Account of the Transactions of His Majesty's Mission to the Court of Persia, in the years 1807-11 ... To which is appended a brief history of the Wahauby (1834)