THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

14 posts from April 2018

12 April 2018

Alexander Charles Stewart, classicist and army cyclist

Untold Lives has been remembering the six members of the library departments of the British Museum who died during the First World War.  Today we are telling the story of Captain Alexander Charles Stewart of the Army Cyclist Corps, who was killed in action near the French town of Bailleul on 12 April 1918.

  IWM Cyclist CompanyRecruiting poster for Cyclist Company © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4893)

Alexander Charles Stewart was born in 1886, the only son of William and Helen Stewart of Turriff in Aberdeenshire.  He studied at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, leaving in 1903 as Dux.  He then studied at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with a MA in Classics in 1907.  After further study in Paris, Stewart worked as a classics master at Nicholson Institute, Stornoway.  In May 1910, he was appointed a 2nd Class Assistant at the British Museum.

On the outbreak of war, Stewart enlisted as a Private in the London Scottish, the 14th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment.  At some point he transferred to the Inns of Court OTC and was eventually gazetted into the Army Cyclist Corps.  Stewart went to the front in April 1916, joining at first the 61st Division Cyclist Company, which later that year merged with two other divisional cyclist companies to form the IX Corps Cyclist Battalion.

IWM London CyclistsPoster for the London Cyclists © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0873)

Volunteer cyclist units began to emerge in the decades leading up to the First World War.  Cyclist companies were initially established overseas at divisional level, although these were later grouped into battalions at corps level.  Their main intended role was reconnaissance, although they were also often involved in traffic control or signals work.

By the middle of 1917, Lieutenant (later Captain) Stewart was commanding No. 1 Company of the IX Corps Cyclist Battalion.  The battalion spent most of that year in the Ypres Salient.  In February 1918 they moved to the Oise region to survey roads.  They were still there when the German Spring Offensive broke on the 21 March.  Hastily recalled from leave on the 26 March, Captain Stewart rejoined his company when they were helping to defend the River Ancre crossings near Buire.

Shortly after that, the IX Corps Cyclist Battalion moved back north.  They became caught up in Operation Georgette, the German offensive in Flanders that opened on  9 April.  For the first few days of the offensive, the battalion was based at Méteren, just west of Bailleul, mainly tasked with reconnaissance and unit liaison in the area east of the key railhead of Hazebrouck.  Captain Stewart's No. 1 Company was based throughout on the railway line between Bailleul and Outtersteene.

The battalion war diary does not provide any specific details of his death; several days after the event, he was reported wounded and missing on 12 April 1918, somewhere south of Méteren.  It wasn't until the end of the year that Captain Stewart was officially reported killed in action.

Captain Stewart is buried in Outtersteene Communal Cemetery Extension near Bailleul.  In addition to the British Librarians’ memorial at the British Library, his name also appears on the town war memorial at Turriff, the memorials at George Watson’s College and the University of Edinburgh, and the British Museum’s memorials at Bloomsbury and Kensington.

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager

Further reading:
Chris Baker, The Battle for Flanders: German Defeat on the Lys, 1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2013).
John Minto Robinson, ed., The war book of Turriff and twelve miles round 1914-1919 (Turriff: Turriff and District Ex-Service Men's Association, 1926), pp. 7, 110.
University of Edinburgh, Roll of honour 1914-1919 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1921), p. 97, plate lxxvii.
WO 95/845/2, XI Corps Cyclist Battalion War Diary, June 1916 - August 1919, The National Archives, Kew.

 

11 April 2018

‘With our backs to the wall …’ - Sir Douglas Haig’s Special Order 1918

During the First World War, the German Spring Offensives of March 1918 brought to an end three long years of attritional, trench-based warfare on the Western Front.  With little prospect of success on the Somme, the German generals switched their attention to Flanders.  Operation Georgette opened on 9 April 1918, aiming to drive the British and their allies back to the Channel Ports.  The opening offensive successfully targeted an under-strength Portuguese division in the front line near Neuve Chapelle.  Further attacks the following day resulted in the capture of Armentières and Messines.

Douglas-Haig-1st-Earl-HaigDouglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, by Walter Stoneman c. 1916 NPG Ax39017 © National Portrait Gallery, London   NPG CC By

For the British, the situation was now critical.  The Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig, who remains a controversial figure, believed that the British and their allies needed to hold their ground while the French manoeuvred to come to their support.  On 11 April 1918, Haig issued a Special Order of the Day addressed to all ranks of the British Army in France and Flanders.  The order concluded with the now well-known exhortation:
‘There is no other course open to us but to fight it out.  Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement.  With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.  The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment’.

A search of the British Newspaper Archive shows that the message was published in many UK newspapers on 13 April, usually printed verbatim and with very little in the way of commentary.  The headlines attached to it usually highlight what has come to be seen as the key phrase.

Haig's words 1918Western Daily Press 13 April 1918 British Newspaper Archive

Not everyone serving in the line was enthusiastic.  For example, Second Lieutenant Huntly Gordon of A Battery, 112th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, was at the time based near Méteren.  Gordon recalls that the Special Order arrived on 12 April via a runner and was received largely in silence:
‘I got the general idea; but somehow this modern version of the “little touch of Harry in the night” did not inspire me; in fact the rhetoric made me critical.  There was not the remotest contact between us and the Olympian figures at GHQ; there never had been.  How did he know how A/112 were placed?  It was almost two days since this circular had been signed and a good many walls had been given up during that time.  Against which particular walls must our backs now be placed?’

Haig later gave the manuscript of the Special Order to his private secretary, Sir Philip Sassoon (a cousin of the war poet).  After Sassoon’s death in 1939, it was bequeathed to the British Museum and it now forms part of the manuscript collections of the British Library (Add MS 45416).

There is one major difference between the holograph and the version eventually circulated to the Army.  The printed version omitted a final sentence, reading ‘Be of good cheer. The British Empire must win in the end’.

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager

Further reading:
Chris Baker, The Battle for Flanders: German defeat on the Lys, 1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2011).
Huntly Gordon, The unreturning army: a field gunner in Flanders, 1917-18 (London: Doubleday, 2013).
Peter Stansky, Sassoon: the worlds of Philip and Sybil (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003).
David Stevenson, With our backs to the wall: victory and defeat in 1918 (Cambridge, Mass.:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.  2011).
Laura Walker, Haig and British generalship during the war. British Library World War One website

 

09 April 2018

Bahrain is not in Ruritania: Colonel Prior and the ‘Royal’ Sheikh

When the Ruler of Bahrain began to adopt a distinctly regal style in 1940, Britain’s senior official in the Gulf moved quickly to nip the development in the bud.

On 7 February 1940 Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah announced in an official decree, or alan, that he had decided to institute a new honour, the Order of the Khalifah.  The order was to have three classes: Star, Decoration, and Medal, and the Sheikh stated that the decree was issued ‘By our royal pleasure’.

Bahrain 1Alan issued by the Sheikh of Bahrain concerning the Order of the Khalifah, 7 February 1940. IOR/R/15/2/644, f 5  Noc


Three days later, the Political Agent in Bahrain, Hugh Weightman, reported ‘this rather silly idea’ to his boss, Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Prior, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf.  Prior was incensed.  He had complained to Weightman the previous November, following his last visit to the Sheikh, that he had been placed between two sofas, with the result that he found himself about a foot lower than the Sheikh.  He insisted then to Weightman that two seats of equal size should be arranged in future ‘as conversation between different planes is difficult’. 

He had also seen a picture in Weightman’s office of the Sheikh sitting ‘on a sort of Woolworth throne’, while the Political Officer, Cole, ‘sat somewhere down by his coat tails in an ordinary chair’. He hoped that no Political Officer would ever put himself in such a ridiculous position again.

Bahrain 2Colonel Prior writes to the Political Agent in Bahrain about the Sheikh of Bahrain’s ‘Woolworth throne’. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 25 (detail) Noc

Prior suspected that the Sheikh’s regal pretensions came from Charles Belgrave, his British-born Adviser, and he told Weightman that the Sheikh needed to be reminded that ‘Bahrain is not in Ruritania’.

 The India Office in London was also concerned to ensure that there should only be one ‘fount of honour’ in the British Empire, and as such an Indian ruler had recently been refused permission to institute an order of his own.  However, they recognised that the Sheikh of Bahrain enjoyed a rather more independent position.

Nevertheless, Prior was in no doubt that the Sheikh’s regal tendencies should be suppressed, and he went to Bahrain in March 1940 to interview both Belgrave and the Sheikh.

Bahrain 3Colonel Prior administers a stern lecture to Charles Belgrave, the Sheikh of Bahrain’s Adviser. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 22 (detail) Noc

He first carpeted Belgrave, informing him that the British ‘did not retain him in his position for his administrative experience or executive ability, but on account of his political gumption, and that he had failed us lamentably on this occasion’.  He then sent for the Sheikh, raised the issue of the ‘odd alan’, and, reading it out, asked who the king referred to was.  Prior continues: ‘The Shaikh giggled rather feebly at this and said that people wrote these titles on the letters sent him and that as for the order, people liked these things’.

Prior then told the Sheikh that orders of chivalry were for great states and that people would laugh at Bahrain for instituting one.  When the Sheikh mentioned that Egypt and Iraq had them, Prior pointed out that Egypt was fourteen times bigger than Bahrain.  The Sheikh then ‘relapsed into a sepia cloud of patriotic protestations’

Bahrain 4Colonel Prior administers a stern lecture to the Sheikh. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 23 (detail) Noc

Prior’s recommendation to the India Office was that only the third class, or Medal, should be allowed to remain, and that the Sheikh’s decree should be allowed to die a natural death.


Bahrain achieved independence from Britain in 1971.  In 2002, the country’s Emir, also named Hamad bin Isa, and now at a safe distance from any risk of being ticked off by the British, declared himself King of Bahrain.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archives
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
London, British Library 'File 26/2 Bahrain Government Honours ("Order of the Al Khalifah")' IOR/R/15/2/644
London, British Library Coll 30/190 'Bahrein: Qn. of the institution of a Bahrein "Order".' IOR/L/PS/12/3927. (A digitised version of this file will appear in the Qatar Digital Library in the course of 2018).

 

05 April 2018

Ode to Income Tax

One of the joys of cataloguing an archive is that you never know what you might find.  At the beginning of this new tax year, we take a look at an unusual item found in the papers of Charles Canning, Governor General and Viceroy of India.

Mss Eur F699-1-1-12  letter 10  f.3rMss Eur F699/1/1/1/12, letter 10, f.3r Noc

It can't be common to find a document in favour of taxation, let alone a poem singing the praises of a new Income Tax.  It becomes an even more astonishing find when that poem is written in Bengali and the author is identified as a fourteen year old schoolboy.  The poem and its translation are found amongst letters written to Governor General Charles Canning by Sir Henry Bartle Frere, Member of the Council of India.  It was originally sent to Frere by the Scottish missionary Dr Alexander Duff.  Duff had founded the General Assembly's Institution, later the Free Church Institution in 1830, with the aim of offering English language based education to middle and upper class Indians.  The Free Church Institution was affiliated with the University of Calcutta soon after its establishment in 1857.

Alexander-DuffAlexander Duff by James Faed the Elder, mezzotint, published November 1851, NPG D35771 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC

Frere writes that the poem's author, Bejoy Nath Roy is “rather famous in the School of the Free Kirk Institute as a writer of occasional poems” and that the boy's Master was “struck by the singular subject he had chosen”.  According to the translation, Bejoy Nath Roy writes “The Government wet with the dew of  mercy incurred debt only for the good of India“ ... “Let no-one grudge therefore to pay the tax”.  He uses the metaphor of the Government as a physician curing the nation, and having affected a cure, demands payment for services rendered. 

Mss Eur F699-1-1-1-12  letter 10  f.5vMss Eur F699/1/1/1/12, letter 10, f.5v Noc

What happened in India in 1860 to inspire such words?  The country had spent the years 1857 and 1858 in the turmoil of the uprising known as the Indian Mutiny.  Indian finances had been in a parlous state even before the rebellion, but with the need for extra military expenditure, the deficit increased.  The economist James Wilson was appointed as a financial member of Council of India in 1859.  His plans to reform India's financial structures included a new Income Tax, as well as an adjustment to Customs Duties, a License Tax for traders, and a new paper currency.  Wilson's plans caused consternation in some quarters.  Sir Charles Trevelyan's outright hostility to the tax led to his recall back to England.   And the extent of the dreaded Income Tax?  A two percent levy on incomes between 200 and 500 rupees, and four percent above that.  In little over a year, and with the support of the Governor General, Wilson managed to lay the foundations of improved financial planning, budgeting and auditing, so much so that India's deficit had been reversed by 1862-63.  Wilson did not see it, he died of dysentery in August 1860.

The poem is a snapshot, shedding light on an unusual poetic subject.  Perhaps though it says less about attitudes to taxation and more gives us a glimpse of the 19th century Western education system within India, whereby particular attitudes towards the British and British administration were promulgated within schools.

And if anyone is aware what happened to aspiring poet Bejoy Nath Roy, please do let us know. 

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
Mss Eur F699 Papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning

 

03 April 2018

400 years of Chatham Dockyard

In 1618 King James I relocated the Royal Dockyards from further along the River Medway to Chatham. In the 400 years since then, hundreds of ships were built there for the Royal Navy, and the dockyards played a vital role in the military and technological development of Britain.

A new exhibition, now open at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, celebrates this legacy. 'Powerful Tides: 400 years of Chatham and the Sea' features artwork, diaries and manuscripts which illustrate this fascinating history, including four items from the British Library which come from the Manuscript and Topographical Collections of King George III. The exhibition forms part of Historic Dockyard Chatham’s ‘Festival 400’, a yearlong celebration of this anniversary.

20180313_163855British Library items on display at Chatham. British Library  Cc-by

These items depict Chatham and the Medway through the 17th and 18th centuries, showing how the area changed and developed as the dockyard grew.

Kings MS 43_f5v-6rKings MS 43, f 5v-6r. British Library Cc-by

This view shows Chatham and the Medway as they were in 1698, as well as ‘how Ships of the Royal Navy are secured. Moared unto ye Village of Gillingham’. Also included in the top corners are the names of all the ships depicted.

K_top_16_42_iMaps K.top.16.42.i. on display. British Library Cc-by

This view of a Slip in the Dockyard was completed in 1789. From here the HMS Royal George was launched, which served as a flagship during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Kings MS 44_f18b-19r'A Draught of the River Medway', Kings MS 44, f 18v-19r. British Library Cc-by

The Library and Manuscript collections of King George III were donated to the Nation after his death by his son King George IV, and are available for use here at the British Library.

Powerful TidesPhoto credit: Dan Turner of the Historic Dockyard Chatham. Works by Nadav Kandar can be seen on the left of the image.

The exhibition also features works by J M W Turner and Tracey Emin, as well as diaries and manuscripts which give first-hand accounts of life in the Dockyards. All these amazing objects will be on display until the exhibition closes on 17th June 2018.

Stephen Noble

Cataloguer, Modern Archives and Mss

01 April 2018

An April Fool hoax at London Zoo

Easter Sunday fell on 1 April in 1866. A large crowd gathered outside London Zoo.  They produced admission tickets which they had bought for one penny, a bargain since the usual price was 6d. The visitors became ‘exceedingly boisterous’ when they were refused entry and told that they were victims of an April Fool hoax.

The tickets were printed on green coloured card and read:
‘Subscriber’s Ticket – Admit bearer to the Zoological Gardens on Easter Sunday. The procession of the animals will take place at three o’clock, and this ticket will not be available after that hour.  J. C. Wildboar, Secretary’.

London Zoo G70037-27Children being given a ride on an elephant at London zoo from London Town  by Felix Leigh, illustrated by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton (1883) Images Online

Three hundred people arrived with a ticket, lured by the low price and the promise of seeing a parade of lions, tigers, bears and leopards.  The bewildered Zoo officials informed them that the gardens were not open to the general public on a Sunday – only fellows or members of the Society were admitted with their friends.  The ticket holders were not happy with this and the Zoo feared a riot was about to spark off.  An extra force of policemen was summoned to the gate and the crowd dispersed without further trouble.

London Zoo immediately started an investigation to discover who was responsible for the hoax.  They found that Sarah Marks, a bookseller in Houndsditch, had sold thirteen tickets.  The Zoological Society brought an action against Mrs Marks who was summoned to appear at the Mansion House ‘for that she, on the 29th of March did unlawfully and knowingly obtain, by certain false pretences, the sum of 1s 1d, with intent to cheat and defraud’.  The case was greeted with much amusement in court. 

Sarah Marks had written a letter to the Society expressing her great regret for the foolish prank which had been instigated by her sons and promising that nothing of that kind would take place again at her establishment.  The Society accepted her apology and withdrew the summons. Mrs Marks was given a severe reprimand by Alderman Finnis and discharged.

Happy Easter and beware April Fool tricks!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Isle of Wight Observer 7 April 1866; Belfast Morning News 9 April 1866, Sussex Advertiser 10 April 1866.