THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

9 posts from March 2019

29 March 2019

Colours of the Royal East India Volunteers

The British Library is celebrating the completion of a four-year project to conserve two unique but badly degraded silk flags dating from the 1790s.

 Colours of Royal East India Volunteers after conservation  Colours of Royal East India Volunteers after conservation (Foster 1068 and Foster 1069) - image © British Library Board

The flags are a set of colours belonging to the Royal East India Volunteers formed by the East India Company in London during the French Wars to protect East India House and the Company warehouses ‘against hazard from insurrections and tumults’ and to assist the City government in times of disorder. 

The REIV were embodied at two separate periods, from 1796 to 1814 and then from 1820 to 1834.  The field officers were elected from Company directors, and commissioned officers were recruited from clerks and officials at East India House and the warehouses.  The supervisory grades in the warehouses became non-commissioned officers who led labourers serving as privates. By 1799 there were three regiments with about 1500 men.  A register of labourers in the REIV soldiers 1820-1832 has survived giving age, height, home address, reason for discharge from the corps.  Some men were discharged because training clashed with their warehouse duties or secondary afternoon jobs. Others were judged unfit to serve – Charles Twort was discharged for having bad feet and corns.

'The Leadenhall volunteer, drest in his shawl' by James Gillray'The Leadenhall volunteer, drest in his shawl' by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey 8 March 1797 NPG D12480 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Each REIV regiment had a set of colours.  It appears that Lady Jane Dundas embroidered all three sets. Her husband Henry Dundas wrote to Company director David Scott on 4 November 1796 that Lady Jane had taken a fancy that she ought to work a pair of colours for the East India Corps and that she needed instructions. Lady Jane presented the colours at three public ceremonies in April 1797, July 1797, and June 1799.

Consecration of colours which Lady Jane Dundas presented to the Third Regiment of Royal East India Volunteers at Lord's Cricket Ground on 29 June 1799Consecration of colours which Lady Jane Dundas presented to the Third Regiment of Royal East India Volunteers at Lord's Cricket Ground on 29 June 1799.  The watercolour by Henry Matthews is part of the British Library’s Visual Arts collections (WD2425). It is reproduced in William Griggs, Relics of the Honourable East India Company (1909).

One set of colours was presented to the re-embodied REIV on 14 June 1821. When the REIV was finally disbanded in 1834, these colours were deposited in the museum at East India House. Sir George Birdwood found the colours later in the 19th century at the India Store Depôt at Lambeth and placed them in the Military Committee Room at the India Office in Whitehall.  They were still on display in Whitehall as late as 1963. 

Photograph of the Military Committee Room, India Office, Whitehall  Photograph of the Military Committee Room, India Office, Whitehall  (BL, Photo 272). The colours can be seen in a degraded state unfurled above the door.

In 1895 the colours were lent to Empire of India Exhibition at Earl’s Court.  The catalogue described them as ‘tattered and torn in the most approved fashion but no tale of glory hangs thereby. Only in marches and reviews in London Fields did these colours wave to the breeze, and damp and the ravages of rats and mice are responsible for their present condition’.

Colours of Royal East India Volunteers before conservation Colours of Royal East India Volunteers before conservation (Foster 1068 and Foster 1069) - image © British Library Board

The colours had become fragile, fragmentary and soiled. Large areas of silk loss made the flags very hard to interpret. Surprisingly, the complex embroideries which decorated the centre of the flags were predominately intact although structurally very weak.

Colours of Royal East India Volunteers before conservation Colours of Royal East India Volunteers before conservation (Foster 1068 and Foster 1069) - image © British Library Board

The conservation treatment of these two flags included: surface cleaning; removal of the central embroideries; wet cleaning; crease removal; mounting on a padded board covered by a digitally printed image of the flag to enable interpretation and covering with a specially dyed nylon net which prevents the loss of the fragmentary silk.

The conservation will enable access, display and research by ensuring the longevity of these precious and important flags.

Liz Rose, Textile Conservator, and Margaret Makepeace, Lead Curator East India Company Records

Further reading:
William Foster, The East India House (1924), chapter XII.
Margaret Makepeace, The East India Company's London Workers: Management of the Warehouse Labourers, 1800-1858 (2010), chapter 6.
The Empire of India Exhibition – Illustrated official catalogue (1895).
C H Philips, The correspondence of David Scott Vol 1 1787-1799 (1951), p.88.
James D. Geddes, Colours of British Regiments (2002).

 

Conservator Liz Rose standing with Royal East India Volunteer colours

Come behind the scenes and meet those involved in this project on Tuesday 2 April at our Textile Conservation Show and Tell.

 

26 March 2019

A Melancholy Death on James Cook’s first Pacific expedition – Private William Greenslade

After a voyage to the Pacific in HMB Endeavour lasting almost three years, James Cook arrived back in England in 1771.  By then more than 40 of the ship’s company had died, most from diseases caught on the way back in the Dutch colonial city of Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia).  This death, among the voyage’s first, was not, however, from natural causes.

The ship Endeavour at seaSydney Parkinson, 'The Endeavour at sea' from Sketches made in Captain Cook’s First Voyage 1768-1771. © British Library. Add.Ms.9345f.16v Images Online

Private William Greenslade was one of twelve marines serving under Sergeant John Edgcumb.  Barely 21 years of age, quiet and industrious, Greenslade disappeared overboard on 26 March 1769, as the Endeavour was within days of its destination – Tahiti.  Both Cook and the young botanist Joseph Banks describe the events retrospectively and second hand.  As Cook noted, 'I was niether made acquainted with the Theft or the circumstances attending it untill the Man was gone'.

According to the accounts of Cook and Banks, Greenslade had shame heaped upon him by his fellow marines and Sergeant Edgcumb for having stolen a piece of sealskin in his care.  The sealskin acquired in Tierra del Fuego was prized for making waterproof bags to protect tobacco.  Banks appears to have concluded it was suicide, sure that Greenslade 'was drove to the rash resolution by an accident so trifling that it must appear incredible to every body who is not well accquainted with the powerfull effects that shame can work upon young minds'.  Cook was not quite so so sure, writing that his disappearance overboard might have been 'either by Accident or design', although he too agreed that 'circumstances makes it appear as tho it was done designedly'.

However Banks's description opens up opportunities to speculate about the role of the other marines, especially Sergeant Edgcumb, opportunities that Martin Dugard explores fully in Farther Than Any Man.  We learn from Banks that the sealskin was in the charge of one of Cook’s servants, possibly Thomas Mathews, who had promised to make tobacco pouches for several of the men.  Greenslade’s requests for one had been refused several times.  While Greenslade was on duty outside the Great Cabin around noon, Cook’s servant had been called away hurriedly, leaving the sealskin with the young marine.  The temptation apparently proved too much to resist, and he cut a piece from it to make his own tobacco pouch.  When the servant immediately discovered the theft on his return, he decided not to raise it with the officers “for so trifling a cause”.  The marines, however, had other ideas.

Sergeant Edgcumb “declard that if the person acgreivd would not complain, he would”,  and resolved to take the matter to the captain, for the honour of the marines.  Between the noonday theft and around seven in the evening, the marines “drove the young fellow almost mad by representing his crime in the blackest coulours as a breach of trust of the worst consequence”.  When Edgcumb ordered the young marine to follow him up on deck, Greenslade slipped away and was seen no more.  It was half an hour before Edgcumb reported him missing, by which time there was no chance of a rescue.

For Dugard, there is enough in these accounts to speculate whether Greenslade had been deliberately set up with the temptation to steal and driven to suicide.  Whatever the truth, young William Greenslade holds a melancholy place in the records of Cook’s first Pacific voyage.

Huw Rowlands
Project Manager Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Banks’s Journal Entry  
Cook’s Journal Entry
Cook, James, Beaglehole, J. C., Davidson, James Wightman, Skelton, R. A., Williamson, James Alexander, and Hakluyt Society. The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery. Edited from the Original Manuscripts by J.C. Beaglehole with the Assistance of J.A. Williamson, J.W. Davidson and R.A. Skelton, Etc. Extra Series (Hakluyt Society); No. 34-37. (Cambridge: Published for the Hakluyt Society at the University Press, 1955.) British Library Shelfmark: Open Access Manuscripts Reading Room MSL 912.09
Dugard, Martin. Farther than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook. (Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2001.) British Library Shelfmark General Reference Collection YA.2002.a.15416

 

21 March 2019

Telephone Map of India 1934

The files of the India Office contain many different kinds of maps of pre-1947 India, which give a fascinating visual representation of different aspects of the country.  One striking example is a telephone map of India from 1934, showing projects in progress and approved.

Telephone Map of India 1934 (Detail)IOR/L/E/9/1348 Telephone map of India 1934 (detail)

Telephone Map of India 1934IOR/L/E/9/1348 Telephone map of India 1934

The map is in a file in the India Office Records on the subject of a radio-telephone service between India and the UK.  Communications between Britain and India had always been challenging, with a six month sea journey during the era of the East India Company, being cut to six weeks with the opening of the Suez Canal.  The development of the telegraph and later aviation speeded things up further, allowing civil servants in London to more easily communicate with their counterparts in Calcutta and Delhi.

Telephone Map of India 1934 (Punjab detail)IOR/L/E/9/1348 Telephone map of India 1934 (detail - Punjab)

In today’s world of smartphones and almost instant global communication, it is interesting to think of the long road of technological development which has been travelled.  As the map shows, in India in the mid-1930s the telephone system only really linked the major urban centres, with most of the country not yet connected.  In a letter to His Majesty’s Postmaster-General, dated 29 September 1934, Lord Willingdon, Viceroy of India, stated that the development of the telephone was being slowed by a lack of demand, with Indians making comparatively little social use of the telephone, often due to the distances involved and the cost of a telephone being larger than the incomes of a large proportion of the population.  Despite this, progress was being made, with 36,000 miles of aerial trunk lines having been installed in the previous years to 1934.

Article from Daily Mail  28 August 1930Daily Mail 28 August 1930

The file records the establishment of an international telephone service between Britain and India. The Times newspaper reported that this service was inaugurated on 1 May 1933, with Big Ben sounding the quarter hour, followed by an exchange between Sir Samuel Hoare, Secretary of State for India, and Sir Frederick Sykes, Governor of Bombay.  The service was initially restricted to Bombay and Poona, and a three minute call from anywhere in Great Britain was £6, and the other way from India to Britain the cost was 80 rupees!

List of telephone numbers 1933IOR/L/E/9/1348 List of telephone numbers 1933

The service rapidly expanded through the late 1930s, but was suspended with the outbreak of the Second World War due to security concerns over the danger of enemy eavesdropping.  The line was re-opened on 3 December 1945 by Sir Mahomed Usman, Member for Posts and Air, Government of India, who made a call to Lord Listowel, Postmaster-General, in London.

Document stating that the London-India Telephone Service had re-openedIOR/L/E/9/1348 London-India telephone service re-opened 1945

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Telegraphy - India-U.K. Radiotelephone Service and other long-distance services: inauguration and arrangements regarding official calls, 1929-1945 [Reference IOR/L/E/9/1348].

 

19 March 2019

Marie Corelli: Superstar Author of the Victorian Era

Of all the authors of the Victorian era, Marie Corelli (1855-1924) is not easily recalled, names such as Tennyson, Dickens, the Brontës and Mary Shelley are more likely to come to mind.  She has slipped into obscurity over the years.  Yet intriguingly, Corelli was one of the most popular authors of her time.  She was a bestselling author and an individual whose life contained many of the hallmarks of contemporary celebrity: fame, fortune and famous friends.

Postcard depicting popular Victorian author Marie Corelli Postcard depicting popular Victorian author Marie Corelli Wikimedia Commons

Evidence of the scale of her popularity is illustrated in the British Library’s Manuscript Collections.  There are a number of her publishing agreements in the archive of Marie Corelli’s publisher, Richard Bentley (Add MS 46560-46682).  One of these is the publishing agreement for Corelli’s book Wormwood (published only a few years into her literary career) which shows that she was offered a total of £800 for this title.  In today’s money this would be an advance of over £65,000, quite a lot of money for any author.  Such a sum shows just how much confidence Bentley had in Corelli.  He evidently believed that the investment would be rewarded.

Publishing agreement for Corelli’s book WormwoodAdd MS 46623, f.327

Corelli's novels combined a writing style that was melodramatic and florid.  Her interest in mysticism and spiritualism could lead to her characters expressing bizarre abilities to dematerialise and time-travel.  On top of this she had a tendency to moralise and bemoan contemporary society.  This made her novels rather liable to ridicule by critics.  However it does not seem to have affected her sales; according to the Bentley’s accounts, Corelli made over £900 in royalties alone in 1893, and £1000 in 1894.

Royalty statement for Marie CorelliAdd MS 46562, f.15

Aside from considerable sales, the stardom of Corelli is further illustrated by a number of unlikely, but influential fans, one being Oscar Wilde who stated that she told of ‘marvellous things in a marvellous way’.  She was also friends with Ellen Terry, the leading Shakespearean actress.  Another fan was the Prime Minister, William Gladstone.  Gladstone was such a fan that he popped around unannounced to meet Corelli.  To her horror, she was out at the time and was dreadfully disappointed to have missed one of the ‘profound thinkers and sage of the century’.

Marie Corelli's letter to William GladstoneAdd MS 44507, f.3

Corelli’s extroverted personality and her fame meant she was scrutinized more closely than most.  She often cut a contradictory figure.   She railed against marriage in her article 'The Modern Marriage Market', feeling that women too often were sold and traded like property, and yet she was an avid anti-suffragette.  She appealed for charity on behalf of hospitals during the First World War, but was convicted of hoarding food against regulation.  She could be fleeting with friends, but she lived solely with one woman, Bertha Vyver, for 40 years, dedicating her books to her and leaving her everything in her will.

The dedication to Bertha in Thelma, 1888The dedication to Bertha in Thelma, 1888

A century after her death, Marie Corelli’s work is largely forgotten.  Her florid style and sentimentality became unfashionable as a new generation of modernist writers took hold of the literary lime-light.  For most of her lifetime, however, Corelli’s writing brought her great success, so much so that that most of her fellow Victorians would have known her name.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
The Bentley Papers, Add MS 46560-46682, British Library
Bigland, E. Marie Corelli: The Woman and the Legend, (London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1953)
Corelli, M and Others. The Modern Marriage Market, (London : Hutchinson & Co, 1898)
Corelli, M. Thelma: A New Edition, (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1888)
The National Archives, Currency Converter

 

14 March 2019

Crossing the Line

I forgot to mention the fact that we crossed the line yesterday and the fun which had been in store for some days came off in grand style.

We have recently catalogued the journal of Engineer Frederick Thomas Pendleton, documenting his time on board HMS Hecate on patrol with the West Africa Squadron. In addition to descriptions of daily shipboard life and provision stops along the west coast of Africa, Pendleton provides an entertaining and detailed account of a ceremony to mark crossing the equator.

Journal entry describing the ceremonyAdd MS 89374, ff 37-38 Description of the Crossing the Line ceremony

Crossing the Line ceremonies have been documented in European navies since the 17th century, and Pendleton’s account appears to be fairly typical of the ceremony as performed on British vessels in the mid-19th century. Events begin the day before the line is crossed, with the ship receiving a message from Neptune, King of the Sea, announcing his intention to visit the crew and welcome those of his ‘children’ who have not visited his realms before.

Sailor dressed as Neptune© IWM (A 33252) Crossing the Line 2 June 1955 on board HMS Newcastle, Imperial War Museum https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205163820 

My attention was called by a messmate to a deep gruff and somewhat, as my friend said, sepulchre sort of voice, but in whose tones I recognized that of old Joe the Quartermaster, who was evidently doing his best in the supernatural line…

Following the exchange a lighted barrel of tar was allowed to float off astern, representing the departure of Neptune and his crew. The next morning the deck was transformed into an arena to welcome the aquatic host -

…all being ready the curtain was drawn aside, and the drummer leading the van the procession started: Neptune; his better half the huge Amphirite; & their son Triton were seated on the Gun carriage of the field piece, and drawn round the deck by the bears, and followed by the policemen, Doctor, Barber, and a host of assistant comprising those who have been lucky enough to have crossed the equator previous.

Sailors dressed as Neptune, his Queen, and Lady in Waiting© IWM (A 5340) On board troop transport at sea, August 1941. Father Neptune with his Queen and Lady in Waiting. Imperial War Museum https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205139568 

The initiates were marched to meet the royal party, and forced to sit with their backs to a large bath of water. Here they were interrogated by Neptune and a policeman as to their character. Crewmen judged of good character went straight to the barber, where they were lathered and shaved, before being ducked by the bears and released to the fellow crewmates.

3 razors made out of an old iron hoop Nos 1, 2, 3 by name lay alongside the barber, should the policeman’s account of character be good, he scrapes with a no 3 and a good ducking…

Sailors being dunked in a water tank© IWM (A 5176) Initiate being ducked by the bears on board the troop transport Empress of Australia, August 1941. Imperial War Museum https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185436 

A bad assessment of character – typically given to unpopular crew – attracted a much more unpleasant and violent ceremony, beginning with the attentions of the doctor:

… if on the contrary a bad one be given, then I pity the unfortunate delinquent should he attempt to speak in justification & his mouth is instantly filled with all sorts of offal and dirt – someone cried out he’s fainting, the doctor approaches armed with his smelling bottle, through the cork of which protrude several long sharp needles… the doctor then states that the patient is in a fit state to undergo the operation – cold Tar is smeared on his chin, and scraped off with the horrible No 1 razor… very much resembling a common hand saw.

Pencil sketch of the ceremonyPhotograph copy of a sketch depicting a Crossing the Line ceremony performed onboard the troopship HMS Alfred, reference Mss Eur C615

The shave was then followed by repeated ducking from the bears, and additional watering –

when at last permitted to go, he is saluted with buckets of water from the rigging, and at the end of the gangway is met full in the face by a powerful jet of water, coming from the hose of the fire engine – no doubt shortly after you will see him playing a very prominent part in the punishment of others.

You can imagine that the desire to subject officers to the same treatment would have been fairly strong among a number of the crew, but Pendleton identified a common mitigating factor –

Officers underwent the same process though with less severity, attributable in many instances to sundry bottles of Grog, distributed among Neptune and his attendant spirits – I must say that I enjoyed the scene, and shaving very much

Detail of pencil sketch of the ceremonyCloser detail of the ducking scene, Mss Eur C615

The full account of the ceremony can be read in Pendleton’s journal, now available to view in the Manuscripts Reading Room, Add MS 89374.

Additional reading

Add MS 89374, Naval Journal of Frederick Thomas Pendleton

Mss Eur C615, Logbook of the troopship Alfred

Simon Bronner, Crossing the Line: Violence, Play and Drama in Naval Equator Traditions (Amsterdam University Press, 2006)

Alex Hailey

Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

12 March 2019

Felix Slade and his bindings bequest


Felix Slade (1788-1868) was a lawyer, philanthropist and collector.  Born in Lambeth, he was the youngest of four sons and yet inherited his father’s estate.  He never married, instead devoting himself to the law and to collecting antiquities, fine bindings, glass and prints.  He supported many societies and funds, such as the Nightly Shelter for the Houseless, and lent items from his collection to public exhibitions including the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition.  He belonged to the Society of Antiquaries and is widely remembered today for endowing three Slade Professorships of Fine Art at Oxford University, Cambridge University and University College London.  At the British Library, we remember Slade for his bequest of fine bindings to the British Museum (subsequently transferred to the British Library in 1973).

A drawing of Felix Slade by Margaret CarpenterA drawing of Slade by Margaret Carpenter now in the British Museum 1874,0314.1

The bequest consists of twenty-five fine bindings from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  It contains examples of work by notable binders and includes various styles with English, French and Italian bindings well represented.  It also contains books bound for royalty, including King Charles I, Emperor Maximilian II and Henry III of France.  Here is a small selection of bindings from the bequest:
 

 Binding covering a copy of La Cyropedie (Paris, 1547)

This binding covers a copy of La Cyropedie (Paris, 1547).  It belonged to the royal library of King Edward VI of England (1547-1553), son of Henry VIII.  The leather is 16th-century English calf, tooled in gold and painted, with Edward’s arms on each cover. A similar binding is described here, and attributed to the King Edward and Queen Mary Royal Binder.

18th-century mosaic binding by Jean Charles Henri Le Monnier

An 18th-century mosaic binding by Jean Charles Henri Le Monnier, from a well-known dynasty of Parisian bookbinders.  He signed his bindings by gold tooling his name in tiny lettering on each cover.
 

Binding from the library of Apollonio Filareto

This is a rare survival from the library of Apollonio Filareto (fl. 1537-1547) Private Secretary to the Farnese family in Renaissance Italy.  The bindings on his books bear an impresa, or personal device, of an eagle soaring above a sea containing shoals of fish.  This also has “APLLONII PHILARETI” tooled in gold on the lower cover.  Filareto’s books all have fine 16th-century Italian medallion bindings.  The only comparable bindings from this period are those bearing an Apollo and Pegasus device made for Giovanni Battista Grimaldi (c.1524-1612), a Genoese banker and book collector who operated in the same social circles as Filareto.

 18th-century gold tooled goatskin binding by Antoine Michel Padeloup le Jeune
An 18th-century gold tooled goatskin binding by Antoine Michel Padeloup le Jeune for Marie Louise Adelaide de Bourbon Penthievre (1753-1821), whose arms are stamped in gold on the inside of the covers.  Padeloup was appointed royal bookbinder to King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour in 1733.

Maddy Smith
Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
British Museum Library’s Donations Register 1866-1871 pp. 178-9.
To see more bindings bequeathed by Slade go to the Library’s online database of bookbindings and type “Felix Slade” into the Quick Search box.

 

08 March 2019

The Making of ‘Dear John: The Kin Selection Controversy’. Part 2: From Idea to Event

Yesterday I explored some of the background of our upcoming performance ‘Dear John: The Kin Selection Controversy’ (15 March 2019). In this second part I will take you on a trip behind the scenes of developing this event.

This year’s edition of ‘Dear John’ will be part of British Science Week, a ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths. Run by the British Science Association, British Science Week features events and activities across the UK, and I’ve previously written blog posts on the Library’s Science blog as part of it.

Following its theme of ‘journeys’, let me take you on a trip behind the scenes of ‘Dear John’ - and join us for our journey into the past and into the archives during the event itself!

Chair, desk and lamp in the set of Dear JohnThe set, designed by Tanya Stephenson. Copyright © Undercurrent Theatre: photographs by Grace Hopkins

As I mentioned yesterday, after deciding we were going to do the event, the first step was choosing which letters to build it around. The originals are all held in the archives of John Maynard Smith, William Hamilton and George Price at the British Library, and the excerpts previously published in the latter two’s biographies were a good starting point. Maynard Smith’s archive is well organised and most of the letters are part of Add MS 86764: ‘Hamilton Price (1960-1980)’. The relevant folder is in fact prefaced by Maynard Smith himself, who inserted a page saying: ‘Correspondence with George Price. Mainly about the “ESS” paper but his letter of 19 Oct –72 also discusses Bill Hamilton’s feelings about me.’

Choosing the letters was one thing, and a relatively straightforward one at that. In terms of how to build an event around them, we had a few options. There was (1) a historical discussion, followed by the reading of letters (or vice versa), or (2) introduce two letters to get the ball rolling, followed by the discussion, and then return to the letters.

I discussed these with Laura Farnworth, artistic director of Undercurrent Theatre and artist in residence at the Library, and we quickly dismissed option 1 as too static and uninspired. Some version of option 2, a cutting back and forth between my historical discussion and the letters, would flow much better. Thinking about television documentaries and their way of moving between source material and explanation, we had found our way of structuring the event.

Neal Craig reading in the performanceNeal Craig performing. British Library, 2018. Copyright © Undercurrent Theatre: photographs by Grace Hopkins

Writing and editing the script, and piecing together additional source material beyond the letters, was step three. This was followed by entering the brave new world of theatre: read-throughs and rehearsals with an actor under the watchful eye of a director! (We also had a proper set, designed by Tanya Stephenson!)

Thanks to Laura’s comments and directions, we achieved a dynamic performance in front of a full house that, despite the almost obligatory initial stage fright, was immensely fun to do. So much fun, and so wonderfully positively received, that we’re doing it all over again.

So do come along, lean back, and enjoy a journey into the history of science with us!

Helen Piel
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) PhD student, University of Leeds and the British Library

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07 March 2019

The Making of ‘Dear John: The Kin Selection Controversy’. Part 1: What’s It All About?

William D. Hamilton: the Darwin of the twentieth century. John Maynard Smith: the senior statesman of British evolutionary biology. George R. Price: colleague of both – and intermediary between them.

Their story is one of personal and professional grievances around one of the most influential ideas in evolutionary biology: the genetics of altruism.

John Maynard Smith standing in a wildflower fieldJohn Maynard Smith. Sussex, 1989. Copyright © Anita Corbin and John O’Grady. Courtesy of John Maynard Smith’s Estate

I study the archive of John Maynard Smith (Add MS 86569-86840) as part of a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project between the British Library and the University of Leeds. The archive is held by the British Library, as are those of Bill Hamilton (uncatalogued) and George Price (Add MS 84115-84126). From Hamilton’s and Price’s biographies, I was aware of the fact that the relationship between Hamilton and Maynard Smith was a strained one. In Nature’s Oracle, Ullica Segerstråle even writes of Hamilton’s ‘life-long “Maynard Smith paranoia”’.

Going back to the letters in the archive for my own project, I found them as rich as the quotes promised. Accusations of harming a fellow researcher’s reputation were hurled at Maynard Smith – hurled in a very academic way: in his letter, Hamilton methodically numbered and listed his ‘main grounds’ for ‘disbelief’ in Maynard Smith’s version of the story. Maynard Smith replied, addressing each and every one of them.

William D. Hamilton teaching at a seminarWilliam D. Hamilton teaching at a seminar. Harvard, 1978. Copyright © Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

But what were they arguing about in the first place? And what was George Price’s role? The priority issue related to a feeling on Hamilton’s side that he hadn’t been given the credit for first proposing the idea and mathematics for the genetics of altruism. While Hamilton called it ‘inclusive fitness’, the idea is more popularly known by Maynard Smith’s term ‘kin selection’.

The idea was to eventually revolutionise the field of evolutionary biology by explaining why animals behave altruistically. Hamilton published his ideas in July 1964. But Maynard Smith had published a similar idea in March 1964 – and Maynard Smith had been the reviewer for Hamilton’s paper. And Price? Price was the one first informing Maynard Smith of Hamilton’s feelings.

George Price smoking on a benchGeorge Price, London 1974. Copyright © Estate of George Price

Price’s life has been the subject of a very successful theatre production, ‘Calculating Kindness’ (2016 at the Camden People’s Theatre), based on Price’s papers in the Library. The show was developed by Undercurrent Theatre, who subsequently became the British Library’s first Associate Theatre Company. That is how I met their artistic director, Laura Farnworth – we were both based in the Politics and Public Life department. Together with curator Jonathan Pledge we decided the letters and the story they represented were the perfect basis for a theatrical event based on them.

Come back tomorrow to read more about how we developed ‘Dear John: The Kin Selection Controversy’! You can join us for the performance, which is part of British Science Week, on Friday, 15 March 2019.

Helen Piel
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) PhD student, University of Leeds and the British Library

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