THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

9 posts from April 2019

30 April 2019

Records of homosexuality in 17th century England

Stephen Noble explores manuscript sources recording homosexuality in 17th-century England, using recently catalogued material in the Harley collection. 

There are difficulties in looking at the history of homosexuality through modern eyes. The term ‘homosexuality’ was coined in the 19th century and we cannot know how people from the past would identify with the language we use today.

The Buggery Act of 1533 criminalised homosexual activity between men and as a result, records of people self-identifying are rare. The records that remain tend to focus on the criminalised acts and not the feelings of those performing them, usually containing accusations or gossip using terms like ‘sodomite’, ‘ganymede’, ‘catamite’, ‘bardash’ and ‘tribade’. This also means that, as female homosexual acts were not specifically criminalised, records of male homosexuality are more prevalent. Lower literacy rates amongst women also plays a role in the relative lack of female perspective.

Harley MS 646 contains the autobiography of politician and antiquarian Sir Simonds D’Ewes. When D’Ewes writes about the corruption charges levelled at Sir Francis Bacon in 1621, he goes on to accuse Bacon of the ‘sinne of Sodomie’, and keeping ‘a verie effeminate faced youth to bee his catamite and bedfellow’. He includes a verse ‘Within this sty a hogg doth ly/That must be hang’d for Sodomy’ (‘hogg’ being a play on Bacon’s surname).

Excerpt from the manuscript Autobiography of Sir Simonds d’EwesAutobiography of Sir Simonds d’Ewes, Harley MS 646 f. 59v.

Interestingly, when the autobiography was published in 1845, the editor removed the accusation and changed the words of the verse from ‘sodomy’ to ‘villany’. A footnote states ‘D’Ewes here specifically charged Bacon with an abominable offence, in language too gross for publication’.

Satirical theatre and poetry played a large part in 17th-century literary culture. Sexuality was a common topic, including references to both male and female homosexuality.

Harley MS 7315 contains the poem ‘Venus Reply’, where Venus says that women ‘have got a new game/call’d Flatts…’ (‘game of flats’ being a euphemism for sex between women). The poet also writes of ‘Frogmore Frolics’, referring to rumours of what went on at Frogmore House, home at this time to Viscount Fitzhardinge, where the women are ‘for no Masculine lover’.

Excerpt from manuscript poem 'Venus Reply’'Venus Reply’, Harley MS 7315, f. 285v

In Harley MS 6913 is a poem containing the line ‘…that patient bardash Shrewsbury’, referring to Charles Talbot, 12th Earl of Shrewsbury. What prompts this accusation is not said, but one possible interpretation may be that in 1679, when the poem was written, Shrewsbury converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism.

In the English imagination, homosexuality was often linked with foreigners, especially Catholics and Italians (‘in the Italian way’ was another euphemism for sodomy). Perhaps the poet is using homosexuality as a metaphor and, by referring to Shrewsbury as a ‘patient bardash’, is implying that he had not truly changed his religious views?

Another example of this link between homosexuality and Catholicism in English satire is the play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, one of the few remaining manuscript copies of which survives in the Harley collection.

Manuscript title page for ‘Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery’‘Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery’, here attributed to John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, Harley MS 7312, p. 118

Whilst the play deals exclusively with sexual matters, the purpose was not to satirise Charles II’s sexual activities, but rather his toleration of Catholicism and his use of the Royal Prerogative. In Sodom, King Bolloxinion transforms his kingdom by legalising same-sex intercourse and, by the end of the play, becomes increasingly tyrannical. The playwright warns that allowing Charles II to use of the Royal Prerogative to transform religious toleration in England, and leaving his power unchecked, could have similar consequences.

Stephen Noble
Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Follow us on Twitter @BL_ModernMSS

Further Reading

Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)

Marie H. Loughlin (ed.), Same-sex desire in early modern England, 1550-1735: an anthology of literary texts and contexts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014)

Cameron McFarlane, The sodomite in fiction and satire, 1660-1750 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)

25 April 2019

Crusoe embossed

Robinson Crusoe was published 300 years ago on 25 April 1719.  Daniel Defoe’s account of a shipwrecked English sailor cast away on an uninhabited tropical island for 28 years has universal appeal because it is so believable.  Defoe effectively put into print the archetypal shipwreck yarn spun by many an old mariner.  It capitalised on the popularity of travel books and many readers did not realise it was fiction. 

Part of the enduring success of Robinson Crusoe is the impact it makes on a reader’s imagination - the mind is stirred by adventure in exotic far-off places.  Illustrations have played an important role in the presentation and reception of Crusoe, whether cheap quickly executed woodcuts in chapbooks and penny novels, or coloured plates in fine bindings.  The primary topic has been the portraiture of Crusoe – John Pine’s frontispiece for the first edition sets a consistent tone.  Crusoe, the resourceful, stands with his guns looking determinedly at the prospect of surviving alone on the island, the lost ship in the background.  Supporting illustrations frequently emphasise pivotal points in the story such as the shipwreck, the discovery of the footprint and Friday’s rescue.

Portraits of Robinson CrusoePortraits of Robinson Crusoe. John Pine’s first edition frontispiece (C.30.f.6) is top left.  Later woodcuts from a variety of chapbooks can be seen to retain the composition. Noc

Portrait of Robinson Crusoe by Jules Fesquet and LegeniselThere have also been some quite ‘unique’ portraits like this fantastic effort by Jules Fesquet and Legenisel from 1877. Noc

The proliferation of editions in the 19th century saw illustrations dominated by traditional images that are typical of colonialist assumptions and the flawed belief in white Europeans’ superiority over people and places of the wider world.  Traditional style editions routinely show Friday prostrate before his saviour, Crusoe.  In a show of submission and gratitude, Defoe tells us that Friday put Crusoe’s foot upon his head.
 

Book binding showing Friday at the feet of  Robinson CrusoeWard & Lock’s publishers’ binding (circa 1879) consciously or unconsciously amplifies the depressing fact that the first word Crusoe taught Friday was, “Master”. Noc

Depiction of Friday’s rescue A perfect exemplar of the colonial-style depiction of Friday’s rescue can be seen in a Maori Language edition from 1852 (freely available via Explore the British Library) – the Preface by the ‘Native Secretary’s Office’ is very revealing. Noc

Artistic capabilities are often stultified by prevalent tastes and looking at the same type of images in edition after edition of Crusoe can be tiring.  Change came with the work of artists like JB Yeats and further possibilities were pursued in the early 20th century with Expressionist art like the work of Walther Klemm.

 J B Yeats’ depiction of Crusoe discovering the footprintJ B Yeats’ depiction of Crusoe discovering the footprint (and looking all Kirk Douglas!) Noc


Lithograph of running figures by Walther KlemmLithograph by Walther Klemm in Das Leben und die ganz ungemeinen Begebenheiten des weltberühmten Engelländers Robinson Crusoe Leipzig, Verleg tbei Friedrich Dehne, 1919. (recent acquisition – awaiting shelfmark). Noc

Of course, it is all too easy for most readers to take for granted the added value and meaning to be gained from illustrations.  J R Biggs, whose wonderful wood-engravings decorate the Penguin Illustrated Classics edition of 1937, remarked that 'books without illustrations make the greatest force in the world: books with illustrations the greatest delight'.

But even though Crusoe is a particularly visual work, how might the visually impaired and blind experience such a novel?  Amongst the 600 or so printed editions of Crusoe held in the British Library, one of the most impressive items is a truly sensual edition: ‘visual’ and striking by both sight and by touch.

In the 1860s, the American Printing House for the Blind produced editions of books printed, or rather, embossed, with raised Roman Type letters.

Embossed edition of Robinson Crusoe

Embossed edition of Robinson CrusoeRobinson Crusoe. Presented to the American Printing House for the Blind (1873) Revolutionary for the blind.  But also aesthetically pleasing for people fortunate to be able to see the embossed type. Noc

The expansion of cheap print for mass readerships made great use of illustrations and it assisted rising levels of literacy.  The embossed type really adds a further dimension to the visual impression made by ‘printed’ words.  The invention of printing for the blind marked a new era in the history of literature.  It made the novel personally discoverable to readers unable to see traditional ink printed texts.  It is testament to the success and universal appeal of Crusoe that it was one of the very first texts selected to be printed by the APHB enabling the shipwrecked sailor’s adventure to become embossed on even more readers’ minds.

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
David Blewett, The illustration of Robinson Crusoe, 1719-1920 (1995)
Lists of books published by the American Printing House for the Blind and by other American firms [1896]
Edmund C, Johnson, Tangible Typography, or how the Blind read (1853)

Visit our free display about Robinson Crusoe in the British Library Treasures Gallery - available until June 2019.

 

23 April 2019

Map showing Air Force of the USSR, 1939

In a previous blog post, I noted that the files of the India Office contain many different kinds of maps, although not always of India.  Another fascinating example, marked ‘Secret’, is a map showing the strength and distribution of USSR Air Forces in 1939.

Cover of file on the order of battle of the Red Air Force IOR/L/WS/1/130 Noc

The map is in a file in the series of War Staff Papers in the India Office Records on the subject of the order of battle of the Red Air Force.  The War Staff was a section within the Military Department of the India Office, formed by the Military Secretary on the outbreak of war in 1939.  Routine military matters continued to be dealt with as normal by Military Department staff, while all administrative arrangements relating to the war were handled by the War Staff.

Distribution map of Soviet Air Force IOR/L/WS/1/130 Distribution map of Soviet Air Force Noc

The situation in the summer of 1939 would have looked very bleak indeed and the drift towards war seemingly unstoppable.  On 23 August 1939, a German Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed in Moscow by Soviet foreign minister Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.  In September 1939, Germany and Russia invaded Poland, dividing the country between them.  Information on the strength and position of the enemy’s armed forces was therefore vital in defence preparations.  However, access to information was tightly controlled and the first page of the file lists the names of those who were to see it. 

Document about Central Asiatic Military DistrictIOR/L/WS/1/130 Central Asiatic Military District Noc

The file contains tables of information analysing the strength of the Russian air force, such as the number and type of aircraft, and where they were stationed.  The map accompanies this analysis, and understandably shows the bulk of the Russian air force stationed along the European border.  However, the India Office would presumably have been particularly interested in the 58 aircraft stationed at Tashkent, and the 105 aircraft stationed at Baku, the places closest to India’s northern border.

Detail of map showing European borderIOR/L/WS/1/130 Detail of map showing European border Noc

Detail of map showing Indian border IOR/L/WS/1/130 Detail of map showing Indian border Noc

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
USSR: Order of battle of the Red Air Force, 1939 [Reference IOR/L/WS/1/130]

 

18 April 2019

A Good Friday gift to the children of Christ’s Hospital

In his will of April 1586, City of London mercer Peter Symonds made a number of charitable bequests.  Amongst these was a yearly sum to provide raisins as a Good Friday treat for children from Christ’s Hospital school.

Blue Coat Boys at Christ’s Hospital Blue Coat Boys at Christ’s Hospital from Felix Leigh, London Town illustrated by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton (London, 1883) Images Online Noc

Symonds stipulated that on Good Friday, for ever, 60 children from Christ’s Hospital should attend a morning service at All Hallows Church in Lombard Street.  There they would receive 30 shillings for the school.  In addition the sum of 3s 4d was to be spent on 'good' raisins.  Each child was to be given a 60th share of these raisins wrapped in paper.  Symonds wrote that ‘although this gifte maie be thoughte very frivolous yet my minde and meaning being hidden maie notwithstanding be performed, praying God to make all those children happie members in this commonwealthe’.

The terms of Symonds’ will were duly carried out every Good Friday with 60 of the youngest children attending the service at All Hallows.  By the early 19th century, the custom had evolved so that Blue Coat boys each received a new penny as well as a paper of raisins.  There is a rhyme:
‘Come, little Blue-Coat boy, come, come, come,
Sing for a penny, and chant for a plum’.

This ceremony took place for over 300 years. Then the Charity Commissioners put an end to the custom by repurposing the funds. The last distribution of Symonds’ gift took place in 1891 when each child was also given a bun, an orange, and an Easter card. 

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Will of Peter Symonds or Simonds The National Archives PROB 11/71/136 proved 9 September 1587
William Harnett Blanch,The Blue-Coat Boys; or, School Life in Christ’s Hospital (London, 1877)
British Newspaper Archive

16 April 2019

An Easter vacation for Indian cadets at Sandhurst

In the India Office Records there is a file dedicated to Easter vacation arrangements for Indian gentleman cadets at the Royal Military College Sandhurst in 1920.  Some cadets wanted to stay with family or guardians in the UK whilst others had more ambitious plans.  Letters between the Military Department of the India Office and the College show a wish to take account of the cadets’ wishes balanced with a duty of care for the young men.

Cover of  file on Easter vacation arrangements for Indian gentleman cadets at the Royal Military College Sandhurst in 1920IOR/L/MIL/7/19051 Noc

Military Department official William Henry Swain sent Sandhurst a proposal that Captain Conrad Bertie Lochner of the Indian Army should take Madanjit Singh and Tek Bahadur Shah to visit the occupied territory in Germany.  Madanjit Singh wrote a polite letter to Swain thanking him for arranging a stay in London and the trip to Cologne, but questioning whether it would be worth going to Germany for only a week.  He was keen ‘to see a few Theaters’ in London. 

Faiz Muhammad and Khan Sikandar Ali Mirza wished to stay together in London without a guardian. Instead it was suggested that they stay in Harrow on the Hill with Mrs Ellen Stogdon, a widow in her late 70s. Faiz Muhammad Khan wrote to Swain that although Mrs Stogdon had been very kind to him on a previous visit, he was keen to stay elsewhere. 

Sikandar Ali Mirza also sent a letter to Swain saying that he did not like the idea of staying with Mrs Stogdon.  There was absolutely nothing to do there and ‘besides I have an impression that Indians are not very welcome at Harrow on the Hill’ although ‘Mrs Stogdon herself is very kind’.   He believed he was old enough to take care of himself and to distinguish between right and wrong. 

Swain suggested to Major-General Reginald Stephens, Commandant at the Royal Military College, that Madanjit Singh and Sikandar Ali Mirza might be allowed to make their own arrangements for the holiday as both would soon be fully-fledged officers.  Stephens advised against letting them loose in London alone for a fortnight.  It was agreed that Major J W H D Tyndall would take charge of Madanjit Singh, Sikandar Ali Mirza, Faiz Muhammad Khan, and Edris Yusuf Ali at the Russell Hotel in London.

Minute on arrangements for Easter vacationIOR/L/MIL/7/19051 Noc


The file records that it was very difficult finding suitable officers to look after some of cadets.  The terms offered by the India Office were not sufficiently attractive. Hitherto it had offered pay plus 10s per day.  It was proposed to increase this to pay and allowances plus £1 per day and also a reasonable sum for travel and incidental expenses for officers whilst the cadets were in their charge.  Taking the young men to theatres and other places of amusement involved the officers in considerable extra expenditure.  In some cases the India Office was having to make advances to cadets for vacation expenses and then recoup this from parents or guardians in India.  There is a comment by General Sir Edmund George Barrow, Council of India, that in his opinion none of the vacation expenses should fall to Indian revenues as the cadets’ parents should provide financially for all aspects of their sons’ care.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MIL/7/19051 Collection 430/42 Indian cadets at Sandhurst: arrangements for Easter 1920 vacation.

 

11 April 2019

The Well-Travelled Goat

On 4 April 1772, the obituary of a goat appeared in the London publication The Craftsman.  On 27 February 1772 the celebrated Dr Samuel Johnson wrote to Joseph Banks through Sir Joshua Reynolds:
Sir,
I return thanks to you and Dr. Solander for the pleasure which I received in yesterday’s conversation.  I could not recollect a motto for your Goat, but have given her a distich.  You, Sir, may perhaps have an epic poem, from some happier pen, than that of, Sir, Your most humble Servant,
Sam Johnson

Head of a goatGoat from Walter Dwight Wilcox, Camping in the Canadian Rockies (New York, 1896)  Noc
BL flickr 

The note included two lines in Latin about the goat, translated by Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell:
In fame scarce second to the nurse of Jove,
This Goat, who twice the world had traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.

Rumour has it that Banks had the Latin lines engraved on a silver collar that the goat wore following her retirement at Greenwich, where she became something of an attraction.  Why did a goat merit such attention?

In the goat’s obituary, we read that she had indeed 'been twice round the world, first in the Dolphin, Captain Wallis, then in the Endeavour, Captain Cook'.  The Dolphin’s visit to Tahiti in 1767 was the first recorded by a European ship.  She sounds like a robust animal from this account in The Scots Magazine of 1773:
In a very few minutes an active bold spirited youth ascended the ship … and many of his companions followed his example. As one of them was standing near the gangway a goat belonging to the ship, gave him a butt upon the breech, which greatly alarmed him : looking round to discover his enemy, he observed the goat standing on its haunches ready for another assault … the poor fellow instantly jumped overboard … and … all the rest soon followed.

Attack on the Dolphin by natives of Otaheite Attack on the Dolphin by natives of Otaheite Add. 23921, f.5 Noc
Images Online  

Following Wallis’s reports of Tahiti on his return to Britain, the island was chosen as a site for the Royal Society’s global astronomical project.  The plan was to observe the planet Venus passing across the face of the sun to estimate the size of the solar system.  This was James Cook’s first objective when HMB Endeavour sailed to Tahiti from Plymouth in 1768, with the indomitable goat aboard.  An anonymous letter following the Endeavour’s return, published in The Gentleman’s and London Magazine, explained the goat’s importance:
Before I conclude, I must not omit how highly we have been indebted to a milch goat: she was three years in the West Indies, and was once round the world before in the Dolphin, and never went dry the whole time; we mean to reward her services in a good English pasture for life.

Did this hardy well-travelled goat inspire Cook in his distribution of breeding pairs of animals, including goats, on his later voyage in the Resolution?  The Arapaoa Island goats of Aotearoa New Zealand are believed by many to trace their origins to Cook, based on evidence in Cook’s journals and in an account of the voyage by scientist Georg Forster, who was also on the Resolution.  If so, this would be yet another reason to celebrate her.

Huw Rowlands
Project Manager Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Anonymous. 'An Authentic Account of the Natives of Otahitee, or George’s Island; together with some of the Particulars of the three Years Voyage lately made by Mr Banks and Dr Solander, in the years 1768, 1769, and 1770. Being the Copy of an original Letter from __ ___on board the Endeavour, to His friend in the Country', The Gentleman's and London Magazine, 1771, Volume 41 pages 496-499. British Library RB.23.a.15626,
‘An Epitome of Captain Wallis’s Voyage’, The Scots Magazine 1 November 1773, volume xxxv, page 580. British Newspaper Archive available online at the British Library. Also published in The Gentleman’s Magazine 43, 1773.
Boswell, James. Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson. William Andrews & Lemuel Blake Propose to Publish by Subscription, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Etc. (Extracts from the Monthly Review, Published in London.). 1807. British Library DRT Digital Store 10855.d.10,
Forster, Georg. A Voyage round the World, in His Britannic Majesty's Sloop Resolution, Commanded by Captain J. Cook, during the Years 1772, 3, 4 and 5. 1777. British Library 1472.d.3.
Johnson, Samuel, and Redford, Bruce. The Letters of Samuel Johnson / Edited by Bruce Redford. Vol.1, 1731-1772. Hyde ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992. British Library ZC.9.a.3886
Marquardt, Karl Heinz. Captain Cook's Endeavour / Karl Heinz Marquardt. Rev. ed. Anatomy of the Ship. London: Conway Maritime, 2001 British Library LB.31.b.23843
O'Brian, Patrick. Joseph Banks. Collins Harvill, 1988. British Library YK.1988.a.2588
Sutherland, Alison. No Ordinary Goat – The Story of New Zealand’s Arapawa Goats. New Zealand Arapawa Goat Association, 2016

 

09 April 2019

From bad feet to blasphemy: the life of Charles William Twort

We met Charles William Twort in an earlier blog post when he was discharged in 1823 from the Royal East India Volunteers because of bad feet and corns. His later life was full of interest, involving preaching and imprisonment for blasphemy.

According to the baptism register of St Peter and St Paul in Aylesford in the county of Kent, Charles William Twort was born on 10 July 1794, although later records state he was anything up to ten years older. Twort's age is given as nineteen when he joined the East India Company as a warehouse labourer in May 1812.  He was nominated for the post by director Richard Twining and his previous occupation was servant.

In October 1826 Twort married Elizabeth Boutevile at St Mary Newington.  They had two children: Eliza Mary Teressa born in 1824, and Jesse Jesus who died aged fourteen months in November 1828.

By 1830, Twort had quit his warehouse job and was a dissenting preacher.  Twort wrote and published religious tracts such as The Christian Corrector corrected. By a Protestant, and distributed the works of others from his home at Hope Street in Walworth.  In 1829 he was fined for not registering pamphlets for stamp duty.  He travelled the country with John (or Zion) Ward as a ‘Shiloite’ delegated by heaven to introduce 1000 years of perfect happiness and innocence as predicted by the late religious prophetess Joanna Southcott.

Opening of The Christian Corrector corrected. By a ProtestantC W Twort, The Christian Corrector corrected. By a Protestant (1829) Noc

There are many newspaper reports of Twort and Ward’s activities as they moved around, many hostile in tone. The Stockport Advertiser commented that ‘These two worthies are not altogether so heavenly-minded as to refrain from the indulgence of a glass or two of brandy before breakfast, or to debar themselves from the carnal enjoyment of tobacco and strong ale’.  According to the Birmingham Journal, Twort tried unsuccessfully to obtain the papers of Joanna Southcott from her friends. 

In April 1832, Twort and Ward were in Derby, displaying posters and circulating pamphlets denying the existence of Christ.  Mr Dean, a Church of England clergyman, tore some of their placards with his umbrella and was assaulted by Twort.  Magistrates sent Twort and Ward to the Assizes.  They were found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to eighteen months in Derby County Gaol. Petitions for their release were sent to Parliament and the Home Office in 1832 and 1833. However Home Secretary Viscount Melbourne saw no reason to grant any mitigation of the sentence. In 1834 Ward and Twort petitioned Parliament for abolition of the law which punished men for their religious beliefs, and published an open letter to the judge who had sentenced them.

Front page pf The Conduct of Judge Park, Counsellor Clarke, ... with others  The Conduct of Judge Park, Counsellor Clarke, ... with others  (Birmingham, 1834) Noc

John Ward died in 1837 in Leeds.  In 1841 Twort was living with his wife and daughter in Walworth. Twort’s daughter Eliza married tailor Joseph Young in 1849.  The Youngs moved to Bristol and by 1861 her mother had joined them. Elizabeth died there in 1869.  Census records from 1851-1871 show Charles Twort as a visitor or lodger in the Newington area.  His occupation is given as house proprietor or house agent, and as a broker’s assistant.  Charles died in London in 1878, his days as a preacher seemingly long since over. 

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/AG/30/5 Register of East India Company warehouse labourers 1801-1832 - information available via India Office Family History Search
IOR/L/MIL/5/485 List of men enlisted in Royal East India Volunteers 1820-1832
The Christian Corrector corrected. By a Protestant [C W Twort] (London, 1829)
The Vision of Judgment; or, the return of Joanna from her trance (London, 1829) 
The Conduct of Judge Park, Counsellor Clarke, ... with others, fairly exposed in the mock trial, and eighteen months cruel imprisonment of two poor men for publishing the truth of the Bible (Birmingham, 1834)
John Ward, Zion’s Works - New light on the Bible, the coming of Shiloh, the spirit of truth 1828-1837, 16 vols, (London, 1899-1904)
British Newspaper Archive - for example Birmingham Journal 20 April 1830; Chester Courant 12 April 1831 reprinting a piece from the Stockport Advertiser
The National Archives HO 17/60/4 and HO 13/63/230 Petition to the Home Office 1833
House of Commons proceedings 1832-1834

 

04 April 2019

Cholera on board ship at Singapore

We are pleased to mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of Singapore with a story from its very early days.
 

Singapore from the Government Hill Singapore from the Government Hill by W C Smith c.1830 (P1681) Images Online


Anyone interested in researching the medical profession in pre-independence South Asia is indebted to the indefatigable Lt Col D G Crawford who published biographical information relating to thousands of individuals who served as doctors in British India. The entries in Crawford’s Roll of the Indian Medical Service, 1615-1930 often provide details such as dates of birth, retirement and death, entry into and progress through the  service, honours and awards received, and books published, and are of enormous value to those researching ancestors in this particular field.

A certain act of heroism, however, appears to have entirely escaped Crawford’s notice, for it is nowhere mentioned in the entry for William Montgomerie.

Entry for William Montgomerie in Crawford's Roll of the Indian Medical ServiceD G Crawford, Roll of the Indian Medical Service, 1615-1930

Montgomerie was a young East India Company assistant surgeon who was working in Singapore in 1823 when a ship flying the flag of the Habsburg Empire limped into port.  She was almost certainly also flying an internationally recognised warning flag, because at some point during her voyage out from Europe the deadly disease cholera had broken out among her crew.  Showing great courage over and above his professional commitments Montgomerie went aboard La Carolina to do what he could for those affected, and partly because of his efforts the vessel was able a while later to sail away safely,  most likely back to her home port of Trieste.

News of this episode on the other side of the world seems to have reached the Court in Vienna.  On 5 May 1824 the Austrian chargé d’affaires at Chandos House in London, Philip Von Neumann, wrote to British Foreign Secretary George Canning to inform him that His Imperial and Apostolic Majesty the Emperor of Austria wished to convey the gift of a ring set with diamonds as a token of gratitude for the humanitarian assistance Montgomerie had rendered to the stricken sailors.  His letter is in the Company’s archives and was written in French, the diplomatic language of the day.

It must have been extremely difficult to ensure that the ring made its way from a landlocked European capital all the way to the recipient in southeast Asia, but we do know that it was safely delivered. 

Article about Montgomerie in Morning Chronicle 5 May 1824
Morning Chronicle 5 May 1824 British Newspaper Archive

Lt Col William Farquhar, Resident in Singapore, was made a Knight of the Order of Leopold by the Emperor in recognition of his humane services to La Carolina .  However the King’s regulations regarding foreign orders prevented Farquhar from accepting this honour.  So the Emperor sent a gold snuff box ornamented with brilliants which was presented to Farquhar by Prince Esterhazy in 1826.

Our story concludes on 18 January 1850 when Montgomerie made his will.  Among its clauses is the following:

  ‘I desire that the diamond Ring presented to me by order of the Emperor of Austria … be left in possession of my eldest unmarried daughter until the return and settlement in England of my eldest surviving son’.


Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services Team Leader

Further reading:
Von Neumann letter, IOR/F/4/727/file 19740
Will of William Montgomerie, IOR/L/AG/34/29/93/10 (digitised by Find My Past)
Burial of William Montgomerie at Calcutta, 22 March 1856, IOR/N/1/89/216 (digitised by Find My Past)
D G Crawford, Roll of the Indian Medical Service, 1615-1930, on open access OIR.355.345
British Newspaper Archive