THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

25 July 2019

Decorating the East India Company's records

One of my favourite items from the East India Company archives is currently on display in the British Library exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark.  It is a volume of official minutes from the Court of Directors 1657 to 1665, and it is special because a bored or creative clerk has added drawings or decorations to some of the headings to enliven the usual plain format.

This is the entry being shown in the exhibition – is it a hawk?

Page from Court of Directors' Minutes 20 February 1662/63  IOR/B/26 f.296 Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 20 February 1662/63 Noc

Here are some other examples of his handiwork, starting with a bird which looks like a cross between a pheasant and a dodo.

Page from Court of Directors' Minutes 8 April 1663 IOR/B/26 f.303 Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 8 April 1663 Noc

Page from Court of Directors' Minutes 14 January 1662/63IOR/B/26 f.288v Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 14 January 1662/63 Noc

Page from Court of Directors' Minutes 13 April 1663IOR/B/26 f.305 Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 13 April 1663 Noc

It appears that the clerk was told to stop embellishing the minutes as there are letters prepared for decoration but left unfilled.  I haven’t been able to discover the identity of our artist.  Until 1666 East India Company Secretaries employed their own clerks who weren’t on the official payroll and it seems likely our man fell into this category.

The Company Secretary at this time was John Stanyan.  His brother Laurence was employed as his salaried assistant.  The Stanyans faced difficult challenges during their time in office.  In 1665 plague spread through London: Laurence stayed to deal with Company business whilst John was given permission to go the country.  Laurence was rewarded with a gratuity of £50 for remaining in town at a time of ‘great mortality’.  The following year, John helped to organise operations when East India House in Leadenhall Street and Company goods were threatened with destruction during the Great Fire of London.

In December 1666 John Stanyan was dismissed by the East India Company. The directors discovered that he had carried out private trade in prohibited goods, and had advised the Company’s overseas merchants on how to maximise their personal trading profits to the detriment of the Company.  He had also written disparagingly of the Court and its orders.  Laurence Stanyan was sacked in May 1677 for private trading, and for copying letters with confidential information written by his brother.

Settlement of John Stanyan’s affairs took years – he was still negotiating with the Court in 1671.  He secured the post of Principal Registrar of the Consistory Court in Gloucester, presumably through his wife’s father, John Pritchett, who was the Bishop there.  Since the work in Gloucester could be carried out by a deputy, John enjoyed the life of a country gentleman in Harefield Middlesex.

Laurence also prospered, becoming Commissioner of the Revenue, settling in Monken Hadley near Barnet.  His son Abraham became a diplomat and MP.

But I wonder what became of our artistic scribe?

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records