Untold lives blog

13 posts from April 2020

30 April 2020

Mr Muschamp’s wooden leg

In 1630 the East India Company kept back £3 from the wages of Brute Gread, carpenter of the ship London on a voyage to Bantam.  The stoppage was to pay for a copper kettle which Gread was said to have removed from the ship.  Gread’s wife Dorothy petitioned for repayment because the kettle brought ashore was defective with a burnt-out bottom, and it was cut into pieces and used to sheath Mr Muschamp’s wooden leg.  The Company ordered that the money be repaid.

Petition of Dorothy Gread 3 November 1630Petition of Dorothy Gread 3 November 1630 IOR/B/14 p.81 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

George Muschamp was a Company merchant who had lost his right leg in July 1619 on board the Sampson in a fight with the Dutch at Patani in the East Indies.  The leg was shot off by a cannon and he spent four months in ‘miserable torture’ for want of medicines.  However this terrible injury did not stop Muschamp having a long career with the Company.

Muschamp’s first petition for employment in the Company was considered by the Court on 4 August 1615.  He outlined his career to date: four years in Antwerp and Middleburgh, ’brought up in marchandize’ eight years.  Muschamp could speak Dutch and French and said he was skilled in silk, silk wares and linen cloth, and in keeping accounts.  He had recently been employed by Duncombe Halsey, a City of London mercer.  After his ‘sufficiency and carriage’ were examined, he was engaged in September.

George Muschamp’s petition for employment 4 August 1615George Muschamp’s petition for employment 4 August 1615 IOR/B/5 p.460 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The East India Company sent Muschamp to the spice islands in Southeast Asia.  He moved around, serving at Batavia and Amboyna.  In 1623 the council at Batavia accepted his request to leave because his ‘want of one leg’ was preventing him from performing his services as he would wish.  They reported that Muschamp was a ‘very sufficient merchant and has been faithful, honest and careful’.

The city of Batavia from the sea, with ships in the foregroundPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence  The city of Batavia from An embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperour of China (London, 1669), shelfmark X.1202 Images Online

Muschamp arrived back in England in the Palsgrave in June 1623.  In October he was given a gratuity of £100 on account of his good reputation and loss of his leg.  He then negotiated terms with the Company for a second voyage.   Although he wanted a salary of £250 per annum, he accepted an offer of £150.  Musgrave asked to be employed at Surat, mainly for health reasons, but was sent back to Southeast Asia.  He was President at Bantam from 1629 to 1630.

In a letter dated 9 March 1630, the East India Company ordered Muschamp to return to England because of his ‘great abuse’ of private trade.  The Company seized his assets and in 1631 exhibited two bills in Chancery against him and two others.   A fine of £200 was subsequently imposed on Muschamp.

However in 1639 Muschamp was appointed President at Bantam for a second term.  In December 1640 his wife Mary asked for permission to join her husband.  The Company refused, partly because of the cost, but also because such a licence had never yet been granted and they thought it would be an ‘ill precedent’.  She was advised to be patient until the end of her husband’s contracted time, otherwise they could order his return by the next ships.

Then news arrived that Muschamp had died in the spring of 1640.  Mary Muschamp petitioned for help as she had small five children.  On 9 March 1642 the Company’s General Court of Proprietors granted her £250 to relieve her ‘miserable and comfortless state’.

Grant of £250 to Mary Muschamp noted in the Court Minutes of the East India CompanyGrant of £250 to Mary Muschamp 9 March 1642  IOR/B/20 p.132 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
East India Company Court of Director's Minutes IOR/B.
George Muschamp's correspondence can be found in IOR/E/3  and IOR/G/40/25(4) - the letters are listed in Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

IOR/B and IOR/G are available as a digital resource from Adam Matthew Digital which is free to access in British Library Reading Rooms (all British Library buildings are closed at present).


28 April 2020

The Derby Post-Man

By the 1720s the London press was in full flow, but newspaper printing elsewhere in England was only just getting started.  The earliest provincial newspapers began in Norwich (The Norwich Post) in 1701 and Bristol (The Bristol Post Boy) in 1704.  From here the printing of newspapers gradually spread to other regions, reaching Derby in 1720.  We have recently purchased a single unrecorded issue of The Derby Post-Man dated Thursday 6 July 1721.  This small weekly newspaper also survives in three issues at Derby Central Library and a fragment at the Bodleian Library.  Not only is this newspaper the first printed in Derby, it is also one of the first examples of printing in general from Derby.

The Derby Post-Man dated Thursday 6 July 1721.

The Derby Post-Man dated Thursday 6 July 1721 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Its front page features a large woodcut of a stag lying in a fenced enclosure and below that is an elaborate imprint, revealing that The Derby Post-Man was printed and sold by Samuel Hodgkinson at the Printing-Office in Derby, but it was also sold by various agents across the region.  Copies could be obtained from Birmingham, Uttoxeter and elsewhere, demonstrating the reach of this little newspaper.

Provincial newspapers are different from modern local newspapers; they contained London news for people in other areas of the country, only printing a small amount of local news and advertisements.  This issue of The Derby Post-Man reproduces an extract from the London Weekly Bill of Mortality, mortality statistics that were printed on a weekly basis from the late 16th century.   This extract includes deaths from a variety of conditions, including the intriguingly named 'headmouldshot' and 'rising of the lights'.  ‘Headmouldshot’ described a condition in which a newborn’s skull is compressed by delivery, causing fatal brain pressure.  It still exists but is now treatable. 'Rising of the lights' is an antiquated term for croup.  The horrible cough caused by croup sounded like the children were bringing up a lung, or ‘raising their lights’.

Derby Post Man Weekly Bill of Mortality photograph (1)

Weekly Bill of Mortality Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Snippets of news from St. James’s Evening Post follow, dated 29 June.  It took a week for the London newspapers to reach Hodgkinson in Derby and for him to print the stories in The Derby Post-Man.  Helpfully, the snippets of news from European cities are accompanied by a description of each place.  Marseilles is described as an ancient city in France, Parma as a rich and populous city in Italy and Hamburg a strong city in Denmark.  Handwritten news was another way in which news spread across the country.  It was seen as more up-to-date and reliable than printed news and provincial newspapers often extracted stories from manuscript newsletters.  This issue of The Derby Post-Man contains political news from 'Jackson’s letter'.

This issue of The Derby Post-Man also contains a poem about the South Sea Bubble written by 'a Lady'.  The South Sea Bubble was a period of speculation that ruined many British investors in 1720.   This poem is called 'Upon a lady’s being offered a purse by one of the late Directors of the South-Sea Company' and it is a scathing criticism of the South Sea Company.  It is precious evidence of a woman contributing to a newspaper during this period.  The poem is unrecorded elsewhere and would have been lost if this issue of The Derby Post-Man hadn’t survived.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections


23 April 2020

The rocky beginnings of Eddystone Lighthouse

Perched on the treacherous Eddystone Rocks 20 kilometres off Plymouth stands a lighthouse, the fourth to be built there. This extraordinary print measuring one metre is an etching of the first lighthouse by its designer, engineer Henry Winstanley.

Eddystone Lighthouse Edystone Light-house; etching, engraving and stipple by Henry Winstanley, 1699-1702. Shelfmark K.Top.11.114.a.2 TAB. Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Winstanley (c.1644-1703), of Littlebury near Saffron Walden, had shares in a ship which, like many others, was wrecked on these rocks. He submitted to London’s Trinity House a design for the first offshore lighthouse in the world. It was accepted and supported by the Admiralty – hence the dedication to the Lord High Admiral of England in the allegorical cartouche at top left.

Next to it is the fascinating history of building the lighthouse between 1696 and 1699. Work could only progress during summer, and even then was often halted for weeks because of storm-force winds and waves up to 200 feet high. The builders were often stranded and nearly ran out of provisions on several occasions. At this time the Nine Years’ War was being waged, and the description omits an incident from 1697 when the crew of a French privateer vessel destroyed what had been built of the lighthouse, captured Winstanley and his companions, and transported them to France. They were later released by the orders of King Louis XIV, who announced: ‘We are at war with England, not with humanity’.

Text in an open book at top right provides navigational information for ships. The key underneath describes various parts of the building. Galleries were used to retrieve goods from boats below by using cranes, and for signalling to ships. A bedroom/dining room above the kitchen in the cupola contained lockers for storing candles. Inside the lantern a large hanging lamp and sixty additional burning candles provided the light. On the outside, there were wooden ornamental candlesticks on iron supports, and Winstanley recommended propping ladders against them when cleaning the windows! He even thought of including a chute for rolling stones at intruders to defend the landing place.

According to the inscription at the bottom of the sheet, Winstanley sold the print and showed a model of his lighthouse to visitors at his ‘Waterworks’ – a Water Theatre at Piccadilly he invented for the entertainment of a paying public, with water displays and fireworks.

Eddystone lighthouse blog  Image 2Edystone Light-house; etching, engraving and stipple by Henry Winstanley, 1699-1702, later state; detail showing text added to the original print after Winstanley‘s death in 1703. Nouveau Theatre de la Grande Bretagne,  Supplement volume, Plate LIV, London, 1728. Shelfmark 191.g.10-14. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A later version of the print was published in the Supplement volume of Nouveau Theatre de la Grande Bretagne (1728). Here the previously blank leaf of the book at top right carries an inscription, telling us that the lighthouse was destroyed in a storm on 27 November 1703. Winstanley, who was supervising repairs on the structure, was swept away by the sea and never found.

Volume IV of Nouveau Theatre contains a print of the second Eddystone lighthouse, designed by John Rudyerd and completed in 1709. This lighthouse also came to a sad end: it was destroyed by fire on 2 December 1755. One of the three lighthouse keepers, Henry Hall aged 94, died from ingesting molten lead from the burning roof of the lantern.

John Smeaton’s third lighthouse from 1759 had to be dismantled after 120 years because the rocks below cracked. The present one by James Douglass was completed on an adjacent rock in 1882. All four lighthouses have fulfilled their function of keeping ships safe and preserving precious lives.

Marianne Yule
Curator of Prints and Drawings, British Library Western Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Biographical entry for Henry Winstanley in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Eddystone Lighthouse 
Winstanley’s Light


21 April 2020

From our homes to yours - the work of the Modern Archives and Manuscripts team

Like many people, British Library staff have been working from home over the past few weeks and will be doing so for the foreseeable future.  Whilst there are of course tasks we are unable to perform without direct access to the physical collections, we are utilising this time to focus on the many ways we can share the Library’s fascinating items and their stories with you digitally - from our homes, to yours.

The Modern Archives and Manuscripts team manages collections dating between 1601-1950. Here are just a few of the things they are working on, and some ways you can access and enjoy our collections from the comfort of your home.

Cataloguing Collections

Screenshot of Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue

The British Library is constantly adding, through gift or purchase, new manuscript and archive material to the collection.  Our teams record information on our collection catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts so you can discover and access the items.

At present we are focusing on some acquisitions that have been patiently awaiting cataloguing.  These include a harrowing day-by-day account by Herbert F. Millar of his failed polar rescue mission; a bundle of letters by playwright George Bernard Shaw; and a letter written by Jane Austen on her final birthday.

Letter written by Jane Austen on her final birthday
Letter from Jane Austen, written on her 41st birthday.

Once cataloguing is complete, these incredible documents will be discoverable online and ready to be made available in our reading rooms when the Library’s doors re-open.

Digital Engagement
The Modern Archives & Manuscripts team has an active presence on Twitter.  Our team has been using the platform to highlight our material on Digitised Manuscripts and Discovering Literature , to promote blogs and podcasts, and to engage with trending global topics.  Curator Alexander Lock gave a “Twitter Tour” of our William Wordsworth 250th birthday celebration display which opened in the Treasures Gallery shortly before the Library closed.  You can follow the Modern Archives and Manuscript team at @BL_ModernMSS.

Twitter Tour of Wordsworth exhibition

We will be working on more in depth explorations of our collection material through the Untold Lives and the English and Drama blogs.  Look out for posts exploring the ‘lost’ manuscript chapter from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Land of Mist, and a closer look at the Jane Austen letter pictured above.

The team are still available to answer enquiries although the extent of assistance we can offer may be limited at this time.

Collection Guides

A large selection of collection guides can be found on the British Library website, each providing an insight into the variety of material we hold on a number of fascinating subjects and themes.

Screenshot of Collection Guides webpage

Our team is working to create more guides on interesting new themes including Food, Architecture, and Politics.  These will provide a vital starting point for user research, whether for work or pleasure.

During this time, it is incredibly important to the British Library and its staff to do all we can to keep your library alive and accessible.  This challenging situation is affording the Library staff the opportunity to become digital users, so we can better understand and improve digital access, not only to mitigate short term restrictions, but for the long term as well. 

Zoe Louca-Richards
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts


16 April 2020

The London social season of 1863

‘Easter comes to interrupt the opening season, but London is all alive again with excitement.’

This was the opening line to an article in The Era on 29 March 1863 looking forward to the start of the London social season.  Sport, opera, art, music and the weather were all matters up for discussion.

Article in The Era 29 March 1863Article in The Era 29 March 1863 British Newspaper Archive

The first anticipated event was the annual University Rowing Match, with the favourite to win being described as ‘the great mother of Churchmen and Tories’, otherwise known as Oxford.

The opera season was due to commence the following week and is described in great detail with the highlights of that year being remarked on as Patti at Covent Garden, Titiens at the Haymarket and Verdi being ‘a double star’ with both his last work and his most recent being shown in London.  The author is a little critical of the music of the season remarking that, although music is always ‘eloquent everywhere’, there had been a ‘recent affliction of concerts of an awful length’.

Johanna Therese Carolina Tietjens or TitiensOpera singer (Johanna) Therese Carolina Tietjens (Titiens)by Adolphe Paul Auguste Beau 1860s NPG x74495 © National Portrait Gallery, London  National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Then it is the turn of art, with the painters all preparing to show off their latest works at the Royal Academy.

There is also an observation that there would normally be remarks and pleasantries about the weather as it was the start of spring, but as they had heard that even the Crystal Palace could not be ascended owing to ‘winds of seventy miles an hour’, pleasantries no longer seemed appropriate.

The article ends with mention of the social calendar of the Prime Minister, Viscount Palmerston, who is on his way to Scotland for a visit to Glasgow.  His inauguration as the Rector of Glasgow University took place on 30 March 1863.

The social season of 1863 certainly sounded like a busy and exciting one in London.  Hopefully the 70 mile an hour winds didn’t deter the public from attending their social engagements and enjoying the delights of culture and entertainment that were on offer that year.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
The Era, 29 March 1863 - British Newspaper Archive also available via findmypast


14 April 2020

Easter Holidays - Domestic conversations designed for the instruction and amusement of young people

In 1797 a book by Althea Fanshawe was published: Easter Holidays or Domestic Conversations designed for the Instruction and Amusement of Young People.  Miss Fanshawe said that she was writing for children aged between twelve and fourteen years, particularly boys.  She would feel amply rewarded ‘Should one single Youth be amended of any the most trifling error, by perusing the following sheets; should one Parent honour my opinions with approbation, and think any benefit has been derived, from reading the Conversations of the Melmoth Family’.

Title page of Easter Holidays or Domestic Conversations designed for the Instruction and Amusement of Young PeopleTitle page of Easter Holidays or Domestic Conversations designed for the Instruction and Amusement of Young People Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mrs Melmoth, the widow of a General, lives in a village on the Thames near Oxford.  She has four children: George, Lucy, Charlotte and Edward.  The story centres on the Easter holidays when George comes home from public school with his friend James Dudley.  Moral questions arise and are discussed by the Melmoths and their guest throughout the fortnight’s activities.

First page of the Melmoth storiesFirst page of the Melmoth stories Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Another book by Althea Fanshawe was published in 1805: Thoughts on Affectation addressed chiefly to Young People.  This dealt with virtues and vice; amiable qualifications and disagreeable habits; and accidental circumstances in life such as beauty/ugliness, family/low birth, riches/poverty.

Contents page from Thoughts on AffectationContents page from Thoughts on Affectation Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

All the examples in the book were said to be based on real occurences.  Miss Fanshawe aimed to see amendment in some of her young friends and to guard others against follies which she had committed in the past: ‘Whether I shall have succeeded in serving or amusing any one of my readers, I know not; but I have amused and so far served myself, that I have employed many a lonely hour in the chamber of sickness, which might have been gloomy, had it not been filled by writing the trifle, which I now submit to a less partial judgment than that of its author’.

Althea Fanshawe was baptised in Westminster in 1759.  Her father Simon served as an MP and the family seats were Dengie Hall in Essex and Fanshawe Gate in Derbyshire.   Althea had a elder brother Henry and a younger sister Frances.  She never married and died in 1824 in Bath.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Both of Miss Fanshawe’s books are available to read in full online -
Easter Holidays or Domestic Conversations designed for the Instruction and Amusement of Young People (Bath, 1797)
Thoughts on Affectation addressed chiefly to Young People (Bath, 1805)

12 April 2020

The Bunny Family of Berkshire

The Bunny Family was well-known in the Newbury area of Berkshire in the late 18th and 19th centuries.  Descendants of grocer Blandy Buck Bunny became prominent members of local society working as bankers and in the legal profession.

Blandy’s grandson Jeré Bunny was a solicitor in Newbury.  In 1813 he married Clara Slocock, the daughter of a brewer.  Clara died in 1835 at the age of 46.  Ten of their children, born between 1815 and 1834, survived to adulthood, and their lives took many different paths: vicar’s wife, soldier, farmer, fugitive, solicitor, gold miner.

The Bunny daughters were Clara, Caroline Eliza, Laura, Gertrude and Alice.  Clara married Charles Hopkinson, a wealthy banker.  Gertude and Alice became the wives of clergymen Henry Towry White and Douglas Belcher Binney.  Caroline Eliza and Laura remained single and lived as annuitants.

Eldest son Charles farmed at East Woodhay in Hampshire on land passed down the family. 

The next brother Brice Frederick trained as a barrister.  He emigrated to Australia in the early 1850s and worked as a gold miner at Forest Creek in Victoria, but gave up after six months, moving to Melbourne to resume his legal career.  Brice became a highly regarded equity lawyer.  He served as an MP and then became a judge.

Forest Creek Victoria
S. T. Gill, Forest Creek, Mount Alexander Diggings 1852- from National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Edward William Bunny studied at Oriel College Oxford and trained as a solicitor. He had to have a leg amputated because of a diseased knee joint.  In 1861 Edward moved to New Zealand, becoming Registrar of the Supreme Court.

Henry Bunny also qualified as a solicitor and worked with his father in Newbury.  By 1853 he was the town clerk.  Then he suddenly disappeared with his family to escape his debts.  A special messenger was sent by his creditors to the Duke of Portland which was about to sail from Plymouth to New Zealand.  Mrs Bunny and her children were found on board but there was no sign of Henry.  It was rumoured that he was on the ship but disguised in women’s clothes.

In New Zealand Henry set up business as a solicitor but was suspended when a case for fraud was brought against him in the UK.  However he bounced back and then entered politics.  He was elected a representative in the Provincial Council of Wellington and served in the New Zealand Parliament.  Sadly Henry committed suicide in 1891 whilst suffering from ‘melancholia’ and sciatica.   The inquest returned a verdict of temporary insanity.  A monument funded by public subscription was erected in his memory.

Youngest son Arthur Bunny had a distinguished career in the Bengal Artillery.  He fought in many campaigns and received awards for bravery.  At the battle of Multan in 1848 he was wounded by a musket ball in the shoulder and had his horse shot under him.  Arthur was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1873.

Siege of MultanHenry Martens, The Siege of Multan, January 1849 British Library Foster 198 Images Online

Jeré Bunny died in 1854.  Newspapers speculated that his death had been hastened by the strain of the legal proceedings against his son Henry.  Jeré’s will was made in May 1851, but a codicil dated November 1853 revoked all bequests to Henry, except 20 shillings.   Another codicil the following month withdrew all bequests to Charles, Brice, Henry and Arthur as their entitlement had been already been spent on their ‘advancement’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive also available via findmypast
Trove  - Australian newspapers
Papers Past  - New Zealand newspapers


11 April 2020

Colossal characters of the first Spring Holiday

'The season of Easter is a "commonwealth" of festivity', said Aris's Birmingham Gazette on Monday 21 April 1851. 'It is particularly interesting at this season of the year to notice the various preparations for public recreation and amusement.  Hoardings are placarded with immense posters, calling attention in colossal characters, to excursion trains, steam vessels, concerts, theatres, fairs, and numerous other sources of enjoyment, and wherever we look we can discover indications of the "first Spring holiday".'

Historical printed playbills are a fascinating resource for examining how generations past were entertained.   They have great visual appeal, designed to catch attention.  Perhaps the Birmingham newspaper reporter saw this very playbill advertising grand entertainments for the Easter Holidays at the Theatre Royal in April 1851?

Playbill for Birmingham Theatre Royal, 22 April, 1851

Playbill for Birmingham Theatre Royal, 22 April, 1851, British Library shelfmark: Playbills 199 (Image sources with thanks to Sakib Supple) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The bill’s 'colossal characters', its large bold type, quite literally evokes the host of performers lined up in a series of novelties for the local stage.

A great and surprising variety of entertainments appeared on Victorian stages across the country.  ‘Traditional’ theatre is certainly represented here with the great eastern romance of Sinbad from The Arabian Nights and the historical drama, Shakespeare’s Early Days (Shakespeare pageants and tribute plays were common around the country especially near his birthday at the end of April).  But the novelty and variety of the mixed bill is noteworthy.  Performing animals were a big hit and this bill announces the treats in store from Monsieur Desarais’ 'Troupe of Histrionic Dogs and Monkeys'!

Desarais’ Extraordinary Troupe of Histrionic Dogs And Monkeys from a playbill on 29 April 1851.  Mons. Desarais’ Extraordinary Troupe of Histrionic Dogs And Monkeys. From a playbill on 29 April 1851.  Theatre-goers could see dogs walking on their forelegs; climbing up and down ladders; monkey ‘carousals’(?!), dogs playing dead and wounded (?!); and monkeys on backs of dogs in a grand steeple-chase! “the singing dog” will 'perform an original solo' (?!!!) and a dog called 'Cupid' performs amidst a display of fireworks (?!). British Library shelfmark Playbills 199 (Image sourced from Trove, National Library of Australia)

In addition to large, bold and playful type fonts, playbills often used illustrations to draw in peoples’ attention.  This playbill shows the acrobatics of the funambulist ‘Young Hengler’, a rope dancer who thrilled audiences 'by discharging a brace of pistols whilst accomplishing a lofty aerial somersault'.  In calmer moments he would entertain with a drum polka and buffo dance with his feet in bushel baskets.

The Henglers were a large family of skilled circus performers, they became a huge company with a presence in many regional cities and in the centre of London in Argyll Street (on the site of the Palladium today).  Later in the century, Music Hall culture diminished the audiences’ taste for this type of circus act and despite more far-fetched and extreme acts at Hengler’s like 'water theatre' and human cannonballs, they went to the wall in the late 19th century.

Hengler's Circus: 'Onra the man projectile'Hengler's Circus: 'Onra the man projectile'Mons. Desarais’ Extraordinary Troupe of Histrionic Dogs And Monkeys. From a playbill on 29 April 1851. . MacKenzie & Co. Litho Studio [1890].  The job of the playbill was to 'fire' excitement – after all they were competing with a 'commonwealth of festivity', excursions, concerts, fairs and other entertainments. British Library shelfmark Evan.338 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Playbills provided detailed descriptions of plots, depicted lavish sets, scenery, costumes, machinery and special effects.  These helped build anticipation, listing the names and roles of the cast, often colourful and suggestively bawdy.  Even lesser characters' roles and names helped portray the carnival surrounding plays, like ‘Yelcobrac’ a genie from Sinbad, 'gifted with the power of assuming various Forms'.

Descriptions of the set, plot and cast of Sinbad the SailorA variant Playbill from 22 April 1851 with lavish descriptions of the set, plot and cast of Sinbad the Sailor. British Library shelfmark Playbills 199 (Image sources with thanks to Sakib Supple) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

There is a mass of useful incidental information for historians buried within the sensation and puff of these playbills.  Details about ticket prices; who could attend ('no babes in arms' admitted); notes on comforts such as warmth ('good fires kept'); hygiene ('thoroughly cleansed'; safety ('constables in attendance at all times') and transport – see on this bill in 1851 how people were conveyed by special trains from suburbs and outlying towns like Walsall and Dudley – a relative novelty in itself!

Theatre Royal in Birmingham around 1851How The Theatre Royal in Birmingham would have looked around 1851, British Library Digital Store 1763.a.5 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections


The British Library has a vast collection of historical playbills (nearly a quarter of a million) and about 100,000 of them (dating from the late 18th century to the 1860s) were digitised some years back (you can find the by tapping ‘playbills’ into Explore the British Library, clicking ‘Online’ and selecting one of the volumes with the ‘I Want This’ button to look at examples).

In an effort to make these individual bills more findable, the British Library has an ongoing project called In the Spotlight which aims to identify and record crucial details like performance titles.   The variety of font size and design means they cannot be machine read.  The playbills project is a great way for members of the public to get their noses into interesting and entertaining historical print and help identify and transcribe information that will provide access points for future research.  The results are integrated into the Library’s online viewer and all data is available for anyone to use in their own work as it’s completed.

The interactive project can also generate thoughtful discussion on social media (@Libcrowds and @blprintheritage) and on the project discussion board. For us, this popular engagement with historical contexts is as valuable and exciting as the data generated.