Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

9 posts from May 2020

28 May 2020

The mysterious Captain Gladstone, RN - a bookbinding James Bond?

Beautifully tooled bookbindings signed with the initials C.E.G. appear on printed books dating from the early 20th century.  These are the initials of Charles Elsden Gladstone (1855-1919) of the Royal Navy. 

Extract from record of service for Charles Elsden Gladstone The National Archives ADM 196-19-266Extract from record of service for Charles Elsden Gladstone - image courtesy of  The National Archives, ADM 196/19/266 ©Crown Copyright

The National Archives chart his somewhat unusual career.  Like his later fictional counterpart James Bond, he attained the rank of commander.  Also like Bond, he used cutting edge tech.  There is even a suggestion of covert intelligence gathering activities!  Admiralty service papers refer to an early specialism in torpedos, submarine weaponry and skill in photography which aided research on the subject of armaments.  He saw action in 1873 when he was landed with the Naval Brigade in the Ashanti War, while serving on the corvette H.M.S. Druid.

Photograph of starboard side of H.M.S Druid, a corvette at sea with sails down, 1880Photograph of starboard side of H.M.S Druid, a corvette at sea with sails down, 1880 - image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust 

As for hobbies, Gladstone’s name is included in the annals of specialist societies relating to microscopy and optical magic lanterns, interests which suggest he had a keen eye and feeling for accuracy.  His family house was based in Thanet where he lived with his wife, a son, a governess and enough domestic help to make his situation comfortable.  Gladstone’s life, therefore, is quite well documented, but, annoyingly for the fans of bookbinding, not his connection to the craft!

Apparently Gladstone family lore confirms that Gladstone bound books but what does this mean?  Traditionally, binding was a two stage process, making the structure (called ‘forwarding’) and applying the decoration (‘finishing’).  Practitioners did not usually teach themselves.  Apprentices spent seven years training with an accredited bookbinder.  Did Gladstone master both techniques and who taught him?  I have found no evidence either way.

People outside the craft did learn to bind but were usually guided by professionals in some way.  A contemporary of Gladstone’s, Irish barrister Sir Edward Sullivan (1852-1928), ‘finished’ ready-bound books to a high standard.  Today, these bindings fetch high prices, as do Captain Gladstone’s though to a lesser extent.  Was this a pastime for Gladstone or the means of raising income?  The latter seems unlikely as his navy salary was good and his retirement pay (from 1904) was £400 a year.  In 1919, the Liverpool Probate Registry listed the gross value of his estate as £27030 2s 5d.

Gladstone’s well bound colourful goatskin book covers, displaying a range of finishing skills, are attractive additions to sales catalogues.  Antiquarian book sellers have included images on their websites, notably David Brass Rare Books, Temple Rare Books (see Temple Rare Books online Book of the Month January 2014), and Nudelman Rare Books.  The bindings usually (though not exclusively) include all-over designs comprising small flower and leaf motifs, have smooth spines and elaborately decorated turn-ins.  Here is the British Library’s example, Alfred de Musset's On ne badine pas avec l’amour.

Gladstone's binding of Alfred de Musset's 'On ne badine pas avec l’amour' with small flower and leaf motifs Alfred de Musset, On ne badine pas avec l’amour (Paris, 1904) British Library shelf mark C.188.114 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


 Tooling on the turn in of Gladstone's binding showing the initials C.E.G.

Tooling on the turn in showing the initials C.E.G.  - Alfred de Musset, On ne badine pas avec l’amour (Paris, 1904) British Library shelf mark C.188.114 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

For a naval officer Gladstone was a quite remarkable bookbinder!

P.J.M. Marks
Curator, Bookbindings

Further Reading:
The National Archives Admiralty records ADM 196/19/266; ADM 196/38/621; ADM 196/40/207
Dreadnought Project
Commander Charles Elsden Gladstone


26 May 2020

The 1911 Census and the Wellesley Training Ship

Carrying out some family history research, I came across Frank Gore’s entry in the 1911 census.  Frank was a 14-year-old boy from Birkenhead so what was he doing on Tyneside, and why was he described as an ‘inmate’?

Frank was on the Wellesley Training Ship, moored on the Tyne, which prepared young men from poor and troubled backgrounds for service in both the Royal and Merchant Navies.  On census night in 1911, the ship housed the Superintendent, the wonderfully named Lieutenant Percy de Winton Kitcat, and his family – wife Edith, sons John and Charles and daughter Delicia - as well as a visiting mother-in-law, and a female servant.  Staff consisted of a drill instructor, a master sailor, three seamanship instructors, a woodwork instructor, a carpenter, and a school master.  There were 280 boys on board, from across the North East, Yorkshire, Durham, Lancashire and Cheshire, and from as far away as Nottinghamshire, Glamorganshire and even Surrey.  The boys were given a practical education in seamanship and woodworking skills, and a basic general education.

Boys of the training ship Wellesley from the Illustrated London News 2 December 1876Boys of the training ship Wellesley from the Illustrated London News 2 December 1876 British Newspaper Archive

Frank’s family were scattered in 1911.  His father John Robert, a ship’s riveter, had died in 1904, and his two surviving brothers were at sea.  His sister Lillian was living with relatives and doing piece work wrapping soap.  I haven’t been able to trace his mother Ellen in 1911, so perhaps it is no surprise that he was being looked after in an institutional setting.

Frank’s life was very different from that of Percy de Winton Kitcat, who was born in 1872 in Swallowfield, Berkshire, the son of John Kitcat and Emma Margaret de Winton.  Percy and his brothers, but not their sisters, all received the de Winton name in addition to Kitcat, a tradition that followed on amongst Percy’s own children.  In the 1881 census Percy was boarding at a school run by Martha Hibbard at Bell Farm, Clewer, Windsor, along with twelve other boys aged from 8 to 12.  Two of the boys – Hugh Marendon and Keith Jackson both age 10 – were born in India, as was their teacher Emily Clarke.

Percy was apprenticed into the Merchant Navy in Feb 1890 and by 1895 he was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy.  At the time of the 1901 census, he was serving on HMS Resolution, a 1st class Battleship at Gibraltar.  By 1908, Kitcat was a Commander Instructor in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve based in Bristol.  He was appointed as Superintendent to the Wellesley Training Ship in July 1910.

Article in Newcastle Daily Journal 18 July 1910 on Kitcat's appointment to the Wellesley Training ShipArticle in Newcastle Daily Journal 18 July 1910 on Kitcat's appointment to the Wellesley Training Ship British Newspaper Archive

The Wellesley Training Ship was destroyed by fire in 1914.  The nautical school continued on land, first at Tynemouth and then at Blyth, Northumberland.  It became an approved school in 1933 and continued to provide a nautical education.  It officially closed as an educational institution in 2006.

Wellesley training ship on fire 1914Training Ship Wellesley on fire at North Shields 1914 - image courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums 

So did the Wellesley Training Ship prepare Frank Gore for a life at sea?  He did join the Merchant Navy, and was still at sea in the early 1920s. 

Frank Gore - Merchant Navy document with photographMerchant Navy card 1918 for Frank Gore from The National Archives BT350 via findmypast © Crown Copyright Image reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London England

Frank Gore went back to the Wirral, married, had children.  His entry in the 1939 Register shows him living in Birkenhead and working as a labourer in a margarine works.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
An Illustrated Guide to the Tyne Training Ship "Wellesley" (South Shields: Gazette Office, 1904) British Library 806.bb.33.
An Illustrated Guide to the Tyne Training Ship "Wellesley" (South Shields: Gazette Office, 1909) British Library X.529/14682.
Minute Books of the Wellesley Training Ship can be found at Northumberland Archives.
The National Archives BT 150/50 & ADM/196/137/84 via findmypast and Ancestry for Percy de Winton Kitcat’s naval apprenticeship papers and naval certificates.
Frank Gore's merchant seaman papers can be found at The National Archives BT 348/1, BT 350 via findmypast.
British Newspaper Archive – also available via findmypast.


21 May 2020

Researching Suffragettes in the British Library’s Modern Manuscripts and Archive Collections

Like many, the Covid-19 lockdown has provided British Library staff a bit more space and time to get through some spring cleaning.  You might think that archivists would find themselves a little distanced from their cleaning tasks with all their precious archives locked up in their respective institutions, but there is always more to sort in the archive sector, whether physically or digitally.  Whilst quarantined the Modern Manuscripts team has taken this opportunity to sort through reams of our metadata in order to write new collection guides.

We have been working on summarising our archive collections relating to the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom.  The women’s suffrage collection contains the archives of Sylvia Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth and Harriet McIlquham, but we have also had the opportunity to sift through some of our catalogue records and identify some fascinating suffrage campaigners, whose correspondence is held across various collections.

Some examples of these campaigners include:

Barbara Bodichon, 1827-1891

Sketch of Barbara BodichonBarbara Bodichon, Sketch by Samuel Lawrence, 1861 Wikimedia Commons

Barbara Bodichon was an early suffragist and women’s rights activist.  She began meeting with friends in the 1850s to discuss women’s rights in a group which became known as the ‘Ladies of Langham Place’.  She co-founded the English Woman’s Journal, which examined women’s position and rights in society.  She published her thoughts on women’s right to property in her essay, Brief Summary of the Laws of England Concerning Women.  Items of her correspondence can be found in the Clough-Shore papers (Add MS 72832 A) and the William Lovett Papers (Add MS 78161).

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, 1833-1918

Photograph of Elizabeth Wolstenholme ElmyElizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy Photo via Wikipedia

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy was a feminist and suffrage campaigner.  She founded the Manchester Committee for the Enfranchisement of Women in 1866 and would campaign for women’s suffrage for over 50 years.  The British Library holds six volumes of papers relating to her work in the suffragette movement at Add MS 47449-47455, which contains her correspondence with many prominent women activists.

Hertha Ayrton, 1854-1923

Painting of Hertha AyrtonPainting of Hertha Ayrton, c. 1905, by Héléna Arsène Darmesteter via Wikimedia Commons

Hertha Ayrton campaigned for the women’s vote with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, as well as Emily Davison.  She was also an engineer, mathematician and physicist whose work was awarded the Hughes Medal.  There is correspondence between her and her friend Marie Stopes in the Stopes Papers (Add MS 58685 and Add MS 58689).

Ethel Snowden, 1881 -1951

Photograph of Ethel SnowdenPhotograph of Ethel Snowden, by S. A. Chandler & Co, 1921 via Wikimedia Commons

Ethel Snowden was a socialist, feminist activist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. In 1907 she wrote a book called The Woman Socialist, which advocated the collective organisation of housework and a state salary for mothers.  Items of her correspondence can be found in the Mary Gladstone papers (Add MS 46253), the Burns Papers (Add MS 46300) and the Koteliansky Papers (Add MS 48974).

These individuals are just a few of the many fascinating women who feature in the Modern Manuscripts collections.  As we continue to explore our collections from home, we hope that we will find many more which we can bring to light in our collection guides, so that many more people will eventually be able to explore the papers of these ground-breaking women.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
For more information on British Library collections relating to the women’s suffrage campaign, visit Votes for Women BL.


19 May 2020

My daughter Seringa

In 1799 Captain John Norris of the Madras Engineers was aide-de-camp to Colonel Gent at the Siege of Seringapatam.  Following the assault and capture of the fort on 4 May 1799, Norris was appointed Superintending Engineer of reform of the fortifications there. In the months following the siege Norris undertook a detailed survey of the island of Seringapatam for the Company.

The Storming of SeringapatamThe Storming of Seringapatam - engraving by John Vendramini, published in 1802. Shelfmark P779. Images Online

Norris's work brought him into conflict with Colonel Arthur Wellesley who had been appointed to command the fort following the siege.  Wellesley had instructed Norris to supply him with the plans and maps made during the survey, which Norris declined to do as it was contrary to his orders from Government.  Wellesley was reportedly very angry at what he viewed as Norris’s insubordination and reported him to the Madras Government as ‘not a fit person to be employed as the Engineer at Seringapatam’.  The Government however supported Norris’s refusal to supply the documents.

Plan of Seringapatam 1792 Plan of Seringapatam, 1792 taken from A Guide to Seringapatam and its Vicinity. Historical and traditional, 3rd Edn (Revised). 1897. BL flickr

John Norris was appointed an ensign in the Madras Engineers on 3 October 1781 rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before retiring on 25 September 1811.  For most of his time in the corps he served alongside Captain Colin Mackenzie, the renowned surveyor whose collections are one of the foundations of the India Office Private Papers.

Norris’s time at Seringapatam appears to have made its mark on both him and his wife Lydia, the daughter of William Harcourt Torriano, whom he married in 1790.  On 19 January 1800 John and Lydia Norris christened their second daughter Helen Harness Seringa Norris.  The couple had one other daughter Lydia Dampier Norris born in 1794 who died at Cawnpore in 1825.

Helen Harness Seringa Norris baptism register entryBaptism entry for Helen Harness Seringa Norris IOR/N/2/2, f. 420

Historical records suggest Helen Harness Seringa Norris was fond of her unusual name as it was often recorded as her sole forename, including on her death register entry in 1866.  

Seringa Norris was married in 1819 to the Reverend Charles Norman, Vicar of Boxted in Essex.  The couple had eight children, though only four survived infancy.  In 1820 they named their eldest child Seringa Lydia Frances Norman.

Seringa Norman married in 1842 to Joseph Proctor Benwell, a bank manager.  The Benwells had four children, their eldest being a daughter Seringa born in 1845.  Seringa Benwell married Charles Fuller Grenside, a printer ink manufacturer, in 1879.  They had a daughter in 1885 christened Seringa Dorothea.  Seringa Dorothea Grenside was married in 1908 to Laurence Arthur Grundy Lane, an insurance inspector, and their only child was named Audrey Seringa Lane.

By the time Audrey Seringa Lane was born in 1908, the Seringa forename had been passed down through five generations spanning over 200 years.  Naming daughters Seringa carried on, and by the 1960s it had spanned seven generations of John and Lydia Norris’s family and lasted for over 260 years.

Oher branches of the family continued the name too.  Charles and Seringa Norman’s daughter Sarah Elizabeth and son Edward both had daughters named Seringa and the name continued there for several generations too.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
The Military History of the Madras Engineers and Pioneers, from 1743 up to the present time (London, 1888). British Library shelfmark V 6503. Snippet view on Google Books. 
Baptisms, Marriages and Burials available via the British India Office Collection on findmypast -
Marriage entry for John Norris and Lydia Torriano IOR/N/2/11, ff. 631-632.  Baptism entry for Helen Harness Seringa Norris IOR/N/2/2, f. 420.  Baptism entry for Lydia Damper Norris IOR/N/2/2, f. 213.  Burial entry for Lydia Dampier Norris IOR/N/1/13, f. 689.
Birth, marriage, death and census records for subsequent generations of the Norris family are also available in other collections on findmypast.
Biographical Notes compiled for R. H. Phillimore, Historical records of the Survey of India (Dehra Dun, 1945-48). Includes biographical entry for John Norris Volume II, p. 360, shelfmark OIR 354.54
IOR/F/4/95/1926 Papers regarding repair and improvement of the fort at Seringapatam – report by Captain John Norris, observations on Norris’s report by Col. Arthur Wellesley, observations by the Chief Engineer Major-General Patrick Ross. 
IOR/F/4/193/4397 Demolition of forts in the southern districts of the Madras Presidency and of Public buildings and works in the former Dutch settlements of Cochin and Quilon, under the direction of Major John Norris and Lieutenant Hilary Harcourt Torriano, Madras Engineers.

14 May 2020

The most noted girls of the town: A newly discovered edition of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies is a notorious publication that detailed the names and ‘specialities’ of prostitutes working in Covent Garden and the West End during the late 18th century.  When the first edition appeared in 1760, it was immediately derided as pretending 'to give some account of the most noted Girls of the Town; but it has all the air of a lying Catch-penny Jobb' (Monthly Review, June 1760).  A contributor to the London Magazine claimed that the sex workers were 'frightful, and smell strongly of paints, pills, bolus’s, and every venereal slop' (April 1760).  Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its scandalous content Harris’s List amassed a large enough readership to be published yearly until 1794.

Frontispiece and title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden LadiesFrontispiece and title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for H. Ranger, 1773 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It was doing so well that, by 1791, a rival Harris’s List had appeared.  An indignant but anonymous newspaper notice was printed, claiming the rival edition was 'a compilation of falsehood and imposition' and urging discerning readers to keep their eye out for the so-called authentic version of the directory.  No copies of this 1791 rival Harris’s List survive today.  In fact, the only extant edition of this rival publication was, until recently, thought to be the one from 1794 – suggesting that it ran for at least four years.

However, we have recently acquired a copy of the rival Harris’s List from 1793.  It was printed for John Sudbury in Southwark rather than the pseudonymous ‘H. Ranger’ who occupies the imprint in the official Lists.   John Sudbury was a bookseller and occasional publisher who was active between 1786 and 1795, dealing in cheap bawdy material.

Title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, LondonTitle page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for J. S. [John Sudbury], 1793 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Even though it has the same title, this edition describes different sex workers to those featured in the official Harris’s List for 1793.  However, the descriptions are similar in that the line between authenticity and titillation is somewhat blurred in both editions, probably containing only kernels of truth.  In the rival Harris’s List, Miss Patty S—n—rs, for example, is described as the daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer and was one of 'numerous offspring'.  She worked in 'Lissen-green, near Paddington'.  Miss Betty Fr-el, is said to have lost both her parents and, as her stepfather would not support her, joined a 'Strolling Company' and became an actress.  The 'principal hero got the better of her chastity' and, in the words of the List, she 'was soon initiated into the misteries of the Cyprian Deity'.  Another woman, Mrs Stam-er at No.7, Charles-court, Strand, is a widow and nearly forty years old. Having said that, however, she still had 'very fine teeth'. 

Pages from Harris’s List of Covent Garden LadiesPage 42 and 43 of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for J. S. [John Sudbury], 1793 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies provides insight into the underworld of Georgian London and is invaluable for the studies of censorship, erotica and the treatment of women in the late 18th century.  Although the male gaze and its haze of titillation prevents us from getting anything other than a glimpse of these unfortunate women, this is far better than them being lost to history altogether.  While this new acquisition is important from a bibliographic perspective, adding to a precious and limited canon of this notorious publication, it is the stories of these women that are the most significant part of this discovery.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further Reading:
The majority of the British Library’s copies of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies are part of the Private Case collection

The bibliographical history of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies is explored here:
Freeman, Janet Ing. Jack Harris and ‘Honest Ranger’: The Publication and Prosecution of Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1760-95.

For more research on the women described in Harris’s Lists:
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden ladies : pimp General Jack & the extraordinary story of Harris's List, 2005.
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden Ladies: the Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List. Penguin, 2012.


12 May 2020

Lady with the Lamp at 200: Florence Nightingale’s Bicentenary

Florence Nightingale was an icon of the Victorian era and her name still inspires confidence today.  It was the name given to the seven temporary intensive care hospitals set up by the NHS in response to the Covid-19 epidemic in recognition for her work to the nursing profession.  It is interesting to note that the origins of pre-fabricated temporary hospitals come from the Crimean War, when Isambard Kingdom Brunel was directed to design a temporary hospital for use at Renkioi in the Dardanelles.  Despite arriving late in the war, the hospital proved a success with a lower death rate than the hospital in Scutari, Turkey.

Photograph of Florence Nightingale about 1860Photograph of Florence Nightingale c.1860 British Library Add. MS 47458, f.31 Images Online

Nightingale is best known for her nursing work during the Crimean War.  At the request of her friend Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of State for War, she led a party of 38 nurses to work at the hospital in Scutari.  This was an unprecedented decision by Herbert as women had never been officially allowed to serve in the army and Nightingale reported directly to the Secretary of State. Reports had reached Britain of a shortage of nurses, medicine and a lack of hygiene that meant that soldiers were not just dying from battle wounds but from poor conditions.

Hospital ward at Scutari One of the wards in the hospital at Scutari. Image from The Seat of War in the East - British Library 1780.c.6, XXXIV  Images Online

Scholars disagree over the impact of Nightingale’s work in Scutari but essentially she implemented basic hygiene and sanitation practices such as cleaning the wards and hand washing.  These practices alongside the additional nurses began to have a significant impact on the survival of soldiers.

First page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert
Letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert dated 19 February 1855, Add MS 43393 f.164

In this letter from 19 February 1855, Nightingale writes to Herbert to inform him of the falling death rate at the hospital in Scutari.  Nightingale was a talented statistician becoming the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Statistical Society in 1858 and a pioneer of data visualisation as seen in the diagram below, which shows the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East.  The diagram corroborates the falling rate of deaths, mentioned in her letter, from preventable causes.  The number of deaths had climbed since the start of the war and reached a peak in January 1855.  Nightingale arrived in Scutari in November 1854 and once her efforts began to take affect within a couple of months the death rate began to fall.  The diagram will be on display in the Treasures Gallery once the British Library has reopened.

Diagram of the causes of mortalityFlorence Nightingale, 'Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East', Add MS 45816, f1 Images Online

Nightingale continued to advocate the importance of good sanitation and environmental conditions for patient health throughout her life.  A letter from 1860 describes how she believed that ‘open air’ and ‘ventilation’ could help a patient to recover.  Using these methods, Nightingale set out to professionalise the occupation of nursing for women and eventually set up a nursing training school at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.  She was keen to end the stereotype of the ‘fat drunken old dames’ previously employed as nurses, such as the character of Mrs Gamp used by Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit.  Nightingale was prominent in promoting sanitation reform to the wider British Empire, especially in India. Documents about her work in India can be found in the British Library’s India Office Private Papers.

Page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert


Page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Edwin Chadwick dated 8 September 1860, Add MS 45770

The two letters and diagram by Nightingale form part of her significant personal archive of correspondence, reports, accounts and administrative papers held as part of the Library’s modern archive and manuscript collections.  This collection guide created for her anniversary provides more detail on these collections.

Laura Walker
Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts


08 May 2020

75 years since Victory in Europe

‘My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class.  It’s a victory of the Great British nation as a whole…’
[Extract from Winston Churchill’s speech on 8 May 1945].

Looking back on the celebrations of VE day in 1945 seems especially poignant this year in our current crisis.  Stories told to me by my grandmother of air raids, evacuation and rationing have a new meaning given current restrictions.  Shortages of eggs, toilet roll and soap, empty shelves in supermarkets and long queues have become the new norm.  Yet we still cannot truly know what the Second World War generation went through 75 years ago.

A line of London buses enmeshed in the vast crowd, occupying Whitehall on VE Day

A line of London buses enmeshed in the vast crowd, occupying Whitehall on VE Day. Image by kind permission of Imperial War Museum © IWM HU 140178

After the unconditional surrender of the German forces on 7 May 1945, Churchill announced that the following day would be a national holiday.  Up and down the country the celebrations started almost immediately and continued on 8 May with street parties, dancing, music, speeches by Churchill and King George VI and large amounts of beer.  Beer had not been rationed during the war and women were, for the first time, encouraged to drink it.  In advance of VE Day Churchill had personally checked with the Ministry of Food that there were enough supplies for the celebrations.

Children's street party at Brockley in London on VE Day 1945Children's street party at Brockley in London on VE Day 1945. Image by kind permission of Imperial War Museum © IWM HU 49482

During his speech, Churchill had made clear that the war was not yet over and ‘let us not forget the toil and efforts that lie ahead’.  The war against Japan continued until two atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire was one of the official British observers of the atomic bombing at Nagasaki. His eye witness account can be found in the Modern Archives and Manuscripts collections (Add MS 52572).  Cheshire describes how the photographers were unable to capture accurate photographs of the blast as they were overawed by the scene.  Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945, which is now commemorated as Victory over Japan (VJ) day.

As the Second World War fades from living memory the archival collections that record ordinary people’s lives and experiences become ever more important.  Contained within the British Library's collections are glimpses of a defining moment in the history of our nation.

A collection that is one of my favourites is the archive of Edgar Augustus Wilson and his second wife Winifred Gertrude née Cooper.  Contained within their personal archive are manuscript and printed ephemera that provide a personal insight into their lives in St Albans during the War.  Both husband and wife enlisted as Air Raid Wardens and served until 1945.  Their Air Raid Warden ID cards, badges and whistle as well as government-issued pamphlets, handbooks and post war food and clothing ration books form part of the modern archive collections.

Air Raid Warden ID card for Winifred Wilson

Air Raid Warden ID card for Winifred Wilson [Add MS 70760 A f.73 (2)]   Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Wilsons' Air Raid Warden badges

The Wilsons' Air Raid Warden badges [Add MS 70670 D (2)]  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The official 75th VE day anniversary celebrations have now been postponed or cancelled due to Covid-19 but this will not stop us commemorating VE day. We remember the War as a moment when the country pulled together in support of a greater cause. T he need to social distance will have a lasting impact, celebrations such as those in 1945, are now impossible but living in the digital age means that we can still celebrate together by joining a moment of reflection and remembrance at 11am, watching the Queen’s speech, having a ‘street party’ in our homes and gardens, raising a ‘Toast’ or by placing a Tommy in our window to remember what our parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents endured.

But in the context of VE Day and the current conflict we face…

‘Let us remember those who will not come back, their constancy and courage in battle, their sacrifice and endurance in the face of a merciless enemy: let us remember the men in all the Services and the women in all the Services who have laid down their lives.’
[Extract from King George VI’s speech on 8 May 1945]

Laura Walker
Lead Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

More information on the British Library’s modern manuscript collections relating to the Second World War can be found here:

Second World War: Internment

Second World War: Life on the Home Front

Second World War: Modern Archives


06 May 2020

The East India Company and the Spice Islands

When the East India Company began trading in 1600, the focus of its activities was the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia rather than India.  There are many letters and documents in the India Office Records about the fierce, and sometimes violent, rivalry between the English and Dutch merchants as they strove to gain the upper hand in securing the valuable commodities grown in the region.

Map of Banda Islands
Map of the Banda Islands from a 17th century Dutch Portolano, British Library Add. 34184 f.64 Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1621 the Dutch took the island of Lantar (now Lontor or Banda Besar in the Banda Islands).  The men at the English house were taken prisoner and the Company’s goods seized.  Robert Randall, the East India Company’s chief merchant on Lantar, was tied to a stake with a halter fixed to his neck.  He was terrified that his head would be cut off by the Japanese soldier who had already beheaded Chinese men found with the English.  Captain Humphrey Fitzherbert arrived in the Company’s ship Royal Exchange and negotiated terms of peace and the release of his fellow countrymen.

Inventory of the Company’s goods seized by the Dutch 1621
Inventory of the Company’s goods seized by the Dutch 1621 IOR/G/40/25 f.308 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

An inventory was drawn up of the Company’s goods seized by the Dutch: mace; nutmeg; elephants’ teeth (ivory); rials of eight; oils of nutmeg and mace; textiles; wax and wax candles; arrack; rice; cakes of sago; copper kettles; empty jars; China ware; opium; fowling-pieces; chests of clothes and linen; a bed and pillows; an English flag.  According to Fitzherbert, the Dutch flew an English flag on two of their ships, leading the local people to think that the English had betrayed them.

Accounts for the English ‘castle’ on Amboina for April 1621Accounts for the English ‘castle’ on Amboina for April 1621 IOR/G/40/25 f.305  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Accounts for the English ‘castle’ on Amboina for March and April 1621 survive in the Company archive.  A major expense was the upkeep of a large garrison – salary, monthly allowance and provisions for 49 married soldiers, 196 soldiers, and 61 Japanese.  Their diet was rice, arrack, beef, pork, ‘sweet oil’, vinegar and salt.  Food for workmen is also listed – rice, beef and pork- and for prisoners – bread, wine, fish.  Sick men in the hospital were supplied with beef, pork, rice, wine, and fresh victuals.

Money was spent on barrels of powder, shot, matches, tiles, planks, shoes, porcelain, sailcloth to make tents, and table cloths.  There were slaves to clothe with shirts, ‘baftoes’ and silk, and they were also provided with other unspecified ‘necessaries’.  A school with ten pupils was maintained.  The Governor spent money on gifts to oil the wheels of commerce - rice, textiles, and silk. 

These fascinating documents shed light on life in the European posts in Southeast Asia in the early 17th century, where the threat of untimely death was always hovering over the merchants trying to win commercial advantage for their masters.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/E/3/8 ff 5-8 Humphrey Fitzherbert on the Royal Exchange at Banda Neira to the East India Company in London, 27 March 1621.
IOR/G/40/25 ff.302-307 Accounts from the English house on Amboina March-April 1621.
IOR/G/40/25 f.308 Inventory of goods belonging to the East India Company taken from Lantar by the Dutch in 1621.
A courante of newes from the East India: a true relation of the taking of the ilands of Lantore and Polaroone ... by the Hollanders ... Written to the East India Company in England from their factors there. (London, 1622).
W. Noel Sainsbury (ed.), Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series - East Indies, China and Japan 1617-1621 (London, 1870).

Mr Muschamp's wooden leg

East India Company Factory Records (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).