Untold lives blog

34 posts categorized "Georgians-revealed"

21 October 2015

Trafalgar and the death of Nelson

Today, 21 October, marks the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, fought by the Royal Navy in 1805 under the command of Viscount Horatio Nelson against a superior combined force of French and Spanish ships commanded by the French Admiral Villeneuve. It was the most decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, confirming British naval supremacy and ensuring that Napoleon was unable to progress his plans for an invasion of Britain.

In a letter written just before the battle Nelson informed his mistress Emma Hamilton:

'…the signal has been made that the enemy's combined fleet are coming out of Port. We have very little wind, so that I have no hopes of seeing them before tomorrow. May the God of Battles crown my endeavours with success; at all events, I will take care that my name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia, both of whom I love as much as my own life. And as my last writing before the Battle will be to you, so I hope in God that I shall live to finish my letter after the Battle'.

This was the last letter Nelson would write Emma.  

Horatio Nelson's letter to Emma Hamilton, 19 October 1805

Horatio Nelson to Emma Hamilton, 19 Oct. 1805. British Library, Egerton MS 1614, f.125 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Just before the two sides engaged at about noon on 21 October, Nelson sent round his famous flag signal: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. By 5pm the battle was virtually over with the British having captured seventeen prizes and burned another. Admiral Villeneuve was taken prisoner and taken back to Britain. Only eleven French ships escaped back to Cádiz and of those only five were considered seaworthy.

So comprehensive was the victory that Nelson’s unorthodox tactics have given rise to a great deal of controversy ever since, with some praising them as a masterpiece of naval strategy while others question how much control he had over his unusual plans. Nelson’s chief aim was to send the enemy into confusion. Twelve days before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson sent this memorandum to Admiral Collingwood: the British fleet was to be drawn up ‘in two lines of 16 ships each with an advanced squadron’. The intention was to ‘overpower from two or three ships ahead of the Commander-in-Chief’.  

  Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar Memorandum, 9 October 1805
Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar Memorandum, 9 Oct. 1805. British Library, Add MS 37953 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The victory at Trafalgar came at the cost of many lives including that of Nelson who was hit by a musket-ball fired from the mast of the French ship Redoubtable. In severe pain, he died three hours later at 4.30 pm. His body was preserved in a barrel of brandy for the voyage home.

Celebration of the great victory at Trafalgar was heavily tempered with grief at the news of Nelson’s death. On 9 January 1806 he was interred in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.  Huge, silent crowds lined the streets to watch the cortège go past. Even the captured French Admiral, Villeneuve, was present to pay his respects.  

Lord Nelson’s Funeral Procession by Water, 8 January 1806

Lord Nelson’s Funeral Procession by Water, 8 January 1806. British Library, K.Top.27.46. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Nelson's influence continued long after his death with great revivals of interest, especially during times of national crisis in Britain. Though it came at the cost of his life, his comprehensive victory over the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar ensured his reputation as one of Britain’s greatest naval heroes for many centuries to come.   

Alexander Lock
Curator Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1851-1950


17 October 2015

The London Beer Flood 1814

On 17 October 1814 catastrophe struck at Meux’s Brewery on Tottenham Court Road London.  Eight people lost their lives when a vat full of beer burst, releasing 3,555 barrels of liquid.  The shock demolished the brick wall of the brew-house which was 25 feet high and 22 inches deep and caused a substantial part of the roof to fall in.  The cock of the adjoining vat was broken and the contents poured out, adding to the flood of beer. 


  Brewery scene with beer barrels Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A brewery in happier times – image taken from George Cruikshank, The House that Jack built ... (London, 1853) shelfmark 11647.g.15


Those who died were named as:
Eleanor Cooper aged 14, servant to Richard Hawes of the Tavistock Arms, Great Russell Street
Mary Mulvey, a married woman aged 30, and her son Thomas Murry aged 3 by a former husband
Hannah Banfield aged 4
Sarah Baten aged 3
Ann Saville aged 60
Elizabeth Smith, a married woman aged 27
Catherine Butler, a widow aged 65

Richard Hawes gave evidence at the coroner’s inquest held on Wednesday 19 October that he was in the tap room of the Tavistock Arms at 5.30pm on the previous Monday when he heard a crash. The back part of his house was beaten in and everything in his cellar destroyed. Beer was pouring into his pub and across the street.  Eleanor Cooper was in the yard washing pots and her body was dug out from the ruins nearly three hours later. She was found standing by the water butt.

One little girl lost her mother, brother and grandmother in the accident.  They were buried and suffocated in the kitchen of a house in New Street adjacent to the brew-house. She escaped because she had just been given permission to go out to play in the street.

Others suffered serious injuries: the brewery superintendent and one of the labourers were taken to Middlesex Hospital and were reported to be ‘in a dangerous way’. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict that the victims had met with their deaths ‘casually, accidentally, and by misfortune’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive - Nottingham Gazette 28 October 1814, Liverpool Mercury 28 October 1814


29 September 2015

Metropolitan Police take to the streets

On 29 September 1829 the Metropolitan Police took to the streets of London for the first time.  The main purpose of the force was said to be the prevention of crime, with every officer responsible for the preservation of peace and order in the district within his care.  Promotion would be the reward for vigilance. No policeman was to enter a public house except in the performance of his duty, and publicans were liable to a penalty for allowing police to remain on their premises.


PolicemanPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Policeman from E M Davies, Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old (London, 1875), p.239 BL flickr 


The next day the Morning Post published this assessment of the new constables.

‘Last night the New Police appeared on duty for the first time.

From the slight observation we had an opportunity of making, they seemed well fitted for the discharge of the duties they have undertaken as far as regards bodily power.  Such as were stationed along the great thoroughfares of Holborn and the Strand moved backwards and forwards at a slow pace, without any indication of that offensive inquisitiveness and unnecessary meddling which too often marked the conduct of the watchmen.  Many of them have rather the appearance of respectable tradesmen than of persons taken from the more humble classes. Their dress is not so glaring as to attract notice, and their insignia of office are in a great measure concealed by a dark-coloured great coat.  In one of the narrow streets near Charing-cross, a silly and wanton trial of their assiduity was made by springing a rattle from one of the garret windows.  The Police in the neighbourhood were soon on the spot from whence the alarm proceeded, but found their attendance useless.  A crowd was collected, but soon dispersed, after indulging their curiosity by an inspection of the Police uniform.’

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper ArchiveMorning Post 30 September 1829; Bury and Norwich Post 30 September 1829.


23 September 2015

A Caracal for the King

“The Keeper of the Beasts in the Tower is to wait upon you with the Indian who is to return to his country.”  So began a letter from Robert Wood, Under-Secretary to the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, to Robert James, Secretary to the Court of Directors of the East India Company on 18 March 1760.

Letter about Abdullah’s visit to accompany the caracal and arranging his return to Bengal

IOR/E/1/42 f 106 Letter from Robert Wood at Whitehall to the East India Company Court of Directors 18 March 1760 concerning Abdullah’s visit to accompany the caracal and arranging his return to Bengal. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The Indian in question was Abdullah, a member of the household of Nawab Mir Jafar Ali Khan, who had recently been chosen as Ruler of Bengal by Sir Robert Clive. The Nawab had already presented valuable gifts to the Company of clothes, jewels, essences, weapons and portraits, which had been sent to London for the attention of the Court of Directors. The Company kept the jewels and presented the clothes and essences to the ladies of the Royal Family and the weapons and portraits to the British Museum. The Nawab however was also keen to establish his own more personal direct relations with King George II, and offered him as a gift a rare syagush (more commonly known as a caracal) for the King’s menagerie, which he instructed Abdullah to accompany to London in 1759.


From The Land of the Lion; or, Adventures among the wild animals of Africa (London, 1876) BL flickr Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On their arrival in London King George, who was reported to be very taken with the gift, instructed his Secretary of State William Pitt not only to oversee the installation of the caracal in the Tower of London’s menagerie, but also to ensure that Abdullah received honoured treatment during his stay, paid for out of the royal treasury.  It fell to the Royal Keeper of the Beasts at the Tower of London not only to accept the caracal into his collection but also to personally escort Abdullah around London.

Abdullah spent a year in London before the East India Company were approached to assist in arranging his return to Bengal. The instructions given by Robert Wood to the Company on Mr Pitt’s behalf were for Abdullah to receive a ‘relatively luxurious’ passage home with any diet, liquor and accommodation requirements being met, and that on his arrival in Bengal he was to be given a gift of 50 guineas from Mr Pitt.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/E/1/42, f 106, f 208 Miscellaneous letters received 1760
Michael Herbert Fisher, Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain 1600-1857 (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), pp.63-64.


18 September 2015

Samuel Johnson’s MA diploma

Today is the 306th birthday of Samuel Johnson, compiler of A Dictionary of the English Language and poet and moralist. Johnson was born on 7 September 1709, but after the calendar was adjusted in 1752 he celebrated his birthday on 18 September. Actually 'celebrated' is too strong a word, because Johnson didn't like to be reminded of the passing years.  When his friend James Boswell reminded him of his impending birthday in 1773, Johnson wrote:

The return of my birthday, if I remember it, fills me with thoughts which it seems to be the general care of humanity to escape. I can now look back upon threescore and four years, in which little has been done, and little has been enjoyed, a life diversified by misery, spent part in the sluggishness of penury, and part under the violence of pain, in gloomy discontent, or importunate distress.

    (from a letter to Hester Thrale, 21 September 1773)

Despite his gloomy thoughts, it was not the case that Johnson had achieved little. He had devoted nine years of his life to his dictionary; it was a brilliant achievement, and before it went to press his friends wanted his academic qualities to be recognised.  As a young man, Johnson had been to Pembroke College, Oxford, but he had not completed his studies and left without a degree.  His friends therefore approached the University of Oxford to seek a Master of Arts for Johnson. The university conferred the MA on Johnson in 1755 in recognition of his work on the dictionary. This was just in time for the letters ‘A.M’ to be added to the title page.

  Samuel Johnson's Dictionary - title page
Title-page of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). 70.i.12.   Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The university went on to confer a doctorate on Johnson in 1775, which pleased him greatly.

Johnson’s MA diploma is now preserved in the British Library.  After his death it was owned by his friend and biographer James Boswell, and it came to the Library in 1910.

  Samuel Johnson's diploma

Samuel Johnson’s MA diploma, Add MS 38063  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Sandra Tuppen
Lead Curator Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850



07 August 2015

The amiable Princess Amelia

Princess Amelia, the youngest child of King George III and Queen Charlotte, was born on 7 August 1783.  Amelia was delicate from an early age and later suffered from tuberculosis. She was her father’s favourite daughter, interested in art, music, history and literature as well as being an accomplished horsewoman.

Princess Amelia Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Princess Amelia from a painting by Andrew Robertson reproduced in W S Childe-Pemberton, The romance of Princess Amelia

Amelia and her sisters were kept at home in the ‘Nunnery’ as their mother feared that the King’s mental health would be affected by difficult decisions about suitable marriages for his daughters.   The Princesses’ public outings were reported in the press and their costumes described in great detail – today’s preoccupation with the lives and appearance of members of the royal family is nothing new!  When the King, Queen and Princesses attended a performance at Covent Garden Theatre in May 1805, followers of fashion were treated to this pen portrait:

The King – A Field Marshall’s full uniform.

The Queen – Silver tissue; zephyr blue robe; head dress white and gold, diamond helmet; small black Turkish feather, and a profusion of diamonds.

Princess Augusta – White spangled dress; white head-dress, large plume of white feathers, and bandeau of diamonds.

Princess Elizabeth – Egyptian brown robe, superbly spangled; black head dress, white plume of feathers, and bandeau of diamonds.

Princess Mary – Slate-coloured tissue robe; white head dress, plume of white feathers, and a profusion of diamonds.

Princess Sophia – Silver tissue dress; black head dress, large plume of feathers, and bandeau of diamonds.

Princess Amelia – Rich tissue dress, elegant bird of paradise feathers, large diamond crescent, and bandeau of diamonds.

Closeting in the ‘Nunnery’ did not prevent the princesses from conducting clandestine romances with men connected to the court. When Princess Amelia stayed at Weymouth in 1801, hoping that the sea-bathing would improve her health, she fell in love with Colonel Charles FitzRoy, one of the King’s equerries.  She set her heart on marrying him, and began to use the initials A. F. R. – Amelia FitzRoy.

  Charles FitzRoyPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Charles Fitz-Roy from a miniature in the possession of the Hon Mrs William Lowther reproduced in W S Childe-Pemberton, The romance of Princess Amelia


By October 1809 newspaper articles about Amelia’s visits to Weymouth had an ominous tone: ‘The Princess Amelia takes the benefit of the warm salt bath, and as often as the weather permits, alternately takes an airing on the sand and an excursion on the water.  The benign effects of which, we fervently pray, will ultimately restore her Royal Highness’s health and spirits’.

Unfortunately the Princess’s health continued to deteriorate and she died at Windsor on 2 November 1810, much mourned.   On her death bed, Princess Amelia gave her father a ring which contained a lock of her hair and the inscription ‘Remember me’.   She left a will bequeathing the bulk of her estate to Charles FitzRoy and entrusting him with the handling of certain bequests.  Amelia’s executors, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, wished to avoid making public the relationship between their sister and FitzRoy.  They therefore secured FitzRoy’s agreement to cede his rights as residuary legatee, promising that Amelia’s wishes would nevertheless be honoured.  This pledge was not kept: FitzRoy was excluded from decisions about the distribution of Amelia’s effects and received very little from her estate.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
W S Childe-Pemberton, The romance of Princess Amelia (London, 1910).
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – George III, daughters of.
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Morning Post  29 May 1805; 25 October 1809.
Honoria Scott, Sketch of the life and character of her Royal Highness the Princess Amelia (London, 1810).

Georgian Britain - prints, drawings, documents and articles.


26 June 2015

ABBA’s Waterloo at the Prince Regent’s Stables

1974 saw ABBA win the Eurovision Song Contest for Sweden with their song ‘Waterloo’, one of the best remembered entries from the show’s long history which quickly catapulted the group to international fame. But how many of us watching the live broadcast over four decades ago realised that Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid were performing in a space once graced by royal stallions?

ABBA winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974

ABBA winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 courtesy of YouTube


In Eurovision land, the winning country hosts the following year’s competition. Having won two years in a row, diminutive Luxembourg was in a fix and so Britain stepped in. Rather than hosting the show in London, the BBC chose one of the largest concert halls on the south coast, The Dome in Brighton.

Brighton Dome

The Dome at Brighton today Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


This yellow brick edifice with minarets and an impressive 24 metre cast iron dome was constructed in 1804-8 for George, Prince of Wales (soon to become Prince Regent, and later King George IV). The building’s ‘Indian-Saracenic’ design, created by William Porden (ca. 1755-1822), pre-dates that of the neighbouring Royal Pavilion as we know it today, which at the time comprised only a smaller neo-classical structure. The purpose of Porden’s monumental creation was as stabling for the prince’s horses, with an adjacent hall – now the city’s Corn Exchange – acting as a riding school. The stage where ABBA sang was built inside the circular stables where up to 60 royal horses were once housed and groomed. The balconies from which Europe’s television broadcasters provided their live commentary held accommodation for stable-boys.

Brighton Pavilion

74/558*.h.12 John Nash, 'Her Majesty's Palace at Brighton' (London, 1838)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Queen Victoria disliked the royal estate at Brighton, and in the 1850s the buildings were all sold to the town corporation. The circular stables were first concerted into a concert hall 1867-73, and the space has been remodelled several times since. Its most recent refurbishment was in 1998-2001, when a certain Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA stepped up to become one of its 50 famous patrons. He hasn’t yet offered to give an updated performance of ‘Waterloo’ at the Dome, but here’s hoping!

Adrian Edwards
Head of Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Brighton and Hove, by Nicholas Antram and Richard Morrice. (Pevsner Architecture Guides.) [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008].
The New Encyclopædia of Brighton, by Rose Collis. [Brighton: B&H City Council, 2010].
The Complete Eurovision Song Contest Companion, by Paul Gambaccini, Tim Rice, Jonathan Rice and Tony Brown. [London: Pavilion Books, 1998].
Illustrations of Her Majesty's Palace at Brighton, formerly the Pavilion, executed by the command of King George the Fourth under superintendence of John Nash Esq Architect (London, 1838).

A free display “Waterloo: War and Diplomacy” runs until 6 September 2015 in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.

17 July 2014

The Difference caus'd by mighty Love! - romance and the Benthams

In the short time since we announced on Untold Lives that the British Library had joined the Transcribe Bentham initiative and asked for volunteers to help us advance scholarly research into the life and ideas of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), public interest in the online transcription of Bentham’s manuscripts has exploded. In just over three months, 1,163 manuscripts have been transcribed—almost 10% of the British Library’s Bentham collection! We are delighted to announce the release of more material to explore, and cordially invite any interested newcomers to join us in transcribing them.

  Transcribe Bentham logo

Our inclination was that the British Library’s Bentham material represents a chance to really get to know the Bentham family, since the majority of it is correspondence, and discoveries made by our volunteers have certainly borne this out.

Jeremiah Bentham, father of Jeremy, though cold-hearted in business matters (one letter reveals him being responsible for the cutting off of the water supply to one of his tenants) was found to be quite the romantic, as this love letter to Jeremy’s mother Alicia (transcribed by volunteer Peter Hollis) shows:
while I was present with you Time bore me on his rapid Wing, so swiftly did the delightful hours pass on, but no sooner was I gone from you than that Wing became pinion'd & coud no longer fly, or was rather chang'd into leaden Feet, so slowly do the Sluggish Minutes now creep forward — such is the Difference caus'd by mighty Love!

Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Alicia, 1745
Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Alicia, 1745 (BL Add. MS 33537 f. 4r) Noc

Romantic interest was a dominant theme in first batch of manuscripts released online, which covered the period 1744 to 1783. Jeremy himself was courting, as shown by this rather cruel letter to brother Samuel about a certain ‘Miss S[arah]’  (transcribed by volunteer Simon Croft):
She has indeed a most enchanting set of teeth — seems well made: and is of a very good size. But her features viz: nose and mouth are too large for her face: eyes I do not recollect much about.
Indeed I could not get a full view of her face: she was dressed very unbecomingly.

Jeremy Bentham’s letter to his brother Samuel, written in 1776
Jeremy Bentham’s letter to his brother Samuel, written in 1776 (BL Add. MSS 33538 f. 1r)  Noc

Six months later, Jeremy complained to Samuel (also transcribed by Simon Croft) that his letters to Sarah (‘the little vixen’) had gone unanswered, though we might not be surprised given his ungentlemanly attitude.

New material, covering the period 1784 until 1794, has now been uploaded to the Transcription Desk. Events covered include Jeremy’s long journey to Russia to visit Samuel, where he first conceived of his famous panopticon prison. The period also includes the early years of the French Revolution, as well as the return of Samuel from Russia in 1791, and the death of Jeremiah in 1792. Some of the most intriguing material revolves around the scheme to establish the panopticon, which dominated the next decade of Jeremy’s life, and includes his attempts to lobby leading politicians of the day.

There is no need for specialist equipment or expert knowledge to begin participating—just a willingness to get to grips with 18th and 19th century handwriting, and transcribe it through our website. Visit Transcribe Bentham today to get started!

Dr Kris Grint
Dr Tim Causer
Bentham Project, Faculty of Laws, UCL


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