Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

26 October 2021

William Shakespeare’s family in Calcutta

At the start of the 19th century, Bengal became the home for the Shakespear family of Calcutta, whose ancestry dated back to close relations of William Shakespeare.

Shakespear tombs in Calcutta’s South Park Street CemeteryShakespear tombs in Calcutta’s South Park Street Cemetery - author's photograph

In Calcutta’s South Park Street Cemetery, one can still find two Shakespear tombs. One of them belongs to John Talbot Shakespear, born in 1783 to John and Mary Shakespear in England; the other belongs to his wife Emily.  Shakespear arrived in Calcutta during the early 1800s as an East India Company official, marrying Emily Amelia Thackeray in 1803.  She was the eldest daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray senior, who was the grandfather of the more famous Calcutta-born author William Makepeace Thackeray.  Emily’s brother, Reverend Francis Thackeray, married John Talbot Shakespear’s sister Mary Anne.  Another brother, Richmond, arrived from London around the same time to become the Secretary to the Board of Revenue.  He married Anne Becher and their son, William Makepeace Thackeray, was born in 1811 at Thackeray House in Alipore.  Clearly, the eminence of the Thackerays seems to have overshadowed the lineage of the Shakespearean relative in their midst.  Thus, Thackeray’s father’s name Richmond also became the name of the youngest son of John Talbot and Emily Shakespeare, Sir Richmond Campbell Shakespear.  He would later acquire renown as an agent to the Governor-General of Central India and a Companion of the Bath.  Another son of John Talbot and Emily was named William Makepeace Shakespear.

But what do we know about John Talbot himself, and how does his ancestry trace back to Shakespeare?

John Talbot Shakespear was appointed by Richmond Makepeace Thackeray as the assistant to the Collector of Birbhum.  John’s brother Henry also served in the Bengal Civil Service. John’s own successful career at the East India Company was truncated by his death at sea on board the Rose in 1825, a few months after the death of his wife.

Extract from John Talbot Shakespear's will specifying burial in a grave he had purchased next to his wife'sExtract from John Talbot Shakespear's will specifying burial in a grave he had purchased next to his wife's IOR/L/AG/34/29/37 p.46

 

Memorial inscriptions for John Talbot and Emily Shakespear from South Park Street CemeteryMemorial inscriptions for John Talbot and Emily Shakespear from South Park Street Cemetery recorded in The Bengal Obituary (Calcutta, 1851)

We cannot ascertain whether the Thackerays knew about John Talbot’s illustrious relative.  The oldest recognizable discovery of John Talbot’s lineage dates back to George Russel-French’s Shakspeareana Genealogica (1869), later reproduced by Charlotte Carmichael Stopes in Shakespeare’s Family (1901).  Despite the variant spelling of this ‘Shakespear’ branch (without the ‘e’), it belonged to the Stepney (or Shadwell) Shakespears.  They had either descended from William Shakespeare’s brother Gilbert, or his uncle Thomas.  Russel-French claimed that this family tree was supplied to him by Lieutenant Colonel John Davenport Shakespear, a nephew of John Talbot.  Key evidence to the linkage between the Shakespeare and Shakespear families was two-centuries old ‘drawing on a parchment of a coat of arms, pronounced by an eminent herald’ which is exactly the same as the coat of arms granted to William Shakespeare’s father in 1596.  John Davenport Shakespear possessed this in the 1860s.

India has been generous to Shakespeare, adopting his works.  However, John Talbot has not been recognised, as his and his wife’s tombs languish in oblivion.  Recently, there have been reports of former British prime minister David Cameron’s lineage dating back to John Talbot Shakespear.  But historians are yet to take note of the Shakespear in question being a significant leaf on a stem of the bard’s family that branched out to India.

Arup K. Chatterjee
Teacher at OP Jindal Global University, India, and author of The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways (2017), The Great Indian Railways (2018), Indians in London: From the Birth of the East India Company to Independent India (2021) and The Great Indian Railway Saga (2022)

 

21 October 2021

The bombing of Britain

Air Raids were a consistent source of terror and dread for Britons during the Second World War (1939-1945).  The first warning siren sounded only 22 minutes after war had been declared; it was a false alarm, with bombing not beginning in earnest until the following September.  The most sustained bombing campaign – The Blitz – lasted until May 1941, and claimed the lives of around 43,000 people.  Bombing continued after this period, across various regions of the United Kingdom.  Some people wrote about their experiences.

Diaries are an especially good source of information on the difficulties of living in fear and anticipation of air raids.  Those of Judith Blunt-Lytton (Lady Wentworth) are particularly detailed about her life in Sussex.  Perhaps the most evocative entry is from 29 November 1940, where she wrote how she had to jump in some wet bushes after the warning sounded, and that explosions in nearby Horsham ‘looked like an aurora borealis’.

Afsa Horner described how bombing evolved over the years.  She writes in her memoirs that she preferred V2 rockets – which often did not trigger warning sirens – as you had no time to wonder about getting to safety.  Although deadlier, they were less frightening as you had no time to be scared.

Letter from Rupert D'Oyly Carte to Lady Dorothy D'Oyly Carte  26 November 1940Letter from Rupert D'Oyly Carte to Lady Dorothy D'Oyly Carte, 26 November 1940 - Add MS 89231/18/44

Staying in a hotel, especially in London, was extremely risky.  Nevertheless, business continued despite the persistence of air raids.  Evelyn B. Graham-Stamper was in bed with her husband at the Hans Crescent Hotel in September 1941, ‘when, suddenly, the most blinding flash and every-thing seemed to fall around us’.  She continues, ‘We both knew the end had come and clung to each other waiting for the coup de grace which was to finish us off.’  However, they survived and managed to make their way to safety.  Similar experiences did not hurt the trade of one grand hotel, The Savoy.  Owner Rupert D’Oyly told his wife in a letter from September 1940 that after a series of bombs falling, causing damage on multiple floors, ‘in fact the 200 or so people living in the hotel increased the next day’.  Life went on.

An account of air raids by William Carpenter  Chief Air-raid Warden of Poplar September1940An account of air raids by William Carpenter, Chief Air-raid Warden of Poplar, September 1940 - Add MS 48988 M

A persistent theme throughout these narratives is morale.   The Chief Air Raid Warden of Poplar emphasised that people are ‘wonderful considering what had happened’: multiple streets destroyed with numerous deaths.  On the other hand, Julian Symonds described London life as ‘depressing’.  Either way, the experience of huddling in shelters together was the ‘new spirit’ of the country, as editor of Poetry London Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu wrote.

Air Raids were terrifying part of life on the Home Front, which continued throughout the War.  However, what comes through in most of these narratives is a sense of positivity, that life must continue as normal as possible.  The accounts described here are only a small sample of those which survive in our collections.

Jack Taylor
Doctoral researcher at the Open University. His CHASE-funded research explores sexual violence between men in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Further Reading:
The Life on the Home Front display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery includes cartoons by Judith Blunt-Lytton, Lady Wentworth, depicting the experiences of Mary in the Women’s Land Army and the badges, chevrons and appointment cards of the air raid wardens, Edgar and Winifred Wilson. The display gives a flavour of the experience of those living and working in Britain during the Second World War. It runs from 14 September until 11 December 2021. 
Add MS 48988 M – 'Intensified Air Raids on London', a memorandum by William Carpenter, Chief Air-raid Warden of Poplar, Sept. 1940 (ff. 47-51).
Add MS 75028 – Wentworth Bequest (Series II), Vol. XXVI, Pocket Diaries (1 Jan. 1940-31 Dec. 1940).
Add MS 78862 – Phyllis Bottome Papers, VOL. XXXI, Letter from Evelyn B. Graham-Stamper (14 September 1941).
Add MS 85265 - Letters from Julian Gustave Symons D. S. Savage (ff. 13-15).
Add MS 88997 – Afsa Horner: Memoirs.
Add MS 89231/18/44 - D'Oyly Carte Family Papers: Letters from Rupert to Lady Dorothy D'Oyly Carte.

 

19 October 2021

Stanley Cinchona Plantation

While browsing through a volume of India Office Public Works Department correspondence for 1866, I came across this lovely colour sketch of the Stanley Cinchona Plantation in the Kundah Hills in India.  Intrigued, I read through the correspondence to find out more.

Colour sketch of the Stanley Cinchona Plantation in the Kundah Hills in India showing trees and plants with a building in the backgroundSketch of the Stanley Cinchona Plantation in the Kundah Hills in India IOR/L/PWD/3/512 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Cinchona is a tree indigenous to South America which was discovered to have valuable medicinal properties.  In particular, it was the source for the drug quinine used in the treatment of malaria. In the mid-19th century, attempts were made to cultivate Cinchona in various different parts of the British Empire.  The Stanley Cinchona Plantation was named after the first Secretary of State for India, Lord Stanley, who in April 1859 commissioned the geographer and explorer Clements Markham to undertake an expedition to South America to collect seeds and plants, and arrange for their transport to India.

Black and white sketch of a clump of cinchona trees with a man wearing a hat standing beneath themCinchona trees from Clements Markham 's Peruvian Bark ORW.1986.a.2987

The Public Works Department file is primarily concerned with the construction of roads in the Nilgiri and Kundah hills in the Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu).  An India Office memorandum acknowledged that the absence of roads into such a remote area had hindered plans for opening the Kundahs for cultivation, and stated: 'The formation of a Government plantation in what is now one of the most remote and wild parts of these mountains renders the construction of roads a matter of course'.  It was noted that one Cinchona planter had already been drowned in coming from the Kundahs to Ootacamund 'owing to the neglect of the Public Works Department to repair a bridge'.  An aggrieved administrator in the India Office wrote over this sentence with the comment 'This is rather hard upon the P.W. Dept.'.

Report on roads in the Kundah HillsReport on roads in the Kundah Hills IOR/L/PWD/3/512 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In his report of 6 January 1866 to the Madras Government on the subject of cinchona cultivation, Markham described the Kundahs as the finest hills he had yet seen in India, and wrote that: 'The soil is of extraordinary depth and fertility both in the forests and grass land, and there are abundant supplies of water.  Indeed the scenery of these beautiful hills; the long lines of forest with all the varied tints of foliage; the rich grass land intervening here and there; the magnificent waterfalls and precipices; and the sharp peaked outline of the distant mountains – is far and away the finest I have yet seen in the Western Ghauts'.  However, it seems that the costs involved with building roads into the area proved too great for Government.  In his book Peruvian Bark, Markham noted that the Kundah hills plantation was abandoned in 1872 due to the distance from Ootacamund and the lack of roads, with the cinchona tress which had been planted 'being left to take their chance with the native vegetation', and later ordered to be felled.

Map of Kundah Hills Map of  the Kundah Hills IOR/L/PWD/3/512  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Oddly, nowhere in the papers is the colour sketch mentioned.  Who created it and why it was included in a Government file remains a mystery.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Public Works Despatches to Madras (Original Drafts), 1865-1866, BL shelfmark IOR/L/PWD/3/512.
Public Works Letters from Madras, 1866-1867, BL shelfmark IOR/L/PWD/3/191 – page 333 for Public Works letter No.33, dated 27 July 1867.
Report by C R Markham on the spread of the cinchona cultivation through the hill districts, 16 January 1866, BL shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/3/1356 no.15.
Clements R Markham, Peruvian Bark. A popular account of the introduction of Chinchona cultivation into British India, (London: John Murray, 1880), BL shelfmark ORW.1986.a.2987.
The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Vol. XVI Kotchandpur to Mahavinyaka (Oxford, 1908).
Products of the Empire: Cinchona: a short history. Cambridge University Library.
Donovan Williams, ‘Clements Robert Markham and the Introduction of the Cinchona Tree into British India, 1861’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 128, no. 4 (1962), pages 431–442.