Untold lives blog

120 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

05 November 2019

A family archive

Sometimes, by chance, an archive brings together seemingly disparate or unrelated material in a quite fascinating way.  A fantastic example of this from our Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts department is the truly familial archive of the civil servant and statistician, Sir John Boreham.  This includes, alongside his own papers, the diaries of his wife, Lady Heather Boreham, and the literary papers of their son-in-law, Kevin Stratford.

John and Heather Boreham with a koala bear in 1986John and Heather Boreham in 1986, by kind permission of Deborah Hudson

Sir John Boreham (1925-1994) was a statistician for the British government and director of the then Central Statistical Office between 1978 and 1985.  But, as Claus Moser wrote, ‘…he was neither a typical civil servant nor a typical statistician. He disliked bureaucracy and in all he did was unconventional, original and independent in action and spirit’.

After studying at Oxford, Boreham joined the Government Statistical Service (GSS), working first at the Agriculture Economic Research Institute in Oxford and then in the statistics division of the Ministry of Food.  Throughout the 1950s, Boreham worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, the General Register Office (GRO) and the Central Statistical Office.  In 1963 he took up the positon of Chief Statistician at the GRO.  For the next decade, he was Director of Economics and Statistics at the Ministry of Technology and then Assistant Director of the Central Statistical Office becoming director of the CSO and Head of the Government Statistical Service in 1978.

As director of the CSO Boreham faced challenges almost immediately when the new Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher formed in 1979 and sought to cut the Civil Service.  The cuts had a large impact on the CSO but Boreham remained resolute and ‘…interested above all in using statistics to improve the lot of humanity’ (Moser.)  The archive contains a letter from Thatcher congratulating Boreham on his appointment as director.

After 35 years at the GSO Boreham retired in 1985, apparently hoping to spend more time playing golf and reading French literature.  However his work was too highly valued and he became regional co-ordinator of statistical training in the Caribbean and later worked as a consultant in the Bahamas in the 1990s.

In 1948, Boreham married Heather Horth (1927-2004) and together they had three sons and a daughter.  The archive contains a series of diaries written by Lady Boreham between the 1970s-1900s, which add an interesting and detailed perspective to the history of the Borehams’ lives.  These diaries will be available to consult from the end of 2020.

Kevin Stratford in spring 1981, holding a catKevin Stratford in spring 1981 during a break from writing The Plagarist, by kind permission of Deborah Hudson

The final section of the archive covers the literary papers of the writer Kevin Stratford (1949-1984).  He died young, cutting short a career that ‘robbed this country of one of its most promising young writers’ according to Peter Ackroyd.  Stratford’s papers include his literary drafts, notes, correspondence with publishers and a series of notebooks.

Eleanor Dickens
Curator, Politics and Public Life

Further reading:
Claus Moser, Sir John Boreham’s Obituary in The Independent Wednesday 15 June 1994.
The archive (Add MS 89283) is available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room.
Please contact eleanor.dickens@bl.uk for any further information.

 

29 October 2019

Sir Thomas Roe’s letters: People, products and politics of the first English embassy to India

One of the benefits of studying original manuscripts is in feeling a direct connection with the author to a degree that is not experienced in print. Much of Sir Thomas Roe’s writings during his embassy in India, from his journal to his letters, have been transcribed and printed.  We owe a debt of gratitude for this to Sir William Foster (1863-1951), the industrious and prolific Registrar and Superintendent of the India Office, as well as to the Hakluyt Society of which Foster served as President.  These transcribed and printed materials are easily and freely accessible in digital format online.  It is to these resources that I often turn during my own research.

Yet in encountering the handwritten original manuscripts, we draw closer to the people behind the writings.  We become conscious of their intentions as they write and the intended audience they write for. In the case of Roe, we become conscious that this was an official state ambassador recording his embassy perhaps for the benefit of his superiors back in England.  Thus his recollections in his journal may be coloured by an awareness of his audience.  And his accounts in his letters may seek to portray an embassy in a manner that reflects well on himself as ambassador.

Sir Thomas Roe's handwritten memoirsSir Thomas Roe's handwritten memoirs, Add Ms 6115  Noc

Roe’s memoirs and original letters are available for perusal at the British Library, and they prove an engaging read.  While his memoirs are part of the Western Manuscripts collection, which I have blogged about previously, his letters are in the East India Company archive in the India Office Records.  This in itself reflects the two cultural spaces Roe traversed and the engagement between them he sought to establish and nurture.

One of the topics often raised by Roe in his letters is the subject of saleable items at court.  Roe was after all a merchant ambassador seeking to secure a trade agreement with the Mughals.  In his letters we see lists of items deemed popular and saleable to the Indian court.
    
   Roe letter in IOR1

Roe letter in IOR2

Roe letter in IOR3

Roe letter in IOR4Advice by Sir Thomas Roe on goods and presents for Surat February 1617/18-  IOR/E/3/5 ff. 376-377  Noc

Roe also includes copious lists of presents. Mughal court protocol required visiting diplomats to present a gift to the Emperor. Roe’s letters accordingly include details of suitable gifts to be sent by the East India Company that he might impress the Emperor Jahangir.  Although in his memoirs and letters Roe would lament the “bribery” of having to give so many presents, as envoy he recognised the importance of the protocol to the Mughal court and sought to fulfill it.

Roe letter in IOR5

Roe letter in IOR6 Advice by Sir Thomas Roe on goods and presents for the Mughal court November 1616 IOR/E/3/5 f. 375 Noc

Roe would not manage to secure the trade agreement he sought, ultimately returning to England empty-handed in 1619.  The Mughals were among the most powerful and wealthy empires in the early modern world, and our less influential English isle had little to tempt them with.  Yet the ambassador’s letters reveal both the diplomatic efforts he invested in his embassy as well as his meticulous mind as a merchant in identifying commodities to sell, gift and, albeit unsuccessfully, entice the Mughals with.

Four centuries on we can look back upon a dramatic, impactful and often fraught history of Anglo-Indian relations that Roe is unlikely to have envisaged, but certainly was among the crucial first actors to play in.  As we recall that momentous embassy today, the manuscripts at the British Library are a perfect place to start to explore the historic journey.

Lubaaba Al-Azami
Doctoral researcher at the University of Liverpool
Her AHRC funded research explores early modern English encounters with Mughal Indian imperial femininity. She tweets @Lubaabanama.

Further reading:
Sir Thomas Roe’s journal 1615-1617 Add Ms 6115
Sir Thomas Roe’s letters in East India Company correspondence IOR/E/3/3-6
Sir Thomas Roe’s journal of his voyage to the East Indies Add Ms 19277 

 

14 October 2019

400 Years of India and Britain: The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Roe

2019 marks 400 years since the return of Sir Thomas Roe, merchant diplomat with the East India Company and England’s first official ambassador to India. Roe arrived at the port of Surat in September 1615 with a letter from King James I to the then reigning Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, seeking a trade agreement. The ambassador would go on to spend four years of negotiations at the Mughal court, eventually returning to England in 1619 without the trade agreement he sought. Nonetheless, it would be a first formal introduction that would mark the beginning of a relationship spanning centuries, the significance of which cannot be overstated.

So important was the embassy that a mural depicting Roe’s audience with Emperor Jahangir is featured in St Stephen’s Hall at the Palace of Westminster. The political and economic fallout following the break with Catholic Rome would see Queen Elizabeth I seek trade with the Islamic empires of the early modern world, establishing the Levant Company to trade with the Ottoman Empire and the East India Company to trade with Mughal India.

One of the many joys of delving into the archives at the British Library is in being able to tangibly experience such crucial and influential moments in history. Throughout his travels, Ambassador Roe maintained a fascinating record of his exploits in his memoirs. A manuscript of his memoirs and letters is held at the British Library, Add MS 6115. Presented to the library in 1817 by Rev. J Coltman, the work is beautifully preserved along with Rev Coltman’s original letter.

Letter from Rev Coltman accompanying the manuscript

Back of Coltman's letter, showing the seal and postage stamps

Coltman's letter of deposit, Add MS 6115, ff 1-2

The neat writing of Roe’s engrossing hand shapes a tale of struggles and successes. The early entries focus on details of navigation during the lengthy and treacherous voyage to India.

Table of observations made during the voyage

Paragraph commenting on the table of observations

Table of observations, plus Roe's comments on the voyage. 

Upon arrival we see Roe’s struggles with port officials, who repeatedly attempt to search the English while Roe insists on diplomatic immunity. More interestingly, we find this entry:

Manuscript passage describing the refusal of food and drink during Ramadan fasting hours

Row relates his discussions with officials at Surat. Add MS 6115, f 23r

Here Roe relates his discussions with Surat officials who came to call on him a few days after his arrival. At one point Roe states, “I offered them drincke which they refused beeing Ramdam, but sayd after it was finished they would come daylie and sitt and eate with me”.

This reveals that Roe arrived during the Islamic month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from food and drink from sunrise until sunset. What is notable is that Roe does not elaborate further on the point. The implication appears to be that Ramadan is understood, both by Roe as well as his expected readers. English diplomatic and mercantile circles were then seemingly versed in the religious traditions of the nations they travelled to; at the very least they understood the Islamic traditions of Ramadan practiced by the Muslim Mughal empire. 

While Roe would not achieve what he set out to do in India, he nonetheless formally began an engagement that would go on to herald a lengthy, and indeed controversial, history. As we mark 400 years since the conclusion of his embassy, a look back at his experiences is timely and eye-opening. And what better place to start than his original memoirs at the British Library.

Lubaaba Al-Azami is a doctoral researcher at the University of Liverpool. Her AHRC funded research explores early modern English encounters with Mughal Indian imperial femininity. She tweets @Lubaabanama.

26 September 2019

The Theatre Censors Part 4: The Lord Chamberlain’s Office and the Policy of Appeasement

The 1930s were a problematic time for the Earl of Cromer, Lord Chamberlain from 1922 to 1938.  It fell to him to balance representations of Fascism on stage with the policy of appeasement that the British Government espoused at the time.


Portrait of Rowland Thomas Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer 1930Rowland Thomas Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer after Randolph Schwabe (1930) NPG D20814 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC By

In 1933 the Examiner of Plays, George Street, recommended the play Who Made the Iron Grow, for licence, but he suggested that it might present some political difficulties.  The play was a domestic drama that focused on the persecution of Jews in Hitler’s Germany.


Detail from Who Made the Iron Grow Reader ReportDetail from Who Made the Iron Grow Reader Report, LR 1933/4

The Lord Chamberlain disagreed with Street’s assessment and refused the play a licence.  When the author, Alan Peters, took issue with the refusal the Lord Chamberlain laid out the anxieties he had about the play:
‘The whole thing is a strong indictment of atrocities and excesses committed by the Nazis in Germany, and while possibly there is much truth in it all, I did not think that the British stage was a vehicle for this sort of propaganda...’.

Take Heed (1933) by Leslie Reade, was upfront in its criticism of the Nazi Third Reich.  Its plot culminated in the suicide of the protagonist’s Jewish wife and a vitriolic verbal attack on the evils of Fascism.  Street again saw merit in the play saying that he disliked the brutality of the Nazis, but Lord Cromer had the German response in mind and contacted the Foreign Office for advice.  The Foreign Office agreed that the play should be refused a licence, adding that giving a licence could be seen as an official endorsement of its themes.

Detail from Take Heed Reader ReportDetail from Take Heed Reader Report, LR 1934/4


It is this idea of the licence being interpreted as an endorsement that conflicted with the policy of appeasement.  Elsewhere in the UK’s media, the government was seeking to stem the flow of anti-Nazi sentiment, but the policy of appeasement could most easily enforced in the theatre because of the official role of the censor and their importance as a representative of the Crown.

Such policies would be abandoned after Britain went to war in 1939 and in retrospect would be highly criticised by figures such as Winston Churchill.   It is debatable whether these censored plays could have mobilised public opinion one way or the other given the dominance of other media.  However, there is no doubt that amongst these refused plays is a startling insight into the fate of the Jews in Germany.  Authors in 1933 and 1934 were already outlining the shocking consequences of state sponsored antisemitism.

Heroes was submitted in 1934 and promptly refused a licence.  The play described some of appalling experiences that many Jewish people on the continent would soon face, including removal, abuse, harassment, violence and murder.  Its portrayal of a Jewish family suffering under the Nazis emphasised the horrors that were both present and yet to come, but its vision and warning were silenced when public empathy with the Jewish people was most needed.

The Lord Chamberlain’s licence refusal on the Reader Report for HeroesThe Lord Chamberlain’s licence refusal on the Reader Report for Heroes, LR 1934/5


Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
The Censorship of British Drama, 1900-1968, Volume 2 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005)
Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain and the Holocaust – Online Exhibition The Weiner Library
Lord Chamberlain Plays, Licence Refused: Add MS 68816 - 68850
Lord Chamberlain Plays Reports, Licence Refused: Original Reference LR 1903- LR 1949

 

19 September 2019

Solving a provenance puzzle: papers of Henry and Robert Dundas, Viscounts Melville

Archivists are sometimes required to be detectives.  Three volumes amongst the miscellaneous material in the India Office Records’ Political and Secret Department records contain fair copies of letters written 1807-12 by Robert Dundas, President of the Board of Control. 

Portrait of Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville by Charles TurnerNational Portrait Gallery: Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville by Charles Turner, after Sir Thomas Lawrence, published 1827 (1826). NPG D7851 CC NPG

There are letters from Dundas to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the East India Company, and letters to various correspondents, including Spencer Perceval, Lord Liverpool, Marquis Wellesley, and the Duke of York.  No mystery there.  But closer examination of the volumes furnished some interesting clues. Each had a number written in pencil - ‘45’, ‘78’ and ‘79'.  More unusually, each was annotated with a price – ‘£5’, ‘£5’ and ‘£1’.  If these were ‘official’ records of the Board of Control, then why did they have a price tag written on them and what suspiciously looked like a catalogue number?

Inscription on flyleaf showing priceIOR/L/PS/19/164: Inscription on flyleaf Noc

So began the hunt for information regarding the history and provenance of the volumes.  Provenance provides the contextual evidence for archives, their history, custody and authenticity. Archives with the same provenance - originating from the same source - are kept together, and arranged, described, and catalogued together.  So how had these particular volumes ended up amongst the Political and Secret Department records, and why?

Digging into the India Office Record Department led to a file on the Melville papers, which contained a bookseller's catalogue: 'The Melville Papers Original Letters and Documents Relating to the East But Mainly Concerning Bombay, Madras and Mysore 1780 to 1815.  From the Collection of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville'.  Did it contain numbers '45', '78' and '79'?  Yes, and these were the volumes now residing in the Political and Secret Department Miscellaneous Papers.

Copies of letters from Robert Dundas to the Earl of LiverpoolIOR/L/PS/19/166: Copies of letters from Robert Dundas to the Earl of Liverpool Noc

The Record Department of the India Office purchased the volumes from Francis Edwards Ltd of Marylebone in 1928, together with a number of other Melville papers in the catalogue.  Those other papers were originally given a place in the Home Miscellaneous series (IOR/H/818), before being transferred to the India Office Private Papers as Mss Eur G92 Robert Dundas papers and Mss Eur D1074 Henry Dundas papers.  Lost links between the collections have now been restored.

Portrait of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount MelvilleCC NPG  National Portrait Gallery: Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville replica by Sir Thomas Lawrence, circa 1810. NPG 746 

So how had the Melville papers come into the hands of a bookseller in 1928?  Both Henry and Robert Dundas, father and son, served as President of the India Board or Board of Control.  Their papers were generated as part of their work at the Board, but as was common at the time many would have been deemed to be 'personal papers' and removed when they left office.  In the 1920s the Melville papers were sold at auction in a number of sales at Sotheby's by Violet, Viscountess Melville.  Many items relating to India were sold on 23 February 1927 to individuals and institutions, and other lots were purchased by dealers and sold on.  The Melville papers were dispersed far and wide, and the outcry over this led to the extension of the work of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, ultimately leading to the current legislation regarding the sale of important archival material.  Although catalogues of the sales were published, it would be a herculean task to fully reconstruct whereabouts of the Melville papers.  By researching provenance and recording details of our findings, archivists can help to solve the puzzle, one little piece at a time.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
IOR/L/PS/19/164-166: Copy Letters from Robert Dundas, later Lord Melville, Board of Control
Mss Eur G92: Robert Dundas Papers
Mss Eur D1074: Henry Dundas Papers
‘The Sale Room’, The Times [London, England] 24 Feb 1927. The Times Digital Archive
‘The Sale Room’, The Times [London, England] 27 Apr 1926. The Times Digital Archive
‘A Napoleon Letter’, The Times [London, England] 16 Jun 1924. The Times Digital Archive
William Welke (1963) The Papers of the Viscounts Melville. The American Archivist: October 1963, Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 449-462 

 

27 August 2019

The Theatre Censors Part 3: George Street

George Street (1867-1936) became Examiner of Plays in 1914.  Street was already a published journalist, critic and novelist.  He wrote summaries of every play he read leaving behind a valuable historic record of the topics that were of most concern to the censor at the time.  Chief among these concerns was the increasing discussion of women’s rights and sexual autonomy in plays submitted for licensing.

Photograph of George Street from Evening Standard 1914Photograph of George Street  from Evening Standard 1 January 1914  - copyright Evening Standard

Maternity was written by Eugène Brieux and translated by Charlotte Shaw.  The play examined the theme of choice in parenthood and voiced the grievances of a woman expected to continue having children.  The result was the woman’s death during an abortion.  This ending prompted the examiner to consider whether it was useful to license the play, as it would serve as a warning to women, but he decided against this stating:
‘I do not think this play can be justified as useful propaganda…the subject of abortion has not so far been allowed on our stage, and is not so treated, in my opinion as to serve a useful purpose..’

In 1923, Street refused a licence for a play entitled Married Love.  This was a fictional adaption of Marie Stopes’ book of the same name.  The play explored themes of sexual satisfaction within marriage.  The play was quickly refused with this damning conclusion:

Play Report rejecting Married Love, calling it unnecessarily disgustingPlay Report for Married Love, 1923, LR 1923/9 Noc

Shortly after the submission of Married Love, Stopes submitted a play entitled Our Ostriches (initially named The Ostriches) under her own authorship.  The play considered the merits of birth control and advocated for women to have more agency in deciding how many children to have.

Cover of Our OstrichesCover of Our Ostriches, 1923, Add MS 68822 L Noc

Street deemed the play less aggressive in its views than other plays and actually recommended it for licence with certain omissions.   However, the Lord Chamberlain was less sympathetic and he refused it a licence.

Anniversary by Frederick Witney presented a different problem to the censor.  The play was an honest portrayal of a woman on the day of her divorce considering her past and present loves.  It was candid in its female-centred view of an intimate relationship.  Street refused its licence on the basis that:
‘its general freedom of discussion and intimacies are more than is generally allowed on the English stage’.

The play entitled Alone offered another perspective on female desire.  Authored by Marion Norris, it was a rewrite of the banned novel The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.

Description of the Protagonist based on the character of Stephen in The Well of Loneliness Description of the Protagonist based on the character of Stephen in The Well of Loneliness 1930, Add MS 68834 B Noc

Alone was refused a licence because of its lesbian theme, but not before Street summarised the anxieties of his age with this statement:
‘I think people are indifferent to the abnormality in women with which it deals until it becomes aggressive…’.

These plays all faced censorship because their content presented women’s sexuality or agency in an affirmative rather than submissive way.  Despite George Street’s best efforts, such themes could not be hidden from view and women continued to make their voices heard on the stage.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Steve Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama, 1900-1968, Volume 1 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003)
Lord Chamberlain Play’s, Licence Refused: Add MS 68816 - 68850
Lord Chamberlain Plays Reports, Licence Refused: Original Reference LR 1903- LR 1949

The Theatre Censors Part 1: George Colman

The Theatre Censors Part 2: William Bodham Donne

 

22 August 2019

Are women more faithful than men? An Eighteenth-Century Couple Discuss the Differences between the Sexes

In two slim volumes of collected love letters recently catalogued by the British Library (Add MS 89402), a young couple in the mid-eighteenth century discuss their private lives, family news and, above all, their love for one another.  Written between 1758-1762, the couple’s initial correspondence display a certain caution and reveal the discreet nature of their courtship; but over time their letters become longer and more intimate, eventually detailing plans for their wedding.  Though purposefully kept anonymous, the correspondents have now been identified as Francis Smyth (1737-1809) and Mary Plumer (1741-1824).

Yet, whilst they were deeply in love, Mary and Francis did not always agree – especially when it came to the subject of male fidelity.

Cover of volume 2 of Francis Smyth and Mary Plumer’s love lettersCover of volume 2 of Francis Smyth and Mary Plumer’s love letters. Add MS 89402/2 Noc

In the spring of 1762, Francis and Mary discussed the differences between the sexes – particularly in relation to their faithfulness.  In a playful but sincere manner, the couple discussed the nature of courtship and cases of ‘jilting’, each mentioning friends who had sadly suffered heartbreak.  The exchange began after Francis detailed how a fellow student at Cambridge had been rejected by a woman who took a fancy to another man:
'I have much to tell you of my intimates in College, in the love way I have many stories but one I will tell you…a friend of mine has had a passion for a very pretty Lady for many years, & had the happiness of meeting with the kindest return to his Love. They had many meetings & were as much engaged to all appearance as two people could be…[but] about a week ago a new Lover offered, she accepted him, & discarded the old one without any concern, who is at present as unhappy as can be'.
    (Letter 25, F. Smyth to Mary Plumer, 31 March 1762)
 

Detail from a letter from Francis Smyth to Mary Plumer  31 March 1762Detail from a letter from Francis Smyth to Mary Plumer, 31 March 1762. Add MS 89402/2 Noc

Though sympathetic to this young man’s upset, Mary protested that men were more inclined to be “false” than women:
' I am sorry for your friend’s disappointment, & to hear that there are such Women in the world, but for one of our Sex that are false, there are thousands of yours'.
    (Letter 26, M. Plumer to F. Smyth, 2 April 1762)

Francis was dismayed by Mary’s generalisation about the unfaithfulness of men:
'I find we must still dispute! How could you blame the men as you do! to knock them down by thousands to one frail female is what I must resent!'
    (Letter 27, F. Smyth to Mary Plumer, 4 April 1762)

Yet Mary was unconvinced and remained sceptical:
'I find you are obliged to take up arms in defence of the thousand poor men I knocked down (as you term it) don’t you believe there are Male jilts as well as female? I cannot say I can complain of the inconstancy of your sex to myself…but I have felt for my friends…[and] I will have done with this disagreeable subject... '
    (Letter 28, M. Plumer to F. Smyth, 5 April 1762)

With that the matter ended.
  Detail from a letter from Mary Plumer to Francis Smyth  31 March 1762Detail from a letter from Mary Plumer to Francis Smyth, 31 March 1762. Add MS 89402/2 Noc

Despite having differences of opinion regarding the faithfulness of men, Mary and Francis remained loyal to each other and were married six months later at St. Martin’s in the Fields on 26 October 1762.

Their love letters can now be read in full at the British Library.

Violet Horlick
Kings College, London.

Further reading:
Sally Holloway, The Game of Love in Georgian England: Courtship, Emotions, and Material Culture (Oxford: OUP, 2019)

 

16 August 2019

Peterloo

Today, 16 August 2019, marks the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre – a major event in British history in which dozens of peaceful protesters were killed and hundreds injured when Yeomanry cavalry charged into them as they rallied for parliamentary reform.

Map of St Peter's Field Manchester'Map of St. Peter's field, Manchester, as it appeared on the 16th of August, last' from Peterloo Massacre, containing a faithful narrative ... Edited by an Observer (Manchester, 1819) 601.aa.9.(1) Noc  Images Online

On 16 August 1819 thousands of political protesters met at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to campaign for parliamentary reform.  They sought a widening of access to the vote and a more democratically accountable Parliament.  It is estimated that somewhere between 60,000-100,000 people gathered at the meeting.  A large draw for the crowd was the speech of the noted radical and orator Henry Hunt (1773-1835).  Concerned that his words might incite a riot the Manchester magistrates ordered the local volunteer Yeomanry to arrest him.  Inexperienced in crowd control, the Yeomanry rode into the crowd with their swords drawn followed by the 15th Hussars who sought to disperse the crowd.  Hunt was arrested, but in the process at least eleven people were killed and many hundreds were wounded.

Portrait of Henry Hunt, and title page of Peterloo MassacrePortrait of Henry Hunt, and title page of Peterloo Massacre, containing a faithful narrative ... Edited by an Observer (Manchester, 1819) 601.aa.9.(1) Noc Images Online

Though the magistrates were officially praised by the government for their actions, there was an immediate national outcry as news spread of the attack.  Very quickly the event was derisively dubbed as ‘Peterloo’ scornfully comparing it with the Battle of Waterloo.  There was considerable public sympathy for the protesters and, for decades after, Peterloo was invoked by radicals as a powerful symbol of political corruption, working-class oppression and the need for parliamentary reform.

One author who was particularly appalled by the Peterloo massacre was the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).  Shelley was living in Italy when the news reached him.  In response he drafted his, now famous, poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’.  According to Shelley ‘the torrent of my indignation’ flowed into the work and throughout his anger is tangible. 

The poem gives an apocalyptic vision of a Regency England in political crisis.  Shelley describes several monstrous creatures riding upon horses wearing masks that look like leading politicians.  Taken together they personify murder, hypocrisy, and fraud and they parade a final beast: anarchy.  The poem then describes a ‘maniac maid’ called Hope, though ‘she looked more like Despair’.  Like the protestors at St Peter’s Fields,  Hope is about to be trampled under the horse’s hooves when ‘a Shape arrayed in mail’ rises to defeat the monstrous creatures.  ‘A great Assembly…Of the fearless and the free’ is then described, like the crowd at Peterloo, and a voice is heard advocating freedom and imploring the people to rise up for liberty.  Famously, the poem ends with the rallying cry:

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’


Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'The Masque of Anarchy' autograph draftPercy Bysshe Shelley, 'The Masque of Anarchy' autograph draft, 1819. Ashley MS 4086 Noc

                 
The British Library holds the original manuscript of Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. It was never published in his lifetime. After writing the poem, Shelley sent a copy of it to his friend Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) who felt that it could not be published safely following government censorship in the aftermath of Peterloo. Others also refused to publish the poem and it did not come out in print until 1832.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Peterloo
'The Masque of Anarchy’

 

Image from The Life of the Buddha

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