Untold lives blog

157 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

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.

 

14 October 2021

Diary of a Lumber Jill

‘Lumber Jill’ was the name given to women who worked in the oft-forgotten Women’s Timber Corps (WTC) during the Second World War, who have only begun to receive proper recognition for their service the past two decades. Initially a sub-division of the Women’s Land Army (WLA), members volunteered – or were conscripted into – working in forestry, carrying out duties previously done by men, such as sawing, felling, measuring, loading cargo, and driving tractors. This was often heavy manual labour, and could also be dangerous, but many women enjoyed it. Vera Lloyd compiled her experiences of the WTC into a diary in 1953, which found its way to our Modern Archives collections.

Opening page of diary showing Timber Corps logo

Opening page with Timber Corps insignia, Add MS 70609

Vera began her journey in Gloucestershire, with working hours typically starting at 7.45am in the morning until 6pm in the evening, with a half-day on Saturdays. During summer, work was daily and often never ending. It was not all hard labour though, early on in the service she rode her first pony, saw another give birth in the wild, and even had the time to fill in the head-sawyer’s cap with sawdust.

After nine months on the job, aged only 23, she was sent to Jacobstowe to lead a group of men at a sawmill – and here encountered some resistance to her leadership. A man named Fred was slacking on the job, often arriving late in the morning. She reflects, ‘It was, I suppose, [a] rather excusable reaction against being under a mere woman, but after a fortnight I decided to act’. Despite never sawing herself before, she worked for two hours before Fred arrived, putting in a significant amount of work. He ‘then eyed me with approval. “Shake” he said, holding out his hand’. She had little trouble from him thereafter.

Diary entry with a sketch showing Vera entering the upstairs window of the house via a ladder

Diary entry with a sketch showing Vera entering the upstairs window of the house via a ladder, Add MS 70609

In 1943 she was relocated further south-west to Baconnoc, to become sub-foreman for 80 workers, a significant increase of people under her charge. She writes a relatable experience of forgetting her keys and having to break into her house. While doing so her landlady returned, at which point she explained the ‘awkward situation with famous tact acquired since employed by Ministry of Supply, but am bowled over by information now imparted that key was under mat.’ We’ve all been there.

Of course, forestry work was perilous too. Early on, she writes that when walking through the forest a tree began to fall, which she dodged ‘with expert skill’. Worse, a few years later a boy came into her office bleeding over the floor. She explains how he had ‘placed [his] thumb too near [the] circular saw and is not the lad he was by quite a large bite’. 

After the War ended she stayed in the Corps to help rebuild, but disliked the office work she was assigned, longing for the manual labour and companionship in the fields. So she ‘rejoined the ranks of civilians, the richer by over five years of happy comradeship with the people of the West Country’. Vera received two recognitions of her service, which she kept in the diary.

Triangular red long service badge pasted into the diary, presented by HRH Princess Elizabeth, 1945

Triangular red long service badge pasted into the diary, presented by HRH Princess Elizabeth, 1945

'Personal message' of appreciation signed by Queen Elizabeth 

'Personal message' of appreciation signed by Queen Elizabeth 

Jack Taylor

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

Vera Lloyd’s diary is part of the Life on the Home Front display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery from 14 September until 11 December 2021. More information can be found at https://www.bl.uk/events/life-on-the-home-front.

Further Reading:

Add MS 70609 - Vera Lloyd: 'Timber Corps Diary', a calligraphically written account of episodes from the author's service in the forestry section of the Women's Land Army during World War II (6 Feb. 1941-15 May 1946).

Emma Vickers, ‘”The Forgotten Army of the Woods”: The Women’s Timber Corps during the Second World War’, Agricultural History Review 59, no. 1 (2011): 101-112.

Joanna Foat, Lumberjills: Britain's Forgotten Army (Stroud: The History Press, 2019).

 

18 May 2021

Introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Hans Sloane

One day in early August 1735, a woman arrived at the London home of Sir Hans Sloane, letter of introduction in hand.  Social networking etiquette required such a document when approaching a new acquaintance.  And, Elizabeth Blackwell hoped to connect with Sloane, who was linked with numerous networks of knowledge, and acquire his support.  Some 280 years later, that letter is held by the British Library and identified as Sloane MS 4054, f. 90.

Letter written by physician Alexander Stuart introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Sir Hans SloaneThis letter, written by physician Alexander Stuart, introduced Elizabeth Blackwell to Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane MS 4054, f. 90

One of Sloane’s close colleagues, a Scots-born physician named Alexander Stuart, had written it on Blackwell’s behalf.  But even before stating the reason for her visit, Stuart assured Sloane that 'Mrs. Blackwell' merited his consideration. She was, he wrote, the 'Niece of Sir Wm. Simson, one of the Barons of the Exchequer, whom you know; & first Cousine to My Lady Cook Windford, whom you also know'.  She was, then, a gentlewoman who could be linked to persons familiar to Sloane.

With those salient points covered, Stuart explained why Blackwell wished to see him.  She was working on a project, and Sloane’s endorsement would be of great help.  A 'very ingenious person', Blackwell wanted to draw a set of about 500 plants from the most up-to-date (1721) edition of the Dispensatory of the Royal College of Physicians.  Blackwell also had with her a proposal for the project. In all likelihood, it was similar to those drawn up by persons who were writing books that they wanted to sell by subscription.  Its wording probably resembled the text of an advertisement that ran in the London Evening Post on 9-11 October 1735: 'This Day are publish’d PROPOSALS For PRINTING by SUBSCRIPTION, A Curious Herbal'.

Botanical drawing of a dandelionElizabeth Blackwell’s illustrations include this Dandelion. Plate 1 of Joseph Banks’ copy of A Curious Herbal (London: Samuel Harding, 1737). 452.f.1.

Stuart’s letter also noted that the document had space at the bottom for signatures of endorsers – akin, perhaps, to the page that is found in volume one of effectively every copy of A Curious Herbal.  The apothecary Isaac Rand had composed the proposal for Blackwell and, along with the illustrious Dr Richard Mead, had promised to sign it.   Would Sloane also 'be so good as to sign the recommendation'?

Page of Publick Endorsements from A Curious HerbalThis page of Publick Endorsements likely resembled the one that accompanied the proposal that apothecary Isaac Rand wrote for Blackwell. A Curious Herbal (London: Charles Nourse, 1782), vol. 1. 445.h.6.

As it happened, no.  But Sloane would help Blackwell in other ways, which were cited in the dedication that she composed to him – one that was engraved and printed on pages found in various copies of A Curious Herbal.  Likewise, Blackwell would compose dedications to Stuart, Mead, Rand, and six other men who contributed to her undertaking.

Elizabeth Blackwell's dedication to Sloane in A Curious HerbalSloane didn’t sign Blackwell’s recommendation but he helped her in other ways, as noted in this dedication. Joseph Banks’ copy of A Curious Herbal (London: Samuel Harding, 1737), vol. 1, after plate 96. 452.f.1.

What other insights might Stuart’s letter provide into A Curious Herbal and Elizabeth Blackwell?  If nothing else, its references to Blackwell’s uncle and cousin (whom, research indicates, lived in or near London) cast some doubt on claims that she was from Aberdeen.  Without wishing to wound Aberdonian pride, the possibility cannot be discounted.

Janet Stiles Tyson
PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London

 

22 April 2021

The Marital Affairs of Heirs: Marriage Negotiations of Prince Charles

Now available on Digitised Manuscripts is Stowe MS 174, comprising part of the state papers of Sir Thomas Edmondes (1563 –1639), ambassador to King James at Paris.  It primarily concerns the marriage negotiations for Charles I (then Prince of Wales) to Princess Christine Marie of France, sister of Louis XIII.  The letters provide a fascinating insight into the political marriage game of seventeenth-century Europe.

Oil painting of Sir Thomas Edmondes dressed in a dark suit and a white ruffSir Thomas Edmondes by Daniel Mytens, 1622, NPG 4652 © National Portrait Gallery, London  National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

For seventeenth-century royalty, marriage wasn’t a private union of love.  Marriage was a political contract, negotiated by committee.  In April 1612 James I had been in negotiations with France for six-year-old Christine’s marriage to eighteen-year-old Henry, his eldest son and heir.  The proposition from the French court had come at a time when James’s coffers were running low, offering a convenient opportunity for replenishment, and a political union with France.  Correspondence regarding Henry’s match to Christine can also be found amongst Edmondes’s State Papers in Stowe 172 & Stowe 173.

When Henry died in November 1612 from typhoid, focus shifted to Charles, as did the expectations that came with being heir - including proposed wives.  James was keen to retain the important Anglo-French alliance, and the French princess’s dowry, so in December 1612 - following a somewhat brief period of mourning- the King instructed Edmondes to recommence negotiations.  This time twelve-year-old Charles was to be the groom.

LIne engraving of King Charles I when Prince of Wales, wearing an elaborate costume with a high stiff lace collar

King Charles I when Prince of Wales by Simon de Passe. early 17th century NPG D25736 © National Portrait Gallery, London  National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

 

Portrait of Princess Christine Marie of France aged about 6, wearing an elaborate embroidered dress, pearls and jewels, and with flowers decorating her hair.

Princess Christine Marie of France (1606-1663) by Frans Pourbis (The Younger), 1612. Wikimedia Commons

Negotiations moved slowly. Edmondes’s papers document the lengthy back and forth of agreeing the terms of marriage, and the all-important 'political prenup'.  In a letter dated 9 June 1613 (ff.84r-88v) outlining James’s terms for the French Court, he requests the same dowry of 800,000 French Crowns as previously agreed for Christine’s match to Henry.  The French considered this too high for the new match, and in a later letter, James deemed it unnegotiable (f.192).  Andrew Thrush estimates 800,000 Crowns as being roughly equivalent to £240,000, which would have modern purchasing power in the region of £30,000,000!

Article 4 f.84v Stowe MS 174 - dowryStowe MS 174 f.85 – Article 4, stating James I’s requested dowry for Princess Christine of France. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Article 8 in the letter of 9 June states that Christine will be provided with a room for prayer, but permitted the service of only two priests - this would later change to four.  Article 9 notes that she may keep her jewels, but if she bears a child, they (and thus England) will be entitled to a portion.  Another letter dated 20 July 1613 (ff.124r – 130v) stipulates that Christine will not be delivered to Charles until after the solemnisation of the marriage, and that if either party dies before they bear a child, the marriage should be dissolved, leaving them both free of this foreign tie.

Stowe 174 F 124r cropped

Stowe MS 174 f.124r. - Volume 9 of the Edmondes Papers. Letter from James I to Thomas Edmondes outlining several of the Articles of Marriage under negotiation. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Protestant Privy Council of England had been opposed to the Catholic match for both Henry and Charles, and certainly some of the French demands, such as their insistence that a Catholic Bishop perform the marriage, would have increased their discontent.  Despite England and France eventually agreeing terms in late 1613, French domestic difficulties in 1614 most likely quashed the proposal.  Nevertheless, Charles was eventually married over a decade later (following the infamous failed ‘Spanish Match’) in 1625 to Henrietta Maria of France, Christine Marie’s younger sister.

Zoe Louca-Richards
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Stowe MS 174 has been digitised and made available as part of the Library’s Heritage Made Digital project to digitise our collection of Tudor and Early Stuart material. Here is an introduction to the digitisation project.
Andrew Thrush, “The French Marriage and the Origins of the 1614 Parliament” in Stephen Clucis and Rosalind Davis eds. The Crisis of 1614 and the Addled Parliament. Literary and Historical Perspectives, (Routledge, 2018).
British Library, Stowe MS 166-177: 1592-1633. Collection of State Papers and correspondence of Sir Thomas Edmondes, Knt.; 1592-1633. Including A full list of the correspondence in Stowe MS 172-174. 

 

23 March 2021

The search for Franklin in the Barrow Bequest

An intriguing collection of manuscripts known as the Barrow Bequest was acquired by the British Museum in February 1899. The private collection was created by Sir John Barrow (1764–1848) and his son Colonel John Barrow (1808–1898) during their official careers at the Admiralty and as writers and promoters of Arctic exploration.

Sir John Barrow appointed Sir John Franklin to lead the ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. Less well-known than his father, John Barrow Junior has recently been called the ‘quiet hero of the search for Franklin’ for his efforts in coordinating the search expeditions from 1848 onwards.  Franklin’s two ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – were last seen by Europeans on 26 July 1845 near Baffin Bay in Greenland, and later by Inuit near King William Island.  

The Barrow Bequest includes drawings made during a British diplomatic mission to China in 1792–93 and Sir John Barrow’s expedition to southern Africa in 1801–02 (Add MS 35300), as well as the manuscripts of Barrow’s autobiography and other writings. The largest part of the collection, however, relates to Arctic exploration.

The letters, drawings, maps and printed materials collected by John Barrow Junior while he was Keeper of the Records for the Admiralty tell the stories of the early expeditions which embarked for the Arctic in search of Franklin and his missing expedition. Many of the letters from individuals involved in the expeditions are addressed to Barrow, including several from Jane Franklin, who tirelessly promoted and sponsored the missions to discover her husband’s fate.

Add MS 35304 contains records relating to the voyage of HMS North Star, commanded by James Saunders in 1849–50. The North Star was intended as a provision ship for the Franklin search expedition under Sir James Clark Ross.

View of Wolstenholme Sound showing the outlet between Baring’s Island and the northern mainland [Greenland]View of Wolstenholme Sound showing the outlet between Baring’s Island and the northern mainland [Greenland], 1849-50. Add MS 35304, f. 9.

Highlights include five watercolour drawings of Wolstenholme Sound on the north-west coast of Greenland near Baffin Bay. These show a desolate landscape of glaciers and barren islands. Tiny figures explore their surroundings while their ship, the North Star, is locked in the ice. The North Star failed to meet the Ross expedition and returned to England after spending a winter in the ice in what is now named North Star Bay.

View of Wolstenholme Sound showing Wolstenholme Island, Dundas Hill and Baring’s Island, GreenlandView of Wolstenholme Sound showing Wolstenholme Island, Dundas Hill and Baring’s Island, Greenland, 1849-50. Add MS 35304, f. 10.

Another highlight is The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette, a handwritten magazine illustrated with watercolour and pen-and-ink drawings which was 'published in winter quarters, Arctic Regions’ between 28 October 1852 and 12 February 1853. The magazine is written largely in the hand of Sherard Osborn, who was in command of HMS Pioneer in the Franklin search expedition under Sir Edward Belcher. It was created for the entertainment of the crew and the volume includes two playbills for the Queens Arctic Theatre printed on board HMS Assistance. The crews abandoned the ships in the summer of 1854 after spending two winters in the ice and failing to find Franklin.

A scene from Hamlet in The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette,A scene from Hamlet in The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette, 1852-53. Add MS 35305, f. 32.

Playbill for the The Queens Arctic Theatre, 21 Dec 1852, HMS Assistance.Playbill for the The Queens Arctic Theatre, 21 Dec 1852, HMS Assistance. Add MS 35305, f. 31v.

The wrecks of Erebus and Terror were found in 2014 and 2016 by Parks Canada in an area that was identified by Inuit. The search for evidence of the Franklin expedition continues to this day.

Catherine Angerson
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts
@BL_ModernMSS

Digital Resources:

The British Library has digitised the ten volumes in partnership with Adam Matthew for Age of Exploration, an online collection of primary sources relating to five centuries of global exploration, trade and colonial expansion.

The following volumes are now available to view in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website:

Vol. I. Drawings by William Alexander and Samuel Daniell [in China, Southeast Asia, South America and southern Africa] (Add MS 35300)

Vol. II. Autograph manuscript of Sir John Barrow’s Voyages of Discovery and Research within the Arctic regions (Add MS 35301)

Vol. III. 'An Autobiographical Memoir of Sir John Barrow, Bart. (late of the Admiralty)' (Add MS 35302)

Vol. IV. ‘A Supplementary Chapter to the Biographical Memoir of Sir John Barrow, Bart.’ (Add MS 35303)

Vol. V. Watercolour drawings and printed materials relating to the voyage of H.M.S. North Star to Baffin Bay and Barrow Straits (Add MS 35304)

Vol. VI. Manuscript of The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette (Add MS 35305)

This list will be updated as further volumes are added. You can also browse the collection and read full catalogue descriptions in our online catalogue.

Further Reading:

The search for John Franklin and the discovery of the Northwest Passage, British Library (2018)
Claire Warrior, New discoveries from the lost Franklin expedition, Royal Museums Greenwich (Feb 2020)

18 March 2021

Travel Quarantine in the 1750s

In the early 1750s the British Government had to consider what to do about the resurgence of the plague along the trade routes of the Eastern Mediterranean.  The threat of importing plague back into the country after a relatively plague-free period was a real one and required action at the country’s points of entry.

Portrait of William Wildman Barrington, 2nd Viscount BarringtonWilliam Wildman Shute Barrington, 2nd Viscount Barrington, by Charles Knight Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery NPG D14330 National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

The 2nd Viscount Barrington, MP for Plymouth, sought to address the threat of the plague re-entering the country through a quarantine bill.  The drafts of his speech on this bill are present in the Barrington Papers.  Its outline may be familiar to many of us, as its purpose much like today’s hotel quarantine, was to isolate those who had come from high-risk areas, so that one could identify infections before they reached the population.

First page of Barrington’s speech on measures of quarantineFirst page of Barrington’s speech on measures of quarantine, Add MS 73688, f.40. 1751. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Barrington’s draft speech reflects on previous plagues and their huge consequences.  He says that to allow reinfection would put the UK at a disadvantage and that practical means must be employed to prevent that.  He mentions past quarantine bills and how they suffered from a lack of enforcement.  His speech also dismisses complaints about how much this might cost saying: 'Be it little or much it is necessary, and therefore the consideration of expense must not stop our proceedings'.

Barrington also notes that other major ports abroad had already established a mandatory quarantine: 'No British merchant who hath the least degree not only of public spirit, but even of shame, can object to doing that for the safety of his own country at home, which for the security of other states, he submits to, without grumbling, abroad'.

A view of the city of Malta, on the side of the Lazaretto or pest-house, where ships perform quarantineA view of the city of Malta, on the side of the Lazaretto or pest-house, where ships perform quarantine, by Joseph Goupy, around 1740-1760. Cartographic Items Maps K.Top.84.102.g BL flickr Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The ports of Venice, Genoa, Marseille and the City of Malta already had long established marine quarantine systems that British sailors would have had to adhere to, so a British version was considered long overdue.

Barrington describes the quarantine procedure that he envisions establishing with the bill.  First, every ship coming from the Levant, or countries infected with plague would make a signal to the shore when coming into port.  Then an officer of quarantine would visit the ship and see that it has no communication with others or the shore until the ship is brought into a quarantine lazaret (or lazaretto).  A lazaret was a quarantine station for maritime travellers, sometimes these were a ship permanently at anchor, a small island or a building.  Here the incoming ship would be quarantined for a set time period to allow for the identification of any cases of disease.  If the ship and crew managed to complete their quarantine without cases, the ship would then be given a certificate of health and be allowed to proceed.

Barrington mentioned locations in the Thames or Medway. The bill for Enlarging and Regulating the Trade into the Levant Seas passed and came into enforcement in 1754.  It is likely the subsequent quarantining took place on the Medway near Lower Halstow.  Antiquarian Edward Hasted noted in 1798 that two large hospital ships were stationed there as lazarettos.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Manuscripts.

Further Reading:
The Barrington Papers, Add MS 73546-73769 : 1701-1882

 

16 February 2021

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: a pioneering writer’s life

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Britain’s greatest woman poet, changed the course of literary history not only as a pioneering, modernising writer, world famous in her day, but as an influential political campaigner.  Born in 1806 in Coxhoe Hall, County Durham, she died in 1861 at Casa Guidi, her home in Florence.  In between, she lived a life of precocious achievement, writing poems from the age of six and verse drama in French at eight, and publishing her first book, The Battle of Marathon, at fourteen.  She did this despite living with a disabling, chronic respiratory illness so severe that – like Marcel Proust in his last years – she couldn’t leave her room for years at a time.

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett BrowningPortrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from The poetical works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London,1889-90) British Library flickr

There were other obstacles, too.  Barrett Browning wrote under her own name, at a time when most women published anonymously – Jane Austen as ‘A lady’ – or under male pseudonyms: the Brontë sisters as the Bell brothers, Mary Ann Evans as George Eliot.

As a result, contemporary critical reception was sometimes baldly misogynist: on the other hand, in 1850 she was the first woman to be nominated for Poet Laureate, 159 years before a woman Laureate was finally appointed.  A further challenge to any idea of becoming a writer, at a time with few Black literary role models, may have been that her Jamaican descent made her believe she had black heritage.  She was acutely aware of the appalling violence endured by those enslaved.  EBB, as she styled herself, passionately condemned that violence in her abolitionist poem ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim Point’.

Indeed as her literary fame developed, she deployed it repeatedly to change social attitudes.  She was at the forefront of the shift from Romanticism into an ethical, distinctively Victorian school of writing. In the verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856), the first ever woman’s Bildingsroman, she returned to rape in the form of forced prostitution.  She published in aid of Ragged Schools and against child labour (‘The Cry of the Children’).  Most influentially of all, in two books of political poetry, Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860), she argued for Italian independence, and Italians viewed her as a heroine of the struggle.

Other key works of Barrett Browning’s maturity included her breakthrough collection The Seraphim (1838), Poems (1844) and Poems (1850) – which included ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’, among them one of the most famous poems in English, ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’.  More to the point than its biographical occasion is the way this lyric shows off the poet’s gift for narrative, and a new informal, conversational style, which are the secrets of its popularity.  Her clandestine marriage at forty to the younger, and less-established poet Robert Browning, with whom she moved to Italy, was a love-match which is too often allowed to eclipse her work.  We gain a much more accurate sense of her legacy from noting the writers she influenced, including Emily Dickinson, John RuskinOscar Wilde, Rudyard KiplingVirginia Woolf.

Professor Fiona Sampson
Author of the first biography of Barrett Browning for more than 30 years, Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Profile, W.W. Norton, 2021) 

 

15 December 2020

The Lives and Letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 4 Women’s Lives

When members of the black Nova Scotian community expressed interest in going to Sierra Leone, it was not just men that applied - applicants also included single women.  Unmarried women who applied for land in Sierra Leone were given ten acres of their own.  The following certificates were issued just before the journey to Sierra Leone and show the allocation of land given to women on receipt of their satisfactory character references.

Promise of land to Margaret Halstead

Promise of land to Grace Pool

Promise of land to Mary

Promise of land to Hannah TighePromises of land in Sierra Leone to single women including Grace Pool, Add MS 41262 A, f.47, f.48, f.53, f.58. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In Freetown a high proportion of householders were women.  Their independent status was recognised to the point that they could vote for their local representatives.  They were also instrumental in establishing trades in the new settlement: three of the six first shops to open in Freetown were run by women.

The following manuscript shows the allocations of eggs to women on Christmas Day 1792. It gives us many of the names of the women within the settlement.

Allocations of eggs to women  25 December 1792Allocations of eggs to women, 25 December 1792, Add MS 41263, f.218. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Dinah Weeks, named on this list, is recorded as having being enslaved to a man called Robert Bruce in New York before the American Revolution.  He apparently granted her freedom and in 1783 she left New York for Nova Scotia on the ship L’Abondance.  On the same ship was Harry Washington, who had been one of George Washington’s slaves, but who had escaped to fight with the British.

The final name on this list is that of Elizabeth Black.  She was a mixed-race women who had been born in Madagascar and described as living in indentured servitude in America to a Mrs Courtland.  When she was finally released she travelled to Nova Scotia and came to live with the black community in Birchtown, before moving to Sierra Leone with many others.

The diary and notes of Dr Taylor offer more insights into some of the women who travelled to Freetown.  The Sierra Leone Company doctor kept notes on the patients he treated. These appear to run from shortly before departing to Sierra Leone in December 1791 and the early months of the settlement in the spring of 1792.

Entry for Sarah Wilkinson in Dr Taylor’s medical notesEntry for Sarah Wilkinson in Dr Taylor’s medical notes, Add MS 41264, f.37.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Listed in this manuscript volume is the case of Sarah Wilkinson, who is described as having a fever after catching a cold after suffering a miscarriage.  She received treatment from Taylor, but died shortly afterwards.  Dr Taylor notes that, by 11 April 1792, 41 women had died, mainly from fevers.  He also notes that fourteen babies had been born since embarking.

Entry for Mima Henry in Dr Taylor’s medical notes

Entry for Mima Henry in Dr Taylor’s medical notes, Add MS 41264, f.2. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mima Henry was also listed as having a fever.  We find that she lived in Birchtown, Nova Scotia before moving to Sierra Leone.  We know that Mima survived her fever because she is listed above in the allocations of eggs document that is dated later in 1792.

These documents may appear insignificant, but they give us the names, ages, backgrounds and land allocations of a number of black women who not only survived slavery, but strived to contribute to a free black society of their own, where they would play a foundational part in the beginnings of Freetown.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
The Clarkson Papers, Add MS 41262-41267. British Library.
Black Loyalist: Our Freedom, Our People: Documents
Our Children, Free and Happy : letters from black settlers in Africa in the 1790's. Edited by Christopher Fyfe with a contribution by Charles Jones. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
The Black Loyalists : the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. James W.St.G. Walker. (London: Longman, 1976)

 

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