Untold lives blog

150 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

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)

 

02 December 2020

Wilfred Owen: One Hundred Years of His Poems

One hundred years ago, the first edition of Wilfred Owen’s Poems was published and established Owen as the enduring lyricist of the Great War.  Some of these poems have seeped deeply into the nation’s psyche.  Poems such as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ are staples of remembrance ceremonies every year.  They resonate through the decades; they expose to school children, via their English literature curriculum, the pity and devastation of war.  Owen’s contribution to our collective understanding of the Great War has meant his words and image have been referred to, or explored, in all sorts of cultural outputs: in biographies, in novels, TV series and film.  He will be forever remembered as one of our greatest war poets and his premature death will always be used as an example of the ultimate sacrifice.

Photograph of Wilfred Owen in military uniform 1916

Photograph of Wilfred Owen by John Gunston, 1916. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery  National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence
   NPG P515


Owen’s published poems have been well discussed over the century that followed their publication, but the manuscript drafts of these poems held at the British Library offer even more insights into the motivations and inspirations behind these poems.

These manuscripts held at Add MS 43720 and Add MS 43721 include Owen’s notes, including this fascinating page that collates the themes and threads that run through the series of poems.

Poem notes by Wilfred OwenPoem notes by Wilfred Owen, Add MS 43720. f.2. Friends of the National Libraries: Manuscripts presented by, through or with the aid of:: 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935.© The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate . This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

Owen carefully curates his collection through these notes, selecting poems that highlight the themes he wishes to present.  These themes include the inhumanity, the deceptiveness and the impact of war, as well as the idea that future generations will forget the suffering of these men.

Wilfred Owen's handwritten quote from W B Yeats

Add MS 43720, f.9.  Friends of the National Libraries: Manuscripts presented by, through or with the aid of:: 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935.© The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate . This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

The manuscript volume also contains quotes from W. B. Yeats’ poems, including this from 'The Shadowy Waters'.  This poem is a telling of a supernatural journey to the end of the world and life, where the narrative seems to disappear into the mist and murk of the imagery.  This quotation precedes Owen’s poem 'The Show'.  In this poem, the narrator seems to float from above in the mist and the dank, watching the trails of soldiers below, all journeying on towards the end.  Owen also admired Romantic poets such as Keats and Shelley, as well as Laurent Tailhade, poet of the Decadent movement whom he had met whilst teaching in France before the war.  He would meet many contemporary poets and writers, including Robert Graves, H G Wells and Robert Ross whilst in recovery from shellshock in 1917.  This combination of influences means Owen’s work finds itself at a number of intersections: between the Romantic and the Modern, the heroic and the pessimistic, and between established and the transgressive.

Draft of Anthem for Doomed YouthDraft of Anthem for Doomed Youth, Add MS 43720, f.17.  Friends of the National Libraries: Manuscripts presented by, through or with the aid of:: 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935.© The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate . This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.


However, the relationship that perhaps most influenced Owen’s poetry was that with Siegfried Sassoon whom he met in 1917.  Sassoon assisted and encouraged Owen.  He helped Owen channel the horror of his memories into visual material in his works.  Sassoon’s hand in Owen’s poems can be literally traced through Owen’s drafts.  Sassoon has annotated the poem in pencil.  Sassoon edited this and other poems when Owen showed him his drafts at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in September 1917.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

24 November 2020

The Lives and Letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 3 Cato Perkins and Nathaniel Snowball

The previous blog post in this series explored the written legacy of Thomas Peters.  This post explores letters from two other figures who travelled to Sierra Leone in late 1791.  These letters are addressed to John Clarkson after he had returned to England in December 1792.

Cato Perkins

Letter to John Clarkson from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson  26 October 1793Letter to John Clarkson from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson, 26 October 1793, Add MS 41263, f.97  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Cato Perkins was born into slavery around 1739.  He was given the name Perkins after his enslaver, John Perkins of Charleston, South Carolina.  At the age of 39, he ran away from the plantation and joined the British forces at the Siege of Charleston.  In 1783, he left the USA on the ship Briton for Nova Scotia.  By 1792, he had joined others in the relocation to Sierra Leone where he became a vocal member of the settlers’ community.

In 1793 Perkins wrote that the management of the settlement was unacceptable.  Perkins was nominated to travel alongside Isaac Anderson to London to deliver a petition of grievances to the Sierra Leone Company and to ask that Clarkson be reinstalled as governor, but Clarkson had been dismissed from the Company.  Perkins stayed at 13 Finch Lane and from there would continue to lobby the Company.  He expresses his disappointment at not meeting Clarkson given how ‘all the people have been much put upon since you came away’.

The letter below introduces the petition and declares that the settlers ‘want nothing but what you promised us’.  Clarkson would reply that despite his insistence the Company meet with Perkins that they had refused to.  Perkins returned to Sierra Leone where he continued to protest against conditions in Freetown.

Letter from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson to John Clarkson  30 October 1793A letter from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson to John Clarkson, 30 October 1793, Add MS 41263, f.101 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Nathaniel Snowball
Nathaniel Snowball was 39 years old when he was evacuated from New York to Port Roseway, Nova Scotia.  He was a slave in Virginia before escaping to the British lines in the Revolutionary War.  His wife Violet, son Nathaniel and his 3-month-old daughter Mary, all travelled to Nova Scotia.  He travelled with his family to resettle in Sierra Leone.  There he became particularly dissatisfied with the lack of good farmland and the management by the Sierra Leone Company.  His objections eventually led him to lead a group of settlers out of Freetown into a new location at Pirate's Bay.  The letter below explains his intentions to take ‘departure as the Ezerlities did’ to escape the ‘boundage of this tyranious crew’.  He explains that he negotiated the new land from King Jimmy, a local tribal leader.

Letter to John Clarkson from Nathaniel Snowball describing his reasons for leading some settlers out of Freetown to a new settlement at Pirate’s Bay  24 May 1796A letter to John Clarkson from Nathaniel Snowball describing his reasons for leading some settlers out of Freetown to a new settlement at Pirate’s Bay, 24 May 1796. Add MS 41263, f.129  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Signatures of Nathaniel Snowball and Luke Jordan  29 July 1796The signatures of Nathaniel Snowball and Luke Jordan 29 July 1796, Add MS 41263, f.131.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Clarkson Papers contain many more letters from members of the Freetown settlement.  These were written by members of the community who enjoyed positions of importance, such as preachers and elected representatives.  Up to thirty people seem to have been responsible for authoring the surviving letters.  Among the authors are Boston King, Moses Murray, Isaac Anderson and James Liaster, but absent are the voices of the women of the settlement.  The next post in this series will explore what we know of the women who travelled to Sierra Leone in 1792.

Signatories of a letter to John Clarkson  all members of the Freetown settlement  including Luke Jordon  Moses Wilkinson (preacher)  American Tolbert  Rubin SimmonsSignatories of a letter to John Clarkson, all members of the Freetown settlement, including Luke Jordon, Moses Wilkinson (preacher), American Tolbert, Rubin Simmons and many more. Add MS 41263, f.115.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Jessica Gregory,
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
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)

 

17 November 2020

William Adams in Japan– a new digital resource

William Adams, 'the first Englishman in Japan', died on 16 May 1620 at Hirado.  Events planned in Japan and the UK to mark the 400th anniversary of his death have unfortunately had to be postponed because of the pandemic.  However the British Library has been able to contribute to the celebration of a remarkable life.  Letters written by Adams during his years in Japan are preserved in the East India Company archive, and we are delighted to announce that digital copies of these are now available to access freely in our Digitised Manuscripts resource.

Firando (Hirado) from the sea 1669 with a Dutch shipFirando (Hirado) viewed from the sea-  Arnoldus Montanus, Gedenkwaerdige gesantschappen der Oost-Indische Maetschappy in't Vereenigde Nederland, aen de Kaisaren van Japan (Amsterdam, 1669)

Adams joined a Dutch merchant fleet as chief pilot in 1598.  He arrived in Japan on board the Liefde in 1600 and built a new life for himself under the patronage of Tokugawa Ieyasu.  William Adams worked for both the Dutch and English East India Companies after they arrived in Japan in 1609 and 1613 respectively.

Firando (Hirado) Castle 1669The castle at Firando (Hirado)  - Gedenkwaerdige gesantschappen der Oost-Indische Maetschappy in't Vereenigde Nederland, aen de Kaisaren van Japan (Amsterdam, 1669)

The earliest letter written by William Adams in the English East India Company records is dated 23 October 1611 in Hirado.  He had heard that there were Englishmen at Bantam (Banten) in Java and so the letter is addressed to unknown friends and countrymen.  Adams gave an account of his life, explaining how he came to be in Japan, what had happened to him since his arrival, his relationship with Tokugawa Ieyasu and the honours he had received.  He had been refused permission to leave Japan and asked for word to be sent to his family that he was still alive.  Adams gave information about trading contacts with the Dutch.

This letter was received in Bantam by East India Company merchant Augustine Spalding.  He sent a reply via the Dutch, together with a bible and three other books.

On 12 January 1613 Adams answered.  He had received a letter from Thomas Smythe, Governor of the East India Company, promising that a ship would be sent to Japan to establish a factory (trading post).  Adams passed on to Spalding valuable commercial intelligence and advice about the best way of establishing trade with Japan.

Letter from William Adams at Hirado to Augustine Spalding at Bantam 12 January 1613IOR/E/3/1 ff. 157-58  Letter from William Adams at Hirado to Augustine Spalding at Bantam 12 January 1613  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Adams wrote from Hirado on 1 December 1613 to the East India Company in London, announcing the arrival of John Saris in their ship Clove.  He detailed Saris’s reception at court and described how Saris was unhappy when he was not permitted by Japanese custom to hand a letter from King James directly to the emperor but only via his secretary.  Saris asked Adams if he would serve the English East India Company and, after considerable negotiation, a salary of £100 per annum was agreed.

On the same day, Adams wrote to Thomas Best at Bantam updating him with the latest news.  He said that he had intended to go home in the Clove but changed his mind because of discourtesies shown to him by Saris.

Other letters are addressed to English merchants in Japan and to the East India Company in London, with news of people, trade, and Japanese politics.  The final one in the archive was sent in November 1617 from Adams at Sakai to Company merchant Richard Wickham at Hirado.  400 years after his death, the voice of William Adams can still be heard through his written legacy.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator. East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/E/3/1 ff 116-29 William Adams at Hirado to his ‘unknown friends and countrymen’ at Bantam
IOR/E/3/1 ff 157-58 William Adams at Hirado to Augustine Spalding at Bantam
IOR/E/3/1 ff 203-04 Contract between William Adams and the East India Company, Hirado
IOR/E/3/1 ff 209-11 William Adams at Hirado to the East India Company in London
IOR/E/3/1 ff 212-13 William Adams at Hirado to Thomas Best at Bantam
IOR/E/3/2 f 43 William Adams at Hirado to Richard Wickham at Edo
IOR/E/3/3 f 78 William Adams at Shizuoka to Richard Wickham at Edo
IOR/E/3/4 f 143-44 William Adams at Hirado to Sir Thomas Smythe in London
IOR/E/3/5 f 189 William Adams at Sakai to Richard Wickham at Hirado

Anthony Farrington, The English Factory in Japan, 1613-1623 (London: British Library, 1991)

William Adams - from Gillingham to Japan

 

03 November 2020

Tracing the Lives and Letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 2 Thomas Peters

This blog post explores some of the documents within the British Library collection relating to Thomas Peters.  Peters was a former slave who had joined the British Army Regiment, the Black Pioneers, during the American Revolutionary War.  Like many other ex-slaves, he was evacuated to British Territory in Nova Scotia after the British had lost the war.  These documents relate Peters’ campaign to secure better lives for his black community in Nova Scotia, where conditions were inhospitable both environmentally and socially.

Peters formed a petition which outlined the grievances of the community in Nova Scotia and he sailed to England in the aim of presenting it to the British government.  There he met Granville Sharp, abolitionist and activist, who had previously relocated some of the ‘London black poor’ to Sierra Leone as part of a philanthropic project.  Granville probably helped Peters to meet Sierra Leone Company directors.  The following document records the essence of Peters’ petition and gives an account of the meeting.  It describes how the Company was willing to instigate a relocation of the ‘free blacks’ of Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, and how Peters was given a set of terms upon which people would be considered for the trip.

A record of Thomas Peters meeting the Sierra Leone Company officialsA record of Thomas Peters meeting the Sierra Leone Company officials, Add MS 41263, f.158.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On return to Nova Scotia Peters took on the task of finding people who would be willing to re-locate to Sierra Leone.  In this letter, Peters writes to Lawrence Hartshorne outlining his progress.  He describes people as in ‘high spirits’ and expresses his eagerness to see John Clarkson, the Company Agent who was in charge of the mission to Sierra Leone.

A letter from Thomas Peters to Lawrence Hartshorne  written from Saint John  New BrunswickA letter from Thomas Peters to Lawrence Hartshorne, written from Saint John, New Brunswick, [which at the time, was part of Nova Scotia] October 1791, Add MS 41262, f.13.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Peters writes again to the Company in the letter below.  This letter was sent shortly before the departure of the ships to Sierra Leone for a new life.  In the letter,  Peters and his friend David Edmon[d]s ask humbly that the ‘black people of Halifax bound for Sierra Leone’ have some ‘frish beef for Christmas diner’ for their last Christmas Day in America.

Letter requesting provisions for Christmas from Thomas Peters and David EdmondsLetter requesting provisions for Christmas from Thomas Peters and David Edmonds, December 1791. Add MS 41262, f.24.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The handwriting differs between these two letters, so it seems that one of them was drafted on behalf of Peters.  The extent of Peters’ literacy is difficult to determine.  It is noted that his petition of grievances was redrafted to correct his spelling and grammar before it reached the British Government – implying a general level of literary.  However, putting the physical penmanship aside, these letters record the words of an individual who had lived through kidnap from Africa, the horror of the journey through the middle-passage, enslavement in South Carolina and the American Revolutionary War.  Peters was then influential in establishing a colony of free black people in Sierra Leone, where today is he remembered as one of the founding fathers of Freetown.  These few documents are therefore a rare and important recorded legacy of a voice so regularly absent from the written record.

The next blog post in this series will expand on this written legacy by examining some of the other letters written by the Sierra Leone settlers.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
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)

Tracing the lives and letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 1 The Journey to Sierra Leone

15 October 2020

Tracing the lives and letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 1 The Journey to Sierra Leone

With the outbreak of the American War of Independence in April 1775, the British Army soon realised that it lacked the manpower it needed to prosecute the war.  One action taken was the issuing of the Dunmore Proclamation in November 1775 which decreed that slaves who joined the British to fight against the American revolutionaries would be freed from slavery.  Thousands of slaves joined the British forces in response where they became known as the Black Loyalists and were formed into a number of military units such as the Black Pioneers and the Ethiopians.   The Black Pioneers accompanied General Henry Clinton to Rhode Island when he was tasked with taking Newport in 1776.

Map of Rhode Island in 1776 marked with the positions of British RegimentsMap of Rhode Island in 1776, Add MS 57715, f.3. The map is marked with the positions of British Regiments. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With the conclusion of hostilities, the future of the Black Loyalists remained uncertain and they were under threat of re-enslavement.  General Washington demanded that the British obey the Treaty of Paris (1783) which had specified that all American property, including slaves, be returned.  The British instead attempted to keep their original promise by relocating thousands of ex-slaves outside of the United States.  Sir Guy Carleton, commander of British forces in North America, oversaw the evacuation of Black Loyalists and many other black individuals living behind British lines – some runaway slaves, some born free men, as well as their families - to British territory including Jamaica, London (where many became known as London Black Poor), and Nova Scotia.

A manuscript record of some of the orders issued by Sir Guy Carleton during the American War of IndependenceA record of some of the orders issued by Sir Guy Carleton during the American War of Independence. Add MS 21743, f.2. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In Nova Scotia the Black Loyalists were promised land and freedom, but Nova Scotia proved to be hostile both environmentally and socially.  A description of the relocation to Nova Scotia is given in a report commissioned by Sir Carleton.

Title page of the manuscript report on Nova ScotiaTitle page of the report on Nova Scotia, Kings MS 208, f.1. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Page from manuscript report showing increase in population in Nova Scotia as ‘New Inhabitants’ arriveThis page traces the increase in population in Nova Scotia as ‘New Inhabitants’ arrive. Kings MS 208, 24 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The report made direct reference to the Black Loyalists settling in Nova Scotia and stated that they numbered around 3000 at the point of writing in 1784.

The following page of the report explains the difficulties that have arisen already with lack of land to cultivate and insists that provisions be made for the new settlers lest they ‘perish – they have no other country to go to – no other asylum'.

Manuscript document giving description of the shortcomings of resettlement in Nova ScotiaDescription of the shortcomings of resettlement in Nova Scotia. Kings MS 208, f.32 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With many of the black settlers feeling betrayed, an unusual and challenging plan was devised: to relocate these families from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, to form a new colony of free people, who would govern themselves.  The decision to relocate the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia developed upon an earlier project that had relocated a number of the ‘black poor’ of London to Sierra Leone.  Granville Sharp, philanthropist and abolitionist was a seminal figure in the original plan.  The recently formed Sierra Leone Company would orchestrate the new project and instigated John Clarkson - the younger brother of abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson - as the agent in charge of the mission.  However, the figure who was instrumental in devising the plan was the former slave and Black Pioneer, Thomas Peters.

The next blog post in this series will examine Thomas Peters’ role in the establishment of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the letters in the British Library that were composed by him.

A view from the sea of the New Settlement in Sierra Leone 1790 with a sailing ship in the foregroundA View of the New Settlement in Sierra Leone by Cornelis Apostool. 1790, before the re-settlement of the Nova Scotian Black Loyalists. British Library Maps.K.Top.117.100 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
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)

01 October 2020

‘Can you sign this for me?’ Collecting the autographs of famous 17th century figures

As part of our major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital, the British Library have recently digitised and made available a collection of our world-class Tudor and Stuart manuscripts.  For an introduction to this valuable resource, see our blog post Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts go online.  To view these manuscripts, visit our Digitised Manuscripts webpage.

 
There are many treasures in among these new digital acquisitions, but in particular we would like to introduce two curious albums full of signatures.  Their shelfmarks are Add MS 15736 and Add MS 17083.  These manuscripts may not appear at first to be the most illuminating of manuscripts as their pages contain sparse annotations rather than full, descriptive text.  They serve a completely different purpose to those manuscript formats that we are accustomed to, those of letters, diaries, transcripts, drafts and official accounts, but regardless, they offer a fascinating insight into 17th century society, fame and friendship.

Cover  of friendship album or ‘stammbuch’ of George Andrew- red leather with gold fleur de lys decorations Folio showing owner of friendship book was George Andrew
Friendship album or ‘stammbuch’ of George Andrew - Add MS 15736, front and f.1. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This is the friendship album or ‘stammbuch’ of George Andrew.  In this book, George Andrew collected the autographs and drawings of the arms of well-known individuals during the years 1612 – 1623.  These autographs were principally collected at Strasbourg and Stier.   Autograph albums such as this one emerged in the German and Dutch linguistic regions and were used by students as a form of memorabilia and a way of recording contacts one had made.  Their initial purpose was decidedly sentimental and they would function in a similar way to the high school yearbook does today.  However, the tradition of collecting signatures grew in popularity and moved out from the immediate vicinity of early modern universities into wider life.  People would carry them on their person during their travels and during their academic life, using them to record dedications from friends, but likewise as a compendium of significant contacts.
 

George Andrew’s book contains some very famous signatures which he would have been proud to hold and show off to his friends.

Autograph of Charles, Prince of Wales)  Autograph of Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia.
Add MS 15736, ff.4-5. The autographs of Charles I (then Prince of Wales) and Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These manuscripts can show us who was of importance in the 17th century. Aside from the autographs of princes, kings and queens that these books contain, there are also many bishops, scholars and other members of the aristocracy.

The tradition of collecting autographs and dedications also involved collecting visual representations of significant figures.  The friendship album of Sir Thomas Cuming (Add MS 17083) includes a large number of coats of arms that have been painted onto the pages.  These beautiful and delicate paintings would often have been commissioned by the new acquaintance by an artist on their behalf.   One can see how these volumes full of tens of careful paintings would have become quite precious items to their owners.

The Arms of Frederick V,  Elector Palatine of the Rhine  Coat of arms of George William Margrave.
Add MS 17083, f.3v. The Arms of Frederick V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine and f.7v. coat of arms of George William Margrave. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These volumes are also illustrative of a particular power structure in place in the 17th century.  The volumes belonged to men because these were part of the traditions of the university arena to which women were not admitted.  They were supposed to present an image of their owners as well-known, connected and cosmopolitan men.  The signatures in these books shows us a network of powerful individuals as only the privileged would have been able to write in this era.  The books are a who’s who of 17th century Europe, an index of the influential, and an equivalent contemporary autograph collection like this would be hard to come by.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

17 September 2020

Sylvia Pankhurst’s Toilet Papers

The panic bulk buying of toilet paper and dried pasta?  Or Captain Tom Moore’s long march for the NHS?  It’s too soon to tell which aspects of 2020 historians will focus on.  However, as Sylvia Pankhurst’s biographer, my own obsession with toilet paper began a few years before the Covid-19 pandemic, and it began in the British Library.

Many people remember Sylvia Pankhurst as the suffragette sister from the first family of feminism who stayed true to its socialist beginnings throughout her great life.  Fewer reflect upon the whole arc of that life; one of art and resistance against war, fascism, racism, colonialism, and inequality.

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst 1938

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst by Howard Coster, 1938 NPG x24529 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Sylvia was the most incarcerated and tortured of the Pankhursts, but her prison career did not end there.  In 1921 she was once more His Majesty’s guest in Holloway Prison.  This time her crime was not the struggle for women’s equality but sedition, in publishing anti-war articles in her newspaper the Workers’ Dreadnought.  Her health compromised by previous imprisonment and torture, and suffering from endometriosis, one of the bravest Britons of the 20th century served another prison term, this time as a newspaper publisher defending freedom of the press.

Sylvia used her six-month solitary sentence to write.  A political prisoner, her only permitted writing materials were a small slate and chalk.  Yet she was prolific during this period.  On release, she published the poetry anthology Writ on Cold Slate, whose title sonnet agonizes about writing under such conditions.

Whilst many a poet to his love hath writ,
Boasting that thus he gave immortal life,
My faithful lines upon inconstant slate,
Destined to swift extinction reach not thee.

So, I wondered, how did these faithful lines reach us?

My excavation of British Library manuscripts revealed that artist and writer came up with a practical means of transcribing her writing and smuggling it out of Holloway.  Sylvia drafted her ideas with chalk on slate, then reworked them with soft pencil on standard issue HM Prison toilet paper, concealed in the underclothes of her uniform.  These contraband manuscripts were smuggled out by her friend Norah Smyth on prison visits, and other prisoners on release.  Sylvia’s suggestive wipe-away slate metaphor led me to the discovery of the fragile toilet paper reality.  The compressed, previously unsorted bundles surviving today in the BL contain not only poetry but a previously unknown and nearly complete five act play and clandestine correspondence that I spent six months painstakingly transcribing and putting in order for future researchers.

Sylvia complained to Norah that ‘the stuff I write all rubs off because it flops around in my pocket,’ but this line has survived for a century on its little square of rough toilet roll, along with hundreds of other sheets of beige, perforated prison issue toilet paper.  Sylvia Pankhurst died in Ethiopia in 1960, honoured with a state funeral.  When an earthquake and coup followed, her son unsuccessfully attempted to give a portion of her extensive papers to the British Library for safekeeping.  Refuge was instead found in Amsterdam.  Years later, Richard Pankhurst once again offered the BL the opportunity of a further cache of his mother’s papers, including – bundled up in bulging brown envelopes – this toilet paper in which I have found such treasure.  Thank goodness for second chances and for writing under lockdown.

Rachel Holmes
Author 

Further reading:
Pankhurst Papers - British Library Add MS 88925
Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (Bloomsbury, 2020).

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