Untold lives blog

138 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

21 April 2020

From our homes to yours - the work of the Modern Archives and Manuscripts team

Like many people, British Library staff have been working from home over the past few weeks and will be doing so for the foreseeable future.  Whilst there are of course tasks we are unable to perform without direct access to the physical collections, we are utilising this time to focus on the many ways we can share the Library’s fascinating items and their stories with you digitally - from our homes, to yours.

The Modern Archives and Manuscripts team manages collections dating between 1601-1950. Here are just a few of the things they are working on, and some ways you can access and enjoy our collections from the comfort of your home.

Cataloguing Collections

Screenshot of Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue

The British Library is constantly adding, through gift or purchase, new manuscript and archive material to the collection.  Our teams record information on our collection catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts so you can discover and access the items.

At present we are focusing on some acquisitions that have been patiently awaiting cataloguing.  These include a harrowing day-by-day account by Herbert F. Millar of his failed polar rescue mission; a bundle of letters by playwright George Bernard Shaw; and a letter written by Jane Austen on her final birthday.

Letter written by Jane Austen on her final birthday
Letter from Jane Austen, written on her 41st birthday.

Once cataloguing is complete, these incredible documents will be discoverable online and ready to be made available in our reading rooms when the Library’s doors re-open.

Digital Engagement
The Modern Archives & Manuscripts team has an active presence on Twitter.  Our team has been using the platform to highlight our material on Digitised Manuscripts and Discovering Literature , to promote blogs and podcasts, and to engage with trending global topics.  Curator Alexander Lock gave a “Twitter Tour” of our William Wordsworth 250th birthday celebration display which opened in the Treasures Gallery shortly before the Library closed.  You can follow the Modern Archives and Manuscript team at @BL_ModernMSS.

Twitter Tour of Wordsworth exhibition

We will be working on more in depth explorations of our collection material through the Untold Lives and the English and Drama blogs.  Look out for posts exploring the ‘lost’ manuscript chapter from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Land of Mist, and a closer look at the Jane Austen letter pictured above.

The team are still available to answer enquiries although the extent of assistance we can offer may be limited at this time.

Collection Guides

A large selection of collection guides can be found on the British Library website, each providing an insight into the variety of material we hold on a number of fascinating subjects and themes.

Screenshot of Collection Guides webpage

Our team is working to create more guides on interesting new themes including Food, Architecture, and Politics.  These will provide a vital starting point for user research, whether for work or pleasure.

During this time, it is incredibly important to the British Library and its staff to do all we can to keep your library alive and accessible.  This challenging situation is affording the Library staff the opportunity to become digital users, so we can better understand and improve digital access, not only to mitigate short term restrictions, but for the long term as well. 

Zoe Louca-Richards
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

05 March 2020

Internment during the Second World War – Part Three: imprisonment for insurrection in the Channel Islands

This is the final blog of a series on internment, highlighting the experiences of both civilians and military personnel detained across the globe in the Second World War.

The following experience took place in the only part of the British Isles occupied by Germany during the Second World War: the Channel Islands.  The present account has been revealed from a letter dating from 1954, almost a decade after the conclusion of the War.  It was sent from Vyvyan MacLeod Ferrers, a retired HM Consul, who was 65 years old when he was incarcerated.  He was sentenced and imprisoned in France, before being moved to Germany.


Why was he interned?  Apparently, he was guilty of stirring up an insurrection.  Furthermore, he admits that he had been helping and would continue to help the ‘Resistance’.  More detail is given in a book he wrote while in prison, The Brigadier.  He refused to believe in the fall of Singapore, and repeatedly told others ‘Do not be believing them: it is all lies together’.  Therefore, he was deemed ‘a man so dangerous that the Court dare not let me run loose’.  He would not do so until VE day, when he was liberated by the US Army.

First page of the letter from Vyvyan MacLeod FerrersThe first page of the letter from Vyvyan MacLeod Ferrers  – Add MS 89060. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Unlike other accounts which reflect on hardship in captivity, Ferrers writes little of the conditions, instead emphasising his thoughts on the German people.  He comments that the common man had little power but to go along with the machinations of the state, stating that ‘After a phase of indiscriminate indignation I found it possible to confine my resentment to the real ruffians, and to feel some sympathy with the decent man, of whom there were plenty, who could hardly do otherwise than play into their hands’.

Instead, he lays the blame firmly on the Gestapo.  Ferrers does not disguise his scorn for them, arguing that ‘The Gestapo was a stench in the nostrils of every decent man: and among the Germans there were as many decent men as anywhere else’.  He writes that the group ‘hardly concealed its contempt’ for the German courts, manned as they were by the common people.  Throughout the short four-page letter, Ferrers repeatedly emphasises how ordinary citizens were effectively powerless, ‘Called up, willy-nilly, from their own affairs, they were compelled to do what they much disliked’.  Rather than blaming them for his years of imprisonment, as many understandably would, he sympathises with them.

Final page of the letter from Vyvyan MacLeod FerrersThe final page of the letter from Vyvyan MacLeod Ferrers  – Add MS 89060. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This empathetic outlook (written while Britain still had rationing because of the War!) is an uncommon find.  Indeed, Ferrers finishes the letter noting how he has been ‘surprised to find how many people are surprised at my point of view’.  While recent understandings of Nazi Germany have emphasised the normality of life for the common people in the fascist regime, Ferrers already understood this, despite his experiences.  He argued that the German people were not the real enemy – but Hitler and the Gestapo.

Ferrars died less than a year after sending this letter, on 6 March 1955 in Brighton.

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

Further Reading:
Add MS 89060 - Letter from V. M. Ferrers to Sir Amberson [Barrington Marten].
Gilly Card, Vyvyan Macleod Ferrers
Vyvyan Ferrers, The Brigadier (London: Art & Educational Publishers Ltd, 1948).

 

25 February 2020

17th Century Recipes for Those Feeling Under the Weather

It is that time of year again when almost everyone is getting ill.  Luckily, the British Library manuscript collections are full of historic and innovative gastronomic concoctions to help alleviate your various ailments.

A fine place to start is with the Sloane manuscripts, which contain a formidable number of medical recipes, or receipts, as they were known before the 1700s.  On his death, collector and physician Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his vast collections to the nation.  Chief among Sloane’s academic interests was medicine and he collected many manuscripts that illuminated approaches to medicine through the ages.  These manuscripts date back as early as the 10th century.  They form a fascinating record of the varying treatments used for illnesses over time, as well as highlighting the persistent impulse to treat ailments with food.

From the 1600’s onwards, we can read some of these recipes in modern English and see just what sort of potions we may have had to drink for an illness had we lived during the 17th century.  Here are a few informative examples:

Recipe for the treatment of consumptionRecipe for the treatment of consumption, Sloane MS 3949 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

For the treatment of consumption, it was recommended to take 3 pints of cow milk, 12 yolks of fresh eggs, 6 ounces of fine breadcrumbs, 3 ounces of fine cinnamon, 2 or 3 pieces of fine gold (surely a staple of every good chef’s kitchen cupboard), 5 ounces of fine sugar, mix together and bring to the boil.  Then one would drink as much of it at a time as possible, or as the recipe states, as much ‘as you shall think convenient’.

Recipe2Recipe to ward off fever, Sloane MS 3949  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This was a nice simple recipe to ward off fever:  Take a piece of white bread and dip it in red rose water, then strew it with sugar and eat it an hour before the fit (obviously it helped to know when you were due to be ill for this one).

Recipe 3Recipe against the plague, Add MS 4376 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

If you were feeling particularly unwell, had buboes in your armpits and a progressively aggressive fever that hinted at your impending doom, then you more than likely had the plague.  In this case, you would have needed to consult the following advice by order of the Corporation of London.  It involves taking rue, sage, mint, rosemary, wormwood and lavender and infusing them together in a gallon of white wine vinegar (so far, so very Waitrose), cooking them in a pot for eight days, draining the liquid and then applying this to the body every day.  You would also have to pour a bit of the mixture onto a sponge to smell when you happened to pass by a particularly plague-ridden avenue.  This receipt even includes its own product review.  It states that criminals would put some of the recipe on their bodies before robbing the houses of those deceased from plague, and that despite them entering these sites of contagion, they had remained healthy.

Although very different from a modern cough medicine, one can recognise in these recipes a few familiar tendencies, such as: equating infused herbs with health; using warm dairy products to comfort; and the use of sugar to make the mixtures more palatable.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Ayscough, S., A Catalogue of the Manuscripts Preserved in the British Museum (London: John Rivington, 1782), 2 vols
Hunter, Michael, and others, eds, From books to bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and his Collections (London: British Library, 2012)
Scott, E. J. L., Index to the Sloane manuscripts in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1904)

 

17 January 2020

William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place

2020 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth.  To commemorate this the British Library is hosting a free exhibition on the poet that opens today in our Treasures Gallery.  Entitled ‘William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place’ this exhibition tells the story of Wordsworth’s life and explores the role place played in his poetry.  Visitors will be able to see original documents from the British Library’s collections including early drafts of Wordsworth’s verse, his notebooks, his annotated books, correspondence and more.  The earliest surviving draft of Wordsworth’s poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ can be seen alongside books bound in one of Mary Wordsworth’s old dresses.

Manuscript draft of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’Manuscript draft of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ prepared for the printers, 1806. Add MS 47864. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Wordsworth was born on the edge of the Lake District in Cockermouth, Cumberland, on 7 April 1770.  Throughout his life he found solace and inspiration in the natural world and expressed this in his poetry which was often closely connected with specific locations.

‘Place’ is more than a geographic area but a host of associations.  As a concept it encompasses the, often highly personal, emotional, cultural, political, and religious responses an individual – or group – attaches to a territory.  Wordsworth fully understand this concept of ‘place’ and his poem ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ is a landmark in this regard.  The poem invokes personal memory, experience and feeling to convey the private meaning the abbey has for the poet.

The South East View of Tintern AbbeyFrederick Calvert, The South East View of Tintern Abbey (London: Burkitt & Hudson, 1815). Maps.K.top.31.16.k.2. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Wordsworth first saw the abbey as a troubled, ‘thoughtless youth’ in 1793, having just made his French mistress, Annette Vallon, pregnant in Revolutionary France before becoming separated from her by the French Revolutionary Wars.  Upon ‘revisiting’ the abbey, five years later, in 1798 the tranquillity of the site and his hope for a better future inspired the poem.  By expressing the personal emotional connotations the abbey held for him, Wordsworth establishes ‘Tintern Abbey’ as poem of ‘place’ rather than ‘landscape’. By reflecting upon his current and former self within a powerful and unchanging landscape the poem marks an important divergence in the genre of topographical poetry which had traditionally simply praised an estate or particular view.  ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ was published shortly after Wordsworth’s visit in Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ in Lyrical Ballads ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ in Lyrical Ballads (Bristol, 1798). Ashley 2250. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Many of Wordsworth’s poems contain in their titles claims that they were ‘composed’ in the places they describe.  This is the case with several poems on display in the British Library’s exhibition, including the poems ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and ‘To a Friend.  Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres’.  The titles consciously convey Wordsworth’s understanding of ‘place’ and that poetry can express the emotional responses that a particular location can elicit.

‘To a Friend. Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres, August 1802’ ‘To a Friend. Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres, August 1802’ prepared for the printers, 1806. Add MS 47864. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Both poems, ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and ‘To a Friend’ were originally written by Wordsworth as he travelled to meet his illegitimate daughter, Caroline, in France for the first time.  As such, the places Wordsworth passed through on his journey attained a new importance that he expresses in these powerful poems.

‘William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place’ is open in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery from 17 January –31 May 2020.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Stephen Gill, Wordsworth’s Revisitings (Oxford: OUP, 2011)
David McCracken, Wordsworth and the Lake District: A Guide to the Poems and their Places (Oxford: OUP, 1985)
Fiona Stafford, ‘Wordsworth’s Poetry of Place’ in The Oxford Handbook of William Wordsworth, ed. by Richard Gravil & Daniel Robinson (Oxford: OUP, 2015), PP.309-324

 

09 January 2020

Internment during the Second World War – Part One: the diary of a Jewish refugee confined by Britain

This blog is the first of a series on internment, highlighting the experiences of both civilians and military personnel detained across the globe in the Second World War.

In 1940, Winston Churchill ordered what he later referred to as ‘a deplorable and regrettable mistake’: the internment of men and women living in Britain from enemy countries.  This included Germans, Austrians, and Italians; among them were refugees who had fled Nazi persecution, including Jews.  One was nineteen-year-old Konrad Eisig, whose diary of internment on the Isle of Man and his voyage to Australia on HMT Dunera is held by the British Library.

The first page of the diary, noting Konrad’s arrest and journey to the Isle of Man The first page of the diary, noting Konrad’s arrest and journey to the Isle of Man – Add MS 89025 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Konrad had escaped Germany on the eve of the War, settling in Leicester.  When he applied to travel to the Lake District for a holiday, the police showed up at his door in May 1940 to detain him. He entered the Onchan Internment Camp on the Isle of Man in June.  He worked as a cook, attended numerous classes, and was involved with the camp university and youth organisation. Writing to his girlfriend, he exclaimed: ‘I want to see you, I want to be free!…but we shall come together again.  We must’.

However, Konrad was transported to Australia on HMT Dunera, setting sail on 10 July.  The voyage was horrific, with more than 2500 men on board, 1000 over capacity - Jewish refugees, Nazis, prisoners of war, and Italian refugees who survived the sinking of the Arandora Star.  Konrad reported that British soldiers ‘robbed and plundered us’.  Detainees were kept in a hold which was not big enough, and were only allowed ten minutes of air and exercise each day.  One man committed suicide by jumping overboard.  Another was thrown down the stairs by soldiers for not taking his wedding ring off quickly enough, and another ‘got a bayonet into his back’ for daring to ask for permission to keep his prayer book.

The seventh page of the diary, showing Konrad’s journey to HMT DuneraThe seventh page of the diary, showing Konrad’s journey to HMT Dunera – Add MS 89025 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A torpedo missed the Dunera by only 50-100 yards two days after setting sail.  The ship eventually arrived in Australia in September.  The internees were well treated by the Australians, who quickly realised most of the men were not the evil Nazis they had been expecting.  The men were taken to Hay, New South Wales, which was ‘much better than we expected’, though the climate was a vast change from England and Germany!  Konrad again attended many classes ‘in order to leave as little time for thinking as was at all possible’.

Konrad’s diary finishes abruptly on 1 August 1941.  The fear of German invasion by Nazis disguised as refugees had died down, and arrangements were being made for refugees to return.  Joining the Pioneer Corps gave priority.  However Konrad was disdainful of this option: ‘it is an insult, a crime against all justice’.  It appears that he waited for a later ship.

The final page of the diary, explaining Konrad’s misery and the effect of internment on his life expectancy The final page of the diary, explaining Konrad’s misery and the effect of internment on his life expectancy – Add MS 89025 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Konrad had escaped persecution but then been unjustly incarcerated where he thought himself safe.  He says: ‘We were called “Refugees from Nazi Oppression”, we were used as England’s best advertisement.  Then suddenly “Intern the damned fifth columnists” and here we are’.

The diary covers a variety of themes: justice, mental health, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and more.  It gives a unique insight into an experience which has not received much attention, reminding us that the War affected innocent refugees, even in Britain.

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:
Add MS 89025 – Letter diary of Konrad Eisig's voyage on HMT Dunera and his internment in Australia
Cyril Pearl, The Dunera Scandal: Deported by Mistake (1983).
Rachel Pistol, Internment during the Second World War: A Comparative Study of Great Britain and the USA (2017).

 

03 January 2020

Cache of hidden letters in the Granville Archive

The Granville Archive recently acquired by the British Library includes a collection of supplementary material previously hidden from public view.  When Castalia Leveson-Gower prepared her edition of the private correspondence of diplomat and statesman Granville Leveson-Gower (1773-1846), her father-in-law – the bulk of them are letters from his lover, Harriet Ponsonby, Lady Bessborough (1761-1821) – she carefully omitted any letters referring to the couple’s passionate affair, the secret births of their two children, and the delicate discussions between them and Lord Granville’s eventual wife, Harriet’s niece.  Even letters that were chosen for inclusion in the published edition had to be carefully filleted to cut out any tender endearment or reference to their illegitimate daughter and son.  The entire collection of original letters, including those published, was retained in private hands.  Its whereabouts was unknown to researchers until its acquisition by the British Library (along with Castalia Leveson-Gower’s research papers and her own private correspondence with her husband, the second Earl Granville).  The collection arrived at the Library, bundled in boxes and trunks, at the same time as the main, larger, Granville Archive (Add MS 89317).  Now the supplementary collection has been catalogued (Add MS 89382), and it provides a fascinating complement to the main family archive.

Trunk of papers from the Granville Archive Trunk of papers from the Granville Archive Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The new cache of letters will be a rich new source for researchers into late 18th and early 19th century politics and upper class society.  They shed particular light on the personal and political lives of aristocratic women of the period.  Besides the intimate letters between Lady Bessborough and Lord Granville relating to their clandestine affair and children, there are letters from other members of their circle of friends and relations, including Lord Granville’s mother, Susanna Leveson-Gower, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Lady Bessborough’s sister), and Caroline Lamb (her daughter).

Letter from Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire to her daughter Harriet, written before leaving for France, 1789 'I leave you and give you the only valuable gift in my power, wrote in my blood, my blessing.'  Letter from Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire to her daughter Harriet, written before leaving for France, 1789 (Add MS 89382/3/4) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Alongside discussion of the latest books and politics, perennial concerns about reputation, scandal and money run throughout this correspondence.  Huge gambling debts were a worry for many in their circle: in a bundle of letters to Lord Granville, the Duchess of Devonshire pleads urgently for funds to stave off creditors.  When the Duke of Devonshire died in 1811, a litigious dispute arose between his heir, the sixth Duke, and his widow, former mistress Lady Elizabeth Foster, over the family diamonds.  Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum there are smaller sums, such as the itemised accounts for housing and educating their illegitimate children which feature in Lady Bessborough’s letters to Lord Granville.

Expenditure on the two children 1805-1807.  Letter from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville, June 1807. 'I have just given 30 guineas for a piano forte for tho it is a lump down it is cheaper in the end than hiring.'  Expenditure on the two children 1805-1807.  Letter from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville, June 1807 (Add MS 89382/2/27) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The letters from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville tell a vivid story of their long relationship.  Frequent, often daily, letters passed between them, from their first meeting in Naples in 1794, when she was a married woman of 32 and he a 20 year old ‘Adonis’, until her death in Florence in 1821.  They describe the course of their affair through flirtation, intimacy, subterfuge, and passion, and the enduring friendship that survived it, cemented by the birth of their two children and his eventual marriage into her family in 1809.

Tabitha Driver
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts
 
Further reading:
Lord Granville Leveson Gower: Private Correspondence, ed. Castalia Granville (London, 1916)
Amanda Foreman, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (London, 1998)
Janet Gleeson, An Aristocratic Affair: the Life of Georgiana's Sister, Harriet Spencer, Countess of Bessborough (London, 2006)

 

17 December 2019

Out of the Fire: Lady Charlotte Canning’s diaries

Making collections available to all is an integral part of the archivist’s role.  We launch our catalogues into the world, hoping our (fair and balanced) descriptions will inspire research and enable users to find what they need.  But what happens if materials aren’t physically fit for consultation, if allowing researchers to use them will cause harm?  At the British Library we are able to call on the professional skills of qualified conservators in the British Library Conservation Centre (BLCC).

Lady Charlotte Canning sitting in a howdah on an elephant Lady Charlotte Canning sitting in a howdah on an elephant Images Online

The papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning formed part of a major acquisition of Canning family material purchased by the Library from the estate of the 7th Earl of Harewood.  Napoleonic intrigues, Catholic emancipation, the anti-slavery movement, South American independence, the 1857 Indian Uprising and the transformation of the government of India all feature in the collections, while correspondents include Pitt, Lord Liverpool, Peel, Wellington, George III, Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale.  The papers include those of the politician and statesman George Canning (1770-1827), his son Charles, Earl Canning, Viceroy of India (1812-1862), and Charles’s wife Charlotte (1817-1861).  Lady Charlotte Canning travelled quite extensively during the period 1858-1861, visiting the Nilgiri Hills and Coonoor in South India, Simla, and Darjeeling.  She also travelled with her husband to Oudh (Awadh) and the Punjab on the Viceroy’s first tour, and Central India on his second.

Diary of Charlotte Canning before conservation India Office Private Papers: Mss Eur F699 Diary of Charlotte Canning before conservation Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Back in 2018, I wrote a blog about the Indian diaries of Charlotte, Lady Canning, and how they and other of her papers had been damaged by a tent fire in December 1859.  Lady Canning, her husband the Governor General Charles Canning, and their entourage, were travelling through Oudh (Awadh) and the Punjab in a grand progress.  They held a series of Durbars or ceremonial gatherings in order to confer official thanks and gifts upon local rulers and dignitaries for their assistance during the Indian Uprising or ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857-58.

Diary of Charlotte Canning after conservationIndia Office Private Papers: Mss Eur F699/2/2/2/3 Diary of Charlotte Canning after conservation Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning have quickly become one of the most well used collections in India Office Private Papers, with a range of researchers from family historians, PhD students, and academics all using the archive.  But of course part of the collection had to remain closed until it was conserved.  Now, the burned material is fully available for the first time. 

Burned fragments of Charlotte Canning's diary after conservationIndia Office Private Papers: Mss Eur F699/2/2/2/6 Burned fragments of Charlotte Canning's diary after conservation Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Our talented colleagues in the BLCC surveyed all the items one by one and worked to stabilise the loose papers and letters – including Queen Victoria’s – to enable handling.  The original diaries however required extensive conservation. Work went on behind the scenes to establish what was needed for each volume, as each required different processes.  Some volumes were slightly charred, others were missing boards and parts of spines, and one from 1859 was reduced almost entirely to brittle fragments.  Their transformation from ‘unavailable’ to ‘unrestricted’ has been a remarkable feat of conservation and it is a testament to the professional skills of our conservators that these materials are now available for consultation in our Reading Rooms.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
India Office Private Papers: Mss Eur F699, Papers of Charles Canning and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning

 

12 December 2019

Emma Ewart Larkins' last letter from Cawnpore

On 9 June 1857, Emma Ewart Larkins, the wife of an artillery officer in Cawnpore, composed a letter to family and friends in England.  Along with about a thousand others, she, her husband George, their three youngest children, and Munna, their cherished family ayah, were sheltering from bombardment under appalling siege conditions, and behind hopelessly inadequate defences.

 Letter written by Emma Larkins in Cawnpore 9 June 1857 and smuggled out by her AyahMSS Eur F732/1 Letter written by Emma Larkins in Cawnpore 9 June 1857 and smuggled out by her Ayah Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Addressing a sister-in-law in London, Emma began: ‘I write this dearest Henrietta in the belief that our time of departure is come’.  She explained: ‘the whole of the troops rose here & we took refuge in a Barrack We are so hemmed in by overpowering numbers that there seems no hope of escape’.  Emma was right: death was staring her in the face.  But Munna would take the dangerous decision to attempt to slip away, and she successfully carried the letter with her.

Portrait of Emma Ewart Larkins, India, 1840Emma Ewart Larkins by L. Power, India, 1840. © Rebecca Gowers.

Months later it somehow reached England.  Within it were individual messages for Henrietta and several others, including Emma and George’s four oldest children, sent ‘home’ for their education.  One of these, Alice Shaffalitzky Larkins, then aged 11, was my great-great-grandmother; and I was brought up knowing that my own life depended on the fact that she had avoided the Cawnpore Massacre.  Emma’s last letter was kept by the family in a double-sided picture frame so that it could be read front and back, though the crossed writing made it incredibly hard to decipher.  My grandmother showed it to me as a child.  But four years ago, when I found myself wondering about it again, I realised I no longer had any idea where it was.

Photograph of George and Alice Larkins 1851George Larkins, Artillery Commander, Cawnpore, 1857, here with his daughter Alice: daguerrotype, India, Christmas 1851. © Rebecca Gowers.

I looked idly online, and found the letter selectively quoted in a number of books on the Indian Mutiny.  The British Library held a rough transcript, but where was the original?  While I tried to solve this question, I stumbled on an outré, unproven theory: that another of the four children to survive, Henry Thomas Larkins, also addressed in Emma’s letter, just might be the same person as ‘Major Harry Larkyns’, a mysterious, louche character murdered in 1874 by the famous photographer of galloping horses, Eadweard Muybridge.  To my surprise, this was a theory I found myself able to verify almost at once.  And it has led to my writing a book about Harry’s genuinely extraordinary exploits.  Setting about this project, I badgered numerous relatives about boxes in their attics that might contain Larkins-family archive, with the particularly gratifying result that I ended up being given not only Emma’s final letter, but others that had preceded it too.  This reassembled correspondence forms a total of about a hundred letters whose terrific details I could only hint at in my book.

It was a great pleasure for me recently to donate the whole collection to the British Library, where I hope they will be of interest to other writers and historians.  Emma's last letter was in a frail state indeed, but it has now been conserved, and digitised as well, meaning that this pitiful survivor is now available for all to see.

Rebecca Gowers
Writer

Further reading:
MSS Eur F732 Papers of Emma Ewart Larkins (d. 1857), wife of Major George Larkins (1807-1857), Bengal Artillery
Rebecca Gowers The scoundrel Harry Larkyns and his pitiless killing by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (2019)

 

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