Untold lives blog

184 posts categorized "Politics"

01 December 2019

100 years of women in Parliament: Nancy Astor MP takes her seat

On 1 December 1919, Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons.  She was only the second woman elected to the British Parliament after Constance Markievicz , who did not take her seat in the Commons because of Sinn Fein’s policy of abstention.  Nancy Astor was the only woman among 634 men, but, as a vocal member of the House, she would illustrate to others that women could fulfil the role of MP.

Photograph of Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor 1923Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor, by Bassano Ltd, 18 June 1923 NPG x18820 © National Portrait Gallery, London CC NPG

Nancy Witcher Langhorne was born in Danville, Virginia.  She moved to the UK in 1905 after her first marriage broke down.  In England, she met Waldolf Astor whom she married in 1906.  He introduced her to English aristocratic society.  She became well known and well liked for her wit and humour. 

Waldolf Astor began his career in politics in 1910 and inherited his father’s peerage in 1919, leaving his constituency seat open for a by-election in November 1919.  Nancy Astor saw the opportunity to take her husband’s seat and she embarked on a swift and successful campaign to become Unionist Party MP for Plymouth Sutton.

Upon taking up her post, she would face hostility and sexism from members.  She would soon learn how to hold her own in the Chamber, contributing frequently to debates and becoming an avid heckler.  Likewise, she infuriated the other members by adding her own running commentary to parliamentary debates.

Her political interests were wide-ranging and often contradictory.  One of her lasting legacies was a successful Private Member’s Bill which raised the drinking age from 16 to 18.  From her relative distance from the women’s suffrage movement, she grew to support several women’s rights issues including the provision of nursery schools, widows’ pensions, equal employment, equal suffrage and maternity leave.  However, her outlook was not wholly progressive: she opposed equal rights in divorce and she displayed some prominent prejudices that would affect her reputation, including anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic views.  These views, alongside her strong anti-communist feelings would lead to her being branded as a member of the Cliveden Set - a group of powerful individuals rumoured by the press as having pro-Nazi sympathies, which Nancy Astor later described as a myth.

Nancy Astor retired from politics in 1945 and she left 24 female MPs in the House of Commons.  Those women may have heeded the advice she offered when she was the only female sitting MP:
’It is not an easy job for a woman to stand for parliament, and it is not an easy job when one gets there; but the work waiting to be done is almost unlimited, and the need for the help of women is great and urgent’.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Nancy Astor Correspondence in the British Library Manuscript Collections:
- With Marie Stopes, Add MS 58555
- With Lytton Strachey, Add MS 60656
- With Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add MS 52703
Musolf, Karen. From Plymouth to Parliament: A Rhetorical History of Nancy Astor’s 1919 Campaign. (London: Macmillan, 1999)
National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship: Pamphlets. 08415.k.61

 

14 November 2019

Contravening the Official Secrets Act in World War II – Part 2

Continuing our story of Arthur Thomas Williams and the Peace Pledge Union….

The fake telegrams were carefully run off on a duplicator and then planted. 

One of the spurious telegrams planted at the India Office One of the spurious telegrams planted at the India Office - from The National Archives file KV 2/1093 Crown copyright

On 18 December 1942 Williams left the India Office carrying an attaché case and made his way to Endsleigh Street.  Before he could reach the PPU offices, he was arrested and taken to New Scotland Yard.

Williams told the police that he was taking home documents to read for his own interest before returning them to the India Office. Fourteen official deciphered telegrams were found in the case; none were the planted ones.

A thorough search was then made of the offices of the PPU.  Stuart Morris made no attempt to obstruct this and it was ‘carried out in the friendliest and politest manner possible’.  Morris said he looked at the documents brought by Williams and then burned them.  Five India Office deciphered telegrams were found in one drawer, and a second batch in a sealed envelope in another drawer including one of the spurious telegrams.  Stuart Morris was then also arrested.  

Williams’s statement made on 18 December stated that he had heard someone in Hyde Park talking about India. He thought that the speaker was being unfair to the British government and told him that he saw documents at the India Office showing that the government was interested in Indian reform and independence.  Williams then took documents from the secret waste and delivered them to the PPU about once a week.  Morris returned the telegrams from the previous visit and William put them back in the sack for pulping. However the authorities did not believe that Morris had returned the documents and they judged Williams to be disloyal to the British government and to the India Office in particular.

The next day Williams and Morris were charged at Bow Street with ‘retaining’ and ‘receiving’ under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Acts. They were remanded in custody and taken to Brixton Prison. The proceedings were held in camera and no reference to the case was to be made in newspapers.

However the Daily Worker reported on 21 December that Stuart Morris was being held on unknown charges.  Evening newspapers mentioned the Official Secrets Act.  The Censorship Department moved to stop further press speculation.

Visits to Williams in Brixton Prison from Annie, Rose, his son Sid, his brother and a friend are recorded in the Security Service file with details of their conversations.  Williams was heard to say that his conscience was clear and he had only been guilty of a ‘grave indiscretion’.

The trial was held in camera at the Old Bailey on 19 January 1943.  Williams’s defence said he had been interested in India since serving eight years there with the Army.  He was described as a foolish and simple man, without political motivation. The judge accepted that it was not a case of treachery.

Williams was sentenced to twelve months in prison, Morris to nine.  Further interviews were conducted with both men in Wormwood Scrubs.  A notice about the case was drafted for the press – the India Office insisted that it was not identified as the government department involved.

Report of Official Secrets Act trial -  Western Daily Press 17 February 1943Report of trial of Williams and Morris Western Daily Press 17 February 1943 British Newspaper Archive

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The National Archives KV 2/1093 The Security Service: Personal (PF Series) Files - Arthur Thomas Williams - available as a download
British Newspaper Archive

Contravening the Official Secrets Act in World War II – Part 1

 

12 November 2019

Contravening the Official Secrets Act in World War II – Part 1

Our last post told the story of how India Office Records were stored in a Cheshire salt mine during the Second World War.  I felt sorry for paperkeeper Arthur Thomas Williams who worked in very uncomfortable conditions in Winsford.  What had happened to him after he returned to London?  I was very surprised at what I discovered!

A staff list revealed that Arthur Thomas Williams left the India Office suddenly in December 1942.  And the reason why is found in a Security Service file at The National Archives.  Williams was tried in January 1943 under the Official Secrets Act.  The file reads like the plot of a spy novel. 

MI5 Christmas card croppedDetail from MI5 Christmas card 1924 in papers of Sir Malcolm Seton, India Office official 1898-1933 Mss Eur E267/224

On 15 September 1942 a letter was sent by MI5 to the Indian Political Intelligence section at the India Office.  A man, referred to as ‘Q’, had attended a public meeting in Hyde Park and introduced himself to Stuart Morris of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU).  ‘Q’ told Morris that he was sympathetic to Morris’s views on India.  He worked for the India Office and could pass on information from secret telegrams.  Every effort was being made to identify ‘Q’ as quickly as possible.

MI5 was still trying to put a name to ‘Q’ on 10 October 1942.  He was described as ‘a nondescript, middle-aged Civil Servant paid at a comparatively low-grade rate, and who had been previously employed in the Records Office either at Chester or in Cheshire’.  The words salt mines had been overheard.  ‘Q’ dealt with cables in his work.

By 22 October, the India Office had reported that the only person who fitted the description was 57-year-old Arthur Thomas Williams who had worked there since 1927.  One of Williams’s tasks was to collect waste paper from the Telegrams Branch.  His wife Rose had a temporary wartime job in the India Office External Department Registry, where she might possibly have had access to most of the telegrams cited in the case.

A description of Williams was provided to MI5: ‘Height about 5’ 5”, fairly slim build, clean shaven, somewhat pointed chin, black hair rather thin but well plastered down, going bald on crown: does not wear glasses; young looking for his age’.  Williams had not supplied his home address to the India Office since his return from Cheshire and it was established that he was not living with his wife Rose in Clapham.  Rose was observed meeting her husband in Parliament Square shortly before 9am and then continuing to King Charles Street with him, thus giving the impression that they had travelled in together.

MI5 reported in November that Arthur Williams lived in Hounslow.  Unfortunately their agent had mistakenly followed a messenger called Earney home from the India Office.  On 23 November Williams was successfully tracked back to Red Lion Square where he was found to be living with a woman called Annie Homard.

Surveillance of Williams continued throughout December.  He bought beer and cigarettes, had tea at Lyons, changed his library books, visited relatives and went to the offices of the PPU in Endsleigh Street.  The authorities wanted sufficient legal evidence against him for a prosecution.  A plan was devised to place fake telegrams in the waste which Williams collected from the Telegraph Branch.  If these appeared at the PPU offices, then MI5 would have their man!

To be continued…

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The National Archives KV 2/1093 The Security Service: Personal (PF Series) Files - Arthur Thomas Williams – available as a download
IOR/L/AG/30/18/58 India Office Establishment List

 

29 October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roe letter in IOR2

Roe letter in IOR3

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

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

Roe letter in IOR5

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

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

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

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

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

 

24 October 2019

The General Strike 1926

Whilst cataloguing a new acquisition to the India Office Private Papers, I came across some interesting items relating to the General Strike of 1926.  The Garrod Papers consist of the family archives of William Francis Garrod, a Chaplain in the Indian Ecclesiastical Establishment from 1930 until 1947, his wife Isobel and their four children.  The collection also contains letters between Garrod and Isobel before they got married and moved to India, and it is in these letters that Garrod described his experience as a volunteer policeman during the Strike.

Oxford Daily Strike BulletinOxford Daily Strike Bulletin 10 May 1926 (Garrod Papers) - Copyright of heirs to proprietors of Oxford Monthly (discontinued 1972)

Emergency Bulletin 10 May 1926Emergency Bulletin (shelfmark Mss Eur F142/82) - Copyright of heirs to Chandler & Co

The General Strike was one of the biggest industrial disputes in British history.  It started with a dispute over the pay and working hours of miners, and spread to workers from other industries who came out in support of the striking miners.  Between 4 May and 12 May 1926, thousands of bus and train drivers, dock workers, print workers, and workers in the gas, electricity, building, iron, steel and chemical industries went on strike.  Protests by strikers took place in towns and cities around Britain, often coming into conflict with the police.  The Army was mobilised to protect food lorries and volunteers began doing some of the work of strikers, such as driving buses. 

Recruitment poster for volunteers during the General StrikeVolunteer recruitment poster (shelfmark 1851.d.30.) - Copyright City of Westminster

The Government’s efforts to find volunteers to fill jobs temporarily is clear from a file in the India Office Records.  The India Office’s Military Department put together lists of Indian Army officers who happened to be on leave in Britain at the time, and who could be called on to temporarily fill civilian jobs.  A letter was sent to everyone on the lists stating that they were at liberty to offer their services to the local authorities during the ‘present emergency’.  However, they were not to wear their uniform, and any volunteer employment was not to be allowed to interfere with their return to duty in India at the end of their leave.

List of Indian Army Officers on leaveList of Indian Army Officers on leave (shelfmark IOR/L/MIL/7/12530)  Noc

 

Circular letter to Officers on leave Circular letter to Officers on leave (shelfmark IOR/L/MIL/7/12530) Noc

In four letters to Isobel, Garrod describes travelling from Oxford down to Southampton docks.  At 10am on Tuesday 11 May, he was sworn in as a Special Constable along with a number of other Oxford men.  Equipped with an armband and a truncheon, the men patrolled the docks in two 12 hour shifts, and were garrisoned on the cross-Channel steamer Alberta.  Garrod was on the night shift patrols and described it as ‘frightfully boring’.  He wrote that the docks were busy, with very little likelihood of any trouble, and that he got a cheer from some strikers when he walked through the dock gates. 

Garrod letters (Garrod Papers)Letters from the Garrod Papers Noc

Garrod’s time as a Special Constable was brief; the strike was called off on 12 May and he returned to Oxford a few days later. 

City of Westminster poster about coal and light restrictions and the resumption of household refuse collectionsCity of Westminster poster 17 May 1926 about coal and light restrictions and the resumption of household refuse collections (shelfmark 1851.d.30.) - Copyright City of Westminster

The Garrod Papers will be available to view in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room from next year.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Garrod Family Papers [Collection reference: Mss Eur F730] 
Papers published during the General Strike May 1926 [Reference: Mss Eur F197/536] 
General Strike news-sheets 1926 [Reference: Mss Eur F142/82] 
General Strike, May 1926: arrangements for emergency duties by personnel of India Office [Reference: IOR/L/MIL/7/12530]
A collection of posters and pamphlets issued during the general strike, 1926, in the City of Westminster (London, 1926) [General Reference Collection 1851.d.30.]  
The National Archives online guide: The General Strike

08 October 2019

Crystal chandeliers for the Shah of Persia

In 1819 the Persian Ambassador Mirza Abul Hassan Khan arrived in London on a diplomatic mission from the Shah of Persia.  He bore gifts of jewellery, ornamental swords, beautiful rugs, carpets and paintings, and Arabian horses for the King and Prince Regent - an image captured by the artist Henry Chalon. 

A Representation of the Persians in the Costume of their Country Attending at Carlton Palace with Portraits of the Horses Presented to His Majesty by the Ambassador from the Emperor of PersiaHenry Bernard Chalon, A Representation of the Persians in the Costume of their Country Attending at Carlton Palace with Portraits of the Horses Presented to His Majesty by the Ambassador from the Emperor of Persia  (1819?), Tate (T02357) digital image © Tate released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Relations between Britain and Persia were cordial, the countries having signed a treaty of alliance in 1812, but the situation was sensitive due to the possibility of Russian expansion into Persian territory.  As part of the diplomatic dance, reciprocal gifts were commissioned for Fath Ali Shah.  ‘As a pledge of the continuance of our respect, we shall send by way of Bombay some of the productions of this Country, which … we trust will be accepted as a further indication of the sentiments with which we are impressed’ wrote the East India Company Court of Directors in March 1820.

Seal decorated in gold, from letter in Persian from the Shah of Persia to the East India CompanySeal decorated in gold, from letter in Persian from the Shah of Persia to the East India Company, 1819 [IOR/L/PS/19/189, f 4] Noc

Blades & Co., Royal glassmakers of Ludgate Hill, crafted 'lustres' or suites of candelabra to be delivered to the Shah, intended to decorate the newly refurbished Golestan Palace in Tehran.   At the behest of John Blades and with the permission of the East India Company, Edward James Matthews set sail from England to Bombay in October 1820, tasked with accompanying the cases of fine glassware.

Transporting fragile and highly breakable items to Persia was a tricky business.  Having arrived safely in Bombay, Matthews was instructed to take the eighteen cases to Bushire on the Persian coast.  He travelled on the Frances Warden, arriving in early August 1821.  Henry Willock, the Chargé d'Affaires at Tehran wrote to Matthews requesting that he oversee the onward transport of the glassware and installation of the chandeliers.  ‘I have to request that you will remain at Bushire until the arrival of the Persian Officer who will be charged with their Transport, and I have further to beg that you will accompany their progress to the interior and strive by every Act of Necessary precaution to secure their preservation’.

It is over 750 miles overland from Bushire to Tehran.  It proved impossible to transport the cases by cart, so Matthews arranged for them to be carried on men’s shoulders the whole way.  The journey took five months – ‘an undertaking of infinite difficulty… I may say danger’. Thankfully the glassware arrived intact, and was ‘most graciously received by the King.  His Majesty expressed his approbation and praise of the great care and diligence evinced by Mr Matthews’.   Letters of thanks from both the Shah and Mirza Abul Hassan Khan arrived back in London with Matthews, together with a gift to the Company of the Shah’s portrait. 

Letter in Persian from Mirza Abul Hassan Khan to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the East India Company, giving thanks for gifts of lustres sent to the ShahLetter in Persian from Mirza Abul Hassan Khan to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the East India Company, giving thanks for gifts of lustres sent to the Shah, [1823]. [IOR/L/PS/189, ff 23-24] Noc

The return leg of Matthews’ journey proved eventful. He travelled to St Petersburg via Tabriz, but was shipwrecked in the icy waters of the Baltic in December 1822.  Illness confined him to Oesel Island (Saaremaa) for 4 months, until he finally reached England in June 1823, a journey of ‘2 years, 7 months and 23 days’. 

Letter from Edward J. Matthews to the East India Company describing his experiences, dated 29 Jul 1823 Letter from Edward J. Matthews to the East India Company describing his experiences, dated 29 Jul 1823 [IOR/E/1/151, 603-604]  Noc

As a result of his efforts, Matthews was awarded the badge of the Lion and the Sun by the Shah, and Blades and Co. were awarded a Royal Warrant from the Persian Court.  Much of the correspondence from Matthews in the India Office Records pertains to his attempts to get the Company to reimburse him for his out of pocket expenses.  A warrant to pay him £368 and 7 shillings was finally made on 26 Sep 1823.

 

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
IOR/E/1/151: Miscellaneous Letters Received 1823
IOR/E/1/259: Miscellanies 1823 [Miscellaneous Letters Outwards], entries 1290, 1291 & 1838
IOR/R/15/1/25: Political Residency Bushire Vol 25: Letters Outward, 1822
IOR/L/PS/19/189: Correspondence with the Court of the Shah of Persia, 1819-1823

26 September 2019

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

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

 

19 September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

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

 

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