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40 posts categorized "Reform"

16 August 2019

Peterloo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Peterloo
'The Masque of Anarchy’

 

18 July 2019

How old are you Miss Nightingale?

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Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was the famous nursing reformer, who improved conditions in the war hospitals of the Crimea during her time there (1854-56).  Patrolling the wards at night, she became known as the ‘Lady with the lamp’.  On returning to England, she continued her good work, using statistics as a useful tool.

Photograph of Florence NightingaleFlorence Nightingale by Henry Hering, copied by Elliott & Fry 1950s (late 1856-1857) NPG x82368 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC By

Dr William Farr (1807-1883) was a statistician and epidemiologist, who shared her passion for public health and statistics. They wrote to each other extensively for 20 years, from 1857 to 1877.  The British Library holds this correspondence in three volumes (Add MS 43398-43400).
 
One of the topics they discussed was the 1861 UK Census, in which Dr Farr was heavily involved.  They discussed the practicalities of collecting data;  for example, would landlords complete the census forms on behalf of their tenants?  The implication was that landlords would have to find out, or invent, potentially sensitive personal details such as age.  Florence joked that she must fill her own form in, as nothing would induce her to declare the age of her cats to her landlord.

There were columns to declare ‘Condition’ (we would now call it ‘marital status’), ‘Rank, Profession, or Occupation’, ‘Where Born’, and one asking ‘Whether Blind, or Deaf-and-Dumb’.  Florence believed there should be a column for ‘the number of sick people in each house and their Diseases’ and that the census should include details of ‘cellar and basement dwellings’ and ‘back to back houses’.

Florence lived at 30 Old Burlington Street, nominally part of a vast hotel but containing private family suites of rooms for long-term tenants, rather than overnight guests.  On census morning, Sunday 7 April, a junior hotel employee (‘fac-totum’) asked her to write her age, and that of her maid, on a bit of paper.  Outraged, she choked back her initial answer and, with admirable restraint, tried to ascertain the truth from ‘this person’.  It appeared the hotel was withholding forms from the resident families, instructing a staff member to fill them in, presumably using his imagination in the absence of accurate information.  They must have thought it amusing to knock on the door of the famous Florence Nightingale to ask her age.  Thankfully, Dr Farr had supplied Florence with her own specimen form, which she duly completed ‘fully & accurately’.

The incident is much better described in her own words, in this three-page letter:

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Wiliam Farr 9 April 1861

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Wiliam Farr 9 April 1861

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Wiliam Farr 9 April 1861Add MS 43399, ff. 10-12. Letter from Florence Nightingale to Farr 9 April 1861

Farr’s two replies of 12 April acknowledged her ‘shabby treatment’ from the ‘somewhat brutal’ proprietor of the Burlington, saying hotels were the weak point when collecting returns and ‘something… must be done’ before the next census in 1871.  He passed her letter to his superior, Major Graham, who wrote Florence an unsatisfactory reply which entirely missed the point.

Here is the 1861 Census entry for Florence Nightingale and her housekeeper Mary Bratby (aged 40 and 48 respectively):

Entry for Florence Nightingale 1861 census

The 100-year embargo on access to censuses means that no-one listed would have seen their entry, but Florence Nightingale must have been confident that hers was correct!

Zoe Stansell
Manuscripts Reference Specialist

Further reading:
British Library Add MS 43398-43400 Letters from Farr to Nightingale are originals in his handwriting. Nightingale letters to Farr are typewritten copies (originals are in the Wellcome Library, ref: MS. 5474).

These are part of the large BL Florence Nightingale Archive, containing over 300 volumes.
Add MS 43393-43403, 45750-45849, 47714-47767, 68882-68890

 

25 June 2019

The Revolutions of 1848: an English translation of Russian socialist Alexander Herzen

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A radical political thinker known as the ‘father of Russian socialism’, Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) witnessed first-hand the democratic and liberal revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848. Leaving Russia for Paris in 1847, Herzen soon became disillusioned with the uprisings which sought to replace European monarchies with republican government, but which resulted in the deaths and exile of thousands of people. His collection of essays ‘From the Other Shore’ explores the failures of the revolution. Originally written in Russian and sent to his friends in Moscow, he described the work as ‘a record of a strife in which I have sacrificed many things, but not the boldness of knowledge’ (‘To my Son’, Add MS 89364/1).

Title page of the Two Shores manuscriptThe Two Shores’, title page, Add MS 89364/1

The British Library has recently acquired an English manuscript translation from the late 19th century entitled ‘The Two Shores’. Although unpublished and unsigned, the translation can been attributed to the English suffragist and writer Lady Jane Maria Strachey (1840-1928). A letter addressed to Strachey by her friend Mlle Souvestre refers to her translation of Herzen’s work (29 October 1874, 9/27/G/064, Strachey Letters, The Women’s Library, LSE) and this particular manuscript was sold from the papers of her son, Giles Lytton Strachey, in 2015.

Strachey was an active feminist with a keen interest in politics. She moved in literary and political circles that included George Eliot and the leader of the women’s suffrage movement, Millicent Fawcett. Bold and forward thinking, it is easy to see why Herzen’s essays appealed to Strachey. Her translation begins with Herzen’s address to his son Alexander, in which the revolutionary spirit of the work is clear:

‘I am not afraid of placing in your young hands the protest – at times bold to rashness – of an independent mind against a system which is obsolete servile & lying, against those absurd idols of former times which are now stripped of all meaning and are ending their days in our midst,
hindering some and terrifying others’.

Manuscript draft of Herzen's address to his son‘To my Son’, Add MS 89364/2. Reproduced with permission from The Society of Authors as agents of The Strachey Trust.

Another passage articulates Herzen’s continued faith in socialist and individualist ideals – not dissimilar to Strachey’s own – despite his disappointment in the liberal revolutionaries:

‘… do not remain upon the shore of the old world – better perish, than seek safety in the hospital of re-action. Faith in a future social organisation is the only religion I bequeath you, it offers no paradise, & no rewards but those of our own Conscience’.

Covers of the German and French editionsGerman and French editions: Add MSS 89364/3 and 89364/4

Acquired with the manuscript were the first printed edition of Herzen’s work, a German copy ‘Vom anderen Ufer’, published in Hamburg in 1850, and a French translation ‘De l’autre rive’ (Geneva, 1871). The French edition was the source for this translation, which appears in draft form and was seemingly never published. Indeed, the first English translation of ‘From the Other Shore’ was not published until 1956. In this case Strachey’s translation – if it is by her – is likely to be the earliest translation of Herzen’s essays into English.

As well as providing an insight into the translation process, then, this manuscript and its accompanying volumes also reveal the radical political reading of an important figure in the British feminist movement. It further hints at Herzen’s engagement with British intellectuals in London, where he lived during the 1850s and 60s, and the reception of his writing in British political thought.

Further reading:

All translations cited are from 'The Two Shores', an English manuscript translation of Alexander Herzen's ‘From The Other Shore’, Add MS 89364

Alexander Herzen, From the other Shore, translated from the Russian by Moura Budberg; and The Russian People and Socialism: an open letter to Jules Michelet, translated from the French by Richard Wollheim; with an introduction by Isaiah Berlin (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1956)

On Jane Maria Strachey, see: R. Vetch, ‘Strachey, Sir Richard (1817–1908), scientist and administrator in India’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) [accessed 28 May 2019]

By Sara Hale
Heritage Made Digital and Modern Archives and Manuscripts

04 September 2018

Unsung Souls: William Skeyte and the English Reformation

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The singing priest, William Skeyte, suffered the misfortune of losing a ‘job for life’ not just once but twice, first in consequence of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and again within ten years as the English Crown drove the Reformation yet harder with the abolition of chantries and free chapels.

Singing priests in the St. Omer Psalter ‘Cantate domino’ – singing priests in the St. Omer Psalter [Yates Thompson MS 14 f.103r]

Christchurch Priory (then in Hampshire, now Dorset) was surrendered to the Crown in November 1539 (its cartulary survives at the British Library in Cotton MS Tiberius D VI).  The life pension of £6 subsequently granted to William Skeyte was typical of those received by all of the Priory’s former canons: in modern terms, this might be equivalent to annual income of about £33,000.

The manorial free chapel of St Anne at Hinton Admiral, just three miles from Christchurch Priory, is absent from the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291-2 (Harley MS 591), and so was probably established after that date.  Its endowment in 1448, by the foundation of a chantry within the chapel, provided a salary of 63s 4d for a cantarist, and Skeyte is likely to have taken up this post only after his duties at the Priory had been abolished.  In order to reduce the time they would spend in purgatory, Skeyte would be required to sing daily prayers for the souls of a long list of founders and their family, friends, and benefactors, but primarily for the souls of Elizabeth St. Omer and her third husband, John Syward.  The psalter pictured above was produced initially for a member of her family, and it was from Elizabeth’s second husband that their daughter, Joan, inherited the manor of Hinton Admiral in 1394.
 

Manuscript illustrating the relieving of souls, ‘drawne up oute of purgatory' The relieving of souls, ‘drawne up oute of purgatory by prayer & almos dede’ [BL MS Add. 37049, f.24v, early 15th century]

After the closure of the chantries on Easter Day 1548, Skeyte continued to receive his salary in the form of an additional life-pension.  The chapel itself was turned to other uses within the manor.  Its assets, seized by the Crown, amounted to no more than ‘one litle Belle’ weighing about 20 pounds and valued at just 2 shillings, together with ornaments valued at 9 pence and plate at 2 pence.

TNA E 101-75-14 (detail)  Accounts showing the payment of just a half of Skeyte’s pensions during the year of his death  Accounts showing the payment of just a half of Skeyte’s pensions during the year of his death [TNA E 101/75/14, E 101/76/15].

Among Skeyte’s possessions, listed in an inventory taken after his death in January 1551 by the mayor of Christchurch, were a surplice, and a saddle and bridle, all of which had presumably been in daily use for his visits to Hinton.  Curiously, he also owned a sword and spear.  Administration was granted to his brother, Thomas Skeyte, a husbandman of Downton, Wiltshire.
 
Inventory of the Goods of William Skeyte  page 1

Inventory of the Goods of William Skeyte  page 2Inventory of the Goods of William Skeyte [Hampshire Record Office: 1551U/091]

The chapel is the subject of ongoing research, which has already established that its structure may have survived until the early 19th century, close to the site of the present-day war memorial at Hinton Admiral.  A century earlier, the manor house across the road was replaced by another elusive building, Hinton Place.

Stephen Gadd
University of Winchester

Further reading:
Alixe Bovey, Death and the afterlife: how dying affected the living
Cotton Ms. Cleopatra E v, f.142: Bishop of Worcester's writing on purgatory, with notes by Henry VIII
Crown and Church: How did reforms in religious practice in the mid 16th century affect the people of Britian?
A broader picture and a list of source material is given by Alan Kreider, English chantries: the road to dissolution (Harvard University Press, 1979)
Details of the elaborate dining and shaving routines of the canons in Christchurch Priory before its dissolution can be found at Cotton MS Tiberius D VI, II ff.67-68, published in Katharine A. Hanna, ed., Christchurch Priory Cartulary, (Winchester, 2007).
The Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music has a growing collection of music of the sort that would have been familiar to William Skeyte.

 

05 April 2018

Ode to Income Tax

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One of the joys of cataloguing an archive is that you never know what you might find.  At the beginning of this new tax year, we take a look at an unusual item found in the papers of Charles Canning, Governor General and Viceroy of India.

Bengali poem singing the praises of a new Income Tax.Mss Eur F699/1/1/1/12, letter 10, f.3r Noc

It can't be common to find a document in favour of taxation, let alone a poem singing the praises of a new Income Tax.  It becomes an even more astonishing find when that poem is written in Bengali and the author is identified as a fourteen year old schoolboy.  The poem and its translation are found amongst letters written to Governor General Charles Canning by Sir Henry Bartle Frere, Member of the Council of India.  It was originally sent to Frere by the Scottish missionary Dr Alexander Duff.  Duff had founded the General Assembly's Institution, later the Free Church Institution in 1830, with the aim of offering English language based education to middle and upper class Indians.  The Free Church Institution was affiliated with the University of Calcutta soon after its establishment in 1857.

Portrait of Alexander DuffAlexander Duff by James Faed the Elder, mezzotint, published November 1851, NPG D35771 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC

Frere writes that the poem's author, Bejoy Nath Roy is “rather famous in the School of the Free Kirk Institute as a writer of occasional poems” and that the boy's Master was “struck by the singular subject he had chosen”.  According to the translation, Bejoy Nath Roy writes “The Government wet with the dew of  mercy incurred debt only for the good of India“ ... “Let no-one grudge therefore to pay the tax”.  He uses the metaphor of the Government as a physician curing the nation, and having affected a cure, demands payment for services rendered. 

Letter written to Governor General Charles Canning by Sir Henry Bartle FrereMss Eur F699/1/1/1/12, letter 10, f.5v Noc

What happened in India in 1860 to inspire such words?  The country had spent the years 1857 and 1858 in the turmoil of the uprising known as the Indian Mutiny.  Indian finances had been in a parlous state even before the rebellion, but with the need for extra military expenditure, the deficit increased.  The economist James Wilson was appointed as a financial member of Council of India in 1859.  His plans to reform India's financial structures included a new Income Tax, as well as an adjustment to Customs Duties, a License Tax for traders, and a new paper currency.  Wilson's plans caused consternation in some quarters.  Sir Charles Trevelyan's outright hostility to the tax led to his recall back to England.   And the extent of the dreaded Income Tax?  A two percent levy on incomes between 200 and 500 rupees, and four percent above that.  In little over a year, and with the support of the Governor General, Wilson managed to lay the foundations of improved financial planning, budgeting and auditing, so much so that India's deficit had been reversed by 1862-63.  Wilson did not see it, he died of dysentery in August 1860.

The poem is a snapshot, shedding light on an unusual poetic subject.  Perhaps though it says less about attitudes to taxation and more gives us a glimpse of the 19th century Western education system within India, whereby particular attitudes towards the British and British administration were promulgated within schools.

And if anyone is aware what happened to aspiring poet Bejoy Nath Roy, please do let us know. 

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
Mss Eur F699 Papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning

 

16 February 2018

Fashion fit for a suffragette procession

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White attire detailFebruary includes London Fashion Week and marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act which gave some women aged 30 or over the right to vote. Suffragette purchasing-power provides an unexpected link between the world of fashion and the fight for women’s right to vote.

In early June 1911, fashion purchasing-power was highlighted as a weapon to be deployed in the struggle to achieve women’s suffrage. Suffragists and suffragettes were preparing for a procession to highlight their cause on 17 June during the Coronation of George V. They were asked to wear white when they took part in this procession.

  Whet Your Weapon article 02-06-1911 cropped                               

 

 Votes for Women, 02 June 1911

 

 

 

Readers of the weekly newspaper, Votes for Women, which was edited by Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, were urged to buy their outfits from firms that advertised there. ‘If they find it pays them to advertise in VOTES FOR WOMEN they will advertise – if they find it doesn’t, they won’t. The more money that flows into the coffers of our advertisement department the better our paper can be made, the wider its influence reaches. Therefore let every woman who believes in this cause never enter a shop that does not advertise in VOTES FOR WOMEN, and let her deal exclusively with those firms that do, and inform them why.’

Women who obeyed this call to arms would have had a good choice of items to ensure a suitably modish appearance during the procession. Advertisers enticed them with pictures of dresses, dainty blouses, charming hats, smart coats and hair care products. The procession through London from Westminster to the Albert Hall comprised around 60,000 women from around the world carrying 1,000 banners and stretched for seven miles. One hopes that they also bought the comfortable shoes on offer!

 

   March route detail

                                  Votes for Women, 16 June 1911

 The advertisements below, taken from Votes for Women 1911, give an idea of the heights of elegance that might be achieved.

Charming hats 09-06-1911  

Universal Hair detail

The fashions of the day generally required a good corset. It is fascinating to see how Mesdames I&L Hammond developed their advertisement for their corsets, garments that might now be regarded as instruments of female oppression, to appeal more strongly to suffragettes.

Corset Hammond detail 1

  Corset detail 19-05-1911 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The advertisement on the left comes from Votes for Women for 21 April 1911. The advertisement on the right, from Votes for Women for 26 May 1911, shows how the company had developed its marketing strategy to be in tune with the suffragette cause.

The British Library's Votes for Women online resource highlights many more treasures in the collections that tell the story of the campaign for women's suffrage.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records

Further reading
Votes for Women online resource
Votes for Women, 1911
https://www.findmypast.co.uk/suffragettes/

Untold Lives blogs relating to women's suffrage
Indian Princess in Suffragette March
Emily Wilding Davison: Perpetuating the Memory 
Lord Curzon's Anti-suffrage Appeal
Christmas Crackers and Women's Suffrage
The Women's Co-operative Guild


Untold Lives blogs relating to fashion
Knitting a shower-proof golf coat
Thomas Bowrey's Cloth Samples 
Muslins, Kincobs and Choli Cloths 
Was 'water rat' the new black in 1697?

 

03 October 2017

Angus Wilson - ‘the most unconventional librarian’

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In the entrance of the Humanities reading room at the British Library hangs a painting of a man. It’s easy to overlook this somewhat shady portrait rendered in oil paint of autumnal tones.

  Angus Wilson Hum 1Portrait of Angus Wilson hanging near the entrance to Humanities 1 (with apologies for the reflection off the glass) Noc

The man is Sir Angus Wilson - librarian, socialist, decoder, novelist, and gay rights campaigner.

Wilson was born in 1913 in Sussex, the youngest of six boys. He and one of his brothers dyed their hair and wore makeup and red nail varnish in public. Angus became renowned for his flamboyant dress and he developed a love of acting, performing in a school production of The Importance of Being Ernest attended by none other than Lord Alfred Douglas.

Oxford University widened Wilson’s social circle and sharpened his political thinking. He then joined the British Museum library as an assistant cataloguer. During the 1930s Wilson became an established bohemian figure within London’s left underground, attending anti-war demonstrations and socialist league activities.  After the outbreak of World War II, he was called up to work at Bletchley Park. His time there was not happy and he resisted rules and started to rebel. He eventually had a breakdown causing him to seek psychotherapy where he was advised to try writing.

After the War, he returned to the Museum where he was in charge of replacing the 300,000 books that had been destroyed. Other duties included reader enquiries: old ladies trying to track down nursery rhythms from their youth, or people claiming law suits. One female reader fell in love with him and was banned from the reading room.

In her biography of Wilson, Margaret Drabble describes how he sat ‘conspicuously on a raised dais in the centre of the Reading Room beneath Panizzi's beautiful dome, a colourful bird in a vast circular cage, bow-tied, blue-rinsed, chattering loudly to readers and staff and friends on the telephone’.  Wilson’s description of the library is less glamorous: ‘Dickensian’, ‘mummified’ and ‘a sad fog of Victorianism’ where staff wore sober suits and bow ties, although the then keeper of books was the last member of staff to don a top hat in the reading room.

In the mid-1950s Wilson left the Museum to pursue his writing. Homosexuality was still illegal, yet he wrote freely and authentically about the world in which he moved, questioning public and private morality and introducing new social characters. Some public libraries refused to stock his novels on the grounds of them being morally objectionable.

Sir-Angus-Frank-Johnstone-Wilson

Sir Angus Frank Johnstone Wilson by Godfrey Argent (commissioned 1969) NPG x166054 © National Portrait Gallery London  CC NPG


Wilson enjoyed safe domesticity with his life companion Tony Garrett, a colleague he met at the museum, always insisting that Tony was acknowledged as his partner.  He was a republican who accepted a knighthood. An advocate and voter for a classless society, yet he moved in exclusive circles.

Angus Wilson died in 1991. His portrait by Barbara Robinson was donated to the British Library by Tony Garrett.  It greets readers as they enter the reading room where LGBT books can now be freely browsed. Flamboyant dress and a blue rinse would no longer cause eyebrows to be raised, although a top hat might!

Rachel Brett
Humanities Reference Specialist

 #BLGayUK

 Further reading:
Angus Wilson Papers Add MS 79507-79516
Angus Wilson Photographs Add MS 83700-83728
Photographs of Angus Wilson by Fay Godwin in her archive at the British Library
Portrait of Sir Angus Wilson (1913-1991) by Barbara Robinson (b. 1928) is on display in the entrance to Humanities 1 Reading Room at the British Library St Pancras
Margaret Drabble, Angus Wilson: a biography (London, 1995)
Angus Wilson in Explore the British Library

 

25 September 2017

‘Inflammable material’ in the British Library

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‘The amount of inflammable material in all the advanced countries of the world is increasing so speedily, and the conflagration is so clearly spreading to most Asian countries which only yesterday were in a state of deep slumber, that the intensification of international bourgeois reaction and the aggravation of every single national revolution are absolutely inevitable.’

V.I. Lenin, ‘Inflammable Material in World Politics’, 1908

Stored in the Asian and African collections of the British Library is a cache of material banned in colonial India. Consisting of more than 2800 items, it constitutes one of the largest archives of primary sources relating to any 20th-century independence movement.  The period during which these works were collected, 1907-1947, covers two world wars, revolts and autonomy movements across the world, and the texts in this archive often register these events. 

The 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure had defined ‘seditious material’ as that likely to incite ‘disaffection’ towards the Government of India or ‘class hatred’ between India’s different communities, thus setting the two main grounds for proscription during this period. The 1910 Press Act reinforced this by requiring publishers to pay a security deposit of up to Rs 5000,  which would be forfeited if any document was found to contain ‘words, signs or visible representations’ likely to incite sedition. But this did not prevent circulation of publications printed overseas, the ‘inflammable material’ described by Lenin, emanating from international publishing centres, and centres of political dissent, in Europe and America.

The British attempted to prevent the entry of this material into India through use of the Sea Customs Act, and by the application of diplomatic pressure. Both instruments were used against William Jennings Bryan’s British Rule in India, a pamphlet written by an American politician who had been won over to the nationalist cause during a trip to India in 1906. This work was republished during the First World War by a San Francisco based Indian revolutionary group, embarrassing the US government, in which Bryan had served as Secretary of State from 1913-1915.

Title page of a republished English edition of Bryan's British Rule in India
Title page of a republished English edition of Bryan's British Rule in India, n.d. (microfilm number: IOL NEG 1397)

The range of languages into which Bryan’s pamphlet was translated indicates how extensive underground distribution networks were. Their presence in the proscribed publications collection suggests how hard they were to control. The banned English language edition bears the inscription in red ink ‘The sending of this publication out of the United States prohibited by President Wilson!’, and its European language translations repeat this boast.

German translation title page
W. J. Bryan, Die englische Herrschaft in Indien (Berlin: Karl Curtius, n.d.), a German translation of British Rule in India (microfilm number: IOL NEG 1397)

Apart from versions in Urdu and Bengali, there is also what is described as a ‘Tartar’ (sic) edition sent from Stockholm to Shanghai and intercepted on the seas in August 1916. This was produced with Central Powers assistance, and the collection is rich in such material: works in Arabic, Chinese, Persian and Turkish, intended to foment unrest in Allied territory. During a time of global war and national revolt, the best guarantee of ‘the freedom to read’, it seems, was the inability to censor.

crumpled translation cover sheet
Sheet attached to cover of a Tatar translation of British Rule in India, 18 August 1916 (shelfmark: PP Turk)

Pragya Dhital
Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London

Further reading:

Shaw, Graham and Mary Lloyd (eds.), Publications proscribed by the government of India: a catalogue of the collections in the India Office Library and Records and the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books (London: British Library, 1985)

Full text of Bryan’s British Rule in India available from the South Asian American Digital Archive: https://www.saada.org/item/20101015-123


This blog was written by Pragya Dhital for Banned Books Week 2017 (24-30 September). Banned-Books-Week-Logo

Banned Books Week was first initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. The 2017 UK contribution to Banned Books Week features events staged by a variety of cultural organisations including the British Library, Free Word, Royal Society of Literature and Islington Library and Heritage Services. British Library events can be found here.