Untold lives blog

37 posts categorized "Reform"

15 December 2015

'Seeing without being seen' – Bentham and the Panopticon prison

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Since 2012, the British Library has been part of the Transcribe Bentham initiative, which gives volunteers the opportunity to explore and transcribe papers written by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).  Transcribe Bentham celebrated its fifth anniversary in September 2015 and volunteers have now transcribed a whopping 14,000 manuscripts!  We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our transcribers because their efforts feed directly into the work undertaken by the Bentham Project at University College London in preparing the new edition of Bentham’s Collected Works.  The British Library holds around 15,000 pages of material written by Bentham and his family members.  A new batch of this material has just been digitised and we hope that the following taster might inspire any interested newcomers to come and have a go at transcribing Bentham. 

  Img_1_UC cxix, f.125r
Panopticon plans (drawn by Willey Reveley), c. 1794-1795 (Image courtesy of UCL Special Collections, UC cxix, f. 125r)


Many of these freshly digitised papers concern the Panopticon prison, one of Bentham’s most infamous ideas.  Bentham argued that prisons should use an ingenious system of surveillance to encourage inmates to reform their behaviour.  The name Panopticon comes from the Greek  – ‘pan’ meaning ‘all’ and ‘opticon’ relating to the idea of seeing or observing.  As Bentham explained, ‘The essence of it consists then, in the centrality of the Inspector’s situation, combined with the well known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen.  As to the general form of the building, the most commodious for most purposes seems to be the circular’.  An elaborate system of lights and screens would allow a centrally-positioned prison governor to see into each cell, without being seen himself.

Img_2_BL Add MS 33550, f. 158r
Jeremy Bentham, Draft of Panopticon, or the Inspection House, c. 1787 (British Library Add MS 33550 f. 158r) Noc

The unnerving possibility of being watched at all times would make prisoners more likely to keep out of mischief.  Bentham was so convinced by this idea that he also maintained that the Central Inspection principle could be similarly utilised in other institutions like workhouses, hospitals or schools.  Yet he did express some qualms as to ‘whether it would be advisable to apply such constant and unremitting pressure to the tender mind’.  These papers are draft versions of Panopticon, or the Inspection House, a pamphlet which Bentham published in 1791.  Comparing these drafts with the final published text should give us an insight into the evolution of Bentham’s philosophy.  These papers will also provide context to current research into Bentham’s criticisms of the method of transporting convicts to Australia as a form of punishment. 

Img_3_BL Add MS 33550, f. 201v
Jeremy Bentham, Draft of Panopticon, or the Inspection House, c. 1787 (British Library Add MS 33550 f. 201v) Noc

If the Panopticon has piqued your interest, visit Transcribe Bentham today to begin transcribing.  In addition to the Panopticon writings, the latest set of British Library papers contains some of Bentham’s writings on logic and his proposals for a legal code.  We are continuing to digitise new material and there are a large variety of other writings, from across Bentham’s long life, already available to transcribers.  You do not need any specialist skills or knowledge to participate, just a willingness to have a go!  The Transcribe Bentham website has lots of information to guide newcomers through the process of completing their first transcriptions.  We hope to see you there! 

Louise Seaward
Research Associate, Bentham Project, Faculty of Laws, University College London

Visit the Transcribe Bentham Transcription Desk today
Follow Transcribe Bentham on Twitter @TranscriBentham

Further reading:
Jeremy Bentham, Selected Writings, ed. by Stephen Engelmann (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011)
Janet Semple, Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)


18 August 2015

Miss May Oung at the Burma Round Table Conference 1931

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Following the first Round Table Conference on India held at the end of 1930 in London, the British Government decided to hold a Round Table Conference on Burma in November 1931. The main item for discussion was the political separation of Burma from India and potential dominion status.

On 29 September 1931, the Government announced the 20 Burmese delegates who would be attending the Conference. They included representatives from different political parties and minority groups, but no women.

After the announcement various British women’s organisations, such as the Women’s Freedom League and the Six Point Group, sent letters to the Secretary of State, Sir Samuel Hoare, hoping it was not too late to include one or more women. In particular, the name of Miss May Oung was put forward because she was conveniently already in London.


  May Oung 1
IOR: L/PO/9/3 Letter from National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship Noc


Miss May Oung (also known as Ma Mya Sein) was Rangoon and Oxford educated, had been Secretary of the Burmese National Council of Women and Burmese Women’s Association and representative of the All Asian Women’s Conference at the League of Nations in Geneva. Her education and international experience made her an ideal representative in British and Burmese women’s minds. As Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence pointed out in a letter sent to Samuel Hoare on 29 September 1931, women in Burma enjoyed an equal franchise with men (they had since 1922) and so should be included in the Conference. Burmese women, who had held a mass meeting in Rangoon, pointed out that two Indian women had been delegates to the Indian Round Table Conference (even though Indian women did not enjoy equal franchise) and so at least two Burmese women should be sent as representatives at this Conference. 

However, the Governor of Burma, Sir Charles Alexander Innes, did not wish to appoint May Oung. In various telegrams to the Secretary of State in October 1931, the Governor suggested that May Oung’s Aunt, Mrs Hla Oung, who was Vice President of the Burmese Women’s Association, would be a better candidate. Hla Oung insisted that she would need May Oung to accompany her on account of her age and language difficulties, but Innes believed that May Oung was too young and that the Burmese men would not approve of her appointment. He also did not want two women delegates, who would be in favour of separation of Burma from India, as that would upset the political balance of the delegation. Innes agreed to compromise by allowing May Oung attend the Conference as her aunt’s advisor, but not to be named as a formal delegate. This suggestion was not well received, leading to a standoff. Hla Oung insisted on two women delegates and threatened to arrange a boycott by the whole Burmese delegation.


May Oung 2

IOR: L/PO/9/3 Telegram from All Burma Women’s ConferenceNoc


British and international women’s organisations, such as the Women’s Freedom League and Equal Rights International, petitioned the India Office once more for the inclusion of May Oung on the delegation.

Finally, the male Burmese delegates themselves, on their arrival in London in November 1931, sent a letter to Hoare asking that May Oung be included in their delegation. Innes eventually relented after getting written assurance from the Burmese Women’s Association that they would be happy with one delegate. On 20 November 1931, Miss May Oung was formally invited to attend the Burmese Round Table Conference. She accepted the invitation.


May Oung 3

IOR: L/PO/9/3 Letter from Women’s Freedom League Noc


Sumita Mukherjee
AHRC Early Career Fellow (AH/M004326/1), King’s College London

Further reading:
IOR: L/PO/9/3 Burma Round Table Conference: Notes on groups represented at Burma Conference



14 July 2015

Bastille Day in Delhi

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The Viceroy of India’s Personal Report to the Secretary of State in London dated 18 July 1947 makes interesting reading.  As you might expect, Lord Louis Mountbatten provided a great deal of information about the business of the Partition Council which was meeting three times a week. However there are some passages which show that the political elite in Delhi was not concentrating solely upon the future of an independent India.  Amidst the meetings, negotiations, letter writing and press conferences, time was found to attend social events.

Mountbatten wrote:

 ‘I gave a large dinner party on the 14th July in honour of the French community, in celebration of their national day, which was attended by members of the Government and many other Indians; and speeches were exchanged in French.

This morning, Friday the 18th July, I held an investiture in the Darbar Hall, and this evening we are giving a large dinner party attended by Nehru with the whole Cabinet, Jinnah, and several of the Princes, to celebrate our silver wedding. If I may be forgiven a personal  reminiscence, it was in the old Viceregal Lodge here that I became engaged over 25 years ago.  Several of the Ruling Princes who are coming were on the Prince of Wales’s Staff with me at that time’.


Bastille 11287757

The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789. ©De Agostini/The British Library Board Images Online


Events in London in 1947 meant that both Bastille Day and 18 July were significant days in the history of India. On 14 July 1947 Prime Minister Clement Attlee introduced the India Independence Bill into the House of Commons.  The Bill went through three readings in the Commons and was given the Royal Assent on 18 July.  The India Independence Act provided for partition leading to the establishment of the dominions of India and Pakistan from 15 August 1947.

The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer carried an article entitled Ending an Empire:

‘When a Royal Commission announced to-day in the Lords the Royal Assent to the India Independence Bill, the procedure- though it marked the end  of an Empire and created two new Dominions- differed in no respect from that used for the least important legislative measure.  The Bill was named in the middle of a fairly long list of measures which included the Havant and Waterloo District Council Bill and the South Metropolitan Gas Bill. One had indeed to listen closely as a clerk of the House read the titles, and the centuries-old formula, “Le Roy le veult” was spoken’.


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/L/PO/6/123 Viceroy's personal reports 2 April 1947-16 September 1947
British Newspaper Archive Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 19 July 1947

07 July 2015

A bread and butter battle

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The lives of Indian industrial workers were described as ‘a bread and butter battle’ in an obituary for Sir Vithaldas D Thackersey in the Bombay Labour Gazette for August 1922. It evokes a pitiful struggle for survival but the obituary and other articles in the Labour Gazette reveal that at least some industrialists were moving towards reform. Honoured as one of Bombay’s foremost mill owners, Thackersey was said to have attached great importance to education for industrial workers.

  Labour Gazette heading
Labour Gazette (Bombay), 1921-22  

IOR/V/25/670/1    Noc

Statistics for Chaupati, a ‘better class’ area,  the ‘typical slum’ at Umerkhadi and the mill area of Parel show striking differences, with literacy being lowest in the mill area. The Chairman of the Bombay Mill Owners’ Association spoke at their annual meeting of the importance of education. ‘Most of our troubles economically and industrially can I think to a great degree be put down to illiteracy and the migratory habits of our workpeople, and education would help to solve our problem, but though much has been said about compulsory primary education, I am afraid Government are a long way off even making a commencement in this direction, so the social conditions of our employees must be improved by welfare work.’

Ginning Factory-India-1926
Female labourers in Ginning Factory, India, 1926 Images Online
Photo 703(22)   Noc

Health was studied in the same three Bombay districts as literacy and again there were striking differences, with respiratory illnesses unsurprisingly causing a much higher rate of mortality in the slum and mill districts than that experienced in the ‘better class’ area. Overcrowded housing was highlighted as a major cause of adult and infant mortality. The President’s address to a welfare conference in 1922 describes the infant mortality in the industrial towns as ‘almost heart-breaking’.

Infant mortality Oct 1921
Labour Gazette (Bombay), Oct 1921
IOR/V/25/670/1    Noc

The overcrowding in Bombay was certainly striking, as according to a note in the August 1922 edition, there was only one building for every 22.3 persons in Bombay city and in Ahmedabad for every 6.2 persons. Interestingly, the overcrowding in Bombay was described as ‘far worse’ than in London. Improving housing conditions in Bombay was a top priority for the Government and it was engaged in an ambitious construction programme to build 50,000 tenements which were expected to house 250,000 people, amounting to about one fifth of the population of Bombay City. It seems that slow steps were being taken to follow Lady Tata’s exhortation to ‘treat the working man and the working woman as human beings’. She urged that ‘It is the duty of employers to place them in such conditions of living, as will enable them to give of their best to the industry, in the service of their country, and it is the duty of the employees to take advantage of all the good things provided for them and to give of their best in return to their employers.’ Many good intentions were expressed and the extent of progress is no doubt documented in subsequent editions of the Labour Gazette which is crammed with information about welfare, wages, the cost of living, industrial disputes and all matters pertaining to employment.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records         Cc-by

Further reading IOR/V/25/670/1-34  Labour Gazette (Bombay) 1921-1956

Other blogs about working life:

Buffoons, ear-pickers and sherbet-sellers

A most depressing read

Honest and industrious – petitions to the East India Company

02 July 2015

Herabai and Mithibai Tata: British support for Indian suffragists

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In the second half of 1919, three Indian women, Sarojini Naidu, Herabai Tata and Mithibai Tata, were in London to address the Government as final readings of the 1919 Government of India Bill were being put through Parliament. They travelled to Britain to urge the Government to remove the sex disqualification that explicitly excluded women in India from the franchise.

Mother and daughter, Herabai and Mithibai Tata, were from Bombay and were on their first visit to Britain. They toured the country meeting with various women’s groups looking for support and advice. Their statement ‘Why Should Women Have Votes?’, sent to the India Office on 25 September 1919, laid out a number of reasons for Indian women to have the vote:

It has been recognised now in all countries that the sex barrier has been a grave mistake, is out of date, unworthy of the times, a relic of past days when might was above right … Why should India lag behind others in this respect and create a sex barrier where one does not exist, and thus brand Indian women as inferior to their sisters in other countries.

  Tata 1a
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 Noc

In their support, as might be expected, the main women and suffrage organisations in Britain, the Women’s Freedom League, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship and the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland sent letters and resolutions to the India Office. However, the India Office soon became inundated with letters of support from individuals and local associations across the breadth of Britain.

They included resolutions from three different groups in Glasgow. The Study Circle, Glasgow, sent the following on 17 September 1919:

That this meeting, approving of the principle of equality in the citizenship of men and women, urges that, in the Government of India Bill, women having the same qualifications as men should be included in the franchise proposals; so that popular government in India may start without any sex disability.

  Tata 2a
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 Noc


The Tatas then went up to Scotland and engaged in an impromptu meeting that led to the following resolution sent on 24 November 1919:

That this meeting of Glasgow Citizens approves the principle of the extension of the franchise to Indian women as well as to the men of India, and asks that they shall be included on the same terms as men, in the franchise proposals being considered in the Government of India Bill.  

Similar resolutions were sent between September and December 1919 from the Glasgow Society for Women’s Suffrage, a public meeting of Newcastle citizens, the Huddersfield, Bristol and Manchester branches of the Women’s International League, the Liverpool Council of Women Citizens, the Cardiff Branch of the Britain and India Association, the Letchworth and Swansea branches of the Women’s Freedom League and the New Cross Branch of the National Co-operative Men’s Guild among many others.

These petitions were unsuccessful as the Government of India Bill did not include women into the franchise, but the Government did concede autonomy to Indian provinces to enfranchise women, which they started to do from 1921.

Sumita Mukherjee
King’s College London

Further reading:
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 - Representations etc relating to Franchise for Women in India under the Reforms Scheme (1918-1919)


21 May 2015

The People’s Charter

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The People’s Charter, first distributed on 21 May 1838, consciously drew its name from Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, sealed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. This small book launched the Chartist movement – the first mass working class movement in British history – that agitated to achieve radical political change 1838-1858. Whereas Magna Carta secured the elite barons their liberties and rights, this People’s Charter hoped to win political rights for the working class and complete the process begun in 1215. In allying themselves with Magna Carta, the Chartists cleverly represented their cause as one that was based in historical precedent and which had an ancient authority that was the ‘birthright’ of all British citizens.

Working Men's Association , The People's Charter; c.1838 , London. British Library  C.194.a.938 Noc

Chartists were not always strictly accurate in their historical interpretation of Magna Carta and what it actually said, but they were effectively using Magna Carta as a symbol of freedom upon which they could graft their own political ideas. One Chartist demagogue – Joseph Rayner Stephens – erroneously invoked Magna Carta as enshrining a right to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of worship, none of which were mentioned in Magna Carta. Yet, the simple invocation of this document lent his claims legitimacy. At a great Chartist meeting near Leeds, Stephens announced:
We are seeking nothing new…Our forefathers have set up landmarks – landmarks of law – landmarks of right, landmarks of liberty; these landmarks we are determined to have restored. (Cheers) We stand upon our old rights – we seek no change – we say give us the good old laws of England unchanged (Cheers)…and what are those laws? What is that constitution by which we seek to abide? – (Magna Charta) – Aye, Magna Charta! The good old laws of English freedom – free meetings – freedom of speech – freedom of workshops – freedom of homesteads – free and happy firesides, and no workhouses. (Cheers)


Poster for public meeting for the People's Charter, Carlisle, 1839 © National Archives HO 40/41/390


The six points outlined in The People’s Charter, were:
1. Universal male suffrage
2. No property qualification to be a Member of Parliament
3. Annual Parliaments
4. Equal representation 
5. Payment of MPs
6. Secret ballot

Radicals had been pushing for this reform programme since at least the 18th century. What was new was the pithy name and the sophisticated manner in which they agitated for them. The invocation of Magna Carta was crucial in this and certainly caught the public imagination. 

The Radicals’ interest in Magna Carta had grown over the previous quarter century, fuelled by an explosion of radical reform publishing which almost always invoked the Great Charter as a symbol of ancient British liberties that were being infringed upon by a corrupt and unrepresentative political elite. To attract followers, the Chartists always inserted the ‘h’ in the word ‘Magna Charta’ to emphasise subtly the affinity between their Charter of liberties and the Great Charter of 1215. The Chartists principally agitated for reform through presenting petitions to Parliament, the largest of which was submitted in 1842, written on paper some 6 miles long, weighing 48 stones (more than 300kg!) and containing the signatures of upwards of 3,317,702 people, one third of the adult population of Great Britain.

Procession Attending the Great National Petition to the House of Commons 1842  © Trustees of the British Museum and British Museum Standard Terms of Use. British Museum 1880,1113.2756


Ultimately, the Chartist movement would fail in its attempt to achieve lasting political reform. Yet the Chartists created a rich political culture that continued to question the social values dominant under industrial capitalism throughout the 19th century and placed the demand for universal suffrage at the heart of future debates concerning the amelioration of working class lives. 

Alexander Lock
Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1851-1950 Cc-by

Read more about Magna Carta

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy - our major exhibition running until 1 September 2015



12 May 2015

Must I break my promise or lose my bread?

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In December 1832 the East India Company was accused of seeking to influence the outcome of the general election in Finsbury. A letter from ‘A.Z.’ appeared in The Times on 10 December: ‘I know the fact that the East India Company are requiring the people employed in their warehouses to vote for Serjeant Spankie and Mr. Grant for the borough of Finsbury; I ascertain it from several voters who had promised to give their votes for Mr. Babbage having, in consequence of orders from the Company, broken that promise’.

Candidate Charles Babbage, the mathematician and computer pioneer, published an address to the electors of the borough: ‘A powerful corporate body is exerting itself against me; but the people are too firm and too enlightened to allow themselves to be cheated out of their newly recovered rights’.

Robert Grant and Robert Spankie were elected as the two MPs for Finsbury.  Spankie was linked to the East India Company through his marriage to the daughter of director John Inglis and his service as Advocate-General in Bengal.  Babbage came third, nearly 400 votes behind Spankie. 

From G. Huddesford, The Scum uppermost when the Middlesex Porridge-Pot boils over!!  (London ,1802) Noc

The controversy rumbled on in the pages of The Times with James Bischoff, chairman of Babbage’s election committee, adding his voice.  Bischoff claimed that:  ‘…lists of persons employed in the warehouses of the company and having votes were made out, and cards were sent to those persons, requesting them to vote for Sergeant Spankie. Could these lists be made without the order of persons in authority? and would it not be a natural question for a man having a family dependent upon the East India Company, and having promised his vote to another candidate, to ask himself must I break my promise or lose my bread?’.

Peter Auber, Secretary of the East India Company, was outraged at the allegations and wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the newspaper which was published on 15 December.  He stated some ‘simple facts’ in opposition to Bischoff’s allegations.  There were 42 Finsbury voters employed in the Company’s warehouses.  Lists were made of voters in the warehouses for all places in the United Kingdom, and no addresses were included.  This had been the practice for the past 40 years or more, intended to allow voters unrestricted leave of absence on application.  The lists were kept by head clerk William Simons and not shown to anyone outside the office of the Committee of Warehouses – no director had ever asked to see them.  Simons had assured Auber that he had never interfered with the choices made: when a voter asked him about anything on the subject, he told him to do just as he liked.  Auber also said that it was his firm conviction that Spankie had not solicited, directly or indirectly, the vote of any individual, knowing him to be a servant of the Company.

Auber ended with this statement: ‘I have thought it my duty, in the station which I hold as Secretary to the Court of Directors, and in vindication of their officers, who appear to me to have been aspersed by Mr. Bischoff’s insinuations, to make this statement without any communication whatever with any member of the hon. Court, and for which statement I am alone responsible’. 

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
The Times December 1832
British Newspaper Archive

25 November 2014

A most depressing read

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 Many people grumble that health and safety measures are excessive, but in the 1920s there was
clearly much progress to be made, judging by the dreadful toll of industrial accidents and poisonings. These are revealed by the monthly statistics of occupational diseases and fatalities which were published by the Labour Gazette.

Labour Gazette 1921 - fatal accidents

Labour Gazette, Dec 1921    Noc

CJ Burrow 2Not surprisingly, mining and quarrying exacted the greatest toll in lives lost. Although mining is well-known as a dangerous occupation, I was still shocked to read in the Labour Gazette that in December 1921, 98 people died in underground mines and eight in surface mines. Looking through other editions of this monthly publication, I was even more shocked to discover that while this was the highest figure for deaths in underground mines that year, people were killed every single month. Only in May and June of 1921 were the casualties in single figures, and a total of 713 lives were lost that year.

The Labour Gazette for 1921 includes a summary of the causes of accidents in mines during 1920. During that year, 1130 people died in mines due to falls of ground (49.47%), haulage accidents (20.97%)
miscellaneous accidents underground (11.15%), explosions of fire-damp and coal dust (2.30%), shaft accidents (3.72%) and accidents on the surface (12.39%).

CJ Burrow 1       CJ Burrow 3

JC Burrow, 1893  Noc

The photographs accompanying this article, which date from the late 19th century, vividly illustrate the challenges of operating safely in the environment of the mine. By the 1920s, although there were still horrific numbers of deaths and non-fatal accidents, it seems there were already moves afoot to try to improve the lot of miners. The Labour Gazette for March 1922 includes a paragraph about the Miners’ Welfare Fund which was set up under the Mining Industry Act 1920 for purposes connected with the social well-being, recreation and living conditions of workers in and about coal mines. It was also to fund mining research and education. Research into miners’ safety lamps and coal dust dangers was funded by the first allocations of grants. The fund was supported by a levy of a penny a ton on the output of each mine. Coal mining had long been at the heart of the British economy, fuelling industry and transport by rail and steam-ship, so improving conditions was essential for the nation as well as the individuals involved in the industry.

Labour Gazette 1921 Advert 2

Advertisement in the Labour Gazette, 1921  Noc

Anyone interested in the history of working life should consider reading the Labour Gazette as it has a wealth of information about employment in different trades and industries, prices, wages,
disputes, legislation, government contracts and even statistics of poor relief. It provides remarkable
insights into Britain’s manufacturing past.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records   Cc-by

Further reading

Mongst Mines and Miners; or Underground scenes by flash-light: a series of photographs, with explanatory letterpress, illustrating methods of working in Cornish mines. Part I.-An account of the photographic experiences, by J. C. Burrow ... Part II.-A description of the subjects photographed, by William Thomas
(London : Simpkin, Marshall & Co. ; Camborne : Camborne Printing & Stationery Co., 1893)

Further images from JC Burrow are in the Online Gallery

Labour Gazette, 1921, 1922