Untold lives blog

66 posts categorized "Women's histories"

02 June 2020

A rebus puzzle

During the last few months you’ve probably puzzled over at least one emoji quiz, one of many inventive online distractions people are sharing to while away the time during lock-down.  These quizzes have something in common with the 'rebus' – a kind of picture puzzle which gained popularity in Europe from the 16th century onwards.  In place of words, the writer inserts pictures and letters whose names sound out the meaning of the sentences.

A childhood letter in the form of a rebus addressed to two young girls survives among the papers from the Granville family archive preserved by Harriet Cavendish, later Lady Granville (1785-1862), now part of Add MS 89382.

Lady Harriet CavendishPortrait of Lady Harriet Cavendish, Countess Granville (1785-1862) by Thomas Barber the elder, from the collections at Hardwick Hall © National Trust 

In 1790, young Harriet and her siblings Georgiana and William, the three children of William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire (1748–1811), and his wife Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806), were joined in their nursery at Chatsworth by two new playmates – five year old Caroline Rosalie St Jules and two year old Augustus Clifford.

View of Chatsworth House by Paul SandbyView of Chatsworth House by Paul Sandby, published by George Kearsley in The Copper Plate Magazine 1775. British Library, Kings Topographical Collection. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Caroline and Augustus were actually the children’s half sister and brother. They were the illegitimate children of their father, the Duke, and his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, who had been living with the Duke and Duchess in a long-lasting ménage à trois.   The children had been born abroad where they spent their earliest years, and only came to live with their mother at Chatsworth in 1790.

Caroline was almost exactly the same age as her half-sister Harriet (or Hary-o, as she was called by the family).  Both girls had both been born in August 1785, though far apart.  From this time on, from the aged of five, they spent the rest of their childhoods together.  Besides having the company of their three brothers and sisters, they were often joined for visits and on holiday by Hary-o’s cousins, including Caroline Ponsonby, later Caroline Lamb, who was also born in 1785, the same year as the two sisters.

The rebus letter is addressed to both Hary-o and Caroline St Jules, but it is unsigned.  Could it have been written by their cousin Caroline Ponsonby?  Or was it from another young friend of their acquaintance?

Rebus letter to Harriet Cavendish and Caroline St Jules. Undated c. 1795-1800 (Add MS 89382/3/5) 

Can you read the letter? If you know the French for 'well' and 'sea' and the names of the notes in the sol-fa music system you are nearly there!  Our imperfect attempt is at the end of this post.  Bonus points if you can hazard a guess at the identity of the village or town drawn at the foot of the page.

This charming and affectionate letter must have held particular significance for Hary-o, who kept it all her life.  It came to the British Library folded in a silk purse, along with surviving letters from her mother Georgiana and other treasured papers.

Tabitha Driver
Cataloguer, Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Address: A[mi] Le[Dé] Henriette [E] [A] Mademoiselle [Ka]roline St Jeule

Accep[Té] cheres [E] douce a[mi]
Acceptez chères et douces amis
[Sept] fidelle pettit ^gaie [ré- bé/si(?)]
cette fidelle petit gaie rebus
[E] [croix] combien les [heures]
Et crois combien les heures
[Cent] les [deux] [Dé]lice de ma vie
Sont les deux délices de ma vie
[E –la], Je [ré]grette a[mer]ment
Hélas, Je regrette amèrement
Que je ne [puits] vous conter a pres[cent]
Que je ne puis vous conter à présent
Ce qui [E] passé de[puits] quelque Jours
Ce qui est passé depuis quelques Jours
[Cent] les [deux] a[mi] de mon [coeur]
Sans les deux amis de mon coeur
Maïs jamais Je ne soufrir[ré]
Mais jamais je ne souffrirai
[Un] jour de passé (?) [cent] [ex]primé
Un jour de passer sans exprimer
A mes a[mi] bien aimee
À mes amis bien aimées
Que je ne [puits] les oubli[E]
Que je ne puis les oublier


21 May 2020

Researching Suffragettes in the British Library’s Modern Manuscripts and Archive Collections

Like many, the Covid-19 lockdown has provided British Library staff a bit more space and time to get through some spring cleaning.  You might think that archivists would find themselves a little distanced from their cleaning tasks with all their precious archives locked up in their respective institutions, but there is always more to sort in the archive sector, whether physically or digitally.  Whilst quarantined the Modern Manuscripts team has taken this opportunity to sort through reams of our metadata in order to write new collection guides.

We have been working on summarising our archive collections relating to the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom.  The women’s suffrage collection contains the archives of Sylvia Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth and Harriet McIlquham, but we have also had the opportunity to sift through some of our catalogue records and identify some fascinating suffrage campaigners, whose correspondence is held across various collections.

Some examples of these campaigners include:

Barbara Bodichon, 1827-1891

Sketch of Barbara BodichonBarbara Bodichon, Sketch by Samuel Lawrence, 1861 Wikimedia Commons

Barbara Bodichon was an early suffragist and women’s rights activist.  She began meeting with friends in the 1850s to discuss women’s rights in a group which became known as the ‘Ladies of Langham Place’.  She co-founded the English Woman’s Journal, which examined women’s position and rights in society.  She published her thoughts on women’s right to property in her essay, Brief Summary of the Laws of England Concerning Women.  Items of her correspondence can be found in the Clough-Shore papers (Add MS 72832 A) and the William Lovett Papers (Add MS 78161).

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, 1833-1918

Photograph of Elizabeth Wolstenholme ElmyElizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy Photo via Wikipedia

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy was a feminist and suffrage campaigner.  She founded the Manchester Committee for the Enfranchisement of Women in 1866 and would campaign for women’s suffrage for over 50 years.  The British Library holds six volumes of papers relating to her work in the suffragette movement at Add MS 47449-47455, which contains her correspondence with many prominent women activists.

Hertha Ayrton, 1854-1923

Painting of Hertha AyrtonPainting of Hertha Ayrton, c. 1905, by Héléna Arsène Darmesteter via Wikimedia Commons

Hertha Ayrton campaigned for the women’s vote with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, as well as Emily Davison.  She was also an engineer, mathematician and physicist whose work was awarded the Hughes Medal.  There is correspondence between her and her friend Marie Stopes in the Stopes Papers (Add MS 58685 and Add MS 58689).

Ethel Snowden, 1881 -1951

Photograph of Ethel SnowdenPhotograph of Ethel Snowden, by S. A. Chandler & Co, 1921 via Wikimedia Commons

Ethel Snowden was a socialist, feminist activist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. In 1907 she wrote a book called The Woman Socialist, which advocated the collective organisation of housework and a state salary for mothers.  Items of her correspondence can be found in the Mary Gladstone papers (Add MS 46253), the Burns Papers (Add MS 46300) and the Koteliansky Papers (Add MS 48974).

These individuals are just a few of the many fascinating women who feature in the Modern Manuscripts collections.  As we continue to explore our collections from home, we hope that we will find many more which we can bring to light in our collection guides, so that many more people will eventually be able to explore the papers of these ground-breaking women.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
For more information on British Library collections relating to the women’s suffrage campaign, visit Votes for Women BL.


19 May 2020

My daughter Seringa

In 1799 Captain John Norris of the Madras Engineers was aide-de-camp to Colonel Gent at the Siege of Seringapatam.  Following the assault and capture of the fort on 4 May 1799, Norris was appointed Superintending Engineer of reform of the fortifications there. In the months following the siege Norris undertook a detailed survey of the island of Seringapatam for the Company.

The Storming of SeringapatamThe Storming of Seringapatam - engraving by John Vendramini, published in 1802. Shelfmark P779. Images Online

Norris's work brought him into conflict with Colonel Arthur Wellesley who had been appointed to command the fort following the siege.  Wellesley had instructed Norris to supply him with the plans and maps made during the survey, which Norris declined to do as it was contrary to his orders from Government.  Wellesley was reportedly very angry at what he viewed as Norris’s insubordination and reported him to the Madras Government as ‘not a fit person to be employed as the Engineer at Seringapatam’.  The Government however supported Norris’s refusal to supply the documents.

Plan of Seringapatam 1792 Plan of Seringapatam, 1792 taken from A Guide to Seringapatam and its Vicinity. Historical and traditional, 3rd Edn (Revised). 1897. BL flickr

John Norris was appointed an ensign in the Madras Engineers on 3 October 1781 rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before retiring on 25 September 1811.  For most of his time in the corps he served alongside Captain Colin Mackenzie, the renowned surveyor whose collections are one of the foundations of the India Office Private Papers.

Norris’s time at Seringapatam appears to have made its mark on both him and his wife Lydia, the daughter of William Harcourt Torriano, whom he married in 1790.  On 19 January 1800 John and Lydia Norris christened their second daughter Helen Harness Seringa Norris.  The couple had one other daughter Lydia Dampier Norris born in 1794 who died at Cawnpore in 1825.

Helen Harness Seringa Norris baptism register entryBaptism entry for Helen Harness Seringa Norris IOR/N/2/2, f. 420

Historical records suggest Helen Harness Seringa Norris was fond of her unusual name as it was often recorded as her sole forename, including on her death register entry in 1866.  

Seringa Norris was married in 1819 to the Reverend Charles Norman, Vicar of Boxted in Essex.  The couple had eight children, though only four survived infancy.  In 1820 they named their eldest child Seringa Lydia Frances Norman.

Seringa Norman married in 1842 to Joseph Proctor Benwell, a bank manager.  The Benwells had four children, their eldest being a daughter Seringa born in 1845.  Seringa Benwell married Charles Fuller Grenside, a printer ink manufacturer, in 1879.  They had a daughter in 1885 christened Seringa Dorothea.  Seringa Dorothea Grenside was married in 1908 to Laurence Arthur Grundy Lane, an insurance inspector, and their only child was named Audrey Seringa Lane.

By the time Audrey Seringa Lane was born in 1908, the Seringa forename had been passed down through five generations spanning over 200 years.  Naming daughters Seringa carried on, and by the 1960s it had spanned seven generations of John and Lydia Norris’s family and lasted for over 260 years.

Oher branches of the family continued the name too.  Charles and Seringa Norman’s daughter Sarah Elizabeth and son Edward both had daughters named Seringa and the name continued there for several generations too.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
The Military History of the Madras Engineers and Pioneers, from 1743 up to the present time (London, 1888). British Library shelfmark V 6503. Snippet view on Google Books. 
Baptisms, Marriages and Burials available via the British India Office Collection on findmypast -
Marriage entry for John Norris and Lydia Torriano IOR/N/2/11, ff. 631-632.  Baptism entry for Helen Harness Seringa Norris IOR/N/2/2, f. 420.  Baptism entry for Lydia Damper Norris IOR/N/2/2, f. 213.  Burial entry for Lydia Dampier Norris IOR/N/1/13, f. 689.
Birth, marriage, death and census records for subsequent generations of the Norris family are also available in other collections on findmypast.
Biographical Notes compiled for R. H. Phillimore, Historical records of the Survey of India (Dehra Dun, 1945-48). Includes biographical entry for John Norris Volume II, p. 360, shelfmark OIR 354.54
IOR/F/4/95/1926 Papers regarding repair and improvement of the fort at Seringapatam – report by Captain John Norris, observations on Norris’s report by Col. Arthur Wellesley, observations by the Chief Engineer Major-General Patrick Ross. 
IOR/F/4/193/4397 Demolition of forts in the southern districts of the Madras Presidency and of Public buildings and works in the former Dutch settlements of Cochin and Quilon, under the direction of Major John Norris and Lieutenant Hilary Harcourt Torriano, Madras Engineers.

14 May 2020

The most noted girls of the town: A newly discovered edition of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies is a notorious publication that detailed the names and ‘specialities’ of prostitutes working in Covent Garden and the West End during the late 18th century.  When the first edition appeared in 1760, it was immediately derided as pretending 'to give some account of the most noted Girls of the Town; but it has all the air of a lying Catch-penny Jobb' (Monthly Review, June 1760).  A contributor to the London Magazine claimed that the sex workers were 'frightful, and smell strongly of paints, pills, bolus’s, and every venereal slop' (April 1760).  Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its scandalous content Harris’s List amassed a large enough readership to be published yearly until 1794.

Frontispiece and title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden LadiesFrontispiece and title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for H. Ranger, 1773 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It was doing so well that, by 1791, a rival Harris’s List had appeared.  An indignant but anonymous newspaper notice was printed, claiming the rival edition was 'a compilation of falsehood and imposition' and urging discerning readers to keep their eye out for the so-called authentic version of the directory.  No copies of this 1791 rival Harris’s List survive today.  In fact, the only extant edition of this rival publication was, until recently, thought to be the one from 1794 – suggesting that it ran for at least four years.

However, we have recently acquired a copy of the rival Harris’s List from 1793.  It was printed for John Sudbury in Southwark rather than the pseudonymous ‘H. Ranger’ who occupies the imprint in the official Lists.   John Sudbury was a bookseller and occasional publisher who was active between 1786 and 1795, dealing in cheap bawdy material.

Title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, LondonTitle page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for J. S. [John Sudbury], 1793 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Even though it has the same title, this edition describes different sex workers to those featured in the official Harris’s List for 1793.  However, the descriptions are similar in that the line between authenticity and titillation is somewhat blurred in both editions, probably containing only kernels of truth.  In the rival Harris’s List, Miss Patty S—n—rs, for example, is described as the daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer and was one of 'numerous offspring'.  She worked in 'Lissen-green, near Paddington'.  Miss Betty Fr-el, is said to have lost both her parents and, as her stepfather would not support her, joined a 'Strolling Company' and became an actress.  The 'principal hero got the better of her chastity' and, in the words of the List, she 'was soon initiated into the misteries of the Cyprian Deity'.  Another woman, Mrs Stam-er at No.7, Charles-court, Strand, is a widow and nearly forty years old. Having said that, however, she still had 'very fine teeth'. 

Pages from Harris’s List of Covent Garden LadiesPage 42 and 43 of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for J. S. [John Sudbury], 1793 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies provides insight into the underworld of Georgian London and is invaluable for the studies of censorship, erotica and the treatment of women in the late 18th century.  Although the male gaze and its haze of titillation prevents us from getting anything other than a glimpse of these unfortunate women, this is far better than them being lost to history altogether.  While this new acquisition is important from a bibliographic perspective, adding to a precious and limited canon of this notorious publication, it is the stories of these women that are the most significant part of this discovery.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further Reading:
The majority of the British Library’s copies of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies are part of the Private Case collection

The bibliographical history of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies is explored here:
Freeman, Janet Ing. Jack Harris and ‘Honest Ranger’: The Publication and Prosecution of Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1760-95.

For more research on the women described in Harris’s Lists:
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden ladies : pimp General Jack & the extraordinary story of Harris's List, 2005.
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden Ladies: the Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List. Penguin, 2012.


12 May 2020

Lady with the Lamp at 200: Florence Nightingale’s Bicentenary

Florence Nightingale was an icon of the Victorian era and her name still inspires confidence today.  It was the name given to the seven temporary intensive care hospitals set up by the NHS in response to the Covid-19 epidemic in recognition for her work to the nursing profession.  It is interesting to note that the origins of pre-fabricated temporary hospitals come from the Crimean War, when Isambard Kingdom Brunel was directed to design a temporary hospital for use at Renkioi in the Dardanelles.  Despite arriving late in the war, the hospital proved a success with a lower death rate than the hospital in Scutari, Turkey.

Photograph of Florence Nightingale about 1860Photograph of Florence Nightingale c.1860 British Library Add. MS 47458, f.31 Images Online

Nightingale is best known for her nursing work during the Crimean War.  At the request of her friend Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of State for War, she led a party of 38 nurses to work at the hospital in Scutari.  This was an unprecedented decision by Herbert as women had never been officially allowed to serve in the army and Nightingale reported directly to the Secretary of State. Reports had reached Britain of a shortage of nurses, medicine and a lack of hygiene that meant that soldiers were not just dying from battle wounds but from poor conditions.

Hospital ward at Scutari One of the wards in the hospital at Scutari. Image from The Seat of War in the East - British Library 1780.c.6, XXXIV  Images Online

Scholars disagree over the impact of Nightingale’s work in Scutari but essentially she implemented basic hygiene and sanitation practices such as cleaning the wards and hand washing.  These practices alongside the additional nurses began to have a significant impact on the survival of soldiers.

First page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert
Letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert dated 19 February 1855, Add MS 43393 f.164

In this letter from 19 February 1855, Nightingale writes to Herbert to inform him of the falling death rate at the hospital in Scutari.  Nightingale was a talented statistician becoming the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Statistical Society in 1858 and a pioneer of data visualisation as seen in the diagram below, which shows the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East.  The diagram corroborates the falling rate of deaths, mentioned in her letter, from preventable causes.  The number of deaths had climbed since the start of the war and reached a peak in January 1855.  Nightingale arrived in Scutari in November 1854 and once her efforts began to take affect within a couple of months the death rate began to fall.  The diagram will be on display in the Treasures Gallery once the British Library has reopened.

Diagram of the causes of mortalityFlorence Nightingale, 'Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East', Add MS 45816, f1 Images Online

Nightingale continued to advocate the importance of good sanitation and environmental conditions for patient health throughout her life.  A letter from 1860 describes how she believed that ‘open air’ and ‘ventilation’ could help a patient to recover.  Using these methods, Nightingale set out to professionalise the occupation of nursing for women and eventually set up a nursing training school at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.  She was keen to end the stereotype of the ‘fat drunken old dames’ previously employed as nurses, such as the character of Mrs Gamp used by Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit.  Nightingale was prominent in promoting sanitation reform to the wider British Empire, especially in India. Documents about her work in India can be found in the British Library’s India Office Private Papers.

Page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert


Page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Edwin Chadwick dated 8 September 1860, Add MS 45770

The two letters and diagram by Nightingale form part of her significant personal archive of correspondence, reports, accounts and administrative papers held as part of the Library’s modern archive and manuscript collections.  This collection guide created for her anniversary provides more detail on these collections.

Laura Walker
Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts


08 May 2020

75 years since Victory in Europe

‘My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class.  It’s a victory of the Great British nation as a whole…’
[Extract from Winston Churchill’s speech on 8 May 1945].

Looking back on the celebrations of VE day in 1945 seems especially poignant this year in our current crisis.  Stories told to me by my grandmother of air raids, evacuation and rationing have a new meaning given current restrictions.  Shortages of eggs, toilet roll and soap, empty shelves in supermarkets and long queues have become the new norm.  Yet we still cannot truly know what the Second World War generation went through 75 years ago.

A line of London buses enmeshed in the vast crowd, occupying Whitehall on VE Day

A line of London buses enmeshed in the vast crowd, occupying Whitehall on VE Day. Image by kind permission of Imperial War Museum © IWM HU 140178

After the unconditional surrender of the German forces on 7 May 1945, Churchill announced that the following day would be a national holiday.  Up and down the country the celebrations started almost immediately and continued on 8 May with street parties, dancing, music, speeches by Churchill and King George VI and large amounts of beer.  Beer had not been rationed during the war and women were, for the first time, encouraged to drink it.  In advance of VE Day Churchill had personally checked with the Ministry of Food that there were enough supplies for the celebrations.

Children's street party at Brockley in London on VE Day 1945Children's street party at Brockley in London on VE Day 1945. Image by kind permission of Imperial War Museum © IWM HU 49482

During his speech, Churchill had made clear that the war was not yet over and ‘let us not forget the toil and efforts that lie ahead’.  The war against Japan continued until two atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire was one of the official British observers of the atomic bombing at Nagasaki. His eye witness account can be found in the Modern Archives and Manuscripts collections (Add MS 52572).  Cheshire describes how the photographers were unable to capture accurate photographs of the blast as they were overawed by the scene.  Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945, which is now commemorated as Victory over Japan (VJ) day.

As the Second World War fades from living memory the archival collections that record ordinary people’s lives and experiences become ever more important.  Contained within the British Library's collections are glimpses of a defining moment in the history of our nation.

A collection that is one of my favourites is the archive of Edgar Augustus Wilson and his second wife Winifred Gertrude née Cooper.  Contained within their personal archive are manuscript and printed ephemera that provide a personal insight into their lives in St Albans during the War.  Both husband and wife enlisted as Air Raid Wardens and served until 1945.  Their Air Raid Warden ID cards, badges and whistle as well as government-issued pamphlets, handbooks and post war food and clothing ration books form part of the modern archive collections.

Air Raid Warden ID card for Winifred Wilson

Air Raid Warden ID card for Winifred Wilson [Add MS 70760 A f.73 (2)]   Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Wilsons' Air Raid Warden badges

The Wilsons' Air Raid Warden badges [Add MS 70670 D (2)]  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The official 75th VE day anniversary celebrations have now been postponed or cancelled due to Covid-19 but this will not stop us commemorating VE day. We remember the War as a moment when the country pulled together in support of a greater cause. T he need to social distance will have a lasting impact, celebrations such as those in 1945, are now impossible but living in the digital age means that we can still celebrate together by joining a moment of reflection and remembrance at 11am, watching the Queen’s speech, having a ‘street party’ in our homes and gardens, raising a ‘Toast’ or by placing a Tommy in our window to remember what our parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents endured.

But in the context of VE Day and the current conflict we face…

‘Let us remember those who will not come back, their constancy and courage in battle, their sacrifice and endurance in the face of a merciless enemy: let us remember the men in all the Services and the women in all the Services who have laid down their lives.’
[Extract from King George VI’s speech on 8 May 1945]

Laura Walker
Lead Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

More information on the British Library’s modern manuscript collections relating to the Second World War can be found here:

Second World War: Internment

Second World War: Life on the Home Front

Second World War: Modern Archives


09 April 2020

Mrs Sobieski Sullivan, a Welsh Jacobite

In the 1700s prominent Jacobite families chose to show their allegiance by christening their children with Jacobite names.  The marriage of Maria Clementina Sobieska, granddaughter of King John III Sobieski of Poland, to James Francis Edward Stuart, Jacobite claimant to the throne, influenced many, and both Clementina and Sobieski/Sobiesky were popular choices for girls at that time.

Maria-Clementina-SobieskaImage of Maria Clementina Sobieska, reproduced by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery. Image reference: NPG D32662 National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence


Wrexham in Denbighshire had a number of Jacobite families and Sobieski Edwards was born there in 10 July 1746 to Thomas Edwards, a shoemaker.  The family also had a son Edward.

The Edwards children moved to London and on 3 June 1770 Sobieski Edwards was married in Soho to Daniel Hobbs.  The marriage was short-lived as Daniel died November 1772.  They had one daughter, Sobiesky, born on 7 December 1770.

Sobieski Hobbs remarried on 21 September 1774 in St Giles London to Timothy Sullivan, a warehouse-keeper for the East India Company.   Sullivan was a colourful character who found himself facing numerous charges of corruption and malpractice during his time with the Company and was eventually dismissed in 1782. Allegations against him included giving his brother-in-law Edward Edwards a job as a labourer at a Company warehouse, manipulating official records to make it appear he had been properly nominated to the post, and using Company money to have improvement works done on his own house.

By 1784 Timothy Sullivan had also died.  In October 1784 Sobieski submitted a plea to the Company for relief, which must have been out of desperation given her husband’s past employment history.  Her memorial was referred for consideration to the Committee of Warehouses, and then in November to a joint meeting of the Committee of Warehouses and Correspondence. Unfortunately we have been unable to trace the decision taken as it was probably recorded in minutes which were destroyed by the India Office in the 1860s.

Sobiesky Sullivan's memorial to the East India Company October 1784IOR/E/1/75, ff 257-259 Memorial of Mrs Sobiesky Sullivan

Sobieski Sullivan died in Holborn in December 1825.  Her will, proved in 1826, named her brother Edward Edwards as executor and left all her wealth (sadly valued at less than £20) in trust to her daughter.  She stipulated that her daughter’s husband William Fowler be prevented from ever receiving or benefitting from it.

Sobiesky Hobbs had married William Fowler in 1793 in Spitalfields.  They had one daughter, also called Sobieski, born in Bethnal Green in 1794.  All we have found about William Fowler is that on the couple’s marriage certificate his profession is ‘Gentleman’ and his father is listed as unknown.

Their daughter Sobieski Fowler met Robert Ward sometime prior to 1816 and the couple had six children, five sons and one daughter, Sobieski Elizabeth.   The family lived in Newington where Robert was at various times a butcher, a tea dealer and a tipstaff to judges.

The Wards hadn’t married before they had children.  Their marriage eventually took place on 9 February 1846 in Newington, most likely because Robert Ward was ill as he was buried in Newington on 2 June 1846.  Sobieski Ward died a few years later in 1849.

Sobieski Elizabeth Ward lived with her brother Joseph, taking over the family home of 35 New Street, Newington in the early 1860s before moving to 77 New Street by 1871.  Joseph was a commercial clerk and Sobieski a governess who went on to run her own school.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
IOR/E/1/75, ff 257-259 Memorial of Mrs Sobiesky Sullivan, widow of Timothy Sullivan, late principal Keeper of Teas and Drugs, for relief, 13 October 1784.
IOR/B/100 pp. 493,640 Memorial of Mrs S Sullivan in Court of Directors October-November 1784.
[The spelling of the name switches between Sobieski and Sobiesky throughout sources.]


27 March 2020

Witch Trials in British India

Papers at the British Library shed light on the belief in witchcraft in 19th-century India.  The India Office Records contain a wealth of correspondence and reports about the processes for discovering witches and the brutal techniques used to determine guilt or innocence.  The proceedings of criminal trials offer a unique insight into attempts by the British administrators to stamp out these practices.

File cover from a witchcraft murderIOR/F/4/830/21967 A Kol Sirdar in Sambalpur murders an entire family because of their alleged witchcraft, Feb 1822-Sep 1823 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Commonly, villagers sought advice from a local witch hunter, or Bhopa, who would identify the witch. The favoured punishment was witch swinging. One report offered the following description:
‘Without trial or being heard in defence, the supposed witch is seized, her eyes stuffed with red chillies and bandaged and ropes are tied firmly round her legs and waist.  She is then taken to a tree and swung violently, with her head downwards …till she confesses to a falsehood or dies under the barbarous infliction’.

In 1842, a woman in Palachpoor was murdered in the jungle close to her village by her stepson. When cross examined, he claimed she had been practising witchcraft and had ‘eaten two buffaloes of mine and 10 persons of the village, including my brother’s wife and sister’s daughter’.  The victim’s daughter admitted her mother had been a witch, announcing ‘she used to bite people and they died in consequence’.  It emerged the unfortunate woman had reported her stepson’s involvement in a robbery.  In his fury, he forced her into the jungle and beat her to death.  Despite this knowledge, the witchcraft accusation meant a short prison sentence and hard labour was agreed upon as punishment.

In the village of Chapra in 1849, a woman called Eullal was accused of witchcraft.  It was claimed her eye had fallen upon a villager who contracted an illness and died eleven days later.  A gathering of village officials concluded Eullal was guilty.  Once they had agreed to distribute her possessions and properties amongst themselves, Eullal was seized and charged.   She had chili paste rubbed into her eyes and bandages applied to prevent her evil glare afflicting further victims.  Eullal survived this ordeal and was tied to a tree at 6pm.  By 9pm she was dead.   It was argued a slave killed Eullal under the instruction of the Thakore.  A punishment of 25 Rupees was suggested by the Raja.

Report of the murder of KunkooIOR/L/PS/6/567, Coll 240 Papers regarding a case of 'witch-swinging' and murder which took place at the village of Rohimala, Udaipur State Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1868, a Bhopa accused an elderly lady, Kunkoo, of making a soldier’s wife sick.  Villagers seized Kunkoo, forced her hands into boiling oil and swung her for days.  The soldier’s wife died and the old lady was released, only to be murdered shortly afterwards.  During questioning the soldier denied killing Kunkoo, exclaiming ‘Nugga told me that she had eaten his uncle and his mother and a cow, so he killed her’.

These and other cases were reported by British authorities.  Captain John Brooke wrote in 1856: ‘I would remark that there is little hope of the custom ceasing till it becomes dangerous to follow the profession of Bhopa’.  The reports indicate the government was keen to stamp out the practice, but were wary of interfering with indigenous beliefs and traditions.  Local leaders admitted that in some areas 40-50 women a year could be punished as witches. The response was to target Bhopas.  By convicting ‘professed sorcerers’ and fining community leaders, the authorities hoped to quell the torture and murders.

Craig Campbell
Curatorial Support Officer, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/PS/6/567, Coll 240 Papers regarding a case of 'witch-swinging' and murder which took place at the village of Rohimala, in Panurwa District, Udaipur State, on or about 9 August 1868
IOR/R/2/700/39 File Q/6 6 Witch craft cases from 1850
IOR/F/4/2016/90185 Mahee Caunta [Mahi Kantha]: Political Agent's Court of Criminal Justice, case No 1 of 1842, trial of Narajee Ruggajee charged with putting his stepmother to death on account of her being accused of witchcraft, Sep 1841-Jun 1843
IOR/F/4/830/21967 A Kol Sirdar in Sambalpur murders an entire family because of their alleged witchcraft, Feb 1822-Sep 1823

Untold lives blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs