Untold lives blog

47 posts categorized "Writing"

07 October 2021

Gunner George Fish of the Bombay Artillery Part 2

We're continuing our story about George Fish.  Two complementary sets of private and official letters spanning 30 years provide a glimpse into the life of one family separated between two continents.

On 5 April 1841 Gunner George Fish married Eliza Folkers at Bombay.  Eliza was the daughter of Albert Folkers, an East India Company Army pensioner who died in 1835, and his wife Mary.

Marriage of George Fish and Eliza Folkers at Bombay 5 April 1841Marriage of George Fish and Eliza Folkers at Bombay 5 April 1841 - British Library IOR/N/3/15 f.106 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

George and Eliza had a son Philip Charles born on 29 November 1849.  I have been unable to find any other records about Philip.

During the 1840s George transferred to the Ordnance Department and served as Laboratory Man and then Store and Park Corporal, rising to the rank of Sub Conductor.  He died on 18 September 1850.  His widow Eliza married Daniel Sullivan, a Post Office clerk, on 14 October 1850 at Karachi.  She died in 1854.

In June 1860, George’s daughter Mary applied to the India Office in London for the value of her late father’s effects as his only legitimate child.  Mary was a silk weaver living at Pits Oth Moor, Patricroft, near Manchester, the wife of James Lomas, a striker for a smith.  It appears that someone wrote the letter on her behalf as she marked a cross on her marriage register entry and  on an India Office form.  She enclosed the first letter George had sent to his father and mother in 1830 in which he complained about his daughter being baptised as Mary because he had intended her to be named Jane after his grandmother.  Mary had fifteen more letters which she could share.  The last letter received by the family was dated 7 January 1848 in Karachi.  She said that if her father had married in India, he had committed bigamy since her mother Elizabeth was still alive.

The War Office forwarded to the India Office in February 1861 an application from Mary for George’s effects which she had sent to the Duke of Cambridge.   There is an India Office annotation that the estate was valued at Rupees 80 – 3 in the Bombay Government Gazette of 1851.

Amount of estate of George Fish reported in the Bombay Government Gazette of 1851

Amount of estate of George Fish reported in the Bombay Government Gazette of 1851 p. 1209 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mary wrote again to the India Office in April 1861, reporting that her mother had drawn the sum of £2 14s 7d from the Bank of England in Manchester.  She asked when the balance of £5 9s 2d would be paid.   She hoped that her parents’ marriage certificate and her father’s letters, which she had sent as evidence for her claim, would be returned to her as soon as possible.

Letter from Mary Lomas to the India Office  June 1861Letter from Mary Lomas to the India Office  June 1861 - British Library IOR/L/MIL/2/1521 No. 2883 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In June 1861 Mary asked if anything more was owed above the amount of £8 3s 9d now received.  Several men who had served with her father had told her that George was a very steady man and thought to be in possession of a gold watch and chain, with more ready money than the amount paid.  The Military Department informed her that nothing was owed beyond the sum already given to her mother.

Reply to Mary Lomas from the India Office  June 1861Reply to Mary Lomas from the India Office  June 1861 - British Library IOR/L/MIL/2/1521 No. 2883 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In September 1861 Mary questioned whether her father was entitled to any prize money, batta, or medals for his war service. The chain of correspondence between Mary and the India Office appears to end here.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Mss Eur F751 Papers of George Fish, Gunner in the Bombay Army – unavailable at present, awaiting cataloguing.
Baptism of Eliza Folkers at Bombay 3 August 1828 (born 9 July 1828) IOR/N/3/8 f.267.
Burial of Albert Folkers at Bombay 29 November 1835 IOR/N/3/12 p.342.
Marriage of George Fish and Eliza Folkers at Bombay 5 April 1841 IOR/N/3/15 f.106.
Baptism of Philip Charles Fish 23 December 1849 (born 29 November 1849) IOR/N/3/23 f.229.
Marriage of Elizabeth Fish and Daniel Sullivan at Karachi 24 October 1850 IOR/N/3/24 f.279.
Burial of Elizabeth Sullivan at Karachi 16 August 1854 IOR/N/3/28 p.282.
Army appointments for George Fish in Bombay Times 10 January 1844, 11 March 1846, 24 June 1846, 21 October 1848 – British Newspaper Archive also availa ble via Findmypast.
Estate of George Fish IOR/V/11/2148 Bombay Government Gazette of 1851 p. 1209.
Correspondence of Mary Lomas with the India Office – IOR/L/MIL/5/362/3926; IOR/L/MIL/5/362/7252; IOR/L/MIL/5/363/3443; IOR/L/MIL/5/363/6989; IOR/L/MIL/5/363/8815; IOR/L/MIL/5/363/10426; IOR/L/MIL/2/1521 No. 2883.

Soldiers' References in the East India Company Military Department  IOR/L/MIL/5 

 

05 October 2021

Gunner George Fish of the Bombay Artillery Part 1

We were delighted recently to receive a donation of papers belonging to George Fish, a British private soldier serving in the Bombay Army.  These documents complement official East India Company records held at the British Library and give us a more rounded understanding of Fish’s life.

George Fish was born on 22 December 1807 at Stoke Damerel in Devon, the son of John and Flora Fish. The family subsequently moved to John’s home area around Bolton in Lancashire.  In September 1827 George married Elizabeth Gaskell.  Their first child Flora died in infancy in May 1829.  Her baptism record states that George was a collier.  A second daughter Mary was baptised on 25 July 1830.  George is now described as a soldier.

On 11 June 1830 George had enlisted at Manchester as a gunner in the Bombay Artillery for unlimited service.  The East India Company recruitment records give his age as 20 years 1 month and provide this description: long visage, dark brown hair, grey eyes, fresh complexion, height 5 ft 7 ins, and single.  He sailed for Bombay in the Buckinghamshire in January 1831 without his wife and daughter.

Photograph of George Fish in Army uniformPhotograph of George Fish in Army uniform - British Library Mss Eur F751 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

We can pick up the next stage in George’s story from his side of the correspondence with his family in Tyldsley.  The earliest letter in the collection is dated September 1831 at Admednagar.  The voyage from England took 3½ months.  He is in good health and says that the soldiers are provided with the best of rations and a daily dram of liquor (but George subsequently gave up drinking).  Although well-liked by all his comrades, he would be happier if his dear wife was with him.  He comments that ‘the Natives of this Contrey are all Verey Black but verey Rich and som of theme Makes houer Soulders good Wifes’.

First page of letter from George Fish to his family in England September 1831First page of letter from George Fish to his family in England September 1831 - British Library Mss Eur F751 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The next letter dated 1832 says that George is content with his situation but wishes Elizabeth and Mary were with him as they would want for nothing.  A woman came to her husband in India by asking her parish overseers to apply to ‘Indey House’ in London.  Young ladies coming to India would bring Elizabeth as a servant, so perhaps Mary could be left with his father.

In June 1833 George reports that he has spent four months in hospital with a pain in his side but is now recovered.  He is glad that his parents are caring from Mary whilst Elizabeth works in the coal pits.  George thinks that he will see them again soon.

Writing from Bombay in September 1837 George speaks of being hospitalised with a severe fever which has affected large numbers of soldiers.  He can send letters home every month now and hopes that his father will write more often.  Mary is thanked for the few lines she sent, which made the tears run down his face.  George promises to make amends for all his past failings and asks for a lock of Mary’s hair as a keepsake and comfort, enclosing one of his 'grey' curls for her.

The last letter in the collection was written to his parents and daughter from Hyderabad in September 1845 and talks of preparing for war against the Punjabis.

We shall continue George’s story in our next post.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Mss Eur F751 Papers of George Fish, Gunner in the Bombay Army – unavailable at present, awaiting cataloguing.
East India Company register of recruits IOR/L/MIL/9/9.
East India Company Artillery depot list IOR/L/MIL/9/30.
Embarkation list  IOR/L/MIL/9/77.

 

04 May 2021

Gout Raptures – a War among the Stars

Today is May the Fourth – Star Wars Day.  To mark this, we are sharing a dramatic poem from 1677 entitled Gout Raptures … or an historical fiction of a War among the Stars.

Gout Raptures
The author Dr Robert Witty explains in his introduction that he was laid up with gout in his hands and feet.  Unable to handle a pen or turn over the pages of a book, he fell into a contemplation of ‘the Stars and Constellations in Heaven’.  Witty thought up a story of a war amongst the stars since astronomers agreed that there were aspects of planets and fixed constellations which made them ‘contrary to each other’.  The result was Gout Raptures, written subsequently in idle moments and on journeys.

The star war started with a dispute between Saturn and Luna (the Moon).  Saturn was unhappy that a female ruled the night.  Saturn in Capricorn proclaimed war, and Luna in Cancer rose in opposition.

‘In Capricorn old Saturn
the worst of all the seven,
Design’d the Night to rule in spight
of all the Stars in Heaven.

His quarrel was at Luna
declaring his opinion,
None could but vex that the female Sex
should hold so large dominion.

She lowest of the Planets
the other Tropick claimed,
But down she shall, and catch a Fall,
and thus a war’s proclaimed.’

Jupiter supported Luna and sent out the Eagle and Beagle constellations to spy out Saturn’s forces.  On the advice of a council of all constellations, Jupiter raised two armies – a standing army of fixed stars and a flying army of planets.  War was declared and Jupiter found the rebels in Taurus with the Fiends of Hell and the Heathen Gods.  The rebels fled, pursued by Jupiter from sign to sign.

‘In stead of Pike and Pistol
they fought in fiery flashes,
What’s Cannon proof they pierced through
no Sword can make such gashes.’

When the rebels reached Scorpio, Cupid fired an enchanted arrow and put an end to the war.  All the stars fell in love with each other, and peace and quietness was restored.

Witty pointed out similarities in his story to the path of the English Civil War and the restoration of King Charles II.  Gout Raptures had English, Latin and Greek versions in one volume so that schools could use it.

Robert Witty or Wittie (c.1613-1684) was born in Beverley, Yorkshire.  A friend of the poet Andrew Marvell, he became a schoolmaster and then a physician, practising in Hull and York before moving to London.  He also published Popular Errours … in Physick, a translation of James Primrose’s De vulgi in medicina erroribus, and wrote Scarbrough Spaw, a book championing the efficacy of mineral waters.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Robert Witty, Gout Raptures. Ἀστρομαχια. Or an historical fiction of a War among the Stars (Cambridge, 1677).  A verse in English, Latin and Greek.  Available to read online.

 

23 March 2021

The search for Franklin in the Barrow Bequest

An intriguing collection of manuscripts known as the Barrow Bequest was acquired by the British Museum in February 1899. The private collection was created by Sir John Barrow (1764–1848) and his son Colonel John Barrow (1808–1898) during their official careers at the Admiralty and as writers and promoters of Arctic exploration.

Sir John Barrow appointed Sir John Franklin to lead the ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. Less well-known than his father, John Barrow Junior has recently been called the ‘quiet hero of the search for Franklin’ for his efforts in coordinating the search expeditions from 1848 onwards.  Franklin’s two ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – were last seen by Europeans on 26 July 1845 near Baffin Bay in Greenland, and later by Inuit near King William Island.  

The Barrow Bequest includes drawings made during a British diplomatic mission to China in 1792–93 and Sir John Barrow’s expedition to southern Africa in 1801–02 (Add MS 35300), as well as the manuscripts of Barrow’s autobiography and other writings. The largest part of the collection, however, relates to Arctic exploration.

The letters, drawings, maps and printed materials collected by John Barrow Junior while he was Keeper of the Records for the Admiralty tell the stories of the early expeditions which embarked for the Arctic in search of Franklin and his missing expedition. Many of the letters from individuals involved in the expeditions are addressed to Barrow, including several from Jane Franklin, who tirelessly promoted and sponsored the missions to discover her husband’s fate.

Add MS 35304 contains records relating to the voyage of HMS North Star, commanded by James Saunders in 1849–50. The North Star was intended as a provision ship for the Franklin search expedition under Sir James Clark Ross.

View of Wolstenholme Sound showing the outlet between Baring’s Island and the northern mainland [Greenland]View of Wolstenholme Sound showing the outlet between Baring’s Island and the northern mainland [Greenland], 1849-50. Add MS 35304, f. 9.

Highlights include five watercolour drawings of Wolstenholme Sound on the north-west coast of Greenland near Baffin Bay. These show a desolate landscape of glaciers and barren islands. Tiny figures explore their surroundings while their ship, the North Star, is locked in the ice. The North Star failed to meet the Ross expedition and returned to England after spending a winter in the ice in what is now named North Star Bay.

View of Wolstenholme Sound showing Wolstenholme Island, Dundas Hill and Baring’s Island, GreenlandView of Wolstenholme Sound showing Wolstenholme Island, Dundas Hill and Baring’s Island, Greenland, 1849-50. Add MS 35304, f. 10.

Another highlight is The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette, a handwritten magazine illustrated with watercolour and pen-and-ink drawings which was 'published in winter quarters, Arctic Regions’ between 28 October 1852 and 12 February 1853. The magazine is written largely in the hand of Sherard Osborn, who was in command of HMS Pioneer in the Franklin search expedition under Sir Edward Belcher. It was created for the entertainment of the crew and the volume includes two playbills for the Queens Arctic Theatre printed on board HMS Assistance. The crews abandoned the ships in the summer of 1854 after spending two winters in the ice and failing to find Franklin.

A scene from Hamlet in The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette,A scene from Hamlet in The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette, 1852-53. Add MS 35305, f. 32.

Playbill for the The Queens Arctic Theatre, 21 Dec 1852, HMS Assistance.Playbill for the The Queens Arctic Theatre, 21 Dec 1852, HMS Assistance. Add MS 35305, f. 31v.

The wrecks of Erebus and Terror were found in 2014 and 2016 by Parks Canada in an area that was identified by Inuit. The search for evidence of the Franklin expedition continues to this day.

Catherine Angerson
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts
@BL_ModernMSS

Digital Resources:

The British Library has digitised the ten volumes in partnership with Adam Matthew for Age of Exploration, an online collection of primary sources relating to five centuries of global exploration, trade and colonial expansion.

The following volumes are now available to view in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website:

Vol. I. Drawings by William Alexander and Samuel Daniell [in China, Southeast Asia, South America and southern Africa] (Add MS 35300)

Vol. II. Autograph manuscript of Sir John Barrow’s Voyages of Discovery and Research within the Arctic regions (Add MS 35301)

Vol. III. 'An Autobiographical Memoir of Sir John Barrow, Bart. (late of the Admiralty)' (Add MS 35302)

Vol. IV. ‘A Supplementary Chapter to the Biographical Memoir of Sir John Barrow, Bart.’ (Add MS 35303)

Vol. V. Watercolour drawings and printed materials relating to the voyage of H.M.S. North Star to Baffin Bay and Barrow Straits (Add MS 35304)

Vol. VI. Manuscript of The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette (Add MS 35305)

This list will be updated as further volumes are added. You can also browse the collection and read full catalogue descriptions in our online catalogue.

Further Reading:

The search for John Franklin and the discovery of the Northwest Passage, British Library (2018)
Claire Warrior, New discoveries from the lost Franklin expedition, Royal Museums Greenwich (Feb 2020)

16 February 2021

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: a pioneering writer’s life

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Britain’s greatest woman poet, changed the course of literary history not only as a pioneering, modernising writer, world famous in her day, but as an influential political campaigner.  Born in 1806 in Coxhoe Hall, County Durham, she died in 1861 at Casa Guidi, her home in Florence.  In between, she lived a life of precocious achievement, writing poems from the age of six and verse drama in French at eight, and publishing her first book, The Battle of Marathon, at fourteen.  She did this despite living with a disabling, chronic respiratory illness so severe that – like Marcel Proust in his last years – she couldn’t leave her room for years at a time.

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett BrowningPortrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from The poetical works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London,1889-90) British Library flickr

There were other obstacles, too.  Barrett Browning wrote under her own name, at a time when most women published anonymously – Jane Austen as ‘A lady’ – or under male pseudonyms: the Brontë sisters as the Bell brothers, Mary Ann Evans as George Eliot.

As a result, contemporary critical reception was sometimes baldly misogynist: on the other hand, in 1850 she was the first woman to be nominated for Poet Laureate, 159 years before a woman Laureate was finally appointed.  A further challenge to any idea of becoming a writer, at a time with few Black literary role models, may have been that her Jamaican descent made her believe she had black heritage.  She was acutely aware of the appalling violence endured by those enslaved.  EBB, as she styled herself, passionately condemned that violence in her abolitionist poem ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim Point’.

Indeed as her literary fame developed, she deployed it repeatedly to change social attitudes.  She was at the forefront of the shift from Romanticism into an ethical, distinctively Victorian school of writing. In the verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856), the first ever woman’s Bildingsroman, she returned to rape in the form of forced prostitution.  She published in aid of Ragged Schools and against child labour (‘The Cry of the Children’).  Most influentially of all, in two books of political poetry, Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860), she argued for Italian independence, and Italians viewed her as a heroine of the struggle.

Other key works of Barrett Browning’s maturity included her breakthrough collection The Seraphim (1838), Poems (1844) and Poems (1850) – which included ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’, among them one of the most famous poems in English, ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’.  More to the point than its biographical occasion is the way this lyric shows off the poet’s gift for narrative, and a new informal, conversational style, which are the secrets of its popularity.  Her clandestine marriage at forty to the younger, and less-established poet Robert Browning, with whom she moved to Italy, was a love-match which is too often allowed to eclipse her work.  We gain a much more accurate sense of her legacy from noting the writers she influenced, including Emily Dickinson, John RuskinOscar Wilde, Rudyard KiplingVirginia Woolf.

Professor Fiona Sampson
Author of the first biography of Barrett Browning for more than 30 years, Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Profile, W.W. Norton, 2021) 

 

12 February 2021

Chinese New Year in Canton 1731

James Naish was Chief of the English East India Company Council in Canton (Guangzhou), China.  He kept a diary of ‘Observations and Transactions’ which includes a description of Chinese New Year celebrations in January and February 1730/31.

View of  Canton (Guangzhou) circa 1760-1770View of  Canton (Guangzhou) c.1760-1770 Maps K.Top.116.22.2 tab. BL flickr

Naish’s diary reads –

27th January This being the first day of the new Moon & of the new Year, great ceremony is observed by the Mandarins & all other persons in their visits and congratulations thereupon.

30th January The Foyen or Vice Roy of the Province haveing signified his approbation of all sorts of diversions, costly Pageants are daily carried about the streets, in which the State & Power of Mandarins in high stations are represented, Country & Low life well describ’d, & the seasons curiously discover’d.  At night the streets are finely illuminated, & a vast variety of fire works continually seen in the Air from all parts of the City.

17th February The Foyen hath Affixed a chop in several places which putts an end to the long continued festival, & likewise directs all persons to return to their professions & employments, the Mandarins of Justice may punish such Offenders as have been guilty of any crimes since new years day, from which time to this no sort of punishment could have been inflicted upon any criminal whatever.

Account of Chinese New Year celebrations from James Naish's diary
Account of Chinese New Year celebrations from James Naish's diary IOR/G/12/32 p.1 27 January-17 February 1730/31 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

James Naish was a very experienced China trade merchant.  He was supercargo on East India Company voyages to Canton in 1716, 1722, 1725 and 1730, and had also worked for the Ostend Company.  In 1730-1731 he spent a whole year at Canton instead of returning to England between trading seasons, the only English East India Company supercargo ever to do this.   Naish wrote reports on the tea industry during his extended stay.

When China merchant George Arbuthnot arrived back in England in the summer of 1731, he accused Naish of fraud.  Arbuthnot claimed that Naish had understated the amount of money received for goods sold in China and inflated the cost of commodities purchased there.  Naish was also said to have imported a large quantity of gold bullion from China without paying duty. The East India Company decided that Naish had broken his covenant and considered sending a ship to seize his unlicensed goods and bring him to England under arrest.  Naish’s wife Hester was desperate to prevent this.  She had been given a letter of attorney by her husband in 1729 authorising her to conduct his business, so she agreed to deposit £20,000 with the Company to allow Naish to return as a free man.

The Company began proceedings in the Court of Exchequer.  Naish protested his innocence and lodged counter-claims against the Company in the courts.

The legal process dragged on for years.  When Naish made his will in 1736, he left everything to Hester because the size of his estate was uncertain, dependent upon the outcome of several pending law suits.  He said the family had long experience of Hester’s skilful management of his affairs whilst he was abroad and he trusted her to divide the estate as he would wish.  Although Naish did not die until January 1757, this will was the one submitted for probate.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/G/12/32 Observations and Transactions by James Naish at Canton in China (1926, 1929)
The Political State of Great Britain, Volume 44 July-September 1732
The Athenaeum January-June 1892,p.793
Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Courts of King's Bench ..., Volume 2 Naish v East India Company

04 February 2021

East India Company instructions for keeping records

We’re returning to the ship New Year’s Gift to share some more of the instructions it carried.  This time we’re looking at rules for record-keeping in Asia in the earliest days of the East India Company and the use of codes in correspondence.

The Company merchants in the fleet of four ships which sailed from England in March 1613/14 were told before they sailed that they were expected to record their work with care and ‘exquisiteness’. They were provided with –
• Four pairs of ‘faire bookes,’ i.e. journals and ledgers
• Four large ‘industriall’ or day books
• Books for expenses
• Books for copies of letters
• Large ruled sheets of paper for making copies of the journals
• Eight reams of paper, large and small
• Ink
• Penknives
• Quills
• Hard wax

More books had been sent to the Company’s trading post in Bantam in the ship Concord.

East India Company instructions for record-keeping 1614Instructions to East India Company factors 1614 from Thomas Elkington’s notebook IOR/G/40/25 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Having provided ample supplies of stationery, the Company expected accounts to be kept ‘perfectly’ in all places.  The chief factor at Surat, or someone else appointed to the task, was to keep a fair pair of books for the Company general account.  All factors, whether working at settled factories or employed buying and selling commodities in fairs or markets, were to give their accounts from time to time to the chief factor at Surat so they could be brought into the general books there.  But all factors were also to send to London a copy of their journal and the balance of their ledger whenever Company ships sailed for England.  The chief factor was to send by every shipping a verbatim copy of his journal written on the large ruled paper being supplied.  Since all copies sent would be the same size, they could in future be bound together in one volume in London.  The Company also expected to receive the balance of the chief’s ledger from time to time, and an exact copy of his ledger once a year.

Changes in personnel at Surat must not lead to alterations in the methods of record-keeping.  No factor was to take away Company books as had happened in the past.  Completed books were to be sealed up and sent to London, with copies made to retain in the factory if required.  Local coinage and weights should be used in the accounts, with an explanation provided for London.

Similar instructions were given for the factory at Bantam, with a central record taking in information sent by merchants working away from base.  The Company advised all factors to write down immediately everything that happened – ‘our memory at the best hand is very slippery’.  Moreover, sickness and death could strike at any time.

If factors wrote home about an important matter using a dangerous or doubtful conveyance and passage, the Company asked them to write the letters, or at least ‘poynts of moment’, in ‘caracters’ i.e. a code or cipher.  Then, if the letters were intercepted, trade secrets would not be disclosed and cause damage to the Company.  A copy of the cipher was included with the instructions.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/G/40/25 Instructions to East India Company factors from Thomas Elkington’s notebook
IOR/B/5 Minutes of East India Company Court of Directors 1613-1615

29 December 2020

Suffrage scrapbooks: forgotten histories of political activism

When you picture a scrapbook, you likely conjure up an image of a homemade album dedicated to the family or a hobby.  It’s less likely you’ll think of scrapbooks as records of political campaigns, such as women’s suffrage.  Yet here at the British Library, 37 bulging hardback scrapbooks tell us a personal history of suffrage activism through the eyes of Alice Maud Mary Arncliffe Sennett (1862-1936).

Women's Social and Political Union membership card from the scrapbook of Maud Arncliffe SennettWomen's Social and Political Union membership card from the opening volume of Sennett’s first scrapbook. , British Library C.121.g.1.


Actress turned businesswoman; Sennett was a dynamic, strident suffrage campaigner.  She served time in prison on Black Friday in 1910 and again in 1911 after smashing the Daily Mail’s office windows.  She also set up the Northern Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage.

Article 'Why I want the vote' published in The Vote 26 February 1910An article 'Why I want the vote' written by Maud Arncliffe Sennett in 1910 for The Vote, journal of the Women’s Freedom League.

Through all this campaigning, she scrapbooked prolifically.  She kept the key from her husband’s stay at Bloomsbury Street hotel before he picked her up from prison.  More conventionally, she carefully lifted articles from a plethora of publications, encircling them with annotations.

In one instance, next to an article on Herbert Asquith published in 1910, she criticised his ‘cruel looking mouth and sinister eyes’ and wrote how she would like to ‘shoot Asquith right at the place where his heart ought to be’.  Sennett’s scrapbook facilitated her critical engagement with press coverage on women’s rights.

Sennett also used her scrapbooks to record the support networks underpinning her activism.  One way she did this was through preserving congratulatory letters praising her public speaking.  In her first scrapbook, she included a letter from suffrage activist Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, who described Sennett as the ‘one of the greatest platform successes she had ever known’.

Before this letter however, Sennett pasted in another one.  It was from her servant Bessie.  Working for her mistress since at least 1906, census records identify Bessie as Eliza Punchard, who lived with her husband and three sons in Beckenham.

After hearing Sennett’s speech, Bessie wrote, 'Do you know you made a simply splendid speech, I was so proud of you’.  She continued, writing how she would happily go to prison of her accord if it would help the cause; she would ‘make the sacrifice in my own right not to feel that you will be worrying over me if I should go’.

Lifting the cover of Sennett’s fourth scrapbook powerfully articulates Sennett’s appreciation of her servant’s support.  In a beautiful, flowing font, Sennett dedicates her scrapbook to Bessie, ‘the only one true and trusted friend I have found…the star to which I have hitched by wagon of loneliness’.  Bessie’s support meant a great deal to Sennett, so much so that she immortalised it in the front of her scrapbook.

Sennett’s scrapbooks offer an intensely personal history of the suffrage activism, blurring the lines between the personal and the political. She chronicles the exceptional and mundane, turning to an assortment of materials to offer her history of the suffrage campaign.

Over a century later we are given a tantalising glimpse into the material, emotional histories of suffrage activism, as well as forgotten women such as Bessie, who played a vital part in women’s political campaigning.


Cherish Watton
PhD student studying a history of scrapbooking in Britain from 1914-1980 at Churchill College, Cambridge.  She founded and runs the website Women’s Land Army 
@CherishWatton


Further Reading:
Read more about Arncliffe-Sennett’s scrapbooks.
Read more about suffrage scrapbooks in the American context in Ellen Gruber’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 2012, chapter 5.

 

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