A recently catalogued collection of India Office Private Papers is now available to researchers in the British Library’s Asian & African Studies reading room. This comprises the papers of Ralph Esmond Selby Tanner, British Army and Burma Frontier Service; and his wife Penelope Tanner, writer, photographer and illustrator.
During the Second World War, Ralph Tanner was part of the Commando unit Layforce that saw desperate fighting in Crete in 1941, and served with the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry during the retreat from Burma in 1942. His health seriously damaged by this, he spent long periods in hospital in India, before returning to England to recover. While in England he met his wife Penelope Dell, and they were married in May 1944. He returned to Burma a year later as part of the British Military Government, before transferring to civil employ as the Assistant Resident at Namhsan. In May 1948, he travelled to Tanzania on Colonial Service, soon to be joined by Penelope. They spent the next seventeen years living and working in Africa, before returning to the UK in 1965. The collection contains Ralph’s letters to his parents describing his experiences in Crete and Burma 1941-43, and letters to his wife Penelope while settling into his new job in Burma in 1945-46.
The collection also has letters from Penelope to Ralph. These date from before they were married up to just before Penelope left England to join him in Burma in late 1946. These very personal letters document their developing relationship, family politics, their wedding, the health of themselves and their young son, and planning their future together. When the series of letters began in late 1943, the Second World War was still raging, with regular air raids on London. In one letter written in January 1944, she described a close call: ‘The second air raid we had was very noisy too, and most unlike me I went downstairs, and as I got to the bottom a piece of shrapnel came hurtling down the lift shaft, hit one of the supports and ricocheted against the wall about 3 inches above my head, and shot down into the basement’.
One fascinating aspect of Penelope’s letters is the light they shine on the amount of work required of her to organise moving herself and her baby son out to Burma to begin a new life with her husband. From packing all their possessions, arranging shipping, dealing with travel agents, obtaining the correct travel documents, to even thinking about what furniture they would need in their new bungalow in Burma. Being a skilled illustrator, Penelope sent Ralph sketches of furniture she thought they might need with precise measurements and instructions on having them made by Burmese craftsmen.
A very creative person, Penelope Tanner was a writer, photographer and illustrator. The collection includes several unpublished manuscripts written by her. They range from short stories, articles, a crime novel, a series of stories on cave dwellers in Kenya, and a memoir of her life in Burma with her husband and son.
India Office Records
Papers of Ralph Esmond Selby Tanner (1921-2017), Burma Frontier Service 1939-1946; and his wife Penelope Tanner (nee Dell) (1918-1985), collection reference Mss Eur F741, available to view in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room, and the catalogue is searchable on Explore Archives and Manuscripts.
Other Tanner papers held at the British Library:
• Mss Eur Photo Eur 411: Copies of letters from Ralph Esmond Selby Tanner, 1945-46.
• Mss Eur C522: Paper on `Religion and Economics: Kodaung Hill Tracts, Burma, 1945-8 and Sukumaland, Tanganyika 1951-5' by Dr Ralph Esmond Selby Tanner, 1990.
• C63/197 (formerly Mss Eur R195): Ralph Esmond Selby Tanner interviewed by David M. Blake, 7th August 1990.
Burma 1942: memories of a retreat: the diary of Ralph Tanner, KOYLI by R.E.S. Tanner and D.A. Tanner (Cheltenham: The History Press, 2019), BL reference YKL.2020.a.10619.