Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

30 May 2023

‘Bringing up a chicken to peck out their eye’: A niece’s betrayal

Alice Thornton (1626–1707), a Yorkshire gentlewoman, made sure that her life didn’t go untold by writing at least four versions of it in the 1660s to 1690s, two of which were acquired by the British Library in 2009. But why was she so keen to record her life and what was the significance of a chick-induced eye injury which she included?

Manuscript written by my dear Grandmother Mrs ThorntonFlyleaf of Add MS 88897/2, with Thornton’s monogram (AWT), the date of her husband’s death and a later inscription by her grandson.

Halfway through Thornton’s final autobiographical account, she tells a story about the writing of an earlier book:

‘About March 25, 1669, I was writing of my first book of my life to enter the sad sicknesses and death of my dear husband, together with all those afflictions befell me that year, with the remarks of God’s dealing with myself, husband and children until my widowed condition… There happened [to] me then a very strange and dangerous accident… as I was writing in my said book, I took out this poor chicken, out of my pocket, to feed it with bread and set it on the table besides me. It, picking about the bread innocently, did peep up at my left eye … [and] picked one pick at the white of my left eye … which did so extremely smart and ache that I could not look up or see.’

Thornton's account of the incident with the chickThornton recounts the incident with the chick, below the line: Add MS 88897/2, page 177.

This story about her pet chicken, though, soon turns into an account of why she never forgave her niece, Anne Danby, for spreading rumours about her and her family, a topic that much consumes her in this final book. Danby – like the chick – had been taken in, fed and looked after by Thornton. This connection is explicitly made by Thornton:  

‘There was some who jested with me and said they had heard of an old saying of bringing up a chicken to peck out their eye. But now they saw I had made good that old saying both in this bird and [in] what harm I had suffered from Mrs Danby of whom I had been so careful and preserved her and hers from starving.’

Thornton's account of her niece's betrayal‘Upon my sad condition and sickness that befell me by the slanders raised against me, July 20th 1668’: Add MS 88897/1, page 246.

It seems likely from internal evidence that Thornton was writing this final book in the 1690s, after the death of her only adult son. This loss might explain why Thornton writes so much about Danby’s earlier betrayal. Thornton’s main heir was now her daughter, also named Alice, who was married to Thomas Comber. Thornton’s close relationship with Comber was one of the topics of Danby’s gossip, as was his marriage to Thornton’s daughter (then only fourteen) in late 1668. Thornton was perhaps keen to set the record straight about this match a quarter of a century later, when the Thornton name was dying out and being succeeded by that of the Combers. 

The motives behind Thornton’s writing four versions of her life are being tackled by an AHRC-funded project, ‘Alice Thornton’s Books’, which will also make freely available an online edition of all four manuscripts.

Chicken pecking the ground  from a music scoreDetail of a chicken pecking the ground, from a music score, 1650. British Library shelfmark: 59.e.19, between pages 30-31.

We haven’t been able to trace the saying about the chicken and the eye – have you heard it before?

Cordelia Beattie
Professor of Women’s and Gender History, University of Edinburgh

Further Reading:

Cordelia Beattie, Suzanne Trill, Joanne Edge, Sharon Howard. 'The Four Books By Alice Thornton'. Alice Thornton's Books [accessed 23 April 2023]

Charles Jackson. Ed. The Autobiography of Mrs. Alice Thornton of East Newton, Co. York. Durham: Surtees Society, 1875

Alice Thornton, My First Booke of My Life, ed. Raymond A. Anselment (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014)

25 May 2023

The wreck of the Arniston

In 1814 the East India ship Arniston was chartered as a British Government transport.  The ship sailed from Portsmouth in June and made for Ceylon, via Madeira and the Cape of Good Hope, arriving at Colombo in January 1815.

The old lighthouse, flagstaff, and gun battery at ColomboThe old lighthouse, flagstaff, and gun battery at Colombo from John Ferguson, Ceylon in 1893 (London, 1893) British Library shelfmark: Digital Store 010057.e.2


The Arniston sailed on its return voyage from Ceylon on 4 April 1815 in a convoy with two Royal Navy ships and six East Indiamen.  Squally weather and heavy seas drove the ship away from the convoy.  All the sails were blown away or bent.  On 30 May 1815 the ship heeled and broke apart near Cape Lagullas or Aguilhas at the southern tip of Africa.

Only six of the crew managed to reach the shore and survive: Charles Stewart Scott, Philip Shea, William Drummond, William Fish, Thomas Mansfield, and John Lewis .  They tried to walk to safety but feared they were lost, so returned to the wreck and subsisted mainly on a cask of oatmeal which had come ashore.  On 14 June they were discovered by a farmer’s son who was out shooting.  The men stayed with the farmer for a week and then set off for Cape Town, arriving there on 26 June to tell their tragic tale.

Report of the wreck of the Arniston, naming the survivors and dead

Report of the wreck of the Arniston, naming the survivors and dead - Mirror of the Times 28 October 1815 British Newspaper Archive

About 345 men, women, and children drowned.  There were British Army invalids, and about 100 seamen from British warships in India.  The named fatalities included Lord Molesworth, Lt Col in the 2nd Ceylon Regiment, and his wife Frances; Lt Gilbert Brice, Royal Navy Agent for Transports; and Anna Twisleton, 12-year-old daughter of the Archdeacon of Colombo.

In September 1815 reports of the wreck began to appear in British newspapers.  Death notices were placed by the families of some of the victims, including one for seventeen-year-old Samuel Nugent Legh Richmond., eldest son of Reverend Legh Richmond of Turvey in Bedfordshire.  His father had planned for Nugent, as he was known, to follow him into the priesthood, and was very disappointed when the young man decided that he wanted to go to sea.  Nugent was found a place in a merchant vessel sailing to Ceylon – the Arniston.  In June 1814 Reverend Richmond said goodbye to his son at Portsmouth, giving him a Bible.

The family received letters from Nugent written on the outward voyage, expressing his regret for his past conduct and his hope that one day he would be a consolation to his parents.  Then his father saw reports of the loss of the Arniston. Nugent was not listed amongst the survivors and his family was plunged into mourning.

But in the winter, a letter from Nugent arrived.  He had not embarked for the return voyage of the Arniston and seemed unaware of what had happened to the ship.  He was then third officer of the brig Kandian.

Nugent stayed in Asia, working in different merchant ships.  In 1824 he was shipwrecked, losing his private investment in the voyage and nearly all his personal belongings except for a small trunk containing his Bible, a copy of Annals of the Poor, two suits of clothes, and his watch.  A subscription of 100 guineas was raised by Reverend Thomas Thomason to help him.

Having postponed marrying his fiancée in Calcutta until he had made money on another voyage, Nugent returned to discover that she had died in his absence.  Nugent then decided to go to his family in England, but died of fever on the way.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Asiatic Journal 2 (1816) pp.32-34 - wreck of the Arniston
Thomas Shuttleworth Grimshawe, A Memoir of the Rev. Legh Richmond (5th edition, 1829) 
Thomas Fry, Domestic portraiture… (London, 1835)

 

23 May 2023

Robert Clive: From Hero to Villain

During Robert Clive’s lifetime, the East India Company commissioned two portraits showing him as a hero.  The first of these, a marble statue of Clive in Roman military costume, was installed in 1764 inside East India House, their headquarters in London.  It was one of four marble portrait statues commissioned by the Company in 1760 of men dressed as Romans.  These neo-classical statues showed the Company as the conqueror of a new Asian empire, with London at its centre.

Statue of Robert Clive in Roman military costumeStatue of Robert Clive in Roman military costume.  Peter Scheemakers, 1764. British Library, Foster 53.  Today, the statue is in Britain’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office.

Less than a decade later, Robert Clive’s reputation as a hero had collapsed.  In the late 1760s he returned to Britain, bringing with him a staggering personal fortune that he had amassed in Bengal.  Regarded as one of the richest men in Europe, he conspicuously bought properties in England and Wales, and spared no expense on rebuilding and furnishing these new residences.  Clive’s spending spree coincided with reports of the Bengal Famine, a catastrophe that killed about 10 million people.  The source of Clive’s fortune came under scrutiny and his character was aggressively criticised by the British public.

In May 1771, Town & Country, a satirical magazine, published a searing memoir of Robert Clive which named him 'Nero Asiaticus', who had 'fleeced the Asiatics as much as he was able'.  This alias compared him to the insane emperor who watched Rome burn to the ground.  The comparison was derived from the marble statue of Robert Clive in Roman dress inside East India House.

Robert Clive receiving from the Nawab of Bengal the grant for Lord Clive’s Military Fund.Robert Clive receiving from the Nawab of Bengal the grant for Lord Clive’s Military Fund. Edward Penny, 1772. British Library, Foster 91. Today, the painting is in the Asia & Africa Reading Room of the British Library.

Perhaps to heal his toxifying reputation, the East India Company commissioned Edward Penny, the Royal Academy’s first 'Professor of Painting', to create the second artwork of Robert Clive, this time showing him performing a heroic deed.  Titled 'Lord Clive explaining to the Nabob the situation of the invalids in India', the painting shows him with the Nawab of Bengal, at the alleged moment when the East India Company’s Military Fund was founded.  In the background are the fund’s intended recipients.  On the right is a group of needy soldiers and at the centre, a beautiful young widow sits, surrounded by children.  The painting was completed in 1772 and exhibited in the Royal Academy’s annual show before being moved to East India House.

'The India Directors in the Suds.''The India Directors in the Suds.' Town & Country, December 1772. The cartoon is accompanied by a descriptive text.

The Royal Academy’s annual shows were busy, popular public events.  Edward Penny’s painting of Clive would have been seen by thousands of people.  One of those people happened to be a cartoonist who worked for Town & Country magazine.  The resulting cartoon, titled 'The India Directors in the Suds' (suds being a euphemism for excrement), was published later that same year.  In place of the Nawab of Bengal and his entourage, it shows a procession of Indian ghosts who represent the Bengal Famine’s victims.  A terrified Robert Clive is shown leaping backwards.   Behind him, in place of the invalids and the widow, the East India Company’s directors stare at the scene.

Artworks like these demonstrate how the East India Company tried to cultivate a strong, positive reputation in London by commissioning artworks.  However, such manoeuvring, particularly in Georgian London’s critical atmosphere, could also backfire.

Jennifer Howes
Art Historian specialising in South Asia

Further reading:
Anonymous. 'Memoirs of a Nabob.' Town & Country, London, May 1771: 255-256.
Anonymous. 'The India Directors in the Suds or the Jaghire Factor Dismayed at the Ghosts of the Black Merchants.' Town & Country, London, December 1772: 705-706.
Hazzard, Kieran. 'The Clives at Home: Self-fashioning, Collecting, and British India.' In Coutu, Joan. Politics and the English Country House, 1688-1800. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, February 2023.
Howes, Jennifer. The Art of a Corporation: The East India Company as Patron and Collector. New Delhi: Routledge, April 2023