American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?


Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

14 December 2017

The 1867 British North America Act

On 16 November the Canada-UK Council visited the British Library with delegates taking part in the Dilemmas of Democracy conference that was held at Runnymede.  The North American curators had prepared a ‘Show and Tell” with a particular focus on the 150th Anniversary of the passage of the 1867 British North America Act which had established the Dominion of Canada.

The material reflected on relations pre and post confederation, including this beautifully illustrated work containing a painting of the Canada stand at the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Also displayed was Portraits of British North Americans, a collection of biographies illustrated by William Notman's photographic portraits;

Portraits of British North Americans, shelfmark 010803.f.1.


Finally, an interesting work which makes the case for financing a Canadian Pacific railway, an issue that was closely tied to confederation.

Suggestions on the true and practical
The Confederation of the British North American Provinces; their past history and future prospects... Shelfmark 10410.dd.13.

The delegates were given a short presentation on one of the books on display: a History of Canada 1849-59, by Alexander Tilloch Galt, which was published in London in 1860.  The book was of particular interest because Galt (who was one of the Fathers of Confederation a few years later) was the Minister of Finance in the coalition government of Upper and Lower Canada at the time. The book can be understood as a Prospectus to persuade influential Britons – and notably financiers – that Canada represented a safe long-term investment. Galt had a personal as well as a political interest in conveying this message, as it was over this period that he was amassing a considerable fortune in the Grand Trunk railroad. It was important to keep the money flowing!

Canada: 1849 to 1859, shelfmark 8154.b.45.

Galt starts out by confirming (what few in England perhaps understood at that time) that Canada was already essentially independent.  In 1846 Lord John Russell, as Prime Minister, had admitted the principle of responsible government in Canada.  A new system had been inaugurated, and: “…as from that date no attempt has ever been made to interfere with its free and legitimate operation. The political differences and difficulties of Canada have been dealt with by her own people and legislature, and Great Britain has never been required to take part in any local question whatever” (except to give effect to the express desire of the Provincial legislature).

Galt notes, however, that the true start date for Canada’s sole control of its trade and customs duties was not 1846, with the admission of this principle, and with the repeal of the Corn Laws, but 1848, with the repeal of differential duties, and 1849 with repeal of discriminatory navigation laws.

Canada had started the decade of 1850-60 with a “ravaged exchequer”, still recovering from the violent uprisings of 1837-8. But – says Galt – it had stopped asking for, and did not expect, help.

He sketches, first, the institutional machinery of democracy that had already been put in place. Membership of the Lower House had grown from 84 to 130 in 1853, and the voting franchise had been extended to $30 pa (roughly £6) in towns, and $20 pa (or £4) in rural areas.  Elections had been introduced for the Upper House, which consisted of a single member from each of 48 districts.

He notes Queen Victoria’s 1857 choice of Ottawa as Canada’s capital, and records that “public buildings are now in course of erection” – but gives no hint of the controversy surrounding this choice which had already caused one Government to fall, and which rumbled on for a full decade.

He outlines the system of municipal government  that had been introduced in both Upper and Lower Canada in 1849/50 and that had now been consolidated into a single Statute, securing powers  “to levy local rates for local objects” and giving each district “the most perfect control of its own affairs”. In Lower Canada (modern Quebec), he observes, an earlier attempt had been made to introduce a system shortly after the 1837/38 rebellion, “but with the exception of several English counties, the effort proved a complete failure”!

The History goes on to enumerate the progress achieved in education, where a new system had been introduced in 1846 following an examination of European models. By 1858 there were 3,866 schools in Upper Canada, with 293,683 scholars, and 2,800 schools in Lower Canada, with 130,940 scholars. (One of the pleasures of this history is Galt’s precision with numbers. An appendix at the end records tax and excise revenues literally to the penny!)

The question of land-holding, he observes, had been bedevilled by the existence of ‘Clergy Reserves’ and of ‘Feudal or Seigneurial Tenure’:

  • The Clergy Reserves constituted one seventh of all land in Upper Canada which had been appropriated by Imperial legislation for the support of protestant Clergy. This was a “fruitful cause of evil of every kind”. The problem had been resolved in 1854 with full separation of church and state.
  • The Seigneurial land problem in Lower (ie French) Canada was a legacy from Europe where its “extinction had been bought with much blood”. It had been a difficult issue to address because the problem was rooted in fundamental laws of property. In the end, the government had agreed to pay £650,000 in indemnity to those whose rights of property were required to be surrendered.

Galt is passionate in countering the charge that Canada had been “lavish and wasteful” in resolving such problems (which leads one to suppose that he had indeed faced such criticism from sceptical British financiers). On the contrary, he says, questions of property rights had been the cause of political division and violent disorder in many other parts of the world. Their resolution in Canada had been achieved with remarkable serenity and economy.

He records that land in Canada is available for purchase by immigrants at 2 shillings an acre, with the responsibility of government confined to “opening of the leading county road” in each district at a total cost of only £15,000 pa. “No further expenditure is made from the public chest”.

He goes on to describe the existing infrastructure of roads, canals (with the enlargement of the Welland Canal in 1841 and thereafter, meaning that vessels of up to 800 tons could now reach Lake Ontario) and rail with 1,112 miles of trunk rail – or 2,093 miles if spur lines were included – now representing “probably the most complete and comprehensive railway system in the world”. 

In order to “remedy the evil effects” of English regulations that favoured its own steamships, Canada had been obliged to subsidise a weekly line of steamships of her own at a cost of £45,000 pa.  The journey from Quebec to Liverpool took 10 days 3 hours. Liverpool to Quebec was a little slower, at 11 days 5 hrs.

Throughout the history, Galt is careful to avoid all reference to political turmoil in Canada (though these were pretty turbulent years!) “Canada stands at the bar of public opinion in England to be judged not by the acts of any party, but as a whole: and no public man possessing any claim to patriotism would seek, by parading sectional difficulties and disputes, to gain position in Canada through the disparagement of the country and her acts in England.”

Galt ends on an optimistic note for the future for Canada, and Canada-UK relations: “…whatever may be the future destinies of Canada, her people will always value as their most precious right the free and liberal institutions they enjoy, and will cherish the warmest sentiments of regard towards the mother-country, from whom they have received them.”

- Anthony Cary

29 November 2017

Winston Whyte’s Barber Shop Trial

The barber shop is a curious phenomenon, a masculine space which seems to transcend boundaries of typical service provision. The African-Caribbean barber shop appears to represent an even more varied intersection of use, activity and meaning. Going through copies of Flamingo in preparation for the upcoming Windrush exhibition at the British Library, I came across a short story by Winston Whyte.

Edited by Edward Scobie, the first issue of this vibrant but short-lived journal was published in September 1961; unfortunately, its final issue was published just two years later, in November 1963. Britain’s longstanding African-Caribbean communities saw a sharp growth from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, many were part of the so-called ‘Windrush Generation’, hence Flamingo was envisioned as a ‘voice’ for the ‘350,000 West Indians and many thousands of Africans and Asians’ that lived in Britain.[1] In a short story segment each month, Flamingo would publish Caribbean or West African authors. This included the work of unpublished writers, such as Winston Whyte, but also famous authors, notably Samuel Selvon[2]. These stories were complimented with comical illustrations drawn by Dave Robinson.


Barber shop image 1

Winston Whyte, Flamingo, April 1962, p.17-19.

Set in Pedro’s barber shop in Notting Hill, the ‘Barber Shop Trial’ constructs the complex and lively world of this imagined but authentic space, part of what Whyte calls ‘Barber Shop Society’. The sentiment conjured up in Winston Whyte’s story, which was published over fifty-years ago, is more than a historical phenomenon, as evidenced by Inua Ellams’ play, ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ which is currently showing at the National Theatre.

Barber shop image 2



Flamingo, April 1962, p.17.

The narrator explains how ‘this is a scene poles apart from the English Barber Shop where conversation is limited to “Good Morning Sir. Your turn Sir. How would you like it Sir?” A world away from this, at Pedro’s, they were always ‘talkin’ ‘bout something. It could be ‘bout conditions at home, colour prejudice in Britain, women, politics or any other subject under the sun’. Although set in an imagined barber shop, one can assume that Pedro’s was based on numerous real barber shops, like those advertised in Flamingo.

Speaking in general, the narrator asserts that ‘any good Jamaican barber is philosopher, preacher, politician, lawyer, father-confessor, comedian and family guidance councillor all rolled in one’. It is the intersection between the social, political, domestic and material which has led to the African-Caribbean barber shop becoming such an important and layered symbol and space. The often-ironic use of the barber shop is evidenced by the fact that Lloyd, the West Indian regular at Pedro’s, never actually got his hair cut there.

Barber shop image 3


Flamingo, April 1962, p.18.

Although the ‘Barber Shop Trial’ evokes a sense of unity and comfort, competition and division were also rife at Pedro’s. Using the format of a legal trial, Whyte tells the story of a heated debate between Pedro (the barber), Lloyd (his regular West Indian customer) and ‘the African’ (a ‘well-spoken’ barrister). Through a dispute about Lloyd and Pedro’s lateness, alongside accentuated linguistic and occupational differences, this story explores and solidifies boundaries of Africa and the Caribbean. Pedro, Lloyd and the other customers speak in dialect, this is set in contrast to ‘the African’s faultless English’. This reflects the tensions, as often invoked through stereotyping, that existed between Britain’s diverse black communities.

So, when you’re next deciding where to get your haircut remember that ‘Good humour an’ judgement mean good haircuts.’

Naomi Oppenheim is a PhD candidate on a CDP at the British Library and UCL. She is currently researching British-Caribbean popular culture and the politics of history in the post-war period.


[1] Editorial, Flamingo, September 1961, inside cover.

[2] Samuel Selvon, ‘Late Snack for the Mop’, Flamingo, June 1962, pp.16-17

24 November 2017

Martha Gellhorn: The Reporter as a Young Poet

What makes juvenilia so fascinating? When reading the works written by an author in their youth one often looks for glimpses of the ideas and obsessions they would later develop in their works. But it sometimes also feels like a small betrayal, to read these raw texts written before authors have developed their voice, or met the red pen of an editor. There is something about teenage poetry that makes it particularly excruciating – perhaps because it awakens a dormant fear that one day someone may find our own ring-bound poetry notebook in the bottom of a drawer. It is hard however to resist the temptation to see what war reporter Martha Gellhorn was like when she was 17.

759px-Martha_Gellhorn_stamp (1)
Martha Gellhorn postage stamp. Part of the 2008 American Journalists stamp series (Source: US Postal Service via Wikimedia Commons)

As a star correspondent for the American magazine Collier’s Weekly during the late 1930s and 1940s, Martha Gellhorn became well known for her first-person chronicles of the Second World War. Gellhorn covered the principal fronts during the conflict, and wrote a memorable report on the liberation of the Dachau camp for Collier’s in 1945. Gellhorn had started her career as a war reporter in Spain during the civil war, and went on to cover most major twentieth century conflicts, including the Vietnam War. Her best journalistic writing is collected in The Face of War (1959) [9104.d.10.].

Gellhorn’s life, and especially her turbulent marriage to Ernest Hemingway, has been fictionalised in different genres, from our Eccles Writers in Residence Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway to the less successful HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn.

Before she became well known for her reporting and ruthless commentary however, Gellhorn was writing poetry. From 1923 she attended the newly founded John Burroughs School in her native St Louis, Missouri. The school was a coeducational and progressive institution for the time. The British Library holds an issue of the John Burroughs Review [ZD.9.a.2618], the school magazine where Gellhorn published her first works. The magazine was published five times a year by the students of the school and Gellhorn was part of the board of editors.


The John Burroughs School Review is an impressive publication for a high school magazine, with a modernist cover designed by Clark Smith.  The November 1925 issue contained poems, short stories and book reviews, as well as adverts for local businesses.  Gellhorn was 17 when the magazine printed a sequence of six poems titled ‘Bits of Glass’, three of which are reproduced below:

The John Burroughs Review, November 1925 (extract from page 16)

Gellhorn was fiercely protective of her reputation. She banned the reprinting of her first novel, the semi-autobiographical work What Mad Pursuit, published in 1934 (the Library holds a copy at YD.2012.a.2572 - read more about it in Naomi Wood's blog post). But despite Gellhorn’s and many other writers’ anxiety about their early attempts at writing, these texts will always remain fascinating for readers who want to find out how and when they became the writers they admire.

Now remember to hide that notebook the next time you visit your parents’ house.


Mercedes Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas