Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

28 July 2016

Words will eat themselves

There is something romantic and tragic about iron gall ink. It has allowed the most beautiful words to take form. The best and the worst words. Dull and incidental household inventories; execution warrants for kings; orders for wars; scientific discoveries; declarations of love. And some of the most incredible poems, prose, songs and stories known to man.

And yet iron gall ink is slowly destroying itself and the paper on which it sits. Words are literally eating themselves into oblivion. Even the ink's composition and ingredients are a result of irritation and death. A sting; a bite; a reaction; a tiny extinction.


Example of iron gall ink damage and subsequent 20th century repair on Add MS 38599 c. early 17th century. Cc-by

I recently attended an Iron Gall Ink Study Day with our brilliant Conservation Department. Three of our conservators have made a study of the ink and their knowledge and research on the subject is amazing. The following are a few images from the day and some manuscripts which show iron gall ink damage.


Example of iron gall ink damage on a vellum manuscript.  Cc-by

Iron gall ink is made from tannin (most often taken from oak marble galls), vitriol (iron sulphate), gum and water. The galls are a tree's reaction to the eggs laid by tiny wasps. The galls serve to protect the little wasps as they develop. One of the galls I picked up had the body of the wasp lying next to it. It must have emerged from the hole in the gall and expired almost immediately. Allegedly, the richest tannin was produced when the body of the wasp was trapped inside. The best galls were apparently from Aleppo as they have three times as much tannin as British galls (at only 17%).


Examples of oak marble galls. Cc-by

The way in which iron gall ink was applied also relates to levels of damage. If applied with a brush, the ink is less likely to eat through the page, whereas applied with a metal nib, the ink bites through.


Same iron gall ink but applied with a brush (left) and a metal nib (right). Cc-by

Similarly, the composition and recipe of the ink affects just how much damage it inflicts. A balanced recipe is more likely to be stable than one which contains larger proportions of gallotannic acid or iron sulphate. Here's a link to just one recipe for the ink. There were hundreds if not thousands of recipes in use at any one time.

  IronGall4  IronGall5

Ingredients in iron gall ink (left) and the colour of the iron sulphate and gallotannic acid when mixed together (right).Cc-by

Why, then, if the damage was evident, was iron gall ink in constant use until relatively recently? It was probably because paper (and indeed vellum) were of good quality up until the mass production of paper in the eighteenth century. Once the paper quality decreased, the effect of iron gall ink was particularly noticeable. Indeed, the most damaged manuscripts I have seen date from the nineteenth century. Wilkie Collins was a particular horror as he scribbled out his lines constantly. The paper on which he wrote was incredibly thin. Much of his manuscripts flake in places where he has crossed out. 


Add MS 41060, Drafts of Basil and Mr Wray's Cash-Box by Wilkie Collins. Cc-by

The ink's path of destruction moves in three dimension. It creeps through entire text blocks consuming the innards of volumes. Until recently, nobody knew that it was both the tannin and the iron sulphate which were damaging. Our Conservation Team are constantly looking at ways to stabilise, treat and better understand iron gall ink. But even then, they say that there is no stopping time: iron gall ink will eventually destroy the prose, poems, letters and warrants. Vitriolic words indeed.

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts 1601-1850.

To find out more about our Conservation Department their blog is here and their web pages are here

26 July 2016

‘Girls bowled, batted, ran and catched’

Are you surprised when I tell you that women’s cricket was played in the 1700s? The first recorded match took place in Surrey on 26 July 1745 between teams from Bramley and Hambleton.

Here is the match report from the Derby Mercury of 9 August 1745:

‘The greatest Cricket Match that ever was played in the South Part of England, was on Friday the 26th of last Month, on Gosden Common near Guildford in Surrey, between eleven Maids of Bramley, and eleven Maids of Hambleton, dressed all in White, the Bramley Maids had blue Ribbons, and  the Hambleton Maids red Ribbons on their Heads; the Bramley Girls got 119 Notches, and the Hambleton Girls 127; there was of both Sexes the greatest Number that ever was seen on such an Occasion, the Girls bowled, batted, ran, and catched, as well as any Men could do in that Game.’


  Cricket - girl with bat

An English Girl from  W S Gilbert, The Bab Ballads (1898) BL flickr  Noc


Nearly 150 years later, two teams of women were formed as ‘The Original English Lady Cricketers’.  The aim was to prove the ‘suitability of the National Game as a pastime for the fair sex in preference to Lawn Tennis and other less scientific games’.  The young players were carefully selected and went through a rigorous programme of training and practice.

  Women's Cricket 2 - Cropped
‘The Original English Lady Cricketers’ from Marjorie Pollard, Cricket for women and girls (London, 1934)

The elevens toured the main towns of the UK from 1890, putting on exhibition matches in a ‘select and refined’ manner.  The women were ‘elegantly and appropriately attired’, and accompanied by a matron at all engagements. 

Advertisements for the tour described the Lady Cricketers as a ‘Genuine Novelty’ but stressed that the entertainment was ‘Sport not Clowning’.  The women were ‘Refined Lady Athletes, not Burlesque Masqueraders’. 

  Women's Cricket 3

  British Newspaper Archive  The Era  15 March 1890 Noc

Newspaper commentators greeted the formation of the troupe with some cynicism. One widely published report was condescending about the forthcoming matches: ‘when scrambling across the pitch to steal a short run, we fear that dignity and elegance can with difficulty be preserved.  The appearance of pads beneath a short skirt is very clumsy.  It will be curious, again, to see how many of the team can throw properly, without causing the ribald populace to snigger.  Of one thing there can be no doubt, that these lady cricketers are brave, very brave women, and also highly original’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Marjorie Pollard, Cricket for women and girls (London, 1934)
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Derby Mercury 9 August 1745; The Era 15 March 1890; Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette 1 April 1890

21 July 2016

Harry Michie - With the Roughriders in the Mediterranean

Earlier this month, we remembered Charles Robert Dunt, a museum clerk who became the first member of the library departments of the British Museum to die in the First World War. On 21 July the Museum also lost Sergeant Harry Michie, a clerk in the Department of Printed Books, Maps, Charts, and Plans. Sergeant Michie served in the 1st City of London Yeomanry, a territorial cavalry regiment known as the "Roughriders".


Memorial Michie

City of London Yeomanry war memorial in Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London - picture courtesy of author


The City of London Yeomanry spent most of the opening years of the war in the Mediterranean.  They operated in Egypt as part of the force defending the Suez Canal. From mid-August 1915 the regiment took part in the Gallipoli Campaign, suffering severe casualities in the Battle of Scimitar Hill. Returning to Egypt in November, the regiment had to deal with high-rates of sickness in the extreme heat of the Sinai Desert. By June 1916, the regiment had almost 100 "ineffectives”, 20 of whom were in hospital.

The regimental history records the death of two of those that had been admitted to hospital: Sergeant Harry Michie and Private William James Pitt. Michie died in the 17th General Hospital in Alexandria from enteric fever (typhoid). He is buried in the Alexandria (Hadra) War Memorial Cemetery.

Harry Michie was born at Stratford, Essex in 1886, the second youngest of the ten children of Duncan and Lucretia Michie. His mother Lucretia Joy was born in Kent in 1844, the daughter of Charles and Harriet of Charlton, near Dover.  His father Duncan Michie was born at Lochlee in Angus in 1844 or 1845, the son of a gamekeeper. At the time of the 1861 Census, Duncan was working as a footman at Brechin Castle. He married Lucretia in Kent in 1865. By 1871, the couple were living at Stratford, Essex, while Duncan was working as a railway porter. He joined the British Museum in 1874, working first as a 2nd Class Attendant in the Zoological Department, before moving to the Department of Oriental Antiquities (presumably after the zoological collections moved to the new museum at Kensington).   Duncan died in 1898 aged 54, by which time the family had moved to Leytonstone, where the widowed Lucretia and her remaining children were still living in 1911. Lucretia died in 1922, aged 77.

Harry Michie followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the British Museum as a boy attendant in the Department of Printed Books on 5 March 1900. He became part of the adult staff on 25 September 1905. Unfortunately Michie's army service records do not seem to have survived, so we do not know the exact date he enlisted at Stratford for the City of London Yeomanry.


Memorial Michie 2

Michie's name on City of London Yeomanry war memorial in Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London - picture courtesy of author


Harry Michie's name can be found on the City of London Yeomanry memorial in the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, as well as on the British Museum war memorial at Bloomsbury and the memorial for British Librarians at the British Library at St Pancras. His name also features on the British Museum's roll of honour, which is at the Natural History Museum in Kensington.


Memorial Michie 3

British Museum's roll of honour at the Natural History Museum, Kensington, London - picture courtesy of author


Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager Cc-by

Further reading:
A. S. Hamilton, The City of London Yeomanry (Roughriders) (London: Hamilton Press, 1936).
Stuart Latham, Roughriders: the City of London Yeomanry during the First World War (Swindon: S&T Sales and Marketing, 2012).