Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

27 August 2015

Robins: representations of benevolence or xenophobia?

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Curator Alison Bailey gives an insight into the work behind the exhibition Animal Tales now open at the British Library.

The writing of exhibition labels can be both a terrible tyranny and an exhilarating exercise. In the attempt to distil everything that might put an item into a specific context in about a hundred words there are always some questions unanswered, some matters unaddressed.  Moreover, there is no room for footnotes, and the cagey use of “perhaps” or “seems” has to be rationed – so inevitably the tone is more dogmatic and definite than might be the case with more space. Luckily for me, the label writing for Animal Tales was shared between Matthew Shaw (Lead Curator) and Barbara Hawes and me (Co-Curators) and a blog provides me with a chance to give a taste of a few of the things I couldn’t cover in my label for History of the Red-Breast Family.

  Red-Breast Family
History of the Red-Breast Family: being an introduction to the Fabulous History written by S. Trimmer. London: Sold by Darton and Harvey, 1793. C.193.a.126. Noc

Sarah Trimmer (1741-1810) is an important figure in the history of children’s literature and education. She taught her own twelve children at home, wrote several books, founded one of the first Sunday schools (in Brentford) and advised Queen Charlotte about Sunday schools. In 1786 she published her most famous work, Fabulous Histories, which remained in print for many decades, and was also adapted for younger children, as in the copy above. The subtitle of her original work gives an indication of her ostensible purpose “designed for the instruction of children respecting their treatment of animals”.

In my label, I have given a fairly straightforward account of the storyline and the role of the robins within it: “she interwove the related stories of a family of robins and a human family…the behaviour of the robins is presented as an exemplar to the reader while the attitudes of the Benson children and their friends to the robins provide lessons in the proper treatment of animals”. I also included a couple of lines about Mrs Trimmer but even then my text had to be cut down, so there is no reference, for example, to Mrs Trimmer’s influential reviews of children’s books in her periodical The Guardian of Education (June 1802 – September 1806). Equally there was no room to allude to critical discussion of Mrs Trimmer as an establishment figure, concerned to uphold the status quo. Quoting from the text, I referred to the message of “universal benevolence” that the book seeks to inculcate, but Moira Ferguson, in Animal Advocacy and Englishwomen 1780-1900, suggests that, far from presenting images of kindness and compassion, the behaviour of the robins can be identified with that of the British Redcoats in and after the American Revolutionary War and their attitudes to alien or foreign birds, such as the cuckoo and the mocking-bird, reflect xenophobia.

To turn to bibliography: the British Library is the only location given in ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue) for a copy sold by Darton and Harvey dated 1793. A copy sold by Darton and Harvey and dated 1799, held by the National Library at Wales, is also recorded in ESTC and there is an entry (G468) in The Dartons (the standard listing of works issued by the firm of Darton) for a copy printed and sold by Darton and Harvey in 1801 which is in the Renier Collection at the National Art Library. 


History of the Red-Breast Family: being an introduction to the Fabulous History written by S. Trimmer. Noc

There is also the question of the manuscript inscriptions on the paste-down. Is it too fanciful to identify one with Caroline Fry the Christian educationalist? The “Caroline” seems to match a later signature in her married name. Work on provenance is continuing – but any help would be warmly welcomed.

Alison Bailey Cc-by
Lead Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1901-2000

Further reading:
Laurence Darton, The Dartons: an annotated check-list of children’s books issued by two publishing houses 1787-1876. London: British Library, 2004. YC.2006.a.11349.
Moira Ferguson, Animal advocacy and Englishwomen, 1780-1900: patriots, nation, and empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. YC.1999.b.6076
Matthew Grenby, “Introduction” to Sarah Trimmer, The Guardian of Education: a periodical work. Volume I: From May to December inclusive, 1802. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2002. YC.2003.a.17249.


Animal-tales2Visit Animal Tales – a free British Library exhibition open until Sunday 1 November 2015







25 August 2015

Smuggling in sugar

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In July 1911 HMS Fox was instructed to board the British India Steam Navigation Company vessel Palmacotta which had departed Bombay for Kuwait. On board the ship were 25 cases of sugar loaf which were being sent from Antwerp to Kuwait. One of these cases had been accidentally damaged whilst being loaded onto Palmacotta for the final leg of the journey, and a surprising discovery had been made. Packed in between the cones of sugar loaf were guns and ammunition which were being smuggled into Kuwait.



From Gately's World's Progress. A general history of the earth's construction and of the advancement of mankind ... edited by C. E. Beale (Boston, 1886) Noc


The Shaikh of Kuwait, Mubarak al-Sabah, had recently entered into an agreement with the British Government which had made the shipping of arms and ammunition into his territory illegal. This agreement had resulted in the individuals and companies involved in the arms import business in the Persian Gulf becoming more creative in light of the newfound illegality of their trade.

The discovery of these hidden weapons prompted further investigation both into the original consignment of the cargo from Antwerp and into ships' manifests to see if other similar shipments had arrived in Kuwait.

The investigations in Antwerp led to the discovery that the original dispatcher of the cases was given as a British Company ‘Bertie Richmond & Co’; however this turned out to be a fictitious name, leading only to further mystery.

The inspection of shipping manifests turned up numerous shipments to Kuwait of large quantities of sugar loaf, through a wide array of shipping agents and companies. One consignment was discovered aboard a Hansa Lines vessel SS Moltkefels, prompting the Company’s Bombay Agent to undertake his own investigation into the matter. He initially found that British companies had been listed as the original consignees, but that each of these was a fictitious creation to cover the tracks of the real smuggler.

The Hansa lines investigation eventually uncovered the full smuggling operation, which a well-respected Paris based company, Dieu & Co, had been orchestrating. The company had been ordering crates of sugar-loaf, and then sending a small number of crates from each order to a company in Belgium. The Belgian company’s instructions were to send them on to a gunsmith’s firm. The gunsmith in turn had been instructed to remove some of the sugar loaf and replace it with guns before repackaging the crate and send them back to the Belgian company, who would then send them on to be shipped to Kuwait.

Unfortunately the British and Dutch Governments (whom Hansa lines had enlisted in their investigation) had no powers to stop Dieu & Co from their smuggling practices.  They had to rely on improved searching measures and the knowledge of how the guns were being smuggled to try and ensure that this illegal trade was stopped.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records  Cc-by

Further reading:


20 August 2015

World Mosquito Day

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Today is World Mosquito Day, marking the day in 1897 when Ronald  Ross confirmed that the female anopheles mosquito transmitted malaria to humans.

Mosquito 1

  IOR/R/15/2/1062 Anti-malaria measures (1939-1947)   Noc


The notebook recording this discovery is held as part of the Ross archive at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  Ross was a member of the Indian Medical Service, and so the India Office Records here at the British Library also contain a wealth of material relating to his career and research.

The papers of the India Office Military Department (IOR/L/MIL) contain biographical material relating to Ross’s time in the Medical Service.

The recently catalogued Government of India Medical Proceedings feature copy correspondence between Ross, the Government of India, and other researchers regarding his research into malaria and kala-azar, and later investigations into preventive measures.

Today the LSHTM are marking mosquito day with an afternoon of live performance and music, accompanying Ross, his wife and their dog Binkie to St Petersburg in 1912 as part of a delegation to the Russian Duma.

Mosquito 2


And on Friday 18 September the British Library, in collaboration with the Mustard Club  and experts from the LSHTM Malaria Centre will present Science Unboxed: Mosquitoes, Malaria and the Raj, featuring dramatic readings from the records plus discussion of their modern-day relevance and the current steps being taken to eradicate malaria worldwide.

Mosquito 3

Tickets are free but limited to a small number, and we will be serving tea and cake. For further details and booking, please see our What’s On pages.

Alex Hailey
India Office Medical Archives project