Untold lives blog

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05 March 2015

St Piran’s Day

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Today is St Piran’s Day.  Celebrations take place throughout Cornwall every year on 5 March in memory of this Cornish patron saint.

St Piran was born in Ireland in the 5th century.  Legend has it that he was thrown off a cliff with a millstone round his neck in the midst of a storm.  As soon as Piran hit the sea, the waters calmed and he floated to Cornwall on the millstone, landing near Perranporth.  Piran built a small chapel there and preached Christianity to the local people.

Piran became interested in the rocks and stones along the coast.  He built a hut with a hearth made from a single slab of black stone. One night, as the fire burned with a great heat, Piran was amazed to see a stream of white metal trickling out from the hearth.  By accident Piran had discovered tin. The Cornish flag is the cross of St Piran – a white cross on a black background representing white tin flowing from dark ore.

  Tin mine
John Hassell, View of a tin works near Truro in Cornwall (1798) Maps K.Top.9.36.1.c   Noc

Piran shared his discovery with the local people who were delighted with this source of prosperity. Cornish tin miners adopted Piran as their patron saint and kept St Piran’s Day as a holiday of great feasting. Mine owners often paid the men sixpence or one shilling as a bonus for 5 March. The miners’ merry-making prompted the saying ‘as drunk as a Perraner’. Perhaps it is no surprise that the day after St Piran’s Day is known as ‘Mazey Day’, suggesting the befuddlement caused by carousing.

There is an annual procession at Perranporth on a Sunday in early March to remember St Piran, with participants carrying Cornish flags and armfuls of daffodils. Celebrations on 5 March are not confined to Cornwall. In 1936 the Bradford and District Cornish Association held their ninth annual meeting on St Piran’s Day and celebrated with a supper and a whist drive.  In the USA there is a pasty-tossing Olympics at which a Cornish pasty is thrown at a St Piran’s flag laid out on the ground about 200 metres away.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records

Further Reading:
A A Clinnick, The Story of the three churches of St. Piran (Truro, 1936)
British Newspaper Archive e.g. The Cornishman 12 March 1936
Aw! how I ded long for a tatie pasty!   


03 March 2015

Beards, Barley and Bear-baiting: Revenue Collection in Shiraz

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In late December 1829 the Shah of Persia arrived with an army outside the walls of the city of Shiraz, his intention being to collect around 280,000 Tomans (some £21 million in present-day terms) in tax and provisions from Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Mīrzā, the Prince Governor of Fars.

Shiraz. From: James Edward Alexander, Travels from India to England : comprehending a visit to the Burman Empire, and a journey through Persia, Asia Minor, European Turkey, &c., in the years 1825-26 (London, 1827). Available on the Qatar Digital Library Noc

Britain’s Agent at Shiraz, Mīrzā ʿAlī Akbar, reported directly to the Resident in the Gulf in Bushire. In a series of letters he reported the Shah’s arrival at Shiraz in vivid detail, describing how the Prince Governor had ordered the city’s gardens and citadel to be cleared for the Shah’s reception, and the illumination of the bazaar for three nights.  

Extract of a letter from the British Agent at Shiraz, December 1829. IOR/R/15/1/54, pp 5-8. Noc

On December 30 the Shah arrived, and over the course of the next five days collected 200,000 Tomans, mostly through ‘advances from the merchants and the gold ornaments, jewels and shawls of His Royal Highness [Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Mīrzā] and wives’. As the days went on, the demands for payment were unrelenting, and Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Mīrzā became increasingly desperate. ‘Under the form of a loan [he] takes money from everyone he can,’ wrote Mīrzā ʿAlī Akbar. The demands made by the collectors became increasingly preposterous. ‘Yesterday they took an additional 1,000 Tomans from His Royal Highness to purchase materials for dying His Majesty’s beard’ and ‘[Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Mīrzā] has to play at draughts every night with the Shah […] One evening he lost as much as 400 Tomans’.

IOR-R-15-1-54 no.2
Extract of a letter from the British Agent at Shiraz, 4 January 1830. IOR/R/15/1/54, pp 14-17.   Noc


Fath 'Ali Shah, King of Persia 1797-1834. Foster 116. Images Online Noc

Meanwhile, in the streets and surrounding countryside, the Shah’s army had to keep themselves fed, housed and occupied. The supply and price of provisions were severely affected: ‘barley and straw are only to be got by force’ and ‘meat is very scarce and dear’. Meanwhile, the visitors sat about and amused themselves with ‘bear baiting, bullfighting, tiger fighting, spear playing and wrestling’.

  IOR-R-15-1-54 no.3
Extract of a letter from the British Agent at Shiraz, 17 January 1830. IOR/R/15/1/54, pp 35-37. Noc

The reasons underlying the Shah’s demands are not specified in Mīrzā ʿAlī Akbar’s reports, though the British Agent did note that he had learnt from a ‘confidential person’ that the Shah and the Crown Prince Abbas Mīrzā wanted to ‘reduce the power of the Prince of Fars’. Another likely reason is the Shah’s need to raise funds to pay off the huge indemnity of twenty million silver roubles (there were roughly six roubles to the pound at the time, equating to approximately £130 million in present-day terms) demanded by the Russian Government under the terms of the 1828 Treaty of Turkmanchai.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project  Cc-by

Further Reading:
British Library, IOR/R/15/1/54, ‘Vol 69 Letters Outward’ pp 5-9, 14-17, 35-39, 45-48

Present-day monetary values calculator.


01 March 2015

Saint David’s Day

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Today we share with you a short poem published in the Gloucester Citizen on 1 March 1904.  The author is ‘A.B.E.’ of Gloucester.  Can any of our readers identify the poet so we can bring them out of the shadows?


Leek 081989
Large flag or leek from The Book of Garden Management and Rural Economy (1885-86) Images Online  Noc


Saint David's Day

There’s a dear little plant that they cherish in Wales,
    It is known to the world as the Leek;
It’s a kind of spring onion with two or three tails,
    And the strength of it lies in its reek.
While the Rose and the Thistle are good in their way,
    And the Shamrock is dainty and neat,
You must bet on the Leek if you want a bouquet
That will flavour both sides of the street.


Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by