Untold lives blog

94 posts categorized "Domestic life"

24 July 2014

Pottinger’s property lost in Afghanistan

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Eldred Pottinger came to prominence in the service of the East India Company in the 1830s as an assistant to his uncle Henry Pottinger, Resident at Cutch, and through his travels in Afghanistan. When the uprising against the British presence in Afghanistan broke out in 1841, Pottinger was serving as a political officer in Kohistan, a district north of Kabul. During what came to be known as the First Anglo-Afghan War, Pottinger received a serious leg injury, and was detained as a hostage by the Afghan leader Akbar Khan. On his return to India in 1842, he was granted medical leave and travelled to Hong Kong where he died on 15 November 1843.

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Dr William Brydon,  the only survivor of the 4,500 British soldiers and 12,000 camp-followers who left Kabul on 6 January 1842 to escape, arriving at Jelalabad with news of the disaster, on 13 January © UIG/The British Library Board

At the time of his death, Pottinger was in dispute with the Company over compensation he felt was due to him for the loss of his property in Afghanistan. The India Office Records holds a memorial prepared by him, and submitted to government after his death by his younger brother Lieutenant John Pottinger of the Bombay Artillery. John hoped the Company would give the compensation he felt had been due to his older brother to his mother and sister living in Jersey, and he pointed out that three of his brothers had died in the Company’s service.

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Bazaar at Kabul in the fruit season (X 614, plate 19) NocImages Online

Enclosed with the memorial is a list of Eldred’s property taken by the enemy in the castle of Laghman in the Kohistan of Kabul on 5 November 1841, and it gives an interesting glimpse into what a Company officer on political service felt he needed to do his job and to preserve the dignity of his position. There is a long list of books on a wide range of subjects such as history, botany, geology, mathematics, engineering, and politics. Not all seem to be directly related to his posting. There are volumes of poetry by Chaucer, Shelly, Byron and Wordsworth. Gillies’ History of Greece and Leland’s Life of Philip of Macedon sit alongside Robertson’s History of Scotland and Burke’s Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, and the satirical The Clockmaker, or Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick. The collection of Eldred’s books and maps alone was valued at £715 in 1843.

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Title page of Burke’s Sublime and Beautiful (RB.23.a.18100) Images OnlineNoc

As well as the books and maps, Eldred listed scientific equipment, guns and swords, European and Persian clothes, furniture (tables and chairs, bookcases not surprisingly), Persian carpets, dinning implements (plates, knives, forks, spoons, some in silver), wine, beer and spirits, and six horses. The total value of his lost property was taken as £2,322 or roughly £102,000 in today’s money!

The opinion of the Governor General of India was that Eldred Pottinger was only entitled to the same compensation as if he had sustained the loss on military, rather than political service, and that the compensation should have no relation to the value of the property lost, but only to the value of the property an officer ought to have with him on service.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:

Memorial from Lieutenant John Pottinger of the Regiment of Artillery respecting certain claims of his late brother, Major Eldred Pottinger for allowances and compensation alleged to be due to him for loss of his property in Afghanistan, October 1842 to June 1844 [IOR/F/4/2058/94289]

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Historical currency converter


21 July 2014

George Bernard Shaw discards his birthday

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George Bernard Shaw, playwright and polemicist, was born in Dublin on 26 July 1856. So we decided to post a story about Shaw to mark this anniversary . But a little research revealed that Shaw would not have been flattered or pleased – he never celebrated his birthday.

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Add. 50582 f.38 George Bernard Shaw Images Online  Noc

Shaw’s antipathy to birthday celebrations is revealed in newspaper articles by journalists who were eager to congratulate him.  They describe the various ways that they were rebuffed by Shaw.  A representative of the Daily News asked him on his 60th birthday how young he felt. Shaw replied that ‘The day is not really different from any other, except that when you saw me last I was between 50 and 60 and now I am between 60 and 70, not young enough to be really proud of my age and not old enough to have become really popular in England’ (Aberdeen Evening Express 27 July 1916).

In July 1929 Shaw was asked if he would give the world a message to mark the ‘notable occasion’ of his 73rd birthday. Shaw replied, ‘Please send out a brief message suppressing the fact that it is my birthday’.  During that month he was busy directing rehearsals for his new play The Apple Cart which was to be performed at the Malvern Festival.  His secretary confirmed that Shaw would be working as usual, adding ‘He does not believe in birthday parties’ (Gloucester Citizen 25 July 1929).

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Gloucester Citizen 25 July 1929 British Newspaper Archive Noc

The Evening Telegraph was nevertheless not deterred from running an article pointing out that, at the age of 73, Shaw was still as active as ever: dodging buses like a man of 25, and never taking a drive in a car without breaking the law.

On his 74th birthday, Shaw declared to a reporter: ‘The more my birthday is forgotten, the better I am pleased. By deed poll I have discarded my birthday forever’ (Evening Telegraph 25 July 1930).  When a brave young reporter from the Sunderland Echo telephoned Shaw to ask him about his birthday in 1935, Shaw said:’Young man, you know not what you do.  If ever you are 79 you won’t want to discuss the fact.  And who is the least interested in my birthday?’  On being told that everyone was interested in George Bernard Shaw, the writer retorted: ‘But not in my having birthdays.  I am not distinguished by having birthdays. Public interest in me depends on the things I can do that nobody else can do. Anybody can have a birthday’.  He then declined to discuss the matter further (Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 26 July 1935).

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Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 26 July 1935 British Newspaper ArchiveNoc

Newspapers continued to commemorate Shaw’s birthdays up to the year of his death in spite of his pleas. His 94th birthday in July 1950 was marked with an article in the Aberdeen Journal stating that G.B.S. was as mentally alert as ever, although physically a little frail.  The playwright spent his final birthday at home in Ayot St Lawrence Hertfordshire: ‘He did not celebrate it – he never does’.

Margaret Makepeace
Curator, India Office Records  Cc-by


17 July 2014

The Difference caus'd by mighty Love! - romance and the Benthams

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In the short time since we announced on Untold Lives that the British Library had joined the Transcribe Bentham initiative and asked for volunteers to help us advance scholarly research into the life and ideas of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), public interest in the online transcription of Bentham’s manuscripts has exploded. In just over three months, 1,163 manuscripts have been transcribed—almost 10% of the British Library’s Bentham collection! We are delighted to announce the release of more material to explore, and cordially invite any interested newcomers to join us in transcribing them.


Our inclination was that the British Library’s Bentham material represents a chance to really get to know the Bentham family, since the majority of it is correspondence, and discoveries made by our volunteers have certainly borne this out.

Jeremiah Bentham, father of Jeremy, though cold-hearted in business matters (one letter reveals him being responsible for the cutting off of the water supply to one of his tenants) was found to be quite the romantic, as this love letter to Jeremy’s mother Alicia (transcribed by volunteer Peter Hollis) shows:
while I was present with you Time bore me on his rapid Wing, so swiftly did the delightful hours pass on, but no sooner was I gone from you than that Wing became pinion'd & coud no longer fly, or was rather chang'd into leaden Feet, so slowly do the Sluggish Minutes now creep forward — such is the Difference caus'd by mighty Love!

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Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Alicia, 1745 (BL Add. MS 33537 f. 4r) Noc

Romantic interest was a dominant theme in first batch of manuscripts released online, which covered the period 1744 to 1783. Jeremy himself was courting, as shown by this rather cruel letter to brother Samuel about a certain ‘Miss S[arah]’  (transcribed by volunteer Simon Croft):
She has indeed a most enchanting set of teeth — seems well made: and is of a very good size. But her features viz: nose and mouth are too large for her face: eyes I do not recollect much about.
Indeed I could not get a full view of her face: she was dressed very unbecomingly.

Bentham 33538_001_001
Jeremy Bentham’s letter to his brother Samuel, written in 1776 (BL Add. MSS 33538 f. 1r)  Noc

Six months later, Jeremy complained to Samuel (also transcribed by Simon Croft) that his letters to Sarah (‘the little vixen’) had gone unanswered, though we might not be surprised given his ungentlemanly attitude.

New material, covering the period 1784 until 1794, has now been uploaded to the Transcription Desk. Events covered include Jeremy’s long journey to Russia to visit Samuel, where he first conceived of his famous panopticon prison. The period also includes the early years of the French Revolution, as well as the return of Samuel from Russia in 1791, and the death of Jeremiah in 1792. Some of the most intriguing material revolves around the scheme to establish the panopticon, which dominated the next decade of Jeremy’s life, and includes his attempts to lobby leading politicians of the day.

There is no need for specialist equipment or expert knowledge to begin participating—just a willingness to get to grips with 18th and 19th century handwriting, and transcribe it through our website. Visit Transcribe Bentham today to get started!

Dr Kris Grint
Dr Tim Causer
Bentham Project, Faculty of Laws, UCL


14 July 2014

Can an Englishman become truly Indian?

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Elwin1Many 19th century anthropologists regarded non-European societies as specimens of the primitive stage of human evolution to be studied as ‘fossils’ of prehistory, a view abhorred by Verrier Elwin (1902-1964), one of the rare European anthropologists to assimilate into non-European society in order to have a thorough understanding of the other peoples. An Oxford-educated theologian turned anthropologist, born into the family of a clergyman, Elwin joined the Christian Service Society mission to India in 1927. In the course of his proselytising, he converted himself to an ‘Indian’ (but not quite Hindu).


Verrier Elwin with aboriginal children at Patangarh, 1940s

Elwin had unconventional political views; influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, he was a staunch supporter of Indian independence. In a Christian tract Christ and Satyagraha, he writes, “…it is love that drives me, an Englishman, to be a supporter of Indian nationalism...”.  A fictitious conversation among the natives in one of his novels (p.45, A Cloud that’s Dragonish, 1938) explains his thoughts: “What are the English [in India]?”  “Robbers and thieves!” Following the natural course of development, he took Indian nationality after Indian Independence.

Elwin Gandhi-letterElwin could have married an Englishwoman of class and rank that suited his family background, but instead he followed Gandhi’s advice and married an indigenous Indian woman of the Bison-Horn Maria tribe, in the region of the Satyagraha Ashram. He lived in a hut with glassless windows, from which the villagers came to peer at him as if he was a new species of homo sapiens. He made humorous remarks about the villagers of the Ashram, “Not all are as simple [as they appear to be].  One of them said to me the other day, ‘Love must be Ontological.  I can never think of love as Epistemological’ ”.

Mahatma Gandhi’s letter to Elwin (undated, c1932) Mss Eur D950/22




Elwin3 newsBy marrying a native woman, Elwin acquainted himself with the local customs of love and sex, as well as the physical and psychological state of their well-being.  Among his personal papers at the British Library, a cutting from the Daily Mirror shows clear curiosity about his unusual life, but refrains from comment.


News of Elwin’s wedding in the Daily Mirror, April 16 1940 [Mss Eur D950/23]


In 1940, The Illustrated Weekly of India published an interview with his young wife Kosibai who claimed that Gond women had a very privileged position, with the paper suggesting that “many a feminist might well envy them”. 

 Elwins wife-love marriages            Elwins wife-photo

Kosibai, wife of Verrier Elwin, pictured for her interview with The Illustrated Weekly of India, September 08 1940 

Elwin wrote several scholarly books on the Gond tribes in India, including an interesting book on the aspect of ‘Murder and Suicide’ among them.

Elwin’s death in the early 1960s provoked some controversies as to the validity of his anthropological studies.  Some dismissed his studies as “a bit of propaganda for his continued support by the [Indian] Government”. Much of the criticism can be attributed to certain academic rivalry and cynicism from his contemporaries. The question remains, “Can an Englishman ever become truly Indian?”

Further reading

Verrier Elwin,  The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin.  (1964)
Mss Eur D950  Papers of Verrier Elwin
Mss Eur F236/266  Papers of W.G.Archer

Xiao Wei Bond, formerly Curator, India Office Private Papers
Penny Brook, Lead Curator, India Office Records

07 July 2014

Sidekicks and arch enemies in the archives

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Inspired by finding Batman in the India Office Records for our last post, I decided to look for some more Gotham City characters in the baptisms, marriages, burials and wills for Europeans in India.  

             Pow            Wham (2)Online Shop

Amongst the thousand or so Robins who appear, my eye was caught by a sad entry.  Robin, whose father and mother were unknown, was baptised aged about five years at Ganjam on 6 November 1810 by W. Montgomerie acting magistrate.

  Robin baptism

IOR/N/2/4 f.372  Noc

Could I find Batman’s female sidekick, Batgirl?  How about Claire De La Bat who married Eugene Francis Duncan at the Catholic Cathedral in Calcutta on 14 August 1927 at the age of 20?

Claire De La Bat cropped
IOR/N/1/503 f.42Noc

Let’s move on to Batman’s arch enemies.  First – Mr Freeze.

Mr Freeze cropped
IOR/N/1/1 p.27 Noc

Hendrick Freeze was a soldier who was buried in Calcutta on 5 July 1719.

Next, The Riddler. Stanislaus Riddler was born on 28 September 1912 and baptised in Dacca on 10 October 1912. He was the son of John David Riddler, a railway guard, and his wife Marie Louise IOR/N/1/384 f.182].

Also, The Joker.  (Well, almost!)

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Johker Junius M F Van Hamert was a passenger on the French mail steamer Irrawaddy. He died at Aden of anaemia on 12 May 1885 aged 60 and was buried there on the same day.

Not forgetting Hush - George Hush of Calcutta made a will on 18 September 1787 leaving all his worldly goods to his mother Mary Hush of Deptford Kent [IOR/L/AG/34/29/6 f.182].  There is a detailed inventory of his possessions at death which range from carpenter’s tools, timber and ship masts, to a broad sword, a palanquin, and a cracked tureen [IOR/L/AG/34/27/9 f.240].

And finally, The Penguin. Samuel Thomas was buried in the Town Cemetery at Rangoon on 29 July 1887 aged 28.  He was a sailor on board HMS Penguin [N/1/290 f. 160].

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by

Further reading : 

Batman in India 

British in India - images of the documents in this post are available from find my past

Comics Unmasked exhibition


19 June 2014

Grit and humour? How did people cope in the First World War?

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In our exhibition Enduring war: grief, grit and humour which opens in the Folio Society Gallery at the British Library in London today, we consider how people coped during the First World War both at home and at the Front.  Looking at themes such as family, friends, faith and humour we commemorate the contribution so many made to the war effort and the ways they were subsequently honoured,  giving a voice to some of the men, women and children who lived through the war.

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"Fall in” answer now in your country’s hour of need. London: Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, 1914. (Poster no. 12.).  Tab.17748.a.(156). Images Online  Noc

The exhibition brings together material that has come to have national significance, such as the manuscripts of now famous war poets, with more ephemeral items, like Christmas cards and knitting patterns, that you might not expect to find in the Library’s collection. We’re displaying posters, trench journals, letters from Indian soldiers at the Western Front and a schoolboy’s essay about a Zeppelin raid over London together with manuscripts of works by Wilfred Owen, Vaughan Williams and Laurence Binyon. To give you a flavour - if you’re interested in Rupert Brooke, we have both a manuscript of his poem ‘The Soldier’ and a card sent to him about socks.

Enduring war is part of the Library’s wider involvement in the First World War Centenary. The Library has been leading the UK’s contribution to, a major, online digitised resource, and the exhibition includes a specially-commissioned and deeply- moving audio-visual installation and soundscape, which focuses on postcards sent home from soldiers drawn from the extensive collections contributed by members of the public to Europeana 1914-1918.

As you can see, the exhibition is a mix of the public and the personal – and one of the most poignant items is a letter dated 20 July 1916 from Roland Gerard Garvin, known as Ged, writing to his family, expressing his love and bidding farewell, knowing that his letter would only be sent if he did not return from battle.  He was killed on the Somme a few days later aged only 20. There is more about him in our World War One website which includes over 500 items from across Europe selected from Europeana1914-1918 as well as articles by leading experts and teachers’ notes. His is just one of the individual and shared stories you can find in Enduring war which has been curated by Alison Bailey and Matthew Shaw, project coordinator for Europeana 1914-1918. 

Alison Bailey
Curator Printed Historical Sources 1914-  Cc-by

Read more about Enduring war: grief, grit and humour

See what our colleagues in Collection Care have to say about some of the items they worked on for the exhibition.


15 June 2014

Father’s Day in 1953

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Father’s Day was first celebrated in the United States in 1910.  The idea was introduced into Britain in 1949 sponsored by the National Association of Outfitters.  A Father’s Day Association was set up in London, but stories in the British press suggest that the idea did not catch on quickly.

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From The Footwear Organiser August 1919, p.163 Images Online  Noc

The Yorkshire Post of Friday 19 June 1953 carried a report about Father’s Day which fell on the next day.  The article was entitled ‘The one day when Father can sit at ease – but very few appear to know about it’.  The Father’s Day Association had issued a document stating that Britain had now joined the rest of the world in its celebration: ‘It is the day when the family make amends for the 364 days when father gets pushed around and neglected.  He has presents heaped upon him and there is a concerted rush by the family to get him cups of tea, mow the lawn and do any other of the small services which he always appreciates but rarely receives’.

However the Yorkshire Post reporter said that if Father’s Day had indeed caught on in Britain, fathers seemed to be curiously unaware of it. Of half a dozen men he had questioned in Leeds, only one had heard of it and he regarded it with ‘deep suspicion’.  The man told the reporter that Father’s Day was nothing but ‘a shopkeepers’ stunt’ aimed at making people spend money.  On reflection the man did admit that the principle of raising the importance of fathers was a good one, even if only for one day.

The interviewee then waxed lyrical on how the status of fathers had declined in his lifetime: ‘It is one of the outstanding social changes of modern times.  Books should be written about it: Government White Papers prepared’.  His grandfather had never held a dishcloth in his life and would have walked out on his grandmother if she had even dared to suggest that he do the household duties that modern fathers were expected to perform.

The man went on to say: ‘You know the whole trouble is that fathers have been cowardly and weak. They have surrendered their authority without even a struggle.  They have allowed their wives to make them drudges and their children to treat them with contempt.  And now they are suffering the consequences.  Their wives are television addicts and their children juvenile delinquents’.

Happy Father’s Day!


Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by

Further reading: British Newspaper Archive


02 June 2014

A comic take on life in the 1880s

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While putting together the Comics Unmasked exhibition, it became clear that the 1880s were something of a high point in British comics history. The popular magazine Fun was just one of several that were regularly carrying single-page comics at this time. It’s ‘British Workman’ stories, written and drawn by James Francis Sullivan (c. 1852-1936), are particularly enjoyable because they show that the Victorians were as interested in discussing class differences as we are. The jokes are often still funny for us today, as in the case of the clock-watching painter who barely gets any work done at all.

Fun 1888 Jan 18
Fun, 18 Jan 1888. [BL shelfmark: P.P.5273.c.]  Noc

Less well known to comics historians are the stories that appeared in the Christmas issues of papers such as the Illustrated London News and The Graphic. My co-curator Paul Gravett had heard about these through the grapevine, but hadn’t had the opportunity to examine any of them. It appears that some libraries in the 19th century didn’t retain the Christmas specials, maybe because they contained stories for family reading rather than the usual news and current affairs. Fortunately, we do have them at the British Library.

The Christmas 1884 number of the Illustrated London News, for example, contains a wonderful colour comic entitled ‘Rouge et noir … from Miss Pettifer’s Diary’, (writer/artist not known) in which we follow the social life of a high-society lady as she attends balls and shooting parties.

  Illd Ldn News 1888 Xmas Miss Pettifers Diary

Illustrated London News, Christmas Number 1889. [BL shelfmark: HS.74/1099]  Noc

Similarly, The Graphic Christmas 1889 issue contains the ‘The girl with thirty-nine lovers’. This focuses on the experiences of a correspondent (a Miss E.H. Townsend?) who reports that she was pursued by 39 gentlemen while on a sea voyage: an adventure that she turns into a poem with sketches, and which William Ralston (1848-1911), a staff artist at The Graphic, then makes into a comic.

Together, these Victorian comics provide an interesting insight into the lives, values and aspirations of people in Britain in the 1880s. They also show that humour can sometimes work across the decades.

Book now for Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK, at the British Library until 19 August 2014.

Adrian Edwards
Co-curator, Comics Unmasked  Cc-by