Untold lives blog

128 posts categorized "Domestic life"

09 April 2015

Social life in Simla

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Inspired by the TV drama Indian Summers, I decided to investigate the social life in Simla under British rule. Was it dominated by eating, drinking, playing cards, gossiping and arguing, interspersed with some amateur dramatics?

  Simla 2
From The Delhi Sketch Book 1 January 1855 Noc

Simla was a hill station in the Himalayan foothills popular with convalescents. It then developed into the summer capital of the British administration in India. There was a variety of clubs in Simla to help the Europeans pass their time pleasantly. The oldest was the United Services Club founded in 1844, with membership restricted to commissioned military officers, army or navy chaplains, members of the Indian Civil Service and judges.  Indians and women were not permitted to join, although guests were admitted.  The Club boasted a racquet court and rooms for playing billiards and cards, as well as a reading room and a library packed with books for members to enjoy.

In the late 1880s the New Club opened as a rival attraction.  It had well-built premises with spacious rooms and a fine dining room with an excellent dance floor. Popular smoking concerts were held, where members of the Viceregal Council enthusiastically joined in the choruses.  However the United Services Club was stung into action by the competition. Extensive improvements were made, and private pressure was brought to bear on government officials to support the older club. The New Club was forced into liquidation and the buildings became a hotel.


Simla 1
From The Delhi Sketch Book 1 January 1855  Noc


Men could also belong to one of several Masonic lodges which held meetings in Simla. The oldest of these was the Himalayan Brotherhood founded in 1838.

An area of flat land known as Annandale became the ‘public play-ground at Simla’.  Picnics, fairs and dances were held there, as well as horse races, gymkhanas, and dog shows.  Sports included polo, cricket, football, archery, rifle-shooting, golf, and croquet.  In 1911 there was a Simla Winter Amusement Club offering badminton, a skating rink, and toboganning.

Amateur dramatics were very popular.  In the late 1830s Emily Eden watched performances in a ‘small and hot, and somewhat dirty’ theatre in Simla.  She wrote of a falling-out amongst the gentlemen actors: ‘One man took a fit of low sprits, and another who acted women’s parts well, would not cut off his moustachios, and another went off to shoot bears near the snowy range’.

A major event of the Simla season was the annual Fine Arts Exhibition.  In the 1860s there was said to be ‘a galaxy of amateur talent in water-colour painting then at Simla’. Money prizes were offered and pictures were sent in from all over India.

The Simla United Services Club closed in 1947 and its collection of books was dispersed. A large number went to the House of Commons and the Empire Society, and the fiction was taken by the Punjab Club. There were thousands of non-fiction books on a wide variety of topics, some perhaps predictable, others less so.  Alongside works on history, government, politics, war, military and naval strategy were books about hypnotism, crime, psychology, psychotherapy, feminism, witchcraft, and spiritualism. The homesick reader of A lonely summer in Kashmir could seek solace in one of a number of works on life back in Britain, such as The Glory of Scotland, Irish bogs, The England I love best, or A dull day in London.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
Edward J. Buck, Simla Past and Present (Calcutta, 1904)
India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur D 957 List of books in the reading room and library of the United Services Club Simla, 1947
India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur D 1236/4 Simla Winter Amusement Club  1911-1912

Bear’s grease, bonnets, bellows, biscuits and Bibles - a merchant in Simla in the 1850s

03 April 2015

Hot Cross Buns!

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Hot cross buns are a traditional Easter treat.  They are distinguished from other buns by the flavour of all-spice and a pale cross baked into their top.  Although they now appear in the supermarkets as soon as the Christmas mince pies have been cleared, hot cross buns used to be associated particularly with Good Friday.

In the early 19th century, Good Friday and Christmas Day were the only two ‘close holidays’  observed throughout London, with shops shut and churches open.  From dawn, street sellers were busy crying ‘Hot cross buns! One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot cross buns!’ They carried their wares in baskets, with the buns covered first by a flannel or green baize, with an outer white cloth. As customers were served in the street or at their front door, the coverings were slowly and partially removed lest the buns should cool. The ‘hot’ aspect of the buns was evidently considered more important that it is today! The sellers’ ‘volume of concerted sound, unequalled by other rivals in the ephemeral Good Friday trade’ continued until it was time for church. Bun selling then resumed in the afternoon.

  Hot cross buns F60132-65
From Walter Crane, Triplets (1899) Images Online  Noc

According to William Hone, the quality of hot cross buns was in decline in the 1820s as demand decreased. In the late 18th century pastry cooks and bakers had competed for excellence in making the buns, and ‘the great place of attraction for bun-eaters’ at that time were the two Chelsea ‘royal bun houses’.   Hundreds of square black tins with dozens of hot buns on each were produced for sale at Chelsea from six in the morning until the evening of Good Friday.

A Good Friday bun was sometimes kept for luck and hung from the ceiling until replaced by a fresh one the following Easter.  The hanging bun was supposed to protect the house from fire.

Not everyone was a fan of hot cross buns.  On 23 March 1826 The Morning Post published a letter from ’A Friend to Reverence’ who believed the practice of ‘crying the crossbuns’ through the streets of London and the neighbouring villages on Good Friday to be ‘irreverent and profane’.  Good Friday should not be celebrated as a day of feasting: ‘I have myself a family of little ones, who…are naturally fond of the produce of a confectioner’s shop; but I never allow of any of the cakes so marked, to be brought into my house. My motive is explained to them, and the temporary disappointment is repaired on the Easter Monday’.

The next day (Maundy Thursday) the newspaper published an opposing view: ‘I have no children to have the pleasure of giving them, to-morrow morning, as many cross buns as I would kisses.  Whatever, therefore, the origin of cross buns, the intention manifested by them is good; no argument is so powerful as that which gratifies the taste and liking of man or child; let cross buns be cried about as usual, to-morrow morning’.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper ArchiveThe Morning Post 23 and 24 March 1826


01 April 2015

Jolly japes for All Fools’ Day!

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The first day of April is All Fools’ Day when it is customary to play tricks on others.  Writing in the 1820s, William Hone described some ‘jocular deceptions’ practised by children.   A boy would shout out at a passer-by:
 ‘Sir, there’s something out of your pocket!’
‘Your hand, Sir!  April Fool!’

April Fool
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)  Noc

Another prank was to bow to a woman and say gravely:
‘Ma’am, I beg your pardon, but you've something on your face!’
‘Indeed!  What is it?’
‘Your nose, ma’am!  April Fool!’

Unsuspecting youngsters were sent on errands to buy half a pint of pigeon’s milk or to enquire at a bookseller for a copy of The Life and Adventures of Eve’s Mother.

The British Library’s newspaper collection is a rich source for April Fool jokes.  The Scots Magazine in 1795 printed a story about a London shopkeeper who had always been fond of mischief.  As a boy he greased the strings of the chaplain’s violin and stalked through the graveyard at night wrapped in a tablecloth. The newspaper published what it claimed to be the entry for 1 April 1790 from the shopkeeper’s journal:

Having risen early, the shopkeeper flung a shilling out of the window to the watchman, asking him to rap at the door and cry ‘Fire!’  His wife started up out of bed in a fright and ran into the street half naked.  He was obliged to give her a shilling to quieten her.

At ten o’clock the shopkeeper sent a letter to Mr Plume the undertaker telling him that his neighbour Frank Fuz had died suddenly in the night. He saw six of Plume’s men go in ‘and heard old Fuz very loud with them’. 

He sent invitations to his club to dine at Deputy Dripping’s, and invited Dripping to dine at Alderman Grub’s house in Hampstead.  Grub was out of town that day.

At twelve o’clock the shopkeeper received an order in the name of an Essex customer for six pounds of snuff.  Believing this to be an April Fool trick, he kicked the messenger out of the shop.

He tapped a schoolboy on the shoulder and asked what he had got behind him. When the boy replied ‘A fool,’ causing people nearby to laugh, the shopkeeper ‘did not see much in it’ and was not amused.

The day’s events were said to have had repercussions.  Neighbour Fuz never again bought tobacco from our prankster. The Essex customer sent a letter threatening the shopkeeper with an action for assaulting his servant.  Deputy Dripping refused to support the shopkeeper’s aspiration to become churchwarden.

The writer of the article concluded with a stern warning to those keen on April Fool japes:
‘…this contemptible and vulgar talent, though in season but for a day, may produce most lasting effects; that a friend may be lost, and an enemy created by the momentary triumph of ill-founded pride, and bastard humour’.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper Archive – for example The Scots Magazine 1 July 1795


24 March 2015

Thin dogs, neglected children and rising crime

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Thin dogs and domestic animals, expensive grain, and unemployed men wandering in search of employment ‘careless of their children and old dependants’ were signs of local scarcity in danger of developing into a famine situation, according to Moonshi Ishree Pershad, Rai Bahadoor, Deputy Collector of Muzaffarpur in North India. His testimony in response to set questions from the 1878 Bengal Famine Commission was unusual in giving an Indian’s perspective, and paints a more intimate picture of village life than that given by the majorityFamine_compressed of the British respondents. According to Moonshi Ishree Pershad, in times of scarcity loans became difficult to obtain, the number of beggars increased, private charity was over-burdened and crimes against property gradually increased. 

In rural India, the people likely to be worst affected by serious crop failure were the panch pamania who attended to secular ceremonies, including births and weddings, together with artisans such as potters and weavers, and of course labourers and cultivators.  

Famine, Hindu men in front of the British, 1897, illustration from Petit Journal  
© De Agostini/The British Library Board



Bengal Famine Commission Proceedings IOR/P/1160


Moonshi Ishree Pershad said that the district officer would know that famine was imminent if he found that ‘Grain imported to his district is not from neighbouring districts but other provinces; that exportation from his district is altogether blocked; that cattle, gold and silver ornaments and brass utensils do not fetch one-fourth of what was paid for them; that men of high caste go in disguised state to earthworks situate at a distance from their homes, and that infants of his district have very miserable looks.’ 

This information was provided as part of his response to the Bengal Famine Commission’s set questions about the condition of the country and people, relief during the earliest stages of distress, famine relief and prevention. 

Moonshi Ishree Pershad’s comments were informed by his experience of relief works in 1874 when the winter rice crop failed following a lack of rain and one seventh of the population was in receipt of support.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records



Bengal Famine Commission Proceedings, December 1878, pp.367-372, IOR/P/1160, which are part of the India Office Records. Catalogues are available online Search our Catalogues Archives and Manuscripts

Richard Axelby and Savithri Preetha Nair Science and the Changing Environment in India: a guide to sources in the India Office Records (London, 2010) 

17 March 2015

Everyone is badminton mad here!

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In August 1873 a new sporting craze was sweeping through India in the form of badminton. Beatrice Aitchison, the wife of Sir Charles Umpherston Aitchison, Foreign Secretary to the Government of India) wrote to their family friend Lewis Pelly (Agent to the Governor-General at Rajputana, on special duty as Special Commissioner to Baroda) about the latest craze which she and her husband had taken up:
“We have even taken to it in a quiet way – we play by ourselves instead of going out to walk. It is good exercise and the Foreign Secretary thoroughly enjoys it”.


Badminton C12265-07
Photo 913/(25) Oscar Jean Mallitte, European men and women playing badminton on an outside court at Shillong, India. Images Online  Noc

In her letter to Pelly she describes how the sport has created quite a trade in the bazaar with the bats (racquets) being made by the locals and proving to be very popular but the difficulty was with the shuttlecocks as the locally made ones simply didn’t fly properly. Even her husband Sir Charles was quite enamoured with the sport, noting in a letter to Pelly that ‘my good old joints are getting supple from Badminton which I have been at length dragged into’.


  Badminton Mss Eur F126_4_0052
MSS Eur F 126/4 Beatrice Aitchison to Lewis Pelly, August 1873 Noc

The craze for playing badminton recurs throughout the private papers collection of Sir Lewis Pelly, with correspondents writing to him throughout 1874 and 1875 and making reference to their fondness of the sport and the various matches that had been taking place.

One such match occurred in January 1875 and was between staff of the Government of India Foreign Office, including Aitchison, and staff of the Rajputana Agency which according to the descriptions to Pelly had resulted in a draw and had prompted one correspondence Adelbert Cecil Talbot to comment to Pelly about the Foreign Office team that

 “We have a [ ] fair side and could I think play most others thanks to Mr Aitchison who is a very good player indeed”.

Even Lewis Pelly was not, it seemed, immune to the latest craze with Aitchison proposing in November 1873 a match between the two gentlemen and commenting that “I hope you won’t play the same tricks with my office as I played with yours”. Whether this match took place and whether any of the ‘tricks’ referred to were played we shall perhaps sadly never know.

Karen Stapley
Content Specialist, Archives Cc-by
British Library /Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme

Further reading from India Office Private Papers:
Mss Eur F126/4, f 26v
Mss Eur F126/7, ff 57v-58, 82v-83
Mss Eur F126/69, f 50v
Mss Eur F126/71, f 53v, 71v-72

Read an earlier blog post about Charles Umpherston Aitchison


13 March 2015

Friday the 13th

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Today is Friday the 13th – a day of trepidation for the superstitious. Friday is traditionally considered to be an unlucky day and thirteen an unlucky number, so the combination makes for a difficult day. Many people believe that accidents and mishaps are more common on Fridays and so refuse to travel that day.  Many tall buildings do not have a 13th floor, airlines leave out row 13, house numbers jump from 12 to 14.  On Friday 13th, bookings for weddings and events fall away, house purchases are not finalised, and business transactions are slow.


Black cat M00024-55 Noc
'By day she made herself into a cat' from Grimm’s Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham (London, 1925) Images Online


In 1889 the London Thirteen Club was founded by a number of journalists, artists and actors led by writer William Harnett Blanch.  The main aim was to attack and expose superstitions of all kinds, but members also intended to raise money for charity. Similar clubs flourished in Paris and New York. 

The club was to meet on the 13th of every month.  Members were to make a declaration that in their daily life they would, whenever practicable and convenient, act in ways that were deemed unlucky by the superstitious.

Annual dinners were an opportunity for club members to test a large number of superstitions.  Dinner was announced by the smashing of a mirror.  Guests entered the dining room by passing under a ladder and an open umbrella.  They ate at tables with thirteen place settings, decorated with shoes and peacock feathers, and with knives crossed. Salt was spilled as the diners sat down. The menu consisted of thirteen courses, with such delights as salmon with Friday sauce, spectral veal cutlets, black-cat chicken (better known as rabbit), and full-moon jelly.  Speeches lasted exactly thirteen minutes.

It appears that no harm came to any devotees of the Thirteen Club, but their activities did little to reduce superstitious behaviour. Shoes on a table, peacock feathers with an 'evil eye', and spilt salt are still said to be harbingers of bad luck. Crossed knives mean a fight will happen.  Black cats are the familiars of witches and so it is bad luck if one follows you, but lucky if one crosses your path – it hasn’t noticed you! 

Fingers crossed and touch wood, you will not be affected by reading this blog post. For in Ohio, it is said that if you learn something new on Friday 13th a fresh wrinkle will appear on your face, and if you laugh on Friday 13th you will cry on Sunday 15th.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive for articles about the London Thirteen Club for example: Nottingham Evening Post 12 February 1889;  Reynold’s Newspaper 18 February 1894; Lincolnshire Echo 14 December 1894; Dundee Evening Post 15 June 1900; Lancashire Evening Post 2 April 1930.

Richard Webster, The Encyclopaedia of Superstitions (2008)


11 March 2015

‘My beautiful reformatress’: The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and corporal punishment

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Last night British Library copies of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine appeared on ‘Sex, Lies and Love Bites: the Agony Aunt Story’, shown on BBC4. Shortly after the Corset Controversy, another provocative topic became the subject of hot debate in the magazine.


The question of corporal punishment as a useful means for disciplining children was first broached in the autumn of 1868, when a number of readers’ letters in support of whipping began to be published. In the Conversazione pages for September, a correspondent called Pro-Rod wrote ‘I believe a good sound whipping from its mother’s hands will generally have a wonderfully good effect’. From this time on, a huge number of letters on the subject flooded in, both for and against corporal punishment.

Disobediant daughter


However the entire discussion was hijacked and subverted by people writing in, not from the point of view of a parent wondering the best way of bringing up a child, but seemingly with quite a different aim in mind.

In March 1870 A Rejoicer in the Restoration of the Rod wrote in with a weirdly detailed and salacious description of various whipping incidents:


More and more people wrote in, ostensibly to contribute to the argument, but it’s difficult to read these letters as anything other than erotica, with various strict governesses and other authority figures whipping adolescent boys and girls. This is especially surprising and subversive since the magazine was aimed at proper Victorian middle-class women, who were instructed throughout the rest of the publication on being ladylike. The anonymity of the writers means that we don’t know anything about these correspondents, but it’s very likely that some of them were men, writing with the merest pretence of being a woman.

The magazine’s publisher, Samuel Beeton, came under some pressure over the series of letters.  Seemingly torn between the people who wrote in to say the whole thing was disgusting and the huge flood of further correspondence continuing the argument, he realised that there was a way of pleasing everyone and making money in the process. From April 1870 onwards, the letters were published in a special supplement, which could be purchased every month for twopence (the normal magazine sold for a shilling an issue).

Supplement cover


Who was the target for all this veiled pornography? Were women reading it as a sort of late-nineteenth century Fifty Shades of Grey, or were the people who bought the supplement not the normal middle class female readership of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine? Recently the British Library acquired a bound copy of all the Supplemental Conversazione which came from a major collection of erotica, and, evidently, had been part of a Victorian gentleman’s private library. It includes additional, privately printed material such as a poem entitled ‘The Victory of the Rod’:

Victory of the rod

Moreover, some of the letters that were sent to the magazine eventually found their way into the 1881 edition of a pornographic publication called The Birchen Bouquet.

Birchen bouquet

Tanya Kirk
Lead Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 Cc-by

‘Sex, Lies and Love Bites: The Agony Aunt Story’ is presented by psychotherapist and agony aunt Philippa Perry, and was broadcast on BBC4 at 9.00pm on Tuesday 10 March.

  Programme details

10 March 2015

‘To be tightly laced is a most superb sensation’: the Corset Controversy

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Some fascinating British Library collection items feature as part of ‘Sex, Lies and Love Bites: the Agony Aunt Story’, showing on BBC4 this evening.


The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine was published by Samuel Beeton and ran from 1852 till 1879. It was a trailblazer as an early periodical aimed primarily at the middle-class woman. The magazine established the standard format for women’s magazines, including serial fiction, fashion and beauty advice, sewing and household tips, and, significantly, a section for readers’ correspondence.

Fashion plate


From 1867 the magazine had an expanded letters section, entitled the Conversatione.  It typically included letters asking for advice on various matters – varying from love and relationships to the correct colours to wear with sallow skin.  In March 1867, ‘a lady[…]  from Edinburgh’ wrote in to with a cautionary tale: she had sent her daughter to boarding school, and, visiting her for the first time after being abroad for four years, she was horrified to discover that the daughter had been tight-laced.

  Lady from Edinburgh

Whilst corsetry in the Victorian period was considered an essential part of female attire, tight-lacing involved very great constriction of the waist established over a period of time, resulting in what some saw as the ideal female form: a waist that could be easily spanned with two hands.

To tight-lace or not to tight-lace quickly became a recurrent theme in the letters section. Discussions cover such topics as “correct” ratio of waist to height, neck and wrist size (if your neck and wrists were disproportionate, presumably you’d failed as a woman); the right age to start wearing a corset (one recurrent correspondent, Fairplay, disapproved of extreme tight-lacing but greatly approved of girls wearing corsets from young childhood); and the preferences of men comes up again and again, with one correspondent stating that tight-lacing women do it to be competitive with each other, rather than for male approval. The question of class also runs through some of the letters – some assert that only lower and middle classes would consider figure-training to such an extent.

In the June 1868 issue, “a Widower” wrote in as follows:



This letter seems to have opened the floodgates, because after that, barely an issue goes by without a man pleading to be advised on purchasing a women’s corset for himself (mail order if possible).

Although the magazine was ostensibly aimed as a solely female readership, it’s evident that men wrote in to the Conversatione pages to get advice from women – on topics that they could never have freely discussed in Victorian society, safely behind the anonymity that the letters pages provided. During the tight-lacing debate, the pages of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine became an outlet for hidden desires and free discussion between the sexes.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the second time The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine caused a scandal – this time with corporal punishment.

Tanya Kirk
Lead Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 Cc-by

‘Sex, Lies and Love Bites: The Agony Aunt Story’ is presented by psychotherapist and agony aunt Philippa Perry, and will be broadcast on BBC4 at 9.00pm tonight (Tuesday 10 March).

Programme details