Untold lives blog

160 posts categorized "Domestic life"

26 October 2016

An abandoned ayah

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Imagine being abandoned at London’s King’s Cross railway station with just one pound in your pocket. In 1908, this is exactly what happened to an ayah who had travelled from India to Britain to look after a family’s children on the journey home.  An India Office Records file reveals the details of this story which was told in last night’s Sky Arts programme ‘Treasures of the British Library’ featuring Meera Syal.

Many British people employed an ayah to look after their children on the long voyage from India to Britain. The ayahs were at the heart of the family during the voyage, and their employer was supposed to provide for their passage home. However it was not unusual for ayahs to be dismissed once in Britain and left to fend for themselves. There were many critics of this callous behaviour because ayahs often suffered poverty and poor living conditions. In the late nineteenth century, these concerns led to the founding of the Ayahs’ Home in East London. Such was the demand that it moved to larger premises in 1921. They could enjoy a safe place to stay in the company of other ayahs and Chinese amahs, with food and décor that was intended to make them feel at home.


Ayahs in the Hackney Home

Inside the Ayah's Home in East London from G Sims Living London (1904-06)


The ayah highlighted in the broadcast arrived in England from Bombay with a Mrs Catchpole in May 1908. Mrs Catchpole asked Thomas Cook and Son to find the ayah another employer returning to India. The ayah’s services were duly transferred to a Mrs Drummond and she journeyed to Scotland where she spent fifteen days with the family.  On 24 June the Drummonds came to London to take passage to Bombay the following day on SS Arabia. The family left the ayah at King’s Cross Station, giving her £1.


  Ayahs home entrance

The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney East London, London City Mission Magazine (1921) PP.1041.C

From King’s Cross, the ayah managed to find her way to the office of Thomas Cook at Ludgate Hill. She was advised to go to the Ayahs’ Home in King Edward Road, Hackney.  The matron of the Home, Sarah Annie Dunn, wrote to the India Office on 16 July reporting the case.  Although the Home did not take charge of destitute ayahs, it would not turn the woman away. Mrs Dunn questioned whether it was against the law for a native of India to be abandoned in such a manner.


Ayahs' Home letter

Sarah Annie Dunn’s letter 16 July 1908 IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622 Noc


The India Office believed that the ayah had no legal remedy unless she had a written agreement that she would be taken back to India. The file notes that the India Office had declined to take responsibility in a previous case in 1890, and that the Government of India had then also refused to intervene. However Council of India member Syed Hussain Bilgrami recorded his disagreement with the proposed response, writing of ‘dishonest and cruel’ European employers inveigling Indian servants to travel with them and then abandoning them on arrival.


Ayah India Office minute

Syed Hussain Bilgrami’s dissenting minute 24 July 1908 IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622  Noc


Nothing more is written in the file about the destitute woman. Perhaps she was one of the ayahs who developed a special expertise in looking after children on voyages and travelled regularly to Britain. But if it was her first voyage, then her experience of being abandoned must have been truly terrifying.

Penny Brook and Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (Pluto Press, 2002)
Learning website: Asians in Britain 
Making Britain
Judicial and Public Annual Files 2575-2672: Case of an ayah abandoned in London, 16 Jul 1908, IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622 Explore Archives and Manuscripts
London City Mission Magazine, report on the opening of the Home of Nations (Ayahs’ Home) on 4 King Edward Road, Hackney in June 1921 (Dec 1921 issue, page 140) PP.10451.C


06 October 2016

Throwing off the workhouse

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I was delighted to hear from the family of Robert Chivers, the ‘violent pauper’ who featured on Untold Lives in June. Robyn Bergin is a descendant of Robert’s son William in Australia. She wrote to tell me that the story didn’t end too badly for young William.

Chivers, William 1William Chivers aged 21 - photograph courtesy of his family

This is what Robyn told me.

William was placed in the Melbourne Orphan Asylum on Christmas Eve 1874 along with his two brothers Robert and Thomas. No-one knows for sure what happened to his mother Elizabeth or his sister Anne, although family members believe that Anne may have been sent back to England to relatives. William worked in the garden at the home and later on other people’s land. In 1892, he married Fanny Matilda Dunlop at her family home in Caulfield. It was during the Depression and, in order to save some money to marry, he had taken his swag and shot koalas in Gippsland.

In 1894, they had a son Norman. William then went to Western Australia to work in the Karri forest sawmills at Pemberton. He sent for Fanny and Norman, and they had another son Gordon whilst living there.

 Chivers, William 3William, Fanny and children in front of their house in Western Australia - photograph courtesy of his family

The family returned to Victoria and William leased a market garden with his brother-in-law. The property was St John's Wood, formerly owned by judge Sir Redmond Barry. Two more children were born: Elsie and Herbert. In 1907, William bought a property of his own on the top of the hill in Waverley Road, Glen Waverley. His diaries record this as the happiest and saddest day of his life: happy because he was now a man of property, and sad because, in order to get a loan, he had to admit to being an orphan. William lived there until he died in 1958. Two of his sons bought adjoining properties and they farmed together. Some of William's descendants still live in the district.

When he applied for a loan through The Australian Widows' Fund, they sought his birth certificate from the UK. William was wrongly identified as Alfred William Chivers - a different person born on a different day –– and from then on William believed his name to be Alfred William. (How sad is that?)

William liked to write to the newspapers from time to time. One of these letters was in response to a government policy that encouraged migration from England by not only providing free passage but also a land grant upon arrival. He wasn't eligible for this programme and suggested in his letter that he should stow away back to England and then take advantage of the scheme!

Chivers, William 2William Chivers in later life - photograph courtesy of his family

There is a street in Glen Waverley called Chivers Avenue. Robyn grew up there. As she says - that’s not a bad legacy for a child of the workhouse.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Many thanks to Robyn and her family for sharing William's story and providing the photographs for this post.

29 September 2016

Persian carpets for European consumers

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Sir Trenchard Craven William Fowle spent twenty-four years working as a British colonial administrator in the Persian Gulf before retiring in the summer of 1939. During that time he amassed a collection of thirteen Persian carpets.

  Mss Eur F126-28, f 16

Extract of an advert from the journal The Nineteenth Century, dated 1892. Mss Eur F126/28, f 16  Noc

Prior to returning to England, Fowle put the carpets up for sale at the Political Agency in Bahrain. A list in an Agency file offers details of Fowle’s carpets. Five of the cheapest were described as Baluchi (i.e. made in Baluchistan), their price likely reflecting their small size. Four further carpets originated from Turkmenistan, while the two most expensive items were manufactured in the city of Kashan, renowned for its superior carpets of intricate design.

IOR-R-15-2-1531, f 26.

 List of carpets for sale at the Bahrain Political Agency. IOR/R/15/2/1531, f 26. Noc

Europe’s affluent middle-classes became avid collectors of Persian carpets in the nineteenth century. Letters from the East India Company Resident in the Persian port of Bushire indicate that carpets were being sourced for European markets as early as 1813. In the meantime, a succession of European travellers to Persia, including the novelist James Morier and colonial administrators Henry Pottinger and John Johnson, penned narratives in which richly decorated carpets were closely associated with the opulence of the Persian court.

  IOR-R-15-1-12, ff 156-157

Extract of a letter from William Bruce, Acting Resident at Bushire to Francis Warden, Chief Secretary to the Government, Bombay, 17 January 1813.

IOR/R/15/1/12, ff 156-157 Noc

The European (and American) market for carpets had grown to such an extent that by the 1880s, demand outstripped supply. ‘Very old carpets are now extremely rare,’ reported Robert Murdoch Smith in 1883, while sourcing Persian carpets for the South Kensington (now V&A) Museum. In response to a diminishing supply of carpets, commercial companies, including manufacturers from England, set up carpet-making factories in Persia, with the intention of catering specifically to their domestic markets.

In 1883 the Manchester firm Zielger & Company established premises at Sultanabad (now Arak) consisting of houses for their employees, offices, stores and dyeing rooms. This was no factory though; carpets continued to be hand-woven by women and children in the home, although now according to orders and designs stipulated by the Company. Between 1894 and 1914 the number of looms in Sultanabad increased thirty-fold, from 40 to 1,200 (equating to one loom for every 5.8 persons in the town).

Mostasham_Kashan_19th_century (1)

 Nineteenth century Kashan carpet. Source: (Public Domain) Noc


Although one British colonial administrator reported that the firm was ‘much liked by the villagers’, evidence of the exploitation of weavers elsewhere was reported. The impressions of other visitors to Persia suggest that some carpet production had shifted to grim karkhanas (or manufactories), described as ‘low, dark, miserable rooms’, often with a ‘sour and sickening atmosphere’, in which ‘weakly children of ten or twelve years’ laboured on carpets, under pressure to complete ‘a certain allotted portion per diem’. In 1913 the British Resident at Bushire noted there was ‘no doubt that the industry as carried on is responsible for a great deal of human misery, in deforming and arresting the development of children, especially the girls’.

Of Fowle’s carpets, the expensive Kashanis remained unsold. They were returned to Fowle’s widow after the War (Fowle himself having died suddenly in 1940), but not before being lost by staff of the Southern Railway Company, and spending two months in the lost property office at Waterloo Station.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project Cc-by

British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
British Library, London, Volume 12: Letters outward. IOR/R/15/1/12  – East India Company correspondence dated 1811 to 1813.
British Library London, ‘Gazetteer of Persia. Volume II’ (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/3/1) – for a description of the Ziegler & Co.’s activities at Sultanabad.
British Library, London, ‘Administration Report of the Persian Gulf Political Residency for the Years 1911-1914' (IOR/R/15/1/711) – reporting attempts to reform conditions in carpet-weaving factories at Kerman, 1913.
British Library, London, ‘File 16/32-II Miscellaneous. Correspondence with the Residency, Bushire.’ (IOR/R/15/2/1531) – correspondence relating to Trenchard Fowle’s carpets.
George Nathaniel Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1892), 523-525.
Frederic John Goldsmid, Telegraph and Travel (London: MacMillan & Co., 1874), 586-587.
Edward Stack, Six Months in Persia Vol. 1 (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1882), 209.
Leonard Helfgott, “Carpet Collecting in Iran, 1873-1883: Robert Murdoch Smith and the Formation of the Modern Persian Carpet Industry” Muqarnas Vol.7 (1990), 171-181.


08 August 2016

The surgeon’s porcupine

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Sometimes a single page captures a small life. Here John McCosh, East India Company surgeon in Assam in the 1830s, recalls an unusual pet. McCosh was reporting to the Government of India on the topography of Assam. Topography encompassed history, geography, people, customs, economics, and natural history: indeed, anything which a reporter on an area thought worth recording. This topography would have been a valuable work of reference for government officials. But two centuries later, it is the unexpected glimpse into McCosh’s domestic life which stands out.


  Porcupine 2

Porcupine from Burney 97, f.26v De animalium proprietate BL flickr Noc

‘I once had a pet porcupine at Goalpara, I got him or her (for I could never use the freedom of ascertaining the sex) when very young.  It afterwards became so tame as to run out and into the house like a dog, and was wont to make its appearance regularly at meals, and ate from my hand any thing that was at table, whether flesh or vegetable.  It had a great deal of comic humour if I might so call it, and whether to gratify this whim, or from love of stolen treasure, became a great thief.  Nothing that it could carry away was safe; a stick or a shoe, a boot-hook or a broken bottle, was dragged to its nest, but as it never meddled with any thing that was not on the floor, we were easily able to keep things out of its reach.  Latterly this habit became very inconvenient; if any thing fell off the table and was neglected, it was certain to be carried off.  On searching its hoard the lost article was frequently found, but I had sometimes reason to think, the porcupine was blamed for taking away things he had no share in.  It became the torment of the dogs, and was wont to take a fiendish pleasure in pricking and annoying them.  It had a large share of courage, and in fair field was more than a match for any one dog, for it had only to keep its tail towards him to save its head, the only defenceless part about it; sometimes two dogs set upon it at once, and on such occasions it took to its heels, but it only ran to the nearest corner of the room and spreading out its quills, so as to fill the corner, looked back at its persecutors with cool contempt.’


Porcupine Noc

Antonia Moon
Lead Curator, post-1858 India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
John McCosh, Topography of Assam (Calcutta: Bengal Military Orphan Press, 1837)




21 June 2016

‘A Violent Pauper’

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Today we continue our sad story of poverty and destitution in Victorian London by focusing on the Chivers family of Marylebone.

Robert Chivers was working as a painter when he married Elizabeth Moulder at Christ Church Marylebone on 20 August 1865. They lived in Duke Street, a small turning off Lisson Grove in a poor area.  Their son Robert was born in October 1865 and they went on to have three more children: Ann/Annie, William/Willie, and Thomas.

On 21 July 1868 Robert and Elizabeth were admitted to Marylebone Workhouse with Robert aged 3 and Ann aged 9 months. Little Robert was moved to the workhouse school at Southall in Middlesex on 14 August 1868.


  Dore London poor 075459
Inhabitants of London. Image taken from London :a pilgrimage, illustrations by G. Dore Images Online


In January 1869 newspaper articles about Robert Chivers appeared under the headlines ‘A Violent Pauper’ and, with more than a hint of sarcasm, ‘A Model Pauper’.  Robert been taken to court for assaulting workhouse officer James Lockwood who had reprimanded him for not picking oakum properly. Robert complained that he had been insulted when he asked for an additional quantity of oakum to pick.  He had wanted to increase his earnings from 6d for a day’s work in order to support his wife and three small children. Having been unemployed since July 1868, he had asked the parish officers to grant him a few clothes to make him decent to apply for work outside.  His request was turned down because the Chivers family had been in and out of the workhouse for a long time and the overseer thought Robert lazy and sullen.  The jury found Robert guilty but recommended him to mercy because of his family.  He was sentenced to six months in the House of Correction.

Elizabeth Chivers also came into conflict with the workhouse authorities on more than one occasion  In April 1871 she was imprisoned for 21 days for disorderly conduct and using threatening language in the workhouse. The 1871 census shows Robert, Annie and William living at the workhouse school in Southall, and Elizabeth in the workhouse with four-month-old Thomas.  Robert senior seems to have disappeared and I have been unable to discover his whereabouts.

In July 1874 Elizabeth and her children were discharged from the workhouse so they could emigrate to Australia. Their ‘most distressing case of poverty’ was heard before the Melbourne City Bench in December 1874. Elizabeth said her husband had deserted her about four years earlier.  Her sister’s husband had been helping, but he could no longer afford to do so. Elizabeth applied to have her children admitted to the industrial schools but the bench was sympathetic and keen to keep the family together. Thomas was suffering from spinal disease and so he was remanded to the industrial schools for a month for medical treatment.  Elizabeth received £1 for her immediate wants, a charitable subscription was started with a £5 donation by the magistrate, and she was promised that ‘benevolent ladies’ would help her obtain a livelihood.

Unfortunately this story does not have a happy ending. Robert, William and Thomas were all living in the industrial schools by April 1875 when Elizabeth was summoned to pay towards their upkeep. The case was dismissed as it was shown that she was unable to contribute anything.  Thomas died in 1878 aged seven.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading;
British Newspaper ArchiveMorning Post 19 January 1869; Marylebone Mercury 19 January 1869; Bell’s Weekly Messenger 23 January 1869; Marylebone Mercury 8 April 1871.
TroveThe Age (Melbourne) 18 December 1874.

Poverty and destitution in Victorian London


31 May 2016

Robert Clive arrives in India

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On 31 May 1744 the East India Company ship Winchester anchored off Fort St George Madras.  The voyage from England had been exceptionally long.  Having sailed from Portsmouth on 19 March 1743, the Winchester ran aground on the coast of Brazil in May 1743.  Nine months elapsed before the ship was ready to resume her voyage in February 1744. On board was eighteen-year-old Robert Clive.

Clive had been appointed as an East India Company writer (or clerk) on the Madras establishment.  The protracted voyage meant that his reserves of money and supplies of clothing were seriously depleted before he arrived in India.  Matters were made worse when he fell overboard and lost his silver buckled shoes, hat and wig.



Robert Clive in later life from G. L. Craik and C. MacFarlane, The Pictorial History of England (London, 1855)  Noc


Amongst Clive’s collection of private papers at the British Library is an account of miscellaneous items which the teenager thought it necessary to buy when he arrived in India to take up his Company post. The first part of the account dated 1 June 1744 shows ‘sundries’ purchased from Gabriel Steward or Stewart, Captain of the Winchester: two pairs of black stockings, one hat, one wig, one pair of silver buckles,  and one piece of duroy and trimming – duroy was a coarse woollen cloth manufactured in England and used chiefly for men's wear.

The second part dated 11 June 1744 lists what Clive bought on shore at Fort St George: glasses for wine and water , decanters, half a hogshead of Cape wine, ten yards of camblet, a looking glass, six pewter spoons, one firkin of butter, and one dozen ‘cocoa knives and forks’ (does anyone know what these looked like ?  They were still being advertised for sale in the early 20th century).

Lastly Clive recorded other sundries he paid for at Fort St George.  Many fabrics are detailed: long cloth, cambric, handkerchiefs, black dimity for breeches, silk for lining clothes, gingham for bedding, curtains, cotton and lace for bedding.  He purchased ‘wastecoats to write in the Office’, eight China plates, and some furniture: six chairs, a cot, a couch, and a table.

Clive had to pay for boat hire and for a chest when first coming on shore from the ship. He also noted down the servants’ wages which he would have to meet from his monthly allowance from the Company: dubash, cook boy, washer man; water women, and  ‘Shaving Barber & Powdring’.

Perhaps this story will cheer anyone worrying about sending their teenaged offspring out into the world.  At least they are very unlikely to have to undergo a fourteen-month sea voyage in a sailing ship and nearly drown by falling overboard. 

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
India Office Private Papers MSS Eur G37/19/3 ff.1-1v
Richard Garrett, Robert Clive (London, 1976)


16 May 2016

William Adams – from Gillingham to Japan

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William Adams, often described as 'the first Englishman in Japan', died on 16 May 1620 at Hirado.  He has become a powerful symbol of Anglo-Japanese friendship, and each year a memorial service is held in Hirado in his honour. The British Library holds letters written by Adams to the English East India Company and so curators from the Library send an annual message to be read aloud at the service.

Here is part of a letter dated 23 October 1611 which was sent by William Adams at Hirado to his fellow countrymen at Bantam.

Adams William - letter E 3 1 B20095-09
IOR/E/3/1 ff.122-129v Images Online  Noc

The letter provided a potted biography to explain how Adams came to be in Japan, starting with his birth in Gillingham Kent and his apprenticeship in Limehouse to ship owner Nicholas Diggins. Following service with Queen Elizabeth’s ships and the Barbary Merchants, Adams joined a Dutch merchant fleet as chief pilot in 1598. After a disastrous voyage, Adams arrived in Japan on board the Liefde in 1600.  Adams became immersed in local customs and built a new life for himself in Japan, prospering under the patronage of Tokugawa Ieyasu. 

When the Dutch and English East India Companies arrived in Japan in 1609 and 1613 respectively, Adams helped them to establish factories (trading posts) at Hirado. Adams served the English as interpreter and adviser and also undertook local trading voyages for them.

Adams had married Mary Hyn at St Dunstan Stepney on 20 August 1589 and they had at least two children.  One was a daughter named Deliverance. Letters passed between William and Mary while he was in Japan, and he arranged for money to be paid to her in London by the East India Company.  He also had a Japanese wife by whom he had a son Joseph and a daughter Susanna.  Another child was said to have been born in Hirado to a Japanese woman.

Hirado B20095-11

Sea route from Hirado to Osaka, Japan Or.70.bbb.9. (roll 2) Images Online Noc

Adams remained in Japan until his death. His will was dated 16 May 1620, the day he died, and probate was granted to Mary Adams in London on 8 October 1621.  He wished his estate to be divided into two parts, half going to his ‘lovinge wyfe & children in England’ and the other half to Joseph and Susanna.

His daughter Deliverance married Ratcliff mariner Raph Goodchild at St Dunstan Stepney on 30 September 1618. Records show that they had two daughters: Abigail baptised and buried in October 1619, and Jane baptised on 8 April 1621.

In August 1624, Deliverance Goodchild petitioned the Court of Directors for payment of her father's investment sent home on the Company ships Moon and Elizabeth.  Her mother Mary had died, leaving her share to Deliverance.

Very little else is known about William’s children.  I have discovered that Deliverance  was married for a second time to John Wright at St Alfege Greenwich on 13 October 1624. Joseph Adams made five voyages to Cochin China and Siam between 1624 and 1635.  Susanna was given a present by East India Company merchant Richard Cocks  in 1622 but then she disappears from the records.

Can any of our readers shed more light on the family of William Adams?

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Anthony Farrington, The English Factory in Japan 1613-1623 (London, 1991)
IOR/E/3 Correspondence of overseas East India Company servants
IOR/B Minutes of East India Company Court of Directors
Parish records at London Metropolitan Archives


07 May 2016

Hedgehog Awareness

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In honour of Hedgehog Awareness Week, we’re sharing a charming image from the British Library collections discovered by our colleague Jeremy Nagle on Flickr Commons.


Hedgehog 2Noc

The little hedgehog tripping happily along appears in Aileen Aroon, a memoir . With other tales of faithful friends and favourites, sketched from the life by Gordon Stables (1840-1910). Stables was born in Scotland and he became an author after a career as a Royal Navy Surgeon.   He published over 130 books, mostly boys' adventure fiction.


Aileen Arood


This is the story attached to the picture of the hedgehog.
‘One day Tip was a long time absent, and when he came into the garden he came up to me and placed a large round ball all covered with thorns at my feet. " Whatever is it, Tip? " I asked. "That’s a hoggie," said Tip," and ain't my mouth sore just.” I put down my hands to lift it up, and drew them back with pricked and bleeding fingers. Then I shrieked, and nursie came running out, and shook me, and whacked me on the back as if I had swallowed a bone. That's how she generally served me. "What is it now? " she cried; "you're never out of mischief; did Tip bite you? " " No, no," I whimpered," the beastie bited me." Then I had three pets for many a day, Tip and the cat and the hedgehog, who grew very tame indeed.’

You can enjoy more of these tales as Aileen Arood has been digitised in its entirety. 

Happy reading!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records