Untold lives blog

117 posts categorized "Domestic life"

16 January 2015

In great distress

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On 16 January 1838 a petition asking for help was composed on behalf of Elizabeth Mary Hickman of Blackfriars for submission to the East India Company.  She was the widow of Henry Hickman who had worked as a labourer in the Company warehouses for 23 years. When the Company was winding up its commercial operations in London, Henry was made redundant in March 1836 at the age of 55 with a weekly pension of 8 shillings. Elizabeth claimed that he was in a weak state of mind at that time.  Henry deserted his wife in May 1837 and she heard nothing of him until she learned in December that that he had committed suicide in Somerset.  Elizabeth had been forced to sell her furniture, clothing and other comforts to support herself and she was in great distress.  The Company gave Elizabeth a donation of £5.

Local newspapers provide the rest of this story. When Henry left Elizabeth, his fourth wife, he went to live with his son at a cottage in the forest of Neroche near Buckland St Mary in Somerset. In November 1837 he collected the quarterly instalment of his pension from a bank in Barnstaple.  Instead of paying his son for his board, he spent the money on alcohol. His son remonstrated with him, saying that he could not afford to keep his father and support a large family unless Henry contributed to household expenditure as promised.  The next morning Henry came downstairs about 8 o’clock and asked his daughter-in-law for half a pint of water. Soon afterwards she found that he had strangled himself with a noose made from his neck-cloth, garters, and braces tied to the bed.

Poor family 066953
From G. Cruikshank, The Bottle, and the Drunkard's Children ( 1905) Images Online Noc

The coroner’s inquest lasted four hours with the jury unable to make a unanimous decision on whether this was a case of suicide.  In the end, they divided: twelve declared a verdict of ‘lunacy’ and two of ‘felo de se’.  In consequence a verdict of lunacy was recorded. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette added a postscript to this sad story:

‘It is melancholy to add, that the infatuated man, in addition to his other infirmities, repudiated the idea of the existence of a Divine Being, and always ridiculed the name of God when questioned on the subject, often expressing his entire acquiescence in the pernicious doctrines of Tom Paine, whose writings the deceased had in his possession’.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:

IOR/L/F/2/26 No.136 of January 1838

British Newspaper Archive: Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser 29 November 1837; Dorset County Chronicle 30 November 1837; Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 2 December 1837; Western Times 9 December 1837

Honest and industrious – petitions to the East India Company

East India Company London Workers


11 January 2015

Pining for domestic bliss

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A career in India could offer adventure and advancement, but sometimes this was at the expense of personal happiness. In 1821, Reginald Orton, Assistant Surgeon with HM 34th Regiment in India wrote to Anne Orton in Yorkshire about his improving career prospects and his wistful vision of a happier time in the future when he could return to family life, English moors and frosty mornings. It seems he had to persuade himself of the benefits of remaining in India when he wrote ‘I should be very much to blame to sacrifice such an opportunity as I now have of making myself easy for life, by bearing the evils of this country a little longer. Rely on it however nothing shall induce me to stay more than about a couple of years more.’  He complained ‘It is an age since I heard from you. Pray write oftener.  Best love to my mother and Betsy, who I hope has quite recovered.’

  Mss Eur D1036
Extract from Reginald Orton's letter to Anne Orton, Mss Eur D1036   Cc-by

Presumably Betsy and Anne were his sisters and he must have enjoyed their company when growing up as he continued rather poignantly ‘My life is a mere blank at present, and hangs rather heavily on my hands. In this country very few have quiet domestic female society; and that is certainly the greatest charm of a man’s life. My almost sole amusements are books, and laying schemes of happiness to be put in practice some couple of years hence at home. I think I should like to live in the country and have a few acres of land – keep a cow or two, some sheep and pigs – a horse, a few hives of bees ….’

India - Europeans breakfasting D40087-35
Maybe Orton would have been happier in India if he had enjoyed the domestic arrangements depicted in‘The Breakfast’, in William Tayler's Sketches Illustrating the Manners & Customs of the Indians and Anglo-Indians (1842)   Public Domain
Images Online

In the absence of such comforts, he continued his modest dreams. ‘I would take a trip to London now and then, and perhaps to France and Italy; or if I found myself cured of the itch of wandering, I might drive you or Betsy in a gig down to the sea-coast and come quietly back again’

‘You would naturally be looking out for a wife for me, and I shouldn’t be surprised if I found myself fairly coupled some fine morning – that is if I could find anybody whose society I could value to have me and it is not at all a clear thing with me that I should for you will find a vast change in my appearance since I saw you. I am always thin and between the sun and the Seringapatam fever, I have got a vile complexion. ‘

It is not surprising that Reginald Orton took a rather bleak view of life in India in 1821 as he had recently completed a study of the cholera epidemic which had swept across the country wreaking a terrible toll on its inhabitants. His painstaking research, published in An Essay on the Epidemic Cholera of India, documented the disease in gruesome detail and explored its possible causes, including the impact of the weather. After concentrating on such a depressing subject, no wonder he pined for domestic bliss and frosty mornings in England.

Penny Brook
India Office Records   Cc-by

Further reading

Mss Eur D1036 Letters from Reginald Orton (d 1835), surgeon's mate on the East Indiaman `Arniston' 1810, assistant surgeon and surgeon with H M 34th Regiment 1810-27, telling his family about life in India and his career prospects, and about his book An Essay on the Epidemic Cholera of India (Madras 1820; 2nd edn London 1831).

Explore the British Library for printed collections

Search our Catalogues of Archives and Manuscripts



06 January 2015

Twelfth Day

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6 January is the twelfth day after Christmas when the festival of the Epiphany is celebrated in the Christian Church.  Twelfth Day used to be a day of great merrymaking marking the end of Christmas festivities.

One custom on 6 January was the eating of ‘Twelfth Cake’.  As late as 1930 the Yorkshire Post was advising its readers that the Twelfth Cake should be made from a rich fruit mixture and that it was essential that the cake should contain a bean or a silver penny or charm.  The lucky finder was crowned ‘King of the Bean’ for the day.  

Pastry cooks in 19th century London vied for custom on Twelfth Day with sumptuous displays of cakes of all sizes and prices.  Cakes were elaborately decorated with a vast variety of white sugar shapes: stars, castles, dragons, fish, lions, milk-maids, knights, and serpents.  Pavements in front of confectioners’ shops were thronged with customers and onlookers.

Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side
Of the Twelfth-cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;
As up the slipp'ry curb, or pavement wide,
We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day;
While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance,
Look round – dare not go back – and yet dare not advance.

(William Hone, The Every-day Book)

London boys made their sport on Twelfth Day by nailing the coat tails of spectators to the bottom of the shop window frames or pinning people together by their clothes.

  Twelfth Cake
January 6 Epiphany - From William Hone, The Every-day Book Noc

The tradition of the Twelfth Cake lives on at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane where the Baddeley Cake ceremony takes place every year on 6 January. Actor Robert Baddeley who died in 1794 made a bequest in his will that the interest on £100 in 3% consolidated bank annuities was to be used each year to purchase a Twelfth Cake with wine and punch. The ladies and gentlemen of Drury Lane Theatre were to enjoy these in the Green Room.

  Robert Baddeley
Robert Baddeley (1733–1794) -Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library  CC by same as

By the l880s the annual ceremony had evolved somewhat from the gathering envisaged by Robert Baddeley.  The London Daily News of 8 January 1884 reported that there were about 1,000 people present at that year’s celebration as it had become the custom to invite almost everyone of note connected with the theatrical profession in London.  Indeed the money available from the bequest could meet only a small part of the total cost of the event. At the end of the pantomime performance, two gigantic pink and white cakes each measuring six feet in diameter were placed on the stage. The Master of the Drury Lane Fund made ’a vigorous onslaught upon the cake, which however proved difficult to grapple with, and it was only when he had braced himself up for a second attempt that the operator was able to cut it into slices for distribution’.  Basketfuls of cake were handed round the theatre together with ‘other refreshments of a less solid kind’.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by

Further reading:

William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)

British Newspaper Archive: Morning Post 11 January 1826; London Daily News  8 January 1884; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 3 January 1930


01 January 2015

Honest and industrious – petitions to the East India Company

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It’s easy to forget that New Year’s Day has only been a Bank Holiday in the whole of the UK since 1974.  So 1 January 1841 was a normal working day in the City of London. In Leadenhall Street, the East India Company directors who sat on the Finance and Home Committee met to consider business.

East India House 2
East India House engraved by Albert Henry Payne from W. I. Bicknell Illustrated London  (1846) British Library flickr Noc

Amongst the paperwork set before them were four petitions from former Company warehouse workers and their families.  The Company had been forced to make majority of its London warehouse staff redundant after commercial operations ceased in 1834.  A sliding-scale of pensions was introduced based on length of service. However many of the warehouse workers and their families were driven to appeal to the Company for assistance in times of trouble.   As we shall see, the directors did not always agree to help.

Former labourer Timothy McCarthy of 52 Baldwins Gardens, Leather Lane, Holborn, had a wife and three children to support but was out of work. He wished to go to Shanagarry County Cork where he had friends who would help him.  He asked for a quarter’s pension in advance to pay for the journey. A testimonial from Thomas Doyle of the Catholic Chapel, London Road, stated that McCarthy was honest and industrious. Company official Joseph Barber Wilks submitted a report to the Committee: McCarthy had been visited at his home; he bore a very good character but was unable to find employment; he and his two grown up sons were out of work. The Committee agreed to advance McCarthy’s quarterly pension of £4 17s 6d to allow the family to travel to Ireland.

Poor and plain
Image from Mary Seamer, Poor and Plain. A story for elder girls (1891) British Library flickr Noc


Mary Reading of 9 Green Street, New Road, was the widow of James Reading who had worked as a labourer at the indigo warehouse. James had died on 11 December 1840. Mary’s request for financial help was rejected.

William Perry had been out of work for eight weeks. He had a sick wife and two children to support and his family was in great distress.  The Committee refused to advance part of his pension.

Amelia Gregory of 37 Gloucester Street, Commercial Road, was the daughter of George Gregory, who had died recently after working for the East India Company for more than 37 years ‘during which period no Complaint was ever brought against him for neglect of duty but that the same was discharged to the entire satisfaction of the Officers of your honourable company’.  George had retired on 28 May 1838 with a pension of 11s 6d per week.  Amelia was unable to earn a living because of general debility and ill health and she had been supported by her father.  Her mother had died only seven months before her father. Mr Wilks reported:  George Gregory had been gate keeper at the Cutler Street warehouse for many years; he had the best of characters and was much respected; his daughter had been seen at home and her ill health was evident.  If George had died in service, Amelia would have received £5 5s towards his funeral expenses from the Company welfare fund. The Committee decided to award her a donation of £3 3s.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:

IOR/L/F/2/55 nos. 18, 20, 21 and 46 of January 1841

Biographical notes on East India Company warehouse labourers appointed 1801-1832 - India Office Family History Search


24 December 2014

A wartime Christmas party

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In 1943 it was decided to hold a Christmas party in London for the evacuated children of British prisoners of war in Malaya.  It was funded by the officers and men of HMS Malaya and held in the Royal Empire Society’s Hall in Northumberland Avenue off Whitehall on the afternoon of 4 January 1944.  Nearly 200 children aged between four and sixteen attended, including six sons and daughters of the ship’s crew who lived in London. The crew members’ children wore tickets bearing the name HMS Malaya so they were easily distinguishable. 

From Lizzie Lawson and Robert Ellice Mack, Old Father Christmas. Picture-Book (1888) British Library flickr  Noc

The party was deemed a great success. It started with cine films of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Ferdinand the Bull.  Music was provided by Mr E J Smith’s Orchestra. After a very good tea, the children were entertained by conjuror Col Ling Soo with a performance of Chinese magic.

Col Ling Soo was the alter ego of Herbert J Collings (1881-1958). He told the party organisers that his fee for performing would be five guineas and no lower as he was sure of several other enquiries about bookings.  Collings was well-known, a founder member of the Magic Circle who was President for two terms.  He served in World War One as a soldier in the Artists Rifles Officer Training Unit.   The Artists Rifles gave a ‘splendid’ fundraising concert in Chelmsford in May 1917 and Corporal Collings contributed his ‘Merriemysticisms’.   Collings appeared before the King and Queen on more than one occasion and newspaper advertisements for his shows refer to a demonstration of Chinese magic given by royal command at Windsor Castle.

At the end of the party Father Christmas appeared and each child was given a present from under a beautifully decorated tree.  A message of thanks was drafted for HMS Malaya:
'The children of Malaya send their greetings to the battleship.  They wish the officers and men of H.M.S. Malaya could be with them this afternoon.  Everyone is enjoying the party and we, one and all, send our heartiest thanks for this splendid entertainment'.
The celebration ended with three rousing cheers for HMS Malaya.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur F168/53
British Newspaper Archive for Herbert Collings/Col Ling Soo


19 December 2014

The Poisoned Mince Pie

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Here’s a cheery tale from the British Library collections to entertain you as you tuck into tasty seasonal fare.  A Romance of a Mince Pie involves a pastry cook, a dog, and some arsenic.

Travel back with us to Victorian England, to the town of Forty Winks.  In the High Street lived pastry cook and confectioner John Chirrup and his niece Pattie.  John was a popular man ‘of easy and festive disposition’ and ‘merry good-heartedness’, famed for his Christmas mince pies.  

  Poisoned mince pie 1
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie    Noc

Next door lived ‘snarling, sulky, ill-tempered’ Snitch and his vicious dog Angel.  Angel’s  howling kept John Chirrup awake at night, so grocer Bob Tanks suggested that Chirrup should feed Angel a mince pie made especially for him: ‘There is some things - as a dog don’t bark arter eating them -’. 

Poisoned mince pie 2
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie  Noc

So Chirrup ‘bent his furtive way’ to the local druggist and bought some arsenic, claiming it was needed to kill rats.  Returning home, he sprinkled arsenic into a mince pie, spurred on by the sight of Angel biting young Tommy Sawyer. 

Poisoned mince pie 3
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

Chirrup was about to lock away the pie when he was distracted by Pattie and left the shop. Returning, he was horrified to glimpse a hungry boy running away with the poisoned pie.  Chirrup ‘was not given to gymnastics, but he vaulted into the public part of the shop, and rushed into the street’.   

Poisoned mince pie 4
 Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

However Chirrup lost sight of the thief.  He was convinced that he was culpable of murder and wrote a confession note before attempting suicide by jumping into Drowned Man’s Hole. Luckily he was saved by some fishermen.

 Poisoned mince pie 5
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

Meanwhile Snitch had come across the mince pie thief ‘in the act of opening a pair of pretty capacious jaws for the first bite’. Snitch grabbed the pie and the boy ran off pursued by Angel ‘who always followed any retreating object with cannibalistic designs’.

Soon afterwards Snitch found Chirrup’s confession and had the pastry cook arrested. Wild rumours swept through Forty Winks as to how many people Chirrup had poisoned.  After a few hours ‘it was announced on good grounds that the confectioner had entered into a contract with a wholesale London chemist for regular supplies of arsenic and prussic acid’.  

Poisoned mince pie 6
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

Pattie suddenly realised that no-one had actually named her uncle’s victim. Who was dead? The mayor went to the prison to ask Chirrup. Then Mrs Groats, the baker’s wife, found Angel dead after Snitch had fed the poisoned pie to his dog. She realised what must have happened and explained this to the townsfolk. The mayor said he was glad that the troublesome Angel was dead and immediately freed Chirrup.

And there our story ends.  Still planning to reach for that second mince pie?


Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by

For the full story, see- Angus Bethune Reach, A Romance of a Mince Pie (London, 1848) with illustrations by Phiz


17 December 2014

Santa Claus’s coming to Britain

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The modern Santa Claus originated in the New York area where he evolved from Dutch gift traditions surrounding St Nicholas.  His name, spelt Sancte Claus, first appeared in print in a poem in the New York Spectator in 1810.

But it was another poem that helped spread his fame.  What became known as Twas the Night before Christmas was probably written by Clement Clarke Moore and quickly became popular after being published anonymously in 1823.  Although it refers to him as St Nicholas rather than Santa Claus, the poem helped fix the idea that he was a plump, jovial figure with a sleigh and reindeer.

The first mention of Santa Claus in the British Library’s British Newspaper Archive comes from Wick in Scotland in 1852, where children told a reporter that he filled the stockings they hung by the fireplace with presents. 

Santa Claus’s first appearance in British print culture? John O’Groat Journal, 9 January 1852 British Newspaper Archive  

But how Santa made his way across the Atlantic and then established himself in Britain is unclear. His tale may have spread via the letters home of those who had emigrated to the States.  Some may have enquired after the meaning of the American ship Santa Claus that visited England in the early 1850s or the 1860s' racehorse of the same name.  British newspapers reproduced Moore’s poem a number of times from as early as 1855. 

Books also played their part in spreading his fame and encouraging children to hang stockings. In 1853 an American short story by Susan Warner entitled ‘The Christmas Stocking’ was published in London. It was performed at penny readings, and at least five editions of it were published in Britain in the next three years.

His trip across the Atlantic did not leave Santa Claus unchanged. In Scotland, his gift deliveries were often made at Hogmanay.  Most importantly, he often found himself merged with Father Christmas, an unruly and sometimes even debauched figure who had long since symbolised festive celebrations in England.  The two names quickly became interchangeable but Santa Claus was the most commonly used, perhaps until as late as the 1950s when the middle classes became more sensitive about the Americanisation of popular culture.

Shops adopted Santa Claus and used him to sell their festive wares and by the 1890s it was possible to visit him in department stores.  Advertising, like storybooks and Christmas cards, also began to show people what he looked like.  Whereas in America he tended to wear a suit, in Victorian Britain he was usually depicted in a long robe. Nor was it always red, although that colour did predominate long before the interwar Coca-Cola advertisements that are sometimes thought to have changed his sartorial preferences.

Santa kh200411          Santa kh200412
Images Online © Collection IM/Harbin-Tapabor/British Library c.1907 & 1908 Noc

Santa was an ideal way to indulge the growing Victorian reverence for the innocence of childhood. It also had the practical benefit of helping control children’s behaviour.  The mix of commercial and cultural pressures meant that by the end of the 19th century a majority of middle-class families were playing along. So, too, were some working-class ones, although economics curtailed his visits to the poorest of society, causing consternation amongst their children.

Santa Claus’s Victorian journey from the USA to the heart of the British Christmas remains shrouded in some mystery. Newspaper digitisation is allowing that journey to be better charted.  Yet, undoubtedly, hidden in the millions of the British Library’s Victorian pages are further clues as to how he came to, as one 1931 writer put it, ‘reign all over Christendom as the King of Christmas’.

Martin Johnes
Reader in History, Swansea University 

Martin is currently writing a history of Christmas in Britain since 1914 and his previous publications include Wales Since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012).

Further reading:

Neil Armstrong, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England (Manchester University Press, 2010)

Gerry Bowler, Santa Claus: A Biography (McClelland & Stewart, 2005)

11 December 2014

Victorian children - lost and found

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The lost and found columns in Victorian newspapers offer rewards for the return of lost dogs, silver lockets, watches, overcoats, sheep, and pigeons.  But tucked away amongst these are pitiful announcements about lost children.

STRAYED, about Half-past Five o’clock YESTERDAY (THURSDAY) Evening, from Hercules Street, a LITTLE GIRL, about three years of age.  Had on a black silk dress, with a little grey stripe on the bottom; hair fair; no hat; wore boots. Information to be given at 29, Hercules Street; to FRANCIS KANE, 47, Mill Street; or the Police.
(Belfast Morning News, Friday 31 August 1866)

LOST, on Saturday afternoon, at 2 p.m., ELY ENGLEBERG, 4 years old, round face, blue eyes, dressed in black mixture trousers, grey jacket, red stockings, clogs, and soft billycock hat. – Any person finding him bring him to 21, Johnson-street, off Red Bank, Manchester.
(Manchester Evening News, 22 February 1881)

Victorian children
From Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song. A nursery rhyme book (1893) British Library on flickr  Noc

The disappearance of ten year old James Robert Leach was reported in the news columns of the Portsmouth Evening News in July 1894. James had left his home in Landport in Hampshire at about 10am on 18 July to buy a loaf and some milk. When he failed to return, his anxious parents Richard and Louisa Leach began to search for him.  They were told that their son had been seen at Hilsea with a man and woman who sold umbrellas. The police were then informed. The newspaper printed this description of the boy:

    When he left home he was without boots, stockings, cap, or collar. He was wearing a brown reefer     coat with an odd black sleeve, and trousers of a dark pepper-and-salt pattern.  He is short and     small for his age, has black hair and dark eyes, and on one of his little fingers is a bony     protuberance at the lower joint.  His back is scarred with burns.

His parents advertised widely and had photographs circulated in London by the Salvation Army.  Nothing was heard until November when James was found sleeping under a hedge in Chatham in Kent. An inspector for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children took him to the workhouse.  The poor boy thought that he had been missing for three years.

James had wandered off to play on Portsdown Hill when Thomas and Florence Cannon abducted him.  Thomas Cannon had threatened to cut his throat if he raised an alarm.  The boy was sent out to beg and thrashed if he did not take back threepence daily. His body was covered with bruises and wounds. When a School Board officer began to investigate, the Cannons took him out one night and deserted him.

Urchin 97016703
Urchin asleep by Antonio Mancini (1852-1930) ©De Agostini/The British Library Board Images Online  Noc

The Cannons were each sentenced to three months’ hard labour for employing James Leach for begging purposes.  At the end of their sentence they were sent back to court to face kidnapping charges but the Public Prosecutor decided not to proceed.

Sadly, our story does not have a happy ending. James Leach enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1901. He was killed on 9 November 1918 when HMS Britannia was sunk by a submarine off Cape Trafalgar. He left a widow Florence and two children.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Noc

Further reading:

British Newspaper Archive

Portsmouth Evening News 31 July 1894, 9 August 1894, 28 November 1894, 11 March 1895