Untold lives blog

157 posts categorized "Domestic life"

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.


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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

08 April 2016

Poverty and destitution in Victorian London

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My research on the Armstrong family has taken me into a world of poverty and deprivation centred on a poor area of London between Lisson Grove and Edgware Road in the Christ Church district of Marylebone.  In an 1843 report, the local registrar described a dense population, with up to seven sleeping in one room.  The general condition of the local people was ‘not very cleanly’, their habits ‘intemperate’, and their earnings irregular. Eliza Armstrong’s relations lived in Little James Street, Charles Street, Burns Place, and Stephen Street, four of the streets with the highest mortality rate in the district.


Greenwood map 1827 Marylebone
From Greenwood's Map of London (1827) showing the area where the Armstrong family lived

Eliza’s father Charles was born on 10 December 1844, the son of chimney sweep Samuel Armstrong and Rebecca Chapman. The banns of marriage for Samuel and Rebecca were read at Christ Church Marylebone at the beginning of 1849 but I can find no record of the marriage taking place.  Rebecca died in February 1855 at the age of 32, shortly after giving birth to a fifth daughter who died aged three weeks.  Samuel lived at 25 Charles Street Marylebone from the 1840s until his death in 1893. This was unusual - the London poor tended to be mobile even if only over short distances.  Charles Armstrong and his sisters Eliza Shillingford and Mary Ann Wyatt lived with their families near their father in Charles Street at various times. 

Piecing together Eliza’s maternal family is a challenge, especially since records show inconsistencies in names and ages.  In the 1911 census, Eliza’s mother Elizabeth said that she had given birth to ten children, four of whom had died. The first child of Charles and Elizabeth Armstrong appears to be a son Charles born in Marylebone on 17 December 1865. Charles Armstrong married Elizabeth Chivers on 25 January 1874 at St Mary Paddington. They gave separate addresses on the Paddington side of the Edgware Road although their children’s baptism records all show them as living in Charles Street.  Elizabeth’s father is named on the marriage certificate as James Chivers shoemaker and census returns give her place of birth as Bath. 

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Receiving an infirm pauper at St Marylebone Workhouse from George R Sims Living London Vol II (1901)  Noc

The Chivers family from Bath first appear in Marylebone in the 1851 census: shoemaker Jubal, his wife Ann and their three young children Robert, Elizabeth and John.  It seems that Jubal was also known as James.  He entered St Marylebone Workhouse infirmary for medical treatment in August 1857. His family at first received weekly outdoor relief of 2 shillings, three loaves of bread, and 2lb of meat. However they became destitute, living in an empty room in George Street, Lisson Grove, and were admitted to the workhouse in November 1857. James/Jubal died there in March 1858 of ‘softing of the brain’.  His son Robert absconded from the workhouse in June 1858, whilst Ann discharged herself, Elizabeth and John in April 1859.

John Chivers trained as a butcher and worked in Paddington. Robert Chivers worked as a painter but spent periods of unemployment in St Marylebone Workhouse with his wife Elizabeth and children.  The story of Robert and his family will appear in a later post.

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

Further reading;
Fifth Annual Report of the Registrar-General of births, deaths and marriages in England
- Appendix (London, 1843)
Baptism, marriage and burial records for Marylebone held at London Metropolitan Archives
Alan R Neate, St Marylebone Workhouse (1967)
George R Sims, Living London (1901)



31 March 2016

Professor Frederick Browne - Help of the hairless & Victorian blogger

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Lack hair?  Going grey?  Suffer from 'dandriff' and scurf?  Need a sure fire winner at the races?  The hairdresser, ‘Professor’ Frederick John Browne, could address all of these issues, and more. 

A gifted self-publicist, Browne made use of the 19th century’s version of social media.  In addition to handbills and newspaper advertisements, he publicised his salon and wares on the covers of inexpensive popular novels issued by instalment.  Part nine of Shirley Brook’s Sooner or Later  celebrated Browne’s “ventilating and invisible peruke”.  The Professor hijacked popular songs substituting his own hair-related  lyrics, (“How sweet to the tresses is Browne’s Toilet Gem!” to the tune of ‘Home Sweet Home’); produced a sixteen page guide to his services modestly entitled “The Rising Wonder” and kept his clients up to date with his activities via regular issues of Professor Browne’s Toilet Almanack.

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 B.L. C.194.a.752. Although ignorant of Instagram, Brown recognised that an image had more impact than words. Noc

Browne, recognising the importance of visual marketing, included images (and colour where possible), facts and figures (not exclusively hair related), tips on hair care and reviews of new Browne merchandise (including the much lauded ‘concave slanting scurf brush’. 

Professor Browne 2

Morning Post 20 September 1846 British Newspaper Archive  Noc

His writing was characterised by humour and rhyme.  The parodies and punning references to literary and contemporary figures (from Shakespeare and Johnson to Louis Napoleon) appealed to the emerging educated middle classes. 

The sheer number of verses is overwhelming and occasionally drollery can feel a little strained, for example when recommending his cologne, ‘The Jockey Club Bouquet’, Browne recounts a dream in which a jockey brandished a fragrance bottle under his horse’s nose claiming “this magic essence which has come from Browne’s, Will make me a winner at Epsom Downs”.  Similarly, the Byron tablet soap which guaranteed “a perpetually soft white hand”.

Browne’s was actually a brand involving the extended family.  The shop was staffed by Browne (1807-1856), his wife Lydia (1806- 1868), and his son, Shem Frederick (1834-1863), as well as numerous assistants (“all well experienced and able Practitioners”).  Shem’s son (1863-1942) was named after the founder of the shop, Frederick John. The premises was owned by the Clothworkers Company and there are records which state that the family paid the lease from 1843 until at least 1882.

Professor Browne 3
Image courtesy of John Johnson Collection 

The comfortable salon in Fenchurch Street, was furnished like a gentleman’s club, albeit one with private rooms for dyeing or having one’s hair “brushed by machine”. It was open from 8am (and sometimes 7am) to 9pm.  Patrons could sit by the fire and browse newspapers, purchase the many fragrances and elixirs Browne had developed and patented, or discreetly examine “the Largest Stock of Ornamental Hair in the World always on view".

PJM Marks
Curator of Bookbindings Cc-by

Further reading:
The rising wonder
The John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library
Gender and Material Culture in Britain since 1600 / Hamlett, Jane (Editor); Hannan, Leonie (Editor); Grieg, Hannah (Editor). Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Advertisement in The Tomahawk A Saturday journal of satire 19 February 1870.


29 March 2016

Let a Pineapple Speak For You

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The transmission of secret messages through codes or ciphers has throughout history often been a matter of life or death. One only needs to think of Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded for treason when her cipher was broken, or Alan Turing, who, by creating a machine to decode messages encoded by the Enigma, saved millions of lives in the Second World War.

For the expression of romantic emotions, less complex codes have found a wide usership. Most famous among these is perhaps the language of flowers. A beautiful example of a key to flower symbolism is this little book illustrated by Kate Greenaway.

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Greenaway 2Noc

Title and sample page from Language of Flowers, illustrated by Kate Greenaway. c.1884,

During the Victorian age, the language of flowers became extremely popular, which made it a widely understood means of communication. However, this rendered ‘floriography’ useless to anyone desiring to keep romantic communication private in order to circumvent parental disapproval or public humiliation.  The unknown author(s) of the 1854 Electro-magnetischer Liebestelegraph, oder neue Zeichensprache zur Verständigung unter Liebenden und Anderen (‘Electro-magnetic love telegraph, or a new sign language for the communication between lovers and others’) therefore believed a new secret language was required.

Electro-magnetischer 1Noc

Title Page from Electro-magnetischer Liebestelegraph oder eine Zeichensprach zur Verständigung unter Liebenden und Anderen. 8415.a.64

The exchange of ordinary items was encoded to transmit very specific messages. If the item was inconvenient, for example a postman or an oven, then a toy replica, a drawing of the item or the word alone was used. The author(s) took great pains to come up with whole sentences that could be signified through objects.

Electro-magnetischer 2Noc

The assigned meanings are supposed to resemble the ‘natural significance’ of their objects. A letter or postman means ‘awaiting a message from you’; a hand -‘desiring your hand in marriage’; a knife -‘your words have caused me deep pain’; a peacock -‘your vanity makes you unbearable’; an oven -‘being near you warms my heart.’ Curious examples include a Badewanne (bathtub), signifying ‘only from the moment I saw you did my life truly begin’; a Pantoffel (slipper) -‘to kiss you would be a punishment for me’; a Kaffeelöffel (coffee spoon) -‘when I see you, all my sorrows disappear’; a Biber (beaver) -‘if you can offer me a house of my own, ask again’; or an Ananas (pineapple) -‘nothing compares to the sweetness of your kiss’.

The author(s) of this work were aware that their code was not the most poetic way for the communication between lovers. Moreover, it is probably a good idea to take this Liebestelegraph with a grain of salt, as the text moves between helpful instructions and amusing banter. The appendix for example includes helpful suggestions of other ways for secret communication such as musical code (see image below), or hiding a message on a candy wrapper, which is an example for steganography (simply hiding a message), which constitutes the oldest form of secret writing.

Electro-magnetischer 3Noc

 Keeping the Liebestelegraph in mind, however, can also add a bit of secret fun to the exchange of ordinary items in everyday life. Perhaps the next time someone hands you a book, you should ask yourself: is he or she trying to say ‘let my pleading open your closed heart to me’?

Lena Böse
Intern, Western Heritage Collections Cc-by

Further Reading:
Simon Singh, The Science of Secrecy. The Secret History of Codes and Codebreaking. (London, 2000) YC.2001.a.11619

Visit the website of the Royal Collection Trust to learn more about the Victorians and floriography