Untold lives blog

125 posts categorized "Domestic life"

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


01 March 2015

Saint David’s Day

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Today we share with you a short poem published in the Gloucester Citizen on 1 March 1904.  The author is ‘A.B.E.’ of Gloucester.  Can any of our readers identify the poet so we can bring them out of the shadows?


Leek 081989
Large flag or leek from The Book of Garden Management and Rural Economy (1885-86) Images Online  Noc


Saint David's Day

There’s a dear little plant that they cherish in Wales,
    It is known to the world as the Leek;
It’s a kind of spring onion with two or three tails,
    And the strength of it lies in its reek.
While the Rose and the Thistle are good in their way,
    And the Shamrock is dainty and neat,
You must bet on the Leek if you want a bouquet
That will flavour both sides of the street.


Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by


16 February 2015

Edward Lloyd and the ‘Penny Bloods’

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Edward Lloyd was born on 16 February 1815. He was a publisher and newspaper proprietor, and the founder of two large paper mills.  Here we give you a glimpse into his remarkable career.

Lloyd was a pioneer of cheap popular literature.  His ‘Penny Bloods’ were a great success with working class readers.  From 1835 he published titles such as Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads etc, and History of the Pirates of All Nations.  He and writer Thomas Peckett Prest then produced imitations of the works of Charles Dickens, for example The Life and Adventures of Oliver Twiss the Workhouse Boy, and Memoirs of Nickelas Nicklebery.  These stories sold many thousands of copies each week.

 Gambler's wife 2
From The Gambler’s Wife; or, Murder will Out Noc

Lloyd issued works of history, horror, and romance.  Stories were published in instalments, and all featured plenty of drama and bloodthirsty action.  It was Lloyd who introduced vampires to a mass readership with Varney the Vampyre; or, the Feast of blood.

Varney the Vampyre
From Varney the Vampyre  Noc

Lloyd’s Weekly Newpaper was founded in 1843. Lloyd put a good deal of effort into promotion and it was claimed in the 1890s: ‘The pictorial advertisements of Messrs. Lloyd’s journals  - themselves works of art – are prominent at all stations and throughout the country, and there is no village in England so obscure as to be unaware of the existence of Lloyd’s News’.  Circulation grew to a huge 930,000 copies weekly. Stories deemed to be of particular importance were illustrated by artists kept on the staff.  There was a successful ‘Lost Relative’ column: people wrote in from every part of the world and a shortened version of the letters was published for free.

By 1861 Lloyd was using so much paper that he started his own paper mill on the River Lea at Bow in East London. As it was becoming difficult to obtain sufficient supplies of rags, esparto grass was brought in as a raw material from Algeria and Spain.  Soon Lloyd’s mill was expanding to make paper for rival newspapers.

In 1877 Lloyd’s firm purchased the Daily Chronicle. Much of this newspaper was devoted to events in London, but it also gathered news from the rest of the UK, and from abroad via daily cables. Circulation was increased from 8,000 to 140,000 in the space of eight years, and to meet demand a second mill was opened at Sittingbourne in Kent which produced a wide variety of paper types.  By 1895, Lloyd’s were employing over 700 people at the mills and 500 at the newspaper offices and home and export departments.

From Miranda, or the Heiress of the Grange  Noc

It has been claimed that having established himself in ‘higher’ publishing circles Lloyd then tried to supress the ‘Penny Bloods’, sending out agents to buy up and destroy the stocks at coffee shops and circulating libraries.  Whether or not this is true, many 'Bloods' have survived and a good number can be found at the British Library, some in digitised format.

Edward Lloyd died on 8 April 1890 having amassed a fortune from his various business ventures. The value of his estate at death was £563,000.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
Edward Lloyd Ltd, A glimpse into paper making and journalism (1895)
John Medcraft, A bibliography of the penny bloods of Edward Lloyd (1945)

Further reading:
Edward Lloyd Ltd, A glimpse into paper making and journalism (1895)
John Medcraft, A bibliography of the penny bloods of Edward Lloyd (1945)
Varney – an early vampire story
Edward Lloyd


14 February 2015

St Valentine's Day customs

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Today we help you to discover the identity of your true love by sharing some old St Valentine's Day customs gleaned from the British Library collections.

On the night before Valentine’s Day, take five bay leaves, pin four of them to the corners of your pillow, and the fifth to the middle. If you dream of your sweetheart, you will be married before the year is over. To stimulate dreams, hard boil an egg, take out the yolk, and fill the egg with salt.  When you go to bed, eat the egg, shell included.  Do not speak or drink afterwards.

Write your admirers’ names on pieces of paper, roll them up in clay, and put them into water.  The first name to rise to the surface is your Valentine.

Valentine 1
From E. M. Davies,  Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old (London, 1872) British Library flickr  Noc

In Devon, girls gathered in the church porch on Valentine’s Eve waiting until the clock struck twelve.  They then slowly returned home, scattering hempseed and reciting:

Hempseed I sow, hempseed  I mow,
He that will my true love be
Come rake this hempseed after me

It was said that the girl would then see the form of her intended husband walking behind her. In Derbyshire this apparition was conjured up if a woman ran around the church twelve times without stopping.

Some places, including London, held that a lad’s Valentine was the first lass he saw on the morning of Valentine’s Day who was not of his own household.  A lass took as her Valentine the first youth she saw. 

Valentine 2
From E. M. Davies,  Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old (London, 1872) British Library flickr Noc

A custom in the west of England was for three single young men to go out together before dawn on St Valentine’s Day to catch an old owl and two sparrows in a neighbour’s barn. The birds were supposed to be symbolic of wisdom presiding over love.  If successful and able to bring the birds uninjured to the inn before the females of the household had risen, the lads were rewarded in honour of St Valentine with three pots of purl, a drink of hot beer mixed with gin.

Children in Hertfordshire went to the home of chief person in the village who threw them a bundle of wreaths and lovers’ knots.  The children then marched these around the village, stopping at houses to sing:

Good morrow to you, Valentine,
Curl your locks as I do mine,
Two before and three behind,
Good morrow to you, Valentine

Presumably some sort of treat or reward was given in return for the serenade.

At one village in Kent the girls assembled an ‘ivy girl’ and the boys a ‘holly boy’. Each group then stole the other’s effigy and burned them in separate parts of the village with ‘acclamations, huzzas, and other noise’.  Local people could offer no explanation– it had been a part of village life as long as anyone could remember.

The North Wales Chronicle ran an article in February 1861 describing some of the strange customs connected with St Valentine’s Day.  The newspaper stated that the annual celebrations were to be welcomed because the mass manufacture of Valentine cards gave employment to hundreds of women and children. 

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper ArchiveKentish Gazette 2 February 1808; North Wales Chronicle 27 February 1861; Birmingham Journal 14 February 1863