Untold lives blog

98 posts categorized "Domestic life"

15 September 2014

King Silence - the lives of Victorian deaf children

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As a historical source, an autobiographical novel presents the problematical challenges of both fiction and autobiography, and often doubles as a polemic for the author’s own world view. However, King Silence: A Story written by Arnold Hill Payne has provided me with insight into the lives of Victorian deaf children that I did not find in more traditional sources. 


Title page King Silence Noc


Arnold Payne was the hearing son of Benjamin Payne who was the deaf principal of the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Swansea between 1876 and 1909.  Prior to attending a local school at the age of seven, Arnold’s everyday companions were deaf children boarding in this very well respected institution. Like his parents he was a passionate advocate for sign language in a time when ‘oralism’, or teaching the deaf to lip read and speak, was decreed to be the better method of communication.

Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb Noc

The Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb - from Annual Reports of the Cambrian Institution at Swansea Central Library 

Arnold Payne became assistant chaplain to the Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb in London, regularly speaking against oralism as he believed that signing enabled deaf people to be better educated and to interact with each other. He also wrote a comprehensive entry for ‘the deaf and dumb’ in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica and spent a year at Gallaudet College in Washington DC, the leading higher education establishment for deaf students.

The descriptions of the fictional ‘Sicard College’ in Washington DC which featured in King Silence were recognisable as Gallaudet College. His father, Benjamin Payne can also be identified in the book as ‘Mr Gordon’, the principal of the fictional institution remarkably similar to the Cambrian Institution in Swansea.

Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb schoolroom Noc

Cambrian Institution Schoolroom - from Annual Reports of the Cambrian Institution at Swansea Central Library 

The depiction of one pupil in King Silence highlights the loneliness and isolation experienced by a deaf child. A seven year old boy who had been born deaf stood ‘silent, lonely, passive, patient’ while his mother discussed his admittance to the institution with the principal. When another pupil entered the room and used signs and gestures to the boy, he was transformed by the ‘sudden revelation that there was someone here who talked in a language he could comprehend’. He had been accustomed to people around him talking about him, while keeping him ‘in ignorance’ of what they discussed. Here however were children who could communicate with him and had also experienced his isolation, ‘the sensitiveness, the shame, the loneliness’; the boy burst into tears because he felt he was ‘no longer alone!’.

Principal Benjamin Payne would have been familiar with these feelings of isolation, even though he had not been born deaf, and although the above account in King Silence is tinged with sentimentality, it is nevertheless a recognisable portrayal of discovering one is not alone. Indeed, Benjamin Payne used isolation as a punishment, preferring to forbid pupils from talking to a miscreant for a short while, rather than using corporal punishment. Some institutions beat pupils for using forbidden sign language and some reportedly tied the pupils’ arms to their sides for the same ‘offence’.

In King Silence, Arnold Payne enhances our understanding of the feelings and emotions of deaf children sent away from home in the nineteenth century. For many children, the experience was a positive one which enabled them to befriend and communicate with other deaf children, possibly for the first time.

Lesley Hulonce
Historian and Lecturer, Swansea University


Further reading:

Arnold H Payne, King Silence: A Story, London: Jarrolds, 1919. British Library 012603.g.16.

Paddy Ladd, Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2003.

Lesley Hulonce, ‘”Likely to conduce to the happiness and advantage of the inmates”? Victorian Education for Deaf Children’, Workhouse Tales



05 September 2014

Melancholy suicide at North Mimms

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In our last post, Wealth and Want, we left Samuel Blakey at Worship Street Police Court in August 1864 dismayed at the prospect of paying 10s a week to help support his daughter Susannah Heath and her children Emily and Sidney. He exclaimed that he would have to sell his farm if he was to comply with the order.  Was Samuel Blakey a heartless father or simply a struggling farmer with many mouths to feed? This is the story of what happened to the family afterwards.

In 1866, Samuel Blakey was suffering from ill health and decided to let his farm in North Mimms from Lady Day (25 March) 1867.  There was an auction in October 1866 of 18 horses, 24 fat bullocks, 45 ewes, 107 lambs, poultry, 180 loads of meadow hay and clover, 70 acres of wheat and the straw, 40 acres of oats, beans and barley, and farm implements.  His wife Sarah had a history of depression and was very despondent at the prospect of leaving the farm. On 9 March 1867 Sarah was found in bed with her throat cut, a ‘melancholy suicide’ which ‘cast a gloom throughout the surrounding neighbourhood’. 

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Image taken from Bewick's Woodcuts (1784.b.13, figure 1055) Images Online  Noc

Samuel moved to the city of Lincoln after Sarah’s death but was in North Mimms when he died on 24 November 1868.  The probate valuation of his estate states that his effects were worth less than £2,000. 

Samuel Blakey had a large number of children by his wives Mary Holmes and Sarah Shirtcliffe, born both in Lincolnshire and Hertfordshire.  Some of his children had stayed in Lincolnshire when he moved to Potterells Farm, for example George Shirtcliffe Blakey, a ‘mechanical draughtsman’. Others moved to Lincolnshire later: in the 1871 census, nineteen year old accountant Nathaniel Blakey is shown as the head of a household in Lincoln shared with his sister Harriet, 22. Their brother Robert Blakey stayed in Hertfordshire running a business as a corn merchant.

The magistrate was told in 1864 that Samuel Blakey’s daughters at North Mimms were dressed like ‘young ladies’ and there was ‘every appearance of wealth and respectability’, a stark contrast to Susannah Heath in her miserable room in Hackney. The disparity in lifestyle between the sisters persisted. Charlotte Blakey married wine merchant Henry Pratt and in 1881 they were living in Lincoln with three daughters, a niece, a governess, and two domestic servants. Lucy Blakey married brewer Francis Parsons and she too could afford to employ servants.  By 1901 Lucy was widow and living at De Walden Lodge Eastbourne with her unmarried sister Harriet and a cook, a parlour maid, and a housemaid.  Both Lucy and Harriet were living on private means.

And what became of Susannah, Emily and Sidney Heath?  In 1871 they were all still living in Hackney but with an addition to the family – one year old Susannah Heath.  Fourteen year old Emily and her mother were working as machinists.  Sidney became a potman but died aged nineteen in 1881.  I believe that Emily married William Campbell in 1874 and raised a family in London. But I cannot trace the two Susannahs after 1871.  Can anyone tell me what happened to them?

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by


Further reading:

British Newspaper Archive

Hertford Mercury and Reformer 16 March 1867

Watford Observer 16 March 1867

02 September 2014

Wealth and Want

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In 1846 Samuel Blakey was elected guardian of the poor for the Lincoln Union. In 1864 he was summoned by poor law officials from St John Hackney in London to explain why he should not contribute towards the support of his daughter Susannah and her two children.

Samuel Blakey was a farmer in Scothern, Lincolnshire before selling up in 1849 to move to Potterells Farm in North Mimms Hertfordshire. On leaving Scothern he auctioned 338 sheep, 30 ‘beasts’, and five horses, together with grassland, farming implements, and part of his household furniture.  He was twice married and had many children.

H.1260.(1) Just starve us - comic song (1843) Noc

When he appeared at Worship Street Police Court in August 1864, Samuel Blakey, ‘an elderly and healthy-looking person of gentlemanly exterior’, was said to be a man of wealth and substance, farming about 300 acres in North Mimms as well as owning other property.  The parish of St John Hackney had written to tell him that his daughter Susannah Heath was being given relief and asking for some financial arrangement to be made.  Samuel had not replied.

Susannah Heath, ‘a lady-like but manifestly suffering woman’, explained her situation to the court.  Her husband William had died of consumption three years earlier leaving her with two children. Emily aged seven suffered from a ‘scrofulous complaint of the hip’ and Sidney aged two and a half was consumptive. Susannah herself had ‘an internal disease of a peculiar nature’. She sold ‘trifling articles’ such as mustard and starch, earning anything between 3d and 3s a week.  The parish provided her with tea, sugar, and bread.  Occasional small sums of money sent by her father and other relatives had all been spent.

The parish relieving officer reported that he had found the family in want living in a miserable room in St Thomas Square Hackney. The magistrate asked what order he was expected to make: the clerk to the parish trustees replied ‘Such only, sir, as shall keep the family off our hands merely’. When Samuel was asked by the magistrate how much he was willing to give his daughter, he claimed that he could not afford to allow her anything more. He had a large family to keep from a farm of 360 acres of bad land and needed to borrow money to carry on his business. However, the officer who delivered the warrant to attend court reported that everyone in the North Mimms area said that Samuel was wealthy and kept a carriage and horses. Samuel was said to look astonished at this.

Samuel was ordered to pay Susannah 10s weekly, 5s for herself and 2s 6d weekly for each of her children, together with the expenses of the hearing.  The magistrate ruled that the order could be rescinded if Samuel could show that the representation of his ‘position and sufficiency ‘was false. Samuel responded: ‘I must sell the farm. I must sell the farm’.

 To be continued...

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by


Further reading:

British Newspaper Archive

Stamford Mercury 28 September 1849

Liverpool Daily Post 22 August 1864

Hertford Mercury and Reformer 27 August 1864

Kentish Chronicle 27 August 1864


26 August 2014

Buffoons, ear-pickers and sherbet-sellers

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Specialist professions such as these are just some of the fascinating details about life in India which are revealed by the reports of the ten-yearly Census of India. It’s a familiar source of information, but each time I look at it, I am amazed by the way in which it records minute details about everyday life. The buffoons, ear-pickers and sherbet-sellers feature in the tables of occupations in the 1891 report on the Punjab. Barber-cropped Interestingly, the table of statistics records the number of people dependent on an occupation, including women and children, not just the people employed in the work. Buffoons were a great rarity with just 20 people in the British territory in the Punjab supported by their efforts to entertain. Ear-picking supported 144 people so this was also a minority profession compared with selling and preparing sherbet which provided for 2,047. ‘Undefined and disreputable’ occupations are listed, including prostitution which supported 6,193 men, women and children.

A Muslim barber, Add. 27255 f.211v
Images Online

 Education and literature supported 11,752 and 6,650 people respectively, and included teachers, authors, reporters, private secretaries and clerks, students and pandits. It is pleasing to note the inclusion of 'library service' under literature. However, people working in libraries may have been even more rare than ear-pickers, supporting only 121 people!

Diwan Babu Ram K90086-32

Portrait of Diwan Babu Ram with papers, books, pen-cases and spectacles, Add. Or. 1264
Images Online

Agriculture, manufacturing and commerce were of course the major sources of income. Civil and military service, ranging from people employed as officials and officers to ‘menials’, provided for 182,239 people while ‘professional’ occupations supported 135,834. Reflecting the almost obsessive drive to gather and organise information, these figures are broken down into sub-sections. For example, professional occupations include religion, education, literature, law, medicine, engineering and surveying, other sciences, pictorial art and sculpture, music, acting and dancing, sport, and finally exhibitions and games, which is where I found the buffoons. A separate table shows how people combined an interest in the land with other occupations. Regional variations are revealed by the statistics for individual districts. These statistics, far from being dry and boring, provide a fascinating snapshot of life in the Punjab in 1891. Census-occupations

Summary created from the detailed statistics relating to Districts and States 
Census of India, 1891: the Punjab and its Feudatories
, Vol XIX Part II: Imperial Tables and Supplementary Returns, IOR/V/15/46

The Punjab volume of the 1891 Census of India includes text which explains the methodology underlying the statistics and makes observations on history and society. Subjects include population, religion, marriage, health, language, migration, occupations, and of course the perennial obsession – castes, tribes and races. Maps illustrating population changes, migration, religion, the distribution of lepers and blind people, and the proportion of male to female children highlight the interests of the British information-gatherers.  
Census map-religion

Frontispiece to Census of India, 1891: the Punjab and its Feudatories, Vol XIX Part I, IOR/V/15/46

Although the Census of India reflects British preoccupations, observations and understanding of India, imaginative reading of the source provides marvellous insights into how people lived and worked. It is also a reminder of the importance of knowledge in maintaining a position of power.

Further reading
IOR/V/15 Census Reports 1853-1944
These comprise the decennial census of India 1871-1941 and a few earlier provincial census reports.

Penny Brook
Lead Curator, India Office Records

Text    Cc-by

Images    Noc


24 July 2014

Pottinger’s property lost in Afghanistan

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Eldred Pottinger came to prominence in the service of the East India Company in the 1830s as an assistant to his uncle Henry Pottinger, Resident at Cutch, and through his travels in Afghanistan. When the uprising against the British presence in Afghanistan broke out in 1841, Pottinger was serving as a political officer in Kohistan, a district north of Kabul. During what came to be known as the First Anglo-Afghan War, Pottinger received a serious leg injury, and was detained as a hostage by the Afghan leader Akbar Khan. On his return to India in 1842, he was granted medical leave and travelled to Hong Kong where he died on 15 November 1843.

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Dr William Brydon,  the only survivor of the 4,500 British soldiers and 12,000 camp-followers who left Kabul on 6 January 1842 to escape, arriving at Jelalabad with news of the disaster, on 13 January © UIG/The British Library Board

At the time of his death, Pottinger was in dispute with the Company over compensation he felt was due to him for the loss of his property in Afghanistan. The India Office Records holds a memorial prepared by him, and submitted to government after his death by his younger brother Lieutenant John Pottinger of the Bombay Artillery. John hoped the Company would give the compensation he felt had been due to his older brother to his mother and sister living in Jersey, and he pointed out that three of his brothers had died in the Company’s service.

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Bazaar at Kabul in the fruit season (X 614, plate 19) NocImages Online

Enclosed with the memorial is a list of Eldred’s property taken by the enemy in the castle of Laghman in the Kohistan of Kabul on 5 November 1841, and it gives an interesting glimpse into what a Company officer on political service felt he needed to do his job and to preserve the dignity of his position. There is a long list of books on a wide range of subjects such as history, botany, geology, mathematics, engineering, and politics. Not all seem to be directly related to his posting. There are volumes of poetry by Chaucer, Shelly, Byron and Wordsworth. Gillies’ History of Greece and Leland’s Life of Philip of Macedon sit alongside Robertson’s History of Scotland and Burke’s Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, and the satirical The Clockmaker, or Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick. The collection of Eldred’s books and maps alone was valued at £715 in 1843.

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Title page of Burke’s Sublime and Beautiful (RB.23.a.18100) Images OnlineNoc

As well as the books and maps, Eldred listed scientific equipment, guns and swords, European and Persian clothes, furniture (tables and chairs, bookcases not surprisingly), Persian carpets, dinning implements (plates, knives, forks, spoons, some in silver), wine, beer and spirits, and six horses. The total value of his lost property was taken as £2,322 or roughly £102,000 in today’s money!

The opinion of the Governor General of India was that Eldred Pottinger was only entitled to the same compensation as if he had sustained the loss on military, rather than political service, and that the compensation should have no relation to the value of the property lost, but only to the value of the property an officer ought to have with him on service.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:

Memorial from Lieutenant John Pottinger of the Regiment of Artillery respecting certain claims of his late brother, Major Eldred Pottinger for allowances and compensation alleged to be due to him for loss of his property in Afghanistan, October 1842 to June 1844 [IOR/F/4/2058/94289]

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Historical currency converter


21 July 2014

George Bernard Shaw discards his birthday

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George Bernard Shaw, playwright and polemicist, was born in Dublin on 26 July 1856. So we decided to post a story about Shaw to mark this anniversary . But a little research revealed that Shaw would not have been flattered or pleased – he never celebrated his birthday.

  George Bernard Shaw c13160-07
Add. 50582 f.38 George Bernard Shaw Images Online  Noc

Shaw’s antipathy to birthday celebrations is revealed in newspaper articles by journalists who were eager to congratulate him.  They describe the various ways that they were rebuffed by Shaw.  A representative of the Daily News asked him on his 60th birthday how young he felt. Shaw replied that ‘The day is not really different from any other, except that when you saw me last I was between 50 and 60 and now I am between 60 and 70, not young enough to be really proud of my age and not old enough to have become really popular in England’ (Aberdeen Evening Express 27 July 1916).

In July 1929 Shaw was asked if he would give the world a message to mark the ‘notable occasion’ of his 73rd birthday. Shaw replied, ‘Please send out a brief message suppressing the fact that it is my birthday’.  During that month he was busy directing rehearsals for his new play The Apple Cart which was to be performed at the Malvern Festival.  His secretary confirmed that Shaw would be working as usual, adding ‘He does not believe in birthday parties’ (Gloucester Citizen 25 July 1929).

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Gloucester Citizen 25 July 1929 British Newspaper Archive Noc

The Evening Telegraph was nevertheless not deterred from running an article pointing out that, at the age of 73, Shaw was still as active as ever: dodging buses like a man of 25, and never taking a drive in a car without breaking the law.

On his 74th birthday, Shaw declared to a reporter: ‘The more my birthday is forgotten, the better I am pleased. By deed poll I have discarded my birthday forever’ (Evening Telegraph 25 July 1930).  When a brave young reporter from the Sunderland Echo telephoned Shaw to ask him about his birthday in 1935, Shaw said:’Young man, you know not what you do.  If ever you are 79 you won’t want to discuss the fact.  And who is the least interested in my birthday?’  On being told that everyone was interested in George Bernard Shaw, the writer retorted: ‘But not in my having birthdays.  I am not distinguished by having birthdays. Public interest in me depends on the things I can do that nobody else can do. Anybody can have a birthday’.  He then declined to discuss the matter further (Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 26 July 1935).

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Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 26 July 1935 British Newspaper ArchiveNoc

Newspapers continued to commemorate Shaw’s birthdays up to the year of his death in spite of his pleas. His 94th birthday in July 1950 was marked with an article in the Aberdeen Journal stating that G.B.S. was as mentally alert as ever, although physically a little frail.  The playwright spent his final birthday at home in Ayot St Lawrence Hertfordshire: ‘He did not celebrate it – he never does’.

Margaret Makepeace
Curator, India Office Records  Cc-by


17 July 2014

The Difference caus'd by mighty Love! - romance and the Benthams

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In the short time since we announced on Untold Lives that the British Library had joined the Transcribe Bentham initiative and asked for volunteers to help us advance scholarly research into the life and ideas of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), public interest in the online transcription of Bentham’s manuscripts has exploded. In just over three months, 1,163 manuscripts have been transcribed—almost 10% of the British Library’s Bentham collection! We are delighted to announce the release of more material to explore, and cordially invite any interested newcomers to join us in transcribing them.


Our inclination was that the British Library’s Bentham material represents a chance to really get to know the Bentham family, since the majority of it is correspondence, and discoveries made by our volunteers have certainly borne this out.

Jeremiah Bentham, father of Jeremy, though cold-hearted in business matters (one letter reveals him being responsible for the cutting off of the water supply to one of his tenants) was found to be quite the romantic, as this love letter to Jeremy’s mother Alicia (transcribed by volunteer Peter Hollis) shows:
while I was present with you Time bore me on his rapid Wing, so swiftly did the delightful hours pass on, but no sooner was I gone from you than that Wing became pinion'd & coud no longer fly, or was rather chang'd into leaden Feet, so slowly do the Sluggish Minutes now creep forward — such is the Difference caus'd by mighty Love!

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Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Alicia, 1745 (BL Add. MS 33537 f. 4r) Noc

Romantic interest was a dominant theme in first batch of manuscripts released online, which covered the period 1744 to 1783. Jeremy himself was courting, as shown by this rather cruel letter to brother Samuel about a certain ‘Miss S[arah]’  (transcribed by volunteer Simon Croft):
She has indeed a most enchanting set of teeth — seems well made: and is of a very good size. But her features viz: nose and mouth are too large for her face: eyes I do not recollect much about.
Indeed I could not get a full view of her face: she was dressed very unbecomingly.

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Jeremy Bentham’s letter to his brother Samuel, written in 1776 (BL Add. MSS 33538 f. 1r)  Noc

Six months later, Jeremy complained to Samuel (also transcribed by Simon Croft) that his letters to Sarah (‘the little vixen’) had gone unanswered, though we might not be surprised given his ungentlemanly attitude.

New material, covering the period 1784 until 1794, has now been uploaded to the Transcription Desk. Events covered include Jeremy’s long journey to Russia to visit Samuel, where he first conceived of his famous panopticon prison. The period also includes the early years of the French Revolution, as well as the return of Samuel from Russia in 1791, and the death of Jeremiah in 1792. Some of the most intriguing material revolves around the scheme to establish the panopticon, which dominated the next decade of Jeremy’s life, and includes his attempts to lobby leading politicians of the day.

There is no need for specialist equipment or expert knowledge to begin participating—just a willingness to get to grips with 18th and 19th century handwriting, and transcribe it through our website. Visit Transcribe Bentham today to get started!

Dr Kris Grint
Dr Tim Causer
Bentham Project, Faculty of Laws, UCL


14 July 2014

Can an Englishman become truly Indian?

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Elwin1Many 19th century anthropologists regarded non-European societies as specimens of the primitive stage of human evolution to be studied as ‘fossils’ of prehistory, a view abhorred by Verrier Elwin (1902-1964), one of the rare European anthropologists to assimilate into non-European society in order to have a thorough understanding of the other peoples. An Oxford-educated theologian turned anthropologist, born into the family of a clergyman, Elwin joined the Christian Service Society mission to India in 1927. In the course of his proselytising, he converted himself to an ‘Indian’ (but not quite Hindu).


Verrier Elwin with aboriginal children at Patangarh, 1940s

Elwin had unconventional political views; influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, he was a staunch supporter of Indian independence. In a Christian tract Christ and Satyagraha, he writes, “…it is love that drives me, an Englishman, to be a supporter of Indian nationalism...”.  A fictitious conversation among the natives in one of his novels (p.45, A Cloud that’s Dragonish, 1938) explains his thoughts: “What are the English [in India]?”  “Robbers and thieves!” Following the natural course of development, he took Indian nationality after Indian Independence.

Elwin Gandhi-letterElwin could have married an Englishwoman of class and rank that suited his family background, but instead he followed Gandhi’s advice and married an indigenous Indian woman of the Bison-Horn Maria tribe, in the region of the Satyagraha Ashram. He lived in a hut with glassless windows, from which the villagers came to peer at him as if he was a new species of homo sapiens. He made humorous remarks about the villagers of the Ashram, “Not all are as simple [as they appear to be].  One of them said to me the other day, ‘Love must be Ontological.  I can never think of love as Epistemological’ ”.

Mahatma Gandhi’s letter to Elwin (undated, c1932) Mss Eur D950/22




Elwin3 newsBy marrying a native woman, Elwin acquainted himself with the local customs of love and sex, as well as the physical and psychological state of their well-being.  Among his personal papers at the British Library, a cutting from the Daily Mirror shows clear curiosity about his unusual life, but refrains from comment.


News of Elwin’s wedding in the Daily Mirror, April 16 1940 [Mss Eur D950/23]


In 1940, The Illustrated Weekly of India published an interview with his young wife Kosibai who claimed that Gond women had a very privileged position, with the paper suggesting that “many a feminist might well envy them”. 

 Elwins wife-love marriages            Elwins wife-photo

Kosibai, wife of Verrier Elwin, pictured for her interview with The Illustrated Weekly of India, September 08 1940 

Elwin wrote several scholarly books on the Gond tribes in India, including an interesting book on the aspect of ‘Murder and Suicide’ among them.

Elwin’s death in the early 1960s provoked some controversies as to the validity of his anthropological studies.  Some dismissed his studies as “a bit of propaganda for his continued support by the [Indian] Government”. Much of the criticism can be attributed to certain academic rivalry and cynicism from his contemporaries. The question remains, “Can an Englishman ever become truly Indian?”

Further reading

Verrier Elwin,  The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin.  (1964)
Mss Eur D950  Papers of Verrier Elwin
Mss Eur F236/266  Papers of W.G.Archer

Xiao Wei Bond, formerly Curator, India Office Private Papers
Penny Brook, Lead Curator, India Office Records