Untold lives blog

133 posts categorized "Domestic life"

25 July 2015

Blessing cars and eating oysters

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Two saints are remembered on 25 July in the United Kingdom - St Christopher and St James.  A number of very different customs and traditions are associated with this day.

St Christopher, a 3rd century Christian martyr, is commonly represented by a figure carrying the child Jesus across a river. He is most often claimed as the patron saint of travellers, but he is also the patron saint of sports, with figures wrestling or fishing accompanying his picture. Both travellers and athletes wear medallions bearing an image of St Christopher for protection and good fortune.

  St Christopher

Image taken from Charles Knight, Pictorial Half-hours (1850) Noc


The link to travellers has prompted special church services to bless vehicles in honour of St Christopher’s Day.  In July 1932, there was a ceremony held on St Christopher’s Eve at St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Nottingham.  Each member of the congregation was presented with a St Christopher medal and after the service Canon Parmentier went outside to bless cars, motorcycles, and bicycles belonging to the worshippers.  In 1950 the vicar of St Botolph’s in Northfleet Kent reported how he blessed all forms of transport outside his church on 25 July.

On St James’s Day it was the tradition for the rector of the parish of Cliff in Kent to distribute a mutton pie and a loaf to however many people demanded this bounty.  The day was celebrated in many counties with customs aimed at increasing the apple crop.  Prayers or verses were said in the orchards and the trees were sprinkled with holy water.  In Sussex young men performed the ceremony of ‘blowing the trees’. Cows’ horns were blown under the apple trees and each man took hold of a tree and recited verses.

25 July was also considered a milestone for hop growers. There is an old saying concerning the likelihood of a good crop:
Till St James’s Day is past and gone,
There may be hops, or there may be none.

Away from the countryside, St James’s Day was the first day on which oysters were brought into the London market, thus flouting the notion that they should only be eaten when there is an ‘r’ in the month.  There was a superstition that anyone eating the oysters on 25 July would have plenty of money throughout the rest of the year.

  Oysters kh128815
An oyster market in England -Denis Dighton (1821) ©Jean Vigne/Kharbine-Tapabor/British Library Board


So it’s time to drive your car or ride your bike to the nearest church before seeking out a plate of oysters. Happy St Christopher’s and St James’s Day!

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
John Timbs, Something for everybody (London, 1861)
British Newspaper Archive: Nottingham Evening Post 25 July 1932, Dundee Evening Telegraph 10 October 1950


07 July 2015

A bread and butter battle

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The lives of Indian industrial workers were described as ‘a bread and butter battle’ in an obituary for Sir Vithaldas D Thackersey in the Bombay Labour Gazette for August 1922. It evokes a pitiful struggle for survival but the obituary and other articles in the Labour Gazette reveal that at least some industrialists were moving towards reform. Honoured as one of Bombay’s foremost mill owners, Thackersey was said to have attached great importance to education for industrial workers.

  Labour Gazette heading
Labour Gazette (Bombay), 1921-22  

IOR/V/25/670/1    Noc

Statistics for Chaupati, a ‘better class’ area,  the ‘typical slum’ at Umerkhadi and the mill area of Parel show striking differences, with literacy being lowest in the mill area. The Chairman of the Bombay Mill Owners’ Association spoke at their annual meeting of the importance of education. ‘Most of our troubles economically and industrially can I think to a great degree be put down to illiteracy and the migratory habits of our workpeople, and education would help to solve our problem, but though much has been said about compulsory primary education, I am afraid Government are a long way off even making a commencement in this direction, so the social conditions of our employees must be improved by welfare work.’

Ginning Factory-India-1926
Female labourers in Ginning Factory, India, 1926 Images Online
Photo 703(22)   Noc

Health was studied in the same three Bombay districts as literacy and again there were striking differences, with respiratory illnesses unsurprisingly causing a much higher rate of mortality in the slum and mill districts than that experienced in the ‘better class’ area. Overcrowded housing was highlighted as a major cause of adult and infant mortality. The President’s address to a welfare conference in 1922 describes the infant mortality in the industrial towns as ‘almost heart-breaking’.

Infant mortality Oct 1921
Labour Gazette (Bombay), Oct 1921
IOR/V/25/670/1    Noc

The overcrowding in Bombay was certainly striking, as according to a note in the August 1922 edition, there was only one building for every 22.3 persons in Bombay city and in Ahmedabad for every 6.2 persons. Interestingly, the overcrowding in Bombay was described as ‘far worse’ than in London. Improving housing conditions in Bombay was a top priority for the Government and it was engaged in an ambitious construction programme to build 50,000 tenements which were expected to house 250,000 people, amounting to about one fifth of the population of Bombay City. It seems that slow steps were being taken to follow Lady Tata’s exhortation to ‘treat the working man and the working woman as human beings’. She urged that ‘It is the duty of employers to place them in such conditions of living, as will enable them to give of their best to the industry, in the service of their country, and it is the duty of the employees to take advantage of all the good things provided for them and to give of their best in return to their employers.’ Many good intentions were expressed and the extent of progress is no doubt documented in subsequent editions of the Labour Gazette which is crammed with information about welfare, wages, the cost of living, industrial disputes and all matters pertaining to employment.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records         Cc-by

Further reading IOR/V/25/670/1-34  Labour Gazette (Bombay) 1921-1956

Other blogs about working life:

Buffoons, ear-pickers and sherbet-sellers

A most depressing read

Honest and industrious – petitions to the East India Company

19 May 2015

Famous friends

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Do the names Michael Renshaw, Robert Ferns Waller, Ethel Ford, and Barbara Coombs mean anything to you?  If not, then you might be surprised to learn that the likes of Cecil Beaton, Clarissa and Anthony Eden, Ann Fleming (wife of Ian), T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and Ivon Hitchens were their friends and regular correspondents.  Four recently catalogued collections amongst the Library’s western manuscripts suggest that, at least in the early and mid-20th century, famous people did not mix only with other famous people.  So who were these less than household names, and how did they come to have such celebrated friends? 

Michael Renshaw, by the pool al Leeds Castle, late 1960s/early 1970s. Published with the permission of the Trustees of the Leeds Castle Foundation and Anthony Russell.

Renshaw was, for want of a better phrase, a society figure.  He did have a day job, advertising director of The Sunday Times, but he spent most of his time mixing with high society and going to, and hosting, fabulous parties.  His correspondence is a ‘who’s who’ of the arts, fashion, politics, and the aristocracy.  The letters he received from his famous friends are a rich source of information about their writers.  They also give fascinating insights into life during, and just after, World War II in England and north-west Europe, the Cyprus crisis, and British politics and society in the turbulent 1970s.

Robert Waller, mid-1950s. Published with the permission of Anne Baillie.

Waller was a BBC radio producer, poet, and an early leader of the environmental movement.  He was the private secretary to the literary reviewer and critic Desmond MacCarthy, a role which introduced Waller to a wide literary circle.  Within this circle was T.S. Eliot, who, over 20 years, wrote to Waller with advice on literary and personal matters.

Barbara Coombs, photographed by Ivon Hitchens, circa 1950. Published with the permission of Jonathan Clark Fine Art.

Coombs’s entré into artistic circles came about by the accident of birth.  Her eldest brother was Frank Coombs, painter, and manager of the Storran Gallery with Eardley Knollys.  Although Frank died in World War II it can be assumed that his connection with the art world was the source of Barbara's long friendship with Hitchens, with whom she corresponded for 30 years.  Coombs sat for Hitchens; photographs of his portraits are in her papers, along with photographs, by Hitchens, of Coombs and Mollie, Hitchens’s wife.

Ford met Henry James by way of a different type of coincidence.  In 1907, she and her husband, Francis, who had played cricket for England, bought a Georgian farmhouse in Wittersham, six miles from Rye, where James was living.  The Fords and James became acquainted through a mutual friend, an architect who advised both parties on renovations and alterations to their homes.  This chance encounter led to an eight year correspondence in which James writes of family and friends (particularly the du Mauriers), health matters, and daily life. 

The letters in these four collections are invaluable sources for those researching their writers, but given their unlikely recipients they go to show that sometimes the best, and most useful, information is not to be found in the most obvious places.

Michael St John-McAlister
Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager Cc-by

Further reading:
Rosalind Bleach, ed., Henry James's Waistcoat: Letters to Mrs Ford 1907-1915 (Settrington: Stone Trough Books, 2007).
British Library Add MS 71231, 89045, 89051, 89056, and 89068.
Philip Conford, ed., The Poet of Ecology: A Selection of Writings in Memory of Robert Waller (1913-2005) (Chichester: Norroy Press, 2008).
Michael St John-McAlister, 'Michael Renshaw: A Society Figure in War and Peace', Electronic British Library Journal


23 April 2015

India and St George!

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On St George’s Day we look at the lives of two appropriately named brothers who served as officers in the East India Company’s armies. Their careers were very different: one died as a young man whilst the other had a long and distinguished career.

Etienne and George St George  were the sons of Edmond St George, ‘a private gentlemen’, and his wife Mary. They were born in London in 1827 and 1830 respectively.  At the time of the 1841 census Etienne and George were boarding with their sister Louisa at the house of Mary Woodman in Westbourne Sussex.  Both boys attended Mr Roberts’s school at Eagle House in Mitcham Surrey, but by January 1845 they were in Paris.  Etienne was baptised there at the age of seventeen and there is nothing to indicate in the register entry that his father was dead.  However when Etienne passed as a cadet for the East India Company’s Bengal Army in April 1845, he said his father was dead and his mother was living at Rue de Grenelle, Paris.  Etienne was put forward for a cadetship in the Bengal Infantry by Company director Major General  Archibald Galloway on the recommendation of his aunt Miss M Barwell.

George spent the year 1845-1846 at the Institut Boniface in Paris, following a course in elementary mathematics.  He was given a good report: he was always regular in attendance, industrious and well-behaved.  In 1847 his aunt Miss Barwell secured him a nomination for the Bombay Army from director Sir James Law Lushington. George served with the 25th Regiment Native Infantry, rising to the rank of Lieutenant before his death at the age of 27 on 4 July 1858 whilst on furlough and living with Louisa at Montpelier Crescent in Brighton.  Etienne was also on leave that year. The Brighton Gazette records that he arrived at Montpelier Crescent shortly after George’s death, on 12 August 1858.


  Bengal Fusiliers 083908
1st Bengal Fusiliers - from George Francklin Atkinson, The campaign in India 1857-1858 (1859)  NocImages Online

Etienne served with the 1st Bengal Fusiliers at the siege of Lucknow and was subsequently seriously wounded in action. He spent the rest of his life suffering the effects of  a bullet wound in his liver.  He rose to the rank of Colonel, ending his career as assistant secretary to the Government Legislative Department. Colonel St George retired on 1 April 1875 after 30 years’ service in the Bengal Army.

During the 1880s Etienne St George moved to New York,. In July 1891 he married Alice Lee Eldridge (née Goodrich) the widow of Frederic G Eldridge, President of the splendidly named Knickerbocker Trust Company.   Etienne died at home in New York City on 1 May 1902.  His will bequeathed his entire estate to Alice, who died on 17 August the following year.

St George death notice
Western Times 5 May 1902 Noc

A death notice for Colonel St George was published in the Western Times,  immediately above an advertisement for Carter’s Little Liver Pills. This was unfortunate given that Etienne St George died of cirrhosis of the liver as a result of the wound he had sustained more than forty years earlier.

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

Further reading:
IOR/L/MIL/9/209 ff.623-627 Cadet papers for Etienne St George
IOR/L/MIL/9/217 ff.100-105 Cadet papers for George St George
British Newspaper Archive
New York Times obituary 3 May 1902


21 April 2015

Memories of Reading needs you!

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Memories of Reading is the name of a new research project conducted by the School of Education, University of Sheffield. The project seeks narratives, stories and anecdotes from all sections of the community, focusing on reading experiences and adventures spanning the past 100 years. The project evolved from a Booktrust-funded evidence review, entitled "Attitudes to Reading and Writing and their Links with Social Mobility 1914–2014" (Levy et al, 2014). This evidence review was mainly based around literature searches and data drawn from the Mass Observation Archive, as well as a small number of intergenerational family interviews.

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During the interviews, we found that people came to life when they shared their stories about reading - whether they talked about visiting the library as a child, learning to read in school, or about their favourite books and stories, people's memories of reading are vivid and descriptive, linked to their identities and personal histories. In order to focus on these stories, "Memories of Reading", led by Dr Sabine Little, was launched at an event as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science at the University of Sheffield last November. In a "Story Hut", members of the public were invited to share their memories. The event led not only to a number of wonderful narratives, but also to intergenerational communication - grandparents took their grandchildren in and explained to them how they learnt to read as children, children spoke about their favourite books and explained to their parents what they liked about them. Together, the Memories of Reading form a social commentary on reading in school, in families and at home, using technology, visiting libraries, arriving in the UK, or establishing an identity as a reader. Spanning 100 years, some decades are obviously better represented than others, and the search is on to make sure that each decade is fully explored!


Your input is needed!  It is intended for the Memories of Reading to be published in book format, alongside a narrative analysis and referenced commentary linking the memories to historical events. In order for the project to be successful, many, many more memories are needed! Anybody willing to be a part of the project can add their memory here   - Please share the link with any organisation, school or initiative you feel would be interested! Memories will be gathered throughout 2015, to maximise opportunities for the project to become known across all sections of the community. We will keep you posted on the results, or follow #memoriesofreading on Twitter!

Sabine Little
Lecturer in Educational Studies, University of Sheffield

Further reading:
Memories of Reading website
Levy, R., Little, S., Clough, P., Nutbrown, Bishop, J.,  Lamb, T., and Yamada-Rice, D. (2014a) Attitudes to Reading and Writing and their Links with Social Mobility 1914-2014 – An Evidence Review.  London: Booktrust.


09 April 2015

Social life in Simla

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Inspired by the TV drama Indian Summers, I decided to investigate the social life in Simla under British rule. Was it dominated by eating, drinking, playing cards, gossiping and arguing, interspersed with some amateur dramatics?

  Simla 2
From The Delhi Sketch Book 1 January 1855 Noc

Simla was a hill station in the Himalayan foothills popular with convalescents. It then developed into the summer capital of the British administration in India. There was a variety of clubs in Simla to help the Europeans pass their time pleasantly. The oldest was the United Services Club founded in 1844, with membership restricted to commissioned military officers, army or navy chaplains, members of the Indian Civil Service and judges.  Indians and women were not permitted to join, although guests were admitted.  The Club boasted a racquet court and rooms for playing billiards and cards, as well as a reading room and a library packed with books for members to enjoy.

In the late 1880s the New Club opened as a rival attraction.  It had well-built premises with spacious rooms and a fine dining room with an excellent dance floor. Popular smoking concerts were held, where members of the Viceregal Council enthusiastically joined in the choruses.  However the United Services Club was stung into action by the competition. Extensive improvements were made, and private pressure was brought to bear on government officials to support the older club. The New Club was forced into liquidation and the buildings became a hotel.


Simla 1
From The Delhi Sketch Book 1 January 1855  Noc


Men could also belong to one of several Masonic lodges which held meetings in Simla. The oldest of these was the Himalayan Brotherhood founded in 1838.

An area of flat land known as Annandale became the ‘public play-ground at Simla’.  Picnics, fairs and dances were held there, as well as horse races, gymkhanas, and dog shows.  Sports included polo, cricket, football, archery, rifle-shooting, golf, and croquet.  In 1911 there was a Simla Winter Amusement Club offering badminton, a skating rink, and toboganning.

Amateur dramatics were very popular.  In the late 1830s Emily Eden watched performances in a ‘small and hot, and somewhat dirty’ theatre in Simla.  She wrote of a falling-out amongst the gentlemen actors: ‘One man took a fit of low sprits, and another who acted women’s parts well, would not cut off his moustachios, and another went off to shoot bears near the snowy range’.

A major event of the Simla season was the annual Fine Arts Exhibition.  In the 1860s there was said to be ‘a galaxy of amateur talent in water-colour painting then at Simla’. Money prizes were offered and pictures were sent in from all over India.

The Simla United Services Club closed in 1947 and its collection of books was dispersed. A large number went to the House of Commons and the Empire Society, and the fiction was taken by the Punjab Club. There were thousands of non-fiction books on a wide variety of topics, some perhaps predictable, others less so.  Alongside works on history, government, politics, war, military and naval strategy were books about hypnotism, crime, psychology, psychotherapy, feminism, witchcraft, and spiritualism. The homesick reader of A lonely summer in Kashmir could seek solace in one of a number of works on life back in Britain, such as The Glory of Scotland, Irish bogs, The England I love best, or A dull day in London.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
Edward J. Buck, Simla Past and Present (Calcutta, 1904)
India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur D 957 List of books in the reading room and library of the United Services Club Simla, 1947
India Office Private Papers: MSS Eur D 1236/4 Simla Winter Amusement Club  1911-1912

Bear’s grease, bonnets, bellows, biscuits and Bibles - a merchant in Simla in the 1850s

03 April 2015

Hot Cross Buns!

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Hot cross buns are a traditional Easter treat.  They are distinguished from other buns by the flavour of all-spice and a pale cross baked into their top.  Although they now appear in the supermarkets as soon as the Christmas mince pies have been cleared, hot cross buns used to be associated particularly with Good Friday.

In the early 19th century, Good Friday and Christmas Day were the only two ‘close holidays’  observed throughout London, with shops shut and churches open.  From dawn, street sellers were busy crying ‘Hot cross buns! One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot cross buns!’ They carried their wares in baskets, with the buns covered first by a flannel or green baize, with an outer white cloth. As customers were served in the street or at their front door, the coverings were slowly and partially removed lest the buns should cool. The ‘hot’ aspect of the buns was evidently considered more important that it is today! The sellers’ ‘volume of concerted sound, unequalled by other rivals in the ephemeral Good Friday trade’ continued until it was time for church. Bun selling then resumed in the afternoon.

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From Walter Crane, Triplets (1899) Images Online  Noc

According to William Hone, the quality of hot cross buns was in decline in the 1820s as demand decreased. In the late 18th century pastry cooks and bakers had competed for excellence in making the buns, and ‘the great place of attraction for bun-eaters’ at that time were the two Chelsea ‘royal bun houses’.   Hundreds of square black tins with dozens of hot buns on each were produced for sale at Chelsea from six in the morning until the evening of Good Friday.

A Good Friday bun was sometimes kept for luck and hung from the ceiling until replaced by a fresh one the following Easter.  The hanging bun was supposed to protect the house from fire.

Not everyone was a fan of hot cross buns.  On 23 March 1826 The Morning Post published a letter from ’A Friend to Reverence’ who believed the practice of ‘crying the crossbuns’ through the streets of London and the neighbouring villages on Good Friday to be ‘irreverent and profane’.  Good Friday should not be celebrated as a day of feasting: ‘I have myself a family of little ones, who…are naturally fond of the produce of a confectioner’s shop; but I never allow of any of the cakes so marked, to be brought into my house. My motive is explained to them, and the temporary disappointment is repaired on the Easter Monday’.

The next day (Maundy Thursday) the newspaper published an opposing view: ‘I have no children to have the pleasure of giving them, to-morrow morning, as many cross buns as I would kisses.  Whatever, therefore, the origin of cross buns, the intention manifested by them is good; no argument is so powerful as that which gratifies the taste and liking of man or child; let cross buns be cried about as usual, to-morrow morning’.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper ArchiveThe Morning Post 23 and 24 March 1826


01 April 2015

Jolly japes for All Fools’ Day!

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The first day of April is All Fools’ Day when it is customary to play tricks on others.  Writing in the 1820s, William Hone described some ‘jocular deceptions’ practised by children.   A boy would shout out at a passer-by:
 ‘Sir, there’s something out of your pocket!’
‘Your hand, Sir!  April Fool!’

April Fool
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)  Noc

Another prank was to bow to a woman and say gravely:
‘Ma’am, I beg your pardon, but you've something on your face!’
‘Indeed!  What is it?’
‘Your nose, ma’am!  April Fool!’

Unsuspecting youngsters were sent on errands to buy half a pint of pigeon’s milk or to enquire at a bookseller for a copy of The Life and Adventures of Eve’s Mother.

The British Library’s newspaper collection is a rich source for April Fool jokes.  The Scots Magazine in 1795 printed a story about a London shopkeeper who had always been fond of mischief.  As a boy he greased the strings of the chaplain’s violin and stalked through the graveyard at night wrapped in a tablecloth. The newspaper published what it claimed to be the entry for 1 April 1790 from the shopkeeper’s journal:

Having risen early, the shopkeeper flung a shilling out of the window to the watchman, asking him to rap at the door and cry ‘Fire!’  His wife started up out of bed in a fright and ran into the street half naked.  He was obliged to give her a shilling to quieten her.

At ten o’clock the shopkeeper sent a letter to Mr Plume the undertaker telling him that his neighbour Frank Fuz had died suddenly in the night. He saw six of Plume’s men go in ‘and heard old Fuz very loud with them’. 

He sent invitations to his club to dine at Deputy Dripping’s, and invited Dripping to dine at Alderman Grub’s house in Hampstead.  Grub was out of town that day.

At twelve o’clock the shopkeeper received an order in the name of an Essex customer for six pounds of snuff.  Believing this to be an April Fool trick, he kicked the messenger out of the shop.

He tapped a schoolboy on the shoulder and asked what he had got behind him. When the boy replied ‘A fool,’ causing people nearby to laugh, the shopkeeper ‘did not see much in it’ and was not amused.

The day’s events were said to have had repercussions.  Neighbour Fuz never again bought tobacco from our prankster. The Essex customer sent a letter threatening the shopkeeper with an action for assaulting his servant.  Deputy Dripping refused to support the shopkeeper’s aspiration to become churchwarden.

The writer of the article concluded with a stern warning to those keen on April Fool japes:
‘…this contemptible and vulgar talent, though in season but for a day, may produce most lasting effects; that a friend may be lost, and an enemy created by the momentary triumph of ill-founded pride, and bastard humour’.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper Archive – for example The Scots Magazine 1 July 1795