THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

14 February 2018

A much married man

Following our stories about cases of bigamy and trigamy, colleagues suggested that I find a man with four wives for an ‘alternative’ Valentine’s Day blog post.  The British Newspaper Archive provided plenty of examples of four wives, and five, six, seven, and more.  I stopped looking when I found a man with twenty wives!

Lot of Fun B20130-10From Lot-of-Fun vol.2, no.28, p. 8 Images Online

One ‘most sensational’ case stood out from the rest.  Reuben Henry Chandler was born in Bristol in 1849, the son of a cabinet maker.  After leaving school he was apprenticed to an organ builder, then became a joiner before enlisting in the British Army, ‘being of fine physique’.  His father bought him out when he tired of military duties.

In 1870 Reuben married Mary Elizabeth Day in Bristol.  Soon afterwards he went to America and joined the US Navy.  On his return to England he did not rejoin his wife.  Instead he was wed in Bath in 1874 to Harriet Ellen Hales, a married woman who had been deserted by her husband Edwin.  At the time of the 1881 census, Reuben was working as a carpenter in Bath and living with Harriet Ellen and one of her two daughters, a servant, and three lodgers.  Reuben used to leave home for days, and then he disappeared altogether.

Reuben’s next wedding was in July 1885 to Flora Jenkins at St Mary Bitton in Gloucestershire.  The couple settled in Newport Monmouthshire.  In September 1887 Reuben filed a petition for divorce on the grounds of Flora’s adultery with a Richard Hermann, demanding £1000 in damages.

However Reuben and Flora stayed together and in January 1888 were both convicted of letting their coffee house in Newport be used as a brothel.  They then moved to Cardiff where they had a lodger, a master mariner called John Collins.  Reuben helped Flora to pass herself off to Collins as his daughter rather than his wife.  Flora married Collins in 1892 and Reuben attended to give the bride away.

Wedding number four was to Ada Maria Stutt at Bristol June 1898.  Reuben and Ada ran the Lord Chancellor pub on Easton Road until Ada’s death in the summer of 1902 at the age of 29.  Reuben’s stepmother Ann had a dream that her husband’s grave had been disturbed.  She was very upset to discover that Reuben had buried Ada there without her permission and went to the police with Ada’s father to report the multiple marriages. William Stutt wished to claim his dead daughter’s property as her rightful next of kin.

Chandler bigamySheffield Evening Telegraph  1 October 1902 British Newspaper Archive

Reuben’s trial took place in November 1902 at Bristol Assizes.  He was charged on three counts for marrying Ada Maria Stutt, Flora Jenkins, and Harriet Ellen Hales whilst his wife was still alive in Bristol.  The judge Mr Justice Wright commented that it was over 30 years since the first marriage, and said he considered the prosecution to be oppressive and ridiculous.  Reuben was found not guilty.

Reuben then moved to London and set up house with Frances Maria Wheeler.  I can find no evidence that the couple married.  They had twelve children, the last born five months after Reuben died in July 1922 at the age of 73 after a most eventful life.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive

 

12 February 2018

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose: The man who became famous for his research on plants

In the last blog post we left our fictional hero, the astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and his real-life counterpart, Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, on the fringes of Western sciences. The former fails to get international recognition for his discovery of the Little Prince’s asteroid because of his traditional Turkish clothes, the latter fails to get international recognition for his invention of a coherer that would enable wireless telegraphy because of his reluctance to patent his invention. It is now the year 1920, and things are about to change for both our heroes.

Eleven years after the astronomer’s disappointment at the International Astronomical Congress in 1909, a Turkish dictator passes a law that requires all Turkish citizens to dress in European clothes. So the astronomer returns to the congress in 1920 and repeats his demonstration, but this time “dressed with impressive style and elegance”; and this time round, “everybody accepted his report”. Also in 1920, Bose becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society. Eleven years after he was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention that paved the way for the radio, Bose has now arrived at the heart of Western scientific institutions.

Burlington_House_ILN_1873Burlington House, which housed the Royal Society 1873-1967. Via Wikimedia commons.

As Patrick Geddes writes, this “formal acceptance and recognition by his European peers” came to Bose as “the culmination of a series of discussions and incidents spread over two decades”. One such incident happened in 1901, when Bose presented his results on “Responses in the Living and Non-living”, which he published as a book in 1902, to the Royal Society. In his talk, Bose showed that external stimuli, such as poison or electricity, have a similar effect on living tissue, such as plants or muscle, and inorganic matter, such as iron oxide or tin. Bose recorded response curves for muscle, plant, and metal and was thus able to show comparable effects of external stimuli on animals, plants, and metals alike.

This was not only revolutionary, but also unacceptable to parts of his audience. Bose, the physicist, was crossing disciplinary boundaries to chemistry, biology, and physiology, and neither the chemists, nor the biologists nor, particularly, the physiologists were happy. He was asked to revise his paper and negate his own results about the electric response of plants, not because his experiments were scientifically unsound, but because Sir John Burdon Sanderson, a famous professor of physiology, did not believe what he had seen with his own eyes. After all, he had tried to obtain these results in his experiments, but never managed. How could a physicist from India possibly achieve what he had not?

PlantNice plant image, nothing to do with the text. Via the British Library Flickr Commons.

At this point of the story, it might come as no surprise that Bose refused to alter his paper, which was consequently not published in the Royal Society’s “Proceedings”. As before, Bose had to rely on time (and his colleagues) to catch up with him; and they did. Eventually. As Geddes writes about Bose’s award of the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1920: his experiments, which were “questioned and belittled in the first stage, have since added a marvellous new province to the empire of human knowledge”.

Christin Hoene

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent, and Researcher in Residence at the British Library

08 February 2018

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose: The man who (almost) invented the radio

The story of Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose’s life and achievements reads somewhat like that of the Turkish astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, who discovers the asteroid from which the little prince comes. The astronomer presents his findings to the International Astronomical Congress “in a great demonstration”, but also “in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said”.

J.C.BoseThe Birth Centenary Committee, printed by P.C. Ray. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJ.C.Bose.JPG  

Like his fictional counterpart, Bose (1858 – 1937) for a long time found himself at the edges of Western sciences. He was born in India, came to England in the 1880s to study at University College, London, and Christ’s College, Cambridge, and returned to Calcutta in 1885, where he was appointed Professor of Physics at Presidency College. Here Bose conducted experiments that would lead him to almost invent the radio – something for which his contemporaries Guglielmo Marconi (1874 – 1937) and Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850 – 1918) won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909. Neither Marconi nor Braun mentioned Bose in their Nobel Lectures; despite the fact that Bose’s invention of a specific coherer, which turned out to be a crucial component for wireless telegraphy, predated Marconi’s experiments by 21 months.

However, Bose never patented his invention. Quite to the contrary: he openly displayed the construction and workings of an earlier version of his coherer when he was invited by the Royal Institution to give the prestigious Friday Evening Discourse on 29 January 1897. Afterwards, The Electric Engineer noted with “surprise that no secret was at any time made as to its construction, so that it has been open to all the world to adopt it for practical and possibly money-making purposes”. Bose’s biographer and contemporary Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932) notes that Bose was “criticised as unpractical for making no profit from his inventions”, but that it fit both his character and his conviction to seek “no personal advantage from his inventions”.

Jagadish_Chandra_Bose_microwave_apparatusDiagram of Bose's microwave spectrometer apparatus, built between 1894 and 1897. By Jagadish Chandra Bose [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Marconi had less scruples. On 12 December 1901, Marconi used Bose’s 1899 improved version of the coherer to receive the first transatlantic wireless signal. Marconi also applied for a British patent on the device that was not his, in which he did not even mention Bose’s name. Marconi deliberately muddied the waters when presenting “his” invention at a lecture at the Royal Institution on 13 June 1902. As Probir K Bondyopadhyay writes: “By the time Marconi gave his lecture at the Royal Institution, he was already under attack by his own countryman, and Marconi, through his careful choice of words, caused deliberated confusions and, using clear diversionary tactics, shifted attention to works of Hughes, who was already dead at that time”.

Bondyopadhyay’s article was published in 1998. It took almost a century to unveil the true origins of the device that brought us wireless telegraphy and the radio and to give due credit to Bose. Like the astronomer in The Little Prince, Bose did not play by the rules of Western science, and therefore nobody listened. But also like his fictional counterpart, Bose changed garb. And suddenly, people did listen. 

Keen to learn more? Head over to part two!

Christin Hoene

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent, and Researcher in Residence at the British Library

Further reading:

Bose's legacy and his contributions to the invention of wireless telegraphy are still a contested issue. For a differing account on the “Boseian myth”, see Subrata Dasgupta's book Jagadis Chandra Bose and the Indian Response to Western science, particularly pages 76-83 and pages 250-254.

06 February 2018

It has to be Perfect!

In May 1945 the Bahrain Petroleum Company Limited (BAPCO) wished to appoint a medical practitioner, and it believed that it had found the perfect candidate in a young Englishman.  His name, appropriately enough, was Dr Perfect (full name: Arthur John Strode Perfect).

BAPCO 

From advert in Birmingham Daily Post 17 September 1962 British Newspaper Archive


However, having provisionally selected Dr Perfect for the position, the company was informed by the War Medical Bureau that the matter would need to be placed before the Central Medical War Committee, which held control over the appointment of British medical professionals during wartime.  Prior to reaching a decision regarding Dr Perfect’s selection, the Central Medical War Committee enquired as to whether BAPCO had advertised the post so that medical officers returning from service in His Majesty’s forces would have the opportunity to apply.  BAPCO reluctantly agreed to place an advertisement in the British Medical Journal, but fearing that an extensive selection process would further delay the appointment of a suitable medical officer, the Company sought permission from the Committee for Dr Perfect to proceed to Bahrain as soon as possible.Having received no reply from the Central Medical War Committee, Hamilton R Ballantyne of BAPCO wrote to the India Office on 20 November 1945, asking for its assistance in the matter.  Ballantyne stated that the post was a young man’s task; he pointed out that the Company had gone to some trouble to select Dr Perfect, whom it felt would meet its requirements, and that it was unlikely that it would change its mind following applications from other practitioners.

The India Office responded quickly, for it had reasons of its own for ensuring the appointment of Dr Perfect.  There was in place a policy to maintain as large a proportion of British employees in the American-owned BAPCO as possible.  In a letter to the Secretary of the Central Medical War Committee, Francis Anthony Kitchener Harrison of the India Office stressed the urgency of the situation.  He warned that any further delay to the appointment could result in BAPCO seeking to secure a medical officer from somewhere other than Britain.  Harrison added that the Secretary of State for India was ‘anxious for political reasons to do what is possible to assist the Company to obtain a British Medical Practitioner for their hospital.’ He asked whether it would not be possible for the formalities relating to Dr Perfect’s appointment by BAPCO to be expedited so that he might be able to leave for Bahrain at an early date.

IOR_L_PS_12_384_f_790IOR/L/PS/12/384, f 790: draft letter from the India Office to the Secretary of the Central Medical War Committee, 23 November 1945 Noc

In a swift and brief reply to Harrison’s letter, the Deputy Secretary of the Central Medical War Committee stated that the case of Dr Perfect had been reconsidered and a decision had been made to withdraw the objection to his immediate appointment by BAPCO. Harrison informed Ballantyne of this decision, and Ballantyne replied, remarking that ‘Dr. Perfect is at last released’ and thanking Harrison for his intervention. Dr Perfect was appointed to the position and travelled to Bahrain, where he was later joined by his wife, Mrs Eleanor Perfect, a state registered nurse.

IOR_L_PS_12_384_f_787IOR/L/PS/12/384, f 787: draft letter from the India Office to Hamilton R Ballantyne, Bahrain Petroleum Company Limited Noc

David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

 

Further reading:

PZ 3044/40(2) 'Oil. Persian Gulf. Bahrein. Personnel of Bahrein Petroleum Co. Roster of Employees 1941-', IOR/L/PS/12/384

 

01 February 2018

'A Prospect of Fort St.George and Plan of the city of Madras'

The 'Prospect of Fort St.George’  was commissioned by  Thomas Pitt, governor 1698-1709, but was only completed after his death in 1726. The sheet consists of both a prospect (a bird’s eye view sketch of the civic buildings) and an urban plan. The map represents west at the top rather than the left of the sheet, is superbly detailed and very large - over 1 metre wide and ⅔ metre high.

Fort St George 1

All images are taken from Bodleian Library Gough Maps 41 No. 138 – ‘A prospect of Fort St. George and Plan of the City of Madras actually surveyed by order of the late Governr. T. Pitt ...’ c.1730. Reproduced here with the kind permission of the Bodleian Library.

Fort St. George was, in origin, essentially a fort. The inner citadel was built in 1640, the outer wall and four bastions by 1659, primarily as protection from the ‘inland Enemy’, variously Mughal generals, nawabs, and the rulers of Golconda.  Visitors approved of the fortifications’ height and thickness, although Andrew Cogan was summoned to explain why he had ‘extravagantly and irresponsibly built Fort St George when the Company’s stock was so small’.

The English population in Madras was very small: under 200 at the end of 1699 with 30 servants of the Company, 35 free merchants, and 38 seafaring men not constant inhabitants of the town. There were 14 widows, 10 single young women and 22 wives. The ‘native’ population of the Presidency was however estimated at 300,000 and their influx for work made Madras  a rapidly expanding town. The street names reflect the very active commerce in cloths: Comatee is the Telugu for ‘trader’, and Chitee was a member of any one of the trading castes in southern India.

Let's take a look at some of the features of the plan:

Fort St George 2Anchorage at Madras for large ocean-going Indiamen was always problematic.  Ships had to anchor some way from shore, and narrow lighters beat the ferocious surf. 
 

Fort St George 3White Town

Fort St George 4Black Town

Each community had its own space with a burying ground.  The most basic division of social space was that between Black Town and White Town (reserved for Europeans). Workers such as weavers were actively sought after by the town’s governor, but others came by themselves to avoid the arbitrary rule of the sultans of Golconda.

 Fort St George 5
The Inner and Outer Gardens were complemented by the New Gardens in the 1680s, complete with ceremonial garden houses and a pavilion. Pitt was a keen horticulturist. Visitors commented on the variety and healthiness of the guavas, oranges, mangos, grapes, lemons and coconuts grown. 

 Fort St George 6


Governor’s House, on three storeys, crenelated into a three-part façade including a central projection, was built in 1693 close on the seaboard walls.

 

Fort St George 7The northern neighbourhood of Muttial Peta was a spillover area populated by urban artisans, such as goldsmiths and blacksmiths, which developed as New Black Town (George Town) in the 1750s.
 

Fort St George 8Choultry Street (outside the Choultry Gate) was a place for transacting public business, and included the courts of law.

Fort St George 9

St Mary's 

 

Fort St George 10St Andrew's

St Mary’s was the chief Anglican church, sometimes jokingly called Westminster Abbey in the East. It was consecrated in 1680 but only received a spire in 1710. Capuchin friars ministered to the Roman Catholic ‘Portuguese’ population in St. Andrew's church until it was torn down after the Treaty of Aix La Chapelle (1748).

   

Fort St George 11The hospital was purpose built in 1692 and rebuilt in 1710. It was later demolished for defensive reasons because its height was considered excessive.

 Fort St George 12The Mint. Madras’ production of its own coins has prompted discussion about the nature of its sovereignty some time before the idea of empire was consciously put into action by the British.

 Fort St George 13The Sea Gate. Here the keys of the town were handed to the French after the infamous surrender of 1746; here too, returning ships and cargoes were sold at packed, pre-announced auctions.
 
Stefan Halikowski Smith
Department of History, Swansea University

Further reading:
University of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Gough Maps 41 No.138 – ‘A prospect of Fort St. George and Plan of the City of Madras actually surveyed by order of the late Governor T. Pitt ...’ c.1730.
British Library Maps 54570.(27.) is a collotype reduction from the original document in the Bodleian Library.
British Library - P2524 John Harris, Original copper plate for engraving 'A Prospect of Fort St George', Madras, used in Thomas Pitt's prospect and map of Madras in the Bodleian Library. c 1710. Also P363 - a modern printing of the Prospect  taken in July 1970.

Brimnes, Niels. Constructing the colonial encounter: Right and left-hand castes in early colonial South India (Richmond, 1999).
Fryer, John.  A new account of East-Indian and Persia, in eight letters. Being nine years travels, begun 1672. And finished 1681 (London, 1698).
Hamilton, Alexander. A new Account of the East Indies, (Edinburgh, 1727), 2 vols.
Lockyer, Charles. An account of the trade in India, containing rules for good government in trade, … with descriptions of Fort St. George, …, Malacca, Condore, Canton, Anjengo, …, Gombroon, Surat, Goa, Carwar, Telichery, Panola, Calicut, the Cape of Good-Hope, and St. Helena. Their inhabitants, customs, religion, government, animals, fruits, &c. To which is added, an account of the management of the Dutch in their affairs in India (London, 1711).
Love, Henry. Vestiges of Old Madras, 1600-1800, 4 vols. (London, 1913).
Madras Tercentenary Commemoration Volume, ed. Rao Srinivasachari, (O.U.P. 1939)
Muthiah, Subbiah. Madras discovered: A historical guide to looking around (Madras, 1981)
Srinivasachari, C.S. History of the city of Madras (Madras, 1939)
Stern, Philip J.  The company-state : corporate sovereignty and the early modern foundation of the British Empire in India, O.U.P. 2011.

 

30 January 2018

Getting into a pickle with translation

Dr Johnson once remarked: ‘It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing'.

Cucumber_PNG_Clipart_Image-467Cucumber via Clipart

Cucumbers can still be dangerous, however: especially when translating into Arabic.

In 1936 the oil company Petroleum Concessions Limited was negotiating for an option on the right to explore for oil in the Kuwait Neutral Zone, an area on the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia over which the Sheikh of Kuwait and the King of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, exercised joint control.

As was usual on such occasions, a formal agreement was required between the ruler (in this case the Sheikh of Kuwait) and the oil company concerned, and the company’s draft version needed first to be translated from English into Arabic for the benefit of the Sheikh and his advisers. As was also usual, the agreement needed to be vetted by the British Government, acting as the overseeing colonial power in Kuwait.

To this end, Britain’s Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Lieutenant-Colonel Trenchard Fowle, asked the Political Agent in Kuwait, Captain Gerald de Gaury, to run his eye over the Arabic version of the agreement, to see that all was well with the translation.

  IOR L PS 12 3856  f 304Gerald de Gaury’s report on the translation of the Kuwait Neutral Zone option agreement, 22 May 1936: IOR/L/PS/12/3856, f 304

De Gaury wrote back on 22 May as follows: ‘I offer certain comments on the Arabic version of the Kuwait Neutral Zone Option […] ARTICLE 4: OPTION is translated as KHIAR which means cucumber. It is true that the dictionary gives KHIAR for both “choice” and “cucumber” but local usage hereabouts is for it to mean cucumber. Option should have been translated as “HAQQ AL IKHTIAR”, an expression in currency everywhere'.

De Gaury goes on: ‘His Excellency the shaikh [of Kuwait] has already pointed out to the negotiator that in parts the document appears to refer to “cucumber time” rather than “option period”’.

The Political Agent concludes with the words: ‘ARTICLE 15: Is correctly translated [...] I have no other comments.’
De Gaury, in addition to being Britain’s administrator in Kuwait, was a writer who published a number of books on Arabia. His deadpan report on the opening of Kuwait’s first oil well was featured on Untold Lives here.

IOR L PS 12 3856  f 303Colonel Fowle is amused: IOR/L/PS/12/3856, f 303

Even Colonel Fowle, Britain’s top official in Gulf, a man not generally noted in the archives for his sense of humour, was struck by de Gaury’s comments, stating in a letter of 30 May that ‘the “cucumber” touch’ was ‘amusing’.

So the cucumber is after all good for something.

I am grateful to my colleagues Louis Allday for confirming the Arabic translation of ‘KHIAR’ and Matt Griffin for pointing out that the Sheikh of Kuwait’s ‘cucumber time’ is used in a number of countries to mean the ‘silly season’.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archives
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
London, British Library Coll 30/124 'Koweit (Neutral Zone) Oil Concession: Negotiations with Petroleum Concessions, Ltd.' IOR/L/PS/12/3856. (A digitised version of this file will appear in the Qatar Digital Library in the course of 2018.)

  

25 January 2018

Keeping fit in 1900

Did you make a New Year Resolution to keep fit?  Are you making the most of a subscription to the gym?  You might be surprised to learn that interest in personal fitness is not a recent phenomenon.  I found a file in the India Office Records which shows that exercise was taken very seriously at the start of the 20th century.

Family  exerciserThe Family Exerciser from a catalogue of gymnastic apparatus supplied by Heath & George IOR/L/PWD/8/220 f.352v

The file comes from a series of records relating to the Royal Indian Engineering College at Cooper’s Hill near Egham in Surrey. It is entitled ‘Gymnasium: Qualifying examination, notices, apparatus, instructors 1900-1906’.  That might not sound thrilling, but it includes some fascinating papers.

The Royal Indian Engineering College was founded in 1871 to train civil engineers for service in India in the Public Works Department.  In 1900 there were approximately 130 students in residence. Compulsory gymnastics and physical drill were part of the curriculum. The College also offered voluntary classes for gymnastics, fencing and boxing.  A gymnastics competition was held each year.

Bridge ladderBridge ladder – from a catalogue of gymnastic apparatus supplied by George Spencer IOR/L/PWD/8/220 f.320

First year students had to pass a gymnastics exam – parallel bars, horizontal bar, rope climbing, vaulting horse, bridge ladder, row of rings, slanting ladder, pair of rings, and high jump.  Marks were awarded equally for ‘performance’ and for ‘form’.  Students had to make half marks overall and, if they failed, had to continue with classes until they did.

Here is a draft of the rules of the Cooper’s Hill gymnasium in 1902.

20180116_172350IOR/L/PWD/8/220 f.223

The clothing to be worn in the gymnasium was flannel trousers, vest or a sweater, gym shoes, and belt.  Smoking was prohibited.

The file contains physical descriptions of students – age, height, weight, and measurements for chest, forearm, upper arm, and deltoid.  Here are the data for a group of first year students in 1903.

20180116_165751IOR/L/PWD/8/220 f.109

In August 1901 the India Office sanctioned expenditure on improvements to the gymnasium.  The College authorities then had to decide which new equipment to purchase.  Saved with the file are catalogues for two suppliers of gymnastic apparatus: George Spencer and Heath & George. Both firms were based at Goswell Road in London.  The catalogues show gymnastic equipment designed for the home as well as for military and naval institutions, schools, colleges, and public baths.  The apparatus was intended for men, women and children. Here are a few examples of what was on offer.

Home horizontal barThe Portable Home Horizontal Bar from a catalogue of gymnastic apparatus supplied by George Spencer IOR/L/PWD/8/220 f.295v

Whitely exerciserThe Whitely Exerciser from a catalogue of gymnastic apparatus supplied by George Spencer IOR/L/PWD/8/220 f.310v

Nursery gym (2)The Nursery Gymnasium from a catalogue of gymnastic apparatus supplied by Heath & George IOR/L/PWD/8/220 f.343

The  woman supervising the Nursery Gymnasium looks very like Queen Victoria, and isn't that Windsor Castle in the background?  Perhaps Heath & George were trying to tell potential customers that the Royal Family enjoyed ‘combining amusement with healthy exercise’.  Let’s hope that the Queen was as amused as her small charges seem to be.

Margaret Makepeace 
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/PWD/8/220 Cooper’s Hill Gymnasium: Qualifying examination, notices, apparatus, instructors 1900-1906

 

23 January 2018

The good, the bad, and the cross-hatched

Today is National (and possibly International) Handwriting Day, and we thought we would take a quick look at some examples from recently-catalogued papers in our Modern Archives and Manuscripts collections.

The good (and improving) 

Luckily for our manuscript cataloguers, the recently acquired letters of Princess Charlotte Augusta to her tutor George Frederick Nott (1805-1808) posed little difficulty. In the series of 31 letters and notes we get to see the development of her handwriting.

Charlotte Prayer 2
Charlotte Prayer 2

Early prayer, Add MS 89259/1, Papers relating to the Royal family within the correspondence of John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury

By the time of this second undated example her hand is progressing nicely – and thankfully neatly – with the help of guidelines penciled on to the paper to keep her lines straight.

Charlotte 2Add MS 89259/2

By 1807 Charlotte’s handwriting is well formed and regular, with nice little flourishes, and written without the aid of guidelines.

Charlotte 3Add MS 89259/2

 

The bad

Unless they have been very lucky in their research, most archive users will have experienced frustration when trying to decipher a difficult hand. It can be tempting to conclude that some lives will remain untold because they are recorded illegibly, and some famous lives have been delved into despite their terrible handwriting – Charles Darwin is a name which springs immediately to mind.

CD2Charles Darwin to Alfred Russell Wallace, Add MS 46434, f 230

CD4Charles Darwin to Alfred Russell Wallace, Add MS 46434, f 75v

(Darwin was well-aware of the general assessment of his handwriting. In a letter to John Murray, 31 Mar 1859 he wrote “I defy anyone, not familiar with my handwriting & odd arrangements to make out my M.S. till fairly copied”. A transcription of this letter can be found online at the Darwin Correspondence Project).

The cross-hatched

The Grimaldi correspondence features letters written by Louisa Frances Edmeads to her brother William Grimaldi , as well as a small number of letters from Stacey Grimaldi to other family members. Lurking in these letters are examples of the dreaded (or keenly anticipated, if you’re feeling up to the challenge) cross-hatching, where the writing is continued at 90 degrees across the page.

Crosshatch 1

Crosshatch 2Add MS 89258

Combine cross-hatching with bleed-through from the verso of the folio, and you have a recipe for a research headache.

If we’ve whet your appetite for handwriting, why not head over to the Digital Scholarship blog to read about the Library’s work with the Transkribus tool, generating and testing automatic Handwritten Text Recognition models for the India Office Records.

Alex Hailey

Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts