Geagle Badcock (c1724-1802) was the Cook of Pembroke College, Oxford for more than 50 years in the 1700s. I love his name, and imagine that even if he was an excellent chef, some cheeky scholar would have nicknamed him ‘Geagle Badcook‘.
In 1776, when he was about 47, Geagle placed an extraordinary advertisement in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, as follows (don’t miss the surprise ending!):
WHEREAS on Saturday Night last, the 2d of March instant, some evil-disposed Person or Persons stole into the Pantheon Garden, near the New Road (leading from St. Peter’s le Bailey Church to Ensham) belonging to Geagle Badcock; and there did wantonly and lasciviously take away and destroy the Cauliflower and Lettuce Plants from under the Hand-Glasses; and also removed, stole, and wounded, many Fruit Trees; likewise beheaded a large Quantity of Broccoli, and committed many other indecencies: Advice is hereby given, that in order properly to accommodate those Sons of Rapine for the future, the Owner of the aforesaid Garden will engage himself, on the shortest notice, to wait upon these Deadly Night Shades, and give them a warm Reception. But if the Tyler of that Lodge should not give them the Last Word, let them be particularly cautious how they descend the Walls, as Steel Traps and other Engines will be placed as commodiously as can be, for the Protection of Property. And as the said Robbery had been so scandalously perpetrated, any Accomplice, or other Person, who shall give the necessary Information for Conviction, shall receive a Reward of FIVE GUINEAS; and such Person or Accomplice so informing, will also be pardoned the Offence. GEAGLE BADCOCK. N.B. A Book of Songs and Glees, the Property of a young Surgeon, was also stolen; and an enormous Excrement left behind, which smelleth much like one of the Persons suspected. Statim intellexi, quid effet.
Yep! Not only did these vandals destroy the garden, they left a huge poo there as well! Geagle jokes drily that the poo smelled a lot like the person he suspects of making it. The Latin motto at the end was included in a Latin-English phrase book from 1673 (published in ‘Little Britain’ (!) – a London street dominated by book-sellers), and means ‘I quickly smelt it out’.
instant: of this month Pantheon: The Pantheon was a fashionable public entertainment centre which opened on Oxford Street, London in 1772; perhaps naming his vegetable garden the Pantheon was a joke of Geagle’s, since it had been used as a place of entertainment by someone on that night. Hand-Glass: a miniature green-house or cloche used to protect or speed up the growth of plants Sons of Rapine: rapine is violent plunder, and this phrase, presumably of classical poetic origin, pops up in other writing of the era to describe both real and mythical villains, including in an Ode For His Majesty’s Birthday, by poet laureate Henry James Pye, in 1794. Deadly Night Shades: this plant was well-known to be responsible for accidental and deliberate poisonings. Tyler of the Lodge: the office of outer guard of a Masonic Lodge Steel Traps: could have been animal traps or man-traps (snares); it was legal to use man-traps to ensnare poachers and trespassers until 1827. An ‘Engine’ was a mechanical device. Five Guineas: Worth about £460 today
Geagle’s advertisement is brilliantly melodramatic, witty, poetic, and menacing. He was rather like Mr. McGregor, but with lethal man-traps rather than a rake! I really hope he caught the naughty and very anti-social Peter Rabbit who committed this crime.
Featured Image: Geagle Badcock’s ad, Oxford Journal, Saturday 9 March 1776 (britishnewspapers.com)
Have you ever contributed to a crowdfunding campaign to support a startup, community project or someone in need? It might seem like a new idea, but in fact, people had similar ways of fundraising for causes and ideas 250 years ago!
In the 1700s-1800s crowdfunding for a new product or project was commonly called ‘public subscription’ and just like now, financial backers could pre-order products or buy shares in a new venture – anything from a new railway to a book of folk stories. Supporters were given public recognition, for example in the book’s frontispiece or in a newspaper advertisement.
Having worked for numerous startups myself I appreciate that as well as an injection of cash, the public nature of subscriptions would have brought the additional benefit of PR from ‘celebrity endorsement’ – if Lady X and Rev. Z bought a copy, it must be good! (or at least, I’ll look good if I own a copy too!)
Newspapers also frequently published lists of people who had contributed to a local charitable fund, such as ‘relief to the poor’, as well as national causes, like the ‘voluntary contribution towards the expenses of the War’ in 1798. Some of the supporters were truly philanthropic, but others would have been more concerned about keeping up appearances – with such public displays of generosity, you’d want to make sure your name was on the list, and the larger the donation you could afford to display by your name, the better.
Georgian Britons also launched public campaigns to raise money for individual people in need. Today, friends and families might start a gofundme campaign to help support a family after a tragedy. In Georgian Britain, similar appeals appeared in local newspapers.
Thomas Turner, my ancestor via marriage, was a goldsmith with a business on Oxford’s High Street and also a city council member. In February 1791 he was declared bankrupt. ‘Bankrupts’ were reported in newspapers nationally (presumably to alert anyone who might be owed money by them). Unusually, Thomas seems to have done a runner, as newspaper ads as far away as Kent called for him to ‘surrender himself’. However, less than three weeks later, he was dead. His difficult circumstances, the omission of his death in the papers, and my inability to locate a burial record all point to this being suicide. Quite possibly, rather than try to escape his debts, he had suffered a nervous breakdown.
In March, Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported on the ‘dreadful catastrophe’ that had left Thomas’s wife Ann a ‘widow with four small children, including a newborn, and called on the community to support this family in need through a public subscription or private donation. The first ad appeared on 9 March:
OXFORD, March 9th, 1792
A CASE of Real Distress humbly submitted to the Charitable and Humane.
ANN TURNER, of this City, having by a late dreadful Catastrophe been entirely deprived of every Support, and left a Widow with four small Children, one not more than three Months old, herself in a very indifferent state of Health; in a few Days she must leave her Home, without one Relation who can afford her the least Protection or Assistance, and without on Prospect but what the Hand of public Benevolence will kindly supply: In this melancholy Situation, by the Advice of her Friends, she humbly presumes to address herself to those who are blest with the Means of alleviating Distress the most accumulated and poignant.
The smallest Donations will be most thankfully received … The Friends of this distressed Family have promised to take Care that whatever Sum may be raised shall be applied, as far as possible, to give a permanent Assistance to the rearing of her infant Family, and to render every Information to the Subscribers concerning the Application of it.
Mrs. TURNER returns her grateful Thanks to two Ladies unknown, for Two Guineas received by the Hands of Friends.
The tone of the notice was deliberately dramatic. However, the immediate situation for a widow with a young family, whose breadwinner would have died intestate, really was desperate. Without money for rent and food, a parish workhouse would have been one of her only options.
Throughout March, the pleas for support were published weekly with lists of benefactors and the amount they had donated. Amazingly, sums were received from scores of people from both ‘town and gown’, as well as beyond the city of Oxford. Many clergymen contributed, and donations even came from several members of the nobility, including Lord Charles Spencer and the Countess of Guildford.
In April, an older goldsmith, from whom Thomas Turner had learned his trade, announced that he had purchased his former apprentice’s stock. Then, in May, another notice from Ann Turner announced that thanks to the charity of so many people, she had been able to acquire a small house and shop in the Cornmarket:
OXFORD, May 5th, 1792.
ANN TURNER, encouraged by the Indulgence she has hitherto experienced in her great Calamity, presumes once again, in the most humble Manner, to return her most sincere Thanks to all those by whose Generosity she and her Family have not only been rescued from immediate Poverty, but are now enabled to inform the Publick, that she is put into Possession of a small SHOP, opposite the Cross Inn, in the Corn-Market, where she carries on the China, Glass, and Earthen-Ware Business. – As she is supplied with these, and some few other small Articles, from the same Manufacturers as her late Husband, she presumes to solicit the Continuance of the Orders of her former Friends, and a generous Publick, to whom it is known she has no other Support now left for her young Family.
It strikes me that Ann’s own voice is behind this announcement; this is a woman who was confronted with a crisis, but with the help of friends and her own strength of mind, she not only saved herself and family from destitution, but set up a business to safeguard their future.
The amount of support received by the family indicates that the family was liked and respected. Perhaps Thomas’s financial problems had been caused by bad luck rather than recklessness – such as a failed investment or health crisis. In fact, the previous year, Thomas had placed an ad in the paper looking for his lost pocket book containing drafts (cheques) for £266 – could this have contributed to his misfortune?
Thanks to the rallying of the community, Ann was able not just to survive but to thrive. Sales of personal effects and stock in trade after her death in 1809 showed that she had been able to move her business back onto the High Street and lived in comfort. Moreover, her children went on to great things. One had a distinguished career as a Consul in Europe and Latin America. Another matriculated to Christchurch, Oxford at the age of 15, became a private tutor for about a year to William Gladstone, future Prime Minister, and finally became Lord Bishop of Calcutta!
Forty years later another Oxford family was in need of support: Mr Stephen Wentworth, Surgeon to the city and county gaols, died in 1831 at 49 ‘leaving a widow and nine children totally unprovided for’. In early 1832 the Oxford University and City Herald reported on an ‘AFFECTING CASE OF DISTRESS’. Wentworth’s family had been left ‘in a state of utter destitution’ by his decease. ‘After several years’ considerable practice in his profession, he had to struggle for a long period under the pressure of declining health, and the claims of an increasing family, but, having sunk at length, under the combined effects of sickness and adversity, his bereaved Widow and helpless Orphans are left with no resource but an appeal to the generous sympathies of a humane and benevolent Public, through whose prompt and liberal assistance, it is proposed to raise a fund by subscription, sufficient to enable the afflicted Widow to embark in some line of Business, by which she may be enabled to supply the wants of her numerous family.’
Once again, the article listed the names of the most recent contributors to the fund, hopefully inspiring many others to follow.
Widows and orphans weren’t the only beneficiaries of charity projects. In 1817, my ancestor James Benwell, who had been a gardener at the Oxford Botanic Gardens for forty years, finally retired at the age of 82. Benwell was ‘although uneducated, a very intelligent man’ and he had many well-to-do supporters and admirers. One of those admirers addressed a long letter to the editor of the Oxford Journal describing Benwell as ‘an individual of acknowledged worth, who is at length, by age and infirmity, rendered incapable of providing for himself.’ After attesting to Benwell’s skills and character (through some fantastic anecdotes that deserve another blog post), he makes his pitch to readers for support:
‘In order to procure some trifling addition to his comfort and support during the remainder of his days, Messrs. Burt and Skelton, two eminent artists now resident in this city, have kindly and gratuitously contributed their assistance, the former by furnishing a most correct and characteristic likeness of the old naturalist, and the latter by executing an engraving from it, with all his well-known taste. … subscriptions will be very thankfully received’.
In other words, local artists had either been commissioned, or had volunteered, to draw James Benwell, and purchases of the engraved portrait would raise money for him. I don’t know how many copies were sold, but one is in the collection of the British Museum and another one hangs in the Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy, Oxford, next to grand portraits of much more eminent men.
James Benwell lived two more years, and hopefully, thanks to the ingenious crowdfunding campaign of his friends, he enjoyed a few ‘trifling additions to his comfort’ during his well-earned retirement.
Featured Image: Chris J. Ratcliffe / AFP/Getty Images
Last week I got my DNA results back from Ancestry.com. I’ve been doing document-based genealogy for 30+ years but I’m unfashionably late to the party with DNA testing. Unlike most of my American friends, whose DNA would be a colourful and exciting melting pot, I was fully expecting mine to be primarily English and quite boring. However, I was hoping to see some evidence of my German ancestry.
My paternal grandmother Delia Munday Raby was born ‘out of wedlock’ between the two wars, and all she knew of her father – Walter Emmanuel Raby – was that he lived in Ontario, Canada and was German. A decade ago, we were able to trace his family. We found that Walter and his parents were actually born in Ontario, and his father Charles Raby’s parents were born in England. However, Walter’s mother Mary Ann Bonn was born to German immigrants Herman & Julian Bonn. The English Rabys shared a house with the Bonns, so Walter’s parents grew up together(!) in a German household in one of the most German areas of Ontario. No doubt Walter, a 2nd generation Canadian, still had a strong German identity.
Herman had come to Ontario in the 1850s as a child with his parents Herman and Anna Bonn, who had a whopping 17 children! Thanks to other descendants’ research I have the details of many lines in several German regions going back to the 1600s. I’ve been able to connect with a historian from one village in Hesse, called Obergleen, where my 5x great grandfather signed an important document in support of an imprisoned hero of the German revolution. Obergleeners are nicknamed ‘dumpling bags’, which my husband says ‘explains a lot’.
Although my granny never knew her father (and never wanted to), I’m proud of my links to Ontario and Germany, and thought that my Germanic roots would show up in my ethnicity results. But in fact, I have ZERO connection to Germanic regions! Instead, I have 95% England, Wales & Northern Europe, and 5% Norway & Iceland. So why is there no German DNA?
Could it be that Walter wasn’t actually my granny’s father? No – I have two strong cousin matches with Walter’s family that make it highly likely he was.
But interestingly, one of those cousins (Walter’s 1st cousin and a grandchild of Mary Ann Bonn) doesn’t have any German DNA in her ethnicity report either! So could it be that Mary Ann Bonn wasn’t in fact a biological child of Hermann & Mary Ann? It’s possible, but another explanation is simply that not enough distinctly German DNA has been passed down to her descendants.
Firstly, German DNA is not that different from English DNA! What we think of as national identities are really quite recent inventions; Germany has only been a unified country since 1848. In fact, the populations of modern England and Germany are very much an ‘ad-mixture’ of numerous tribes, some of whom were ‘Germanic’, some Scandinavian, Celtic, and so on. MyHeritage has a blog post on this topic. Nevertheless, since my German ancestors came from all over today’s Germany, it surprises me that none of them passed on any DNA to me that Ancestry has categorised as being from ‘Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium & Luxembourg’.
Secondly, the absence of German DNA could be explained by the random reality of inheritance. Mary Ann Bonn, my 2x great grandmother is my closest full ‘German’ ancestor (born in Ontario to two German-born parents). She is one of my 16 2x great grandparents, so if we received the same sized portion of DNA from each direct ancestor in one generation, I would have about 6.25% from Mary Ann. However, DNA inheritance does not actually work this way, and it’s actually possible to inherit more or less than the average from each ancestor. Ancestry explains this in ‘Unexpected Ethnicity Results‘ (they also point out that ‘DNA of neighboring regions often looks very similar’ and acknowledge that ‘ethnicity estimation is still a work in progress.’ It’s not unusual to not see ethnicity from 4 generations ago. Still, it’s odd that Mary Ann’s granddaughter didn’t have any German ethnicity either.
Does the lack of German ethnicity in my DNA results mean I didn’t inherit any DNA at all from Mary Ann or her forebears? According to one geneticist, the likelihood that we inherit some DNA from even a 3x great grandparent is ‘close to 100%’, so I probably do have some of Mary Ann’s DNA. Maybe with more markers tested (or my whole genome!) some German DNA would be revealed, though it may simply be too fragmented.
So, probably some DNA from Mary Ann Bonn has come to me. However, I simply can’t prove that Mary Ann was the biological daughter of Herman and Julian Bonn and that she had German ancestors.
So, should I relinquish my (already quite over-stated) claim to be ‘a bit German’?! No, I think I’ll hang on to that interesting story for now! At the very least, I feel I am an honorary Dumpling Bag!
Featured Image: My Ethnicity Estimate – other regions tested – from ancestry.co.uk
Workhouses have a reputation for cruelty and despair. After watching the BBC’s edgy new production of a Christmas Carol yesterday, and the (not at all edgy) Muppet version today, I’ve been reminded of Scrooge’s famous commentary on the workhouses; his appalling lack of empathy for the poor still resonates in 2019:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.” “Are there no prisons?” “Plenty of prisons…” “And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?” “Both very busy, sir…” “Those who are badly off must go there.” “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
So I was surprised to come across this newspaper article from about a Victorian Christmas dinner at Knaresborough Workhouse:
‘Christmas Day was celebrated at the Union Workhouses, Knaresbro’, in the usual manner; the inmates being entertained to a Christmas dinner consisting of roast beef, plum pudding &c. After dinner each person was presented to a small sum of money subscribed for by the ex-officio and elected members of the Board of Guardians. On Christmas Eve the inmates had a “Christmas tea;” after which the children were congregated in the dining hall and gifts, consisting of toys, dolls, bags of marbles, small Santa Slaus stockings, mufflers, mittens and other useful articles … were much appreciated by the delightful children. … The recipients showed their appreciation of these gifts by their hearty cheering.’ Knaresborough Post, 29 December 1888
Was this a one-off? A search for ‘workhouse Christmas’ in the British Newspaper Archives revealed other similar stories, such as ‘Workhouse Christmas Cheer’ at Ashton-Under-Lyne Workhouse – when a local grocer donated ‘a quantity of figs to the children’ on Christmas Day, and ‘also presented 12lbs. of nuts, 13lbs. of apples, 138 oranges, and a Christmas Tree stocked with a variety of things for the amusement of the little ones.’ (The Ashton Weekly Reporter, 26 December 1868). In London, inmates of the workhouses at St Luke’s, Chelsea, St George Hanover Square, and Kensington all enjoyed a Christmas dinner in 1859, including roast beef, plum pudding, tea and porter. At St George they were also given two days of holiday. At Kensington, a Greek merchant donated a large gift of currants. (West Middlesex Advertiser and Family Journal, 31 December 1859).
The huge amounts of food donated to the poor were news-worthy, so that on 1 Jan 1876, readers of the Norfolk News could have been wowed by the 1540lb. of beef distributed in St Pancras, where ‘the male inmates must be terrible smokers, and the women snuff-takers, for tobacco figures at 48lb. and snuff at 20lb, and gob-smacked by the ingredients of Marylebone’s plum pudding: 400 lb. flour, 300 lb. suet, 400 lb. currants and raisins, 150lb. sugar, 700 eggs, 10 gallons of ale, 10 lb. ginger and other spices, and 40 lb. candied peel!
No doubt, giving to the poor was a good PR exercise, and often done as publically as possible. One anonymous letter-writer to the Shields Daily News on 23 December 1890 had this to say:
‘Sir.- Much has been discussed at various times respecting the “appendages” at the Workhouse Christmas Dinner. There are some “appendages,” however, which I think could well be dispensed with. I refer to those which are usually described in the newspapers as the “Guardians and their friends,” who assemble at the dining hour, to watch the inmates do away with what has been provided for them. Now, it does not follow, because a person wears a pauper’s uniform he is devoid of feeling, and I have no doubt that many of the poor people would feel more comfortable, and enjoy themselves better if “the friends” were only “present in the spirit.” … It seems to be quite the rage now, at all charity dinners, teas, etc., for a large portion of the public to assemble, in order to see (as the menagerie man would put it) the “lions feed.”‘
Whatever the motivation for the charity, it has made me smile to know that for some workhouse inmates at least, Christmas brought a little bit of comfort and joy.
Last year my daughter found an algae-covered claypipe bowl head in the Letcombe Brook in Wantage. We cleaned it up and I realised it was the lovely face of Queen Alexandra (Alexandra of Denmark), who had visited Wantage in 1877 when she was Princess of Wales (a title she held for 38 years until the death of Queen Victoria). With her husband, King Edward VII, she reigned from 1901-1910.
My family has two connections to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – via a nephew and niece of my husband’s 2x great grandfather – Alfred George Read and Harriet Knights.
In 1874, Alfred Read Sr., a Constable with the Metropolitan Police, died of TB at just 32 leaving behind his widow Thirsa and little Alfred George, aged about 4. From 1883, when an officer died or was severely disabled, his wife would receive a compassionate allowance to assist in supporting their children. Unfortunately, Constable Read died several years before this fund was available. However, in 1870 the Metropolitan & City Police Orphanage had been established with Queen Victoria as its Patron, and 5-year-old Alfred George entered the orphanage in 1875 fifteen months after his father had died.
A few years ago I was thrilled to receive copies of the orphanage’s annual reports and school reports from the orphanage archives. They make for fascinating reading and really help illustrate what life was like for Alfred in this pioneering institution.
In fact, as the records show, Alfred was not an orphan when he entered the orphanage; his mother was still alive, and this was the case for the majority of ‘orphans’ in the orphanage, many of whom returned home during holidays. I don’t know why Thirsa was unable to continue caring for her son, but it must have been a painful decision for her. I also don’t know if they continued to be in contact with each other; in fact, I have no idea what became of Thirsa (bonus points for anyone who can track her down!). However, I know from the orphanage records that Alfred was raised in a kind and caring and enriching environment.
Far from the awful Victorian orphanages conjured up by Oliver Twist, the Police Orphanage was acknowledged to be one of the best in the country, even in the world. Education started in the infant school and continued in the boys’ and girls’ schools. Both boys and girls were educated in reading, writing, arithmatic, and bible history. Boys’ subjects also included history and geography, while girls also learned needlework, knitting and other aspects of domestic economy. All children had physical education, including military drills and swimming for the boys (a swimming pool was built in the basement in 1878!). During Alfred’s time there, more subjects became available, including the addition of geography and grammar for girls, and drawing and science for boys. Music was also a very strong feature of their education; all children sang regularly and the boys also played instruments. The school band even gave public performances at Alexander Palace!
Older boys took part in the Fire Brigade (training exercises rather than actual firefighting) and received garden plots to work on, while older girls had to take turns with housework or laundry. The division of labour and activities grates on my 2020 sensibilities; however, girls had far greater opportunities here than almost anywhere else in the period, and these activities helped prepare children for realistic work opportunities when they had to leave the orphanage at age 14. The orphanage actively helped procure positions for its young people.
The children also received health and dental care. Infectious diseases sometimes struck, as they did everywhere. However, the spread of infection was low due to ‘isolation and care’. Notably, deaths were rare; in 1880, 182 children received medical treatment but only one died. Nevertheless, many children at the orphanage suffered from chronic health problems, especially respiratory conditions – it was stated that ‘many of the children inherit the weakness of their deceased parents.’ In 1881, the orphanage’s medical officer Dr. Leeson expressed his hope that a new system of warming and proposed schoolroom would produce ‘better statistics’.
Efforts were also made to accommodate individual needs. For example, all children attended church services on Sunday, and in 1880, the 17 Catholic children in the orphanage were able to attend Catholic Mass in Richmond. The orphanage was looking into using an omnibus to make the journey easier for them.
Most heart-warming of all to read, the children enjoyed a play-room, playground, library, and a wide array of sports and entertaining activities throughout the year. In October & November 1882, 12-year-old Alfred could have enjoyed watching or singing in several concerts, free admission to Sanger’s circus (pitched in a field near the Orphanage), Magic Lantern entertainment, attendance at the marriage of the Chairman, a trip to the zoo, and a lecture on bees. Then, in December, a ‘Christmas Tree, ‘presented by Sir John Lubbock, Bart., M.P., to the children remaining at the Orphanage during the holidays, was lighted and hung with toys’.
In September 1882, the Prince & Princess of Wales, Edward and Alexandra, came to open a new wing, at first named the ‘Prince of Wales Wing.’ The visit was widely reported in newspapers. When the royal carriage arrived at the orphanage, it was greeted by a ‘handsome marquee’ seating 1,200 people. The very front seats were occupied by the orphans – 246 boys and girls wearing blue rosettes and ribbons with silver ornaments and Prince of Wales’s feathers ‘who looked the very picture of health and happiness’. The Royal Party visited an exhibition in the new wing – of crafts and art made by policemen, including watercolours of scenes of notorious crimes (!), as well as woodwork, penmanship, and even knitting! The children sang ‘God bless the Prince of Wales’, and after a speech by the Prince, Princess Alexandra handed out prizes to the children, depicted in the picture below.
Alfred George Read left the orphanage in about 1883-4. In his final school report he was placed 10 in the school in order of merit, and ranked ‘excellent’ in both conduct and industry. He was then apprenticed as a coppersmith in Southampton. Between 1901 and 1910 he settled on Ireland Island, Bermuda! He continued to work as a coppersmith and was a member of the Freemasons. I haven’t yet traced him after that date (I might need to take a trip to Bermuda …)
The orphanage closed in 1930 but the Metropolitan & City Police Orphans Fund has continued its work to the present day, supporting hundreds of children annually. Its current patron is Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. This year marks its 150th year.
Like Diana, Princess of Wales, Princess Alexandra was very popular with the public and was known for acts of kindness towards society’s outsiders. For example, she visited John Merrick AKA The Elephant Man and sent him Christmas cards for many years. Her husband, however, was a notorious womaniser. Which leads to our second connection …
Harriet Knights supposedly worked as a nurse for Sir Frederick Treves, another ally of the Elephant Man. Treves was the royal family’s doctor, and Harriet became, according to family lore, nurse to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and attended to Edward during his famed appendectomy in 1902. Much more juicily, Harriet also reputedly fell pregnant by the King or another royal, who then financed her move to America, where their child became a silent movie actress! Tracing Harriet’s story has been truly tantalising. I do know that she had two illegitimate daughters between about 1895 and 1900 and that they did go to America, where the daughters became a dance teacher and dancer. Harriet returned to England before WW2, in time to watch George V’s coronation parade from her apartment rooftop in central London. She died in 1945 and her ashes were interred in Kensington.
This week I became a reader at the British Library, and I want to tell you the steps I went through (spoilers: it was easy!)
A friend suggested meeting at the British Library to see the Buddhism exhibition. Great, said I (since I had heard really good things about it) but would you mind if I also tried to view a document while I’m there? Being a very nice friend, he said that would be quite alright with him.
The British Library is the national library of the UK and has over 170 million artefacts in its London and Yorkshire archives. They add 3M more items every year! It houses millions of books, of course, and other printed media, but also sound recordings, maps, digital pubs, stamps, music manuscripts and much more. Useful resources for family historians include records from British families in India, published genealogies, letters and diaries.
The document I hoped to see is a 1904 letter from President Roosevelt, which had been donated to the British Museum in memory of my ancestor in the 1930s. The story behind this is really intriguing, but I’ll save that for another post. Because this post is all about ACCESS. (And because I want to entice you back to my blog soon …)
We arrived at the library at around 11.15 am on a Monday and went straight to the main library visitor reception desk to find out how I, a commoner, could view a document in the collection. To start, I needed to register as a reader. And all I would need to register were a couple of forms of ID – which could include my driver’s license and a credit card. “Shall we do this?” I asked my friend. He claimed to be genuinely interested to go behind the scenes, and I was happy to take his word for it, so we headed upstairs to register. There were a few people ahead of me in the queue to the registration front desk. The man on the front desk checked I had ID, asked about the nature of my enquiry, and then pointed me to a computer where I could start my registration. After filling in a few fields I received a number and was advised to take a seat. About 10 mins later my number was called. I showed my ID, briefly explained my area of research, and had a photo taken. Within a couple of minutes I had my reader card! Next, she told me, I should go to the Rare Books & Music room. My quest had begun!
The security person in the entrance of the Rare Books room gave me rather dour instructions to rid myself of my coat and bag – and my friend – before entering. I was grateful to my friend for immediately leaving with my stuff, allowing me to enter the inner sanctum. Thankfully, every other staff member I encountered couldn’t have been more helpful and unstuffy. A librarian in the Rare Books room walked me through creating an online account and submitting a request for my document. I had been told earlier that the document could take anything from 1-48 hours to be delivered, depending on its location. But I was in luck! It would be ready for me in the Manuscripts Reading Room in about 70 minutes.
This was a perfect time to go to the exhibition – which was excellent. And then we grabbed some lunch (amazing Earl Grey cake surrounded by shelves of books = heaven!).
Finally, I was ready to go to the Manuscripts Room. My letter was waiting for me, within a large book of assorted letters from different eras. I wasn’t permitted to photograph it, and I didn’t have a notepad, but I did have a pencil and my exhibition programme – good enough for a quick transcription. It was pretty thrilling to touch a letter hand-signed by President Roosevelt. But what I was really hoping for was any documentation that came with it. Sadly, the letter had no provenance materials, but I spoke to a librarian and he said I should email the archivist. So that’s what I have done (to be continued …)
It was really inspiring to discover that this incredible and hallowed institution is so welcoming and that the items it holds aren’t kept hidden away, but are made available quickly and easily to regular people like me. And you!
Hi! I’m Clare and I love genealogy, social history, and writing.
Born in England, I moved to California in 2001 and stayed there for 16 years. I loved life in California but I always missed old buildings and graveyards! Since I returned to the UK in 2017 I’ve been spending as much time as possible ‘digging up’ long-dead ancestors! I can also be found occasionally on the Thames foreshore doing a bit of mudlarking – looking for everyday treasures in the layers of centuries past.
My blog name is definitely a bit irreverent, but it comes from my passion about bringing back the stories of ‘ordinary’ people whose lives have not been recorded and remembered. I find as I dig into the past that everyone has a story, and I really believe that EVERY life is EXTRAORDINARY.
I hope you will enjoy the stories and tips I share. Please do follow on Twitter and Instagram @digupyourancestors.