Archives and History News: beetles, beer and black heritage!

The dress that actress Ellen Terry wore to play Lady MacBeth at the Lyceum theatre in 1888, has been restored by the National Trust. The dress was covered in the wings of iridescent green beetles. It’s horribly fascinating and suitably gothic!  Here she is, her famous performance and dress immortalized in fine Pre-Raphaelite style by John Singer Sergant. You can see the original at Tate Britain.

Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth

25 years ago, an antiquarian bookseller from Adelaide bought some glass plate negatives at a suburban garage sale for a pittance. Now he’s realised these are images of an early expedition the Australian outback, and show some of the first ever pictures of the indigenous desert people of South Australia’s Far North and Western Australia’s inland, he’s selling them for $250,000.

A camel caravan at Cootanoorina

 Colman’s mustard celebrates its 200th anniversary! They’re celebrating with an online gallery of photographs, documents and vintage advertising images. Mmmm, fiery!! And to think, your ancestors might have been spreading the same condiment on their sausages at the time of the Napoleonic Wars!

The Mustard Club!

A world of mustard – yum!

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wondered what your ancestors drank, wonder no more! Guinness has created two new beers based recipes from its archives, the Dublin Porter and the West Indies Porter, dating back to 1796 and 1801! This makes me want to create some kind of mad historical mustard and Guinness Welsh rarebit. Yummy!

Archives and beer!

The Black Cultural Archives, documenting the history of black people in Britain, has moved into a new beautiful new centre and opened with much fanfare. A community-led organisation, formed by a tiny group of people in the wake of the 1981 riots, the centre works to educate people on black british history. The organisers have been campaigning and fundraising for decades to get this far, so big a congratulations to them.  Their current exhibition is Re-imagine: black women in Britiain.

The new Black Cultural Archives in Brixton

 In China, historical research is being hampered by officials. Archives have been imposing new restrictions on researchers, making it more and more difficult to conduct research. Foreign researchers face additional hurdles, copying is no longer permitted, and some official archives have been pretty much closed altogether. On the other hand, masses of documents relating to Japanese war crimes against the Chinese during the 1930s and 40s have just been released. The fact that the Chinese government is controlling and maipulating its archives so strongly clearly shows what an important political tool history actually is.

The papers of Japanese war criminals

On the other hand, the archival situation in Chile is improving. Remember the Breaking Bad sub-plot, where Gustavo claims the reason why his background is so mysterious is because Pinochet was a terrible record-keeper? That’s actually true!! …Archives are truly everywhere, even on tv shows about crystal meth. Anyway, Chilean human rights organisation called Londres 38 has been leading a campaign for ‘No More Secret Archives.’ The country has et to find out what happened to so many of the ‘disappeared’ from 40 years ago, but thanks to the campaign judges have been gradually opening some files. This shows that in many cases it’s possible to trace what happened to ‘disappeared’ people. Chile still has a long way to go, but it’s moving in the right direction, towards greater transparency about the past.

Even the mysterious Chilean Gustavo Fring has an opinion about archives!

Heroes of history: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale, like Thomas Wakley, is a great medical hero, but not someone I’d invite to a dinner party.

Florence Nightingale c1856

Nightingale was born into an upper-class family in 1820. Her father gave her a man’s education of science and maths and she rebelled against a woman’s role in life. But then she decided that god wanted her to be a nurse. Her family were horrified. At that time nurses were seen as dirty, drunken, ignorant women. But Nightingale managed to receive some training abroad and became superintendent at a medical institute on Harley Street.

When the Crimean war broke out, the British public were shocked by reports of the dreadful conditions endured by wounded soldiers. Politician Sidney Herbert sent Nightingale and a team of volunteer nurses to sort things out. The mission was vital to the war, the continuance of the British government, and Nightingale’s career.

Florence Nightingale receiving the wounded at Scutari by Jerry Barrett

The Crimean hospital was a death camp, with ten times as many soldiers dying from infectious diseases as from wounds. But Nightingale had a formidable capacity for leadership and a steely determination to get things done. She supplied enough towels, soap, cooking equipment and food for hundreds of men. Her nurses cleaned the filthy wards. Eventually a Sanitary Commission arrived from England to clean out the sewers and improve ventilation, and the death rate finally dropped.

This was a huge propaganda victory for the government, and Nightingale achieved overnight fame. The Times called her ‘the lady with the lamp’ after her night-time hospital rounds. The romantic myth of the lovely, dedicated, self-sacrificing nurse was born. Funding poured in, which Nightingale later used to set up a nursing school.


Nightingale in Scutari

For many people, that’s where the Nightingale legend ends. But in fact, her really important work didn’t start until she returned to England. She advised on hospital planning, management and design, healthcare and military field hospitals. She instigated a Royal Commission into the health of the army. She advised on the health of the British Army in India and sanitation reforms in British India as a whole. She wrote the classic textbook Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not and a further 200 books and pamphlets on nursing and sanitation. She pioneered the use of statistical graphics to convey complex medical information. Indeed, Nightingale became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. Honours were heaped on her. After a lifetime of hard work in her chosen field, Nightingale died in 1910, at the age of 90.

Notes on Nursing, by Florence Nightingale

But in 1918 Lytton Strachey published a scathing character assassination of Nightingale in Eminent Victorians and the sentimental Nightingale legend began to slip. In recent years she has been increasingly criticised. Historians have noted that Nightingale’s work in Scutari actually did little to reduce the death rate, and that Nightingale attributed the death rate to poor diet rather than to germs. It was a long time before she embraced the germ theory.

Something that doesn’t endear her to us now is that Nightingale, like many high-flying Victorian women, saw herself as an honorary man, and had little time for women’s rights in general. She was against the women’s suffrage movement and complained that her (upper-class) female relatives were over-feminised to the point of helplessness. Perhaps she had a point, when you consider that she achieved her successes despite being mostly bedridden with a mysterious illness. Many now think it was brucellosis – a parasitic disease causing chronic muscle pain. But some critics suggest it was a psychosomatic ailment, or that she faked illness in order to get her own way.

Florence Nightingale in later years

But why is there so much criticism of Nightingale? And why is some of that criticism so nasty? I think it mainly comes down to good old sexism. Nightingale never married or had children and was probably a lifelong virgin. She was more interested in statistics and politicking than in the hands-on business of caring for people. She gets stereotyped as an unpleasant spinster or a busybody. As a society, we obviously still feel profoundly uncomfortable with women who put work before family or love and aren’t very ‘nice’. It seems a great shame that in 2014 we still can’t celebrate a woman’s achievements without asking, ‘yes but more importantly, was she hot?’ or ‘was she nice?’

Archives and History News: First World War commemorations and child abuse cover-ups in the archives

Of all the First World War commemorations happening at the moment, this is the loveliest: a sea of 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for every British soldier killed in the conflict, pouring of of the Tower of London.

Commemorative art installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’

There’s also a giant column of light going on in London, but I don’t really approve of that. Sure, it’s all modern and groovy and interactive, but it’s too reminiscent of Albert Speer’s ‘Cathedral of Light’ at Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, and also makes me think uncomfortably of alien invasions or batman. I don’t think it’s a very appropriate way to commemorate war. Mind you, the official speeches have given us plenty of wittering about those who died for our freedom, which is a total joke – the whole tragedy of the First World War was that it was completely pointless, and pretending it was all about ‘freedom’ is just trying to minimise the horror.

‘Spectra’ – even the name sounds sci-fi

For people who want some education with their commemoration, The Imperial War Museum has also just re-opened it’s shiny new First World War galleries.

If all this war and killing isn’t making you gloomy enough at the moment, there have been some awful things going on in the archives. The recent operation Yewtree, prosecuting celebrity child abusers from the 1970s including Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris, has opened a whole can of worms about historic child abuse cases. The BBC delves into case files in the National Archives, showing how little concern those in charge had about abuse in care homes in the past. 

Nobody actually wears gloves to take a box off a shelf, but never mind…

More recently, during the 1980s, MP Geoffrey Dickens handed a file about a possible child abuse ring at Westminster to the Home Secretary Leon Brittan. Apparently it has since been ‘lost’ or destroyed. I think this shows how seriously the Home Office took their duty to protect the most vulnerable members of society from horrific crimes, versus how seriously they took covering their asses. In fact, 114 files relating to historic child abuse have been ‘lost’ or destroyed by the Home Office.  Meanwhile,in Jersey, an investigation into historic child abuse has been hampered because records were destroyed ‘to make space’.  

Yes, it IS rather difficult to illustrate this story…

It’s impossible to know whether this is a cover-up, spectacular mismanagement of the records, or just lack of transparency. The Guardian article says most of the missing files “appear to have contained correspondence from MPs either asking about government policy or on behalf of constituents [...] these would normally have been destroyed after two years under the file destruction policy of the time.” In other words, they were ephemeral correspondence files that were quite correctly destroyed in accordance with a sensible records retention schedule. But the fact that the’re not really sure, and that some historical allegations appear not to have been followed up, casts doubts. This shows how important it is to be scrupulously careful about record-keeping, especially on sensitive subjects. Blogger Lawrence Serewicz expresses this eloquently in a post about parallels between the Shaw report into historic child abuse in Scottish care homes and the Jimmy Saville case, saying: “Without archives, our collective memory will become captive to the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable.” Amen to that.

Happy one-year blogoversary to me!

Today marks one year since I started this blog!

Happy birthday to!

Thanks to everyone who’s been following my ‘rather peculiar blog’, in the words of one reader.

In case you missed them, here are my ‘greatest hits’ from the past year:

Mysteries of the Mind 1: Mesmer’s Miraculous Magnetism

Animal Magnetism

Mysteries of the Mind 2: Mesmerism Mania in Britain – hundreds of people have read these posts. I suppose that’s because mesmerism is really wierd and fascinating!

Heroes of History: Grace Darling – this post is read by about a hundred people a month – I suspect they’re all GCSE students doing their research. I hope they get a good mark!!!

Image from the RNLI museum

How to Get Admitted to a Victorian Lunatic Asylum – again it’s the darker side of history that people love, and this was my chance to set the record straight on all those myths about asylums.

V0029708 Photograph: portraits of three female


Archives and History News: Glastonbury Festival, women in the First World War, and sound recordings!

Glastonbury festival has gradually moved from from hippy counter-culture to mainstream middle-class staple. The V&A now keeps an archive about Glastonbury, the final nail in the counter-culture coffin. Glastonbury is dead. Long live Glastonbury!

An image from the V&A’s Glastonbury archive

Continue reading

Heroes of History: Thomas Wakley

Have you ever gone to hospital for an operation and wondered whether your surgeon had any kind of training? Ever wondered whether your baby’s food is poisonous? Ever wondered whether coroners actually know anything about the causes of the causes of death, or whether they just make something up? No?? Say thank you to Thomas Wakley – boxer, surgeon, editor, coroner, MP, and one of the nineteenth century’s greatest heroes!!  Continue reading

Archives and History News: Andy Warhol, Sinn Fein, Jeff Beck, Aboriginal photography, Mussolini and the LAPD!!

Digital art by Andy Warhol

The archives world is very concerned with digital obsolescence. This may seem like an obscure topic, but it’s one that’s increasingly going to affect our lives. In 1985 Andy Warhol created some digital artworks and saved them on Amiga disks. After a painstaking 3-year project, they’ve now been recovered from that obsolete data format. That’s not a problem you have to worry about with art on canvas. Continue reading

News: genealogy and gin

I have an article out in the June issue of Family Tree Magazine, all about eighteenth century hospital records, specifically maternity records, and how to use them in genealogy research. It’s a great issue, with features on Victorian fatherhood, tracing your police ancestors, the bawdy courts, asylum handicrafts, the First World War, and more!

Yes - I am drinking a gin cocktail from a shoe!

Yes – I am drinking a gin cocktail from a shoe!

Last Wednesday I went on an incredible Gin Journey with a company called Shake, Rattle and Stir. For the princely sum of £50 we were taken on a chauffeur-driven tour of five fabulous and hard to find London bars, tasted 5 samples of artisanal gin, and drank five incredible gin cocktails, while learning all about the history and production of this wonderfully English spirit. Much of that knowledge has mysteriously faded away from mind… but I can tell you that gin is simply vodka flavoured with juniper (and other botanicals), and that a mere ten gin and tonics will be enough to prevent you getting malaria!

The ultimate gin and tonic - exclusive to the Gin Journey!

The ultimate gin and tonic – exclusive to the Gin Journey!