Unfinished Business: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

According to the British Library in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, the first woman to receive a Cambridge University degree was the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1948. The degree was an honorary award presented to Queen Elizabeth, as she was then, to mark the equal academic status for men and women. Unlike the women, for example, the Edinburgh Seven, who campaigned for this right, it appears she did very little to merit the award except being the most important woman in England. Yet, looking at her history, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon played a significant role as the wife of a king, followed by the mother of a queen. When she married into the royal family, she did not anticipate becoming a queen, but the actions of others changed the direction of her future. 

Portrait by Richard Stone, 1986

Born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon on the 4th August 1900, Elizabeth was the ninth of ten children for Lord Glamis, Claude Bowes-Lyon (1855-1944) and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck (1862-1938). The family belonged to the British nobility and, through her mother, Elizabeth’s family tree connected with Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), a former prime minister and leading political figure.

Elizabeth spent most of her childhood at either St Paul’s Walden, a village in Hertfordshire, and Glamis Castle in Scotland. Until the age of eight, a governess took charge of her education, after which she attended a school in London. At 13, Elizabeth passed the Oxford Local Examination with distinction. The outbreak of World War One, which Britain declared on her 14th birthday, hindered further education.

Despite being nobility, Elizabeth and her family did not hide from the horrors of war. Several of her brothers enlisted to fight, resulting in the death of Fergus (1889-1915), the eldest, during the Battle of Loos. Another brother, Michael, went missing in 1917, later to be found in a prisoner of war camp. Back home, Glamis Castle became a convalescent home for the wounded, which Elizabeth helped run. The soldiers loved her care and attention with one saying she ought to be “Hung, drawn, & quartered … Hung in diamonds, drawn in a coach and four, and quartered in the best house in the land.”

George VI in the uniform of a field marshal

As a British peer, Elizabeth’s father had close relations with the Royal Family. The Bowes-Lyon family frequented events attended by the King and his family. During some such event, the Duke of York, Prince Albert “Bertie” (1895-1952), the second son of George V (1865-1936) fell in love with the young Elizabeth and proposed marriage in 1921. Afraid such a relationship would result in “never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to”, Elizabeth declined.

Bertie declared he would marry no other woman, which intrigued his mother, Queen Mary (1867-1953), who immediately visited Glamis Castle to see “the one girl who could make Bertie happy”. Mary approved of her son’s choice but did not deign to intervene since Elizabeth had found another man. For a brief time, Elizabeth courted James Stuart (1897-1971), the future Scottish politician, until he moved away for work.

In 1922, Albert’s sister, Princess Mary (1897-1965), asked Elizabeth to be one of her bridesmaids. The wedding prompted Albert to ask Elizabeth a second time if she would marry him. Again, Elizabeth said no. Undeterred, on 23rd January 1923, Albert drove to St Paul’s Warden, where Elizabeth was staying, to propose to Elizabeth for the third time. On this occasion, she said yes. They married at Westminster Abbey on 26th April 1923, where Elizabeth started the tradition of laying a bouquet on the grave of the unknown warrior. She did this in memory of her brother Fergus, whose body went missing after the Great War.

Portrait by Philip de László, 1925

Traditionally, princes were only allowed to marry princesses, but the royal family agreed the rule was outdated. Although Albert was not the heir to the throne, Elizabeth gained the titles “Her Royal Highness” and “Duchess of York” during the wedding ceremony. Following their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey in Surrey, Elizabeth and Albert visited Northern Ireland, before embarking on a tour of Africa in 1924. They toured the countries belonging to the British Empire but avoided Egypt following the assassination of the Governor-General.

In 1926, Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, also named Elizabeth. The family nicknamed the child Lilibet to differentiate her from her mother, who doted upon her. The following year, royal duties separated mother and child, which Elizabeth found “very miserable”. Prince Albert and Elizabeth needed to make a trip to Canberra, Australia to officially open Parliament House. The journey, which can now be completed by plane in 22 hours, took much longer by sea, stopping in Jamaica and Panama along the way. They also spent time in New Zealand before arriving at their destination for the opening ceremony on 9th May 1927.

Elizabeth in Queensland, 1927

After the ceremony, the royal couple spent time in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. During this time, they met many officials and members of the general public, many of whom they greeted with handshakes. On one day, Prince Albert met with over 2,000 Australian troops. After completing the successful trip, Elizabeth was glad to return home, albeit via Mauritius, Malta and Gibraltar. She loved to spend time with her daughter and on 21st August 1930, welcomed her second, Margaret Rose (1930-2002).

On 20th January 1936, George V passed away, making Albert’s eldest brother King Edward VIII (1894-1972). Since Edward had no wife or children, Albert became the next in line for the throne. Secretly, his father had prayed “that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” It is not sure why the previous king said this, but he soon got his wish.

Within months of his father’s death, Edward announced his plans to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson (1869-1986). As King, Edward had the right to choose who to marry, but Simpson had only recently divorced her first husband. The King of the United Kingdom was also the head of the Church of England, which banned divorcees from remarrying. Edward had a choice: abandon his marriage plans or abdicate in favour of Albert. He chose the latter.

Portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly.

Since birth, Edward had received an education suitable for the heir to the throne, but Albert had received no such training. With great reluctance, he took his place as King on 11th December 1936, using the regnal name of George VI. The coronation took place the following year on 12th May 1937, where George and Elizabeth were crowned King and Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions. They also took on the titles of Emperor and Empress of India.

Albert and Elizabeth never planned to be the rulers of the United Kingdom. They did not have long to get used to the idea before embracing the role. As Queen consort, people expected Elizabeth to attend state visits and royal tours with her husband, including a trip to France in 1938 and Canada in 1939. During the latter visit, they also met with President Roosevelt (1882-1945) of the USA whose wife described Elizabeth as “perfect as a Queen, gracious, informed, saying the right thing & kind but a little self-consciously regal”.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought an end to their travels, but the royals did not shy away from public life. Elizabeth sponsored fifty authors to produce The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross, which helped raise money for the Red Cross. Authors included T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), A. A. Milne (1882-1956), Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), and Georgette Heyer (1902-74). 

Parliament advised Elizabeth to move away from London and send her children to Canada, but she refused. “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” Instead, she visited the hospitals, bombsites and factories involved with the war. Initially, the crowds acted hostile towards the Queen because her expensive clothing alienated her from the suffering people. After Buckingham Palace suffered bomb damage during the Blitz, Elizabeth expressed that she felt “glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

Whilst Princess Elizabeth and Margaret did not evacuate to Canada, they moved to Windsor Castle on the west side of London. Although they avoided the direct hits Buckingham Palace received in the capital, the castle’s windows shattered during bomb raids. King George and Elizabeth joined their children every evening, but they spent their days working from Buckingham Palace. Allegedly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) considered Elizabeth “the most dangerous woman in Europe” due to her popularity and war work.

Southern Rhodesian stamp celebrating the 1947 royal tour of Southern Africa

After the war, royal life resumed for George and Elizabeth, beginning with a tour of South Africa in 1947. In 1948, the same year Elizabeth received an honorary Cambridge University degree, the couple planned to return to Australia and New Zealand, but the King became unwell. An operation helped improve the circulation in George’s right leg, but he remained unable to conduct the majority of his engagements. Elizabeth and her daughters attended many events on her husband’s behalf, but everyone hoped he would soon return to full health.

In 1951, George received a diagnosis of lung cancer. This put pressure on his wife and children who the public expected to fill his role whilst he underwent treatment. While he recuperated from a lung operation, his eldest daughter and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (b.1921), went on the royal tour of Australia and New Zealand in his place. The Prince and Princess set off in 1952, taking a detour through Africa. While they were in Kenya, Princess Elizabeth learned that her father had passed away in his sleep on 6th February 1952, making her Queen.

As a widow, Elizabeth gained the title Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, which many shortened to the “Queen Mother”. Devastated about the loss of her husband, Elizabeth retired to Scotland where she hid from the public. There she planned to stay, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), convinced her to return to London and resume her public duties. To combat her grief, Elizabeth threw herself into the role of Queen Mother. She focused on helping with the preparations for her daughter’s coronation on 2nd June 1953. Later that year, Elizabeth visited the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland with her youngest daughter, where she lay the foundation stone of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now the University of Zimbabwe). After this, she returned home to act as a Counsellor of State while the Queen toured the Commonwealth. Elizabeth also spent time looking after her grandchildren, Charles (b.1948) and Anne (b.1950).

Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis CBE

Elizabeth found she had just as many duties as Queen Mother than she did as Queen Consort, but she managed to find time to enjoy herself too. Elizabeth had an interest in horse racing and owned several racehorses. Between them, the horses won over 500 steeplechases. One of her most famous horses, Devon Loch, just lost out on first place at the 1956 Grand National with the jockey Dick Francis (1920-2010) when it collapsed before finishing the race. When Francis experienced another fall the next year, Elizabeth suggested that he retire.

After George VI passed away, Elizabeth and her daughter Margaret moved to Clarence House on The Mall in London. The house was designed by neoclassical architect John Nash (1752-1835) for William IV (1765-1837) and has remained a British royal residence ever since. Elizabeth frequently liked to go to Scotland in the summer, so purchased and oversaw the restoration of the Castle of Mey in Caithness. Officers used the castle as a rest home during the Second World War, but by the 1950s it had fallen into disrepair. Elizabeth paid for the restoration and decorated the rooms with paintings. As a keen art collector, Elizabeth purchased works by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Fabergé (1846-1920), and other artists from a similar era.

Royal tours continued to fill Elizabeth’s diary, but during the 1960s, many of these were postponed. In 1964, an emergency operation to remove her appendix delayed her trip to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji for two years. In 1966, she underwent more surgery after receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer. The operation was a success and Elizabeth continued her royal duties. In 1975, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-80) invited her to Iran, where she enjoyed speaking to everyone regardless of their social status, which bemused the Iranians. Between 1976 and 1984, Elizabeth made annual trips to France until another operation, this time for breast cancer, forced her to rest.

Elizabeth at Dover Castle

The public did not learn of the Queen Mother’s cancer scares until after her death, but they were aware of several fishbone incidents. In 1982, Elizabeth needed an emergency operation to remove a fishbone from her throat. She made a joke about it at the time, saying “the salmon have got their own back,” for she was a keen angler. The incident occurred again in 1986, although she avoided an operation, and once more in 1993.

On 4th August 1990, Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday. Much loved by the United Kingdom, they held a parade in her honour. Several organisations came together to put on the display, 300 of which she supported as a patron. Although she wished to remain active in the royal family, her ageing body made it hard to do as much as she did when younger. In 1995, Elizabeth needed a cataract operation and a hip replacement. Only her right hip was replaced on this occasion, but in 1998 she broke her left one during a fall.

In 2000, Elizabeth became one of the 0.02% to reach the age of 100. The country honoured her with another parade, far greater than the one for her 90th birthday. Rose petals dropped from the sky, 100 doves flew overhead, and the Red Arrows saluted her with red, white and blue smoke. Over 8000 people took part during the day, including Elizabeth’s favourite actor, Norman Wisdom (1915-2010).

“It’s been a wonderful evening, God bless you all and thank you.” Elizabeth showed her appreciation to the crowds at the end of the day with a short speech, but that was not the end of the centenary celebrations.

The Royal Bank of Scotland released commemorative £20 notes featuring Elizabeth’s image in honour of her 100th birthday. She was also guest of honour at a lunch held by the Guildhall, London. Jokes about Elizabeth enjoying her drink stem from this event. When George Carey (b.1935), the Archbishop of Canterbury picked up her wine glass instead of his own, Elizabeth shouted: “That’s mine!” Unfortunately, her centenary year ended with a broken collar bone after a fall in November.

Shortly before her 101st birthday, Elizabeth needed a blood transfusion for anaemia but insisted on greeting the crowds of well-wishers in person. She continued to partake in public engagements, including Remembrance Day and a reception at the Guildhall. Once again, she spent the winter recuperating from a fall, in which she broke her pelvis.

On 9th February 2002, Elizabeth’s youngest daughter Margaret suffered a fatal stroke. A few days later, the Queen Mother accidentally cut her arm while staying at Sandringham in Norfolk, which needed medical attention. Professionals advised her to stay home and rest, but she insisted on attending her daughter’s funeral. Elizabeth made the journey to London by helicopter and then in a car with blacked-out windows so that no one could see her in her frail state.

Elizabeth’s health deteriorated rapidly after Margaret’s death, so she retreated to the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park. She passed away in her sleep on 30th March 2002 with her surviving daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, by her side. The funeral took place on 9th April, and one million people filled the 23-mile route from Westminster to Windsor to watch the procession of the coffin, adorned with camellias from Elizabeth’s garden. As she had requested, the funeral wreath was laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, echoing the tradition she began on her wedding day. After the funeral, Elizabeth joined her husband and Margaret in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Mourning for the Queen Mother took place all over the world. She had made a big impression in all the countries she visited, particularly Canada and Australia, where memorial services were conducted. Elizabeth’s life may have vastly differed from the other women mentioned in the Unfinished Business exhibition, but her life was by no means easy. She never wanted to be part of the royal family, and she never expected to become Queen consort. Yet, these things happened, and she became the nation’s most popular member of the royal family. People loved Elizabeth for her charm and ability to stabilise the popularity of the monarchy, which had been shaky for centuries.

Elizabeth was like “a wave breaking on a rock, because although she is sweet and pretty and charming, she also has a basic streak of toughness and tenacity. … when a wave breaks on a rock, it showers and sparkles with a brilliant play of foam and droplets in the sun, yet beneath is really hard, tough rock, fused, in her case, from strong principles, physical courage and a sense of duty.”

Sir Hugh Casson

When Elizabeth married Albert, she expected she would “never, never again be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to.” In this, she was correct, but her biographers note she often expressed her views in private. Elizabeth “abhorred racial discrimination” and employed homosexuals to spite conservative ministers in the 1970s who advised her against it.

Bronze statue of Elizabeth on The Mall, London, overlooked by the statue of her husband King George VI

Despite her sweet nature, Elizabeth gained a reputation for her love of alcohol. Journalists estimated she drank 70 units per week and Elizabeth became the butt of jokes, although in a kind way. In satirical television shows, actresses often portrayed the Queen Mother as a perpetually tipsy character. Many well-known stars have played the part of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on screen, most notably Helena Bonham-Carter (b.1966) in The King’s Speech (2010).

In 2009, a bronze statue of Elizabeth by Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson (b.1944) joined her husband’s memorial on The Mall. There is also a bas-relief of the couple in Toronto, Canada, at the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) highway.

Many may envy the life of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who lived in relative comfort for over 100 years. Wealth and happiness often appear to go hand in hand, but a royal life is not always what it seems from the outside. Elizabeth had health problems that resulted in several operations, which is no different from many people in the United Kingdom. Whilst she had money, servants and luxuries, Elizabeth lived her life under public scrutiny. By marrying a prince, she needed to be mindful of the things she said. When Albert unexpectedly became King, Elizabeth’s duties doubled in number. Elizabeth had to think about how she looked at all times, adopting suitable facial expressions and demeanours every moment of the day.

Living for 100 years meant Elizabeth endured an untold amount of grief. She outlived both her husband and her youngest daughter. She experienced the loss of her nine siblings, some in war and some in old age, plus her parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and her husband’s family. At her death, only her sister-in-law, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (1901-2004) remained, who passed away age 102 a couple of years later.

As Queen Consort and Queen Mother, Elizabeth assisted and supported many organisations. As a patron, she provided funds to help them grow into or remain the successful companies they are today. Organisations include the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, the Marie Curie Memorial Foundation, the Scottish National Institution for the War Blinded and the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Thus it hath pleased Almighty God to take out of this transitory life unto His Divine Mercy the late Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Princess Elizabeth, Queen Dowager and Queen Mother, Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Lady of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Lady of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, Grand Master and Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order upon whom had been conferred the Royal Victorian Chain, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, Relict of His Majesty King George the Sixth and Mother of Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth The Second by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, whom may God preserve and bless with long life, health and honour and all worldly happiness.

The Styles and Titles of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as read at her funeral on Tuesday 9th April 2002, Westminster Abbey

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft
Sylvia Pankhurst


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Unfinished Business: Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst received two mentions at the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library, but not for her role with the Suffragette movement, as one might expect. Whilst the curators referenced her involvement with the Votes for Women campaign, their focus revealed the scandal caused by her “illegitimate” child with an Italian man who she lived with but never married. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), despite being a campaigner for women’s rights, disowned her daughter. The exhibition also displayed a painting by Sylvia Pankhurst, inspired by the harsh conditions of women’s workplaces in the early 20th century.

Born in Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May 1882, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was the second of three daughters for Richard (1835-98) and Emmeline Pankhurst, future founders of the Independent Labour Party. Estelle, who preferred her middle name Sylvia, attended Manchester High School for Girls with her sisters Christabel (1880-1958) and Adela (1885-1961). The sisters shared a passion for fine art, and all three became suffragettes, along with their mother. Sylvia, who attended the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906 after winning a scholarship, noted the lack of opportunities for women in the art sector. Determined to do something about this, Sylvia and her friends established the East London Confederation of Suffragettes, which later amalgamated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Aiming to be a “painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment”, Sylvia produced many of the banners, leaflets and posters for the WSPU, who she began working for full time in 1906. One of her most famous designs for the union is the “angel of freedom” motif that appeared on badges, jewellery, chinaware and printed materials. The trumpeting angel usually appeared on a green, purple and white background. These were the identifying colours of the WSPU introduced by the Bristol-born suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) in 1908.

WSPU Membership Card

Another example of Sylvia’s work for the union is the WSPU Member’s Card. Sylvia drew an illustration of a group of women holding a banner that said “Votes, Votes, Votes!” The date of production is uncertain, but due to the lack of WSPU colours, Sylvia likely designed the card early on in her WSPU career. Below the drawing is written the union’s purpose: “Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty…” All women were issued a membership card on signing up with the WSPU. They were also required to sign another card to pledge not to support any political candidate until women could vote.

Cradley Heath Chainmaker, 1907

In 1907, Sylvia toured the industrial towns in England and Scotland. She discovered the female workers were underpaid and unfairly treated in comparison to their male colleagues. Chainmakers, for example, received a pittance and many worked from home because they also needed to look after their children. In some instance, the children worked alongside their mothers for long hours. Sylvia painted portraits of many of these women, including a chain maker at a shop in Cradley Heath. The artwork reveals the poor working conditions the women faced every day, emphasised by the bucket of boiling water precariously balanced on a pile of bricks.

After her tour, Sylvia settled in Leicester where she met Alice Hawkins (1863-1946), a suffragette whose statue now stands in Leicester Market Square. Soon, she befriended another suffragette, Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973), “a merry militant saint” with whom Sylvia established a WSPU presence in the city. Unlike her mother and sisters, Sylvia preferred to concentrate on local campaigns rather than national. For this reason, on her return to London, she set up the East London Federation of the WSPU, assisted by fellow campaigner Amy Bull (1877-1953).

Sylvia regularly wrote articles for the official WSPU newspaper Votes for Women. Founded in 1907 by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), the newspaper updated members and supporters of the WSPU on their latest successes and plans. Many suffragettes sold the monthly paper on the street to passers-by for 3d until it became a weekly paper, after which the price dropped to 1d. 

As well as writing for the newspaper, Sylvia documented the history of the WSPU from 1905 until 1910, which she published under the title The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement. The book, which is still in print, gives a just and accurate account of the WSPU’s progress, at least from Sylvia’s point of view, and lets the reader see behind the scenes to discover what animated the protestors. First published in 1911, the book does not contain the outcome of the suffragette’s campaign, yet Sylvia aimed to fuel the reader’s passion for their cause. 

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910

In 1913, Sylvia spoke at the Albert Hall about the working conditions for workers in Dublin. In so doing, she involved herself with the Labour Party, which went against the rules of the WSPU. The union identified as independent, and its members were forbidden from having political affiliations, at least publically. Worried that Sylvia’s alliance with the Labour Party would damage the WSPU’s reputation, Emmeline and Christabel removed Sylvia from its membership.

Undeterred by her family’s rejection, Sylvia continued to campaign for Votes for Women. At the age of 24, the police arrested Sylvia for her militant approaches. Over the next few years, Sylvia found herself in prison on fourteen more occasions. Between February 1913 and July 1914, Sylvia went on hunger strike during her imprisonments and described the painful force-feeding she endured in magazine articles. Despite not being a member of the WSPU, she received the union’s Hunger Strike Medal for “valour”.

During 1914, Sylvia grew concerned about the WSPU’s campaign, which focused solely on women’s rights. She wished to tackle wider issues than women’s suffrage and aligned with the Labour Party. Labour politician Keir Hardie (1856-1915) supported Sylvia’s passions for women’s rights, amongst other things, and the pair developed a close relationship.

Despite her disapproval of the WSPU, Sylvia continued to work with the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which later changed its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation when it broadened its politics. At the suggestion of the American suffragette Zelie Emerson (1883-1969), Sylvia founded the Women’s Dreadnought newspaper (later the Worker’s Dreadnought). The first copies appeared in March 1914 on the same day Sylvia spoke at a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square. As well as women and workers’ rights, the paper campaigned against the impending war.

When the war began, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst enthusiastically campaigned in favour of military conscription. This horrified Sylvia, a staunch pacifist, who expressed her views in articles for the WSPU newspaper, now named Britannia. Although the government encouraged women to take on the work left behind by the male soldiers, many women lost their previous jobs due to the war. Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes established a toy factory and offered work to these women. They also demanded allowances for women whose husbands were away at war. In 1915, Sylvia attended and spoke at the International Women’s Peace Congress, held at The Hague, but this lost her many followers who believed they should support the war effort.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sylvia moved in with an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio (1875-1954). They lived in Woodford Green in North East London, commemorated by a blue plaque opposite Woodford station. Sylvia and Corio shared left-wing political ideas; in 1920, Sylvia’s organisation, now named the Workers’ Socialist Federation, hosted the first meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). With women’s rights still in mind, Sylvia encouraged her followers to adopt Communism, saying “In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up.”

In 1927, Sylvia gave birth to a son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst (1927-2017). Her mother, Emmeline, held the opinion that children should not be born out of wedlock. Sylvia, on the other hand, objected to marriage and taking a husband’s surname. When Emmeline asked for the name of Richard’s father, Sylvia responded: “an old dear friend whom I have loved for years.” She declined to give her mother Silvio Corio’s name, and Emmeline refused to speak to her daughter for the rest of her life.

Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policies in India, 1932

By 1930, Sylvia lost interest in communist politics but continued to hold anti-fascist views. She also held anti-colonialism opinions, speaking against British policies in India at a protest in Trafalgar Square in 1932. The same year, she helped establish the Socialist Workers’ National Health Council. The organisation, which had connections with the Labour Party, campaigned for a National Health Service. Since the creation of the NHS, the organisation, now known as the Socialist Health Association, continues to support the health service in politics. As of 2020, the GP Brian Fisher is the chair.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37), Sylvia responded by publicly supporting Haile Selassie (1892-1975), the Emperor of Ethiopia. She wrote articles about the invasion in newspapers and raised funds for projects, such as the first Ethiopian teaching hospital. She took a great interest in Ethiopian life and collected information about their art and culture. Eventually, she published her findings in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History in 1955.

After the liberation in 1937, Sylvia continued supporting Ethiopia and encouraged their union with the former Italian Somalia. MI5 monitored Sylvia’s correspondence closely, fearing her leftist ideals would pose problems for the British government. In a letter written in 1948, the secret service discussed tactics for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”, particularly after learning Selassie considered her a friend and adviser. Nothing much came of MI5’s investigations, and in 1956, Selassie invited Sylvia and her son to move to the capital city Addis Ababa.

Sylvia set up the Ethiopia Observer, a monthly journal documenting the cultural developments in the country. Her son Richard began working at the University College of Addis Ababa and later founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. In 1957, Richard married Rita Eldon and had two children, Alula (1962) and Helen (1964). Sadly, Sylvia passed away before she could meet her grandchildren.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s grave

After she died in 1960 aged 78, Sylvia Pankhurst received a state funeral, becoming the only foreigner buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. In a speech, Selassie called her “an honorary Ethiopian”, and provided a burial plot in a section reserved for patriots.

Sylvia Pankhurst was not as famous as her mother and older sister but her name is listed on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Whilst Sylvia did help to improve lives for women, the British Library focused on the reaction caused by her decision not to marry the father of her child. At the time, people looked down on women in Sylvia’s position, yet she did not let this deter her. Sylvia continued to campaign and behave as she did before the birth of her son, albeit estranged from her family.

Richard continued his mother’s work by editing the Ethiopia Observer, and in 1962, founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. From 1976 to 1986, Richard lived in England, where he researched at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2004, he received an OBE for his services to Ethiopian studies and earned the honorary title “Dejazmach Benkirew” by the Union of Tigraians of North America. Sylvia’s grandson Alula is an Ethiopian scholar with a PhD in Social Anthropology from Manchester University. Her grand-daughter Helen is a women’s rights activist and earned a CBE in 2019 for services to gender equality. 

Sylvia Pankhurst lives on through her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who share her passion for an equal world. She also lives on through the musical Sylvia, written in honour of the centenary of Representation of the People Act 1918 and the end of the First World War.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur

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Unfinished Business: Mary Macarthur

The British Library briefly mentioned Mary Reid Anderson (née Macarthur) in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, which celebrated the milestones overcome by women in their fight for equality. Early trade unions excluded women workers from their members. Unhappy about this, Mary Macarthur established the National Federation of Women Workers, which improved the working lives of many women. She also founded the union’s newspaper The Woman Worker, which gained 20,000 subscribers.

Mary Macarthur

Mary Macarthur, born on 13th August 1880, grew up in Glasgow as the eldest of six children to John Duncan Macarthur and Anne Elizabeth Martin. Her father owned a drapery business and afforded to send his daughter to Glasgow Girls’ High School. During her school years, Macarthur developed a passion for journalism while working as an editor on the school magazine. She decided then that she wanted to become a full-time writer and, after finishing at the high school, continued her studies abroad in Germany. On her return home, Macarthur briefly worked for her father as a bookkeeper, but this was not the position she desired in life.

In 1903, Macarthur moved to London to take up the position of secretary for the Women’s Trade Union League. Established by Emma Paterson (1848-86) in 1874, the league initially aimed to protect wages and conditions of workers, provide benefits for sick and unemployed workers and help settle disputes between workers and employers. When Macarthur became secretary, the league’s new aims included improving the rights of female workers and persuading all-male trade unions to admit women. Whilst the Women’s Trade Union League united women from different trades, their affiliations with activists with different aims hindered their goals.

The badge of the NFWW.

Some activists focused on particular classes rather than women as a whole. Macarthur worried the upper classes would receive preferential treatment, causing the working classes to suffer. In 1906, Macarthur established the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) as a trade union for all women. Whereas the Women’s Trade Union League campaigned to allow women into mixed-gender trade unions, the NFWW was a women-only trade union. By the end of the year, 2,000 women signed up to the NFWW across seventeen branches.

As the founder of the NFWW and as a suffragette, Macarthur helped oversee the founding of the National Anti-Sweating League. This league, run by British politician George Shann (1876-1919), aimed to end the suffering workers faced in “sweatshops” and demanded a minimum wage.

An issue of The Women Worker from 1907

In 1907, fuelled by her passion for writing, Macarthur founded The Woman Worker, a monthly newspaper for the NFWW. In the first issue, Macarthur stated the paper’s aim “To teach the need for unity, to help improve working conditions, to present a monthly picture of the many activities of women Trade Unionists, to discuss all questions affecting the interests and welfare of women. Such, in brief, is our aim and purpose.” Due to popular demand, The Woman Worker developed into a weekly paper for over 20,000 readers.

Although The Woman Worker primarily focused on women’s needs, Macarthur also tackled much broader topics, including the conditions of sweatshops, which affected both men and women. As a journalist, Macarthur visited the poverty-stricken areas of London, speaking to the people who worked for long hours in inadequate settings for minimal money. In 1908, Macarthur presented her findings to the House of Commons. 

Macarthur’s findings alone were insufficient in her strive to end the harsh working conditions but combined with other people’s research, the reports began to make a difference. Encouraged by the National Anti-Sweating League, sweatshop workers went on strike, demanding fairer pay. A photograph taken in 1908 shows Macarthur addressing a crowd of striking men and women in Trafalgar Square. Forty-four women from Corruganza Box Making Works initiated the strike in protest of unfair pay-cuts. Many of the male workers joined their cause, and others donated money to the company to pay their employees an appropriate salary.

In 1909, the British government passed the Trade Boards Act, which allowed boards to establish a minimum wage for particular trades, most notably chain-making, ready-made tailoring, paper-box making, and the machine-made lace trade. Unfortunately, not all companies willingly agreed to the new wages, for instance, a chain-making enterprise in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands.

Macarthur addressing the crowds during the chain-makers’ strike, Cradley Heath 1910

With the help of the NFWW, 800 female chain-makers organised a ten-week strike in retaliation to their employer’s refusal to increase their wages. The Trade Boards Act stipulated the women should receive a minimum of 11s (55p) per week, but they continued to receive far less. From mid-August until 22nd October 1910, the strikers protested on the streets where they gained many supporters. In cinemas across the country, people watched newsreels about the progress of the strike, and the NFWW collected £4,000 (approximately £450,000 today) in donations from several local communities. Eventually, their employer agreed to increase their wages, and the donations collected during the strike helped to fund the Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute.

With two successful strikes under her belt, Macarthur’s fame spread across the country. When troubles occurred in food and drink factories in Bermondsey, Macarthur received a request for assistance. The summer of August 1911 was one of the hottest summers on record, which made working long hours in poor conditions almost impossible. Whilst the Trade Boards Act improved wages for some women, this did not include women in food factories who continued to receive as little as 3 shillings a week. A total of 14,000 women went on strike from 22 factories and marched on London in protest. Macarthur addressed the crowds in Southwark Park, supported by suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) amongst others. After weeks of determination, the factory women received a significant pay rise.

During 1911, Macarthur married British socialist politician William Anderson (1877-1919), with whom she later had a daughter, Anne Elizabeth “Nancy”. During the First World War, Anderson sat as the chairman of the executive committee of the Labour party. He fully supported his wife’s determination to improve working conditions for women. When war broke out in 1914, many men left their day jobs to enlist as soldiers. The government encouraged women to fill the men’s positions or work in munitions factories. Over a million women enrolled in these positions, but many found the working conditions inadequate, the hours long and the pay unsatisfactory.

Once again, the NFWW campaigned to improve the working conditions for women. One of the first establishments they targeted was the Ainsworth Mill in Cleator Moor, Cumbria where women produced khaki thread for soldier’s uniforms. For 60 hours of work, the women received a pitiable seven to nine shillings. Supported by the NFWW, 250 women organised a strike, and Macarthur’s husband implored the House of Commons to investigate the low payment rates. After six weeks of campaigning, the women received a 10% War Bonus.

When investigating the munitions factories, the NFWW found men received seven pence an hour, whereas women only earned three and a half. The organisation successfully campaigned for an end to the unequal payment, but one Newcastle factory refused to comply. During 1916, the NFWW encouraged the underpaid women to stage a sit-in, where they knitted socks for the soldiers rather than operating the machinery in the factory. This action angered parliament, and Macarthur received a phone call directly from Winston Churchill (1874-1965) asking her to explain her actions. Twenty-four hours later, the women returned to work and received a back payment of their missing wages. 

As the war continued, many more women went on strike across the country, demanding equal pay or improved working conditions. Each time, they received the support of the NFWW and became a talking point in parliament. With recent Suffragette militancy fresh in their minds, politicians discussed the rights of women in general, which likely contributed towards the decision to grant women over 30 the right to vote in 1918.

After the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 and Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, women were allowed to stand for parliament. Macarthur decided to stand as the Labour Party candidate for the Stourbridge constituency in Worcestershire. She worked closely with John Davison (1870-1927), the Labour candidate in Smethwick, who defeated his only opponent, Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958). Unfortunately, Macarthur did not win due to her opposition to the war. Her husband, who held similar sentiments, also lost his seat.

1st International Congress of Working Women

In 1919, Macarthur’s husband passed away after suffering a short bout of influenza. Despite this sad loss, Macarthur represented the NFWW at The International Congress of Working Women (ICWW) later that year. Women from Great Britain, the USA, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland attended the international women’s congress to discuss working conditions for women. Topics included an 8-hour day, equal pay and maternity leave. By the end of the conference, they had established the Maternity Protection Convention, which adopted proposals concerning “women’s employment, before and after childbirth, including the question of maternity benefit”.

After many successful years of representing women, the NFWW merged with the National Union of General Workers (NUGW) in 1920 to form a union for both male and female workers. Under the motto “You Cannot Afford To Stand Alone”, the NUGW continued to support workers in low paid jobs and ensured they received pay increases to match the rate of inflation. In 1924, the NUGW merged with the National Amalgamated Union of Labour and the Municipal Employees Association to form the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, now known as GMB.

Statue of Mary Macarthur, Mary Macarthur Gardens, Cradley Heath

Macarthur continued to support women through the NUGW, making significant changes in many places of employment. She worked right up until her death from cancer on 1st January 1921, age 40. Although many people in the 21st century are unfamiliar with her name and work, the areas where she made the most impact continue to remember Mary Macarthur. In Cradley Heath, for instance, a statue of Macarthur stands in the Mary Macarthur Gardens, and a nearby road is named Mary Macarthur Drive in her honour.

In memory of her work, the Mary Macarthur Scholarship Fund (1922-2011) and Mary Macarthur Educational Trust (1968-2011) aimed “to advance the educational opportunities of working women”. In Cardiff, the Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust continues to provide “help for women who need a break”. The trust assists women who due to age, poverty, infirmity, disablement or social or economic circumstances require a break from everyday life. There are also three blocks of social houses/flats named after Mary Macarthur in London at Hammersmith, Bethnal Green and Dagenham.

In 2017, English Heritage unveiled a blue plaque at 42 Woodstock Road, Golders Green, where Macarthur once lived and died. Since 2018, Mary Macarthur’s name and portrait have, along with 54 other women and four men, decorated the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square.

Lack of general knowledge about Mary Macarthur highlights how little the country knows about the women that made a difference in society. Without pioneering women such as Macarthur, life would be very different today. Thanks to Macarthur, women receive (almost) equal treatment to men at work and have the right to be represented by trade unions. If Macarthur could witness the life of a British woman today, almost a century after her death, she would no doubt be proud of her achievements.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Unfinished Business: The Edinburgh Seven

At the British Library‘s exhibition Unfinished Business, the Edinburgh Seven featured as examples of women campaigning for the right to higher education. Whilst girls were welcome in schools during the 19th-century, universities did not permit women to enrol. The seven women, known as the Edinburgh Seven, began to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 against the ruling of the Court of Session, but they were not allowed to graduate. 

Taking their name from the Greek mythological story the Seven Against Thebes, the Edinburgh Seven or Septem contra Edinam involved many women over their four-year campaign. The seven leaders were: Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell. Jex-Blake instigated the campaign after applying to study medicine in March 1869. Whilst the Medical Faculty was in favour of welcoming Jex-Blake, the University Court rejected the application stating they could not change the rules “in the interest of one lady”. 

Jex-Blake’s application for matriculation

Determined to study at the university, Jex-Blake published letters in national newspapers asking women to join her. Two women, Thorne and Pechey, quickly joined her cause and by the summer, the number of women totalled five. Jex-Blake resubmitted her application along with the other women in the hopes that this time the university would grant her entry. While waiting for a response, two more women joined the cause, taking the total to seven. The University Court accepted the application so long as the women could pass the matriculation exam.

The matriculation exam involved English, Latin, mathematics and two subjects of the candidate’s choice: Greek, French, German, higher mathematics, natural philosophy, logic and moral philosophy. On 19th October 1869, 152 students took the exam, Jex-Blake and her friends being the only women. All of them passed with four women earning a place in the top seven. On 2nd November 1869, the University of Edinburgh opened its doors to women for the first time.

“It is a grand thing to enter the very first British University ever opened to women, isn’t it?”

Sophia Jex-Blake

Who were the Edinburgh Seven?

Sophia Jex-Blake by Samuel Laurence, 1865

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (1840-1912), the leader of the Edinburgh Seven grew up in Hastings where she received an education at home until the age of eight. After this, she attended many private schools including Queen’s College, London, which she started attending in 1858 without her parents’ permission. The following year, the college offered Jex-Blake a post as a mathematics tutor, which she accepted although did without pay.

In 1861, Jex-Blake travelled to the United States, where she met Dr Lucy Ellen Sewall, an American physician who inspired Jex-Blake to think about becoming a doctor. After working for some time as Sewall’s assistant, Jex-Blake wrote to the President and Fellows of Harvard University asking to attend the University’s Medical School. After waiting a month, she received a reply saying, “There is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university”.

Jex-Blake’s father passed away shortly after this rejection, so she returned to England to support her mother. Yet, she still aspired to attend university and set her sights on Scotland, a country that already had shifting attitudes towards education.

Isabel Jane Thorne (Mrs Thorne)

Isabel Jane Thorne (1834-1910), nee Pryer, also attended Queen’s College, London. In 1856, Isabel married Joseph Thorne (1823-85), a tea merchant in China, and they spent the first years of their married life in Shanghai. The couple had five children, one of whom died in infancy, which inspired Thorne to help other women and children in China. Thorn believed women needed female doctors, so when she returned to England in 1868, she enrolled on a midwifery course at the Ladies’ Medical College in Fitzroy Square, London.

Disappointed with the inadequate teaching at the Ladies’ Medical College, Thorne eagerly responded to Jex-Blake’s letter. She won first prize in an anatomy examination but gave up her ambition to become a doctor to help other women access medical education. Her daughter May, who supported her mother’s dreams, later became a surgeon.

Edith Pechey

(Mary) Edith Pechey (1845-1908) from Essex already had connections with the University of Edinburgh through her father William, a Baptist minister who earned his MA in theology in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, Pechey could not use this to her advantage because she was a woman. Pechey worked as a governess until she saw and responded to Jex-Blake’s advertisement. Although concerned she did not have enough knowledge of the subjects needed to pass the matriculation exam, Pechey achieved the top grade in the chemistry exam after only one year of study.

Matilda Chaplin (1846-83) moved to Kensington from France shortly after her birth. Her early education focused on art, but in 1867 she decided to study medicine instead. Two years at the Ladies’ Medical College only got her so far, until her gender blocked her ambitions to become a doctor. Chaplin jumped at the chance to join Jex-Blake’s campaign to study at the University of Edinburgh.

Matriculation Record

Helen de Lacey Evans (1833-1903), born Helen Carter, was an Irish woman who spent some time in India where she married cavalry officer Henry John Delacy Evans of the Bengal Horse Artillery Regiment in 1845. Their marriage was short and bittersweet, resulting in the death of their infant daughter Helen shortly followed by Henry’s death. After returning to Britain, Evans responded to Jex-Blake and joined the Edinburgh Seven.

Mary Adamson Anderson (1837-1910) from Boyndie, Scotland was the daughter of Reverend Alexander Govie Anderson and sister-in-law of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917). Little information exists about Anderson until she joined the Edinburgh Seven.

Signature of Emily Bovell

Emily Bovell (1841-85), like Jex-Blake, attended Queen’s College, London and stayed on to teach Mathematics. She too responded to Jex-Blake’s letter, eager to continue her education.

Enrolling at the University of Edinburgh was only the first hurdle. In hindsight, it was relatively easy in comparison to what they later faced. The Edinburgh University Calendar for 1870 introduced a new section called the Regulations for the Education of Women in Medicine in the University. This stated men and women were to receive equal tuition and examinations. Despite this, women received their lessons separately from men and had to pay higher fees.

Thomas Charles Hope

In March 1870, all seven women passed their first exams in physiology and chemistry, four of whom received honours in both subjects. Edith Pechey won first place amongst all the candidates, which entitled her to the Hope Scholarship. This award, initiated by Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) chemistry professor Thomas Charles Hope (1766-1844) forty years previously, was usually given to the top four students. The present Professor of Chemistry, Dr Crum-Brown, on the other hand, thought giving the scholarship to women would undermine the male students.

Denying women the Hope Scholarship sparked further hostilities in the university. Many professors continued to argue that women should not be allowed to study with the men and expressed concerns that they may have ulterior motives for seeking medical careers. Pechey wrote to the papers to express her anger at being called “the foulest epithets”, most notably “whore”. Newspapers sympathetic to the women questioned why the professors did not have the same concerns about their male students, yet the professors maintained the women should “Become Midwives, not doctors!”

The male students, perhaps encouraged by their professors’ views, went out of their way to make the women’s lives difficult. As well as name-calling, the women received threatening letters and faced attacks in the streets. Vandals damaged their property and, on one occasion, Jex-Blake had a lit Catherine Wheel attached to her door.

Surgeons’ Hall

Despite the ongoing antagonism, the women persevered with their education. On 18th November 1870, their anatomy exam was due to take place at Surgeons’ Hall, but on their arrival, they faced a hostile crowd. After fighting their way through the masses while being pelted with mud and rubbish, they found the entrance to the hall locked. After enduring the hostilities, now known as the Surgeons’ Hall Riots, for several minutes, a sympathetic male student unlocked the doors.

After the riots, many of the male students changed their attitudes towards the women. Shocked by the abuse they witnessed, some of the men volunteered to act as bodyguards. They walked the women to and from their exams and their classes. The police fined three of the riot instigators £1 for “breach of the peace”, but Jex-Blake believed it was a member of staff who encouraged their behaviour.

Inspired by the Edinburgh Seven, other women joined the university and others established a General Committee for Securing a Complete Medical Education for Women. Over 300 people joined the committee, both women and men, including the well-known naturalist Charles Darwin. Despite this support and the excellent exam results the women received, the university refused to let them graduate. Not only did the university deny the women degrees, but they also ruled that women should no longer be allowed to attend.

School of Medicine for Women

Despite complaints, the university refused to back down, yet the Edinburgh Seven were not ready to give up on their dreams. In 1874, Sophia Jex-Blake helped to establish the London School of Medicine for Women with two other pioneering women: Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Bristol-born Blackwell relocated to the United States as a child and experienced similar issues as the Edinburgh Seven when applying to American universities. She eventually found a place at Geneva Medical College in New York where, despite harsh treatment, she received a degree in 1849, the first American woman to do so.

Garrett Anderson, inspired by Blackwell, sought a medical education in Britain but received rejections from every establishment. After working for some time as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital, she travelled to France, where she successfully earned a medical degree. Returning to England, Garrett Anderson eagerly agreed to help Jex-Blake establish the School of Medicine for Women and served as Dean from 1883 until 1903.

Shortly after the establishment of the school, Conservative MP Robert Gurney (1804-78) proposed changes to the Medical Act, which would allow both genders to attend and graduate from medical schools. Despite Queen Victoria‘s (1819-1901) objections to women working, she passed the new Medical Act in 1876. The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland was the first establishment to implement these changes, but this was too late for Jex-Blake who by then was a student at the University of Bern in Switzerland. She successfully graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1877.

On returning to Scotland, Jex-Blake set up a clinic where she practised as Edinburgh’s first female doctor. In 1878, Jex-Blake established an outpatient clinic for poor women who could not afford the prices of most doctors. By 1885, it had expanded to include a small ward under the name the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women, Scotland’s first hospital for women staffed by women.

In 1886, Jex-Blake set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, but it did not prove as successful as the London school. Despite having the support of a handful of physicians, the school struggled to find funding. Unlike the London school, which had several teachers, Jex-Blake attempted to teach her students alone. Evidence suggests she was not as good at teaching as she was at being a doctor and the school closed in 1892. By this time, the University of Edinburgh allowed female applicants and Jex-Blake’s students continued their education at the university.

Jex-Blake continued to work as a doctor until 1899, when she retired to Windydene in Mark Cross, Rotherfield. Here she resided with Dr Margaret Todd (1859-1918), a doctor who coined the word “isotope” in 1913. Many assume Jex-Blake and Todd had a romantic relationship and, after Jex-Blake’s death in 1912 Todd wrote The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake

What happened to the other six women?

When the University of Edinburgh denied the women their degrees, Isabel Thorne gave up her ambition to become a doctor. Instead, she joined the London School of Medicine for Women as a teacher. When Jex-Blake travelled to Berne to pursue her medical education, Thorne took over as Honorary Secretary, which she held until 1908. Thorne committed herself to teaching and helping the school run smoothly, without which it would have floundered.

Thorne kept an account of her years at the school, which she published as Sketch of the Foundation and Development of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1905. Her daughter May followed in her footsteps, graduating from the school in 1895 and taking over as Honorary Secretary in 1908. Thorne passed away at home in October 1910, age 76.

Edith Pechey refused to give up on her ambition to become a doctor. After leaving Edinburgh, Pechey contacted the College of Physicians in Ireland who allowed her to take exams to earn a midwifery license. This led to a job at the Birmingham and Midland Hospital for Women, where she worked until 1877 when she, like Jex-Blake, travelled to Berne to earn her degree. In May 1877, Pechey became a fully licensed doctor.

For six years, Pechey worked as a doctor in Leeds, where she also advocated for women’s health education. When the London School of Medicine for Women opened, Jex-Blake invited Pechey to give the inaugural address. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson suggested Pechey may be interested in a new “medical women for India” fund and, in 1883, Pechey arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) to work at the Cama Hospital for Women and Children as Senior Medical Officer (SMO).

While in India, Pechey encouraged women to train as nurses and demanded they received equal pay. She gave lectures to student nurses and campaigned for social reform so that women could enter other male-oriented fields. Her reputation grew, and she received invites from several societies asking her to be their first female member. By 1888, she was on the Bombay Natural History Society committee.

H. M. Phipson

Pechey met the founding secretary of the society, Herbert Musgrave Phipson (1850-1936) and learnt he also had a hand in developing the “medical women for India” fund. With Phipson, who she married in March 1889, Pechey established the Pechey Phipson Sanitarium for Women and Children in Nasik, India. Unfortunately, five years later Pechey-Phipson suffered ill health, including diabetes, and resigned from hospital work. She continued to practice privately and proved invaluable during the bubonic plague and cholera outbreak.

Pechey-Phipson and her husband returned to England in 1905 and she quickly involved herself with the suffrage movement. She took part in the famous Mud March but soon after became critically ill. Diagnosed with breast cancer, Pechey-Phipson sought treatment. She underwent an operation led by the surgeon May Thorne, the daughter of Isabel Thorne, but passed away while in a diabetic coma on 14th April 1908. Her husband set up a scholarship at the London School of Medicine for Women in her memory.

William Edward Ayrton

When the University of Edinburgh closed to women, Matilda Chaplin travelled to France to complete her education at the University of Paris. After gaining a Bachelier ès-Sciences and Bachelier ès-Lettres, Chaplin married her cousin William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908), a physicist and electrical engineer who studied under Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Back in the United Kingdom, Mrs Ayrton qualified as a midwife then moved to Japan with her husband.

While her husband taught at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, Ayrton established a school for Japanese midwives. In 1875, she gave birth to her daughter Edith (1875-1945) who would go on to play a role in the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. Unfortunately, Ayrton developed tuberculosis, which prompted her return to Europe in 1877. After recovering, she moved to Paris to take the Doctor of Medicine exams, which she passed in 1879.

Child Life in Japan

Ayrton continued to study, taking exams at the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland, after which she moved to London to study diseases of the eye at the Royal Free Hospital. A recurrence of tuberculosis prompted her to seek warmer climates during the winter months. When not working in hospitals, Ayrton contributed to The Scotsman newspaper and wrote a book entitled Child Life in Japan, which she illustrated. Matilda Chaplin Ayrton passed away in London on 19th July 1883, age 37.

Helen de Lacey Evans decided not to pursue her medical career after leaving the University of Edinburgh, but she did remain in touch with Sophia Jex-Blake. In 1871, Evans remarried to Alexander Russel (1814-76), the editor of The Scotsman. Evans and Russel had three children, including Helen Archdale (1876-1949) who, inspired by her mother, went on to organise the Sheffield branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Although she did not become a doctor, Evans advocated female doctors and emphasised the importance of education for girls. Sadly, her husband died suddenly of angina pectoris in 1876, making her a widow for the second time. With three young children to bring up, Evans had limited time to spend on promoting women’s health education, yet she remained passionate for the cause. Later, in 1900, Evans became the vice-president of the committee of the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children. Unfortunately, she did not hold this position for long, passing away on 4th October 1903 after a surgical procedure.

Little is known about Mary Anderson‘s life after she left the University of Edinburgh. Records show she earned a medical doctorate from the Faculté de médecine de Paris in 1879. She married a man named Claud Marshall and worked as a senior physician at the New Hospital for Women in Marylebone, London. She died in 1910.

Emily Bovell also moved to Paris to continue her education, qualifying as a doctor in 1877. That year, she met the future personal physician for Queen Victoria, William Allen Sturge (1850-1919), who she married later that year in London. Together, they set up a practice in Wimpole Street, and Bovell returned to Queen’s College to lecture on physiology and hygiene. She also ran classes for female paramedics.

Her husband supported Bovell’s work and also campaigned for women’s medical education. Unfortunately, in 1881, Bovell began complaining of breathing problems, which made it difficult to focus on her medical career. The couple moved to Nice in the hopes the climate would help Bovell’s condition. Rallying a little, Bovell set up a practice in Nice as their first female doctor. Sadly, her lung problems worsened in 1884, and she passed away the following April. In her honour, her husband established the Bovell-Sturge laboratory at Queen’s College.

Edinburgh Seven Plaque

Despite the University of Edinburgh refusing to allow the women to graduate, each member of the Edinburgh Seven went on to achieve things despite their gender. Due to their determination, universities opened up for women, and today it is as common to see a female doctor as it is a male. Sadly, no one apologised to the women for the treatment they received during their education but, in 2015, Edinburgh University unveiled a plaque in their honour as part of the Historic Scotland Commemorative Plaques Scheme. In 2019, Edinburgh Medical School went one step further, posthumously awarding the Edinburgh Seven with an honorary Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB).

Usually, the Suffragists and Suffragettes receive the credit for changing lives for women, but this is not entirely true. The Edinburgh Seven were instrumental in changing the medical world for women and should be recognised accordingly. The Unfinished Business exhibition at the British Library only named Sophia Jex-Blake in a brief paragraph, but all seven women deserve far more attention. 

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau

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Unfinished Business – Vesta Tilley

Shortly before Lockdown 2.0, the British Library opened an exhibition about the fight for women’s rights. Displays about the Women’s Suffrage Movement were popular in 2018, celebrating the centenary of women voting for the first time. Unfinished Business explores other areas of life where women have been given or continue to receive unfair treatment. 

The exhibition explores three areas: body, mind and voice. For years, media has dictated how women should look, what they should wear and how they should appear in public. Magazines are full of airbrushed photographs, showing the (usually male) ideal of the female body. Models appear thinner on paper than in real life and their complexion perfect; the only time a woman appears fat or ugly is in gossip magazines where articles express horror at how she “has let herself go”.

Menstruation continues to be a taboo subject. Not only do men not wish to hear about periods, but they have led women to believe they are disgusting and unnatural when the complete opposite is true. After 48 years of campaigning, sanitary products will be tax-free from 1st January in the United Kingdom, although the Welsh government were recently in trouble when they deemed tampons as non-essential items. 

For hundreds of years, men considered the female mind to be inferior, resulting in limited education and career opportunities. Women were not allowed to attend university until 1868, yet their choices were limited and degrees unattainable. The first woman to receive a degree from the prestigious Cambridge University was Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002) in 1948. Even then, it was only an honorary degree.

Until the 20th century, politics was a man’s world. Today, just over 23% of people in national governments are women, and the United Kingdom only has a proportion of 33.8% of women in management roles. Women broke parliamentary barriers in 1924 when Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) became the first woman to be appointed as a minister. Barriers were broken again in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) became Prime Minister, and in 1987, Diane Abbott (b.1953) became the first black woman to serve as an MP.

The final section of the exhibition explores women’s voices and their determination to be treated equally. One of the most notable campaigners for women’s rights is Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), whose statue now stands in Parliament Square in 2018. The British suffragist leader played a vital role in winning women the right to vote.

A century before, novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) pushed gender boundaries by publishing her books under the name “A Lady” rather than taking a male pseudonym. Most publishers rejected novels written by women, so to advertise her gender, if not her name, was radical for the era.

Women continue to speak up about their unfair treatment, making use of the media, music and protests. In 2018, British activist Stella Dadzie (b.1952), a founder of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, designed a board game called “Womanopoly”. Loosely based on the familiar Monopoly, the game exposes the gender stereotypes that continue to plague modern society. Each square has an instruction for male and female players, for example, “Man – you are very aggressive and competitive – seize an extra turn. Woman – so are you. Take a sedative and stop being unfeminine. Lose a turn.” Yet, Dadzie does not only focus on women’s struggles: “Woman – your husband agrees to share all the housework … Take an extra turn. Man – you are ridiculed by your men friends. Back 2.”

The Unfinished Business exhibition acknowledges many women’s voices. As well as notable names, quite a few remain unknown. Going around the displays, visitors discover women who need their stories told. Having noted a few of these names, I plan to dedicate a blog to each individual. 

Vesta Tilley (1864-1952)

Vesta Tilley featured in the exhibition for being one of the most famous male impersonators of her era. Typically playing fops, dandies or principal boys, Tilley became England’s highest-paid woman of the 1890s, yet continued to scandalise people by wearing trousers.

Born Matilda Alice Powles on 13th May 1864 in Worcester, Tilley was the second of thirteen children of Henry and Matilda Powles. Her father, known as Harry Ball, was a musician and the master of ceremonies at the Theatre Royal, Gloucester. With his encouragement, Tilley first experienced life on stage at the age of three and, by six, was singing songs while dressed as a man.

From 1869 onwards, Tilley worked as a professional stage performer. Her first named role was Pocket Sims Reeves, a spoof of the opera singer John Sim Reeves (1821-1900). Tilley performed many of Reeve’s songs, including the traditional piece, The Anchor’s Weighed. Audiences found the young Tilley’s performances sweet and amusing, but Tilley continued to impersonate men throughout her teens and adulthood, including the role of Robinson Crusoe at the age of 13.

“I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.”

Vesta Tilley

Between 1815 and 1918, British Music Hall entertainment flourished, providing audiences with a variety of acts, often on the bold and scandalous side. Vesta Tilley fit the bill perfectly, quickly gaining fame. In 1872, Tilley’s father ceased working to become his daughter’s manager. This meant Tilley was the family’s chief income source.

In 1874, Tilley performed in London for the first time. Due to popular demand, the “Great Little Tilley” attended three different venues every night. Whilst audiences loved her, Edward Hyde Villiers (1846-1914), the manager of the Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, worried about the gender ambiguity of her act. “Great Little Tilley” neither suggested she was male or female, which Villiers feared was misleading.

After some thought, Tilley’s father decided on a new name for his daughter’s act: Vesta Tilley. Tilley was a diminutive of her real name, Matilda and Vesta referred to the Latin word for “virgin”. In April 1878, Tilley performed under her new name, Vesta Tilley, for the first time at the Royal Music Hall in Holborn.

Tilley typically performed as a dandy or fop, but also embraced other characters, such as clergymen and police officers. By the 1880s, Tilley was the favourite performer at music halls, resulting in an increased salary. At this time, her favourite character was Burlington Bertie, a young aristocratic man who aspires to a life of leisure in the West End of London.

Dressed as the Burlington Bertie, Tilley sang the song of the same name written by Harry B. Norris. The song has since been parodied several times, particularly under the title Burlington Bertie from Bow. Dame Julie Andrews of Mary Poppins fame performed a rendition of the song while dressed as a man in the 1968 film Star! 

In 1888, Harry Ball passed away, but this did not impact on his daughter’s successful career. Two years later, Tilley married the British theatre impresario Abraham Walter de Frece (1870-1935). The pair met when 25-year-old Tilley starred as the principal boy during the pantomime season at Frece’s father’s Gaiety Music Hall in Liverpool. Frece instantly fell in love with Tilley, but there was a lot of romantic competition amongst other theatre workers. Eventually, Frece managed to take Tilley out to a dance where he expressed his feelings, which she reciprocated. He married “the London Idol” on 16th August 1890 at Brixton Register Office in London.

With her husband as her new manager and songwriter, Tilley completed an extensive tour of Britain followed by six visits to the United States of America. Although she performed within the American vaudeville circuit, Vesta Tilley’s acts were usually family-friendly. By this time, Tilley was the highest-earning woman in England, and in America, theatres offered her $600 a week.

Despite taking on farcical characters, often mocking the upper-classes, Tilley paid a great deal of attention to her attire. At the time, there were no unisex clothing, and female items, particularly underwear, tended to draw attention to a woman’s shape. Not only did Tilley wear male costumes, but she also wore male underwear. She complimented her suits with a wig under which she hid her long, plaited hair.

When Tilley first began acting, music halls were a place for gentlemen only. Her biggest fans, therefore, were men, but during the 1870s women were permitted to attend performances too. The majority of these women delighted in Tilley’s shows, enjoying her sense of independence. Protests for women’s rights were underway, and Vesta Tilley became a prime example of a woman succeeding in a man’s world.

In 1898, Vesta Tilley made one of the first sound recordings in England. She continued to record some of her songs for radio broadcasts throughout her career, including It’s part of a policeman’s duty, I’m the idol of the girls and Following a fellow with a face like me.

By the 1900s, Tilley’s fame was equal to that of music halls in general. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), several “Royal Command Performances” were held at Windsor Castle each year to celebrate the talents of leading actors in London theatres. These performances tended to exclude music hall acts, perhaps because of their bawdy nature, but the growing popularity called for the inclusion of the entertainment.

In 1912, an all-star Royal Command Performance took place at the London’s Palace Theatre in aid of the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, the first of an annual event later renamed the Royal Variety Performance. His Majesty King George V (1865-1936) and Her Majesty Queen Mary (1867-1953) attended the show starring Vesta Tilley and other great performers of the time, including, singer Harry Lauder (1870-1950), comedian Harry Tate (1872-1940), ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) and the ‘White-Eyed Kaffir’ G. H. Chirgwin (1854-1922). Whilst the royals enjoyed the acts, Mary hid behind her programme at the sight of Tilley wearing trousers. She was scandalised to see a woman dressing as a man.

When the First World War began, concerts became less frequent, but Tilley continued to act and sing where she could. Along with her husband, who by this time owned 18 theatres, Tilley organised charity events where she performed dressed in military uniform. Frece composed many of the songs for his wife, but she also sang war songs, such as Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier, and Your King and Country Want You (also known as We Don’t Want to Lose You but We Think You Ought to Go).

During her wartime shows, Tilley encouraged young men to enlist in the army, earning her the nickname “England’s greatest recruiting sergeant”. Within a week, Tilley managed to recruit an entire army unit, known as “The Vesta Tilley Platoon”. Despite encouraging the soldiers to fight, Tilley also acknowledged the horrors of war. In the song I’m Glad I’ve Got a Bit of a Blighty One, for example, she sang about a soldier who was happy to be injured in battle so that he could return to Blighty (England).

As a result of the war, music halls declined in popularity, and Tilley felt it was time to step down. At 55, her health was deteriorating, which also contributed to her decision to retire. For her farewell tour, which lasted a year, all proceeds were given to local children’s hospitals. On Saturday 5th June 1920, Vesta Tilley performed for the last time at the Coliseum Theatre in London and lived out the rest of her life as Lady de Frece. Her husband had received a knighthood in the 1919 King’s Birthday Honours List.

 It was a “wonderful night” and at the end Vesta Tilley was “gradually being submerged under the continuous stream of bouquets”.

The Times, writing about Vesta Tilley’s final performance

Tilley’s retirement coincided with her husband’s decision to go into politics. In 1922, Sir Frece became the Conservative MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester and 1924, the MP for Blackpool. Despite holding these positions, Frece was rarely in the country. Frece relocated to Monte Carlo on the French Riviera to aid his wife’s ailing health and only returned for parliamentary meetings.

In 1931, Sir Frece retired from politics and made the French Riviera his permanent home. During this time, Tilley penned her autobiography Recollections of Vesta Tilley, which she published the year before her husband died in 1935. Frece was 64 at the time of his death; his body lies in Putney Vale Cemetery, southwest London. 

Despite her frail health, Lady Frece continued to live in Monte Carlo for seventeen years. While on a trip to London in 1952, Tilley fell ill and passed away on 16th September at the age of 88. After her funeral, Tilley was reunited with her husband in Putney Vale Cemetery. Many famous people have been buried or cremated in the cemetery, including, Egyptologist Howard Carter (1874-1939), sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Formula One driver James Hunt (1947-93), actor Kenneth More (1914-82) and Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee (1919-96). 

Five years after her death, Compton Bennett (1900-74) directed a biographical film about the life of Vesta Tilley. Starring Pat Kirkwood (1921-2007) as Tilley and Laurence Harvey (1928-73) as Walter de Frece, After the Ball told the story of “the life and loves of Music hall singer Vesta Tilley, who married into the nobility.” Unfortunately, the film failed to please the critics: “It’s incomprehensible how director Compton Bennett … could have made such a yawn out of such a good true story.” (TV Guide, 1957)

The British Library used Vesta Tilley as an example of a woman who was unafraid of controversy. She was an inspiration for women keen to challenge convention, and yet not many people remember her name today. Daring to go against gender norms, Vesta Tilley should be an inspiration to all feminists fighting for equality.

Buddhism: Morality, Wisdom & Meditation

study-buddhism-types-of-buddhism

Types of Buddhism in Asia

With over 500 million followers, Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions. Approximately 300,000 of these followers live in the United Kingdom alone, however, the majority live in contemporary Asia with the highest numbers in China, Thailand, Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia. Until 23rd February 2020, the British Library is exploring the spread of Buddhism, its philosophy, and practice with an exhibition containing manuscripts and artefacts, including rare treasures such as 2000-year-old scrolls and books. Full of inciteful information, the British Library breaks down the three types of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana; and reveals the consistency of the religion since the 6th century BCE.

Entering the exhibition, visitors are welcomed by the sounds of the natural world, which is a major theme within Buddhism. The songs and noises of cicadas, amphibians, oriental magpie robins and gentle streams set the scene for the first quarter of the exhibition, which focuses on the Buddha.

Born 2500 years ago in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, the historical Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. His mother, Queen Maya, passed away seven days after his birth and he was raised by his aunt, Prajapati Gotami. His father, King Shuddhodana, arranged tutors to teach his son in the palace and kept all troubles and hard work away from Siddhartha. The king showered luxuries on his son, providing him with everything he could want. A prophecy stated that if Siddhartha left the palace he would become a religious leader, however, if he remained inside, he would grow up to become a great king. Naturally, King Shuddhodana wished his heir to be a strong and powerful leader, therefore, used his wealth to make sure his son would never want to leave the palace.

As well as all the luxuries, when Siddhartha turned 16, his father found him a wife, Yashodhara, and they soon had a son, Rahula. Yet, despite the comfortable, rich lifestyle, Siddhartha yearned to see what life was like outside of the palace.

 

The life of Prince Siddhartha is recorded in two Sanskrit scriptures: Buddhacarita and Lalitavistara Sutra. Both describe Siddhartha’s childhood of luxury beginning before he was born when his mother dreamt of a white elephant. Some legends say that when Siddhartha was born, he took seven steps forward and at each step, a lotus flower appeared where his foot had been. He then announced that this was his last birth, implying he had been reincarnated several times. In one of his previous lives, it is believed he was an elephant.

Desperate to escape the confines of the palace, the young adult Siddhartha went on four journeys where he saw “four great sights”. Whether or not Siddhartha got out of the palace against his father’s will is debated but the things he saw on the trips changed his life forever. The four great sights were an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man with no home. The knowledge of these forms of suffering made Siddhartha sad that he lived in such comfort when others did not. From that moment onwards, he decided to reject extravagant luxuries.

The British Library displays several illuminated pages from two manuscripts showing the story of Prince Siddartha. One volume was produced in China and the other in Burma, however, they both tell of the same events. In one picture, Prince Siddartha takes a final look at his sleeping wife and new-born son before leaving the palace on horseback. At the age of 20, Siddhartha had become a leader of the Shakya clan who were by tradition sun worshippers, however, they soon fell out with another clan and proposed a war. Siddhartha, averse to causing people to suffer, opposed this proposal and was given an ultimatum by the clan: stay and fight or leave the country and never see his family again. At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his family, his home, and his land.

The illustrations show that Prince Siddhartha became a monk and ordered his charioteer to return to the palace and inform his family that he was well. Naturally, the king tried to entice Siddhartha back by offering half his kingdom, however, Siddhartha refused, saying he had renounced worldly life. In one of the images, Prince Siddhartha is shown receiving the eight requisites of a monk: three yellow robes, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, a water strainer and a girdle.

Like many holy men at the time, Siddhartha was an ascetic, denying himself worldly pleasures for religion and spirituality. Siddhartha may have joined a group of Jains who, amongst other things, practiced self-denial and caused themselves to suffer. They believed this would free their soul from pain and sadness. Acts of self-denial may have included eating only six grains of rice a day, holding one’s breath for considerable lengths of time, and allowing the body to become so thin as to be on the verge of death. Despite partaking in this type of ritual, Siddhartha remained unsatisfied.

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Shakyamuni Buddha

Believing there was a better way to free the soul that did not involve hurting himself, Siddhartha decided to leave the monks. He found a large fig tree and decided to meditate under it. Determined not to leave the spot until he had found enlightenment, Siddhartha meditated for 49 days. During this time, his mind is said to have become pure. After practising this for a total of six years, Siddhartha became enlightened. He had become a Buddha.

The tree under which Siddhartha had meditated is known as the Bodhi Tree. Bodhi is the Sanskrit word for enlightenment, which refers to a full awakening where all limitations have been moved from the mind. The original tree is believed to have stood at the site of the Mahabodhi Temple in India. Whenever the tree was destroyed or died it was replaced by a new Bodhi tree. Saplings from the various trees have been taken to other places in India, such as Sravasti and Chennai, and across the world to Sri Lanka, Hawaii and California.

The manuscripts continue to document Siddhartha or the Buddha’s life after becoming enlightened. The Buddha now understood the purpose of suffering and how to defeat suffering. His answer was known as the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Dukkha – in life there is suffering whether we want it or not
  2. Samudaya – there is a reason for the suffering in the world
  3. Nirodha – people can be free from suffering when they no longer want things
  4. Magga – to stop wanting things, one must follow the Noble Eightfold Path
    1. Right Vision. A person should try to see things the way they really are
    2. Right Values. A person should try to turn their mind away from the world and towards the Dharma (cosmic law)
    3. Right Speech. A person should try to be truthful and kind when they talk
    4. Right Actions. A person should try to do good things. If they can not do a good thing, then they should try to not do a bad thing
    5. Right Livelihood. A person should not work at something that can hurt themselves or other people
    6. Right Effort. A person should try to increase their goodness and get rid of their evil
    7. Right Mindfulness. A person must remember the Dharma and use it all the time
    8. Right Meditation. A person must try to reach enlightenment through meditation

The illuminated manuscripts shows the Buddha teaching the Dharma to his disciples and other followers. Although he is occasionally depicted on a throne, he never pretended to be a god. He considered himself to be a man who had discovered the meaning of life and walked across Nepal and parts of India to teach people what he believed. For over 40 years he preached about enlightenment and started a Sangha – a group of Buddhist monks and nuns.

 

The Buddha lived to the age of 80 when he suffered a severe attack of dysentery. As seen in the illustrations, the Buddha consoled his most devoted disciple Ananda then called all his disciples together for one final message. He urged them to continue to follow the Four Noble Truths then passed away; or as the British Library describes it, he entered “Parinirvana, the final passage into Nirvana (liberation from the cycle of rebirth).” His death is remembered on the day of the full moon in May.

The Buddha’s body was cremated and enshrined in stupas (a type of reliquary), which were distributed across north India. Under the rule of Emperor Ashoka in 250 BCE, they were taken further afield to promote the spread of Buddhism. Later, during a war, the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka for safety. Every year a 15-day festival is held in memory of this event. The Sacred Tooth Relic procession includes a procession of elephants.

“You yourselves must strive. The Buddhas only point the way.”
Magga-vagga (The Path), Sutra Pitaka

 

Unlike western religions where there is only one God, the concept of being a Buddha is available to anyone who obtains enlightenment. Enlightenment is central to Buddhist philosophy, however, the path is not straight forward. The historical Buddha went through dozens of lives before he was born as Prince Siddhartha where he finally obtained enlightenment. Stories of the previous lives of the Buddha have been illustrated in manuscripts known as Jātakas (Birth Stories), of which a handful are displayed in the Library’s exhibition. Each story represents one of the virtues or qualities of a Buddha.

The Jātaka tales claim the Buddha lived 547 lives before coming to the end of his spiritual path. The final ten lives are generally considered to be the most important because they illustrate the Great Paramita (perfections) of a Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be). In one previous incarnation, the Bodhisattva was an elephant who stood over a skylark nest to protect the birds. Unfortunately, an evil elephant arrived and destroyed the nest, however, the skylark, with the help of a crow, a fly and a frog, destroyed him. Despite being small and powerless, they caused the death of a powerful elephant.

In another incarnation, the Buddha was a golden stag who found himself caught in a hunter’s trap. His mate offered her life to the hunter in place of the stag’s, which so moved the hunter that he spared both of their lives.

The previous lives of the Buddha have different importance between Buddhist’s sects. There are three main divisions of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Since the Buddha’s death, differing opinions have arisen concerning the correct teachings and practices of Buddhism. Theravada, meaning “way of the elders” is the oldest of the three traditions and states the best way to attain nirvana is to be a monk or nun and partake in regular meditation. They believe the path to enlightenment is a personal journey and is an individual experience. Mahayana, on the other hand, teaches people can help each other to gain enlightenment. It is not necessary to be a monk or nun but Bodhisattvas can work together to attain nirvana. The third tradition, Vajrayana, follows the majority of the Mahayana teachings, however, also believes it is possible to reach nirvana in a single lifetime.

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Twenty-Eight Buddhas

In the Theravada tradition, it is believed that twenty-eight Buddhas have attained nirvana. The history of these Buddhas is recorded in a text known as the Buddhavamsa. Although he is the most famous, Prince Siddhartha was the fourth Buddha. Preceding him were Kakusanda, Konagama and Kassapa. Despite living unique lives, each Buddha achieved enlightenment in the shadow of a particular tree.

 

In Buddhism, life is regarded as a series of impermanent manifestations; everything is subject to change. Although it is possible to be both a Buddhist and belong to another religion, Buddhism does not encourage belief in a creator or single deity. Buddhism incorporates cosmological theories that describe 31 realms of existence within the cycle of Samsara (rebirth). The Sutra of the Ten Kings describes the ten stages the soul passes through after death before reaching one of six forms of rebirth: hell, ghosts, wild animals, domestic animals, humans and Buddhas. Other traditions have slightly different forms of rebirth but they all agree there are a total of six. There are also 31 realms of existence: 4 formless realms, 16 pure form realms, 6 celestial realms, 1 human realm, 1 realm of jealous demi-gods and demons, 1 animal realm, 1 realm of hungry ghosts, and 1 realm of the underworld or hell.

The teachings of the Buddha were not written down during his lifetime, which is the prime reason for the different traditions that have formed. The oldest collection of Buddhist scriptures date back to over 2000 years ago, however, by then different opinions had already formed. Each Buddhist tradition has its own set of texts that differ in contents and number. A complete set of scriptures ranges between 40 to over 200 volumes depending on the particular division.

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Gandhāran Scroll

The British Library displays a variety of scrolls and manuscripts containing Buddhist texts. Dating from the 1st century CE is a fragment of the Gandhāran scrolls, which are among the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts. Written in black ink on birch bark, these scrolls demonstrate a range of Buddhist genres and styles, including poetry and stories. The kingdom of Gandhāra encompassed several cultures, for instance, Indian, Asian, Iranian, Greek and Roman, therefore, these scrolls were an important method of spreading the word of Buddhism between different societies.
Amongst the other manuscripts in the exhibition are the Kanjur: a Tibetan Buddhist canon containing the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Verses, the Sankhara: a commentary on the higher teachings, the Lotus Sutra: an influential Mahayana scripture, the Amitabha Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. The latter is written as a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple Subhuti. It explains that people are intrinsically empty “like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow”. The Buddha is trying to help his disciple unlearn his preconceived notions of reality. An accompanying quote from the American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (b.1936) emphasises this idea:

“The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”
Pema Chödrön, 1991

As the exhibition reaches the halfway mark, the soundscape shifts from the natural world to audio recordings of rituals, ceremonies and the everyday lives of Buddhist communities across a range of geographic locations. This includes prayers being said in India, a ceremony in Cambodia, monks playing the drums in Laos and various recordings from China and Japan. These sounds signal the end of the Buddha and Buddhist Philosophy sections of the exhibition and the beginning of the Spread of Buddhism.

The spread of the Buddha’s teachings coincides with the adaptation of writing systems and printing techniques, which allowed Buddhist scriptures to reach more people than oral accounts could achieve. The manuscripts were also translated from the original Sanskrit into local languages across Asia, allowing a greater population to become familiar with Buddhism.

 


In the Theravada tradition, Buddhist scriptures were usually inscribed on carefully prepared palm leaves and held together by a cord. A carved wooden cover was attached either side to protect the fragile leaves, turning the manuscript into an early form of a book. This is known as pothi. Ink made from soot and plant oils was applied with a metal stylus. This technique was used up until the early 20th century. Other materials were also used, although very rare, for example, gold and silver plates. The British Library also displays a pothi made from ivory.
Folded and bound paper books came much later, however, they were still individually written by hand. This was usually done by a Buddhist monk who would use a special calligraphy set consisting of brushes, paperweights, ink sticks, ink stones, seals and seal paste. Although tradition is a very important aspect of Buddhism, monks are not afraid to embrace new technologies, therefore, by the 6th century CE, manuscripts were being mass-produced using wood-block printing. As a result, Buddhism began to spread more rapidly across the continent.

The British Library is fortunate that so many of these early manuscripts have survived to date. This is largely thanks to the monastic libraries that played and continue to play a central role in Buddhist education. Due to the Asian climate, the fragile manuscripts needed to be stored carefully to avoid damage from the changing weather, humidity, mould, insects and rodents. Special furniture and containers were designed specifically to hold these scrolls and books.

“When the mind is not trained, it is like a monkey. Meditation helps you focus.”
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, 2018

 


The final section of the exhibition focuses on Buddhist practices, particularly the lives of monks. Buddhist life revolves around Karuna (compassion) and Metta (loving-kindness), which are to be expressed through behaviour and generosity to reduce the suffering of others. Buddhists must reject natural egotism and self-centeredness to demonstrate these practices. Buddhists achieve states of awareness and mindfulness by participating in meditation, which heightens concentration and insight. Mantras and chanting help to focus the mind and protect it from negative thoughts. Many of these techniques have been incorporated into everyday non-Buddhist life through activities such as yoga.

Although many Buddhists do not believe in the notion of gods, they use a variety of shrines. Many of these are used in ceremonies and often depict the historical Buddha, however, there are a few that are reserved for specific practices. The shrine of Jizō Bosatsu from Japan, for example, is a representation of the guardian and saviour of the dying, deceased and stillborn. The shrine, therefore, is used only when appropriate.

Portable shrines, such as amulet boxes, offer the bearer protection when travelling. An example on display is ornately decorated and contains a small window where a figurine or picture of a respected lama (teacher) could be displayed. Inside the box, Buddhists keep items that are deemed to carry blessings.

Buddhists occasionally wear protective clothing, such as a silk jacket, that they believe will protect them from physical and spiritual harm. The clothing is usually adorned with hand-drawn images and written texts from Buddhist mantras.
Emphasised by the figure of Sitatārā or White Tara, both males and females can receive enlightenment. Although Buddhist monks seem to be more common than Buddhist nuns, Buddhism is not a religion that alienates anyone based on gender. They believe everyone can reach nirvana if they strive hard enough.

Visitors are invited to strike a gong on exiting the room in a similar way one might exit a Buddhist monastery. Thus ends the multi-sensory exhibition. Decorated with red drapes and walls, the exhibition room resembles a contemporary Buddhist monastery or temple. Low lighting emphasises the preciousness of the artefacts and manuscripts plus causes people to talk in respectfully hushed voices. With so much information accompanying all the exhibits, the British Library has done a phenomenal job piecing together the exhibition.

The Buddhism exhibition is open until 23rd February 2020. Tickets are priced at £14 although concessions are available.

Making Your Mark

There are many worries and concerns about the increasingly digital world. Already, fairly new inventions are becoming obsolete, for instance, tape recorders and VHS, and it will not be long before the latest technology is considered old-fashioned. Local shops are closing as they fail to live up to the successes of online retailers and some shops have gone cash-less, only allowing payments by debit or credit card. Before long, society may not be able to cope without digital intervention, which leads to questions such as “what would happen during a power cut?” or “what if there was a signal failure?”

The British Library has picked up on a question that many people will not have considered. What is the future for writing? Will we abandon pens and pencils in favour of keyboards or voice recording? Will we no longer learn how to write by hand? In their current exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, the Library charts the evolution of writing through 5000 years of human discovery from hieroglyphs to emojis.

Writing can achieve what speech cannot: it communicates across space and time and has left evidence of the development of language and communication from all areas of the world. The exhibition begins by exploring the earliest evidence of writing, which is generally believed to date back 5,000 years. As archaeologists discover more ancient relics, the very earliest form of writing becomes more debatable, however, scholars generally believe the first writing-system developed in Mesopotamia around 3400 BCE. Of course, this was nothing like the systems we are familiar with today; initially, people used pictorial signs to communicate but these eventually developed into complex characters, each representing a different sound in the Sumerian (southern Mesopotamian) language.

These marks became known as cuneiform and have been preserved in clay tablets. With a reed stylus, writers scratched the characters into wet clay, as evidenced in a preserved 4000-year-old tablet that records an account of workers’ wages. This example of cuneiform had not yet lost the look of pictograms, however, over the next few centuries, the characters were simplified making it both easier to read and write.

Although cuneiform was originally used by Sumerians, their empire was invaded by the Akkadians in 2340 BCE, who began to adopt the form of writing in their own language. In total, an estimated fifteen languages used cuneiform inspired letters, many of which were still being used long into the Common Era.

Cuneiform was not used worldwide, however, and other areas developed their own method of writing. In Egypt, evidence of hieroglyphics date back to 3250 BCE and have been found on rocks, stone and ivory tablets. Later, people began using brush and ink to produce these characters, although it is believed this method had specific purposes. Hieroglyphs mean sacred carvings and are found in the remains of ancient temples and ceremonial places. The written version is known as hieratic or “priestly” script and is thought to have been used in the service of royal or temple administration.

The hieroglyphs or hieratics were made up of a range of different characters; some represented sounds and syllables, whereas others had particular meanings. An example of this form of writing can be seen on a limestone stela from around 1600 BCE that contains a hymn to Osiris, the king of the netherworld. This is on display at the exhibition and is the oldest artefact belonging to the British Library.

Another example of ancient writing came from the late Shang dynasty (1300–1050 BCE) in China. Shards of bone have been discovered with characters carved into the surface, many of which remain undeciphered. It is believed these bones came from the shoulder blades of oxen and the shells of turtles and have been identified as “oracle” bones containing questions about a variety of topics from crop rotation to childbirth. Thousands of these bones have been discovered, and from them over 4,500 different symbols have been recorded.

The British Library displays an Oracle bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection that has been dated between 1300 BCE and 1050 BCE. The inscription on the bone records that there would be no bad luck in the next ten days and carries a record of a lunar eclipse.

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Whilst Chinese characters today look similar to the ancient version, they have evolved considerably. Unlike cuneiform, which simplified over time, Chinese symbols gradually became more abstract and new compound forms developed. Today, many written Chinese words are a combination of two components: one reflects the meaning and the other the pronunciation. Take the word “mother” for example; the first symbol means “woman” and the other represents the sound “ma”. Combined together, the symbols create the word “mother”.

In Mesoamerica, there was a broad range of languages and recent discoveries have confirmed that many of these had systems of writing. These include Maya, Mixtecs, Aztecs, Olmecs and Zapotecs. Some of these languages focused on symbols to represent different words or ideas, whereas, others developed characters based on sound and grammar. An example of the latter is the Mayan glyphs as found on a Limestone stela at Pusilhá in Belize. These have been translated as information about the ruler K’ak’ U’ Ti’ Chan and praise of his father.

Whilst the oldest form of writing is commonly believed to have stemmed from Mesopotamia, there have been discoveries in other areas of symbols that might have once been a form of language. Societies dating back as far as 7000 BCE occupied areas in the Indus River valley of Pakistan and northwest India. At least 5000 inscribed artefacts have been unearthed from the region, however, they are usually only three or four signs long. The longest “sentence” discovered is twenty-six characters long but it is not certain what it says if anything at all. In total, 400 different symbols have been identified, which suggests it may not be a form of writing style as we understand them today.

On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Polynesia, glyphs have been discovered on Rongorongo – wooden tablets inscribed with animal and plant motifs amongst other things. Unfortunately, no one knows how to read these tablets and, although 120 characters have been identified, the meanings of the lengthy texts remain hidden.

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One of the oldest examples of writing, found in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

So, how did writing develop from these form of writing styles to the alphabet we are familiar with today? As can be seen on the Serabit sphinx on display at the British Library, the Proto-Sinaitic inscription looks nothing like the words written today. However, it contains a symbol that eventually developed into the letter A.

It is possible to chart the evolution of writing systems from Ancient Egypt to today. Usually, the contemporary method of writing is known as the alphabet, however, other cultures use alternative systems. An alphabet contains letters that represent different sounds, both vowels and consonants; abjads, however, only stand for consonants, as in the Arabic and Hebrew languages. The third type of characters are abugidas, which represent combinations of a consonant attached to a vowel sound. This is most commonly associated with the Indian script Devanāgarī.

Non-native Egyptian speakers began to adopt hieroglyphs in their own language. A wavy line, which meant water, was used as the first letter of their word for water (pronounced Mayim). Over the centuries, this symbol developed into our letter M. The Phonecians adopted this method of writing, which was then passed on to other cultures, such as Aramaic, Hebrew and Syriac. Via Aramaic, the Indian scripts developed, and via Syriac, the writing system spread to northern Asia.

alphabet

By travelling south, scripts including Arabian and Arabic were formed, and to the west Punic script developed, eventually leading to the Greek Alphabet. The Phoenician script only used consonants, however, the Greeks began to add signs for vowels. From Greek, the Etruscan alphabet was produced, and from that, the Romans created the alphabet that is still used today.

The Roman alphabet was introduced to other countries via the spread of the Roman Empire. As with all the writing styles of the past, the original alphabet has developed and altered over time. Letters began to take on slightly different shapes to help people write faster and capitals and lowercase letters helped make the script easier to read.

The history of writing encompasses far more than the development of the alphabet. Included in the exhibition are displays of ancient and modern writing materials and technologies. As already mentioned, the earliest material used to write on was clay, which was readily available in Mesopotamia. Damp clay could easily be moulded into a tablet then, with a stylus made from dried reeds, the cuneiform marks could be etched into the material. The clay tablet could also be wiped clean and used again if needed.

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2,000-year-old homework book

Evidence remains of writing carved into stone and bone, which would have been produced using chisels or other sharp objects, however, anything written using this method was permanent and could not be erased. Approximately 2000 years ago in Greek and Roman cultures, inscribing words into materials was still the main method of writing but they had developed new forms of tablets that could be used again and again. These were made from wooden frames filled with beeswax, which could easily be scratched with a stylus. The wax could be melted and used again when needed.

The British Library owns a wax tablet dating from the second century CE that contains the writing practice of a young Egyptian endeavouring to learn Greek. The top two lines were written by the tutor or schoolmaster and read: “Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours.” The child’s attempt to copy the phrase is on the lines toward the bottom of the tablet. It appears he has missed out the first letter of the sentence and, toward the end, run out of space, scratching the final letter into the frame.

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Writing with ink is almost as old as the incised hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt (approx. 3200 BC). Ink has been made from various dyes and pigments over the years but it is the method of applying it to materials that is the most interesting. The earliest writing implements were made from reeds, which were easily obtainable in Asia and Europe. The reed is prepared by cutting a nib shape with a sharp knife. The angle determined the thickness of the lines and they were trimmed in different directions depending on the script. The nib was cut to the right for Roman and Greek scripts but left for scripts such as Arabic, Urdu and Persian, which are written from right to left.

It was not until the middle ages that quill pens were introduced. Similar to the reed, the point of a feather quill was cut to form a nib, which could then be dipped into ink and applied to various parchment. A damaged quill belonging to the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) is on display as part of the exhibition. The nib has been bent and is, therefore, not fit for use.

The downside about using quills or reeds was the constant need to replenish the ink on the nib. It was not until the industrial revolution that metal pens became widely available and revolutionised the process of writing. In 1819, the Manchester firm James Perry & Co began producing metal nibs and from this, the fountain pen was developed.

In the 1940s, the ballpoint pen was introduced, which, yet again, revolutionised writing. Baron Marcel Bich (1914-94) bought the patent for ballpoint pens from László Bíró (1899-1985) who had begun producing such pens in Argentina in 1943. Bich was the co-founder of BIC Cristal, which quickly became the world’s leading producer of ballpoint pens.

Without a doubt, the printing press was the most revolutionary invention in the history of writing. In the 8th century, the Chinese discovered the method of woodblock printing (xylography), which involved carving letters into a piece of wood, covering it with ink, and pressing the wood onto a thin sheet of paper. Whilst this was effective, it was also time-consuming. In the West, scribes continued to hand write important texts, a feat that also took an extremely long time. The printing press changed all this.

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (1400-68), a German goldsmith from Mainz, was the first person to print with moveable type. Letters from the Roman alphabet were produced on tiny, individual metal blocks that could be carefully positioned and inked in a printing press to transfer passages of text to paper. The first book to be printed in this manner was the Bible, now known as the Gutenberg Bible.

In 1476, William Caxton (1422-91), an English merchant and writer, introduced the printing press to England. It is believed the first significant book to be printed in Britain was The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400).

Unfortunately, the printing press was limited to the Roman type and was of no use to scripts that were made up of abjads or abugidas. An alternative printing method called Lithography was developed in the 1790s by the German actor Aloys Senefelder (1771–1834). This involved using a greasy or waxy substance to write on a smooth stone surface that was then dampened and covered with ink. The ink would not stick to the greasy areas, therefore, when the stone was applied to paper, the greasy areas remained blank.

Based on the printing press, the next significant development was the typewriter. In 1872, the Remington typewriter was released in the USA and quickly became the model for typewriters all over the world. In English speaking countries, the QWERTY keyboard was developed, which is still used today, to prevent keys jamming by spreading the most common letters across the keyboard. Pressing a key sent an individual hammer, carved with a letter, onto an inked ribbon, which would leave a mark on the paper that was being fed through line by line. The average typist could manage to write 150 words per minute in contrast to 30 words by hand.

Once again, the typewriter alienated languages that used different scripts, for instance, Chinese. During the 20th century, the Double Pigeon Chinese typewriter became iconic in the East. Based on the western typewriter, it could accommodate almost 2,450 loose pieces of type, which are individually picked up using a selector tool and applied to the paper.

The 1960s and 70s saw another major leap forward in technology when computers were invented. Originally, computers were considered to be giant calculating machines but the potential to be used as a new writing tool was soon realised. The Apple Macintosh II was one of the first computers to be produced, however, they already look ancient in comparison to the computers used today. In the past few decades, technology has developed at an exceedingly rapid pace. Now, not only can I type this on my computer, I can share it with the world on my blog. I can post a link to it on Facebook or Whatsapp then chat with various people on Messenger and other apps.

It is these latest developments that have led the British Library to question the future of writing, particularly handwriting. How often do people write by hand per day? How many people write letters rather than emails? How often do people write a note on a piece of paper rather than on their phone? Questions like these are bound to make people worry that the chances of handwriting surviving are remote.

Nonetheless, schools are still keen for children to write more by hand than on a computer. Studies have proved than handwritten notes are easier to recall than digital ones. Learning to write also helps children learn to read as well as develop other cognitive behaviours across many disciplines.

The British Library reveals how writing by hand has benefitted people in the past. With examples from Florence Nightingale‘s (1820-1910) journals and notes by Alexander Flemming (1881-1955), it is clear that being able to jot down thoughts with a pen or pencil can be a good way of remembering things at a later date. (You should see the notes I wrote on the exhibition guide as I viewed the displays!) Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941) not only found writing notes useful when working on books, such as Ulysses, he constantly went back to them and added more notes or colours to help him piece together his narrative. The famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) wrote notes on his manuscripts about how to play certain notes and so forth. The latter in particular is much easier to do by hand than digitally.

Before concluding, the exhibition takes a look at modern developments in typography, including work by graphic artists, for instance, El Lissitzky (1890-1941), and the graffiti artist eL Seed (b.1981). None of these things would be possible without the development of writing styles dating back to the Mesopotamian and other ancient eras and whatever the future holds, it will always be possible to trace the history of writing and communication back to them.

There is no answer to the question “What is the future of writing?” No one knows, no one can predict the way technology will develop and the impact this will have on the way we write. The exhibition ends by asking visitors what they think writing will be like in the future. Some people said they think voice recognition devices that type what you say will be the way forward. Others think that handwriting will continue to be a skill taught and used in schools.

Whatever happens, I know that I will continue writing both by hand and digitally (how else would you read my blog?).

Writing: Making Your Mark can be viewed in the PACCAR 1 gallery at The British Library until Tuesday 27th August 2019. Tickets are £14 for adults, £12 for over 60s and £7 for children and students over 11 years old. Members of the British Library can visit free of charge.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

It is not often that people of the past are able to tell their story in their own words, however, thanks to over 180 surviving treasures, predominantly of a written nature, the people of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms narrate their history in an exhibition at the British Library. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War explores over 600 years through surviving books and remarkable finds from excavations around the country. Although many items have not survived the passing of time, beautifully illuminated manuscripts illustrate the ways of life, wars, religions and the beginnings of the English language.

The Anglo-Saxons were migrants from Northern Europe who arrived in England during the 5th and 6th centuries. These Germanic-speaking people arrived in stages and are now combined into three groups: the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes. The term “Anglo-Saxon” did not actually appear until the late 8th century when the bishop of Ostia, travelled to England to attend a church meeting, reporting back to the Pope that he had been to ‘Angul Saxnia’.

 

 

The exhibition begins with two of the earliest remnants of the early settlers of the 5th century. Rather than exposing the way they lived, it explains how they dealt with their dead. Referred to as a Spong Man, an anthropomorphic urn lid reveals that cremation was their predominant custom for disposing of bodies, as does the cremation urn displayed beside it. Found during excavations at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk, Spong Man is one of many pieces of pottery from the largest known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. The urn, however, was one of over 1800 found in an early medieval cemetery at Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire. It is believed that some of the runes carved into the surface spell out a female name, however, it is unknown as to whether this was a woman of high status. Also, it cannot be sure that the Spong Man indicates the wealth or importance of the owner.

It is likely that these cremation objects would have been a part of a pagan ceremony. Although the Romans had introduced Christianity to England prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the new settlers brought their pagan gods with them, for example, Woden, who may be synonymous with the chief Norse god Odin. Christianity returned to Britain in the 7th century with missionaries from Rome visiting with the intention of converting kings. England was made up of several smaller kingdoms and it is believed that King Æthelberht of Kent was the first to be converted.

 

 

The British Library displays some of the oldest, handwritten documents in existence, including the earliest letter sent from England and the earliest English charter. In the beginning rooms of the exhibition, however, the majority of the documents and manuscripts are religious. Along with Christianity came religious books, which were copied numerous times, each area having its own version. To begin with, only the Gospels were copied, which, although there are only four, would have taken a long time to write out by hand. On display are the St Augustine Gospels, the earliest Durham Gospel Book, the Echternach Gospels, the St Chad Gospels, the Bury Gospels, the Trinity Gospels and the Grimbald Gospels, to name a few.

All of these Gospels are rare and it is lucky that they have survived as far as the 21st century. Many have been lost during wars and invasions or during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Others have been destroyed by fire, for example, during the Cotton Library fire in 1731 once owned by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571–1631), to whom the British Library collection is indebted. In some instances, parts of books were salvaged, as can be seen in the exhibition, although rather singed at the edges.

Sir Robert Bruce Cotton’s library was the richest private collection of manuscripts ever accumulated, surpassing even the Royal Library. One of the most well-known treasures in his collection, at least by name, was the Lindisfarne Gospels, now owned by the British Library. It is believed that these were the first English translation of the Gospels and remain to be the most spectacular manuscript to survive. It is believed that they were written and illustrated by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, off the northeast coast of England between 698-721 AD. It contains all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; as well as other traditional sections included in medieval texts, such as letters of St Jerome. As well as being an example of Anglo-Saxon religious texts, it is a phenomenal work of art with numerous illuminations, illustrations and coloured patterns on every page.

Another notable manuscript that may hail from Lindisfarne is the St Cuthbert Gospel. This was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert (d. 687) the bishop of Lindisfarne when it was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104. It is the oldest European book with its original binding intact and is thought to have been produced during the 8th century. Containing only the Gospel of St John, the small book has a wooden cover wrapped in red goats skin, decorated with a geometric pattern. In the centre of the front cover, a motif of a stylised vine sprouting from a chalice, which mirrors Mediterranean Christian imagery, represents the well-known verse “I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5)

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Codex Amiatinus

Of all the religious texts in the exhibition, there is none as impressive as the Codex Amiatinus. This is the first complete Bible to be written in Latin, containing both the Old and New Testaments. Originally, three were produced in the early 8th century but only one survives in full.

Those who see the Codex Amiatinus on display at the British Library will be impressed by its remarkable size. Made from 1030 pages, 515 of which have been identified as animal skin, it is over 1 and a half feet (49cm) high with a weight of over 75 pounds (34 kg). Historians initially believed it was an Italian book, however, it has since been proven to have been produced in England during the 8th century. In 716, Abbot Ceolfrith took this volume to Rome, intending it as a gift to the shrine of Peter the Apostle. Since then, until this exhibition, it has been looked after at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

 

 

For knowledge about the first half of the Anglo-Saxon period in England, historians rely strongly upon one particular manuscript. This is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed by the Venerable Bede in 731. Bede (673-735), also known as St Bede, was the greatest scholar of the time, who produced a number of works on a variety of subjects. Due to this particular publication, of which the British Library has a few examples, Bede is often regarded as the father of English history.

Modelled on the Ecclesiastical History by the Greek Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (260/265 – 339/340 CE), Bede tells the story of the development of Christianity in England beginning with the arrival of St Augustine in Kent in 597. He also explains the attempts to convert the kings of other areas, including Mercia, Sussex and Northumbria, thus painting a picture of the landscape and kingdoms of Britain.

Bede acknowledges that he referred to other sources (now lost) to write about the years long before he was born, however, no one can be certain of the accuracy of his account. Whilst Bede was ahead of his time in stating that the world was not flat but rather a globe, he also assumed the Earth was the centre of the universe. Nonetheless, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is one of the only written evidence of life during the Anglo-Saxon period, and it is thanks to the survival of his work that knowledge of that era can be ascertained.

 

 

 

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History also notes the changes in fortunes of the English kingdoms. By the mid-600s, Northumbria, which encompassed a large part of northern England, was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. This period of time is referred to by the British Library as Northumbria’s “Golden Age”, however, by the early 8th century, things were beginning to change. With an aspirational king, Æthelbald, the kingdom of Mercia displaced Northumbria from its position as most powerful. Æthelbald went as far as to name himself “king of Britain”, although he did not have control of the whole of the British isle.

Mercia continued to sustain its supremacy throughout the 8th century, particularly during the reign of King Offa from 757 until 796. Offa was responsible for the building of a dyke fortification along the border of Wales, to keep the Welsh tribes out of England plus conquered other parts of the country, including Kent, Sussex and East Anglia. He also reintroduced the coinage system to Britain, such as the gold dinar and silver penny the Library has on display.

Unfortunately, the great efforts of King Offa were threatened by rival kingdoms and the hostile Vikings from Scandinavia who had begun raiding England in the 790s. As a result, much of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumberland became under the rule of Guthrum, the leader of the Danes. Nevertheless, the West and South Saxons consolidated their power under the leadership of King Alfred, perhaps one of the most recognised of the Anglo-Saxon kings – mostly due to the legend that he burnt some cakes! A jewel belonging to the king is on display in the exhibition. It is inscribed “ÆFLRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN” which translates as “Alfred ordered me to be made.”

During Alfred the Great’s reign (871-899), a peace treaty was agreed with the Vikings that England would be divided into two parts: the north and east would belong to them and the south and west to the Anglo-Saxons. At this time, Guthrum was persuaded to convert to Christianity and took the name Æthelstan at his baptism.

Æthelstan was also the name of Alfred’s grandson who reigned from 924-939. Initially, he was the king of the Anglo-Saxon section of the country, however, after the death of the Viking ruler in 927, he took back Northumbria and claimed land in south Scotland, making him the first “king of the English”. In Bede’s manuscript Life of Saint Cuthbert, Æthelstan is illustrated presenting a book to the saint. This is the earliest surviving representation of a king, thus the first royal portrait.

 

 

Whilst the Codex Amiatinus mentioned earlier is the most impressive manuscript in the exhibition, it is without a doubt that the Ruthwell Cross is the most remarkable non-book object. Although some may be disappointed that it is a digitally cut replica rather than the real thing, it is one of the best examples of Hiberno-Saxon art – a style that thrived after the departure of the Romans.

The original, found in the village of Ruthwell, Scotland, is a stone cross that reaches over five metres in height and is elaborately carved with scenes from the life of Christ. Although there are some debates about what these scenes are, most agree that they show characters such as Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and Christ himself. One carving may represent one of Jesus’ miracles, the healing of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52).

Believed to have been made in the 8th century, the cross features an unusual mix of Latin and Old English runes. Whilst it is odd to find both languages on the stone, the use of runes on a Christian monument was extremely rare. The runes spell out of a version of The Dream of the Rood, one of the oldest surviving Old English poems, which tells the story of the crucifixion of Christ from the perspective of the tree cut down to make the cross to which Christ was nailed. A written copy of this can be found in the late-10th-century Vercelli Book displayed nearby.

 

 

“At the present moment, there are the languages of five peoples in Britain … English, British, Irish and Pictish, as well as Latin.”
– Bede

Religious books were not the only genre written during the Anglo-Saxon period. As the English language developed, more people were learning to read and write. Poetry was inspired by the multicultural and multilingual societies and made easier to write with the introduction of the Roman alphabet. Although parchment was expensive, people were able to practice writing on whale-bone tablets. These were covered in wax and scratched into with a bone stylus.

In one display cabinet is an example of an Anglo-Saxon glossary, a precursor of the modern dictionary. Unlike the older books in the collection, the Old English language is written in the new alphabet and is, therefore, legible. The first word on the opened page is “anser”, which is the Old English for “goose”. This is followed by “anguila” meaning “eel”.

Surviving in full, although undated, Beowulf is the longest epic poem written in Old English. Judging by the handwriting, it is thought to have been written in the late-10th or early-11th century, however, its author remains unknown. Consisting of more than 3000 lines, Beowulf tells the story of its eponymous hero as he battles with a monster named Grendel and a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure. The manuscript in the British Library is extremely fragile as a result of being exposed to the flames of the fire at Cottons Library and poor handling during the following years. A brief audio clip of Beowulf is available to listen to during the exhibition.

As well as literature, there was a growing interest in the natural sciences, although no Old English word exists for this topic. It was a branch of scholarship that combined religion with the order of the universe. As early as the 7th century, people were looking up at the stars and contemplating what was out there. In De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things),  Isidore of Seville (d. 636) sought to combat superstition by offering explanations for natural phenomena, for instance, the planets of the solar system, as shown in one manuscript. This shows the ‘position of the seven wandering stars … called planets by the Greeks’ – the moon, Mercury, Lucifer, ‘which is also called Venus’, Vesper (or Mars), Foeton, ‘which they call Jupiter’, and Saturn – which all rotate around the Earth.

Most scientific texts were not written in England but imported from the continent and translated into Old English. These included books of remedies, particularly herbal remedies, which was the basis of medieval medicine. An example shown in the exhibition is lavishly illustrated with paintings of plants and animals, although these are not accurate enough to identify specific species.

“Books are glorious … they gladden every man’s soul.”
Solomon and Saturn, 10th Century

Naturally, books are the prominent feature of exhibitions at the British Library and it is through these that the major changes of Anglo-Saxon Britain can be determined. Religion remained a key theme throughout the exhibition, starting with the various versions of the Gospels as previously mentioned. After the conversion of the kings in the 7th century, the country became a deeply religious area, which helped to influence and strengthen the power of future kings.

King Edgar (959-75), the great-grandson of Alfred the Great, used the rising religious standards to his benefit. In control of the entire kingdom of the English, Edgar took the opportunity to reform and improve religious standards. Adopting the Rule of Saint Benedict written in the 6th century by Benedict of Nursia (480–550), Edgar reformed the way abbeys and monasteries functioned, for instance, separating monks and nuns into different establishments. As a result, the monasteries and nunneries began to prosper and become quite powerful.

“Nothing has gone well for a long time now … there has been harrying and hunger, burning and bloodshed.”
– Archbishop Wulfton

Whilst England was a wealthy and organised kingdom during the reign of King Edgar, its time of prosperity was not to last. The 980s brought more Viking raiders to the country and warfare was once again underway. As Archbishop Wulfton noted in The Sermon of the Wulf (1009), of which an audio excerpt is available, things were not going well for the Anglo-Saxons. By 1016, England had been conquered by Cnut (990-1035), the King of Denmark, who expanded his empire to include Norway and parts of Sweden. Cnut was a ruthless ruler and disposed of many of the aristocrats and governors of England, however, he allowed previous English laws to continue and supported the Church. He is most famous for the disputed tale that he set his throne on the seashore and commanded the tide to turn, which, of course, it did not.

After Cnut’s death in 1035, two of his sons, Harold and Harthacnut, had short reigns, eventually leading to the return of the royal English bloodline in the form of Edward the Confessor (1003-1066), the son of Aethelred II. Most people will know about the reign of King Edward, Harold Godwinson, the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror (1028-1087), and the Library mentions very little about the period.

 

The Coronation of William the Conqueror brought the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons to an end, however, the exhibition could not close without the inclusion of one of the most famous books in history. At the end of 1085, William ordered a detailed survey of his kingdom, which, completed seven months later, revealed the names of landholders, settlements and assets of England. Titled the Domesday Book, a total of 31 counties were accounted for and 13,418 settlements recorded. A brief video provided by the British Library explains the importance of this book and how it offers a snapshot of the wealth and landscape of the late Anglo-Saxons.

The British Library has made excellent use of all the surviving books to paint a mental picture of English life between the 6th and 12th century. Amongst the books are remains of ancient artefacts discovered during excavations, for instance, the Burnham and the Staffordshire hoards.

Dubbed “by some distance, the most significant exhibition in London,” by the Evening Standard, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms surpasses expectations. Rather than being a display of books that most people can’t read due to the Old English language, it is a concise history of the Anglo-Saxons and an insight into how the world we experience today stems from the events of so many centuries ago.  The exhibition will appeal to a wide range of people from academics to those with a little interest in English history, although, it may not be overly exciting for young children.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will remain open until Tuesday 19th February 2019. Full price tickets cost £16, however, concessions are available. Members of the British Library can view the exhibition for free.

The Voyages of James Cook

On the 26th August 1768, James Cook and 93 others set sail from England aboard HMS Endeavour on the first of three voyages that would change the world. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the merchant ship leaving Plymouth on a 1051 day trip in which numerous discoveries were made that helped to shape the world as we know it. In honour of this anniversary, the British Library recently put on a detailed exhibition about all three of Cook’s important voyages, featuring original documents such as maps, artworks and handwritten journals.

 

 

James Cook, born in Yorkshire in 1728, was the second of eight children of a Scottish farm labourer. Despite having been raised to work on a farm, Cook was lured by the sea, becoming an apprentice to John Walker, a shipowner in the nearby port of Whitby. His first assignment was aboard the cargo ship Freelove in 1748, however, it was not only a case of learning how to sail a ship. As part of his studies, Cook had to become proficient in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, navigation and astronomy, the latter which would put him on his path to fame.

By 1755, Cook had enlisted in the Royal Navy and was fighting in the Seven Years War. Although he had to begin at the bottom as an able-bodied seaman, his hard work during the global conflict soon saw him climbing the ranks. Cook returned to England in 1762, where he married Elizabeth Batts (1742–1835) on 21st December 1762 at St Margaret’s Church, Barking, Essex. Little is known about Cook’s home life because, after his death, Elizabeth destroyed many of his personal papers.

Whilst fighting during the war, Cook was stationed on the seas near North America where he took the opportunity to produce the first large-scale and accurate maps of Newfoundland. This, as well as his mastery of practical surveying, brought him to the attention of the Admiralty and Royal Society, which would result in his first overseas discovery voyage.

“Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” – James Cook

During the 18th-century, Europe was advancing with scientific discovery and technological development, seeking rational explanations for the existence of everything on Earth. Now referred to as the Enlightenment, this was a time when religion and traditions began to be challenged. The British Library included evidence of the ideas British people believed before the embarkation of HMS Endeavour, including incorrectly drawn maps featuring non-existent continents.

 

 

The first voyage took place between 1768 and 1771 with the purpose of observing and recording the transit of Venus across the Sun, which would help to determine the distance of the Earth from the Sun. This phenomenon is not common, therefore, it was crucial that this expedition was undertaken at this moment. Since 1769, the Transit has only occurred four times, the next being December 2117. Unbeknownst to the public, Cook, a lieutenant at the time, and the rest of the crew were also tasked with searching out new lands and trading opportunities, including the locating of the hypothesised southern continent, Terra Australis.

In order to view the Transit of Venus, Cook needed to be in Tahiti by June 1769, however, he visited many places before he reached the island. The first landfall was Madeira, off the northwest coast of Africa on 12th September 1768. This was followed by Brazil a few months later and Tierra del Fuego at the beginning of the following year. The group of islands was the southernmost inhabited place that Cook came across and lies off the tip of South America. The British Library had examples of weapons and jewellery belonging to the Haush people who inhabited the islands.

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Sir Joseph Banks by Joshua Reynolds

Whilst James Cook receives all the glory for the voyage upon HMS Endeavour and the later voyages aboard HMS Resolution, there were many other people with vital roles amongst the crew. At each destination, examples of plants and animals were collected, drawn and preserved to be taken back to England and studied by naturalists and biologists. The man in charge of this task was the young naturalist Joseph Banks (1743-1829), who paid for himself and his team to join the Endeavour voyage. His team was made up of a Swedish botanist, Dr Daniel Solander (1733-82); a secretary, Herman Diedrich Sporing (1733-71); two artists, Sydney Parkinson (1745-71) and Alexander Buchan (d1769); and four servants.

Joseph Banks came from a rich London family and became enchanted with nature and natural history from a very young age. After studying Botany at Oxford University, Banks was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, where he became aware of the planned expedition to observe the Transit of Venus. Knowing this would be a grand opportunity to study the wildlife of foreign lands, Banks quickly established a place for himself and his companions on board HMS Endeavour.

During the voyage, Banks and his team collected an estimated 1000 zoological specimens and 30,000 plants, 1400 of which species had never been seen before in the west. One of these plants was the now common bougainvillaea, named after a friend of James Cook, Louis Antoine de Bougainville. Descriptions and drawings were included as part of the British Library’s exhibition, including journals written in Banks’ hand.

The Library displayed a couple of specimens preserved from the original voyage, including a pencil sea urchin found in the Pacific ocean. Many of Bank’s other finds are currently kept at the Natural History Museum in London.

 

Amongst the drawings displayed throughout the exhibition were a handful of child-like impressions of the scenes James Cook and the other crew members saw on their journey. These were drawn by Tupaia, a high priest of Oro – the god of war – who Cook and Banks befriended in Tahiti. Tupaia’s intelligent knowledge of the area helped Cook to draw a detailed map complete with island names. Tupaia also acted as a tour guide to the crew, introducing them to new traditions and culture.

Drawings by Tupaia included a typical Tahitian scene, complete with traditional longhouse and canoes, a dancer and Chief Mourner at a funeral, and a depiction of a Māori trading a crayfish with Joseph Banks. The latter was drawn in New Zealand where Tupaia had accompanied Cook to act as an interpreter and help establish good relationships between the British and the natives. Tupaia’s ultimate aim was to return to England with Cook, however, he died after suffering from a fever in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) in 1770.

Cook spent six months circumnavigating New Zealand, producing a detailed map of its coastline, thus disproving the theory that the Great Southern Continent existed in that area. From New Zealand, the ship sailed to eastern Australia, or New Holland as it was then known, landing at the Kurnell Peninsula, or as Cook named it, Botany Bay.

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‘Kanguru’

As with the other areas they visited, whilst Cook attempted to make relations with the natives, Banks and his companions took stock of the plants and animal species growing in the area. Shortly after disembarking, the team saw an animal ‘as large as a greyhound, of a mouse colour and very swift’. This, it turned out, was the native kangaroo, an animal that was alien to Europeans. Sydney Parkinson, the naturalist draughtsman, produced the first sketch of what they called a “Kanguru”.

Parkinson was offered a place on HMS Endeavour by Banks who was impressed with his talent for drawing flowers. As well as drawing the specimens Banks collected, Parkinson also kept a detailed journal of the things he saw, including the journey, weather, customs and languages. This was particularly valuable for the scientists back home who were unable to view the countries first-hand. Unfortunately, Parkinson never made it back to England, dying of dysentery, which he contracted in Indonesia.

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The Resolution and Adventure among the icebergs

Despite everything discovered on the first voyage, the Admiralty was determined to locate the Great Southern Continent and sent Cook, now a commander, on another expedition to find it. Aboard HMS Resolution, with Captain Tobias Furneaux (1735-81) following on its convoy ship, HMS Adventure, Cook set sail for Africa in 1772. From here, the aim was to keep going south, searching for this fictional piece of land. Although Cook disproved the existence of Terra Australis, he went so far south that he unintentionally lead the first expedition to cross the Antarctic Circle.

Similarly to the first voyage, Cook sailed with a number of other companions, including the naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-98) and his son Georg (1754-94), who produced a handful of paintings shown at the British Library. In total, 112 people sailed on HMS Resolution, many of whom produced written or visual accounts of the journey and findings. The exhibition displayed journals from the astronomer William Wales (1734-98) and sketches by William Hodges (1744-97), both of whom contributed to the development of scientific knowledge.

As well as Antarctica, Cook revisited Australia and New Zealand followed by the Friendly Islands (Tonga), Easter Island and Vanuatu. In 1775, HMS Resolution turned homeward, landing in Portsmouth on 30th July, bringing the news that the Great Southern Continent did not exist. Nonetheless, the Admiralty and Royal Society were pleased with Cook’s accomplishments and promoted him to the rank of Captain.

 

Having now accepted that the Great Southern Continent did not exist, James Cook was sent back to sea in 1776 from Plymouth to New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands to attempt to discover the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, which would help to shorten the trade route. The Library displayed weapons constructed from reindeer skin and wooden armour worn by people met during the journey.

As with both the previous voyages, HMS Resolution was filled with people of a number of different roles, most importantly a botanist and the official artist, John Webber (1751-93).  Whilst Cook searched for the Northwest Passage, which turned out to be impassable, Webber produced numerous detailed drawings and paintings of the lands they visited.

Whereas HMS Resolution had sailed as far south as Antarctica on her previous voyage, she now went as far north as the Arctic. Journals by Cook and other crew members suggest that Cook struggled more with this journey, often losing his temper, forcing the crew to eat inedible walrus (or what he mistakenly called “sea horse”) flesh.

After leaving the Arctic, HMS Resolution sailed on, eventually landing at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i in January 1779. Their arrival coincided with the Makahiki, a Hawaiian harvest festival of worship for the Polynesian deity, Lono. As a result, Cook was forced to join in a peculiar ceremony, which was documented by the ship’s artist. Unfortunately, many of the crew thought Cook had shown himself as weak by joining in, rather than the composed captain as he was supposed to be seen.

The crew stayed in Hawai’i for approximately one month before setting off to explore the rest of the North Pacific. Regrettably, the foremast of the Resolution broke shortly after departing, forcing the ship to turn around and sail back to land – a decision that proved to be fatal. Before Cook could set back out to sea, some of the natives stole one of the small boats belonging to the ship. Cook was used to thefts and usually took people hostage until his possessions were returned. Unfortunately, in an attempt to kidnap the King of Hawaiʻi, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, Cook was attacked by angry Hawai’ians resulting in a blow to the head followed by repeated stabbing until he was dead. Four other Marines were also killed and HMS Resolution returned to England on 4th October 1780 to a rather subdued welcome.

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The first voyage is shown in red, second voyage in green, and the third voyage in blue. The route of Cook’s crew following his death is shown as a dashed blue line.

Although James Cook’s three voyages shaped Europe’s knowledge of the world, the results of his expeditions are still open to controversy. In documentary videos around the British Library featuring people from some of the countries Cook visited, the famous broadcaster Sir David Attenborough (b1926) looked into the negative impacts of the three voyages.

Controversial aspects include violence and unnecessary death in New Zealand and eventual imperialism in Australia. Other countries and islands were now of interest to people in Europe and were soon to be colonised, virtually eradicating native societies, traditions and countries.

The British Library attempted to show both the good and bad results of James Cook’s three voyages, however, by doing so, did not go into all that much detail about the trips and discoveries. Everything revolved around the items they had collected, such as drawings, journals and a few specimens; anything not visually documented was forgotten about, leading those who did not previously know much about James Cook wondering why it is mainly him and not other crew members that are remembered for the voyages.

In terms of science and geography, the voyages have shaped the way we view the world, including evidence of lives and religions pre-western colonisation. From the specimens collected, botanists, naturalists and scientists have been able to discover so much more about the properties of plants and animals from different locations. Although it is much easier to accomplish what Cook did today, with faster means of travel and scientific equipment, without Cook and the others to show Europe what was out there, the determination to learn more may not have flourished quite as strongly.

James Cook: The Voyages closed on 28th August 2018 to make way for the Anglo-Saxon exhibition opening on 19th October. However, those interested in Cook’s discoveries can view various documents and drawings at the Natural History Museum throughout the remainder of this 250th anniversary year.