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Explore your Archive

Next week the Bodleian Libraries will be participating in the Explore Your Archive campaign. Now it in its third year, Explore Your Archive is an annual campaign deliverd by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association to promote the UK archives sector.

From Monday 16 November through to Friday 20 November the Archives and Manuscripts blog will feature daily posts on some of our current work and items from our collections selected by staff.

Search and Searchability, or Desperately Seeking Susan’s Husband: an anonymous Regency diarist revealed

The diaries in question comprise three small volumes, written on three separate excursions to the South coast in the summers of 1813, 1821 and 1822. They were purchased in late 2012 as anonymous holiday diaries.

John Cox diary 1813-cover

The path to discovery is so convoluted that I thought it would be worth recording the steps by which authorship was established. The story illustrates the power of the Internet, not necessarily in the data it contains (though there is much of great use), but more in its ability to establish links between isolated snippets of information which themselves may lead nowhere, but together provide enough pieces to complete the jigsaw.

Before I outline the steps to discovery, I will make a short digression on the subject of Fawcett Road, Southsea. When my grandmother died in 1989 we found her birth certificate among her papers, and discovered that her mother’s maiden name was Lesar. She was born in South Africa, and I was keen to discover who the Lesars were. I knew absolutely nothing about the family, and that is the way it remained for many years. However, as the internet grew and there was more and more family history activity, I found quite a lot of information about the name Lesar. It is a Sephardic Jewish name; or it is a French Huguenot name. Or a German name. Or Croatian perhaps. You can find all these facts out there, but I was getting no nearer to establishing who my Lesars were. I did however find a passenger list recording the voyage of my South African family to England in 1923. The address they gave as their destination was Fawcett Road, Southsea.

1280px-VOC-schip_'Slot_Ter_Hooge'_op_de_rede_van_Rammakens

Dutch East India Company ship

I searched the Internet for the actual address, and to my astonishment found the exact address on a family history website that linked up many families including my great grandfather’s family from Nottinghamshire.The owner of the website had lost track of my great grandfather and his brother because she was unaware that the reason they disappear from British records is that they had emigrated to South Africa. The Fawcett Road address, however, established that their sister lived in Southsea. From this one piece of information I have reconstructed the family history, established links with a double cousin (the two emigrant brothers married two Lesar sisters in South Africa), and found that the Lesars in the Cape originated with a ship’s boy, Isaac Lesar or Leser, a German in service with the Dutch East India Company, who arrived in Cape Town in 1787.

So what has this got to do with our seaside journals? I mention it because the whole process of discovery illustrates the point about what can be done with the tiniest scrap of information when there are means to link it to data elsewhere. So the first thing needed to identify our author was belief that it would be possible and not a complete waste of time. Fortunately the diaries are quite short, and so I set myself to read through them as quickly as possible to pick up any references to names or places that might give the slightest lead. Let me list the scraps of information in the order I found them.

James_Pollard_-_North_Country_Mails_at_the_Peacock,_Islington_-_Google_Art_Project

Mail coaches at the Peacock, Islington, 1821 [Wikimedia Commons]

 i) The author was certainly from London, where he began his coach journey, and appeared to be from Islington. In the 1822 diary he begins by telling us that he wished himself 1000 times back in Pleasant Row – apparently he always began his holidays in a gloomy mood. Pleasant Row was certainly the name of a street in early 19th-century Islington (now Pleasant Place) as I was able to establish from the digitised version of the Victoria County History for Middlesex.

ii) The author was on holiday with his wife, whom he refers to as Mrs C. This suggested that his own surname began with C.

Cox sketches

Sketch of the Govers near Hastings, 1813

iii) The author knew someone by the name of Mr Basire. In the 1813 volume he tells us that having gone out sketching with his camera lucida, and dined on duck, he wrote to Basire and Mr Barnett. The combination of the unusual name of Basire and the camera lucida gave me grounds for optimism that he might have something to do with the well- known dynasty of engravers, James Basire, and his son James Basire II.

iv) The author received a letter from William Tite to tell him that William’s mother was going to join the author on holiday. William Tite was also sufficiently uncommon a name to try searching, and I immediately found a William Tite born in 1798 who was in the Dictionary of National Biography as a noted architect. This seemed too good to be true. However, I had seen a pencilled note at the end of the 1822 volume which I took to read ‘S Elgar artillery cottage Brighton’. I noticed in the DNB entry for WilliamTite that his mother was one Sarah Elgie, and on returning to the inscription later, realised that it did indeed read ‘Elgie’. But that is jumping a little ahead.

Cox sketch

Sketch of ‘Sumpting’ (Sompting) church, 1822

v) Mrs Tite joined our author and his wife on holiday. The author, Mrs C and Mrs Tite went for a walk, and the ‘two sisters’ fell twice on the slippery grass. So now I had established a relationship with the Tite family, but I still had no surnames as I hadn’t picked up the significance of the name Elgie at this point. The author also refers to ‘Susan’, and from the context it was apparent that Susan was one and the same as Mrs C.

vi) On 17 August our author records that he received a letter from Mr Basire and another from Benj. Cox. The name Cox interested me given that our author was Mr C. So I searched James Basire together with Cox, and found that James Basire II had married a Mary Cox. Now I returned to the previous entry mentioning Basire and Mr Barnett, and searched Cox, Basire and Barnett. This landed me on Exeter Working Papers in Book History: London 1775-1800 which showed me that Basire, Barnett and Cox were all engravers or printers, and that there was a company Cox, son, and Barnett, copper plate printers, 6, Bream’s Buildings, Chancery Lane. I then contacted Julian Pooley, an expert on John Nichols, editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine,  and his family of printers and antiquaries, whose archives are a major source for the study of the book trade. He confirmed that Nichols corresponded with Cox and Barnett, and that the company was employed in producing plates for the Gentleman’s Magazine.

vii) The final piece of the jigsaw was established with the author’s entry for 25 August 1813. Having visited a dripping well and eaten a fine custard pudding, he recorded that ‘I wrote on Tuesday last to Mr Basire to ask the favour of Mary to come with Mr and Mrs Moore should they come here – or if Mr and Mrs B thought proper to let James and Mary come – should like much to shew my dear Mary the delightful scenes rural, Romantic & grand …’.

John Cox diary 1813-Basire

“I wrote on Tuesday last to Mr Basire”

 This ‘dear Mary’ was clearly intimate with the author; furthermore she was dependent on James Basire, and linked with another James. Surely this must be Mary Cox, wife of James Basire II? And this evidence suggested that the author was most probably her brother.

But I still did not know his name. So I tried searching for Susan Cox Islington, and when this proved fruitless, I tried Susannah as I believed I had seen the name so written though I had not noted it. ‘Susannah Cox Islington’ revealed the existence of a will in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury records in the National Archives, dated 1831. To view this required a subscription, but fortunately a colleague’s mother had the necessary memberships, and soon I had the information I needed. To my delight I found that Susannah Cox, widow, lived at 4 Pleasant Row. She left her worldly goods to various Basires and Elgies. She even left a copy of Hannah More’s Practical Piety which Mr Cox mentioned in his diary as his companion on a lonely walk one day. But I still did not know her husband’s name though he was now established as Mr Cox, brother-in-law of James Basire II.

The camera lucida in action [Wikimedia Commons]

The camera lucida in action [Wikimedia Commons]

Surely, since I knew now that Mr Cox must have died between 1822 and 1831, it must be possible to find his will too. A search for Cox Islington turned up one or two post-1831 wills. But then I remembered that on one occasion Mr Cox mentions his wife’s birthday, her age and the length of time they had been married, which in 1822 was thirty-one years. So now I tried a new tack, looking for the marriage of Mr Cox and Susannah Elgie in London in 1791. And quite quickly I found it in a digitised copy of The Register Book of Marriages belonging to the Parish of St George Hanover Square. John Cox married Susannah Elgie on 15 February 1791.

With all this information it was now easy to find John Cox’s will in the PCC records. He did not have an Islington address, but instead used his business address – Bream’s Buildings, Chancery Lane, the location of Cox, son and Barnett. His obituary was in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1825, a rather poignant recollection of the man which fitted well with what I had come to know of him in his short diaries kept in just three summers of his life – his religion, his interest in music, and above all his fascination with medieval churches which he sketched with his camera lucida.

Gent Mag Cox obit

 

Marks of Genius and Waterloo 200: The MP for Banbury meets Napoleon in 1814

The current Bodleian exhibition, Marks of Genius, asks us to consider the meaning and context of the concept of genius. In this 200th anniversary year of the battle of Waterloo, it seems appropriate to kill two birds with one blog, and consider a contemporary attitude to Napoleon whom many, even his opponents, regarded as a genius.

Opnamedatum: 22-08-2008Frederick Sylvester North Douglas (1791-1819). Print from an original sketch by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Rome 1815 [Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, ref. RP-P-1972-6]

 

Frederick Sylvester North Douglas (1791-1819), MP for Banbury, classical scholar and admirer of Byron, was on the Grand Tour from 1814 to 1816. This necessary part of the education of a gentleman had been denied to Britons during the almost continuous wars with France from 1793 to 1814. But now, with Napoleon defeated and exiled to the tiny island of Elba, the once invincible Emperor himself had become part of the tour. There are at least three accounts of visits to him on Elba in the manuscript collections of the Bodleian Libraries.

Elba_Bay_-_PortoferraioPortoferraio, Elba

 In November 1814 Frederick Douglas was in the north of Italy, and resolved to arrange a visit to Bonaparte to see for himself what the conqueror of much of Europe was really like. He booked himself a passage with Captain Adye on HMS Partridge, a small warship which plied between Elba and the mainland and patrolled the Elba station. Douglas wrote in his journal [MS. Eng. misc. c. 815] on Monday 14 November:

When we awoke after a very quiet night we found ourselves entering Porto Ferraio one of the safest as well as most beautiful in the Mediterranean.… The town itself tho very steep is prettily situated in an amphitheatre upon the port. … The house in which Napoleon has fixed his residence is in the upper part of the town with a fine view of the sea & of every vessel that goes out or in. It is in itself a very simple & I should suppose a small house with nothing to mark the imperial residence.

The British agent informed Douglas that the best way to meet Napoleon was to stand at the Porta di Terra, and sure enough, after they had waited some time, Napoleon ‘appeared in a barouche drawn by four indifferent grey horses & two green postillions.’ Douglas believed he might be able to spot a genius from his outward appearance:

All was extremely simple if not shabby but he was followed by four or five officers & two Polish lancers upon wretched post hacks who were joined by two miserable looking Mamalukes one a black & the other a French man. He was sitting with his hat on but accompanied by an aide de camp who remained all the time uncovered. When Buonaparte saw us he moved his hat & made a bow which Captain Adye thought formal. Buonaparte is not so fat as I expected. He is short & full in the face with a remarkably healthy look. At the same time we saw him he was sulky but his eye was full & clear & there was look [sic] of great sense & intelligence more than of remarkable genius in his countenance. I might I think pass him in the street without looking round. None of the persons I have heard considered as like him are like him at all, Alfred Harris, Lord Wellesley etc, & none of the prints. But the best is that which has the inscription, Adieu Malmaison, particularly in manner. His complexion is brown, but he looks younger than his age. However growing fat must have altered him extremely.

Alfred Harris would appear to be Revd the hon. [Thomas] Alfred Harris (son of James Harris 1st earl of Malmesbury) who, like Douglas, was an alumnus of Christ Church, Oxford.

 

P1030676Corsica and Elba, from the Carta Amministrativa del Regno D’Italia (1806). The Kingdom of Italy was created by Napoleon in 1805, with himself as its first king.

 

Later, Douglas commented on Napoleon’s villa, and was filled with

surprize admiration & compassion to see the simplicity of his tastes … . His retirement & his amusements are certainly those of a great man & an hero.

There followed an incident with an officious member of Napoleon’s staff who wished to clear the crowds away from Napoleon’s residence and threatened to use the Polish lancers to do it. Douglas’s military companions took offence, and acting as interpreter Douglas was asked to find out the officer’s name which he eventually gave reluctantly and rudely as ‘Roule’. This must be the Major Roule who had a reputation for officiousness and is mentioned in The journal of Sir Neil Campbell, published as Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba (London, 1869).

On the next day an opportunity to visit Napoleon was missed, but

we again saw Buonaparte who was going out in his carriage & who bowed to us with much more civility & with a smile which had something very gracious & attractive in it. His countenance continues to give me what is the idea I had formed of his character, more that of great sense than of genius, of calculation than of greatness. I see no marks of want of amiability in his features but much the look & manner of a gentleman.

At last, on Wednesday 16 November Douglas was granted an interview with the great man. He immediately wrote up what he could remember of his conversation in a breathless stream of unpunctuated text, interrupting his usual journal ‘in order to put down Buonaparte’s conversation fresh as it came to my recollection’.

FSND-journal-16-Nov-1814“I am just returned from a conversation of near an hour with Buonaparte”

The interview seems to have been rather one-sided, with Napoleon apparently asking all the questions. Douglas seems to have been a little disappointed at his ignorance of British affairs. I have added punctuation:

I am just returned from a conversation of near an hour with Buonaparte. He first asked me where I came from, where I was going, what place I represented, whether it was a family borough, how the election was conducted, what my father’s name was, whether he was chief of my family, who was, how many Scotch peers there were … . He talked of Milan, asked whether the Milanese were not tired of the Austrians … . Asked who were the principal people in the Ministry & opposition, but seemed to know very little about them. Asked what had become of Lord Sidmouth, whether Grey & Holland were not the head of the Opposition & Burdett. Asked a great deal about our seigniorial rights & did not know they had been all abolished. Wished to know when territorial slavery was abolished & seemed surprized to find it so early. Talked about the Puritans whom he seemed to confound with the Presbyterians. His voice is disagreable & his manner of speaking thick & unintelligible. His manner was however agreable & his look expressed the utmost kindness & civility. He asked the name of our chief families in Scotland & England, wanted to know whether there were not some boroughs in which there was no election – how many nobles, by which he meant landholders, in the house of Commons, how many connexions of the house of peers, talked much about Ireland, & said they had very absurd tenets as Catholics, seemed to wish to change the subject when I had changed it to his wife. Talked much about our way of marrying. Tried to find out [if] we were discontented in Scotland, asked about the dress, knew the 42nd & 94th. … He asked a great deal about Oxford, Cambridge & Edinburgh but seemed perfectly ignorant of everything about either [sic].

Douglas was the son of the Scottish peer and politician, Sylvester Douglas, baron Glenbervie (1743-1823),  which explains the Scottish interest. The 42nd and 94th were Scottish regiments. The former, the famous ‘Black Watch’, had fought throughout the Peninsular War, and faced Napoleon again only seven months after this interview. In February 1815 Napoleon made his escape from Elba and began the ‘Hundred Days’ that culminated at Waterloo on 18 June.

Douglas was only twenty-three years of age in 1814, but Napoleon thought he was much older:

He said I was not forty yet? He said vous buvez beaucoup [do you drink a lot]? I answered, thinking he meant the Scotch, oui mais pas qu’ autre fois. Le taxe sur le vin l’empeche mais ici vous pouvez boire sans taxe [yes, but not as much as in former times. The tax on wine prevents it, but here you can drink without tax]; when I found he meant me.

An interesting perspective on the interview with Napoleon is provided in a letter from Lady Mackintosh to John Whishaw, 22 December 1814, published in The “Pope” of Holland House: Selections from the correspondence of John Whishaw and his friends 1813-1840 (London, 1906).