A night to remember


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The 31st October is a date which you might notice in the diary – perhaps an evening you mark with a ghoulish costume, or by taking the children trick or treating, or even staying in and watching a film that makes you want to hide behind the sofa. Hallowe’en has been marked for centuries as the feast of All Hallow’s Eve, preceding All Souls Day in the Christian Church calendar, absorbing the Celtic festival of Samhain.

A woodcut image of Luther being played, as an instrument, by the devil.

A contemporary image showing a monk (possibly Luther) as a literal instrument of the devil: popular print shows both fierce opposition and support on all sides during the Reformation. (Woodcut pasted into R9935)

This year, Hallowe’en marks an extra special date. 500 years ago, according to tradition on 31st October, Martin Luther chose this festival to publicise his complaints about the Roman Catholic Church as part of an argument for reform. His actions and this document, now known as the 95 Theses, would spark centuries of warfare, political turmoil and endless debate.

As part of the current exhibition about the early years of the Reformation, visitors have been asked to think about what they would like to change about the world, just as Luther did. Responses have been varied and intriguing, from ending wars to using correct grammar; some consider religion outdated while others see it as the future. The diversity of responses to this single question no doubt mirrors the diversity of people’s opinions in the years after 1517, as the many new ideas of the Reformation forced individuals to make a choice.

So what does this matter: 500 years on, should we care? Does it matter that Luther, amongst others, challenged the Church and set in motion events which we now know as the Reformation? This year, why not change your plans for the 31st October and join us for an evening of activities, collection close ups, music and debate as we ask: Who Gives a Fig?

Alongside close up viewings of some of the important Reformation material in the John Rylands collections, there will be demonstrations of printing, performances of contemporary ballads and a debate involving historians, religious leaders and broadcasters which will give you the chance to make up your own mind: 500 years on, should we give a fig?

You can book online for The Reformation: Who Gives a Fig at www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/whats-on: just follow the links for the event on 31st October. Join us for a Hallowe’en to remember!

If you’re interested in personal responses to the Reformation exhibition, search #jrlReformation on Twitter for some insights.


Picturing the The West Riding Asylum, Menston, Yorkshire. 1901.


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We have a further addition to Visual Collections items that have been catalogued as part of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Our latest set of prints to be fully catalogued and available through Library Search and fully digitised and available to view in our online image collections is a fascinating album of the facilities at West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum from 1901. In fact the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum referred not a single establishment, but to four hospitals under the West Riding General Asylums Committee, the oldest of these being Stanley Royd Hospital, Wakefield established in 1818, with three more hospitals being opened in the following years, the South Yorkshire Asylum, Sheffield, (1872), High Royds Hospital, Menston, (1888) and Storthes Hall, Kirkburton (1904). This album of prints is of the Menston Asylum, sometimes referred to as The Third West Riding County Lunatic Asylum and later known as High Royds Hospital.


Image of the front elevation of Menston asylum, c.1901

The Menston asylum was designed by the architect J. Vickers Edwards and completed in 1888, laid out in echelon arrangement to form a broad arrow plan, a device which had only been developed in the previous few years [1]. It was set in a 300-acre estate within the metropolitan borough of Leeds.  The album is of 32 gelatin silver or collodion printing-out-paper prints, each approximately 16.5 x 11.4 cm mounted side-by-side in pre-cut grey mounts, all fully titled in ink. We also have some provenance information as the inscription at the front of the album reads ‘Dr T O’Conor Donelan, Menston Asylum, Leeds Nov. 19. 1901’. Dr Thomas O’Conor Donelan, worked at the asylum until 1905 before being appointed Senior Medical Officer at Middlesex County Asylum. He was in post there until his death in 1914 from pneumonia [2].


The Cricket XI at Menston , including Dr Thomas o’Conor Donelan, third from right, front row, c.1901

The photographs in the album are of both the exterior and interior of the asylum, including studies showing the male and female inmates working in the tailors shop and the bookbinding workshop. Some show the inmates engaged in recreational activities; such as sitting in the day rooms or in the extensive grounds. Another image shows a fire practice with men training hoses against an outside wall.

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Interestingly, there is also a print of the asylum photography studio, which is a room with large windows, filled with daylight and featuring a large camera set upon tripod. The fact of their being a studio in the asylum is perhaps not so surprising, as the connection between photography and psychiatry had been explored as early as the 1850’s by Hugh Welch Diamond. In a paper read to the Royal Society in 1856, outlining his theories of the use of photography in psychiatry, ‘On the application of photography to the physiognomy and mental phenomena of insanity’, Diamond argued that photography had three important functions in the treatment of the insane: as a method of recording physiognomies of the mentally ill for study, of treating the mentally ill through the presentation of an accurate self-image, and of documenting the faces of patients to facilitate identification for later readmission and treatment [3].


Above left: Caricature portrait of Sir James Crichton-Browne, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London [n.d.]

Above right: Print of the photography studio at Menston c.1901

Like Welch, another pioneer of the practice of ‘neuropsychiatric photography’ was Sir James Crichton-Browne. Chrichton-Browne spent almost ten years, from 1866 until 1875, at the earliest of the West Riding Asylums, Stanley Royd Hospital, Wakefield, as the Physician-Superintendent. He collaborated with Charles Darwin on The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and he himself took many photographs of inmates. There are certainly some distressing images from the West Riding asylums from this period; The Wellcome Library has a set of portraits from the Wakefield asylum, some of which have been taken by Crichton-Browne, that do not make for comfortable viewing. However, like Welch, these images may not have been taken simply for the purpose of classification but perhaps also for the therapeutic use of the photographic medium. Maybe it was Crichton-Browne’s legacy that influenced the inclusion of a studio in the later Menston Asylum.

In fact, the thing that struck me most whilst cataloguing the prints was how sensitively the photographs which include the patients have been shot. Undoubtedly the images have been staged to some degree, as one colleague remarked, it almost looks like a brochure advertising the asylum. Whatever the motivation, it seems as though there has been some trouble taken to show the patients with care and to represent them in a dignified manner. Also evident is that the facilities there were extensive and impressive. There was even a railway, originally laid down to transport building materials in the mid-1880s and retained to transport goods to the hospital; it joined the Otley and Ilkley extension of the main LMSR railway line.


View of the electric motor, Menston Asylum

The institution was later to become known as High Royds Hospital, a psychiatric hospital which closed its doors in 2003. The area has since been redeveloped as a village, retaining the name High Royds.

Coming next – Francis Frith’s images of Manchester c.1870’s.  Meanwhile, follow Library Tammy on IG for updates on what goes on in the Visual Collections office here are The John Rylands Library.

[1]Historic England Listing for High Royds Hospital

[2] The British Journal of Psychiatry

[3] The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Heritage Imaging team.


Photos of Women’s War Work 1914 – 1919


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Hot on the heels of the Bedford Lemere and Roger Fenton photograph albums becoming available via The Library Catalogue (and Luna) we are pleased to announce that an album of photographs by Arthur Reavil detailing Women’s War Work 1914 – 1919 will now be accessible on Library Search too.

This album contains 164 photographs which portray a significant and detailed account of women’s working lives during the First World War.  The images show women fulfilling roles traditionally associated with men, such as Signal Lamp Cleaners, Bus Mechanics, Police Women and Oxy-acetylene welders.  The outfits and uniforms are meticulously recorded, sometimes with surprising detail.  For example the London Bridge Porter who is smartly dressed in a uniform resembling that of a housemaid, but quite strangely, she is wearing small heels in spite of the physical nature the job!

Bill Posters at the Metropolitan Railway, VPH.5.50

Bill Posters at the Metropolitan Railway, VPH.5.50

There is a sequence of images from rural settings showing The Women’s Land Army. These photos show women working on farms hay baling, feeding calves, milking, hop picking and working as foresters.  In more urban surrounds there are a group of photographs where women are shown delivering cakes, driving and maintaining the fleet of vehicles for J.Lyons Catering Company.

Women's Forestry Section - Handling Pit Props VPH.5.148

Women’s Forestry Section – Handling Pit Props VPH.5.148

A large proportion of the album is dedicated to those women working on the Railways in a variety of roles. These included ticket collectors, porters and my favourite a ‘travelling library attendant’.  The index details the specific location and Railway Company, so it is clear to see that women were utilised in these rail roles across the country.

Shell Makers from North Cheshire VPH.5.104

Shell Makers from North Cheshire VPH.5.104

There is limited information about Arthur Reavil, the photographer, to be found.  It is known that his photographic subject of choice was locomotives, he gave a lecture to the Royal Photographic Society in November 1926 entitled ‘The Photography of locomotives and trains in motion’,  so maybe it is unsurprising that so many of these images are based around trains and railways.  We can only surmise what his views would have been on having women taking on these railway roles.  The National Railway Museum holds a significant collection of Reavil’s negatives, featuring French, German, Dutch and Swiss locomotives from the 1920s.

Additional blog posts will announce when further material from the Visual Collections photography collection is available, including photographs by Francis Frith of Manchester, but meanwhile, follow Library Tammy on IG for updates on what goes on in the Visual Collections office here are The John Rylands Library.

Reader Services Curious Finds -Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises


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Today’s Curious Find comes from one of our regular readers, Mr Michael Gilligan, who has brought Joseph Moxon’s Mechanik Exercises to our attention.


He says that this book, which was first published in a series of small volumes, has remained the definitive work on the printing process.

curiousmechanik6On Page 15 Moxon enthuses over the letter design and cutting of Christoffel Van Dijck of Amsterdam, and plates 11-17 are Moxon’s analysis of the font.


“…and indeed all the accomplishments that can render letter regular and beautiful, do more visibly appear in them than in any letters cut by any other people”

Mr Gilligan notes that many modern font designers decry Moxon’s attempt to reduce their art to lines and circles and analysis, but that it was, and remains, an important exercise.

Included is a frontispiece portrait of Gutenberg which puts Moxon’s ‘Mechanick Exercises’ project into context.


Today’s Curious Find is Joseph Moxon, Mechanick exercises: or, the doctrine of handy-works, applied to the art of printing (London, 1683). Available at the John Rylands Library (21081.1).

If you would like to consult any items in the Special Collections reading room, please contact the team at uml.special-collections@manchester.ac.uk or +44 (0)161 275 3764.

The Reformation – Luther and the lamp


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Scroll awarding the Freedom of the City of Manchester to Enriqueta Rylands, 1899.

Freedom of the City of Manchester, scroll awarded to Enriqueta Rylands, 1899. English MS 1139.

The Reformation exhibition at the John Rylands Library marks 500 years since Luther declared his famous 95 theses (see Renegade, rogue, radical). Today we celebrate a more recent anniversary, that of the formal opening of the John Rylands Library on 6 October 1899, which itself marked twenty four years since the marriage of John and Enriqueta Rylands. On the same day, the City of Manchester gave Enriqueta the Freedom of the City.

This beautifully illuminated scroll given to Rylands to mark the occasion includes a number of symbolic images, from the Lancashire red rose and the Manchester bee, to coats of arms and feather pens. Near the top right hand corner of the scroll is a lit oil lamp.


Oil lamp, detail of scroll.

This is not the lamp Aladdin rubbed to call up the genie, but a symbol of enlightenment. A lit lamp, or candle, has often been used as a symbol for education and learning. This is certainly appropriate for the John Rylands Library, especially as it now forms part of The University of Manchester. However, the lamp also symbolises the Reformation. Indeed, the symbol of the lit oil lamp appears in the first object displayed in our Reformation exhibition. In this engraving, based on a portrait painted during his lifetime, Luther is shown sitting at a table holding a book. The scene is lit by an oil lamp on the table.


Engraved portrait of Martin Luther, copied from a painting by Lucas Cranach, 1597.


Statue of Martin Luther in the John Rylands Library, sculpted by Robert Bridgeman

The statues ranged along the walls of the Library’s historic Reading Room represent a Nonconformist perspective on ‘the history of human thought.’ Enriqueta Rylands chose Calvin and Luther to represent the Protestant Reformation. She wanted the statues to be as historically accurate as possible and sent a copy of this engraving to the sculptors – the face of the resulting statue is quite recognisable. However, the statue in the Reading Room (see image) leaves out the objects on the table. These are more important than they might first appear; the oil lamp does not simply give Luther light to read by. The lit lamp became a Protestant symbol for the enlightenment gained by reading the  Bible. Luther was closely associated with the symbol because of his efforts to make the Bible available for people to read in their own language.

The lamp on the Freedom scroll represents Enriqueta Rylands’s contribution to education and enlightenment through the founding of the John Rylands Library, and to Protestant Nonconformity through her provision of access to the Bible in both the vernacular (local) and ‘original’ languages. The autumn exhibition shines a light on the Library’s exceptional Reformation collections and the enduring legacy of Enriqueta Rylands.


Finally, the little Manchester bee seen buzzing below the lamp in the scroll has recently appeared at Longford Park – where John and Enriqueta Rylands lived. A Manchester bee and a lit candle together form the subject of a poignant tree sculpture carved by Keith Macauley in remembrance of the Manchester Arena attack on 22 May.

History at your fingertips: celebrating the 180th anniversary of Henshaws


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This year marks the 180th anniversary of Henshaws – a charity founded in Manchester which supports individuals, families and their carers who live with sight loss and other disabilities. The Henshaws archive is held at the Library, and we are delighted to be joining Henshaws to celebrate their birthday through two collection encounters in the Historic Reading Room: the first took place on Thursday 21 September, and another session is scheduled for Saturday 14 October.

Thomas Henshaw (1731-1810) was a businessman who founded a large and successful hatting business in Oldham. Also a philanthropist, he left a considerable sum to charitable causes in his will. This included £20,000 (equivalent to roughly £1.4 million today) to be dedicated to the foundation of a ‘Blind Asylum’ in Manchester. He stipulated that his legacy should not be spent on the purchase of land and buildings for the new institution; the money for this was to be raised by public donation, and a committee was duly established in 1833 to oversee this.

This original committee comprised 30 men – amongst them the Liberal MPs Joseph Brotherton and Richard Potter. The fundraising campaign and subscription scheme were a great success, and Henshaw’s Blind Asylum was opened, with a grand procession, in June 1837. The term ‘asylum’ was used in the sense of a place of safety, and Henshaw’s provided sheltered accommodation for elderly blind residents. It also opened a school offering education for blind children from the age of six – over 50 years before legislation made this compulsory.


This medical report from 1841 shows that smallpox was the leading cause of blindness for people registered at Henshaws. Smallpox vaccination wasn’t made compulsory in the UK until 1853.

Blind people could also take up occupational training as well as paid employment in the organisation’s workshops. Those with musical ability became musicians and piano-tuners. Other occupations included basket weaving, mat making, brush making, handloom weaving, boot making and repairing, and – later – braille shorthand and typewriting. Many people and institutions across Manchester purchased items manufactured by Henshaws’ workers. Training in massage was introduced in 1895, with Henshaws’ pupils being the first in the country to take up this profession.


The University of Manchester was founded as Owens College in 1851. This receipt shows that it was purchasing coir matting from Henshaws for its new laboratory building in 1852.

Henshaws was always awake to innovation and new technologies which could help blind people. Braille – which revolutionised education and communication for the blind – wasn’t widely adopted in the UK until after 1870; Henshaws introduced it in 1881. Before that, children were taught to read using embossed alphabets – raised letters which were readable by touch. The first governor of Henshaw’s, William Hughes, patented the ‘Hughes Typograph’, a machine which could produce both embossed and visible letters – legible by blind and sighted alike. This was widely used in schools for the blind during the 1850s, and won a gold medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851. You can see an image of a Hughes Typograph here.


William Hughes was appointed as the first governor of Henshaws after responding to this advertisement.

One of Henshaws’ most famous alumni was Ben Purse. Born in Salford in 1874, Purse lost his sight in childhood, attended Henshaw’s Asylum and became a piano tuner. He served as General Secretary for the National League of the Blind, a trade union founded in 1894 which campaigned for statutory rights for blind people. In 1920, to bring pressure on the Government, a protest march was organised, with blind people from three locations – including Manchester – marching on foot to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Purse and others addressed Prime Minister Lloyd George, and in 1920 the Blind Persons’ Act was passed; this enshrined certain rights for blind people in law, and for the first time required the compulsory registration of all blind people. It was passed at a time when people’s awareness of blindness had been heightened by the return of so many blinded soldiers from the First World War trenches. Purse was later awarded an OBE for his services to the blind.


This snippet from a minute book of March 1918 is the first record in the archive of a blind soldier being admitted to one of Henshaws’ residential homes.

Through various name changes, Henshaws continued to flourish throughout the twentieth century. Today the charity employs over 300 staff and many volunteers, working in three regions across the north of England. You can find out more about their work on their own website, along with information about the anniversary exhibition which is currently being hosted by Archives+ in Manchester’s Central Library.


Henshaws schoolboys in 1959 using a tactile globe for a geography lesson.

The Henshaws archive held at the Rylands contains minute books documenting the establishment and running of the organisation from its foundation in 1833 through to 1976. It also includes minute books of the Manchester Salford and Blind Aid Society which was founded in 1900 by Isabel Heywood and merged with Henshaws in 1980. As well as its value for charting the history of blindness in Greater Manchester, it provides an insight into changing attitudes towards blindness over the years, and evolving approaches towards supporting blind and visually impaired people.

Visit the Historic Reading Room at 11.00 on Saturday 14 October to see a selection of archive material held both at the Library and at Henshaws, and to find out more about the history of the charity.

Sputnik and Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope


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Dr James Peters writes:

Sixty years ago this week, the Jodrell Bank radio telescope was involved in one of the most dramatic events of the Space Race.

On 4th October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. The public was immediately captivated by this small, metallic sphere which circulated the Earth every 98 minutes. For Western governments, however, Sputnik was worrying evidence of Soviet technological superiority, and the US government responded by committing huge resources to space research.


Sputnik I satellite

Somewhat unexpectedly, Sputnik also proved to be the making of Jodrell Bank. Although the radio-telescope became operational in the summer of 1957, the year had been a difficult one for Jodrell Bank’s director, Bernard Lovell. He had fallen out with H. C. Husband, whose firm had built the telescope, following a highly critical Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee report on the project’s delays and cost overruns. This had been accompanied by a good deal of negative media coverage.

The launch of Sputnik helped restore the Observatory’s reputation. The Jodrell Bank telescope was the only facility in the West which could track Sputnik’s launch rocket. The authorities, unlike the public, were more interested in this than the satellite; Sputnik had been launched by an inter-continental ballistic missile, and this had obvious implications for Cold War nuclear strategy.

Improvising with great ingenuity, Lovell’s team attached the necessary radar equipment to the telescope and on the 11th October they picked up definite signals from Sputnik’s rocket as it flew over northern England. The media presented this as an heroic triumph for British science, and this public relations victory took some of the heat off Lovell (the USSR even sent him a telegram of thanks).

Sputnik tracking record

Jodrell Bank Observatory’s tracking record of the Sputnik I rocket.

The Jodrell Bank Observatory archive contains a wealth of material on the Sputnik episode. The documents which relate to the prehistory of the satellite’s launch are particularly interesting. Lovell had been working with government agencies since 1956 to ensure that Jodrell Bank could track human-made objects, including missiles and satellites.

Far from Sputnik being a shock, Lovell had been told by a confidential source in Moscow that a Soviet satellite might be launched as early as August 1957. Lovell’s main concern was whether the telescope was properly configured to track it. The Ministry of Supply had refused to fund the equipment which Lovell needed to do this, forcing the Observatory to make frenetic improvisations once Sputnik had launched.

The archives are also interesting on the public’s reaction to Sputnik. The satellite caught the public imagination in a quite unexpected way. Jodrell Bank was deluged with letters from the public reporting sightings (many of which were inaccurate). In what could be seen as an early exercise in “citizen science”, people took great trouble to communicate to the Observatory what they had seen in the night sky.


Letter reporting a sighting of Sputnik I.

Many correspondents also expressed their pride in what Jodrell Bank had achieved, and criticisms about the cost of the telescope were forgotten (temporarily, at least). As a result of Sputnik, the Jodrell Bank telescope, with its distinctive physical appearance, fixed itself in the public consciousness as proof of Britain’s continuing scientific prowess.

Changing the Landscape: the Art of Roger Fenton


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We are pleased to announce that another wonderful album of Victorian photography is now fully catalogued and available through Library Search and fully digitised and available to view in LUNA, our online image collection as part of the ‘Out of the Ether’ project, supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.


View of Central Beach, Blackpool, c.1860s.

English architecture and landscapes is an album that contains twelve albumen prints by the esteemed photographer Roger Fenton.  Each print is around 20.3 x 28 cm and is mounted to the album leaf rectos with ink captions beneath. They date from around 1859 but were probably actually printed in the 1860s. A further twenty-five (later and smaller) prints have been added to the album, a mix of albumen and photomechanical prints by Francis Bedford, George Washington Wilson and others, which are mounted to the endpapers and album leaf versos.


Self-Portrait of Roger Fenton in Zouave uniform, seated, facing front and holding rifle. Albumen silver print. 1850s

Roger Fenton, 1819-1869, was a pioneer of British photography and one of the first war photographers. Born into an affluent family in Crimble Hall, Rochdale, originally Fenton studied law and painting before turning his attention to photography.   Fenton excelled in the medium and travelled widely over Britain to record landscapes and still-life images in what is now considered to be photography’s ‘golden age’ [1].

Fenton is perhaps most famous for his images of the Crimean War, and despite the tribulations of photographing the event (Fenton contracted cholera and became depressed at the carnage he witnessed at Sevastopol) he still managed to make over 350 usable large format negatives of the conflict. In 1862 Fenton sold up all his photographic equipment and negatives, resigned from the Royal Photographic Society, and returned to practising law. However brief his activity, his contribution to the history of photography as an art form was pivotal.

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The album English architecture and landscapes showcases Fenton’s skill as a master of landscape photography.  It also demonstrates how he and others like him were inspired by and celebrated the world around them through the art of photography, creating a wonderful record for us all to enjoy.

Additional blog posts will announce when further material is available, including some of Fenton’s Crimean War prints, but meanwhile, follow Library Tammy on IG for updates on what goes on in the Visual Collections office here are The John Rylands Library.


[1] Malcolm Daniel. Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004

All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Heritage Imaging team.


Reader Services Curious Finds – Comic Figures


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Comic Figures

Today’s Curious Find comes from Reader David Fletcher, who was consulting the Stamford Papers, specifically George Harry Grey’s letter to his sister Jane.

Whilst researching the letter, David found 2 delightful comic decoupage figures – very neatly cut from the same paper as the letters. He suggests that they were included to amuse Grey’s sister, as these letters were very affectionate and informal.

David compared the letter to those written to their father, the 6th Earl – but sadly he found no direct reference in the text to explain the figures.

We can assume that the figures are two of the people gossiped about by George and Jane in the letter (there are plenty of examples) and we can infer from the one figure’s bulbous buttocks that they were very much presented in jest, if not outright mockery.

Comic Figures 2

Today’s Curious Find’s reference is GB 133 EGR 4/10/9 No 3. If you would like to consult material in the Special Collections Reading Room please contact the team at 0161 275 3764 or uml.special-collections@manchester.ac.uk. 

Rediscovered: Letter from America – Stratford Canning, Our Man in Washington DC


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Occasionally items from archives go astray; very occasionally we are able to reunite them with their parent collections. This happy circumstance occurred recently, when we came upon a rather grubby nineteenth-century letter within a file of miscellaneous material which appears to have been sent for repair in the 1950s or ’60s.

This particular letter, dated 31 August 1821 and extending to eight pages, was sent by Stratford Canning (1786–1880), British minister-plenipotentiary in Washington DC, to ‘My dear Raikes’. A quick search of our archive catalogue revealed this to be Rev. Henry Raikes (1782–1854), whose correspondence was acquired by the John Rylands Library in 1948 (English MS 1121). A faintly pencilled ‘178’ confirmed that the letter had indeed escaped from Raikes’s papers.

Stratford Canning Letter

Letter from Stratford Canning to Rev. Henry Raikes, 21 August 1821. English MS 1121/178.

The back-story of this letter is tinged with tragedy. Canning had married Henry’s sister Harriet in 1816. Less than a year later she died in childbirth in Switzerland, where Canning was serving as minister plenipotentiary.

In September 1819 Canning accepted a three-year posting to Washington DC. The United States capital was then an unsophisticated place, still recovering from the British attack upon the city five years earlier; Canning describes it as ‘this half-settled seat of Government’. Understandably, relations between Canning and his American hosts were often strained. John Quincy Adams described him as ‘a proud, high-tempered Englishman … of all the foreign ministers with whom I have had occasion to treat, the man who has most tried my temper’ (ODNB, quoting Stanley Lane-Poole, The Life of the Rt Hon. Stratford Canning (London, 1888), vol. 1, p. 308).

The letter offers detailed observations on various aspects of life in Washington DC. Canning was particularly impressed with the religious diversity and devotion of the capital’s inhabitants:

“We have sects of every description, and all have their places of worship, not indeed very brilliant in point of architecture or internal decoration, but, with some few exceptions, decent, and by no means betraying any particular backwardness on the part of the inhabitants. Of an evening one frequently hears prayers or psalm singing not only in the churches but also in private houses. The people of Georgetown seem to be more devout than their neighbours, in so much so that many families will not frequent any mixed society, and I am informed that even some of the episcopal clergymen preach against dancing & evening assemblies.”

While such ‘holier than thou’ attitudes clearly amused him, Canning was appalled by the racial segregation practised by the churches:

“I have been somewhat disgusted at finding that the principles of equality, whether Christian or political, are not extended to the unfortunate negroes. These unhappy men are indeed admitted into church, but a separate place is allotted to them; and in taking the sacrament they are not allowed to approach the table till after the whites. They are therefore with good reason anxious to have a chapel to themselves; and it is not long since I chanced to hear a sermon preached by a sable reverence, and that in very creditable terms, by an audience as deeply coloured as himself.”

Canning was also alive to the development of literature in America, presciently anticipating that it would challenge Britain’s cultural hegemony:

“Within the last year an Academy of Literature and Belles lettres, particularly with a view to the purification of our mother tongue, has been established at New York by the Learned & Illustrious of this Country. A feverish anxiety prevails to rival Great Britain in Letters as in arms, and I should not be much surprized if Books were some day to be classed amongst domestic manufactory & protected by the exclusion of their British Rivals.”

The letter has now been reunited with the Raikes papers. As for Stratford Canning, after his return from Washington he was appointed British ambassador in Constantinople and played an important role in the ‘Eastern Question’, which dominated British foreign policy in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.