Extra ordinary lives from our Biography Collection

This month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library gives us a holiday from the famous, the illustrious, the eminent, the idolised, the household-named, the great, the infamous and the notorious that inhabit our collection.

As well as housing many books about those we are likely to have heard of, the collection is also home to many memoirs of ordinary people with no special claim to being remarkable.  Often the only publication of a person who, perhaps looking back on a childhood in a long gone age, feels moved to record what everyday life was like back then, these books are fascinating records of the lives of ordinary working men and women.  Families, school, industry, war, immigration and emigration – all of these subjects are examined by a multitude of voices.

We can find evocations of particular times and places preserved for ever by those who, without ever intruding into the public eye, shared the lives of the man and woman in the street (or in the field, or on the mountain).

Location is often important in these kinds of books, with the authors striving to recreate a very specific corner of the world. Many London neighbourhoods feature – Lambeth in Mary Chamberlain’s record of the lives of working class women from 1913 to 1989, Bethnal Green whose atmosphere of the 1920s-40s was described by Doris M. Bailey, Blackfriars where Bella Burge ran a boxing ring from 1910, Islington where Gill Brason’s stint as a park keeper in the 70s shows us a neighbourhood on the brink of huge change.  Many regions of the UK, both rural and urban, are also given a voice – John Ackerman’s South Wales, Ralph Glasser’s Gorbals, Arthur Barton’s Jarrow, J. J. Bagley’s three centuries of Lancashire diaries; Anne Burling’s East Anglia, James Maggs’s Southwold, to name just a small sample.

 

We can also eavesdrop on ordinary lives around the world – a boyhood in Sierra Leone in the early 20th century is hauntingly described by Robert Wellesley Cole, Iris Gioia and Clifford Thurlow interview the people they meet on a trip to Eastern Europe at a pivotal moment in the history of the region, in 1990; the Dar family describe how their lives as carpet sellers are impacted by the tumultuous history of Kashmir; Forrest Carter leaves a unique record of Cherokee life in 1930s Tennessee, and Glückel of Hamelin recounts the highs and lows of her days in the Jewish community of Hamburg with such immediacy that it is hard to believe she was writing almost 400 years ago.

As usual, we have no shortage of local interest – read about Joe Nixon starting up a youth club in 1950s Notting Hill, Mary Wylde a 1930s Kensington housewife, and life at Holland Park School in the 80s as recounted by John-Paul Flintoff (I can vouch for the accuracy of that particular account, being an ex-Holland Park pupil of exactly Flintoff’s vintage)!

Again as always, our  Biography Collection yields a rich harvest – Isobel Charman’s “The Great War, the People’s Story” looks at the impact of that huge conflict on ordinary citizens, R. J. W. Selleck’s “Not so Eminent Victorians” finds 19th century immigrants to Australia building an education system to transform people’s lives, and there are socio-cultural studies of a typically progressive kind from the 60s, taking a sample of 14 year old school children or of young people in care and interviewing them about their hopes and dreams.  Many people have chosen to write about their working lives – so we have a survey of working people from Hackney in the 1930s, and stories of countless professions including taxi driver, station master, nurse, teacher, miner, shop assistant and cowboy.

It’s not quite true to say that all of the writers featured are people you’ll never have heard of.  Some of the people featured in these books later became famous, sometimes through the books themselves – Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, for example, is a classic of rural British memoir, and Jennifer Worth has become familiar to all through her “Call the Midwife” books and their enormously successful TV adaptation.  But all of them are accounts of life before fame or fortune had visited, when they were deep in the obscurity of ordinary life.

What is proven by these commonplace, everyday memoirs is that, in fact, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.  These writers are visited by extraordinary and sometimes deeply strange turns of events. Some go on to do unusual things that take them far from their beginnings. They are caught up in epic moments of world history.  But even if they simply live out their lives in relatively uneventful ways, they show that every life is in its own way remarkable, and that the voices of those who have never sat at a high table or stepped on a red carpet are often the voices that tell us most about who we were and are.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Edited to add –

If you’re interested to read more about some of the people mentioned in this post, do take a look at the eResources we have on biographies such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These are free to use with your Kensington and Chelsea library card.

Who Lived Where? The London Blue Plaque Scheme

With over 9000 plaques on buildings scattered throughout London, the Blue Plaque scheme is well known and in some central London streets the majority of buildings display a plaque (or plaques). What you may not be aware of is the “antiquity” of the scheme.

William Ewart, a Liberal MP, suggested that the government should start this scheme to honour significant London residents in 1863. This was rejected due to cost, but three years later the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts) took the scheme on. It erected the first two plaques in 1867. The first commemorated the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street off Cavendish Square, in 1867. Unfortunately the plaque was destroyed with the demolition of the house. The second plaque in Kings Street St James was erected to commemorate the exiled French emperor Napoleon III London residence.  This has survived.

blue_p4
Image copyright English Heritage (http://bit.ly/248TLrP)

 

William Ewart is in the select group who are commemorated with more than one plaque. English Heritage, the current custodians of the scheme, now restrict plaques to one per person, however many addresses that individual resided at. William Ewart is commemorated in central London but also his former house which is now Hampton Public Library in SW London. This is particularly fitting commemoration as, whilst an MP, William Ewart introduced a bill that became Britain’s first Public Library Act: setting up our network of free public libraries.

I think it is fair to say that for many years this scheme has favoured establishment figures and there is a large bias towards males. Recognising this, English Heritage is making concentrated efforts to get proposals from the public for female candidates. Currently only 13% of the total commemorate women.

Kensington & Chelsea have two blue plaques commemorating two significant female figures: Emmeline Pankhurst and Christobel Pankhurst, mother and daughter suffragette leaders, who lived at 50 Clarendon Road, Notting Hill, London, W11; and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), campaigner for Women’s Rights, who lived at 120 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London, SW10.

blue_p2
Image copyright English Heritage (http://bit.ly/1XyToH1)

 

Biographical details for these and other blue plaque entries can be found on the English Heritage website. However, for a more comprehensive detail biography, why not use your library membership to consult the Oxford Dictionary of  National Biography online. We subscribe to this title as part of own Online Reference Resources available remotely via the library website (take a look here for a previous post about this fantastic resource).

Kensington Central Library also includes a Biographies special collection of approximately 80,000 books to which annually over 1,000 new titles are added to.

Finally, don’t forget our catalogue: you’ll find plenty of Blue Plaque guides to aid your research!  

blue_plaque

Francis Sarjeant

Searching the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Francis Serjeant, librarian, writes:

Warning! Searching the online resource the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) can be addictive as “all human life is here”. Most people use this dictionary to search for a specific individual. However you may not be aware that using the advanced search options and selecting other search criteria will create lists of names of the great and the good… and also, it must be said, the not so good.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - home page
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

To use the advanced search facility, click on one of the “More Search Options” displayed beneath the main search box.

Curiosity led me to check how many people there were with Kensington and Chelsea links by using these terms in the ‘place search’ category option. The result was over 3000! However this figure is misleading, as a casual check of a few entries revealed that the connection was often limited either to their unfortunate death in one of the borough’s hospitals or attendance at one of the borough’s schools.

I whittled down the 1975 Kensington entries to 122 by selecting the “Law and Crime” category from the drop down list of occupations (found in the “Fields of Interest” search category). Amongst the list of lawyers and judges I found John Christie, the Notting Hill mass murderer.

You may wonder why he is included. The DNB does not only include the great and the good. To quote the website “the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century”. In the case of Christie, the miscarriage of justice leading to the hanging of the innocent Timothy Evans, to quote Christie’s DNB entry, “played a significant part to the subsequent abolition of the death penalty in Britain”.

For further details of the case and posthumous pardon of Evans read the Ludovic Kennedy book 10 Rillington Place which can be found at Kensington Central Library, or borrow the DVD feature film version of the book, staring Richard Attenborough as John Christie.

10 Rillington Place, by Ludovic Kennedy
10 Rillington Place, by Ludovic Kennedy

Finally it is also worth investigating the “Themes” tab to display the large number of collective biographies brought together under such topics as climbers of Everest, British monarchs, First World War poets and significant military and political leaders involved in that conflict. Other lists include a number of founder members of institutions and other significant groups.

How England handed Brazil the World Cup

Our Reference Librarian, Owen Grey, writes:

With Brazil hosting the World Cup for the first time since 1950, what better time to look at just how Brazilians became addicted to their most popular sport…

We can go down the boring route of looking at socio-economic and cultural reasons, height of the Empire political reasons, British naval power in the late 19th and early 20th century… but why do this when we can read into the legend of Englishman Charles William Miller?

Charles William Miller
Charles William Miller

(Image from Southampton’s Daily Echo)

Firstly, though, let’s not call him English: his father was from Scotland, his mother was from Brazil and he was himself born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1874 (140 years before this world cup). Nevertheless, he did go to the home of association football in 1884: he was educated in Southampton and fell in love with football (and other team games), and as every Southampton fan knows, he played for them when they were called St. Mary’s.

And he returned to Brazil in 1894 with a passion for the beautiful game and two footballs- and the rest, as they say, is history. Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the whole story for you, so why not finish reading about it on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: www.oxforddnb.com?

So there’s my argument about how England handed Brazil the World Cup! Would the Brazilians have had the same passion and enthusiasm for football (which has earned them the trophy and the honour of hosting the tournament on two occasions!) if Mr Miller had not stepped off the quay at Santos with footballing passion in his heart  and two footballs in his arms?

We will never know for sure (although I think they probably could’ve got hold of the footballs) but the story is definitely intriguing- let’s hope it will inspire the England team to do better in the next game…

 

 

 

Dictionary of National Biography: May’s online resource of the month

Sandeep Dhaliwal, our Tri-borough Reference Librarian, writes:

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century. It is free for library members and now includes biographies of 59,003 men and women who died in or before the year 2010 — plus 504 ‘Theme’ articles for reference and research.

If you’re into lists, try Chiefs of the Secret Intelligence Service or Captains of the England Cricket Team– how about a list of Musical chart-toppersAngry young men, or Viking and Scandinavian kings and leaders?

Want to know more about the DNB?

  • No living person is included in the DNB; it currently covers those who died in or before the year 2010.
  • To have an entry in the Dictionary is not an ‘honour;’ rather it’s an acknowledgement that an individual has shaped an aspect of national life (for good or ill), and is duly recorded for today’s, and future readers and researchers with an interest in the British past.
  • Includes over 11,500 portraits covering 2000 years of British history, the portraits include a wide range of forms—busts, medals, statues, effigies, death masks, and silhouettes, as well as more ‘conventional’ paintings and photographs.
  • Accessibility: Free to use and available 24/7!

Below is an example of a typical entry which includes wealth at death, sources and referencing at the very bottom;

Sir Robert William Robson
Sir Robert William Robson

In case you’re interested, Sir Bobby Robson’s wealth at death was £3,552,430!

A full list of online resources which the library service currently offers is available here: http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/leisureandlibraries/libraries/onlinedatabases.aspx
For a demonstration of a particular resource at Kensington Reference Library please e-mail information@rbkc.gov.uk. A member of staff will be delighted to help and set you off on your own journey of discovery.

June’s blog entry will feature Learning Nexus.