Monday, 20 March 2017

Wearing Prince Albert's Ring; Queen Victoria's widowhood and the Albert Memorial


"So, Albert goes with the Queen to Windsor after the [wedding] ceremony?"
"He'll go further before morning."
"How so?"
"Why, he'll go in at Bushy, pass Virginia Water, on through Maidenhead, and leave Staines behind."

So went one of the many jokes following the wedding of Queen Victoria to Franz August Karl Albrecht Immanuel of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, or Prince Albert as he became known to his English subjects. Victoria has initially been offered the choice of Albert or his older brother Ernst as potential consorts in 1837 when as an 18 year old she ascended the throne. But she was immediately smitten by the ‘extremely handsome’ piano playing Albert. As she was Queen, protocol demanded that the proposal of marriage came from her. Victorian values were a long way off establishing themselves in 1840 and the Queen of England proposing to and then marrying a penniless foreigner offered the wits of England a chance to excel themselves in scoffing, sneering and ribaldry.

“I say, I say, I say what are Prince Albert’s wages?”
“I don’t know, what are Prince Albert’s wages?”
“A quarter of a crown a day and a whole sovereign at night….”

“I say, I say, I say why is the Queen England’s  most famous composer?”
“I don’t know, why is the Queen England’s most famous composer?”
“Because her overtures to Prince Albert are known all over the world.”

The MP Dillon Browne was buttonholed at Ben Morgan’s in Maiden Lane about the controversial Corn Laws which banned grain imports into Britain and kept the price of bread artificially high.  Someone eventually asked “What is the use of all this botheration about the Corn Laws? Has not the little Queen - the saints preserve her - settled the question by opening her port for the reception of foreign seed?"

Albert had the last laugh though; Victoria was devoted to him and despite her later reputation the pair must have had a reasonably satisfactory sex life to produce nine children. Even the wedding night was a success, Victoria wrote in her diary “I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!!! MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert ... his excessive love & affection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped me in his arms, & we kissed each other again & again!”


She was, of course, bereft when Albert died at the age of 42. His most enduring traits were immortalised in the phallic Albert Memorial, the most erotic tribute a widow ever made to a lost husband.  The Memorial statue of Albert is by John Henry Foley and Thomas Brock.

The Albert Memorial: even the sculptural rendering of the four continents is erotically charged.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Splendour in the dust; David Roberts (1796-1864) West Norwood Cemetery


DEATH OF MR. DAVID ROBERTS. On the afternoon of Friday last an elderly gentleman walking in Berners Street fell down in fit of apoplexy. To the people who went to his rescue he was able to utter only two words-Fitzroy Street; he never spoke afterwards, and he died at seven o’clock on the evening of the same day. It was a Royal Academician—David Roberts; kindly, canny Scot, well-to-do, amazingly clever in his own sphere of art, and liked by all who knew him. (Glasgow Saturday Post, and Paisley and Renfrewshire Reformer - Saturday 03 December 1864).
The fatal Friday afternoon stroll would have been a short one. David Roberts had lived at 7 Fitzroy Street since at least the late 1830’s. If he followed the most direct route from his home he would have headed due south into Charlotte Street ambling along for about 350 yards before turning right into Goodge Street, then walked straight on for 150 yards or so before making a lethal left turn into Berners Street  and collapsing somewhere along its couple of hundred yards of pavement. He had walked less than half a mile in total; even for a man in his late sixties it wouldn’t have been a perambulation of more than 10 minutes. The breathlessly croaked words “Fitzroy Street” were the bathetic final utterance, his wholly unremarkable last words. They served their purpose it seems; he was conveyed back to his home by a gaggle of rescuers to die on the dot of 7.00pm. 
“Apoplexy: A venerable term for a stroke, a cerebrovascular accident (CVA), often associated with loss of consciousness and paralysis of various parts of the body. The word "apoplexy" comes from the Greek "apoplexia" meaning a seizure, in the sense of being struck down. In Greek "plexe" is "a stroke." The ancients believed that someone suffering a stroke (or any sudden incapacity) had been struck down by the gods.” (medicinenet.com)
David Roberts RA
“From the late 14th to the late 19th century, apoplexy referred to any sudden death that began with a sudden loss of consciousness, especially one in which the victim died within a matter of seconds after losing consciousness. The word apoplexy was sometimes used to refer to the symptom of sudden loss of consciousness immediately preceding death. Ruptured aortic aneurysms, and even heart attacks and strokes were referred to as apoplexy in the past, because before the advent of medical science there was limited ability to differentiate abnormal conditions and diseased states.” (Wikipedia)

Apart from the interest which attaches to him an artist, and which is to be measured by the amount of his actual achievements, there is another interest which belongs to his career, and which is to be measured by the amount of difficulties he had to overcome. He who began humble house-painter, and ended as Royal Academician, has not a little to boast of. He too belongs to that proud phalanx of men whose biographies touch most keenly all young ambition,—the self-made men who from small beginnings have fought their way upwards to fame, to wealth, and to station. (Glasgow Saturday Post, and Paisley and Renfrewshire Reformer - Saturday 03 December 1864)

He was born at Stockbridge near Edinburgh on October 24 1796, the son of a shoemaker. His career as a housepainter began at the tender age of 10 when he was apprenticed to Gavin Beugo, a decorator. Along with fellow apprentice and life long friend David Ramsay Hay he studied art in the evenings. As a young man he became a scenery painter for James Bannister’s circus on North College Street in Edinburgh joining them on tour as a stage designer and painter at a salary of 25 shillings a week and occasionally standing in a clown when required. In 1817 he moved to work as assistant stage designer at the Pantheon Theatre. When the theatre failed he was forced back into house painting. When the opportunity arose he returned to the theatre working at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow and Edinburgh, positions which eventually lead to offers of work in London from the Coburg Theatre (now known as the Old Vic), the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Whilst working as a successful stage designer and scene painter he began a parallel career as a fine artist exhibiting a painting of Dryburgh Abbey at the British Institution and contributing two paintings to the first exhibition of the Society of British Artists.     

It is a fact to be noted that David Roberts was in art wholly a self-educated man; he received but one week's instruction, when a boy, in the "Trustees' Academy," Edinburgh, where he is said to have made copies of two hands. We believe indeed that very little can be supplied to an artist by any special teaching; but in Roberts's nature there must have been unusual vital force, or he neither could have accomplished the immense quantity of work which we know that he performed, nor have taken the high standing that was so readily accorded to him by his contemporaries. (The Reader. February 1865)

"The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire. […] The Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear the figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe."    Edward Said 'Orientalism'.
While his career was in the ascendant, his private life was descending into catastrophe. In 1819 whilst working at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh he had met an actress, Margaret McLachlan, with a fine figure and blond ringlets, who claimed to be the daughter of a gypsy and a highland clan chief. The infatuated pair married on 3rd July 1820 and just under a year later Margaret gave birth to their only child, Christine. He was 24, Margaret was 22. The marriage was not happy, Margaret turned out to be a drinker and secret tippling led eventually to chronic alcoholism. He was mortified by a wife who reeked of port and whisky and after eleven years of marriage the situation became intolerable to him. By now living in London he sent his wife back to Scotland in 1831. By one of those ironies which would be viewed as contrived if it appeared in the pages of a novel, his best friend from his days as an apprentice, David Ramsay Hay, was also married to an alcoholic though he ‘consoled’ himself with a mistress. On the eve of Margaret’s drunken departure for Scotland, he wrote to Hay; “If you do not know our cases are almost parallel. Yours is not as bad as mine, having some consolation. The state of my nerves is such I can scarcely write. But thank God she leaves tomorrow—I hope for ever.”  

But the estranged Mrs Roberts still cast a shadow over his life. "I thank God I have had but one grievance, but that one has been a very sad one," he wrote. In 1854, in a bid for an increased allowance, Margaret started legal proceedings against him, which ended in a formal separation. Roberts was angry enough to call her "that brazen-faced monster", yet he seemed also to realise that his own ambitions, which took him so often away from home, may have contributed to his wife's decline. In one letter he writes: "I fear our sorrows are in most instances of our own creating." But after Margaret's death in 1860, he wrote of her to Hay with warmth and sadness. "I confess it, I loved her to the last, and I have every reason to believe she knew it." (TheScotsman 08 July 2006)

The Works of the Late Mr David Roberts. —" The Flaneur," in the Star, writes "The late David Roberts RA left behind him 976 sketches, the originals all his great and best known works. Amongst them are all the celebrated sketches of the Holy Land Pictures, intended to form a gallery of these sketches for public exhibition, as was done in the case of Mulready's sketches. Mr Roberts has also left behind him a remarkable book of sketches, with explanatory notes attached, forming quite a panoramic history of his life. Against the first of these is a memorandum, to the effect that the picture was sent to the Scotch Academy and refused, and that it was then sold to the artist's frame maker — and never paid for.  (Dundee Courier - Wednesday 14 December 1864).
David Roberts - Abu Simbel
His improved position gave him more leisure for travel, and he visited most of the countries of Europe in search of picturesque subjects, even extending his wanderings so far afield as Egypt and Syria. Towards the close of his life he was content to paint the more familiar beauties of England, and almost the last work on which he was engaged was a series of views on the Thames. He was a very popular artist in his day, though his reputation has now suffered a not undeserved eclipse. (Walter Armstrong, Dictionary of National Biography Vol.48 1885-1900).  

He first began to travel in 1824, visiting Normandy and producing a painting of Rouen Cathedral which he sold for 80 guineas. He made further visits to France and the Netherlands during the remaining years of the 1820’s. In 1832, after sending his wife to live in Scotland, he ventured further afield, travelling to Spain and, significantly his first taste of the East, Tangier. After J.M.W. Turner convinced him to give up his work in the theatre and concentrate on landscape painting he resolved to travel to the near east. In August 1838 he set off on a long tour of Egypt, Nubia, the Sinai, the Holy Land, Jordan and Lebanon, recording every step of the way innumerable drawings. When he returned to England he spent seven years producing a series of lavish illustrated books of the scenes of his travels in the orient.
Abu Simbel - David Roberts
Change is the great monarch the universe; time, the sword of its dominion and empires, like men, are as the dust of its feet. Change ruled over the palaces of Tyre, and sat in the halls its desolation. Where is Gazna once the capital of a mighty empire. Shall we ask the waters the Lake Aspbaltites where they hide the thirteen cities of which Strabo speaks?—or make populous again the city of Veii, which has been a solitude for nineteen hundred years. I have been led into these passing reflections upon contemplating the remarkable "Drawings of the Holy Land, &c, David Roberts, A.R.A.." If any productions of this celebrated painter could have increased our estimation of his genius, certainly the magnificent drawings we have just seen are calculated to do so. The artist has brought to these great and momentous subjects a mind of equal grasp, a nobility of conception, and a vastness of execution absolutely wonderful. It is truly wonderful; it is truly surprising, how, the space of a few inches, he has been able to impress the spectator with a feeling of immensity, with a perfect appreciation the colossal order of the architecture; indeed, the columns, entablatures, pilasters, and inscriptions, seem upon so stupendous a scale, that might almost fancy that we hear the architect, in the golden fame of his triumphs, boastfully-asserting, " Other men build for a day; I build for eternity." Alas! the columns still survive; but they ungratefully conceal the name of their founder. (Yorkshire Gazette - Saturday 24 October 1840)

He was a very happy man. This must have been evident to all who had any acquaintance with him, for his genial temper manifested itself in his face, and his voice, and the mirth of his conversation. He had the enjoyment which belongs to the inclination and habit of industry, without the drawback of the stiffness, and narrowness, and restlessness which too often attend it. In the last autumn of his life, when he was absent from his regular work, and staying at Bonchurch with his daughter and son-in-law and their family, he occupied himself with cleaning and renovating his old sketches, conversing gaily all the while. His health was good; his fame was rising, as appeared by the constantly increasing prices given for his works; he was blessed in family affection, and rich in friends. He was passing into old age as happily as possible when he was struck down by a death which spared him the suffering of illness, infirmity, and decline. On the 25th ult. he went out from his own house in apparent health, and cheerful as usual. As our readers know, he staggered and fell in the street, and died at seven the same evening…. David Roberts, the Royal Academician, will be regretted far and near, and his death recorded as one of the grave losses of a grave year. (London Daily News - Thursday 01 December 1864)

David Roberts probate record - Joseph Arden was an old friend and fellow associate of the Society of Antiquaries, Henry Sanford Bicknell of Clapham Common was his son-in-law, married to the beloved Christine and father of her nine children.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The devil and the book duster; the extraordinary London life of Mohammed Ali Khan (or perhaps Daood Mukranee) 1857-1863?

The Hanwell Asylum

On Wednesday the 12th February 1862 Mr G.S. Brent, deputy coroner for West Middlesex opened an inquest at Hanwell Lunatic Asylum into the death of 37 year old inmate Henry Todd. Todd, by occupation a book duster at the British Museum, had died the previous Sunday, drowned in the river Brent whilst fleeing from a ‘devil’ known to the staff and other inmates of the asylum as Mohammed Ali Khan.  The first witness called to give evidence was Anna Todd of 32 Little Guildford Street, Russell Square, who, according to the Morning Chronicle of 13th February “identified the deceased as her husband, employed at the British Museum up to Friday week, on which day he came home very much excited, on account of the conduct of another employee towards him. He had previously complained of giddiness in the head; and he had been since Christmas last under the medical care of Dr Knightly of Russell-square. He never went to his work again after that day. On Tuesday of last week he left the house during her absence, and exhibited such marked symptoms of lunacy, that the neighbours removed him to St. Giles's Workhouse; and on the following Thursday it was deemed advisable to remove him to Hanwell asylum”.  Dr William Begley, medical superintendent in charge of the male side of the asylum deposed that Todd “was admitted on last Thursday as a very noisy and violent case of acute mania. He fancied he saw devils and that they were pursuing him, and mistook a black patient (Ali Khan) for one, and became exceedingly violent and terrified. On Saturday he appeared a little quieter, and on Sunday he wanted to leave the asylum, and declared that he must go to the librarian of the British Museum”.
 
Even though Todd had wanted to leave the asylum on Sunday, on Monday morning the attendant in charge allowed him to go into the open grounds to get some fresh air. The Dublin Medical Press reported that Todd, who had “made the most positive assertions as to his interviews with devils, and insisted that a fellow maniac Ali Khan, personified Satan himself”, was horrified to run into Khan in the grounds. Todd took flight, running “across the fallow ground, obviously for the purpose of escaping from the asylum. Three of the attendants immediately pursued him, but he outran them, climbed over the boundary fence, plunged into the river Brent, to ford it, and was drowned”.  The first of the three pursuing attendants to arrive on the scene was one Higgenbottom, who threw himself into the river after Todd and “made a desperate attempt to save the unfortunate lunatics life. His attempt however was fruitless, and he only succeeded in recovering the body after life had become totally extinct”. The jury highly approved of the conduct of Higgenbottom and suggested that the owners of the asylum might want to reward him. The jury’s verdict was death by misadventure, The Dublin Medical Press’ scathing, “scarcely a week passes that we have not to record such occurrences… in some of the English Asylums, held up in high places as models for imitation in Ireland. It is quite clear that this man lost his life neglect of proper precautions.”

The imposing facade of India House in Leadenhall Street where Ali Khan proposed starving himself to death
Mohammed Ali Khan had first come to London in the winter of 1859/60 when he had stationed himself in front of the old East India House on Leadenhall Street with the intention of using the old Benares tactic of dharna bait'hna to force the company to address his grievances. In dharna bait’hna a creditor posts himself at the door of the debtor, often with a dagger or poniard visible, with which he threatens to take his life if the debtor does not settle. If the debtor proves to be particularly recalcitrant the creditor may starve himself to death in an effort to shame him into paying. Ali Khan’s tactic failed miserably; the streets of mid Victorian London were full of the malnourished semi destitute who were slowly starving to death and who slept rough in the portals of grand buildings and in these circumstances his protest was essentially invisible. At some point in the early months of 1860 he resolved to try something more dramatic. The Globe of Monday 09 July 1860 tells what happened when Ali Khan went to the House of Lords:

POLICE INTELLIGENCE Westminster. Mohammed Ali Khan, stated to be a dependent of the Nawab of Joonaghur, India, was charged with attempting to commit suicide by cutting his throat. William Allan, porter at Westminster Hospital, having been sworn interpreter, John Drake, Police Constable 101 A, said that on the 28th ult. he was on duty below the bar of the House Lords, where the Lord Chancellor, the judges, and some the Lords were hearing appeal cases; the public were admitted to such cases, and among other persons he noticed the defendant come at a quarter past one. He remained there quiet with the rest of the people, standing about five yards from the witness, till twenty minutes to two, when the Lord Chancellor rose from his seat to adjourn the inquiry. Witness then heard strange noise behind him, and turning round saw the defendant in the act of cutting his throat with a knife (produced). Witness immediately seized his arm, took him into the lobby, secured a number of papers which the defendant had in his hand, and conveyed him to the Westminster Hospital, whence he had brought him in custody to the police-court that morning. Mr. Arnold inquired whether the defendant called out anything at the time he cut his throat. The constable replied he called out “Allah! petitiona! Allah! petitiona!” The papers were here produced, and were for the most part petitions to persons high in office, complaining ill usage at the hands of the Hon. East India Company. Mr. Arnold asked whether any of the accused's friends were present. Mr. Moran, an inspector at the House of Lords, said every inquiry had been made, but none could be found. The defendant had some presumed claims upon the East India Company, and had once before been to this country, and had & free passage given him back to India, but had returned to England, and had been offered another free passage to his native country, which he had refused to accept, as he said the company owed him money. A gentleman, however, was present well acquainted with the facts the case, who would throw some further light upon the matter. Mr. Arnold, having observed that found in one of the papers that the accused spoke about destroying himself, asked the gentleman to step upon the bench, and after private interview' with the magistrate. The next witness, Mr. William Slater, house surgeon, Westminster Hospital, was called, and said the accused was admitted to the hospital at two o’clock on the 28th ult, and was found to be suffering from an incised wound the upper part the throat. He was immediately attended to, and had been in the hospital ever since. Mr. Arnold inquired what Mr. Slater thought was the state of the accused’s mind. Mr. Slater replied, not being able to understand the defendant’s language, could not form a decided opinion on that point, but, as far he could see, he was perfectly sane. Mr. Arnold asked what was the depth of the wound? Mr. Slater answered, it went nearly down to the windpipe. Mr. Arnold inquired whether, if it had been deeper, it would have proved fatal. Mr. Slater replied, not immediately. Defendant was then asked what he had to say; and replied, through the interpreter, that Colonel Long had sent him from the Bombay Presidency to England, to prosecute some claims he had against the East India Company. He had been in the East India House three years, but no one would listen to his petition, nor to the ‘Victoria petition’ he had drawn up. Mr. Arnold directed the porter to tell him that he (Mr. Arnold) heard he had been offered free passage back to India, which he had rejected. The interpreter gave the accused’s reply,  that that statement was true, but he wanted his rights—which he had come to England for—and if the East India Company would satisfy his claims and give him a free passage would go back. The defendant was then remanded for a week.

The Nawab of Joonaghur, the man who dismissed Ali Khan from his service

In August Ali Khan was back in court, where despite pleading guilty the Judge took pity on him after hearing how he had walked from India to Trieste to pursue his grievance against the East India Company.  The Illustrated Times of Saturday 18 August 1860 takes up the story:

Attempted Suicide in the Lords.— Mohammed Ali Khan, thirty-four, pleaded guilty to charge of having attempted to destroy himself. The prisoner is the Indian who attempted to cut his throat in the House of Lords. He had, it appeared, some claim on the Nawab of Janegar, as hereditary officer, and laid that claim at £2OOO, and to obtain it had come to this country, having first been to Bombay, where he was offered to be put into the native police by the British authorities, who had no power to interfere in consequence of Janegar being an independent principality. From India had walked through Persia to Moscow, then to Vienna, and finally to the point where the General Steam Navigation boats returned from, and one of the captains brought him to this country about two years ago, and the East India Company had done all they could for him, as also had the authorities of the Strangers’ Home; but, although they killed and cooked the food after the Mohammedan style, he objected to stay there, on account of its not being in accordance with the rules of his sect. A gentleman from the India House said that they had wished to send him back to his own Nawab, but he did not wish to go.  Mr. Commissioner Kerr— That I can well understand. If he went back there, his claim would soon lose him his life. The gentleman said the company had desired and tried to get him to go back to his Prince. The Commissioner said—lf you had succeeded you would, to my mind, have been guilty of manslaughter. The poor fellow, upon hearing about being sent home, expressed by action that he should have his arms cut off, and then his throat cut, and, putting his hands together as if supplicating not to be sent, in an earnest tone addressed some remarks to the Bar who were nearest to him, and pointed to the jury and the bench. Mr. Cooper said he understood the prisoner to moan that, if his petition was seen and agreed to by the jury and his Lordship, should have justice done him, and be safe. After some further conversation the Commissioner said he thought the poor fellow’s claim was just, and he should respite judgment and see what could done with him.

By this time news of Ali Khan had time and sufficient exposure to make its way back to India where the Bombay Gazette carried out its own investigations into his claims. By September the story that resulted from this investigation was being reprinted in the British papers, such as the London Daily News of Friday 07 September:

THE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE IN THE HOUSE OF LORDS. The Bombay Gazette thus alludes to the case of the Mahomedan who attempted to cut his throat in the House of Lords a few weeks since: "The Mahomedan who is reported in the home papers to have lately attempted suicide in the House of Lords in London is apparently one of those cunning Indian knaves who would rather live upon their wits than by the sweat of their brow, and whose antecedents in Bombay were not unworthy of his late knavish trick in the presence of the peers of the British realm. It appears that his real name is Daood Mukranee, and not Ali Mahomed Khan, a which he has assumed in London; and so far from being the adopted son of the late Nawab of Joonaghiar, in Kattiwar, as alleged by him, he was no more than a common domestic in the late Nawab's household; but, being a man of shrewdness, and withal of an aspiring and daring mind, he took advantage of the confusion in which the late Nawab left his affairs, fabricated some documents, gained some adherents to his plans, and presented himself before the British authorities in Bombay as the adopted son of the late Nawab, and claimed their assistance to his succession to the musnud as the rightful heir instead of the late Nawab's brother, who, he alleged, had forcibly dispossessed him, not only of the musnud, but of very large sums of money likewise. The government of Bombay, it seems, at first lent a willing ear to his tale, but subsequently, either deeming him a madman or that there was a probability of his having been dispossessed of some wealth but in which they had no right to interfere, they ordered him to be placed under the surveillance of the police, and granted him an allowance of 45 rupees a month. This evidently did not satisfy his ambition, and having begged a passage on board of an Arab vessel proceeding to Muscat, on pretence of being desirous of visiting the tomb of the Prophet, he found his way to England, where, from his subsequent statement, he fared 'like a lord;' was lionised for awhile, and returned to Bombay in the full anticipation of successfully carrying his cunning schemes into execution. His hopes, however, were doomed to be disappointed, as the government would not have anything to do with him, further than continue his monthly allowance of 45 rupees, but on what ground this allowance was made does not appear. He remained comparatively obscure for about eighteen months, drawing his allowance, but giving the police executives a good deal of trouble by his mysterious doings. All at once, however, he disappeared from Bombay a second time, and no tidings were heard of him, until the home papers brought by the last mail reported his attempt at suicide in the House of Lords. That attempt is no more than one of his old knavish tricks, for which, it is to be hoped, he will be whipped at the cart's tail-the only reward which his cunning roguery deserves."

A closer look at Mohammad Mahabat Khanji II, the Nawab who precipitated Ali Khan into a life of exile 

During this time Ali Khan continued to live at the Strangers Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders on West India Dock Road in Limehouse. The foundation stone of the Strangers Home had been laid by Prince Albert in May 1856 and it had opened for business the following year providing shelter and religious instruction for Lascars, East Indian sailors who manned the clippers and other ships that sailed between the Port of London and the entrep├┤ts of the orient. Despite his kindly treatment at the Strangers Home by October Ali Khan was once again threatening to commit suicide and found himself brought up on charges at the Thames Police Court brought by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Marsh Hughes, the governor of the home. The magistrate told the court that he had no power to punish a man merely for threatening to take his own life and accordingly dismissed the charges. At a later trial Lieut.-Col. Hughes described Ali Khan’s stay in Limehouse after he had been discharged by the magistrate. He told the court:

The Strangers Home in Limehouse
I have known him [Ali Khan] 5 years.  I speak his language. From what he has told me I understand he was formerly a dependant of the Nawab of Joonaghur, who is an independent prince or chieftain. I saw him in Cold bath-fields Prison in October. I invited him to come to the Home at the expiration of his sentence. He came on the 18th October, and I admitted him. I had several conversations with him, and he told me that if Sir Charles Wood [1st Viscount Halifax and Secretary of State for India]  did not give him justice be would cut his throat before Sir Charles's eyes and throw the petition over his head. In consequence of that threat I obtained a warrant against him, and was brought up at the Thames police-court on the first of November. He then promised that he would keep in the Home, abstain from going to the India House, and from making any further attempt at suicide. Believing his word I took him back. On Christmas day he left, and I understand he says that gave him pork to eat, which is not true. We allow no pork to be brought into the Home, and all the food is cooked by Mahometans. In order that he might have nothing to find fault with, money was given to him to buy meat from the Jewish butchers, and he could see it cooked or cook it himself. This he accepted. When he was ill Dr. Condor ordered him rice, sago and arrowroot, which were prepared for him by a Mahometan cook. His prejudices were consulted in everything. On Christmas day, according to custom, we gave the inmates an English dinner —roast beef and plum pudding—but everything was purchased and cooked by Mahometans. They were all delighted except Mohammed Ali Khan, who was very angry. He said he must have some fish, which was accordingly provided for him, and he ate it. After dinner some tobacco was given to them, and all were pleased but the prisoner, who refused the tobacco and left the Home immediately. I have not seen him since. He might have remained if he chose, and I have authority to send him to India if he will go. I have no reason to believe that he is insane, except that he labours under some delusion about having a claim on the Government. There is no foundation for that notion. (Morpeth Herald - Saturday 16 February 1861)

The Great Hall of the Strangers Home in West India Dock Road - the Daily Graphic
The reason for Ali Khan’s reappearance in court in February 1961 was that on the 5th February he had made his most audacious suicide attempt yet. On the day of the state opening of parliament he had waited patiently in Whitehall for the Queen’s coach to draw level with him and then rushed out into the roadway calling to her majesty whilst attempting to cut his throat. In the official records of the Old Bailey PC A424 Richard Flawn gave the following evidence at Ali Khan’s trial:

I was on duty on 5th February, as Her Majesty was proceeding to open the Houses of Parliament—I saw the prisoner step out from the crowd as the Royal carriage was passing—he was, as near as I can guess, about four yards from the carriage—he had this envelope in his left hand, suspended from his thumb with a string—he was holding it out in his left hand—he made use of some words which I could not distinctly understand—I thought it was, "Me no protection, me justice"—I did not perceive where his right hand was until I seized hold of him by the shoulders and turned him round—I then saw his right hand sawing at his throat with a knife, cutting across his throat—I knocked it out of his hand immediately—the knife was at his throat at the time I turned him round—he was then bleeding from the throat; he bled more on the way to the station—I took him at once to the King-street station, which was close by—this (produced) is the knife; I picked it up—on searching him at the station I found this quantity of papers in his coat pocket—this small bone was rolled up in the papers—I afterwards took him to the Westminster Hospital—his wound was dressed at the station-house; he was bleeding at that time.

Mohammed Ali Khan in the official annals of the Central Criminal Court showing he was aquitted
William Travers the house surgeon at Westminster Hospital testified that he had treated Ali Khan’s injuries; he testified that the two inch wound in the Indian’s throat was superficial and presented no danger to his life. Ali Khan grew excited as the doctor was giving his evidence and interjected that he “brought my bitter enemy near me, who has tyrannized over me.” Mr Travers explained to the court that Colonel Hughes called to see him one day; he was the only person; there was a little excitement when he saw Colonel Hughes.” The jury’s verdict was that Ali Khan was not guilty of attempting to commit suicide but his happiness would have been shortlived; he soon found himself evicted from the Strangers Home and admitted to the Hanwell Asylum where he terrified Henry Todd into killing himself. The final chapter of Ali Khan’s story is recounted by Joseph Salter, a missionary who worked amongst London’s Lascar sailor community and who recorded his experiences in  ‘The Asiatic in England: Sketches of Sixteen Years among Orientals’ published in 1873. He tells us that whilst in Hanwell Asylum Ali Khan spoke to a missionary who had helped him for a number of years:

“Padre,” he said to the Missionary, “where should I have been if it had not been for you, and yet I have brought so much disgrace on you by my wild acts? You must ask the people of England to forgive me, and I hope God will forgive me too. This was said in review of the attention he had received from the Missionary, notwithstanding the trouble he had given to him. He had consoled him in the hospital, assisted him in his defence, was interpreter at his trial, was a constant visitor at the lunatic asylum, and prepared the way for his coming to the Asiatic Home; and finally escorted him to Southampton and saw him safely out of England.


Where was he going? Not back to India and the Gujarati principality of Junagadh. Despite the Bombay Times assertion that Ali Khan was really Daood Mukranee (and therefore most likely a Hindu and not a Muslim at all), his final wish, according to Salter, was “to go and die at Mecca”. His ship from Southampton was bound for Jeddah. We lost sight of Ali Khan here, embarking on the south coast; whether he made it to Jeddah or Mecca or continued his wanderings in other countries is unknown. Ali Khan disappears from the historical record.   

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Hunterian Museum - Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln's Inn Fields


I didn’t see the ‘Strictly No Photography’ signs until I was half way around the Hunterian Museum. Honest. Until I spotted the sign I had been blatantly clicking away, making no effort to disguise the camera or what I was doing. Despite the CCTV cameras everywhere no one approached me to tell me to stop. Later, when I went to pay for a book I’d bought, a bank of CCTV camera monitors were right next to the desk where the sole member of staff was sitting. She hadn’t noticed me because she was looking at shoes on the internet. I didn’t take any more pictures once I’d seen the sign but I couldn’t bring myself to delete the ones I’d already taken. 

The museum is based around the original collection of anatomical specimens collected by 18th Century surgeon John Hunter and is housed at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It’s one of London’s quirkier museums and well worth a visit. 

A decapitated chimpanzee youngster is one of the more disturbing exhibits in a Museum full of anatomical freaks and grotesquery. As well as the mutilated, maimed and diseased body parts that fill hundreds of glass jars there are numerous teratological specimens (mutants) as well including two headed puppies and kittens. There is a hugely enlarged hydrocephalic skull (see below), half of Charles Babbage’s brain in a pickle jar (that’s what you get for inventing the computer), the skeleton of a giant, and miscellaneous tumours and deformities affecting every conceivable body part. One cabinet is filled with sliced and chopped penises, treated with as much ceremony as a butcher would treat a pork sausage or a length of chorizo or bratwurst. They are flayed open to display the inner workings, suffering from strange growths, cankers and carbuncles or horribly distended foreskins, or foreskins so tight that they stopped the circulation at the tip. They were ripped, slashed and slit and preserved for posterity whilst their poor owners wander around missing their closest friend in the whole world. It was quite possibly the most ghastly thing I have ever seen.


The tall skeleton (7’7” or 2.31metres) in the cabinet beneath the bust of John Hunter belonged to Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, who died of grief and gin at the age of 22 after his pocket was picked of his £700 life savings when he was out boozing on the London streets. £700 was a lot of money in 1783 and Byrne had amassed his small fortune exhibiting himself in freak shows. Several noted collectors of anatomical curiosities had shown an interest in acquiring his body during his lifetime but Byrne was horrified at the thought of being butchered and displayed after his death. He left instructions that he was to be buried at sea in a lead coffin. Hunter bribed one of Byrnes associates £500 to get the body for him. At an overnight stop on the way to the coast the Byrne was removed from the coffin and dispatched back to Hunter in London whilst the empty casket was filled with rocks to imitate the weight of the dead man.


John Hunter (1728 to 1793)  was a pioneering surgeon and scientist in the days before anaesthesia or antiseptics. He was born in Scotland and was originally a cabinet maker until he followed his elder brother William to London. William was an anatomist and John joined him as an assistant in dissections. After studying medicine he became an army surgeon  and also worked at St Georges Hospital. There is a bust of him in Leicester Square which marks the site of his house where he arranged his collection of 14,000 anatomical preparations (animals and plants as well as human) into a teaching museum. He also had a menagerie at Earls Court.


The Waddington quintuplets were born in 1789 in Lower Darwin near Blackburn in Lancashire. They were born prematurely to a 21 year old woman attended by a Dr Hull. Two of the children were born alive, one was stillborn and two were ‘macerated’ according to Dr Norma Ford Walker of the Department of Zoology in Toronto, by which I assume she means crushed (the two of the left certainly look like they have been crushed). The two live births survived only a very short time. The birth of quintuplets was an unheard of rarity in 1789 (when Dr Walker wrote a paper on the quintuplets in 1950 there had still only been 53 authenticated cases of them, ever…) and Dr Hull despatched the bodies of the foetuses to Dr Hunter in London. He was not allowed to send the placenta; the parents of the children were prepared, presumably for a consideration, to allow the babies themselves to become anatomical specimens. But they drew the line at the placenta which had to be disposed of according to local custom. Dr Walker’s paper “Determination of the Zygosity of the Waddington Quintuplets born in 1789” concludes that the 5 children were monozygotes i.e. all produced from one ovum.  





John Hunter’s apprentice, William Clift, took over the role of curator for the collection when the great surgeon died. He was responsible for acquiring the skeleton of Caroline Crachami, otherwise known as the Sicilian Dwarf or the Sicilian Fairy. In the Donations Books he scrupulously kept to record his acquisitions for the museum on Monday the 7th June 1824 he numbered her entry as 1217 and carefully noted “The body of Miss, or Mademoiselle, Crachami, the Sicilain dwarf, who died on Friday last, 4th June. 22½ inches high, weighing, by guess, between five and six pounds. Aged near nine years; born at Palermo (said to be born the day after the Battle of Waterloo, consequently the 19th June 1815-making her, if true, nine years wanting 15 days)”.  The specimen was presented, with almost indecent haste it has to be said (died on Friday, a specimen by Monday) by John Hunter’s brother in law, the surgeon Sir Everard Home.   


Artist Eleanor Crook studied Classics at University and was settling into a career in archaeology when one day she decided to make a model of a Greek sculpture in her bedroom. One thing led to another and she soon found herself enrolling at St Martins for an art degree and then, once she had that, studying anatomy and forensic modelling. She was commissioned to create this wax model of the pioneering First World War plastic surgery techniques of Sir Harold Gillies.


Gillies was born in New Zealand and studied medicine at Cambridge. In the First World War he joined the Army Medical Corp and was posted to France where he became interested in reconstructive facial surgery. He persuaded the army to let him open a ward for facial injuries in Aldershot. Such was the demand that he was given an entire hospital within a matter of months, the Queens Hospital in Sidcup. Gillies and his colleagues performed 11,000 operations on 5000 patients during the war. Eleanor Crook told an interviewer  that “there were so many people coming through the hospital that Gillies said it was almost like a lab: if one thing didn’t work they’d try something else on the next patient.” Such was the horrific nature of many of the injuries that despairing patients happily accepted the risks of untried surgical techniques, anything that might help them look more normal.


The Museum was heavily damaged by bombs in the Second World War and several prize exhibits were lost including the embalmed corpses of Maria Van Butchell and Miss Johnson.  On 20 May this year the museum closes until 2020 while the Royal College of Surgeons is being renovated. If you have never been there before the next two months are the only chance you are going to get to visit this extraordinary place.