I remember years ago, watching an episode of The Goodies on TV. They had got themselves into a typical Goodies scrape, and one of them said ‘What we need is an English-Swahili dictionary….. Ah! Here’s one!’ It still makes me smile now, the absurdity of something so obscure turning up on the table right beside you, just when you need it. And yet, exactly this has happened to me….. twice!
The first time was six years ago. I had just worked out that the reason I’d spent many years searching without success for my great grandfather Edward, was because he was listed with a completely different surname on every census and other conceivable document. Finally, tracing him back through his childhood to his birth, I realised that his father had been a Jewish immigrant who had died not long after Edward’s birth. Edward was then listed in 1861 with his mother’s maiden surname and in 1871 with his stepfather’s surname. In the 1880s after marriage, he and my great grandmother tried out several different variations on all of the above, registering and baptising their children with different surnames before finally settling on the one I knew as my grandmother’s. I remember sitting at the dining table working through all this in my mind, and wondering if their motivation might have been rising antisemitic tensions. With no memory at all of his father and no emotional connection to the surname with which he had been registered at birth, Edward seemed keen to remove it – and the threat of antisemitism – from his family. I remember raising my eyes heavenwards in a rather dramatic gesture of seeking divine intervention, and thinking ‘What I need is a book about Jewish history and antisemitism in Leeds in the 1870s and 1880s.’ At the time we were having work done in another room, and all along the floor by the dining room window, piles of rather obscure books were taking refuge from the dust and upheaval under way in their usual room. Still deep in thought, I exhaled, lowering my eyes in the direction of the window to my left, and as I did so the very first thing I saw was a book with the title Immigrants and the class struggle: The Jewish immigrant in Leeds, 1880-1914. Why my husband had this book remains something of a puzzle, but it was just what I needed.
The second occasion was just last week… you’ll soon start to see what all of this has to do with the title of this blog post! I’ve been writing up the story of Benjamin who was transported to Tasmania in 1834. Research had turned up the name of the convict ship on which he was transported and the names of the Ship’s Master and Ship’s Surgeon. I knew from wider reading that Benjamin’s experience of the voyage would have depended largely on the attitude of the Ship’s Surgeon, Thomas Braidwood Wilson. Like every Ship’s Surgeon he was required to complete a log of the voyage, including treatment of serious illnesses and general comments. Unfortunately, since Dr Wilson chose to write his log in Latin I was able to learn nothing at all about the man. If only there was some way of finding out more about him and getting inside his head…
In these situations I always start with Wikipedia. Although this is not accepted as a reliable source, a good entry will include sources and further reading. So starting with Wikipedia I learned that Dr Wilson was not only a Royal Navy Surgeon but also an explorer and botanist. At least two of his descendants have written about his life, but there didn’t seem to be a way of getting copies of their work outside Australia. That was when I hit the jackpot: a narrative of one of his voyages around the world, starting with a convict voyage to Sydney in 1828 then a circumnavigation of Australia including a shipwreck and several exploratory expeditions inland. That alone would have given me an insight into the man, but then just for me (!) he concludes with a chapter about the practice of transportation and his approach to dealing with convicts during the voyage. The full facsimile copy of this is available to read for free on Google Books. You can click the image below to find it yourself. I read the entire text and found it easy to read, most interesting and most importantly for my particular needs, very enlightening about the author. If early exploration about Australia interests you, perhaps you’ll enjoy it too, but I’m really just including it here as an example.There are several points to come out of all this:
Firstly, don’t give up! The seemingly impossible might just happen. Admittedly, when it does, it is probably more likely to happen through the intervention of the Internet rather than a physical book appearing at your side.
Second, it seems that in the ninteenth century people wrote books and pamphlets on all kinds of rather niche topics. Even if you don’t know the title of the book (or even if you don’t know such a book exists), if you start out with a search on Google or Wikipedia you might be guided to exactly what you need.
Third, I’ve previously referred to other facsimile copies on Google Books, e.g. [here] and [here]. Being now out of copyright, many of these books and pamphlets have been copied and made available for anyone to read, free of charge. Alternatively, the entry may direct you to where library copies are available.
Fourth, you may also find Amazon Kindle to be of use. Here too, many older, out-of-copyright books have been typed up and made available for free from Kindle. I’ve downloaded several novels to read as background for my research, just to get a feel of the period. You don’t need an actual ‘Kindle’ to make use of this. A free App enables you to read Kindle books on other devices.
Finally, other Kindle books may be available at very reasonable prices that will help fill in some gaps for you. I usually find these come up as suggested items when I search for something specific. For example I was searching for an (alarmingly expensive!) book about prison hulks when a short biography based on the memoirs of a transported convict popped up as a suggestion. It cost me £4.49 and being an e-book was available immediately for me to read. Very useful it was too.
I hope all of this has helped you to imagine that the seemingly impossible might be within your reach… at least in relation to antiquarian publications.