Past Realities: Building Five Lives

Dr Sylvia Shorto’s new book brings the history of the East India Company into fresh perspective with the micro stories of five men of the ruling class in Delhi, examining their lives through their house-building activities in the first half of the 19th century as a way to understand more about the subliminal mechanisms that enabled the British to control this great Mughal city. As such it reveals the often-contradictory attitudes these men held towards India. Here Dr Shorto explains how her work was carefully constructed from many diverse sources.


I imagine I’m in the company of a lot of writers in wondering why it can take so long to finish a book. In my case, I never wanted the process to end!

Research for British Houses in Late Mughal Delhi (Boydell Press, 2018) was begun in the mid-1990s when I made my first trip to Delhi. The book started life as an exploration of power dynamics through analysis of a group of re-used and newly-built houses in Delhi, a city that provides a well-defined case study for exploring through material culture the transformations in British mentalities that took place over a fifty-year period after the city was conquered in 1803. It ended up being structured around the inter-related micro-histories of five men employed in the military and civil service of the East India Company who lived in these houses. These very different men – David Ochterlony, Charles Metcalfe, Robert Smith, William Fraser and Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe – are linked through their building activities, and through their professional and personal imprint on the historical urban landscape of Mughal Delhi.

British Houses in Late Mughal Delhi
by Sylvia Shorto
9781783272082 / 9781787443044

But settling on a workable structure was not a straightforward path, and neither was defining the discipline of the book. Was this to be an architectural history or a group biography? Was it about public lives or private places? Was it a hybrid, like the houses themselves?

When I began the book, I intended to document Delhi in the first half of the 19th century from the objective reality of an architectural historian. But I soon started to understand more about the realities of these five individual lives. Because so many records of pre-1857 Delhi are lost to us, there were missing parts of their stories that needed to be accounted for. I even began to visualize the project as writing a Swiss cheese, with holes that could not (should not?) be filled in. What was needed was a structure that could accommodate the voids in my material. Contemporary literature that mixes historic and fictional narrative was often in my mind as I struggled to achieve this. Yet this remained history-writing and not fiction.

To try and stitch together both building histories and personal stories, I drew on a wide variety of resources, some of which took me a long way away from Delhi. While the houses themselves and their location in Delhi’s fast-changing urban landscape were important primary texts, I also sought information from a catholic mixture of other sources that included both official and private papers, travellers’ accounts, the laments of Urdu poets, and (a particularly interesting and under-explored resource) Persian lists of historical monuments organised by the rank and wealth of their builders. Working with private papers can give us glimpses into the experience of home life, and they often document otherwise unrecorded discourses and beliefs. The invaluable Fraser of Reelig papers, not previously used in interpreting the Delhi’s early 19th century buildings, gave valuable glimpses of the domestic lives of men. Wills were a useful resource as well, and I also added genealogical research to the mix to trace the origins and descendants of my subjects. But this, it turned out, was still not enough. Documentary research had to be cross-referenced against different types of visual representation – paintings, drawings, maps and photographs made for a variety of patrons – to try to fill gaps in our knowledge of Delhi.

Whether a true historical reality exists, and whose reality is being written, are questions I still grapple with. Any historian trying to understand a past through the lens of the present is by definition an outsider, and I often felt that way. But in the end, both the fragments of this history and a discontinuous understanding of the past gave a narrative structure to my book. It did end up being as much about the builders as the built, but I included some of the true and as much of the real as I could uncover. I hope it will engender new ideas in scholars in the future.


This guest post was written by Sylvia Shorto, an independent scholar, and former Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut until the end of 2017. She writes on architecture as material culture in colonial contexts, crossing scales from urban environments to individual objects contained in domestic settings.

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The Richard Baxter Treatises: A Catalogue and Guide

Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was among the most prominent English nonconformist divines. An independent thinker, he had opinions – and usually expressed them – about every major controversy in England during his lifetime. He wrote over 140 published works but also several volumes of his unpublished ‘Treatises’, a voluminous output which Dr Alan Argent, Research Fellow at Dr Williams’s Library, has carefully catalogued.


The Baxter Treatises, held for the most part in Dr Williams’s Library, London, together form an outstanding primary source for 17th century English history, especially touching on events from the 1650s onwards and mostly but not exclusively dealing with church history. Although most of the treatises relate directly to the nonconformist clergyman, Richard Baxter (1615-91), a significant minority have little if any link to him, though all were found in his possession at his death. Nevertheless, here are treatises, tracts, sermons, disputations, exercises, drafts, letters and miscellaneous papers, comprising a total of approximately 369 separate items.

Baxter had been a chaplain in the Parliamentary forces during the Civil Wars and served as vicar of Kidderminster in Worcestershire until 1660. For many years historians have regarded him as the most eminent figure among the ejected ministers after 1662. He wrote some 140 published works, among them bestsellers like The Saints Everlasting Rest (1650) and The Reformed Pastor (1656) and he continued writing until a few weeks before his death. The Baxter treatises make evident the vast scale of his interests, throwing up his acquaintance with the writings of Augustine, Origen, Lactantius, Calvin, Bucer, Beza, Hobbes, Spinoza, Grotius, Scaliger, David Blondel, Raymond Gaches, Daniel Chamier, Girolami Zanchius, and Jan Jesensky of Prague. In so doing they demonstrate that he was very well-read and concerned not only with classical and reformed theology, with philosophy, medicine and politics, but also with the down to earth pastoral problems of ordinary folk in those turbulent times.

The treatises cover his dealings with the highly placed and the lowly; he was a chaplain to the king in 1660 and the leading Presbyterian negotiator throughout discussions at the Restoration on the future of the Church of England. As such he was consulted by Charles II, the Lord Chancellor Sir Edward Hyde who became the Earl of Clarendon, and Gilbert Sheldon, the Archbishop of Canterbury but he also knew Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, John Tillotson, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Orrery, and Lord Conway. Furthermore, the treatises reveal the wide range of his pastoral concerns for London apprentices, troubled wives and mothers, Baptists, Quakers and converts to Roman Catholicism. They touch on the bizarre, the eccentric and the mundane as much as on matters of state and government policy. Baxter was concerned both with saving souls and saving bodies!

The treatises also make evident his own troubles with Bishop George Morley of Worcester, his brushes with the law and with his imprisonment but they also include items dealing with witchcraft, the magistrates of Ghent’s speech to the French monarch in 1678, Joseph Alleine’s arrest, strange fires at Brightling in Sussex in 1659 (explained as evidences of Providence) and the diary of a puritan minister at Cambridge in Elizabethan times.

At present academics are engaged in editing his autobiographical Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696) and an edition of his correspondence (also largely held at Dr Williams’s Library) is under way. Baxter studies are therefore still attracting attention from social and feminist historians, from literary scholars, from book historians, as well as from theologians and ecclesiastical historians.

I hope that with my book it is now possible to navigate one’s way safely through the many treatises and to know for certain what they contain.


This guest post is written by Alan Argent, a Research Fellow at Dr Williams’s Library, London and minister of Trinity Congregational Church, Brixton. He has written a biography of Elsie Chamberlain, a history of Congregationalism in the twentieth century and has edited The Angels’ Voice for the London Record Society. His 2016 Friends of Dr Williams’s Library lecture Dr Williams’s Library 1729-1793 – ‘a good library, under the direction of the dissenters’ was published in 2017. He is preparing a history of Dr Williams’s Library and Trust 1716-2016.

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Call for Papers: Social and Cultural Histories of Britain’s Military, 1660 – 1914

What was it like to be a soldier in Britain’s army in the redcoat era?

While there is much written about wars, battles, tactics and fighting in this period, there is relatively little serious research on the nature of everyday military life. This new series aims to publish a range of interesting new books which explore a variety of questions about soldiering in this period. Subjects covered will include who were the soldiers and the officers?; how did their careers develop?; their cultural attitudes, including the changing nature of masculinity; the growth of professionalism; how soldiers related to their families and wider society; changing approaches to military discipline and organisation; and much more.

The series will cover all the different forces of the British crown – the regular army, militia, home defence forces, part-time soldiers, auxiliaries; and officers, NCOs, rank and file, camp followers and military families. Besides studying the forces raised in Britain and Ireland, the series will also examine troops raised overseas including “foreign” units and forces recruited in the colonies and the Empire. Soldiering had a lifecycle – from recruit, to life as a soldier, then discharge and returning to the community, all of which could be repeated – the series overall aims to provide rich detail on exactly what this life was like.

New proposals and preliminary enquiries from prospective authors are welcomed.
These should be sent in the first instance to the series editor, Kevin Linch at k.b.linch@leeds.ac.uk.

Already Published

How Britain Won the War of 1812

The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815

By Brian Arthur

The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States was fought on many fronts: single ship actions in the Atlantic; a US invasion of Canada, which the Canadians heroically resisted; the burning of the new US capital, Washington, by the British, the President’s house subsequently painted white to hide the fire damage; and an unsuccessful attack by the British on New Orleans. The war is usually seen as a draw. However, as this book demonstrates, it was in fact a British victory.

British Expeditionary Warfare and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1793-1815

By Robert K. Sutcliffe

Britain’s naval victories in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars succeeded in protecting Britain from French invasion, but they could not of themselves defeat France. How did Britain manage the transportation of large numbers of troops to French controlled territory during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and successfully land them?

A Social History of British Naval Officers, 1775-1815

By Evan Wilson

Who were the men who officered the Royal Navy in Nelson’s day? This book explores the world of British naval officers at the height of the Royal Navy’s power in the age of sail. The demands of life at sea conflicted with the expectations of genteel behaviour and background in eighteenth-century Britain, and the ways officers grappled with this challenge forms a key theme.

The Birth of the Royal Marines, 1664-1802

By Britt Zerbe

The Royal Marines come from a long and proud tradition dating back to 1664. However, the first incarnation of the service, the Marine Regiments, was plagued by structural and operational difficulties. This book traces the origins and early development of the Royal Marines, outlining their organisational structures, their recruitment and social background, the activities in which they were engaged, and how their distinctive identity was forged.

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Books to look out for in November 2018

Looking for a new Boydell book this month? From the musical culture of the Low Countries, to the debt owed by Shakespeare to Ovid, we round up the best (and most eclectic range of) books to put on your reading list this November.

Until next time!

Piety and Polyphony in Sixteenth-Century Holland

The Choirbooks of St Peter’s Church, Leiden

By Eric Jas

The musical culture of the Low Countries in the early modern period was a flourishing one, apparent beyond the big cathedrals and monasteries, and reaching down to smaller parish churches. Unfortunately, very few manuscripts containing the music have survived from the period, and what we know rests to a huge extent on six music books preserved from St Peter’s Church, Leiden. This book describes the manuscripts, their provenance, history and repertory, and the zeven-getijdencollege, the ecclesiastical organisations which ordered the music books, in detail.

Shakespeare’s Ovid and the Spectre of the Medieval

By Lindsay Ann Reid

The debt owed by Shakespeare to Ovid is a major and important topic in scholarship. This book offers a fresh approach to the subject, in aiming to account for the Middle English literary lenses through which Shakespeare and his contemporaries often approached Greco-Roman mythology. Drawing its principal examples from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Lucrece, and Twelfth Night, it reinvestigates a selection of moments in Shakespeare’s works that have been widely identified in previous criticism as “Ovidian”, scrutinising their literary alchemy with an eye to uncovering how ostensibly classical references may be haunted by the under-acknowledged, spectral presences of medieval intertexts and traditions.

Sir John Fortescue and the Governance of England

By Margaret Kekewich

Sir John Fortescue was arguably the most important political thinker of fifteenth-century England. Rising from relative obscurity to become Chief Justice of the King’s Bench he progressively assumed a political role as a partisan of the Lancastrian cause during the Wars of the Roses. As Chancellor-in-exile to Henry VI he wrote on the lawful succession and in praise of the common law of England. This book provides the first comprehensive biography of Fortescue, reassessing his career and thought, challenging earlier views about his life, and discusses his work as a lawyer and political thinker in the light of modern scholarship.

A Critical Companion to John Skelton

Edited by Sebastian Sobecki and John Scattergood

John Skelton is a central literary figure and the leading poet during the first thirty years of Tudor rule. Nevertheless, he remains challenging and even contradictory for modern audiences. This book aims to provide an authoritative guide to this complex poet and his works, setting him in his historical, religious, and social contexts. Beginning with an exploration of his life and career, it goes on to cover all the major aspects of his poetry, from the literary traditions in which he wrote and the form of his compositions to the manuscript contexts and later reception.

Punishment and Medieval Education

By Ben Parsons

“What meanys shall I use to lurne withoute betynge?”, asks a pupil in a translation exercise compiled at Oxford in 1460s. One of the most conspicuous features of medieval education is its reliance on flogging. Throughout the period, the rod looms large in literary and artistic depictions of the schoolroom: it appears in teaching manuals, classroom exercises, and even in the iconography of instruction. As a whole, this study not only exposes the impressive rigour with which beating was defined, but also some of the doubts, paradoxes, and even anxieties that surrounded its usage.

ALT 36: African Literature Today

Queer Theory in Film & Fiction

By Ernest N. Emenyonu

Debates on the future of the African continent and the role of gender identities in these visions are increasingly present in literary criticism forums as African writers become bolder in exploring the challenges they face and celebrating gender diversity in the writing of short stories, novels, poetry, plays and films. Controversies over the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex, Queer (LGBTIQ) communities in Africa, as elsewhere, continue in the context of criminalization and/or intimidation of these groups. ALT 36 is also avaiable in (Africa Only) paperback.

The Annals of Dunstable Priory

Translated by David Preest and edited by Harriett R. Webster

Told with humour, outrage, and truthful detail, the Annals of Dunstable Priory are a valuable witness to thirteenth-century England, offering a lively and accessible account of an important and turbulent period of English history. Giving insights into many facets of medieval life, they perhaps most importantly offer detailed accounts of key events on an national and international stage, including the crisis of the Second Barons’ War in the reign of Henry III, and the conquest of Wales under Edward I. This new translation makes them available to a wider audience for the first time.

With Mornefull Musique: Funeral Elegies in Early Modern England

By K. Dawn Grapes

What was the musical culture of death in early modern England? K. Dawn Grapes examines musical funeral elegies and the people related to commemorative tribute – the departed, the composer, potential patrons, and friends and family of the deceased – to determine the place these musical-poetic texts held in a society in which issues of death were discussed regularly, producing a constant, pervasive shadow over everyday life.

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