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Victorian Study Fires

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Former Ambassador, Human Rights Activist

Just been working on this section of Sikunder Burnes:

The only evidence for Pottinger’s heroics was allegedly in his journals, which were the basis of the account of “The Hero of Herat” by the doyen of British Indian historians Sir John Kaye. But this evidence disappeared in one of those infamous Victorian study fires, in which papers potentially embarrassing to the Imperial narrative were apt to vanish.1 It seems likely that this fire is where Alexander Burnes’ private diaries disappeared too, with their evidence of religious scepticism (and perhaps sexual adventure). Kaye published that “the journals and correspondence of Sir Alexander Burnes were given to me by his brother, the late Dr James Burnes”2, but there, to my extreme frustration, the trail ends. The same conflagration took private papers of those martyr icons of Victorian India, Henry Lawrence and John Nicholson. This almost certainly destroyed evidence of homosexual relationships among some members of the circle including those two and Herbert Edwardes, known as “Henry Lawrence’s young men”, and paedophile relationships with the young boys in their charge.3

It was a continual process. I just came across this, written with apparent naivety in John Lawrence’s 1990 biography of his ancestor, Henry:

“The papers collected by Herbert Edwardes came to my grandfather and were passed down to my father… Unfortunately some of them were lost in a fire while they were with Macleaod Innes, who had known Henry in his youth.”

“Known Henry in his youth.” I bet he did. The most tragic of the study fires was of course Isobel Burton’s destruction of Richard’s papers, though that was rare in being avowed. I was wondering if there is not an interesting little book in Victorian study fires and the bowdlerisation of history.

This great British tradition continues of course with the loss of paedophilia dossiers in the Home Office…

For the footnotes you’ll have to buy the book!


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