Civil rights & Public health

In 1921, W E B Du Bois (the African American thinker and NAACP co-founder) sent a letter to Winston Churchill with a rather interesting request. A closer look at this letter illuminates the Pan-African and anti-colonial activism of the inter-war period and Du Bois’ interest in London as a site for Black leaders from around the world to gather. Then, a design registration record from the Victorian era asks the question, ‘Can design improve health?’.

We follow the paper trail of a 19th-century doctor who believed it could.

Documents from The National Archives used in this episode:

BT 45/5/950; BT 45/5/973; CO 323/878; MH 13/196/81

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Matt Norman: Winston Churchill made his mark on history leading Britain through the Second World War as Prime Minister from 1940-1945, but his career, and his influence on British politics and policy…is so much larger. Churchill became a Member of Parliament at the age of 26 and would continue to serve in that capacity until 5 years before his death at the age of 90. So as you can imagine, we have a lot of records relating to Churchill here at The National Archives.

Sarah Castagnetti: But this story is about just one short letter. A letter sent to Churchill on May 27, 1921 from the New York City offices of The Crisis, an anti-racist journal of politics and literature published by an organisation called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People…the NAACP. If that acronym sounds familiar, it’s because today the NAACP is the largest and most pre-eminent civil rights organisation in America.

Matt: In 1921, Churchill was the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the letter was sent to him at the Colonial Office. It was written and signed by the editor of The Crisis, an African American historian, civil rights activist, writer, and thinker named W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was planning a trip to London to lead a Pan-African Congress, and his letter details a rather interesting request for Churchill that we thought was worth a closer look.

You’re listening to On the Record at The National Archives, a show that uncovers the stories hidden in our collections, stories of famous monarchs and spies…and stories of everyday people like you and me.

I’m Matt Norman.

Sarah: And I’m Sarah Castagnetti.

Here at The National Archives, we’re the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history. We’re the paper trail of a nation, and our original documents have some incredible stories to tell…if you know where to look.

Matt: In this three-part series we’re exploring stories in our collection with the theme of heroic deeds.

As our long-time listeners will know, we like to go beyond the surface level and off the beaten path when it comes to telling the thousands and thousands of stories preserved in our national documents, so in these episodes, you’ll hear about spies parachuting into enemy territories and knights slaying dragons, but you’ll also hear about health inspectors trying to improve the living conditions of poor Londoners and leaders using their skills to organise for change. Anyone can do something heroic, make the choice to help even when it’s dangerous, or act to challenge injustice. So in this series you’ll hear famous names alongside those of everyday people from history who made a difference.

Iqbal Singh: So the document I have is a letter from W.E.B. Du Bois, and he’s written a letter to Winston Churchill, and the letter is setting out his request for somebody from the Colonial Office to come and speak at the Pan-African Congress that he’s organising, which will be in London.

Sarah: This is Iqbal Singh, Regional Community Partnerships Manager here at The National Archives.

Iqbal: I came across the letter as I was researching the 1919 Race Riots in Britain. And the letter itself was hidden away in a collection in one of our Colonial Office files. It was hidden away, as I say, amongst a number of reports, you know, which dealt with the Tsetse flies, venereal disease, and the conditions of Indians in Fiji and East Africa. And then somewhere in amongst that, I found this letter from Du Bois. Du Bois’ letter fascinated me immediately. I’d heard of him before, but this thing of it being addressed to Winston Churchill, it was just, you know, something really intriguing.

Sarah: W.E.B. Du Bois is a fascinating figure, so before we dive into the Pan-African Congress and his letter to Churchill, let’s backtrack and get a fuller picture of this incredibly influential man.

Iqbal: His full name is William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, and he’s referred to as W.E.B. Du Bois. He’s known primarily for his writing; he’s a scholar. He wrote in various genres, including poetry, novels, journalism. He’s got scholarly, monographs and autobiographies. Of note I think is that he’s the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University in 1895. He also helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; that’s known by the acronym NAACP. He also was key to this initiating of the first Pan-African Congress in 1919. So in that sense, he’s also an activist. His works have become celebrated texts in their own right. His ability to reflect philosophically on the Black experience is something that has really stood out and concepts such as the double consciousness, where he reflects on what it is to be both American and Black have become very important. And he’s also very famous for making this line about the global color line known by a lot of people. It’s his famous observation “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” And this itself is inspired by Frederick Douglass’s essay of the same title, and it really sets out what became a key guide to his campaign for racial justice and equality.

At the end of the First World War Du Bois was really exercised by this opportunity to lobby the most powerful Imperial powers. He went to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 precisely for this purpose; it was here that he wanted to help set up the first Pan-African Congress. He recognised that powers like Britain, France, and Belgium needed to be lobbied and they needed to get a better deal of people of colour. Situating the Congress in these capitals was a natural next step. His letter to then Colonial Secretary Churchill highlights the importance that men like Du Bois placed on Britain and its empire. And that’s why we have a copy of the letter.

Sarah: Du Bois really wanted someone from the Colonial Office to not only attend the congress, but also to speak and address attendees on behalf of the government office that oversaw all of Britain’s colonies.

Iqbal: “I should like best to have a representative of the British colonial office to speak to our Congress and state in some general terms the main ideas of Great Britain toward her Negro subjects, civilized and uncivilized.”

And it’s this kind of language where he’s, he’s being extremely polite, and saying, you know, would it be feasible perhaps for someone to come along and help? And he signs the letter off by saying, “I trust sir, that in this effort, we may count upon your sympathy and cooperation.” So you’ve got a real tone within Du Bois at this time of conciliation of…it’s a moderate tone. It’s a tone of trying to kind of find bridges.

Sarah: The first Pan-African Congress had been held 2 years earlier–in 1919–to coincide with the Versailles Peace Conference. It was at this peace conference in the aftermath of the First World War that the victorious powers met to draw a new map of Europe and the colonies it controlled…including those in Africa.

Around 1880, European powers had begun what is now called the Scramble for Africa, and by 1914, 90% of the continent had been claimed by Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. Only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent of Anglo-European rule. In 1914, before the war broke out, 30% of all people in Africa lived in a British colony.

Iqbal: So Du Bois had, along with others, been really taken by this idea of a growing Pan-African movement and saw the centrality of Africa in history and centrality of Africa and contemporary politics and economics as key. He was increasingly concerned at Germany’s imperial ambitions, and during the First World War, he saw Germany as more dangerous for colonised people than even Britain and France. However, at the end of the war, his concern turned more towards the victorious powers and how they would manage the peace, particularly in terms of Africa. Du Bois found an ally in the French Senegalese politician, Blaise Diange, and together, they organized the first PanAfrican Congress in Paris in February 1919. Later, he reflected on this experience in Paris. Du Bois said he became aware of the real need to address the gap between the colonial powers and those they ruled, and it made him redouble his efforts to hold a second Pan-African Congress in 1921 that he wanted to be better attended and better organised.

Sarah: The first Pan-African Congress in Paris was attended by 57 delegates from 15 countries. Its key demand was that the governance of Africa should be improved along with the political, social and economic welfare of its people. By the time the Second Congress was held in the summer of 1921–99 years ago–far more delegates were able to attend.

Iqbal: I think the London conference was far better attended. You had representatives from South Africa, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Grenada, the USA, Martinique, Liberia, British Guyana, Jamaica…and there are also people of African heritage living in London. And I think that’s really important to recognise in terms of the London Congress. Amongst the representatives was the former Mayor of Battersea and the first Black person to hold this office, John Archer. And he helped lead the second day’s proceedings with Du Bois. The first day was co-led by a British based person of African heritage, Dr. Alcindor. And they were both, both Archer and Dr. Alcindor were involved in the African Progress Union, which itself had been founded in London as an organisation campaigning for sort of Black people’s rights across the world.

Sarah: So, if Du Bois and the other organisers of the Congress were advocating for African people’s rights to self-governance and respect on a global scale, why did they hold the Congress in the capital of the largest coloniser in Africa?

Iqbal: London is really, really important, as is Brussels and Paris. Belgium and France and Britain are part of the victorious powers…and particularly the two most powerful Britain and France. For people like Du Bois, it was really, really important that African nations and countries shouldn’t be forgotten about. His own views were broader than just Africa. It was about anti-colonialism and making links with other anti-colonial struggles, whether they be in Egypt or in India, but particularly his focus on Africa. And making their case, for example, in London itself, I think was extremely important because I mean, London was the centre of the British Empire.

The letter that he writes to Churchill again, really gives us a sense of this, that he is really writing to the heart of the empire. He’s writing to the Colonial Secretary at the time saying, I want you to come along or to send a representative to come along and speak to us, tell us how you’re going to sort of address your British subjects now that the war is over. And I think very much his hope was that they would learn something from the Colonial Office coming to their conference, but also that his aspiration that Black and white could live more harmoniously together would in the future become a reality. He picks up on this point quite a lot, this idea of being treated as uncivilised or feeling that they’re not being treated, that Black people are not being treated as equally as white people. And so I think it’s really about that sense that this is a golden opportunity to say if we’re really rethinking all of the things that are coming out of this war and the injustices particularly the Germany have undertaken against the great powers, maybe the great powers  themselves will also realise that actually these injustices are also something that have being felt by the colonised and those, for example, in America who are Black and are still struggling under quite racist laws and segregation.

Sarah: Churchill did not attend the Congress, and the Colonial Office declined to send a
representative, on account of being too busy, sorry, and thank you very much for your inquiry. But behind the simple answer from the Colonial Office is another fascinating layer of this story and the movement for African political agency.

Iqbal: So once the letter had been received by the Colonial Office, it was left to officials to respond back. And I think officials weren’t sure quite how to respond. You get a sense from the notes that are written in the margins of this document that they’re saying things like it may be best to decline the invitation to send the speaker and say that basically we’re currently too busy. There was this uncertainty going on– not only in Britain but amongst the other colonial powers–about the kinds of resolutions that organisations that Du Bois and others were part of might be passing. And they were concerned that they may be a little bit extreme. When they did then draft their comments, they were careful. They basically said that they regretted that it would not be possible to arrange for somebody from the Colonial Office to attend. And I think there was also an element where they’re not sure whether they should really take this stuff too seriously, whether really these Pan-African Congresses will really ever be anything really serious. And so that becomes the mix of the response back to Du Bois.

From all that we’ve researched and looked at, it doesn’t appear that anyone from the Colonial Office ever attended, it was only ever those organisations that had been invited that were Black or… there was, for example, a very well-known…he later became the first Indian Communist MP for Battersea, Shapurji Saklatvala. He attended the conference, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that anyone from the Colonial Office either attended, and certainly there is no evidence that anyone came to speak and that’s basically what Du Bois’ request was.

Sarah: To attempt change on global scale…to devote so much time, passion, and energy to empowering the colonised and oppressed peoples of the world…Du Bois was prolific and tireless in his writing and organising, and it’s this leadership that made Iqbal describe Du Bois’ actions as heroic.

Iqbal: In Du Bois, you have a formidable person, massive amounts of energy. From all accounts, you know, a prolific writer, thinker, and somebody who also was ready to roll up his sleeves and get involved in some activism as well. But I think what people remember and know Du Bois for is his writing and his thought, and it’s this which I think is heroic about him. It’s that ability to be a thought leader, to really lead people and be a hero in his thoughts on one level, because that sense that he was standing out and speaking up and saying that, you know, these are the issues that we need to be addressing. These are the problems. I mean, certainly he had a huge life, you know, he went well into his nineties by age, and he had many phases and many different changes as well in his politics. But certainly at the time that we’re meeting him at this letter, he’s trying to build bridges. He’s trying to say that there is something about our common humanity that we need to understand. And I think this is what also really makes it so special.

I mean, the thing with Du Bois is we also know that he was born in the mid-19th century. He was born and raised in that Victorian era. And so some of his language and his views on race and gender certainly from today’s vantage point may appear strange at times. I mean, the use of the language “civilised/uncivilised,” for example, there is a patriarchal quality to his language. And so we may think, “Oh, what’s that,” but the sentiment underlying his language, his thoughts are, are extremely powerful. And some of his essays reflect this deep humanity, which is extremely admirable and something that many people from all political persuasions have recognised. So I think it’s this, which I think really makes him that sort of heroic figure…certainly flawed. But, you know, there is that immense heroic quality to him.

Matt: When Iqbal came across the Du Bois letter, he was intrigued by this famous thinker’s presence in our collections and decided to dig deeper into the records to find out more about the circumstances surrounding it.

Our next story came about for the opposite reason, when one of our records specialists spotted a rather mundane design registration from 1847. She suspected there was a bigger story to be told, and began researching the paper trail of the man behind this record in order to piece together his life story.

Olivia Gecseg: I was researching the background of some of the Victorian inventors that are named in our intellectual property records. Specifically the Board of Trade design registers.

Matt: This is Olivia Gecseg, Visual Collections Records Specialist here at The National Archives.

Olivia: The design registers, just to explain a little bit about them, are one of our most visually interesting collections. The Victorian records consist, in part, of huge leather bound volumes, which contain representations of designs registered for copyright protection. The representations of the designs come in the form of illustrations, photographs, and in some cases–for example with textiles and wallpapers–a little swatch of the material itself, showing the pattern that was being registered for copyright protection, and they’re quite fun records just to even browse through, because they give you a real sense of how design was changing over the years.

One of the designs I was looking at was for a ventilating window pane, which was registered by Robert Bowie in February 1847.

Matt: I know what you’re thinking…19th century window function and copyright protection aren’t necessarily the most gripping of topics, but I promise this is actually a really fascinating story.

So, this Robert Bowie registered this design for a ventilating window pane along with a separate design for some sort of bathhouse tile. The document we hold for the window has a diagram of the proposed pane that explains how it’s just like a standard window pane, except that there are holes cut in the glass which allow small quantities of air to flow in and out.

Olivia: If you were going to compare this design of the ventilating window pane to a modern object, it kind of looks a bit like a screen that you might find, for example, at like a bank or a post office counter, you know, the kind of glass pane with holes punched through so you could speak to the person behind the screen.

And on their own the designs, I mean, they don’t sound, or they don’t look very exciting.
They’re quite mundane objects actually, especially in comparison to some of our other kind of novelty designs; there are other Victorian designs in the collection which are like for example, an elastic opera hat, or a mechanical rotating hairbrush. So in comparison to those, these are quite mundane. However, once I started to find out a little bit more about Robert Bowie’s career, they became actually quite interesting in telling the story of life in Victorian Britain.

Matt : So who was this Dr. Robert Bowie who shows up in our records?

Oliva: He was a Scottish surgeon who lived in the 19th century. In the 1841 census, we find him aged 50, living with his wife Margaret and their five children in Dagenham, East London. He was a surgeon by profession, although we don’t know very much about this aspect of his career. We do know though that alongside this, he worked as an inspector of workhouses, lodging houses, public wash houses, and what were then called lunatic asylums, or today they would be known as psychiatric hospitals.

Matt: His profession of surgeon is noted in his design registration and the census, but in order to find out more about his work in England, Olivia had to look a bit further afield.

Olivia: When he registered his designs, he registered under the address of Fowkes’ Buildings in Tower Street, London. So when I looked up that address and the history of it, I found that it was connected to Bethlem Royal Hospital, which is well known for being a psychiatric hospital. Then through some online searches, I stumbled across another document from the Parliament of Victoria in Australia. So this is completely the other side of the planet. And I was wondering how I might be able to connect the two.

The document from the Parliament of Victoria was a record of minutes of evidence given in 1860. And the evidence was being given by a Robert Bowie, who was described as the Surgeon’s Superintendent of the Lunatic Asylum, which in this case was Yarra Bend Asylum near Melbourne, Australia.

Matt: The Yarra Bend Asylum was built in 1848 as the first permanent institution in the
Australian state of Victoria for the care and treatment of the mentally ill. Like most of these institutions created in the Victorian era, it has a complicated and often dark history, but we’ll talk more about that later. First let’s go back to documents that place Bowie at Yarra Bend in 1860, because these are actually critical in helping us understand what he was up to in London more than a decade earlier, around the time he submitted his registration for the window design.

Olivia: In this document, he was asked to state his experience and he said, “I had the inspecting of lunatic asylums and reporting on them in England. I also had the inspection of lunatic asylums and pauper workhouses for the General Board of Health in London.” So through this, I was able to match up the Robert Bowie who registered the designs in England with the Robert Bowie who was the chief surgeon of a psychiatric hospital in Australia. His description of his career was also incredibly helpful because he mentions the General Board of Health. And we hold a significant collection of General Board of Health correspondence at The National Archives. So I was able to search for Robert Bowie in the MH 13 series, which is the General Board of Health correspondence. And I was able to find several records of correspondence that matched the dates he mentioned referring to him as a Superintending Inspector, and there was an overlap with what he mentioned. So it all started to add up. He also sort of elaborates in the Australian record on some of the context of the conditions that he was working in. So he says “From 1847 to 1851, I was in the service of the government and was sent into the different districts where the cholera was in England, in Scotland, and in Wales.” So now we know that he was working against the backdrop of the cholera pandemic in the mid-19th century.

Matt: Thanks to Dr. Bowie’s own account of his time as an inspector, Olivia was able to place him in the proper historical setting of a global cholera pandemic, working for the General Board of Health to help stop the spread of this disease. But Olivia is an expert on design records, not public health history, so she turned to another one of our experts.

Olivia: I asked Head of Modern Domestic Records, Chris Day, who has worked closely with this record series, and is an authority on cholera records to tell me more about them.

Matt: In 1848 and 49, Britain was hit particularly hard by a local cholera outbreak in the middle of the third global cholera pandemic of the 19th Century. In just those two years, 52,000 people died in England and Wales. Over 14,000 of those deaths were in London. And bear in mind, the population at that time was under 20 million.

It was obvious that something had to be done to prevent the disease’s spread, so the General Board of Health and the Public Health Act of 1848 gave local health boards the power to make changes to sanitation and living conditions. To help them decide what improvements should be made, the General Board of Health sent out inspectors to travel around Britain, observe conditions, and write reports with localised recommendations for improving public health.

It’s in this context that Robert Bowie is visiting hospitals, workhouses, and asylums. And thanks to his reports back to the General Board of Health, which are held here at The National Archives, we get a window–pun intended–into the conditions he was witnessing and what he thought about them.

Olivia: And these letters really stood out for me because they’re incredible examples of the conditions in which the working classes and the poor and most vulnerable classes of society in Victorian Britain were living in this period. And Bowie’s detail, Bowie’s attention to detail really struck me because he talks so much about the state of the buildings, the conditions of the interiors of these buildings. So one of these letters that I came across was a letter he wrote to the General Board of Health. He gives us some evidence of the conditions that people were living in and, and just how poor they were. So he mentions flea infestations, a risk of carbonic gas leakage into dwellings, a smell of soot caused by warm and damp conditions, which would have come from the fireplace, poor ventilation, that the people living in them were vulnerable to the spread of diseases. So that’s really significant for this period; fever and cholera are ones that he mentioned. Overcrowding, insufficient natural light, and a lack of water closets or urinals. So we can see the conditions that are being described are really poor and in great need of being improved.

Matt: Since Bowie’s job was to identify problems and suggest improvements, this report and others like it were his duty as an inspector. But it appears he felt he could do more. And here’s where we see Bowie take action above and beyond what was required of him. Which brings us back to the ventilating window pane. Bowie mentioned ventilation often in his reports and seems quite passionate about the difference proper ventilation could make in these buildings and communities he visited.

Olivia: So ventilation is a really core concern of the Victorian Era in terms of health. One of the things that people didn’t know about cholera outbreaks at the time was that the disease was carried by water. And one of the theories at the time was that the disease could be airborne. So ventilation was seen as a way of improving air quality inside buildings. Bowie actually makes specific reference to ventilation in his letters. So he says “There ought be no currents of cold air allowed to come in contact with bodies of the inmates, there being often so much evil inflicted by such exposure as to render it very questionable whether the air of superior quality procured by injudicious or improper ventilation be not more injurious than air of inferior purity admitted warmer and with less force.”

And this is really interesting because he’s commenting on, you know, the amount of air that should be permitted in through these possible modes of ventilation. And then Bowie goes on to say; “firmly believing that good health and pure air are inseparable. I consider it of the utmost importance that nothing should be left undone to secure perfect ventilation.” And we can use this to understand some of the logic of Bowie’s design for the ventilating window pane. So in that design, small holes were perforating the glass, and that would have allowed the air to pass through the glass pane, perhaps–although we don’t know, until we could see a prototype perhaps– without causing a cold draft, which is what he says, results in “evil consequences” for the inhabitants of these buildings.

Also the glass pane would have had the added benefit of letting in light, which is a matter Bowie also had something to say on because he said, “It is just as reasonable to expect healthy coloured vegetables in a dark cellar as healthy human beings in dens of darkness.”

Matt: You might be thinking, well maybe he just wanted to make money on the windows. Based on her research, the lengths Bowie went to to register the design, and the limited market for such an item… Olivia doesn’t believe that’s the correct interpretation of these records.

Olivia: It wasn’t in an entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t think he was trying to make money from those designs. I think he was doing them…I think he designed those objects because he was witnessing those conditions on a day to day basis and he had such a thorough understanding of them that he was able to design something physical and practical that could potentially improve somebody’s living conditions and the sanitation of the buildings.

So it’s a very kind of everyday sort of heroism I think. He was going above and beyond his duty as an inspector by registering these designs. That wasn’t part of his role to design objects. What really fascinated me having knowledge of these records is that the designs that he created were more than just sketches in a notebook, they’re not just doodles that we found in some of his, in some of his records–although he did doodle in his letters as well; it’s quite interesting. But there was, there was more than that. There was a process to producing and registering the designs that he engaged in. And that indicated to me kind of a certain level of investment that went above and beyond Bowie’s profession, both as a surgeon and an inspector. He would have had to submit two copies of the design to the designs registry. It was likely that he used a registration agent. We can actually see the stamp of a registration agent on the design for the ventilating window pane: I. C. Haddon at 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The registrations would have cost money. They were quite expensive. So, to register a design under the 1843 Utility Designs Act was expensive. It would have cost 10 pounds per registration. And that’s actually the equivalent of about 800 pounds in today’s money, just for one of the designs. So there’s a real level of investment there for me, which really made him stand out to me as a hero.

Matt: As far as we can tell, Bowie’s invention was never made and implemented. So the question is…did his actions have any impact? Was he able to improve anything?

Olivia: It’s very difficult to attach any sort of change directly to Bowie’s actions. However the Public Health Act of 1848–although it didn’t make any of these changes suggested by the inspectors compulsory by law–later they did have quite a big impact. 25 years later, the Public Health Act of 1875 made many of the provisions from the 1848 act compulsory. So that meant the work of these inspectors really fed in to many of the changes that were put in place in 1875, which improved sanitation and the living conditions of many around Britain.

Matt: If you remember, the records place Bowie in Yarra Bend, Australia within a few years of registering his design in London. We don’t know exactly why he moved his family halfway across the world…perhaps he already had the asylum administration job lined up, but whatever the reason, leaders in Victoria were trying to reform their asylums, and were glad to have someone with his expertise in medicine and public health. So Bowie takes on a leadership role at the Yarra Bend Asylum in 1852 and begins the work of improving the facility and reforming how it cared for its mentally ill patients.

At first glance, the records seem to suggest that in Yarra Bend he was able to use what he’d learned as an inspector to implement reform. However, Olivia’s research also led her to some interesting research done by Patrick Gregory, a local historian in Melbourne who published a short book on an Australian doctor, Alfred Yates Carr and his connection to the Yarra Bend Asylum. Carr is significant because he’s involved in a court case with Bowie. This case takes place towards the end of Bowie’s career and it makes all this a bit more complicated than just a story of a good bloke doing a good thing.

The case revolves around an accusation of libel, and Bowie is the one doing the accusing.

Olivia: He is taking a local newspaper to court for publishing critical comments about the way he was running the asylum. The comments were written by an individual who was quite a complex character himself. He was a doctor and he was committed to the hospital himself as a patient. And once he’s released, he writes to the newspaper, reporting on the conditions that he experienced as a patient himself. And he says that they were less than savory. He was restrained and held in conditions that were very unsanitary.

The impression I got is that Bowie’s very much taking a back seat in the running of the hospital in the day to day operations. Although again, we can’t know that for a fact. In the court case that comes out that Bowie…he was kind of making some enemies.

Another man was brought in to oversee the running of the asylum at the same time that Bowie was in charge. And he had some different views on how it should have been run in comparison to Bowie. And it seems that Bowie’s methods in comparison to this new inspector were rather outdated.

So this individual who was brought in after Bowie was bringing suggestions from England for reform measures to the conditions that he witnessed in the asylum, and his perceptions and his education seem to have been shaped by a much more modern and up-to-date system, as opposed to Bowie who had been working in Australia for several years at this point. And Bowie doesn’t like this; he takes real issue with somebody new coming in and telling them how to do things. And that seems to be kind of the crux of this whole case that Bowie is very much set in his ways. And it’s a little bit sad actually to see him reach the stage in his career from somebody who before had been almost pioneering suggesting new measures to put in place to somebody who’s now considered outdated and a bit old fashioned.

Sarah: The word heroic is often associated with largesse…heroic efforts, superheroes. But for every larger-than-life hero, there are thousands of individuals who quietly step up and go above and beyond to try to make the world a better place. Was Bowie an everyday hero? His plans to improve health through design certainly never came to fruition, but does a hero need to be successful in order to be a hero? Bowie was part of a larger public health effort that certainly saved many lives over the decades, but does his stubbornness and resistance to change later in life negate the work he did in London?

I don’t have an answer to any of these questions, but I think it’s worth asking them anyway. The men we’ve profiled in this episode represent two very different kinds of heroes who were both motivated by a sense of our common humanity. Hopefully their stories have taught you something about the past and inspired you to reflect more critically what makes an action heroic.

Thanks for listening to On the Record, a production of The National Archives at Kew.

Matt: If you found these stories interesting, check out our past episodes with similar stories:

In “Love Divided,” Iqbal Singh tells the story of the 1919 Race Riots and a Jamaican sailor caught up in the violence.

In “Resist: Black Power and the Courtroom,” we tell two stories of Black people in Britain using the courtroom and legal system to fight discrimination in the 1960s and 70s.

And if you enjoyed hearing Iqbal’s insights on W.E.B. Du Bois, you can catch more of his research in our episode “Refugee Stories,” where he connects the documents in our collection related to the Partition of India to his own family history.

Sarah: To find out more about the documents discussed in this episode, the history behind them, and The National Archives, follow the link from the episode description in your podcast listening app or visit

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Thank you to all the experts who contributed to this episode. This episode was written, edited, and produced by Hannah Hethmon for Better Lemon Creative Audio.

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