The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
On October 23, 1826, James Smithson, a wealthy Englishman, sat down and wrote the final version of his will. Smithson, who was 61 years old and had suffered various ailments, was clearly thinking about his legacy. After establishing his pedigree and naming his executors, his first bequest was:
To John Fitall, formerly my Servant, but now employed in the London Docks, and residing at No. 27, Jubilee Place, North Mile End, old town, in consideration of his attachment & fidelity to me, & the long & great care he has taken of my effects, & my having done but very little for him, I give and bequeath the Annuity or annual sum of one hundred pounds sterling for his life, to be paid to him quarterly, free of legacy duty & all other deductions, the first payment to be made to him at the expiration of three months after my death.
Fitall had been his servant for a number of years, and Smithson seems to have held him in high esteem. There is no indication of the circumstances under which Fitall left Smithson’s employ, but it does seem that a job at the London Docks must have been a step down from his role as a man-servant to a wealthy gentleman. Fitall’s home on Jubilee Place, North Mile End, old town, was part of what is known as the East End of London. The area was not yet as notorious as during the Victorian era, when street gangs, prostitutes and Jack the Ripper kept the penny press headlines focused on the docklands area, but it was already a crowded, gritty neighborhood rife with crime. The East End was the section east of the Roman and medieval walled city of London, north of the River Thames, and bordered by the the River Lea. Many residents worked at the nearby docks, which were growing rapidly, with the St. Katharine Docks opening in 1827. Overcrowded and unsanitary, with transients arriving at the docks daily, cholera and other epidemics were a regular occurrence. This was also the home of the Cockney barrow boys and flower girls, competing for sales with their patter of rhyming slang.
Smithson seems to express regret that he has not done more for Mr. Fitall in the past and thus wishes to provide for him for the remainder of his life. His bequest of £100 sterling annually is not a paltry sum. It is difficult to really calculate what that would mean in today's dollars, but the Old Bailey Online website suggests:
By the middle of the nineteenth century, a skilled engineer could command 7s. 6d. a day, or around £110 per year, if fully employed, but this was not significantly more than their eighteenth-century predecessors. In the last decades of the nineteenth century William Booth estimated that a working family needed an income of at least 18s. to 21s. a week, or around £50 a year, just to get by, and 22s. to 30s. a week (£57-£78 per annum) to be "comfortable".
So it would seem that Smithson provided a decent income for his faithful servant for the remainder of his life. I don't know if Mr. Fitall and his wife remained in the East End or if he continued to work at the London docks, but the Fitalls would have had a comfortable life. Life in the East End continued to deteriorate through the remainder of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century – the era portrayed in the current BBC series Call the Midwife. Many residents lived in extreme poverty and deprivation, often consigned to work houses for the indigent. Smithson's first bequest ensured that his faithful servant lived out his days in far greater comfort than his neighbors.
The annuity ceased when Mr. Fitall died with the principal reverting to the bequest to the people of the United States. The Minutes of the Smithsonian Board of Regents for January 11, 1850, reported that Mrs. Fitall, the widow of a former servant of Mr. Smithson, through a Mr. H. P. Bohn, had offered for sale a small portrait of James Smithson which was in her possession for the price of thirty guineas. The portrait by James Roberts (1753-c. 1809) is of a young Smithson as a student at Pembroke College, Oxford University, in 1786, attired in his academic robes and already committed to a life devoted to scientific research. The board resolved that Secretary Joseph Henry be authorized to purchase the portrait of Mr. Smithson which Honorable Abbott Lawrence, United States Ambassador to Great Britain, spoke of in his letter of the 10th of December, 1849. The oil on canvas painting soon arrived at the Smithsonian and is in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery today, allowing the Fitalls to give back to the Institution founded by the man who held their service in the highest regard.
Beards seem to get all the attention these days. So in honor of Bald and Free Day and to all of those of you who are hair impared, we present to you a Bald and Free Smithsonian.
- Record Unit 7433 - Ruel P. Tolman Collection, 1909-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archive
- Accession 11-008 - Office of Public Affairs, Photographic Collection, 1960-1970, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Beer is almost like a universal language. Most places you go to in the world will have a national beer and plenty of people willing to drink it with you. This is even truer when Oktoberfest comes around. From Oktoberfest flavored brews to the countless festivals held throughout late September and early October, people take the time to drink and be merry!
In honor of Oktoberfest, and in the spirit of beer, we thought we would share one of our beer stories from the Archives Oral History Collection. Beer is one of the best ways to sit and relax and socialize after a long hard day of work. Even when Smithsonian staff goes into the field in search of collections and knowledge, they find time to take a break from collecting to unwind with a cold one. But sometimes in these often remote locations, getting your favorite brew is a challenge.
Smithsonian researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center (STRI) came up with an ingenious way to overcome this problem. STRI began on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), an island found in the man-made Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal watershed. Smithsonian staff have traveled there for biodiversity research since the early 1900s. The research station officially joined the Smithsonian in 1946 and has served as a home to staff and their families ever since.
In the 1960s-1970s a group of BCI inhabitants found a way to make their time on the island even more comfortable. They created a beer machine. In an oral history interview A. Stanley Rand, a STRI herpetologist, discussed how they accomplished this feat:
The original beer machine was in the bunker at Naos, and it was discovered that the [Panama Canal] Company apparently had forgotten about it, because nobody ever came to fill it. So they decided they didn't need it. It was a Coke machine in those days, and was moved to BCI, and people used to sneak in and buy cases of beer and bring [them] out and put [them] in the machine. It didn't work very well, but people were afraid to tell the Company, complain to the Company . . . It later turned out that, in fact, the Company was delighted to have a beer machine, and not only that, but they would deliver beer to Gamboa once a week if you got around to calling in in due time.
The person who handled the beer machine key thus became one of the most important people on the island. In fact, when Brian C. Bock, a herpetologist who was a visiting scientist in STRI's Biology Program, split his ear on a ceiling fan, his first act was to not think of medical attention, but the beer key. Bock recalled that he was:
. . . bleeding all over and feeling rather stupid. I managed to get . . . to the top of the front porch where everyone was having Happy Hour. I was the beer hefter at the time, so my first act, of course, was to surrender my flag. I took the keys off and passed them, because it was like capital punishment to leave the island with the keys to the beer machine, because that would bring things to a halt.
This small luxury helped Smithsonian staff deal with life in the field. The beer machine helped STRI staff bond and add enjoyment to the hard work of collecting in the steamy tropics. However, a beer machine is not the only way Smithsonian staff brought beer into the field – check out the Field Book Project Blog to learn how beer became a collection in and of itself, and remember to enjoy this year's Oktoberfest celebrations safely!
- Record Unit 9579 - Oral history interviews with A. Stanley Rand, 1986, 1989-1990, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9580 - Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Oral History Collection, 1990, Smithsonian Institution Archives