Library & Archive Blog – Who adopted a baby orphaned elephant?

Having discovered Alice Smales Diaries in our Archive for a previous Blog post, I have come back to the Smales family to talk about Charles Bertram Smales – Alice and Charles’ son who travelled out to the Burmese Forests and wrote letters home; more than 150 in fact!

Our very own Charles (Archivist) is currently ploughing his way through these letters and is discovering some very interesting stories! We will be sharing a few of these stories, but first a little bit of background information.

Charles Bertram Smales trained as a Forester at the Royal Indian Engineering College – a far cry from the shipping industry but his father had an interest in plants and the business did trading with India and Burma, which may have inspired him and the family business was unable to support all three brothers.

(Photo Page 92: Cowie.B & Shone.E(2014))

In 1893, at 23 he left for Calcutta heading for the Burmese Forests which were producing magnificent hard wood timber which the British were keen to take advantage of. Conditions were harsh and the British men involved were not embracing the native culture and returned home with health issues or in a coffin!

Most of the letters seem to show Charles relentlessly cheerful and sometimes a little daunted; at one point he thought about transferring to the Indian Police. However, it wasn’t all forestry work: he enjoyed growing exotic species, a lively social life and Polo!

The Burmese Forest was no place for women and so consequently, Charles entered married life much later. In 1921 at the age of 51 he married Dorothy White. They had one daughter called Ruby. Unfortunately, Charles had contracted health issues from his travels and doctors suggested he should move to warmer climates as the Whitby air would not suit him so they chose to live in the South of France where Charles sadly died in 1927.

By Claire Marris – Archive Development Officer


Cowie.B & Shone.E (2014) A History of the Family: Charles Bertram Smales (page 92). Timber Tasters: 300 Years of Whitby history through the Smales’ archive. Printed in Malton.


Charles Bertram Smales Letters

The Smales family were kind enough to donate large amounts of their family records to the Whitby Museum Archive. Alongside the records of their shipping, timber, and other businesses there are a number of personal letters written by Charles Bertram Smales and sent to his mother in Whitby; particularly during his years of work in Burma with the Imperial Forestry Service. While of course this is the sort of subject that a lot of people feel uncomfortable talking about today, it is an interesting first-hand account from someone who was there at the time. It’s also a rather touching series of personal letters – where you can easily see how close and affectionate their family life was.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for letters written by someone from North Yorkshire living in Burma, a large number of the letters describe his struggles with the weather – in a world before air conditioning complaints about the heat were to be expected. You can also track the start of each years monsoon by noting the dates on the letters where Charlie (as he affectionately signed off his letters) stops talking about the heat and starts talking about rain and flooding.

While we would expect Charlie to avoid talking about the more boring parts of his job in his letters home his letters tell us quite a bit about his recreation and down time in Burma; with regular descriptions of the parties the British community in Tharrawaddy and Rangoon threw, stories about going sailing or shooting with friends, the details of the cricket matches they played, etc, etc. There are also a number of stories that sound like they were taken from the first draft of an old ‘Boys Own Adventure’ comic.

In the letter of 18/03/1901 he tells us a lot about the operation of the lumber camps in general, but tells us about one camp in particular where there have been a lot of tiger sightings recently, leading Charlie to head out there with a rifle to try to prevent attacks on the people working in the camp. However, he notes that he tied up a live goat as bait to attract the tiger, and the tigers completely ignored the bait. His hunting trip wasn’t completely wasted though, as he did manage to ‘bag’ a python (measuring 13 and a half feet from nose to tail, and 2 feet across at its widest point). He goes on to say that after skinning the python he wasn’t sure what to do with so much snake skin, and that he wonders if his mother would like him to send it home.

In the letter of 29/04/1902 he tells us about the elephants they used to help with the work there, particularly noting that one of the elephants gave birth to a calf, but died shortly after the birth. Charlie adopted the orphaned baby elephant and did his best to raise it. In the letter he tells us that he’s looked but doesn’t think he’s likely to find an ‘elephant wet-nurse’, but that he’s feeding the baby elephant a large amount of goat’s milk, hoping that it will be rich enough to substitute for elephant milk.

While he hasn’t mentioned the baby elephant again in any of the other letters I’ve catalogued so far the herd of elephants they keep are mentioned again in his letter of 27/02/1903, where he tells his mother about the noise and disturbance the elephants can cause through the night, and how he’s trying to set and enforce a strict ‘elephant bedtime’ to solve the problem.

While a lot of people assume that an archive is just going to be lots of dusty old business and government records these letters help show another side of what we do here. We definitely do have large amounts of business and government records here, and those are incredibly useful and informative for people researching those topics – but these letters are part of another side of our collection, telling the personal stories of the people from Whitby through history.

By Charles Graffius – Archivist


27/02/1903 – WHIT/C5/C5.1/1/E/18 – Elephant bedtime.

29/04/1902 – WHIT/C5/C5.1/1/E/16 – Adopted elephant calf

18/03/1901 – WHIT/C5/C5.1/1/E/09 – Failed tiger hunt.

All of the resources referenced in this Blog and other resources related to the family including pre-prepared family tree are available to the general public at request. Enquires:

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