Born on this day? The strange case of Nancy Astor’s birthday

This weekend we celebrate Nancy Astor’s birthday, said to be on the 19th May. But is there more to this birth date than meets the eye? Head of Archive Services Guy Baxter takes a closer look at the mystery surrounding Nancy Astor’s birth. 

The first female MP to take her seat in the British House of Commons, Nancy Astor was born (as Nancy Langhorne) in Danville, Virginia. But when exactly?

It is not unknown for celebrities to be coy about their age, but there was no such vanity from Nancy Astor. The mystery in this case surrounds not the year (1879) but the date of her birth. Stranger still, it was not until the publication of Adrian Fort’s extensively researched biography in 2012 that the mystery came to the attention of the public – or even specialists in the field.

Fort sums up the mystery thus: “It was at street level in the newly built house at Danville, in a room with dull green walls and a bare wooden floor, that Nancy was born on 30 January 1979 – although subsequently, and throughout her adult life, her birthday was, for no clearly stated reason, given as 19 May.” The biography is aimed at the general reader so, understandably, there is no footnote; I therefore approached the author and asked his source. What came back to me was a scan of Nancy Astor’s birth certificate extracted (with some difficulty, I gather) from the State authorities in Virginia.

The plot then thickens somewhat. Waldorf Astor (Nancy’s second husband) was born on 19 May 1879. So Nancy Astor, for much or her adult life and to the extent it confounded biographers and academics for years, seems to have adopted the birth date of her second husband.

Apart from scratching our heads, what should we do with such information? I suggest three things: we can speculate on the reasons; we can do more research, or at least bear this my

A photo of two people on an ice rink. The man is kneeling on the floor.

Nancy and Waldorf Astor. Was their shared birthday an elaborate in-joke? (MS 1416/1/6/94/10)

stery in mind while researching in the archives; and finally we might use this as a starting point to explore some wider implications and issues.

The speculation first. Is the Virginia record incorrect? There would seem to be no good reason to back-date a birth record, and it seems like an odd error to make. Having said that, the strange case of Ulysses Simpson Grant springs immediately to mind.

Born and raised as Hiram Ulysses Grant, he was the victim of an assumption made by the Congressman, Thomas Hamer, who nominated him to enrol as a student at West Point. A family friend, Hamer only knew him as Ulysses and inserted Grant’s mother’s maiden name (Simpson) into the register. The United States Army bureaucracy proved immovable and Grant, once he realised the error, was unable to change it. By the time he became the head of the U.S. military and 18th President of the United States, it may well have ceased to bother him, and it gave him the patriotic initials “U.S.” which proved a boon as his military career took off. So mistakes in an official record can be hard to change.

If the record is correct, then we must ask whether Nancy was aware that this was her birth date. Could her family have deceived her? Apart from the fact that no obvious reason springs to mind, neither this idea, nor that of an administrative mistake, explains the co-incidence with Waldorf’s birth date. Though it should be noted that the odds of two randomly selected people sharing a birth date are not outrageously long.

Perhaps Nancy and Waldorf decided to align their birthdays: possibly for convenience, possibly as an in-joke or an intimate secret. Given their wealth, sharing a birthday party can surely not have been a money-saving measure. Or is it possible that Nancy concealed her real birth date from Waldorf? Could the shared birthday have been a ploy in her courtship? As the son of one of the richest men in the world, he was quite a catch – was it worth a small lie to grab his attention?

This must all remain as speculation until more evidence emerges. Neither Fort nor any previous biographers found any mention of it in Nancy or Waldorf’s personal correspondence, though this is very extensive. Nancy’s correspondence with her American relatives is more recently available and has been less used by researchers. Deceit, mistake or shared joke, it may well have been referred to in a deliberately obscure manner. Seekers of the truth will find the Special Collections Reading Room a pleasant and friendly environment in which to seek out needles from haystacks. As far as I know, Waldorf Astor’s birth certificate has not been checked: could there be a further twist in the tale?

So to the final, and more serious word about this. Just as his mistaken identity probably mattered little to Grant, especially as he rose to prominence, so Nancy Astor’s birthday must have been of little real

Photograph of a large house, set in gardens.

Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire, family home of Waldorf and Nancy Astor (MS 1616/2/6/94/3)

significance in her life or livelihood. The official record is of minimal practical benefit for the rich and famous. But as the Windrush scandal has brought into sharp focus, for many citizens the possession of verifiable identity documents can be a critical matter. It is not for nothing that patients are identified not just by their name but also by their date of birth: even then, horrific mistakes can occur.

Windrush is not the first time that the quality of the data recorded by the state to identify individuals has been questioned: Dame Janet Smith’s third report as part of the Shipman Inquiry – that looking at Death Certification – noted: “The information received by registrars forms the basis of an important public record that is widely used for statistical and research purposes. It is vital that it is recorded meticulously and accurately.” It was not until 50 years after her death that the search for documentary evidence of Nancy Astor’s birth began. Most citizens rely on the integrity of such systems in their lifetimes: for the most vulnerable, this can be crucial.

So let us toast Nancy Astor, whether it’s her birthday or not, for reminding us of the value of the written record. Or as the Universal Declaration on Archives puts it, “the vital necessity of archives for supporting business efficiency, accountability and transparency, for protecting citizens rights, for establishing individual and collective memory, for understanding the past, and for documenting the present to guide future actions”.

Are you intrigued to do your own research on this mystery? Or just interested to know more about Nancy Astor? Find out more about the Papers of Nancy Astor held at Special Collections here. For further enquiries, or to request access, email



Book Covers and Robinsonades: Exploring the Crusoe Collection

This month’s blog post was written by Chloe Wallaker, a final year BA English Literature and Film student at the University of Reading. Chloe has been researching our Crusoe Collection as part of her Spring Term academic placement based at Special Collections. 

Today marks the 299th anniversary of the publication of one of our favourite novels – Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It is one of the most popular and widely published books today. The University of Reading Special Collections holds hundreds of editions and imitations of the novel as part of their Crusoe Collection, so I decided to visit and explore what the archives have to offer.

For a novel that was intended for adult readers, it was striking to discover the vast number of publications of Robinson Crusoe that were aimed at children. Different editions emphasise different aspects within the story and aim at children of different ages. I have chosen to showcase some of my favourite modern editions of the text that are aimed at children and published in the twentieth century.

A red book cover including pirates, dragons, Alice in Wonderland and a Knight.

The Rand-McNally edition of Life and adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954)– CRUSOE COLLECTION–A1954.

I came across the edition published by Mcnally and Company (above), which includes the modernised text of Robinson Crusoe, with minor abridgements. The cover includes different illustrations referencing classical children’s literature, including Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, that was also published in the eighteenth century and forms a part of popular culture today. The edition categorized Robinson Crusoe amongst famous children’s fairy tales and recognised it as an adventure story for young readers.

A book cover showing an island and the sea, with Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday sat together.

Nelson (1960), Robinson Crusoe – CRUSOE COLLECTION–A1960

There are many adaptations of the novel that are shortened for younger children. I discovered Nelson’s adaption of the text. The edition is published to be told to children by adults, demonstrating how the story is constructed for very young readers as well as older children. This edition stood out to me as the cover focuses on the more mature and violent themes of the novel, including slavery and death, than the covers intended for older children. This made me question the appropriateness of the story in challenging its young children

The adaptation published by Hunia (above, left) encourages young children to read the story for themselves, instead of being read to. The cover suggests the story focuses on the relationship between Crusoe and Friday, as opposed to focusing on the adventure story which most of the publications adopt to appeal to children. This demonstrates how Robinson Crusoe not only appeals to children through entertainment, but teaches moral lessons, highlighting the pedagogical value of the novel.

Most of the children’s adaptations use illustrations to appeal to children. Wilkes’s edition (above, right) seems to construct the text to resemble a picture book. As well as focusing on the adventure aspects of the text, the publication focuses on the spiritual themes embedded within the novel, with its cover illustration resembling the biblical story of Noah’s Ark.

The publications I found most interesting were the imitations of the text, commonly described as ‘Robinsonades’, which reveal how Robinson Crusoe was not just a popular novel, but became an identifiable piece of popular culture. Crocket’s imitation of the text constructs Crusoe as a child figure, creating an identifiable protagonist for children. The edition takes the themes of adventure from the original text and constructs a version of the novel that is perhaps more suitable for children.

Perhaps the most interesting imitation of the novel is Ballantyne’s edition. This edition focuses on the relationship between a dog and his master, resembling the relationship between Crusoe and his man Friday. The edition removes the mature and violent themes of slavery, which could be considered inappropriate aspects of the novel, and constructs a pet-master relationship, which would appeal to children and in terms they could understand.

Some of the editions that stayed more true to the novel seemed to present problematic themes for children. This made me question the appropriateness of a novel that was intended for adults, being read by children. I found it interesting how each edition focused on different aspects and themes of the novel, demonstrating the number of ways in which the novel can be read and used to educate and entertain children. This investigation into the children’s editions of Robinson Crusoe has reminded me why the novel has remained a favourite read for people of all ages and continues to be published today.

For more information on our Crusoe Collection, visit the Special Collections website, or email us at  



Ballantyne, R.M (1970), The dog Crusoe, London: Abbey Classics, CRUSOE COLLECTION–A1942-2013 [BOX].

Crockett, S.R (1905), Sir Toady Crusoe, London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co. Ltd, CRUSOE COLLECTION–A1905.

Defoe, Daniel (1954), Life and adventures of Robinson Crusoe, New York: Rand McNally & Company, CRUSOE COLLECTION–A1954.

Defoe, Daniel (196-), Robinson Crusoe, London : Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., CRUSOE COLLECTION–A1960

Hunia, Fran (1978), Robinson Crusoe, London: Collins, CRUSOE COLLECTION–A1954.

Wilkes, Angela (1981), The adventures of Robinson Crusoe, London: Usborne Publishing, CRUSOE COLLECTION–A1981.

New Collections-Based PhD studentships for 2014/2015

Have you heard about the collections-based research programme here at Reading? This October, we’ll be welcoming the second cohort of a unique doctoral skills training programme here at Reading. Drawing on the extensive research potential of the University’s internationally recognised museums and collections, this programme will train doctoral students in the practical skills and intellectual sensitivities essential for quality collections-based research.

Applications are open until 31 July for the following fees-only bursaries commencing October 2014:

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (English Literature) Project title: Beckett and the City
Department: Department of English Literature
Supervisors: Dr Conor Carville and Professor Steven Matthews

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (English Literature and History)
Project title: Four local parish libraries: Henley, Abingdon, Didcot and Buckland.
Department: Department of English Literature and Department of History
Supervisors: Dr Rebecca Bullard (English Literature), Dr Mary Morrissey (English Literature), Dr Helen Parish (History)

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (Typography)
Project title: Edward Johnston’s Underground typeface from inception to ‘New Johnston’
Department: Typography & Graphic Communications
Supervisors: Professor Paul Luna and Dr Rob Banham

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (History and Geography)
Project title: Preservationism and Development in Rural England, 1926-2016: Policy and Practice
Departments: History and Geography
Supervisors: Dr Jeremy Burchardt, Department of History and Dr Hilary Geoghegan, Department of Geography and Environmental Science

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (Literature and Science)
Project title: Nature’s Stories: Francis Cole, Zoological Collections and Narrative
Department: English Literature
Supervisors: Dr Andrew Mangham and Dr John Holmes

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (Archaeology)
Project title: Roman ceramic building material
Department: Archaeology
Supervisor: Professor Michael Fulford

PhD Studentship in Collections-Based Research (Archaeology)
Project title: Technological Innovation in the Late Iron Age: Ceramics as a Case Study
Department: Archaeology
Supervisor: Professor Michael Fulford

A unique offer: Collections-Based Research at the University of Reading

Have you heard about the collections-based research programme here at Reading? Head of UMASC Kate Arnold-Forster and Head of the School of Literature and Languages Alison Donnell take a look at the ways in which collections-based research is changing the landscape of doctoral work. 


This October, we’ll be welcoming the first cohort of a unique doctoral skills training programme here at Reading. Drawing on the extensive research potential of the University’s internationally recognised museums and collections, this programme will train doctoral students in the practical skills and intellectual sensitivities essential for quality collections-based research.

The programme responds to the notable ‘material turn’ within humanities research but reaches across and beyond this field to generate a multidisciplinary environment for postgraduate primary source and object-based learning. Our first cohort will embark on research projects across Archaeology, English, Italian, History, Film and Theatre, Typography and Classics – working on collections as diverse as evacuee diaries, Greek vases and Mills and Boon editorial papers. The main objective of this new programme is to develop skills in interdisciplinary approaches to objects and archives so that research students are equipped to fully explore the visual, historical, cultural and material aspects of their research collections.

The doctoral skills programme will also take advantage of the exceptional range of scholarly and practice-based opportunities that a combination of the University’s world class researchers, facilities and strong professional and external links with stakeholder organisations can provide.  As well as writing their theses, students will have opportunities for placements and public engagement work that will enhance their employability by exposing them to experiences that may support future careers within and beyond academia. Building on recent investment in new teaching and learning expertise, the programme fits well with initiatives to embed collections-based teaching in undergraduate courses and will be a genuinely collaborative endeavour in harnessing a combination of academic knowledge and the experience and expertise of the University’s collections staff.

beckett manuscript 1

Collections like the Beckett Archives are key resources for the programme

The University’s outstanding museums and collections will provide the key resource for this programme and act as an impressive focal point for developing the skills required to invigorate postgraduate research culture across a wide spectrum of disciplines. These collections are regarded as significant and unique both nationally and internationally. Three are nationally-designated: the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), the Beckett Archive and the Archive of British Publishing and Printing. In addition the programme will engage the University’s other outstanding museums, the Cole Museum of Zoology and the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, departmental research and teaching collections (such as those of the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, and the Herbarium), as well as smaller teaching sets such as a fine representative collection of 16th- to 20th- century drawings by European artists in the Department of Art.

Museum Studies Programme Director Dr Rhianedd Smith

What is exciting is the speed with which the programme has attracted new partnership opportunities for students, researchers and collections specialists to work collaboratively in building what we believe is a nationally distinctive and innovative pathway to a PhD. For example, Dr Teresa Murjas and Dr Lisa Purse from FTT will be supervising a research-practice PhD based on MERL’s Evacuee Archive. Funding from the Arts Council (ACE) has contributed to essential cataloguing and digitisation and to support an associated project that will allow Dr Murjas to develop a performance based on the Archive. At the same time, strategic opportunities are already beginning to shape this new programme as we build links with a number of independent research organisations (IROs) who now develop the projects for AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Awards. This year, students on our pilot training will have the chance to join training workshops for London-based IROs, such as the National Archives and British Museum, and students from these institutions will be joining us.

In a rapidly evolving environment for arts and humanities research, the long term aim of this new doctoral training programme is to strengthen Reading’s leading position in Collections-Based Research. It will take advantage of the remarkable quality and scope of the University’s museums and collections to attract postgraduate students, both nationally and internationally, and to build a community of researchers genuinely equipped to reveal, understand and communicate the potential of the university’s vast reserves of still hidden research treasures.