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In the course of studying for an MA in Imperialism and Culture, I have been examining how enthusiastic working class Britons were about the Empire in the period 1870-1914.

Emma Jolly, in the article Naming for Empire

Emma Jolly writer, historian, genealogist
  1. St Stephen’s Church, Ootacamund

    Recently, I received a fascinating email from a client, Evelyn Nelson, who had followed up on my research by visiting her family’’s former hometowns of Chennai/Madras and Udhagamandalam/Ootacamund.

    Her first stop was Chennai, where she found the family vault of her ancestor, Richard St Leger Mitchell. She also visited churches of event for more recent members of the family, and the location of the school where Richard was master, in the former ‘Black Town’ area of the city. In 1906, this area was formally re-named ‘George Town’.

    To find out more about her mother’s family, Evelyn and five of her cousins then headed for Udhagamandalam, or Ootacamund. This hill station in the Nilgiri Hills, known as Snooty Ooty in the days of the British Raj, was a popular escape from the heat of Madras below. Evelyn visited St Stephen’s Church, where her mother’s was first married. I had been unable to find any records for Evelyn’s family relating to this church in the India Office Records or on Family Search. Evelyn thus took the opportunity of meeting the priest to ask if any records were held at the church itself. Amazingly, the priest replied by inviting Evelyn to visit his house the following day.

    When Evelyn arrived at the priest’s house, she was shown the church register on a shelf in his study. The priest kindly allowed Evelyn to consult the register, in which she was delighted to find not only the marriage record but all the baptism records of her mother’s siblings.

    I am often asked by clients where they should search if they cannot find a record in the British Library or The National Archives, or online at sites such as the FIBIS database, Family Search, Find My Past, Ancestry, or India Office Family History Search. The answer I have to give is, “Contact the church in India.” This is not always possible for some, and not everyone is in a position to visit. However, Evelyn’s experience shows what successes can be made and that with family history, you should never give up!

    evelynnelson.jpg

    As a postscript to this, the memorials inside St Stephen’s Church have been transcribed by Kae Lewis and can be found on the website: http://www.kaelewis.com/database/ooty/searchpage.htm

  2. A British Christmas in India 1780

    Eliza Fay (1756-1816) is one of the best-known female chroniclers of European life in India during the late eighteenth century. Although she was no Jane Austen, Eliza’s writing was fresh and perceptive. What her letters lack in finesse, they make up in directness and humour. And, whilst she was not sophisticated, Eliza was adventurous and keen to learn about India, its cultures and people. Her enthusiasm is conveyed through the letters she wrote after her arrival in India with her lawyer husband in May 1780.

    More than a century later, it was this freshness and eye for detail that inspired EM Forster to arrange for the British publication of Eliza Fay’s letters in 1925.

    After their arrival in India, Eliza and her husband settled in Calcutta. It was there that she was living at the Christmas of that year. Eliza detailed her first Christmas in India in a letter to her sister on 27th January 1781 (Letter XVIII):

    My Dear Sister,- Since my last we have been engaged
    in a perpetual round of gaiety. Keeping Christmas, as it is
    called, though sinking into disuse at home, prevails here with
    all its ancient festivity. The external appearance of the
    English gentlemen’s houses on Christmas Day is really
    pleasing from its novelty. Large plantain trees are placed
    on each side of the principal entrances, and the gates and
    pillars, being ornamented with wreaths of flowers fancifully
    disposed, enliven the scene.

    All the servants, from the Banian down to the lowest menial,
    bring presents of fish and fruit ; for these, it is true, we are
    obliged in many instances to make a return perhaps beyond
    the real value, but still it is regarded as a compliment to our
    burrah din. A public dinner is given at Government House
    to the gentlemen of the Presidency, and the evening concludes
    with an elegant ball and supper for the ladies. These are
    repeated on New Year’s Day and on the King’s birthday. I
    should say have been, for that grand festival happening at the
    hottest season, and every one being obliged to appear full
    dressed, so much inconvenience resulted from the immense
    crowd, even in some cases severe fits of illness being the
    consequence, that it has been determined to change the day
    of celebration to the 8th of December which arrangement
    gives general satisfaction. I shall not attempt to describe
    these splendid entertainments further than by saying that they
    were in the highest style of magnificence. In fact such grand
    parties so much resemble each other that a particular detail
    would be unnecessary and even tiresome.

    Eliza then goes on to describe a social event of ‘some time ago’ giving further insight into the social mores of the Georgian British abroad:

    Mrs. Hastings was of the party. She came in late, and
    happened to place herself on the opposite side of the room,
    beyond a speaking distance: so strange to tell, I quite forgot
    she was there ! After some time had elapsed, my observant
    friend, Mrs. Jackson, who had been impatiently watching
    ‘ my looks, asked if I had paid my respects to the Lady
    Governess? I answered in the negative, having had no
    opportunity, as she had no chance to look towards me when
    I was prepared to do so. ” Oh !” replied the kind old lady,
    ” you must fix your eyes on her, and never take them off till
    she notices you. Miss C- dy has done this and so have I.
    It is absolutely necessary to avoid giving offence.” I followed
    her prudent advice, and was soon honoured with a complacent
    glance, which I returned, as became me, by a most respectful
    bend. Not long after, she walked over to our side, and
    conversed very affably with me, for we are now, through
    Mrs. Jackson’s interference, on good terms together.
    She also introduced me to Lady Coote and her inseparable
    friend, Miss Molly Barrett. It was agreed between them
    when they were both girls, whichever married first, the other
    was to live with her : and accordingly when Sir Eyre took his
    lady from St. Helena, of which place her father was
    Governor, Miss Molly, who is a native of the island, accom-
    panied them to England and from thence to India, where
    she has remained ever since. Thus giving a proof of steady
    attachment not often equalled and never perhaps excelled.

    A few months after this was written Eliza Fay and her husband separated. The split left her struggling to maintain her social status. She tried her hand at a number of dubious business investments, several of which required her to continue her travels. She was later to record journeys to England, New York and India.

    Sadly, after several bouts of bankruptcy, Eliza died insolvent on 9 September 1816 in Calcutta, where was buried the following day (British Library ref. IOR:N/1/9-10).

  3. Here and There: The Story of the Bangladeshi Community in Camden

    I was lucky enough to be invited to a private view last night (Thursday 27 October 2011) of the latest exhibition at Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre .Here and there

    The exhibition, Here and There, details the lives of members of Camden’s Bangladeshi Community through their experiences in both Bangladesh and London. Curated by the Bengali Workers’ Association, the exhibition focuses on the Community’s life in Camden from the 1950s to the present day.

    Today the Bangladeshi Community is well-integrated into Camden life and many members now work as professionals in the area. Bengalis are well-represented politicially too: Councillor Nasim Ali OBE, the Leader of Camden Council, is featured in the exhibition; and Councillor Tulip Siddiq gave an introductory talk at the launch.

    The exhibits themselves are comprised of oral testimonies, recorded as part of a history project by members of the Oral History Society. Robert Wilkinson of the Society told us how few recordings have been made of Bangladeshi memories. He welcomed the Lottery funding that enabled this exhibition and the opportunity to keep these stories alive.

    One of the highlights of the evening was a fascinating talk by the founder of the Bengali Workers’ Association, Abdul Momen. Mr Momen is featured in the exhibition, and related to the audience some of his memories of growing up in Bengal and his esteemed work in Camden, which led to him saving lives through community action and welfare support.

    Born near Calcutta in 1938, Mr Momen’s childhood was disrupted by his father’s career in the postal service. The regular moves across Bengal meant Mr Momen attended eight schools: the saddest part of this, he told us, was that he couldn’t play football as he was never at a school long enough to join the team. He also remembered dark times, such as the horrendous Bengal Famine of 1943. Mr Momen was horrified by the sight of extrememly thin women begging for the starchy water from cooked rice. Happier memories included those of summer holidays at his grandmother’s rural house, where every morning he ran out to collect the ripe mangoes that had fallen from the trees. His life changed completely in 1969 after he received a scholarship to do a doctorate in English at Leeds University. In 1971 he was appointed Asian Community Officer in Camden.

    In February 1976 Mr Momen founded the Bengali Workers Action Group, now the Bengali Workers Association. This acted as an advice centre for issues such as immigration, accommodation and welfare. Today the Association continues to act as a support for members of the Bengali community as well as working closely with NHS Camden, the police, and local and national government. I met Tahmina Khanom who works with senior members of the community, helping to alleviate problems of isolation and language difficulties.

    A wide range of topics are covered in the exhibition, including the themes of village life and education in Bangladesh, migration and the lives of Bangladeshi women; and aspects of life in the UK, such as community, marriage and employment.

    Beside talks, we were also treated to poetry readings, Bengali dancing and wonderfully tasty samosas from the excellent caterers Ambala in nearby Drummond Street.  I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and learning more about my Bangladeshi neighbours.

    The exhibition runs from 8 October to 19 December 2011, and is warmly recommended to anyone visiting central London over the next couple of months.

  4. The Urban Genealogist on Holiday: The Clive Collection at Powis Castle, Wales

    powis-castle

    Whilst writing a book on tracing ancestors in British India, I explored the character and actions of one of the most notorious Britons in India, Robert Clive (1725-1774). Later he became Baron Clive of Plassey but was popularly known as ‘the conqueror of India’, or simply ‘Clive of India’. Clive is central to the history of British involvement in India for, without him, it is unlikely that the British East India Company (EIC) would ever have gained the power that they did.

    Throughout the eighteenth century Britain waged war with age-old enemy, France. The conflict spread beyond Europe, affecting EIC trade in India. Clive, the son of a Shropshire squire, rose to prominence in India after he defeated a French-Indian force at the siege of Arcot in 1751. The Indians nicknamed him Sabit Jang, Steady in War.

    200px-lordclive

    Clive was appointed Governor of Bengal on two occasions: once from 1757-60 and secondly in 1765. The first time was after he had defeated the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daula, at the Battle of Plassey (Palashi) in June 1757. This battle is regarded as the turning point in Indian history: the time when the British changed from being traders in India to becoming landowners and rulers. The battle was fought in response to the Nawab’s attacks on EIC factories and their base in Calcutta in 1756. During these attacks, the Nawab was assisted by the French.

    It was at the EIC’s trading post at Calcutta, Fort William, that the Nawab’s armies captured between sixty and one hundred and fifty British prisoners, imprisoned them in a tiny cell and left many of them to suffocate to death. The size of the cell and the number of Britons who died is disputed by historians, but the incident became remembered as the legend of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Clive drew from the horrified reaction of Britain to this incident to justify his consequent aggression.

    As a man, he is remembered for his military prowess, cunning and greed. Clive had showed his cunning prior to the Battle of Plassey, when he persuaded Siraj ud Doula’s rival and uncle, Mir Jafar, to defect to the British side. He was also accused of corruption: despite defending his actions, he committed suicide in London shortly afterwards.

    It was from Mir Jafar that Clive was given £234,000 (equivalent to £34 million today). Despite this, during his second term as Governor of Bengal, Clive reduced the Bengali treasury by some 5 million dollars. Clive also put up rents in Bengal, leading to famines and displacement. The Bengal famine of 1769-70 particularly increased antipathy against nabobs like him: Walpole wrote, ‘What think you of the famine in Bengal, in which three million perished, being caused by a monopoly of provisions, by the servants of the East India Company?’ (Walpole Letters, V, 378)

    The nabobs of the Georgian age, men like Clive and Thomas Pitt, were senior officials in India who took vast riches back to Britain. The Age of Enlightenment was opening eighteenth century minds and encouraging an intellectual curiosity in all cultures and philosophies, including those in India. Amongst the nabobs this curiosity manifested itself in collecting Asian art and antiquities. During 1760-1830 many great collections were formed in India, notably that of the later impeached Governor General Warren Hastings (1732-1818). The nabobs preferred collecting miniature paintings and small, but valuable, items of furniture. These were easy to transport around India and back to Britain, where they would be displayed in the grand setting of magnificent stately homes. Some collectors even brought foodstuffs: when the Indian treasures of Thomas Alexander Cobb (1788-1836) of the 37th Native Infantry were sold after his death, several of the mango and guava jellies and chutneys he had brought back sold for more than some of his paintings (Christie’s 24 & 26 May 1837).

    Robert Clive brought many of his Indian treasures to Claremont, his great house near Esher in Surrey. However, a large part of what is on display at Powis Castle today was brought to Wales by Robert’s eldest son, Edward, 2nd Lord Clive (1754-1839). In 1784, Edward married Lady Henrietta Antonia Herbert (1758-1830), daughter of the Earl of Powis. Later, in 1798, Edward became Governor of Madras and was thus well-placed to receive and bring back his own treasures. Lady Clive kept extensive diaries during their time in Madras, which reveal her own passion for collecting and give an insight into the history of the objects.

    One of the most dramatic events that occurred during Edward’s governorship was the defeat and death of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, in 1799. Following this, the spoils of his treasury were divided between the soldiers, apportioned according to rank. Colonel Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) was ordered by his older brother, the Governor-General, Lord Mornington, to ‘preserve the most significant contents of Tipu’s palace’. Mornington then presented a small part of the Sultan’s throne to Lady Clive – a bejewelled tiger’s head from the arm rest, covered in rubies, emeralds and diamonds. This and other items from the Sultan’s palace at Seringapatam made their way back with Lady Clive to Britain. It was on her way home in 1801 that Lady Clive was told of the death of her brother, the Earl of Powis, who was unmarried with no heir. After this, Powis Castle was inherited by Lady Clive’s husband, Edward. He became Earl of Powis in 1804, after his own return to Britain, and the Castle became home to the Clive Collection.

    Besides paintings, this collectionof ‘Indian Jewels, Curiosities, Arms etc.’ includes ‘India’s indigenous traditions’ such as bronze gods; ‘objects signalling the preoccupations and life styles of India’s nobility’ such as the ‘paraphernalia of the aristocracy with whom Clive came into contact’ like Mughal fly-whisks and Robert Clive’s jewelled hookahs; and ‘European-style furniture’. Many items of armoury and weaponry are also featured, including the sword of Tipu Sultan and the iron tusk defences of elephants. The remaining pieces of the enormous elephant armour are held in the Royal Armouries in Leeds http://www.royalarmouries.org/about-us/

    Source: Mildred Archer, Christopher Rowell, Robert Skelton, Treasures from India: The Clive Collection at Powis Castle (The National Trust, 1987)

    http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-powiscastle_garden.html

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