Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

11 August 2022

Living on a reduced income in 1868

In April 1868 Charlotte Francis Laing sent a petition to the India Office for financial assistance.  She had been reduced from affluence to ‘extreme penury’ when the failure of the Bank of Bombay took away her income from a holding of 180 shares.

Newpaper article about the collapse of the Bank of BombayArticle about the collapse of the Bank of Bombay - Bombay Gazette 27 April 1868 British Newspaper Archive 

Mrs Laing stated that she was the daughter of civil servant William James Turquand, and the widow of surgeon William Christie Laing.  Both men had served the East India Company in Bengal.  Her late husband had subscribed to the Bengal Military Orphan Society for 23 years, but had ceased pay into the fund after his retirement in 1848, believing that his private means were ample for the future provision of his family.  He had died in November 1861.  Mrs Laing asked for her seven children aged between nineteen and ten to be taken onto the Orphan Society books because she was now left with just a small widow’s pension to support them.

Hoping that the suspension of dividend payments was only temporary, it was some time before Mrs Laing had realised the need to reduce her way of living to a ‘pauper scale’.  She had now moved into a 'mean house' in a poor quarter of Crediton in Devon at a rent of £17 per annum.  Although ’always hitherto accustomed to all the refinements of an English gentlewoman’s life’, she now could not afford to keep servants, except a little girl, and was reduced to performing with her own hands ‘the chief drudgery and menial service of my house’.  The family could only afford to eat animal food on alternate days and Mrs Laing had gradually sold everything of value she possessed, even clothing.  She had had to remove her daughters from school and deprive them of education at the most important period of their lives.

Finance Committee decision on the petition of Charlotte Francis LaingFinance Committee decision on the petition of Charlotte Francis Laing - British Library IOR/L/F/2/335 no.1111 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

An official noted on the petition that Mrs Laing received an annual pension of £225 from the Bengal Military Fund.  A reply was sent saying that the rules did not permit the children to be admitted to the Orphan Fund, and the Secretary of State regretted that he was unable to sanction any grant to Mrs Laing from the Indian revenues. Ten years earlier, the directors of the East India Company might have responded to such a petition by making a donation as a gesture of goodwill, but in 1868 Mrs Laing encountered the new department of state operating within strict rules of governance.

Three years later, at the time of the 1871 census, Mrs Laing was living at Cowick Barton in Devon with four of her children: William Alexander Gordon, 21, who became a surgeon; Gordon Hammick, 18; Ellen Sydney, 16, and Kate Mary Christie, 12.  Charlotte Maria, 20, was working as a governess in Camberwell, Surrey.  Cordelia Margaret Frances, 10, was a scholar at Wilton House in Hackney, East London.  She and Kate also became teachers. I believe that Edward Turquand Gordon, 14, was serving an apprenticeship in the Merchant Navy.  In 1878 he enlisted as a gunner in the Royal Artillery and was stationed in India for ten years.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Library IOR/L/F/2/335 no.1111 Petition of Charlotte Francis Laing 28 April 1868
The Bombay Banking Crisis 


09 August 2022

Sanitary technology at East India House and the India Office

In a previous post, we looked at issues of sanitation at the Fort William Garrison in Bengal, which included a description and plan for new urinals.  This is not the only reference to urinals in the India Office Records and Private Papers.  The East India Company was also concerned with improvements in sanitation closer to home.  In 1851, the Company headquarters was East India House in Leadenhall Street in the City of London, a building that had been remodelled and extended at the end of the 18th century.  By 1851, in light of new sanitary technology, improvements were required.  A report from the Clerk of Works recommended that the urinals near the General Court Room be upgraded.  They needed to be enlarged and fitted 'with enamelled slate Partitions, with the doors acting to throw a jet of water each time it is used'.  The Clerk had done his research, having viewed the urinals at the House of Lords and at the City of London Club House, but in his opinion by far the best design was those in use at the South Eastern Railway Station (London Bridge) and these he proposed be replicated at East India House.  The bill for the works, presented at a Finance and Home Committee Meeting on 18 February 1852, was for £64 16s.

Plan A - diagram for fitting up urinalsPlan A included in IOR/L/SUR/6/6, ff.259-265: Account submitted for fitting up 2 sets of urinals 25 April 1884 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1858 the India Office took over from the East India Company, and the newly formed Government department moved in 1867 into a purpose built building in Whitehall designed by George Gilbert Scott.  By 1883, plans were put forward to improve the sanitary fittings, and approval was sought for initial works to be carried out on urinals in both the basement and on the second floor, as an ‘experiment’.  It was agreed that the basement was problematic, being the area 'where there is the most difficulty in securing careful usage', and as such required urinals proposed in Plan A, with a continuous water flow.  For the second floor urinals, where 'sufficient care and cleanliness in the use of the urinals can be depended on', plan B was to be used which employed an overflow system into a slate channel.  Again, the Clerk of the Works had done his homework, and Plan B was based on a similar system employed at the Bank of England.  The refurbishment was considered 'a great improvement as to cleanliness, and that [the urinals]… can more easily be kept in order and in good repair', and as such funds were authorised for works to be extended throughout the building.  In 1885, the total costs of the project were reported as £473 5s 9d compared to the original estimate of £450.

Plan B - diagram for fitting up urinalsPlan B included in IOR/L/SUR/6/6, ff.259-265: Account submitted for fitting up 2 sets of urinals 25 April 1884 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It is interesting to note that the sanitation works at the India Office included improvements in water re-use.  Waste water from the hydraulic lift system was stored in a cistern and was used for flushing both WCs and urinals.  But when the lifts were used frequently, the cistern achieved capacity and the excess water literally went down the drain at Charles Street.  Changes to the pipes and plumbing were put in place to move more of the waste water around the building and so use more of it for flushing.

On a final note, for anyone interested in researching sanitation and sanitary conditions in our records, it is always useful to search using a variety of contemporary terms.  Think ‘lavatories’ and ‘privies’ as well as ‘urinals’.  You never know what you might find.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further Reading:
IOR/L/SUR/1/1, ff.117-118: Finance & Home Committee 16 April 1851. Alterations to Urinals.
IOR/L/SUR/1/1, f.157: Finance & Home Committee 18 February 1852: New urinals.
IOR/L/SUR/6/6, ff.259-265: Account submitted for fitting up 2 sets of Urinals for the India Office and recommendations for fitting up others, 25 April 1884, includes plan A and plan B.
IOR/L/SUR/6/7, ff.5-6: Accounts submitted for fitting up urinals and altering supply pipes to Lavatory basins in the India Office 16 March 1885.


04 August 2022

Soldiers’ gardens in India

There were two kinds of soldiers’ gardens in British India: regimental and company.  Regimental gardens were worked by the men for fixed rates of pay, or by local people under supervision, and they supplied vegetables for the military commissariat department or the local market.  They were situated at a convenient distance from the barracks.  Company gardens were worked solely by the soldiers for their own amusement and benefit, and they were located in the immediate vicinity of the barracks.

Plan of proposed site for a soldiers’ garden at Rangoon 1850s

Plan of proposed site for a soldiers’ garden at Rangoon, surveyed by John Richard Magrath, Madras Artillery, 1850s - British Library IOR/W/F/4/2648/172549 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

All proceeds from the sale of produce from a regimental garden were paid into a fund managed by a committee of three officers.  Working expenses were drawn from the fund – repair of tools, well gear, or walls and fences; seeds; pay for Indians to work the well.  The balance was divided between the soldiers working in the garden in proportion to their skill and industry, and the produce of their labour.  Annual accounts were accompanied by a statement giving full information about the working of the garden, the number of men employed, and the effect on their character.

The military works services ensured a sufficient water supply to irrigate the gardens.  Cattle were used to work the wells.  The ordnance department supplied garden implements at set rates.

Commanding officers submitted annual requisitions for flower and vegetable seeds to the superintendents of botanical gardens at Saharanpur, Calcutta, and Poona.  The superintendents made notes on the cover of each package of seeds – name, quantity, month for sowing.  Seed potatoes were supplied free of charge by the army commissariat.

Cash prizes for soldiers’ gardens were awarded by the government according to a scale laid down in army regulations.  The distribution was treated as a fête and a holiday for the men.  A band played and the regimental school’s children attended.  Officers were told to make a point of being present at the distribution of prizes.

When new troops moved into the barracks, regimental and company gardens were inspected, and the cost of any necessary repairs to surrounding walls, fences or tools was paid from the garden fund.  The incoming corps had to purchase the fruit trees and any crops in the ground.  One week before the march of regiment, the commissariat officer employed native gardeners to keep up the gardens.  The gardeners were discharged a week after the arrival of the new corps.

Full instructions for the cultivation of gardens in India, both in the hills and on the plains, were contained in a pamphlet written by the superintendent of the government botanical garden at Saharanpur.  Commanding officers could buy the pamphlet at the cost of one rupee per copy.

Gardens for native troops might also be sanctioned at newly occupied trans-frontier stations and remote places lacking local supplies of fresh vegetables.  In these cases, the government gave a grant of money to purchase land, tools, stock the garden with seed, and pay the wages of a mali for one year.  Commanding officers were responsible for these gardens being managed as self-supporting after the first year.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Library, IOR/L/MIL/17/5/633 Army Regulations India Vol XII Barracks (1900)