Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

16 September 2021

Breakfast in British India

In 1810 Captain Thomas Williamson, a retired Bengal Army officer, published The East India Vade-Mecum; or complete guide to gentlemen intended for the civil, military or, naval service of the East India Company.  It is a fascinating book to dip into and this caught my eye:
’A breakfast in India bears a strong resemblance to the same meal in Scotland, with the exception of whiskey; the introduction of which, (if to be had,) or of any other spirits would be considered both nauseous and vulgar’.

After this surprising revelation about Scottish breakfasts, Williamson moves on to detail the bill of fare.  Breakfast for Europeans in Williamson’s India was generally a substantial meal: tea, coffee, toast, bread, butter, eggs, rice, salt-fish, kitcheree (kedgeree), sweetmeats, orange marmalade, and honey.  Sometimes, following hunting and shooting expeditions, cold meat and accompaniments were served.

Breakfast In India - A young married couple (an East India Company civil servant and his wife) breakfasting on fried fish, rice and Sylhet oranges, with servants in attendance..'The Breakfast' from William Tayler, Sketches illustrating the manner and customs of the Indians and the Anglo-Indians (London, 1842) British Library shelfmark X42 Images Online

European gentlemen rose at daybreak and, before breakfast, either went on parade or to their ‘field diversions’, or rode on horses or elephants, enjoying the cool morning air.  Williamson recommended wearing the clothes worn on the previous evening for exercise and then changing into a clean suit on return, sitting down to breakfast in comfort.

Williamson cautioned against eating eggs at breakfast, believing that they aggravated bilious conditions.  Eggs were ‘innocent’ in the climate of England for people with a robust constitution, but in Asia, ‘where relaxation weakens the powers of digestion, they are a pernicious article of diet’.  He also believed that salt-fish should be banned from the breakfast table, as eating it caused ’thirst, heat, and uneasiness’.

Newspaper announcement of a public breakfast, Calcutta 1785Calcutta Gazette 3 February 1785 British Newspaper Archive - also available via Findmypast

In the late 18th century it had been customary for the Governor General and members of Council to have weekly public breakfasts: ‘persons of all characters mixed promiscuously, and good and bad were to be seen around the same tea-pot’.  The breakfast was considered as ‘merely the preface to a levee’.  When Lord Cornwallis arrived, these public breakfasts were replaced by open levees.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Thomas Williamson, The East India Vade-Mecum; or complete guide to gentlemen intended for the civil, military or, naval service of the East India Company (London, 1810) 
Owain Edwards,’ Captain Thomas Williamson of India’, Modern Asian Studies Vol. 14, No. 4 (1980), pp. 673-682

 

In the mid-19th century, there was a selection of marmalades available in India. As well as orange marmalade, there was mango. citron, lemon, and ginger.

Marmalade types from Bombay Gazette 1863Bombay Gazette 3 February 1863 British Newspaper Archive - also available via Findmypast

What would Paddington Bear think of that?

Paddington – The Story of a Bear


Paddington Bear - advert for exhibition at British Library


14 September 2021

Memorabilia of Captain James Cecil Thornton

One of the most pleasing aspects of private paper collections is the small items of ephemera they often contain.  One example of this in the India Office Private Papers is a folder of memorabilia of Captain James Cecil Thornton (1888-1932), Royal Field Artillery, and Supply and Transport Corps, India and Mesopotamia.

Examples of memorabilia belonging to Captain James Cecil Thornton - tickets from Makinah Gymkhana Club and Baghdad Officers' ClubExamples of memorabilia belonging to Captain James Cecil Thornton - British Library Mss Eur D791 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The India Office Records also holds his Indian Army service file which gives some information on Captain Thornton.  Born in London on 22 August 1888, his nationality is listed as Scottish.  His father was George Thornton, residing in Eltham, Kent.  James Thornton joined the Royal Field Artillery in 1912 as a Second Lieutenant.  He clearly excelled in the role as he rose to be appointed a Captain in 1916.  In June 1917 he travelled to India, and in April 1918 was attached to the Supply & Transport Corps in Mesopotamia.  In January 1919, Thornton married Muriel Augusta Florence Hardwick, and they had a daughter, Rosemary Muriel Augusta, born at St George’s Ditchling, East Sussex on 2 November 1919.  The service record also notes Thornton’s language skills.  In February 1918, he passed the examination taken in Baghdad in colloquial Arabic.  He also had conversational Urdu and good colloquial French.

Front page of Indian Army Army service record for James Cecil Thornton Indian Army Army service record for James Cecil Thornton - British Library IOR/L/MIL/14/30321 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The folder of memorabilia shows the social life of an army officer.  It contains books of tickets for various clubs: Baghdad Officers’ Club, Makinah Gymkhana Club, and the Busreh Club.  There is also a programme of sports held by the 4th Brigade of the R.F.A. on 30 September 1917, and a programme for the R.F.A. Brigade Horse Show on 16 February 1918 at Samarrah.

Programme of sports held by the 4th Brigade of the R.F.A. on 30 September 1917Programme of sports held by the 4th Brigade of the R.F.A. on 30 September 1917 - British Library Mss Eur D791 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The folder also gives a glimpse into the tasks he performed as part of his duties.  There are two permits ‘to send goods up country’, dated Baghdad 26 October 1917.  The goods listed on the permits were a packet of Baghdad-made clothing articles, a bag of indigo, and 1 bale containing 61 packets of silk and other Baghdad-made articles.  There is also a statement showing the average rates paid for various articles including rice, wheat, barley, ghee, dates, millet, maize, lentils, firewood, sesame and onions.

Permit to send goods up countryPermit to send goods up country  - British Library Mss Eur D791 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

James Thornton left military service in 1922.  He returned to England to pursue a career as a solicitor in Brighton, where he was also responsible for organising the Horse Show for the ‘Greater Brighton’ celebrations in 1928.  In 1929, he suffered severe injuries in a tragic accident when he fell from his bedroom window.  The local newspaper reported that he was known to walk in his sleep.  He died in 1932.


John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Memorabilia of Captain James Cecil Thornton (1888-1932), Royal Field Artillery, and Supply and Transport Corps, India and Mesopotamia 1917-1922, British Library shelfmark Mss Eur D791.
Army service record for James Cecil Thornton, 1912-1922, British Library shelfmark IOR/L/MIL/14/30321.
Mid Sussex Times, 22 October 1929 and 29 November 1932, online in the British Newspaper Archive (also available via Findmypast).

 

09 September 2021

‘An unseemly squabble’ in Aden

An argument at a dinner party.  A guest drinking too much.  A brush with the law.   An evening which would end a 30-year friendship.

After Captain Robert Cogan retired from active service with the Indian Navy, he settled in Aden, working for a trading company.  Perhaps his choice of town was influenced by the presence of his friend Captain Stafford Bettesworth Haines, who was the British Political Agent there.

Head and shoulders portrait of Captain Stafford Bettesworth Haines with a full, dark beard and bow tieA portrait of Captain Stafford Bettesworth Haines from a lithograph at the British Embassy, Aden. 

On 27 October 1846, Cogan and Haines, together with Haines’ wife Mary, dined at the house of Captain George James Duncan Milne.  By the next day, that 30-year friendship would be in tatters.

After dinner, the gentlemen joined the ladies in the drawing room, and Cogan took up the subject of society in Aden, focusing on Mrs Haines’ role and mentioning one occasion where he believed she had been negligent.  The rest of the party disagreed, and this led to a heated argument between Milne and Cogan.  At this point, Haines stepped in to de-escalate the dispute.  The argument continued between Haines and Cogan at Haines’ house, where Cogan called Haines ‘a cold blooded being’, and Haines tried to calm him down and persuade him to go home.

Captain Haines’ version of events from the East India Company archivesCaptain Haines’ version of events, IOR/F/4/2203/108123, f 329. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Meanwhile, Haines, acting as the local magistrate, directed a policeman to watch Cogan unobtrusively that night, giving orders that if he seemed about to leave his house to continue the quarrel, he was to be forced to remain at home.  Haines also required Milne to agree not to pursue an apology that night.

The next morning a message came to Cogan from Captain Milne, requiring him to retract his offensive expression.  Cogan readily agreed, and Milne also withdrew his language.  Cogan wrote to Mrs Milne to apologise, and to Captain Haines, regretting his bad taste and the ‘unhappy events…[which] have given me much pain’.  However, he also objected to Haines’ ‘irritating’ manner.  Haines was not satisfied, and replied that Cogan’s ‘conduct and singular expressions of last night preclude the continuance of our acquaintance’.  Cogan, upset, intended to consult friends about the dispute and was in the act of mounting his horse at his door, when ‘for the first time in my life, [I was] publicly arrested by a Police Constable’.

Cartoon entitled 'The Modest Couple' - a man turning away from a seated woman, with another older, cross-looking man between them gesturing towards her.'The Modest Couple' from The Bab Ballads, with which are included Songs of a Savoyard ... With 350 illustrations by the author by William Gilbert, (London, 1898).  BL flickr

This was a misunderstanding, as Haines had only ordered Cogan to be prevented from going out the previous night.  He was freed once Haines had been informed of what had happened.  However, Cogan was outraged to discover that he had been under police surveillance as being ‘likely to cause a breach of the Peace’.  To add to his outrage, Haines refused to forward his complaint about the arrest to his superiors in India, and he had to send it to the Governor of India himself.

The Government took this complaint of arrest on insufficient grounds seriously, although ignored the ‘unseemly squabble’, and asked Haines for his full explanation.  However, they decided that Haines had acted properly as he was motivated by his public duty, especially as Cogan had previously requested that a guest of his was placed under similar guardianship a few evenings before.  It is unclear whether their friendship ever recovered before Cogan died the following year.

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer -British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
The story of Cogan’s wrongful arrest appears in IOR/F/4/2203/108123.