Untold lives blog

10 posts from November 2016

29 November 2016

A music examiner’s tour of India

Amongst the India Office Private Papers at the British Library is the personal diary of Dr Charles MacPherson.  A fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, and organist at St Paul’s Cathedral from 1916 until his death in 1927, MacPherson published a number of musical works.  The Library holds the manuscript of his Solemn Thanksgiving Te Deum for orchestra and chorus composed for the service held at St Paul’s to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Peace in July 1919.


  Photograph of Charles MacPherson

Charles MacPherson  -India Office Private Papers MSS Eur A93  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In the autumn of 1925 MacPherson undertook a tour of India and Ceylon as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music.  His diary details the trials of travelling from town to town and his forthright opinions on just how foreign this nation and her people are to him, as well as moments of wonder at the beauty of the architecture or scenery.

Accompanied by his wife Sophie, MacPherson left Tilbury on 28 August 1925 bound for Bombay.  The couple weren’t taken with the idea of a long voyage and ‘both thought the joys of seafaring overrated’.

MacPherson was keen to document any musical moments he encountered.  He described a ship’s officer playing the harmonium ‘whose left hand was greedy for more notes, that were always forthcoming though seldom possessing any connection with the “time-hand”.’  The crew and passengers formed a chorus, with MacPherson himself having to sing an octave lower than usual owing to laryngitis.

Arriving at Bombay on 18 September, MacPherson was immediately taken with the difference in appearance of the native people: ‘No two people looked or dressed alike …quaint old men wore white shirts, but outside of their lower garments.  This custom would look odd in England with dress clothes!’


View from St Paul’s School Darjeeling (1870)

John H Doyle, View from St Paul’s School Darjeeling (1870) Photo 27/(91) BL Online Gallery  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The musician then undertook a programme of examinations that kept him so busy that he even had to turn down an invitation of lunch from the Viceroy.  His schedule took him to St Paul's School in Darjeeling, the highest school in the world at 7,600ft above sea level.  In Bombay he visited ‘a girl’s school, good piano, birds flying about in the room’.  He found the town of Hardwar unsettling because it was 'infested with monkies’, wondering that 'these dreadful beasties are counted as sacred'.

In Delhi MacPherson commented; 'The old buildings are things to be wondered at, and seem to belong to picture books rather than reality.  Ancient India must have been truly a wondrous country'.  In Mysore he notated wedding music: ‘a marriage procession headed by a band consisting of a hand-drum, a tambourine, a native trumpet, a kind of cornet and a bagpipe.  The really fine thing was the rhythm maintained between the hand-drum and the tambourine - something like...’

  Notation of wedding music

India Office Private Papers MSS Eur A93 p.160  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The MacPhersons continued onto Ceylon which they found, almost ‘Europe-like’ after India with the port ‘rather like Clacton-on- Sea, or a trifle less distinguished’.  Despite the tiring travels, the trip was deemed a success as he closed with ‘here ends the diary of a wonderful experience’.

Karen Waddell
Reference Specialist

Further reading:
India Office Private Papers: Charles MacPherson Papers, MSS Eur A93
Solemn Thanksgiving Te Deum,  Charles MacPherson, Add MS 50776
The English Psalter ed. MacPherson, Bairstow & Buck (London, 1925) – 3089.a.5


24 November 2016

Journals of Midshipmen during the Second World War

Some recent cataloguing of India Office Records Marine Department volumes has uncovered a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of junior naval officers on British warships during the Second World War.  The six journals were kept by the young officers as part of their training, and were regularly checked by their supervising officer and the captain of the ship they were assigned to.  The purpose of the journals was to train midshipmen in observation, expression and orderliness, and they were required to record their observations about all matters of interest of importance in the work that was carried out, on their stations, in their fleet, or in their ship, and illustrate them with plans and sketches.


 Journal of  Ian Crawford Davenport, Scapa Flow 1943

   Journal of  Ian Crawford Davenport, Scapa Flow 1943

IOR/L/MAR/C/915 Journal of  Ian Crawford Davenport, Scapa Flow 1943  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The journals detail the daily activities and duties of the midshipmen, the most junior rank of officer in the Royal Navy.  They also give descriptions of the working of their respective ships, and the assignments they carried out.  For most of the ships this involved escorting convoys of merchant ships across the dangerous shipping lanes, and protecting them from attacks by German ships and submarines.  HMS Duke of York was on one such mission near Norway bound for North Russia when it became engaged in battle with the German battleship Scharnhorst.  Midshipman Davenport gives a thrilling account in his journal of the naval engagement known as the battle of North Cape between the Scharnhorst and the Allied warships, which led to the sinking of the German warship on 26 December 1943. In his account, Davenport describes the action dinner they ate during the long battle as “very thick lentil soup and very greasy chops” adding that he did not feel very hungry. The Duke of York fired 80 broadsides at Scharnhorst, and Davenport noted the almost continuous ripple of fire down the ship from her guns.

HMS Duke of York at Scapa Flow in 1941

HMS Duke of York at Scapa Flow in 1941 © IWM (A 6682)


The journal by Midshipman Coyne gives an account of the service of HMS Glasgow in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. At one point he describes the terrifying attack on the ship by enemy aircraft while it was stationed at Souda Bay, on the coast of Crete on 3 December 1940: “A few seconds later the ship was violently shaken, and long before I had disentangled two aerial wires from my hair, I realised that we had been torpedoed. Upon looking out to starboard to find the enemy I was not a little surprised to see the track of another torpedo approaching, and though during the minute or so that we waited for it to come I hoped it would pass astern, such was not our luck, and the ship was again shaken by the force of the explosion”. 


Journal of Michael Coyne, Liverpool 1940

IOR/L/MAR/C/911 Journal of Michael Coyne, Liverpool 1940  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The Midshipmen were required to produce their journals at the examination for the rank of Lieutenant, and so it was important to make them as impressive as possible. Midshipman Davenport ends his journal on 6 August 1944 with the lines “On arriving in the Gunroom I found the rest of my group sweating away at their journals and turning out sketches in quick time. I think perhaps I had better do the same”.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/C Marine Miscellaneous
Journal for the use of Midshipmen: Arthur Geoffrey Terence Dane, HMS Revenge and HMS Buxton, 1940-1941 [IOR/L/MAR/C/910]
Journal for the use of Midshipmen: Michael Coyne, HMS Glasgow, 1940-1942 [IOR/L/MAR/C/911]
Journal for the use of Midshipmen: Alfred George Julian, HMS Repulse, 1941 [IOR/L/MAR/C/912]
Journal for the use of Midshipmen: John Helmdon St Clair Strange, HMS King George V, 1942-1943 [IOR/L/MAR/C/913]
Journal for the use of Midshipmen: Ezekiel Solomon Joshua, HMS Malaya, 1942-1943 [IOR/L/MAR/C/914]
Journal for the use of Midshipmen: Ian Crawford Davenport, HMS Malaya and HMS Duke of York, 1943-1944 [IOR/L/MAR/C/915] 
Battle of North Cape


22 November 2016

The business archive of Alan Gradon Thomas

We’ve met Alan Gradon Thomas before, back in 2013 when my colleague Chantry Westwell came across a festschrift in his honour whilst researching the provenance of a medieval calendar. The recent completion of the cataloguing of Thomas’s extensive business archive seems like a good time to reacquaint ourselves with the esteemed book and manuscript seller of Bournemouth and, latterly, London.


Alan Graydon Thomas archive - display of documents and books

Alan Gradon Thomas archive Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Thomas was an international dealer in a pre-digital age. He had customers all over the world and all of his business was conducted by letter and telephone, using printed catalogues. It was not uncommon for Thomas to send a catalogue to a customer overseas, receive a letter back some weeks later setting out what the customer wished to buy, only for Thomas to have to write back to say that in the interim he had sold the book or manuscript to another customer.


Three manuscripts purchased from Thomas by the British Library

Three manuscripts purchased from Thomas by the British Library  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


He was a meticulous record keeper and the archive, containing sales ledgers, stock lists, financial records, inventories, papers relating to his superbly researched catalogues, and valuations, spans nearly 50 years. There are hundreds of files of correspondence with his customers, including the major auction houses, important private collectors such as John Wolfson, Sir Karl Popper, Lord Kenyon, Lord Wardington, and Major Abbey, and many of the great collections of the world: the British Library, the British Museum, the Bodleian, the Beinecke, the Folger, the Huntington, and the Royal Library in Brussels, to name just a few. Thomas’s correspondence also contains letters from fellow dealers, and from rare book and manuscript curators, librarians, and experts such as Mirjam Foot, Anthony Hobson, Nicolas Barker, Richard Linenthal, and Christopher de Hamel.

The festschrift alone is evidence of how well Thomas was thought of in the trade. But that high regard is also evident in his being elected President of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association for 1958-1959, during which time he was instrumental in establishing the first London Antiquarian Book Fair. His papers include a large amount of ABA material: committee minutes, annual reports and accounts, newsletters, correspondence, and papers relating to the book fairs.

In turn, Thomas himself had great respect for, and was always very appreciative of, the help of the ‘footsoldiers’ of the trade, the shop assistants and bookroom staff. The archive contains papers relating to collections Thomas ran to mark the retirement of three long serving assistants from Sotheby’s and the British Museum. He assiduously wrote to scores of contacts in the trade to drum up as many financial contributions as possible.

Alan Thomas died in August 1992 “as much an enthusiast - for the arts, literature, the history of ideas and beliefs - at 80 as he was at 20”, as his obituary in The Independent put it.

His archive, given his clientele and the material he dealt with, is an extremely rich resource for those interested in the history and provenance of manuscripts and rare books.

Michael St John-McAlister
Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager 

Further reading:
Add MS 89159 Archive of Alan Gradon Thomas
Christopher de Hamel and Richard A. Linenthal (eds), Fine books and book collecting: books and manuscripts acquired from Alan G. Thomas and described by his customers on the occasion of his seventieth birthday (Leamington Spa: James Hall, 1981)



17 November 2016

A novel way to secure a pension

The name Thomas Snodgrass will perhaps conjure up for some people an image of an archetypal pen-pushing bureaucrat, and indeed the subject of this tale was a real East India Company civil servant who was appointed writer (clerk) in the Madras Presidency in 1777. 


  'Superannuated Man' by C E Brock - men working in an office 19th century

'Superannuated Man' by C E Brock from Charles Lamb, The Last Essays of Elia, ed. William Macdonald (1907)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Snodgrass rose to become Collector at Ganjam in Orissa in eastern India, but by 1804 he had left the service under a heavy cloud. The reasons for this can be assumed from the descriptions of a number of files within the India Office Records:

  • Mismanagement of the revenue administration of Ganjam District; removal of Thomas Snodgrass as Collector of Ganjam (IOR/F/4/82/1780)
  • Snodgrass, Thomas. Apology demanded from, for disrespect towards the Government (IOR/E/4/881, pp. 619-624)
  • Snodgrass, Thomas. Enquiry respecting charges of corruption and abuses permitted by, during Collectorship at Ganjam to be completed (IOR/E/4 892, pp. 162, 173-177)
  • Memorials from Thomas Snodgrass to the Court of Directors … in defence of his conduct as Collector of Ganjam (IOR/F/4/141/2475)
  • Snodgrass, Thomas. Memorial requesting re-admittance to Company’s service not decided upon, and tone of letter severely censured (IOR/E/4/892, pp. 161-169)

Not surprisingly a difficulty arose later when he tried to claim his pension. How he succeeded in eventually doing so is recounted in the Annals of the Oriental Club, 1824–1858:

'When Mr. Snodgrass applied for a pension the East India Company refused to grant it till he satisfied the Directors that there had been no misappropriation of the revenue under his control as Collector.  He professed that it was impossible to render an account, his papers having been lost in the wreck of a boat on Lake Chilka. The Hon’ble Court was incredulous; whereupon Mr. Snodgrass, meanly attired, posted himself in Leadenhall Street, opposite the India House, and started a new career as a crossing-sweeper. So much sympathy was aroused by the spectacle of a Company’s servant apparently reduced to poverty, that the Court relented and the pension was paid'.

'The Bearded Crossing-Sweeper at the Exchange' from Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor

'The Bearded Crossing-Sweeper at the Exchange' from Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor volume 2  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


This stunt did not prevent his becoming a founder member of the Oriental Club, and also ensured that the Company had to pay him his perhaps ill-gotten pension until he died in 1834. 

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services


Further reading:
Annals of the Oriental Club, 1824–1858, edited by Stephen Wheeler (1925) -  on the open access shelves in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room (shelfmark OIH367.942).  The entry for Snodgrass appears on pp.153-154.


15 November 2016

A little embarrassing: Britain fails to prevent Barclay Raunkiær from exploring Arabia

The British did everything in their power to thwart the journey of a young Danish explorer into the heart of Arabia in 1912 – but ended up helping him by mistake.

The Danes had a history of exploration in the Arabian Peninsula going back to Carsten Niebuhr in the 18th century. In 1911 the Royal Danish Geographical Society decided to revive that tradition by mounting a new expedition.  One of the members was a young Danish student, Barclay Raunkiær, whose father, the botanist Christen Raunkiær, gives his name to a system of plant categorisation still in use today.

The Society duly informed the British Government of their intentions. However, the British viewed the expedition as an unwelcome intrusion into their imperial sphere of influence, and decided that it should be prevented.  The British claimed that as they could not guarantee the safety of their own officers and travellers in the region, they could not offer any assistance or protection to the Danes either.

As a result, the Society abandoned the scheme, despite the fact that money had been raised and plans were well advanced. Nevertheless, Raunkiær decided to make the journey himself, and after passing through Ottoman territory, he arrived at Kuwait in January 1912.

Telegram from the Government of India to the Political Resident dated 1 March 1912 asking the Resident to give ‘a hint’ to the Sheikh of Kuwait

Telegram from the Government of India to the Political Resident dated 1 March 1912 asking the Resident to give ‘a hint’ to the Sheikh of Kuwait
IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 75.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The British Government of India responded by giving instructions to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf  that ‘a hint’ should be given to the Sheikh of Kuwait that no assistance should be given to Raunkiær. Without the Sheikh’s support the expedition would be impossible. British officials also monitored the Dane’s movements in the region and passed on information.

It came then as a considerable surprise to the British some months later to learn that the expedition had been a complete success. Raunkiær had made his way from Kuwait to Riyadh and back to the coast at Bahrain, ‘in a somewhat dilapidated condition’, collecting important geographical, ethnographic and botanical information on the way.

India Office minute: the Royal Danish Geographical Society’s gratitude was ‘a little embarrassing’

India Office minute: the Royal Danish Geographical Society’s gratitude was ‘a little embarrassing’ - IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 48.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Worse, the Royal Danish Geographical Society sent a letter thanking the British Government, particularly mentioning the valuable assistance given to Raunkiær by two British Political Agents, Shakespear at Kuwait, and Lorimer at Bahrain. An India Office minute records that after all the obstacles the British had placed in the way of the Danes it was ‘a little embarrassing’ to be thanked in that way, and in the circumstances there seemed to be nothing for it but ‘to put on the best face we can’.

Part of Captain Shakespear’s report on Barclay Raunkiær, 9 March 1912.

Part of Captain Shakespear’s report on Barclay Raunkiær, 9 March 1912. It was ‘regrettable’ that the Government of India had not made their objections known sooner - IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 42. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The British Government wanted to know what help, exactly, Lorimer and Shakespear had given the expedition. Lorimer was quickly exonerated, but Shakespear was forced to explain that he had given the Dane his ‘good offices’ and permitted the Sheikh of Kuwait to assist the expedition because instructions to the contrary had not arrived in time. He had also thought that Raunkiær’s limited mapping skills showed he was more of a botanist than a geographer, and he had satisfied himself that Raunkiær was not acting on behalf of either the Turks or the Germans.

Raunkiær himself, weakened by his exertions, died in Copenhagen in 1915. He was 25.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archivist British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership 

London, British Library, File 1202/1912 'Arabia:- Travellers. Capt. F. F Hunter. Herr Runkiar (Danish Expedition). Capt Shakespear.'. IOR/L/PS/10/259.
Barclay Raunkiaer, Through Wahhabiland on Camelback (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1969).
See also: Desert Encounter: Knud Holmboe 



11 November 2016

The British Legion’s Fundraising in the Age of Empire

The British Legion was founded on 15 May 1921 with a mission, in its own words, ‘to care for those who had suffered as a result of service in the Armed Forces during the [First World] war, whether through their own service or through that of a husband, father or son.’  The first Poppy Day was held on this day, ninety-five years ago, on 11 November 1921.

Detail of the British Legion’s letterhead with red poppies in use in the 1930s

Detail of the British Legion’s letterhead in use in the 1930s. CC BY NC

Then, as now, poppies were made by war veterans, for sale to the general public in both Britain and across the British Empire (and later, the Commonwealth).  In its formative years, the Legion’s work was solely preoccupied with those that had served in the First World War.  Money raised by the sale of poppies was spent on a variety of programmes, including towards the relief of distress, the provision of employment and housing for ex-servicemen, tuberculosis treatment, pensions, and financial assistance toward the migration of ex-servicemen to Britain’s ‘dominions’.


  Poppy Day supplies order form, 1934

Poppy Day supplies order form, 1934. IOR/R/15/2/1558, f 17. Creative Commons Licence


A number of files in the India Office Records, held at the British Library and presently being digitised as part of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership, give a flavour of the British Legion’s global reach and fundraising efforts between the First and Second World Wars. The records show how the organisation tapped into Britain’s network of colonial administrators to extend their activities to the furthest flung corners of Britain’s empire, including to the shores of the Persian Gulf. The Legion designated administrators such as the Political Agent at Bahrain as Organisers, who were responsible for coordinating the mail order and sale of poppy merchandising in areas under their jurisdiction.

As an Organiser, the Bahrain Political Agent received regular correspondence from the British Legion throughout the 1930s, enclosing, amongst other things: gramophone records containing a personal appeal by the Legion’s then patron, the Prince of Wales; ‘talkie’ films featuring footage of the Cenotaph and war cemeteries in France; brochures; magazines; and mail order forms for leaflets, poppies, wreaths, badges, posters, and poppy ‘mascots’ for cars and motorcycles. The British Legion also sent forms to administrators requesting details of local towns and villages, and ‘any districts where a Poppy Day is not organised’, so that further British communities might be reached.


  ‘Poppy Day World Map’, 1947
‘Poppy Day World Map’, 1947. IOR/R/15/2/1559, ff 78-79. Creative Commons Licence


Correspondence between the British Legion and Britain’s Political Agent at Bahrain reveals that, prior to 1938, poppies were not sold on the islands, the Political Agent explaining that ‘their sale would not be appropriate in the circumstances in Bahrain.’ Collections were, however, raised amongst the islands’ expatriate community, which had grown in size significantly by the late 1930s, thanks to the large numbers of American and Indian employees working for the Bahrain Petroleum Company.


  Haig Fund (British Legion) poppy wreaths for order
Haig Fund (British Legion) poppy wreaths for order, 1938. IOR/R/15/2/1558, f 98. Creative Commons Licence


The start of the Second World War in 1939 marked the point at which the British Legion began to raise funds for those affected by present, as well as historic conflicts. As its letterheads in the first years of the new war made clear, ‘war increases our responsibilities.’ The ‘time is rapidly approaching’ wrote the Legion’s secretary in March 1940, ‘when the claims from this new category of Ex-Service man will assume serious proportions'.

  'War increases our responsibilities' - extract from a British Legion letter, dated December 1939
Extract from a British Legion letter, dated December 1939. IOR/R/15/2/1558, f 132. Creative Commons Licence


Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project

British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
British Library, London, ‘File 16/48 I Corr. re: Earl Haig’s Appeal Fund (Poppy Day)’ (IOR/R/15/2/1558)
British Library, London, ‘File 16/48 II Correspondence regarding Earl Haig’s appeal fund (poppy day )’ (IOR/R/15/2/1559)
British Library, London, ‘File No 20/7 Ceremonials and Honours. Armistice day’ (IOR/R/15/2/1672)
James Fox “Poppy Politics: Remembrance of Things Present” in Constantine Sandis (ed) Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice (Cambridge Open Book Publishers, 2014) Google Books



09 November 2016

Archives seeking refuge

After the Japanese invasion of Thailand in 1941, just before the Thai Government declared war on Britain and the United States on 25 January 1942, 22 cases containing the archives of the British Legation in Bangkok were removed. A similar thing happened to the 84 boxes containing the archives of the British Embassy in China for the years 1931-1939, which went from Beijing to Nanjing and, in 1941, were also removed for safe custody during the war.


Japanese troops at Singapore 1942

Japanese troops at Singapore 1942 Wikimedia Commons


Confidential documents were said to have been destroyed, and then the boxes containing the two archives were carefully sent to Singapore in 1941. 

Note on the Peking Embassy archives

IOR/L/PS/12/716, f 34 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

But this wasn’t a safe choice. Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, and the two archives were shipped to India shortly afterwards. The archives remained in Calcutta until the end of the war and, after Indian Independence in 1947, they were sent to the Foreign Office Library in London, in 1948, as part of the process of transferring records to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British government.

  Note on the Peking Embassy archives
IOR/L/PS/12/716, f 29  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The file IOR/L/PS/12/716, part of the India Office Records and digitised for the Qatar Foundation Partnership, contains the correspondence telling the story of these two archives. Arrangements for the shipping and costs of the transport and storage are described in the file.

The exact content of the cases wasn’t known at the time.
There is a letter from the Foreign Office Librarian in 1948, saying that the content of the boxes was unknown to him and, at the purpose of shipping back to Bangkok the files which were less than 20 years old and were therefore considered current, he should have opened the boxes, or shipped the entire archives back to Thailand instead.

  Letter from Foreign Office Librarian in 1948
IOR/L/PS/12/716, f 33 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

We can guess that these archives ended up staying in London. The archives of the HM Legation in Bangkok and of the HM Embassy in China should now be available for public consultation at The National Archives in Kew.

Valentina Mirabella
Archival Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership 

Tweet @miravale

Qatar Digital Library


07 November 2016

Pay and living conditions of Indian seamen

In November 1942, the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery received a report from Sir Azizul Huque, High Commissioner for India in the United Kingdom, on the low pay and poor living conditions of Indian seamen serving in the British Merchant Navy. The very interesting report and subsequent correspondence on the issues are contained within a file in the India Office Records.

Extract from a report by Azizul Huque

Extract from a report by Azizul Huque, IOR/L/E/8/4755 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Sir Azizul Huque’s report exposed the poor living conditions in Liverpool and Glasgow in which Indian seamen were obliged to live. He visited Glasgow in July 1942, and found a hostel recently constructed by the Missions to Seamen which he described as excellent, and a private boarding house named Alley’s Boarding House was regarded as acceptable. However, one common lodging house named Norfolk House was described as extremely unsatisfactory. This was due to Muslim seamen having to cook their food close to where ham and bacon were cooked by other lodgers. This was a cause of considerable grievance, as was the poor standard of cleanliness and sanitary arrangements.  Sir Azizul brought this to the attention of the Ministry of War Transport who arranged for the Indian seamen to be removed to approved boarding houses.

Sir Azizul also enclosed a report on a visit to Liverpool by Mr Tomlinson, Chairman of the Ministry of Labour Seamen’s Welfare Board, to inspect the seamen’s lodgings there. The conditions at the house at Trinity Place, Springfield were described as abominable,” a veritable rabbit warren for human beings”. Another house in the city was stated to be deplorable, and in such a state that it would be impossible to make it satisfactory, badly overcrowded and dirty, with a vile atmosphere. It was recommended that the system of farming out boarders by the steamship companies should stop, and a seaman’s hostel for Indian seamen should be established in keeping with the Ministry’s standards.

There were over 30,000 Indian seamen in the British Merchant Navy at that time, forming almost one-fifth of its total strength, and yet they received lower wages than either Chinese or British seamen. In 1942, an Indian seaman received wages of £4 1s per month compared to £16 15s for Chinese seamen and £22 12s 6d for European seamen. The official explanation given for this in an internal India Office note was that they were inefficient compared to Chinese and British seamen, and that the standard of living in the villages where Indian seamen came from was very low, and so despite being poorly paid they were still better off than their fellow villagers.

Letter from Ernest Bevin to Leo Amery

Letter from Ernest Bevin to Leo Amery, IOR/L/E/8/4755 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The rest of the file contains some fascinating correspondence detailing attempts by Sir Azizul Huque, Ernest Bevin, the then Minister for Labour and National Service, and others to improve the wages received by India seamen in order to bring them more into line with other seamen in the Merchant Navy. As Bevin pointed out to Amery in a letter of 1st September 1945, “these men are enduring all the risks and hardships of the sea for us and … we are withholding from them the financial recognition which is being accorded to all other sailors, both white and coloured”.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
File C&O 79/46 Part B - Conditions of Employment of Indian Seamen, Sep 1944-Apr 1947 [Reference IOR/L/E/8/4755]