Dr Elsie Inglis and her father John's teenage misdemeanours
Delving into the India Office collections sheds new light on the life of a First World War heroine and, more intriguingly, on her father.
The woman in question is Elsie Inglis who died 100 years ago, on 26 November 1917. She was, unquestionably, a remarkable individual. Not only was she prominent in the suffragist struggle, but having qualified as a doctor in 1892 during the First World War she went out to Serbia with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. Undaunted by the patronising attitude of the War Office and a typhus epidemic, after Serbia was invaded in the autumn of 1915 she found herself interned and repatriated. Nevertheless she returned to the fray the following year leading a medical unit in southern Russia and Romania. In April 1916 she became the first woman to be awarded the Serbian Order of the White Eagle.
Image from Dr Elsie Inglis by Lady Frances Balfour (1918) Wellcome Collection
What is less well known is the fact that she was born in Naini Tal, India, on 16 August 1864. Her father John Forbes David Inglis had been posted to India as an East India Company writer in 1841, marrying Elsie’s mother Harriet in Agra on 7 February 1846. ‘Elsie’ was not, in fact, her real Christian name, as the church register entry shows that she was baptised ‘Eliza Maude’ on 12 October.
A small cache of letters in the private papers collection however, shows that Mr Inglis very nearly didn't make it to India. On 29 May 1839 the Principal of the East India College at Haileybury, Charles Le Bas, wrote to his father:
'It is with unfeigned grief that I have to announce to you, that we have been under the afflicting necessity of rusticating your son for the remainder of the present term. You will doubtless recollect that, on a former occasion (Nov. 1838), I had the painful duty of inflicting on him … a solemn Reprimand & Admonition, for joining a late, and very turbulent party, by which much mischief was done, and several students greatly annoyed and molested. His recent offence is, that … he dined at an Inn at Hoddesdon, and returned to College in a state of very questionable sobriety … '.
The reply penned by Inglis Senior has not survived, but the Principal’s letter of 1 June shows that he was very reluctant to expel the young man:
'That the intelligence, which it was my misfortune to communicate, has "cut you to the heart" I can most readily understand. For, there is no hypocrisy in saying, that it has had almost the same effect upon my Colleagues and myself! … I do most ardently hope that your son will return to us, impressed with the necessity, - and, let me add, with the facility, of avoiding , in future, all such trifling with his own good, and with your peace of mind … '.
Clearly his elders and betters made young Inglis see the error of his ways, otherwise Elsie might never have been born!
Asian & African Studies Reference Services
Leah Leneman, In the service of life: the story of Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (Edinburgh, 1994) – shelfmark YK.1995.b.6352
Margot Lawrence, Shadow of swords: a biography of Elsie Inglis (London, 1971) shelfmark – X.329/4826)
IOR/N/1/110 f.76 – baptism of Eliza Maude Inglis available online via findmypast
IOR/J/1/57 ff.213-230 - East India College papers of John Forbes David Inglis available online via findmypast
IOR/N/1/69f.44 - marriage of John Forbes David Inglis to Harriet Lowis Thompson available online via findmypast
India Office Private Papers - Mss.Eur.B164 Davis Deas Inglis Papers