Untold lives blog

04 June 2020

An unexpected letter from Sir William Foster of the India Office

Historians of the East India Company and archivists working with the India Office Records owe a debt of gratitude to Sir William Foster whose publications are an invaluable source of information for them. Foster joined the India Office in Westminster in 1882, becoming Registrar and Superintendent of Records 1907-1923, and Historiographer to the India Office 1923-1927.

Sir William FosterPhotograph of Sir William Foster (1863-1951) by Bassano Ltd 12 February 1929 courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery  NPG x81132 National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

So I was delighted when I was given a copy of Foster’s John Company as a present. 

Tilte page of 'John Company'

Title page of John Company Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The name R. A. Bell is written on the title page and there are three letters from 1945 pasted into the back of the book.  The first, dated 20 February, is addressed to Sir William Foster at his home in Mountfield Court in Hampstead from Mr Bell of Chiswick.  He was researching the older churches of London and wanted to know about the pictures of St Matthias Poplar in John Company.  Bell had visited the church last summer and found it badly knocked about by bomb blast but not beyond repair.

Bell's letter to Foster

Bell's letter to Foster 20 February 1945 - copyright resides with the heirs of  Robert Arthur Bell

Mr Bell said that he was ‘an old Anglo-Indian’ who had worked in Negapatam in the late 1880s.  His grandfather had been a collector in Trichinopoly and his great-grandfather a General in the Madras Artillery.  Bell asked if Sir William had been head assistant collector at Negapatam.

I have identified the writer as Robert Arthur Bell (1865-1949), son of Robert Courtenay Bell and his wife Clara.  Bell worked as civil engineer for the South Indian Railway in the 1880s and 90s.  He married Eveline Maud Richardson in Negapatam on 29 October 1891.  The couple had two children born in Cuddalore: Eveline Clara in February 1893 and David Courtenay in October 1894.  Sadly Eveline Clara died in December 1893 and David Courtenay was killed in 1918 whilst serving in the Royal Navy.  Robert and Eveline had returned to the UK by the time that their daughter Lavinia Courtenay was born in 1898 and they had four more children.

First page of Foster's letter to Bell

Foster's letter to Bell 23 February 1945 -  copyright resides with the heirs of Sir William Foster

Foster replied promptly on 23 February.  The verger of St Matthias had lent him a faded photograph and a pencil drawing by Miss Sexton, a local schoolmistress.  Mr Baragwanath had drawn the illustrations for the book using copies of these.

Sir William said that it was many years since he had visited St Matthias and had not realised it had suffered bomb damage.  The population of East London was estimated to have been reduced to one third of the pre-war figure and he had heard that there were plans to amalgamate parishes.  As it was very close to Poplar parish church, St Matthias might be deemed superfluous.

In answer to Bell’s question, Foster said he had never served in India.  However in 1904-1905 he had taken extended leave to visit India, a most enjoyable experience.  He had seen little of the Madras Presidency but he had known several officials based there, such as Sir Murray Hammick, Colonel Love, and Julian Cotton: ‘All these are now dead; and I myself am now in my eighty-second year and very much of a back number’.

The third letter is from Bell dated 5 March 1945. He replied that he had known Hammick, Love and Cotton whilst in India.

Our next post will focus on Sir William’s companion on his trip to India - Henry John Tozer.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
William Foster, John Company (London, 1926)
Digitised entries for baptisms, marriages and burials from the India Office Records can be seen at the British Library and via findmypast -
Marriage of Robert Arthur Bell to Eveline Maud Richardson IOR/N/2/78 f.297
Baptism of Eveline Clara Bell IOR/N/2/75 f.68
Burial of Eveline Clara Bell IOR/N/2/76 f.164
Baptism of David Courtenay Bell IOR/N/2/77 f.312 


Untold lives blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs