Untold lives blog

24 June 2021

Precedence of British officials and their wives in 19th century India

In 1843 Captain Christopher Simpson Maling of the Bengal Army asked the authorities about the precedence of his wife in Indian society.  Her name had been omitted from the table of precedence.  Jane Wemyss Maling was the daughter of Hon. Leveson Granville Keith Murray of the Madras Civil Service and the granddaughter of the Earl of Dunmore.

The government replied to Captain Maling that it had never interfered to regulate claims based on a statute of precedence in England.  A copy of the correspondence was sent to the East India Company Court of Directors in London.  In July 1844 a despatch to India from the directors stated that it would be perfectly correct for the government in Calcutta to decide the relative rank of ladies based on Royal Warrants and accompanying orders.  The Warrant under which the relative ranks of people in India was to be determined was dated 28 June 1841, and it specifically addressed the rank of ladies having precedence in England.  The directors anticipated that there would be no difficulty in deciding any question that might arise.  Ranks of people not mentioned in the Warrant should be regulated by general custom as decided by the Governor General in Council.

The same question of precedence was raised in 1846 by Hew Drummond Elphinstone Dalrymple, Acting Chief Magistrate and Superintendent of Police at Madras.  His wife Helenora Catherine was the daughter of Major General Sir John Heron Maxwell, Baronet of Springkell, Dumfries.  Dalrymple asked whether the daughter of a baronet was divested of her hereditary place and precedence on arriving in India, or did she fall under the last clauses of the Royal Warrant?  The Government of Fort St George consulted Calcutta and were told that the clause in the Royal Warrant applied.  This stated: ‘All Ladies to take place according to the rank assigned to their respective husbands, with the exception of ladies having precedence in England, who are to take place according to their several ranks, with reference to such precedence, after the wives of the members of council at the presidencies in India’.

Order of Precedence by Royal Warrant 28 June 1841 Continuation of Order of Precedence by Royal Warrant 28 June 1841Order of Precedence by Royal Warrant 28 June 1841 -  East-India Register and Army List 1846

The order of precedence specified by the Royal Warrant of 1841 was published in the East-India Register and Army List.  At the top of the list was the Governor General, followed by the Deputy Governor of Bengal, and the Governors of Madras, Bombay and Agra.  Then came the chief justices and bishops, followed by the commanders-in-chief; members of the different Councils; judges; and naval military and law officers.  Civilians were divided into six classes, and the military were ranked according to date of commission.  There were also stipulations for the relative rank of naval and medical personnel compared with military officers.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/F/4/2266 File 115085 Precedence of wives in India 1840s


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