Untold lives blog

2 posts from August 2022

04 August 2022

Soldiers’ gardens in India

There were two kinds of soldiers’ gardens in British India: regimental and company.  Regimental gardens were worked by the men for fixed rates of pay, or by local people under supervision, and they supplied vegetables for the military commissariat department or the local market.  They were situated at a convenient distance from the barracks.  Company gardens were worked solely by the soldiers for their own amusement and benefit, and they were located in the immediate vicinity of the barracks.

Plan of proposed site for a soldiers’ garden at Rangoon 1850s

Plan of proposed site for a soldiers’ garden at Rangoon, surveyed by John Richard Magrath, Madras Artillery, 1850s - British Library IOR/W/F/4/2648/172549 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

All proceeds from the sale of produce from a regimental garden were paid into a fund managed by a committee of three officers.  Working expenses were drawn from the fund – repair of tools, well gear, or walls and fences; seeds; pay for Indians to work the well.  The balance was divided between the soldiers working in the garden in proportion to their skill and industry, and the produce of their labour.  Annual accounts were accompanied by a statement giving full information about the working of the garden, the number of men employed, and the effect on their character.

The military works services ensured a sufficient water supply to irrigate the gardens.  Cattle were used to work the wells.  The ordnance department supplied garden implements at set rates.

Commanding officers submitted annual requisitions for flower and vegetable seeds to the superintendents of botanical gardens at Saharanpur, Calcutta, and Poona.  The superintendents made notes on the cover of each package of seeds – name, quantity, month for sowing.  Seed potatoes were supplied free of charge by the army commissariat.

Cash prizes for soldiers’ gardens were awarded by the government according to a scale laid down in army regulations.  The distribution was treated as a fête and a holiday for the men.  A band played and the regimental school’s children attended.  Officers were told to make a point of being present at the distribution of prizes.

When new troops moved into the barracks, regimental and company gardens were inspected, and the cost of any necessary repairs to surrounding walls, fences or tools was paid from the garden fund.  The incoming corps had to purchase the fruit trees and any crops in the ground.  One week before the march of regiment, the commissariat officer employed native gardeners to keep up the gardens.  The gardeners were discharged a week after the arrival of the new corps.

Full instructions for the cultivation of gardens in India, both in the hills and on the plains, were contained in a pamphlet written by the superintendent of the government botanical garden at Saharanpur.  Commanding officers could buy the pamphlet at the cost of one rupee per copy.

Gardens for native troops might also be sanctioned at newly occupied trans-frontier stations and remote places lacking local supplies of fresh vegetables.  In these cases, the government gave a grant of money to purchase land, tools, stock the garden with seed, and pay the wages of a mali for one year.  Commanding officers were responsible for these gardens being managed as self-supporting after the first year.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Library, IOR/L/MIL/17/5/633 Army Regulations India Vol XII Barracks (1900)

 

02 August 2022

Papers of John Frederick Macnair

A new acquisition to the India Office Private Papers has recently been catalogued and is available to researchers in the British Library’s Asian & African Studies reading room.  This is the papers of John Frederick Macnair, a partner in the firm of Begg, Dunlop & Co.

John Frederick Macnair was born on 9 August 1846 at Gourock in Scotland to James Macnair (1796-1865) and Janet Rankin (1810-1889).  In 1891, he married Veronica Charlotte Pugh (1867-1969), and they had three children: James (born 1892), John (born 1895) and Veronica (born 1902).  He died on 12 March 1908 at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

Letter home to England Letter home to England  - Mss Eur F752/1 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Begg, Dunlop & Co were managing agents in India with interests in a range of commodities such as tea, tobacco and indigo.  There is much in the collection relating to Macnair’s work with the firm, including accounts and information on tea estates, and tobacco and indigo concerns in which the firm had an interest.  Between 1870 and 1893, Macnair was based in Calcutta and the collection contains three of his copy letter books detailing his business correspondence, but also includes a few personal letters to his family in England.  In one letter to his sister Lilla, dated 17 May 1872, he roughly sketched the veranda of his house, and described the view: 'We look over the tank to the Post Office and can just see the masts of the ships & steamers in the river'. 

Letter expressing disappointment at not getting leave Letter dated 28 September 1875 expressing disappointment at not getting leave - Mss Eur F752/1 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Life in India was often not easy, and in a letter of 28 September 1875 to his employer, he expressed his disappointment at being refused leave: 'I did not think my absence would cause much inconvenience and it is a rather sore disappointment to me having to make my mind up for another twelve months in this country but I suppose there is no help for it.  After having been five years in B.D.& Co’s I feel it would be foolish for a present disappointment to throw away future prospects in the firm, though these may be remote, by a resignation now'.

Private Account BookPrivate Account Book - Mss Eur F752/13 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The collection includes his personal account book for 1877 to 1883 giving details of what he spent his money on in order to keep up the lifestyle of a British businessman in India at that time.  It lists subscriptions (hockey club, Daily Englishman newspaper, London Missionary Society), dinner and billiards at the Bengal Club, fees for the Calcutta Golf Club, carriage hire, servants wages, charitable donations, etc.

Receipts for goods purchased Receipts for goods purchased - Mss Eur F752/19 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In the early 1890s, Macnair moved back to England, and settled in Newcrofts, in Hillingdon, West London.  The collection contains fascinating material on the contents of his house giving a glimpse into how late Victorians decorated and furnished their homes.  This includes inventories of the effects and furniture in 1898, and correspondence with local builders, such as Fassnidge & Son on extensive works to improve and maintain the building.  There is also a collection of receipts from a wide array of retailers of furniture, fabrics and homeware, along with antiques dealers and carriage manufacturers.  Many of the receipts are elaborately illustrated to best advertise their business, such as for Samuel Withers, Borough Carriage Works; W E Ellis, a Scarborough net merchant; and Oetzmann & Co, cabinetmakers.  There is also a wonderfully detailed receipt from George Wright & Co, manufacturer of billiard tables, listing everything a Victorian gentleman would want for his games room.

Receipt for Billiard TableReceipt for Billiard Table - Mss Eur F752/19 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
The papers of John Frederick Macnair are searchable on Explore Archives and Manuscripts Mss Eur F752.

Begg, Dunlop & Co