Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

8 posts from February 2023

28 February 2023

Dr David Price – JMW Turner’s Physician

Dr David Price (1787-1870) was the son of a Welsh clergyman.  After qualifying, he initially practised in the East End of London and then in 1826 moved for health reasons to Margate, a seaside town in Kent.

Print of engraving of Margate Pier'Margate Pier' by Benjamin Thomas Pouncy published London 1807 - British Library shelfmark: Maps K.Top.17.4.i. BL flickr

Price became a well-known and highly respected practitioner who gave his services to the local board of health, the town council, and the National Hospital for Scrofula (or Royal Sea-Bathing Infirmary).  He was described as ‘painstaking, earnest, and able, inspiring confidence by his manly bearing and pleasing manners, and extracting from all who knew him much reverence for his thorough honesty and uprightness’.

David Price - newspaper article about a presentation for his work as Chairman of local board of health in MargatePresentation of a silver inkstand to Dr David Price in recognition of his services as chairman of the Margate Local Board of Health - South Eastern Gazette 9 February 1858 British Newspaper Archive

Price lived with his family at Hoopers Hill House, in Northdown Road Margate, and worked on anatomy and dissections in nearby Gloucester House.

JMW Turner was a regular visitor to Margate throughout his life.  As well as being a popular leisure resort, Margate was also known for its health benefits.  Turner was sent to school in Margate as a precaution against diseases such as cholera.   In later years, Turner would visit Margate regularly from London by steamship to relax and recuperate, painting many scenes of the stunning sunsets and maritime scenes he enjoyed.  He often stayed at a boarding house on the seafront near the harbour with widow Sophia Booth. Turner and Mrs Booth eventually had a relationship that would last until the end of his life.

In the spring of 1832, there was an outbreak of cholera in Margate. Sophia took special care of Turner at this time, particularly as both her husband and son had succumbed to the disease.  Though Turner had a reputable London physician, Sophia introduced him to David Price.  Sophia trusted and knew Price well, as he had acted as executor of her husband and son’s wills, and she had asked him to look after her inheritance.

From 1845, now in his 70s, Turner’s health started to decline.  He and Sophia increasingly relied on Dr Price for nursing and medication to aid recovery.  Turner became a very good friend of Price, who called him ‘Mr Mallard’.  In 1846, Sophia and Turner moved to Chelsea in London. When Turner caught cholera, they rushed back to Margate for the dedicated support of Dr Price. Turner survived and went to recuperate at Deal, where Price continued to visit.

Shortly before Turner’s death in December 1851, Price diagnosed heart disease.  Turner then succumbed again to cholera.  Price travelled from Margate to see Turner in Chelsea on 18 December.  His friend died the next day.

Price attended Turner’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, riding in one of the mourning coaches.

Newspaper report of funeral of JMW TurnerReport of JMW Turner’s funeral Express (London) 31 December 1851 British Newspaper Archive

Turner left an unpaid bill of more than £500 owed to Price, who took the executors to court to get it paid.

Dr Price died in 1870 at the age of 83 in the Margate house he had lived in since 1826.  His death notice in the East Kent Gazette outlined his valuable services to the town beyond his medical duties.

Newspaper death notice for David PriceDeath notice for Dr David Price - East Kent Gazette 11 June 1870 British Newspaper Archive

David Price is buried in the family vault at Margate Cemetery.  His sons Peter Charles, David Simpson, and William Preston followed their father into the medical profession.

Photograph of family vault of Dr David Price in MargateFamily vault of David Price in Margate Cemetery - photograph by author

Alison Shuttle
Independent researcher
Volunteer steward and guide at Turner’s House, Twickenham

Further reading:
Dr David Price from Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows Royal College of Surgeons
British Newspaper Archive
Franny Moyle, Turner; The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of JMW Turner (2016)
Stephen Channing, Turner’s Margate through contemporary eyes – the Viney Letters (2009)
For more information on cholera in Margate, there is a fascinating account found in the files of Margate Local History
JMW Turner and Sophia Booth

Turner's House

Turner’s restored house in Twickenham is open to visitors.

23 February 2023

'Stay Put' - Second World War Ephemera

Harold Wilberforce-Bell was born on 17 November 1885, and joined the Indian Army in 1905.  He had a long distinguished career, mostly in the Indian Political Service as either assistant resident, resident or political agent in several parts of India including Kolhapur, Kathiawar, Bhopal, and the Punjab States, as well as Aden.  Wilberforce-Bell was also an author and wrote books on the history of Kathiawar, the Marathi language and poets, and on his experiences during the First World War.  During his life, he filled eight volumes of scrapbooks with a wide variety of printed ephemera relating to the many events he attended, such as invitations, programmes, tickets and menus.

 Programme for Howden & District Weapons Week Programme for Howden & District Weapons Week Mss Eur G57/11

Programme for Hull, Haltenham & District Warship Week.Programme for Hull, Haltenham & District Warship Week Mss Eur G57/11

In 1939, Wilberforce-Bell retired to England, but continued to keep up his scrapbooks.  The volume for the early 1940s contains much of interest for the Second World War, including Red Cross sales and fund raising events, sales of work, British Legion lectures, programmes for the Howden & District Weapons Week and the Hull, Haltenham & District Warship Week.

Ticket for Red Cross DemonstrationTicket for Red Cross Demonstration Mss Eur G57/11

Sale of work, Eastrington Village Hall AssociationSale of work, Eastrington Village Hall Association Mss Eur G57/11

In particular, there are two Government information leaflets issued by the Ministry of Home Security instructing people what to do in the event of invasion.  The first leaflet, titled ‘If the Invader Comes, what to do – and how to do it’, lists the actions civilians must take if Britain were invaded by Germany.

Leaflet - If The Invader Comes

'If the Invader Comes, what to do – and how to do it’ Mss Eur G57/11.

  1. Remain where you are, ‘The order is Stay Put’.
  2. Do not believe rumours and do not spread them.
  3. Keep watch and report anything suspicious to the nearest authority.
  4. Do not give any German anything – food, bicycles and maps were to be hidden; cars and motorbikes were to be put out of action; and garage proprietors needed to have a plan to protect stocks of petrol.
  5. Be ready to help the Military in any way.
  6. In factories and workshops, all managers and workers were to organise some system by which a sudden attack could be resisted.
  7. Think before you act, but think always of your country before you think of yourself.

Leaflet 'Stay Where You Are''Stay Where You Are' Mss Eur G57/11

The second leaflet, titled ‘Stay Where You Are’, reinforces the order to ‘Stay Put’, explaining that in France, Belgium and Holland the German Army had been helped by civilians blocking roads as they tried to flee from danger.  It warns, ‘If you do not stay put you will stand a very good chance of being killed’, and cautions that British soldiers will be too busy fighting the invader to help fleeing civilians.  To prepare everyone was advised to make ready an air raid shelter and to set a good example to others.  If fighting was to come to their area, they were not to engage the enemy but to seek safety in their shelter, although it was still ‘the right of every man and woman to do what you can to protect yourself, your family and your home’.  Those wishing to fight were encouraged to enrol in the Home Guard.  The leaflet ends ‘Stay Put. It’s easy to say.  When the time comes it may be hard to do. But you have got to do it; and in doing it you will be fighting Britain’s battle as bravely as a soldier’.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Papers of Lt-Col Sir Harold Wilberforce-Bell, Indian Army 1905, Indian Political Service 1910-40: Scrapbook, 20 May 1938-24 Dec 1944, shelfmark Mss Eur G57/11.

A brief summary of his service record can be found in The India Office and Burma Office List, 1940, page 641.

A list of books written by Harold Wilberforce-Bell: Explore the British Library.


21 February 2023

Well-being and living conditions in tropical climates

The India Office Economic Department series of annual files contains much interesting material, for example IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 of 1920: ‘Research bearing upon the well-being and conditions of lives of natives and residents of the United Kingdom in the tropical climates’.  The file includes correspondence between departments and the conclusions of the research ‘Note on Housing in the Tropics’ by Andrew Balfour and ‘Notes on Tropical Climate and Health’ by Leonard Hill, 20 March 1920.

The research notes demonstrate that there are already strategies in place that the locals use to cope with the heat and humidity such as sirdabs or tykhanas, i.e. underground chambers.  However, they are ‘not bearable to the European’ because the air remains stagnated unless there is an electric operating punkah, a ceiling cloth fan.

Mrs Gladstone Lingham reading under a punkah in a comfortably furnished room at Berhampore.Mrs Gladstone Lingham reading under a punkah in a comfortably furnished room at Berhampore WD2904 (1863) British Library Images Online

Therefore, the goal of the document is to look for the best choices in house orientation, design, construction and hygiene.  The authors make clear that regional variations should be taken into consideration when implementing the suggestions, mostly regarding proximity to the Equator, proximity to the sea and humidity.

The recommendations involve having a good water and food supply, effective waste disposal and choosing light colours.  In terms of construction, it is important to bear in mind the direction of prevailing winds and how close the building needs to be to other buildings and settlements.  The building should sit in permeable and clean soil, if possible it should be elevated and have good natural drainage, good circulation of air and plenty of light, and far from large bodies of water to avoid excessive humidity.

Andrew Balfour compares the existing construction materials and presents the available advantages and disadvantages of concrete and cement in comparison with wood and the common mixture of mud and manure. He suggests ‘double walls’ with thin inner and outer layers made of cement with the space between filled with sand or asphalt to be heat and vermin proof.

He stresses the importance of shades and verandas, of high ceilings with openings to release the hot air and to leave some space between the roof and the ceiling that is ventilated and has screened openings to avoid vermin.

He also sees the benefit of sleeping in hammocks on the roof for the early risers.

Section of report about the benefit of sleeping in hammocks on the roofIOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 - Report, p.5.

Leonard Hill notes call attention to the importance of health to cope with the climate.

Notes on the dangers of mosquitoes  IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 - The dangers of mosquitoes, Hill's notes, p. 1.

He points out the importance of appropriate clothing, diet and exercise, since the weather might influence metabolism.

Notes on a tropical dietIOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 - tropical diet, Hill's notes, p.1.

The subject of alcohol consumption is brought up both in the report and notes as ‘club life’ might become a problem.

Notes on club life IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 - club life, Hill's notes, p.6.

He also advocates for the health benefits of a good tan.

Notes on the benefits of a sun tan IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 - sun tan, Hill's notes, p.6.

Although the reports present interesting ideas, both for mitigating tropical infectious diseases and for a better adaptation of people, European or otherwise, to tropical climate, the Medical Adviser disregarded the documents saying ‘there is nothing here which promises to be of any assistance to India’.

Extract from the Medical Adviser's report  15 May 1920. IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1264 - Medical Adviser's report, 15 May 1920.

Bianca Miranda Cardoso
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further reading:
The IOR/L/E/7 collection consists of 1567 volumes that bind the Annual Files of the Departments of:
• Revenue, Statistics and Commerce, 1882-1887
• Revenue and Statistics, 1887-1921
• Commerce and Revenue, 1921-1924; Economic and Overseas, 1924-1929.

Adaptation to different climate conditions has been mentioned in previous Untold Lives blog posts -
Severe weather hits Britain in January 1763 

Indian soldiers’ views of England during World War I sharing natives of India’s comments on the mostly wet and cloudy British weather.


16 February 2023

An early Union Flag on a Bombay document

Would it surprise you that there is an early representation of a Union Flag on a pass issued in Bombay in 1684?

Bombay, now known as Mumbai, became an English colony on 11 May 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II.  On 27 March 1668, the King leased Bombay to the East India Company for an annual rent of £10.  By 1683 dissatisfaction with the Company’s rule culminated in a rebellion, with Bombay’s inhabitants appointing Captain Richard Keigwin to govern on behalf of Charles II.  Keigwin issued passes to local merchants allowing them to trade outside the Company’s monopoly as part of his policy to encourage economic growth in Bombay.

Pass issued by Richard Keigwin for the ship Tiger  owned by ‘Monnock Parsee’  Bombay  with impression of ‘His Majestie’s Union Seale’Pass issued by Richard Keigwin for the ship  Tiger,owned by ‘Monnock Parsee’, Bombay, with impression of ‘His Majestie’s Union Seale’- British Library IOR/E/3/43 f. 323 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A pass for ‘Monnock Parsee’ and ‘Pendia Pattell’ sailing aboard the Tiger was issued at Fort Bombay on 6 January 1684.  Valid for one year, it was signed by Governor Keigwin on behalf of Charles II.  It requested ship commanders and British subjects allow the Tiger and its passengers ‘to passe without seizure, molestation or trouble, nor offering any abuse or incivility'.  The pass carries an impression of His Majesty’s ‘Union Seale’ in addition to the signatures of Keigwin and his secretary.

Impression of ‘His Majestie’s Union Seale’Impression of ‘His Majestie’s Union Seale’ - British Library IOR/E/3/43 f. 323  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The seal’s design includes a large flag comprising the saltire of St Andrew and cross of St George denoting the union of England and Scotland.  Informally combined from 24 March 1603 onwards after the accession of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne as James I, this was not a legal and political reality until the 1707 Act of Union.  Nevertheless, a Royal decree on 12 April 1606 ordered the creation of a Union Flag for display on the main topmast of English and Scottish vessels.   Various design iterations fell in and out of fashion throughout the 17th century.  With flags being termed ‘jacks’ in the maritime world, such Union Flags acquired the nickname ‘Union Jack'.  Becoming the national flag of the United Kingdom from 1707 onwards, our current design has been in use since 1801.

Richard Scott Morel
Curator, British Library’s Philatelic Collections

Further reading:
Digital images of East India Company ‘Original Correspondence’ in the series IOR/E/3 are available via AM’s East India Company resource, free to access in British Library reading rooms.


14 February 2023

Sir Charles Raymond of Valentines

Sir Charles Raymond was born in 1713 near Exmouth in Devon and made his fortune with the East India Company.  He was started on a career at sea by his uncle, Hugh Raymond, who engaged him as purser on the Dawsonne 1729/30.  The majority of voyages undertaken by ships for the East India Company can be traced using the magnificent archive of journals kept at the British Library, but there is no journal for Raymond’s first voyage, only a ledger.  The voyage took a year longer than might be expected, lasting from 10 February 1730-15 August 1732.  The journal of the Derby, also managed by Hugh Raymond, explains why.

Having completed business in Madras, the Dawsonne proceeded to Calcutta where the cargo was unloaded.  Then in October orders were received that the Dawsonne was to spend a year guarding the Hugli River in company with the Derby, protecting other shipping from the threat of the Ostend vessels.  There were only a couple of possible threats during that time, but the simple task of keeping safe a ship manoeuvred by sail was not easy in waters which were so silted.  On 10 October 1731 the Frances arrived to relieve the Dawsonne allowing her to return to Calcutta to prepare for the voyage home.

Painting of Sir Charles Raymond in a white wig and brown coat, with landscape in the backgroundPortrait of Sir Charles Raymond. The location of the original portrait and the copyright status of this image are unknown. Please contact [email protected] with any information you have regarding this item.

Raymond then became 3rd Mate on the Princess of Wales 1732/3.  For his third voyage Hugh Raymond arranged for Charles (then aged 21) to serve as Captain of the Wager and he continued in this role for three more voyages.  Charles Raymond was lucky in that although he lost many of his crew to sickness, he did not have any major enemy encounters and his voyages were relatively routine.  He made six voyages to India and it seems likely the Raymond family had contacts in Calcutta where they could maximise their trading opportunities.

Raymond retired in 1747 a wealthy man and took up a business career in the City of London.  His main concern was in managing voyages for the East India Company.  He was one of the leaders in this for the remaining 40 years of his life, responsible for well over 110 voyages by East Indiamen.  He also became one of the managers of the Sun Fire Office, where his colleagues were men who had power and influence in the City and the commitment was a very shrewd career move.  He became involved in other City financial concerns as well as serving several charitable organisations such as becoming a Governor of the Hospitals of Bridewell and Bethlem.  In 1771 Raymond became one of the founders of a bank and 1774 he was created a baronet.  He was said to be ‘universally respected’ as an old man and he died on 24 August 1788 leaving a fortune to his two surviving daughters.

View of Valentines Mansion from A New and Complete History of Essex by a Gentleman 1771Valentines, the seat of Charles Raymond, from A New and Complete History of Essex by a Gentleman, 1771

As well as a home and offices in the City, Raymond purchased Valentines in Essex in 1754 as a country retreat for his family.  Several of his relatives and associates came to live nearby and Ilford became quite a hub of retired East India captains who were partners in managing ships, insurance and banking.  Raymond’s home is now owned by the London Borough of Redbridge and one room has been enhanced by the Friends of Valentines Mansion to reflect Raymond’s life.

Valentines MansionValentines Mansion today - photograph by the author

Georgina Green
Independent researcher

Creative Commons Attribution licence

Further reading:
Anthony Farrington, Catalogue of East India Company Ships’ Journals and Logs 1600 – 1834.
BL, IOR/L/MAR/B/671D Ledger of Dawsonne, 1729/30; BL, IOR/L/MAR/B/653G Journal of Derby, 1729/30.
Obituaries for Charles Raymond - Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London) 1 December 1787; Gentleman’s Magazine Vol.58 (1788) p.758 & p.834.
History of Valentines Mansion 

Valentines Mansion is open to the public on Sundays and Mondays, 10.30am – 4pm, free of charge. 


09 February 2023

Peritas - Alexander the Great’s dog

Most people have heard of Alexander the Great or his teacher Aristotle.  Many have heard of Alexander’s warhorse Bucephalus, a horse so beloved that Alexander named a city, Bucephala, after him.  How many people can tell the tale of Alexander’s dog?  Who can name that Good Boy?

Little is known about Alexander’s dog ownership.  He may well have had more than one dog but the canine companion who is most frequently mentioned in the myths and legends that surround his master is Peritas.

If Plutarch is to be believed, Alexander reared Peritas from a puppy and the bond between the two was so strong that when Peritas died he was honoured in the same way as Bucephalus.  Alexander named a city after him. (Plutarch, Lives, 61.1).

We don’t know what breed of dog Peritas was, we don’t know what Peritas’ coat looked like, we don’t know if he enjoyed a game of Fetch.  All we know about that dog’s appearance comes from Pliny who recorded that Alexander was gifted a dog which was unusually large (Pliny, Natural Histories, 8.149).

A dog, a lion and an elephant walk into an arena… This may sound like a riddle or the beginning of a Christmas cracker joke but it’s actually one of the best known stories about Peritas.  Or the dog often believed to be Peritas.

According to Pliny (Pliny, NH, 8.149), Alexander was gifted his dog by the King of Albania.  Alexander was told by the King to test the ability of this dog by sending the dog into a battle with a lion or an elephant.  Alexander did just that.  The dog immediately killed the lion and then defeated the elephant by biting it in strategic places and causing the elephant to spin around and around until it was too dizzy to stand.

Alexander watching a battle between a dog  a lion and an elephantAlexander watching a battle between a dog, a lion and an elephant, C.107.k.7.

Aelian tells a slightly different version of the tale.  He tells of a ‘hound which can boast a tiger for a father’ that would not fight a deer, nor a boar; it only leapt into action when it saw a lion.  Aelian records that Alexander was so amazed by that dog that he was gifted dogs of this breed by the people of India (Aelian, On the Nature of Animals, 8.1).

Alexander receiving the gift of a dog; a dog battle against a lion and an elephantAlexander receiving the gift of a dog; a dog battle against a lion and an elephant, Royal MS 20 B XX, f.41v

Do we know for certain that the dogs in these stories were Peritas?  No, but perhaps they were.  Perhaps Peritas really was a dog so incredible he deserved to have a city named for him.  Or perhaps Peritas is merely one of the many myths that has grown up around Alexander the Great in the 2,300 years of storytelling that surrounds the historical man.  To discover more of the myths and legends surrounding Alexander the Great, visit our exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, closing on 19 February 2023.  Alternatively, explore our website.

Yrja Thorsdottir
Digital Content Exhibition Curator

Further reading:
Affective Relations and Personal Bonds in Hellenistic Antiquity. United Kingdom, Oxbow Books, 2020.


07 February 2023

The will of Chaund Bebee or Bebee Shore

Whilst researching in the India Office Records I came across the will of Chaund Bebee, commonly known as Bebee Shore.  Chaund Bebee was described as a single woman and a ‘Mussulmannee’ who died on 17 July 1836 at Entally, a suburb of Calcutta.  The will, dated 9 January 1836, shows that she was the mother of the India-born ‘natural’ children of John Shore, who became Governor General of Bengal and later Baron Teignmouth.  Biographers of Shore mention his Indian mistress and her children but none appear to have discovered her identity.

Beginning of will of Chaund Bebee or Bebee Shore

Will of Chaund Bebee, commonly called Bebee Shore, British Library IOR/L/AG/29/58

Chaund Bebee stated that she had lived in Calcutta for the past 56 years.  She owned a number of houses in Entally and in Hastings Place Calcutta, as well as a piece of land in Chuckerbear in Panchanogram near Calcutta. Half of this land was to be retained as a place for her burial with a monument.

The only one of her four children by John Shore mentioned in the will is George Shore, born in 1785.  Chaund Bebee said that her son George had recently obtained an increase of fortune and was well off in the world.  He therefore did not need any pecuniary gift or legacy from her, but she left him a ring which had belonged to his father, the late Lord Teignmouth. She asked him to wear it as a testimony of her natural love and affection. Her daughter Eliza Cordelia Sheriff would point out the ring to George.

Eliza Cordelia was the daughter of Chaund Bebee and Charles Rothman, a Calcutta businessman.  According to her baptism record, Eliza was born on 20 April 1802.  On 6 November 1815 she married James Urquhart Sherriff, who worked as an assistant in the Mint and then as a house builder.  James died in 1832.

The main beneficiaries of Chaund Bebee’s will were Eliza and her eight children, Eliza, Henrietta Rothman, James Charles, Margaret Euphemia, Robert William, Hannah Sophia, David, and George Hill.  Chaund Bebee stipulated that her property be sold and the proceeds invested for the benefit of her daughter ‘exclusively of any husband she may chance to marry who is not to intermeddle therewith’.  After Eliza’s death, the eight grandchildren were to share the interest or dividends.  Chaund Bebee’s servants were also given legacies.

Probate was granted by the Supreme Court of Judicature at Calcutta to William Upton Eddis and Eliza Cordelia Sherriff on 19 July 1836.  John Chatter swore that the will had been prepared on the instruction of Chaund Bebee, and that he had explained the contents to her in Hindustani.  She had signed each of the eleven pages of the will with her mark.

George Shore’s siblings were: John baptised 1777; Francis born c. 1781; and Martha born c. 1783.  Martha and Francis had predeceased Chaund Bebee, dying in September and November 1834 respectively.  Perhaps George’s inheritance from his brother Francis was the ‘increase of fortune’ to which Chaund Bebee referred?  Both John and George were living in London at the time of their mother’s death, although there is evidence that George was based in Bengal during the 1820s.

Future Untold Lives blog posts will look at the lives of Chaund Bebee’s children in more detail.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Will of Chaund Bebee, commonly called Bebee Shore, British Library IOR/L/AG/29/58, with an inventory of her estate IOR/L/AG/34/27/114.
Baptism of Eliza Cordelia, natural daughter of Charles Rothman, born 20 April 1802, British Library IOR/N/1/6 f.180.
Baptism of George, natural son of John Shore, born 1 July 1785, British Library IOR/N/1/4 f.52.

Digital images of these documents are available via Findmypast.



01 February 2023

George Edward Dessa: Lord Lytton’s Would-be Assassin

In a previous blog post I wrote of an assassination attempt on Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India.  I was asked if I could find out more about George Edward Dessa (sometimes written De Sa), the would-be assassin.

Contemporary press reports follow Dessa’s arrest in December 1879, his trial in 1880, and his subsequent transfer to Bhowanipore (Bhawanipur) Lunatic Asylum, as he was deemed to be mentally ill.  Press accounts paint a picture of a confused individual who held a grudge against the Government, believing it to owe him money as compensation for wrongful imprisonment.  The language used is somewhat lurid.  George appears to have stayed at Bhowanipore as a long-term patient.  Our records show that George died there of heart failure on 8 February 1913, age 68, and was buried at the Roman Catholic Military Cemetery at Fort William, Calcutta.

Burial entry for George Edward Dessa 9 February 1913Burial entry for George Edward Dessa 9 February 1913 IOR/N/1/387 page 229  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Originally a private institution, Bhowanipore was managed by the Bengal Government as an asylum for Europeans and those of European descent.  A report giving a snapshot of conditions at Bhowanipore in 1887 can be found online and Annual Reports have been digitised by the National Library of Scotland

File cover of IOR/L/PJ/6/7 File 339 ‘Case of G E Dessa: Attempted Murder of Viceroy of India and Col Sir George Colley’File cover of IOR/L/PJ/6/7 File 339 ‘Case of G E Dessa: Attempted Murder of Viceroy of India and Col Sir George Colley’  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Delving deeper, there is a file on George Dessa in the Public and Judicial Department records, which includes accounts given by his father, George Henry Dessa, and his brother William David Dessa.  What emerges is a picture of a family divided and torn by long-term mental health issues.  The father recounts how his son suffered bouts of ‘insanity’ from an early age, including hallucinations and paranoia.  Attempts to secure him work, including on the East Indian Railway, had all ended in dismissal due to ‘mental unsoundness’.  George’s last job at the Preventative Service, Customs Department, ended with him threatening to shoot his supervisor.  A brief spell in the Benares Lunatic Asylum followed.  His fixation with compensation from the Government stemmed from this ‘imprisonment’.  As well as threats to harm others, George had attempted to harm himself on at least two occasions by taking large doses of opium.  George senior describes how his son was no longer able to live with him: ‘I would not let him live with me because I was afraid of him… at times he is dangerous, but has lucid intervals’.  His brother William felt no longer able to speak to him.

Statement by William Dessa 23 December 1879Statement by William Dessa 23 December 1879 IOR/L/PJ/6/7 File 339  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It is clear from the accounts that the family firmly believed Dessa’s mental health struggles were genetic.  In the language of the day, George Henry Dessa described how his youngest (unnamed) son had died aged 12 ‘an idiot’, while his wife, Ann Elizabeth Dessa née Rogers, had also been a patient at Bhowanipore from 1849 to 1874.  Patient returns show that she was admitted on the recommendation from doctors, suffering from ‘imbecillitis’; in 1850 she is described as being in good physical health with a ‘more cheerful’ mental state.  On discharge, she went to live with her son William, who stated ‘She is harmless, but commits mischief. I keep her under lock and key at night. She would tear curtains etc. She does not know me’.  Ann died age 70 on 12 December 1888 of ‘old age’, and was buried in the cemetery attached to the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Calcutta.  Her husband predeceased her, having died at Howrah in 1881.

Burial entry for Ann Elizabeth Dessa 13 December 1888Burial entry for Ann Elizabeth Dessa 13 December 1888  IOR/N/1/206 page 380  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

We’ll share any further discoveries about the Dessa family on this blog. 

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/PJ/6/7 File 339 ‘Case of G E Dessa: Attempted Murder of Viceroy of India and Col Sir George Colley’, Feb-Mar 1880.
IOR/P/2957 Jul 1887 nos 43-49: Proposal of the Government of Bengal for providing increased accommodation in the Bhowanipore Lunatic Asylum, Jan 1887-Jul 1887.
IOR/P/14/5 nos. 44-45 Returns of public patients treated at Bhawanipur and Dullunda Asylums, 1849-50. 7 Aug 1850.
1867-1924 - Annual report of the insane asylums in Bengal - Medicine - Mental health - Medical History of British India - National Library of Scotland.
IOR/N/1/387 page 229 Burial entry for George Edward Dessa 9 February 1913 - Findmypast.
IOR/N/1/206 page 380 Burial entry for Ann Elizabeth Dessa 13 December 1888 -Findmypast.
For Bhawanipur Lunatic Asylum see Waltraud Ernst, ‘Madness and Colonial Spaces: British India, c1800-1947’ in Topp et al (eds.), Madness, Architecture and the Built Environment: Psychiatric Spaces in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2007).
Accounts of George Dessa’s arrest, arraignment and subsequent trial can be followed in newspapers such as the Madras Weekly Mail (20 Dec 1879, 31 Dec 1879), The Illustrated Police News (10 Jan 1880), The Friend of India (21 Jul 1880) and The Homeward Mail (23 Sep 1880, 1 Oct 1880) available at the British Newspaper Archive, also via Find My Past.

The Attempted Assassination of Lord Lytton: A Letter’s Story