Untold lives blog

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25 April 2023

Mystery of a Destitute Man in London

On 17 January 1879, the India Office received a letter from a man named John Carr, who claimed to have been born in Madras, but was destitute in London and asked for help in returning to India.  The India Office regularly received such requests for help, but this case turned out to be a little more mysterious.

Letter from John CarrLetter from John Carr IOR/L/PJ/2/58, File 7/564

In his letter, Carr claimed that around the middle of July 1878, he left Madras on the ship Gainsborough bound from Pondicherry to Guadeloupe.  During the voyage he fell ill and on arrival at Guadeloupe was immediately sent to hospital.  Once recovered, he discovered that the ship had left him behind.  He was able, ‘through the kindness of the Council and other Gentlemen’ to secure a passage to London on the ship J C Watson of Plymouth, but once there was unable to get a passage on to India.  In his plea for help he wrote: ‘I am now at the end of my resources, I have walked the streets all day without food very often in search of any employment, and I have had also sometimes to walk them at night, not having the means to pay for a bed however poor or humble.  My position is truly desperate, for I can only see a prospect of starvation before me, or of succumbing to the bitter climate, to which I am wholly un-used’.  Carr asked for help in securing a passage to Madras, and even offered to work for it.

India Office Minute Paper on the case of John CarrIndia Office Minute Paper on the case of John Carr IOR/L/PJ/2/58, File 7/564

The official at the India Office thought that there was little official aid that could be offered.  He noted that the Sailors' Home on Well Street, which Carr had given as his address, was ‘in some sort under control of the Board of Trade’.  He worried ‘it may be hoped he will not be allowed to starve’. 

Letter from the Board of Trade about John CarrLetter from the Board of Trade about John Carr IOR/L/PJ/2/58, File 7/564

Enquiries were made but the results were unexpected.  The Board of Trade claimed to know nothing of Carr’s story, and the ship J C Watson could not be traced.  The only record found of a John Carr in Madras was a Sgt Major in the 16th Madras Native Infantry, who had drowned in India on 26 October 1867.

Note on the enquiries made about John CarrNote on the enquiries made about John Carr IOR/L/PJ/2/58, File 7/564

Enquiries were also made at the Sailors' Home, where a search was made of books, letters and names at the Home, as well as at a neighbouring branch asylum, but no trace could be found of Carr.  The India Office official took a dim view of the affair, and noted: ‘He does not say he is in the Home, but he has given a false address, and may be in league with someone to get his letters there, and it has been ascertained that numbers of swindlers and thieves swarm about the Homes’.  Given this lack of verifiable facts, Sir Louis Mallet, Under Secretary of State, advised that the letter should not be answered.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Public Home Correspondence: case of an individual stating himself to be of Indian birth, to have gone from Madras to Guadeloupe in an emigrant ship, whence he came to London and is now destitute and solicits a passage to India, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/2/58, File 7/564.

History of the Sailors' Home 


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