Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

13 July 2023

Deefholts: An Anglo-Indian Family of Public Servants in Calcutta

In 1947 the Indian Independence Act  was passed by Parliament.  This ended decades of colonial rule in India and paved the way to Partition.  In November 1960, unrest and violence forced my family to leave Calcutta (Kolkata) permanently.

Great-grandparents Cyril Brian and Maureen and great uncle Hans on the ship Indian Resource from Calcutta to LiverpoolMy great-grandparents Cyril Brian and Maureen and great uncle Hans on the ship Indian Resource from Calcutta to Liverpool

Great uncles Stephen and Hans  and grandfather Gerald on the Indian ResourceMy great uncles Stephen and Hans, and grandfather Gerald on the Indian Resource

My Deefholts ancestors have mainly served in government and legal affairs, customer service, international trade and engineering.  We are today an Anglo-Indian family of public servants with roots in Calcutta and ties to a unique culture which is fading away.  Anglo-Indians are citizens of mixed Indian and European ancestry.

I traced my ancestral roots using the catalogues and collections at the British Library in London. The India Office Records document British rule in India and the lives of Anglo-Indians.

The documents pictured below show correspondence conducted by an ancestor in Bengal.  In 1850 and 1854, petitions about financial matters were submitted by Richard Deefholts, an assistant in the Bengal Secretariat Office.  Then, in 1856, a financial agreement was reached between him and the East India Company in London.

Richard Deefholts' financial petition 1854


Richard Deefholts' financial petition 1856Documents about Richard Deefholts’ petition 1854 & 1856 - IOR/E/4/824 and IOR/E/4/834

My great-grandfather Cyril Brian Deefholts was a superintendent for the British trade and shipping operations in Calcutta. He began his career in the war as a pilot for the Indian Army and then worked as a civil servant.

Great-grandparents Cyril Brian and Maureen on a car tripMy great-grandparents on a car trip

Cyril Brian dressed in his army uniformCyril Brian dressed in his army uniform

I discovered tales about my ancestors in The Times of India newspaper that have revealed significant detail and amusing stories about the civic duties and private lives of my ancestors.  They were cricket players, hockey enthusiasts, civil servants, customs officers, and local merchants.  In 1847, ‘two young Bengalee Baboos’ persuaded Robert Horatio Deefholts, Head Clerk, to interfere with the mail and leak examination questions.  On 29 October 1885, The Times of India reported on ‘An event of unusual interest – the golden wedding of one of the most esteemed couples – Mr and Mrs. Richard Deefholts’.  The East Indian Railway Customs Team had its own Deefholts sports stars – C. and E. Deefholts.

Great uncle Stephen and grandfather Gerald with Cyril Brian's hockey sticksMy great uncle Stephen and grandfather Gerald with Cyril Brian's hockey sticks

Great-great grandparents celebrating at a family birthday partyMy great-great grandparents (centre left) celebrating at a family birthday party

Grreat-grandmother celebrating with family and friendsMy great-grandmother (top right corner) celebrating with family and friends

Discovering these documents and articles makes me feel proud to be a Deefholts.  The recent passing of my grandfather and great-grandmother marked the end of an era.  I want my archival research to save our culture from extinction and keep it alive for generations to come.  There is an opportunity to talk about the overlooked role of Anglo-Indians in British society, and the dispersal of our community across the Commonwealth.

Daniel Deefholts
Civil Servant
Creative Commons Attribution licence

Acknowledgements: This blog post was written in memory of Gerald and Maureen Deefholts.  Thank you to my mother Sarah for helping me select the photographs that illustrate this blog post.

Further reading:
British Library IOR/E/4/824 and IOR/E/4/834 - Documents about Richard Deefholts’ petition 1854 & 1856.
‘A Golden Wedding’ - The Times of India 29 October 1885, p.5.
‘Sporting News: East Indian Railway Win Beighton Cup - Customs Beaten’ - The Times of India 30 April 1929, p.11.
‘Calcutta Matriculation Students’ - The Times of India 14 December 1874, p.4.
London Gazette 15 March 1850, p.807. 


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