Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

26 July 2023

Further research on the Dessa Family: Ann Elizabeth Dessa and Jacob Rogers

In a previous post, I promised to share any further discoveries about the Dessa family, whose son George Edward Dessa (d. 1913) had attempted to assassinate Viceroy Lord Lytton whilst struggling with mental health problems.

George’s mother, Ann Elizabeth Dessa (otherwise De Sa) had undergone her own mental health struggles, having been admitted to the Bhowanipore (Bhawanipur) Lunatic Asylum in 1849.  A snapshot of Bhowanipore in 1856-57 certainly challenges perceived notions of Victorian lunatic asylums.  Sited on a two-acre plot south of Fort William, its well laid out gardens were said to ‘impart to the Asylum a pleasing feature of rural quiet’.  The boundary walls were hidden by climbing plants. Emphasis was on the circulation of fresh air, hygiene, liberal quantities of well-cooked quality food, and kindness, the latter being ‘the real substitute for mechanical restraint’.  Ann Elizabeth was released back into the care of her family in 1874, having been institutionalised for a quarter of a century.  She died in Calcutta on 12 December 1888.

We can find a little more about Ann Elizabeth's background in the records.  She was born on 15 October 1818 at Mirzapur, daughter of Jacob Rogers and his wife Elizabeth, and was baptised there on 10 August 1821.  According to the East India Register, she married George Henry Dessa, a writer, at Chuprah on 11 October 1832, days before her fourteenth birthday.  Entries in the East India Register refer to the birth of two sons, on 23 May 1837 and 22 October 1843.  These are possibly her sons William David and George Edward, although we know she and her husband had at least three boys, the youngest of whom died aged 12.  The family moved to Calcutta, and appear to have suffered from financial difficulties despite George Henry working in various government roles such as in the Civil Auditor’s Office, and later on the East Indian Railway.  There are five entries in the London Gazette between 1842 and 1862 referring to petitions filed in the Court of Relief of Insolvent Debtors naming George Henry Dessa.

Portrait of Jacob Rogers by Jiwan Ram - Bodleian Libraries  University of OxfordPortrait of Jacob Rogers by Jiwan Ram, Bodleian Library LP 846. Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Terms of use: CC-BY-NC 4.0. 

It should have been so different for Ann Elizabeth. Her father Lieutenant Jacob Rogers had been in the service of Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia, the ruler of Gwalior state, and was an East India Company pensioner.  A portrait of him by the Indian artist Jiwan Ram entitled ‘Quartermaster Rogers’ survives; it once formed part of the collection of the Begum Samru (Joanna Nobilis Sombre) at Sardhana palace.  Bought by T. R. Wyer, a Collector in Meerut, in 1894, it was gifted to the Indian Institute, 1913 and now forms part of the Bodleian Library collections. 

Will of Jacob Rogers

 Copy of the will of Jacob Rogers dated 12 March 1819 IOR/L/AG/34/29/36, pp.97-100

Ann’s early life was comfortable, living in a bungalow in Mirzapore surrounded with servants and possessions, all of which Jacob left to his wife Elizabeth in his will written of 1819. Jacob’s death on 10 January 1824, age 41, changed everything; the worth of Rogers’ estate was almost identical to the outstanding claims against it, effectively leaving few assets for his wife and daughter. All his belongings – books, furniture, pictures, carpets, guns, plate, jewellery, clothing, horses, buggy – were sold at public auction just weeks after his death.

Estate papers of Jacob Rogers showing his servants' wagesEstate  papers of Jacob Rogers showing his servants' wages IOR/L/AG/34/27/81 p.659

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Report by Theodore Cantor, Superintendent of the Asylums… at Bhowanipore and Dullunda for 1856-57 can be found online.  
Sir Evan Cotton ‘The Sardhana Pictures in Government House, Allahabad’, Bengal Past and Present vol LII, part I (1936).

British Library India Office Records available via Findmypast -
IOR/N/1/64, f.43 Baptism of Ann Elizabeth Rogers (later Dessa), 10 Aug 1821 at Mirzapore.
IOR/L/AG/34/29/36, pp.97-100 Copy of the will of Jacob Rogers dated 12 Mar 1819, proved 25 Feb 1824.
IOR/L/AG/34/27/81, pp. 641-661 Inventory of the estate of Jacob Rogers, including a catalogue of the sale of his goods at auction.
IOR/L/AG/34/27/80, pp.618-619 and IOR/L/AG/34/27/80, pp. 702-704 Accounts relating to the estate of Jacob Rogers.


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