Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

02 April 2024

Papers of Sir Hugh Keeling and Colonel Thomas Ormsby Underwood

The Keeling family’s collection was donated to the British Library in 2023.  The bulk of the collection is focused on Hugh Trowbridge Keeling (1865-1955), who is most notably remembered as the Chief Engineer to New Delhi during its construction between 1912-1925.  There are also papers for Colonel Thomas Ormsby Underwood (1839-1916).

A portrait photograph of Sir Hugh Keeling by Bertram Park c.1955A portrait photograph of Sir Hugh Keeling by Bertram Park c.1955 - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F767/2/9

Keeling was born in 1865 and spent four years with the Royal Indian Engineering College, Cooper’s Hill.  After this, he was appointed Assistant Engineer in 1887 on the ‘Perryaur’ (Mullaperiyar) Dam project working under Colonel John Pennycuick of the Royal Engineers.  The collection includes several engineering plans, maps, and manuscripts documenting this work, as well as some photographs.

A view of the Mullaperiyar Dam during construction c.1887-1895A view of the Mullaperiyar Dam during construction c.1887-1895 – India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F767/1/1

With a successful and notable project under his belt, in October 1898 Keeling was appointed Executive Engineer for the Madras Public Works Department where he was steadily promoted.  In November 1912 he was called to be Chief Engineer of the newly relocated capital, New Delhi, although with some reluctance.  Keeling states in one typewritten address (Mss Eur F767/1/4 ff.18r) that he was already involved with another project, and he had to be ordered to take up the position by Sir Harold Stuart, a member of the Executive Council in Madras.

The collection includes his speeches, engineering presentations for New Delhi, and his private and professional correspondence, which provide perspectives from Indian and British voices on the change of capital.  The move to New Delhi from Calcutta (Kolkata) was a controversial one, but the building of an impressive monument to the British Raj was a remarkable ending note to the career of Keeling.  He was awarded a CSI in 1915 and a knighthood in 1923.

A group photograph of what is likely to be the Public Words Department senior officials of DelhiA group photograph of what is likely to be the Public Words Department senior officials of Delhi. Keeling can be seen in the centre. India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F767/1/5

Keeling’s papers show a man who was a lively and popular character.  He was appointed the ‘Commander in Chief’ of his Gymkhana’s social club, the ‘Moonshiners’, and had strong and admiring social relationships with his engineering team.  After a brief retirement in 1920, he was reappointed Chief Engineer for another five years until 1925 when he was succeeded by Sir Alexander Macdonald Rouse, his Superintending Engineer.

The collection is rounded out by a small selection of manuscripts, books, letters, newspaper cuttings and photographs relating to the Underwood family.  Keeling's connection with Colonel Underwood was through his wife, Edith Madeleine, whom he married in India in 1893.  These papers reveal a respected Lieutenant in the 4th Punjab Cavalry and a Colonel in the Madras Army before his retirement in 1894.  Underwood's work is documented in speeches and newspaper clippings, including his active involvement with the Muslim Association, where he promoted projects to encourage higher education and work in industry.

A letter from Camilla Underwood to her mother dated 1811 (Mss Eur F767/3/2 ff.1r-2v) tells the story of Colonel Underwood’s great uncle, Thomas Steele, an officer in the Light Dragoons stationed in India.  In an all-night gambling session, Thomas won over two thousand pagodas from a Captain MacGregor who then denied the debt.  As a matter of honour, Thomas was forced to fight a duel with MacGregor - ‘every officer would have cut him’ for cowardice had he refused.  Despite MacGregor’s reputation as a skilled duellist, Thomas killed him and was tried by court martial.

Maddy Clark
India Office Records

Further reading:
Papers of Sir Hugh Keeling (1865-1955) and Colonel Thomas Ormsby Underwood (1839-1916) India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F767 – a paper catalogue of the contents is available to consult in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.
Wild, A. 2001. Remains of the Raj; The British Legacy in India. East India Company (Publishing) Ltd., London.
The India Office List for 1929. London: Harrison and Sons Ltd.

 

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