Untold lives blog

139 posts categorized "Leisure"

27 June 2022

Dining with style: the East India Company’s communal table at Mocha

In August 1720, the East India Company’s Council in Bombay received a letter from their factors and merchants based in the city of Mocha.  They had expected this letter for some time.  It was the practice for the factory’s staff to report on their activities regularly as Mocha was the entrepôt for the coffee markets of Yemen, in which the Company had invested heavily.  The letter contained the expected business news of the factory and the shifting political situation in Yemen, which had been growing more and more fraught in the preceding few years.  Despite all this, the Company’s investment in coffee was yielding good results and the Council could feel comfortable in the knowledge that their men in Mocha were managing their affairs well. 

View from the factory at MochaView from the factory at Mocha by Henry Salt from Voyages and Travels to India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia, and Egypt (London, 1809) British Library Digital Store 10058.l.13 BL flickr Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With this letter came a list of the factory’s expenses, the salaries of guards and domestic servants, the pay given to the Company’s four merchants, and the costs of running the factory itself.  One of the largest of these was the expenses incurred in maintaining the factory’s ‘Table’ which amounted per month to nearly 300 Spanish dollars (the famous piece of eight).  This was a considerable sum to feed the factory’s 22 residents, including the Eurasian ‘topas’ and ‘peon’ guards.  Access to the table was also open to visiting English merchants and ships’ officers when they were present in the port, making it a space for social interactions in addition to eating and drinking.

The records kept by the Mocha factors tell us a great deal about what the table would have been laden with.  For the most part it seems like fairly standard fare for an early modern English kitchen: greens, salt, beef, onions, limes, beef, mutton and fresh fish appear regularly, as do fowls, chickens, pigeons and eggs.  To this menu was added some local flavours, with limes, ‘spice’ and ‘temper’.  This latter is particularly interesting, as a temper, Tadka or Tarka, is a distinctive feature of South Asian cuisine, where spices are mixed with oil or ghee then strained, leaving a flavoured medium.  So, while some of the factory’s inhabitants may have been happy to stick to familiar flavours, others were regularly sampling local ones.  Additionally, the factory regularly received shipments of Persian wine, along with beer produced on the Cape.  Wine was so important to the factory that the letter received from Mocha protests that it had been two years since they had received any from the Company.  Instead, they had been forced to buy their own, rather than face doing without it.

The contents and habits around the Company’s table can tell historians a lot about the merchants’ attitudes to sociability.  The table was a forum for maintaining relationships with the factory’s staff, while also inviting travellers and visitors to make new connections.  Company pay may have been poor, but service in Mocha, as in other factories, came with significant benefits.  Studying the details of conditions in the factories beyond India can provide a great deal of texture and depth to our understanding of the lived experience of Company service, while giving an impression of the daily routines of the merchants themselves.  The factory was a place of commerce, but also a domestic space.

Peter Good
Lecturer in Early Modern Europe and the Islamic World, University of Kent

Further reading:
British Library IOR/G/17/1-2 Egypt and Red Sea Factory Records

This blog post is  part of a collaborative series with Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs).  On the last Monday of every month, both Untold Lives and MEMOs' own blog will feature a post written by a member of the MEMOs team, showcasing their research in the British Library collections.  Follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #BLMEMOS.

 

10 February 2022

JMW Turner, Artist and Publican?

In June 1820, JMW Turner’s uncle Joseph Mallord William Marshall, after whom he had been named, died.  Turner had lodged with his uncle, then a butcher in Brentford, for several years during his childhood.  Marshall left everything to his widow, Mary, with instructions about who should inherit on her death.  Turner and his cousin Henry Harpur, a solicitor, challenged the will so that they would not have to wait until their aunt’s death to benefit from their uncle’s will.  An agreement was reached whereby Turner and Harpur received four properties in New Crane Wapping, at the southern end of New Gravel Lane: Turner took nos. 7 & 8 and Harpur 9 & 10.  Turner also agreed to pay his aunt Mary an annuity of £20.

Map of Wapping from Horwood's Plan 1792-1799Map of Wapping from Horwood’s Plan 1792-1799 -  Romantic London Map © The British Library Board

 

Map of the Thames end of New Gravel Lane from Horwood’s Plan showing location of numbers 7-10Map of the Thames end of New Gravel Lane from Horwood’s Plan showing location of numbers 7-10 -  Romantic London Map © The British Library Board

Number 8 was a public house, The Ship and Bladebone.  The pub in Watts Street, off what was Old Gravel Lane, renamed itself Turner’s Old Star in 1987.  This may be somewhere that Turner visited but it is not the pub that he owned.  The Ship and Bladebone was a ten-minute walk away in what is now Garnet Street (formerly New Gravel Lane).

Site of The Ship and Bladebone - photo of sign for Garnet Street in front of school playgroundSite of The Ship and Bladebone  in Garnet Street– photograph by author Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Ship and Bladebone had a succession of tenants, one of whom, Elizabeth Crosset, was involved in an illegal practice, whereby coal whippers, who unloaded coal from the ships on the Thames, were forced to lodge in certain pubs and pay unreasonably high rents.  It is uncertain whether Turner was aware of this, although he was certainly involved in the overall running of the pub, chasing unpaid rent and arranging leases.  There are details of Turner paying for repairs to the roof, which were carried out in 1843 by the landlord Thomas Farrell.

Advert for sale of a 19-year lease on the Ship and Bladebone - Morning Advertiser 28 November 1844Advert for sale of a 19-year lease on the Ship and Bladebone - Morning Advertiser 28 November 1844

There have been many stories about the time that Turner spent in Wapping, most of them without much factual basis.  Turner’s first biographer, Walter Thornbury, suggested that he would go to Wapping in order to visit prostitutes and make sketches of them.  This seems to have been based on comments made by Ruskin, who assumed that some of Turner’s erotic drawings were made in Wapping.  Thornbury seems unaware of The Ship and Bladebone, where Turner would have had legitimate business.

Another story is that he installed his lover, Sophia Booth, as landlady at The Ship and Bladebone.  Her name does not appear on any documents associated with the pub and she is recorded as living, without gaps, in Margate and Deal and then with Turner in Chelsea.

After Turner’s death in 1851, his will was challenged.  When matters were settled in 1856, the pub went to a cousin, John Turner, as ‘heir at law’.  By this time, it had been abandoned and had fallen into disrepair.  The pub next passed to the lawyer, Jabez Tepper, a relation of Turner’s by marriage, who had acted for the relatives who contested the will.  The pub was demolished and, in 1868, Tepper sold the land to the Limehouse District Board of Works and a gasworks was built.  The site is now occupied by a primary school.

Sophia Booth did have an intriguing connection with Wapping.  Her younger sister, Sarah Elizabeth, lived there with her husband John Green.  I have been unable to find any connection between the Greens and The Ship and Bladebone but this is certainly an area for further research.

David Meaden
Independent Researcher

Further reading:
Sam Smiles - ‘On the Waterfront: The Darker Side of the Ship and Bladebone”, Turner Society News. No 107, December 2007.
Franny Moyle, The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W.Turner (London, 2016).
Anthony Bailey, Standing In The Sun – a life of J.M.W.Turner (1997).
Bernard Falk, Turner the Painter: His Hidden Life (London 1938).
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A. founded on letters and papers furnished by his friends and fellow Academicians, Volume 2 (London, 1862).
British Newspaper Archive also available via Findmypast.
Search for JMW Turner papers in the British Library catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

Turner's House logo

Turner’s restored house in Twickenham is open

 

31 January 2022

Ira Aldridge in Ottoman Turkey

The Ottoman Empire was the second country to abolish slavery in 1847, but the transition period between pre- and post-abolition created multiple and often conflicting ideas regarding the relationship between society and former slaves.  Slaves of almost all ethnic groups were obtained through the multiple routes of the Black Sea or Mediterranean slave trade or seized as trophies from territories outside its realms.  Yet, apart from the origins of the slaves, slavery in the Ottoman Empire bore many differences from its western counterparts.

Slavery there was not a permanent state, because slaves could buy themselves out of slavery, or masters could relieve them of their thraldom as part of Islamic worship.  Far from the western colour-based discrimination, racial differentiation within slavery was a social issue, and as such, in line with Islam’s doctrines about slavery, former slaves could reintegrate into society by taking up high socio-economic posts or even becoming heirs of their former masters as sons-in-law.

But, after 1847 there were many problems regarding the implementation of prohibiting the slave trade as the legal trade went underground.  Besides, most former black slaves continued to work in the service industry which generally sustained social hierarchies.

Ira Aldridge as 'Aaron the Moor'Ira Aldridge as ‘Aaron the Moor’ in Titus Andronicus British Library (2300.h.5.) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Amid this transition period in the rights of black people in Ottoman Turkey, the performance of Shakespeare’s plays by Ira Aldridge, especially that of Othello, was significant on several levels.  Despite the anti-Turkish plot, and contrary to the extremes of mixed reactions about Aldridge’s colour in the UK or the US, his performance in Ottoman Turkey was appreciated.

When Aldridge arrived in İstanbul in 1866, the Naum Theatre and the French Theatre, two of the most renowned theatre companies, competed and asked both the Ottoman court and the English embassy to help to persuade Aldridge to perform in their own theatres, a competition which the French Theatre won.  First performed on 22 March and again on 10 April 1866, Aldridge’s performance of Othello at the French Theatre was not only the first one in English in İstanbul, but also the first bilingual one; Aldridge performed his lines in English, whereas the rest of the cast did so in French.

To capitalise on Aldridge’s performance and to wreak theatrical revenge, the rival Naum Theatre commissioned Laroa’s play Otez l’O, which parodied Othello through a female-cast performance.  Although little is known about this parody, Otez l’O was not racially motivated, but rather out of theatrical rivalry and much in the vein of Aristophanean satire.  Aldridge’s commercially and artistically successful performance, the parody, and the subsequent furore in the Ottoman press contributed immensely to Othello’s prominence in either its full or in its abridged versions, popular both in the Ottoman court and among the Ottoman people afterwards.

Murat Öğütcü
Independent scholar, currently working at Cappadocia University, Turkey, as a part-time Associate Professor

Further reading:
And, Metin. “Geçmişten Yapraklar.” Oyun 23 (1965): 30.
Enginün, İnci. Türkçede Shakespeare. İstanbul: Dergah, 2008.
Forrester, Anna Carleton. “Western Theatrical Influence and Early Shakespeare Performance in the Ottoman Empire (1810–1908).” Shakespeare 16.3 (2020): 272-287.

This blog post is the first in a collaborative series with Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs).  On the last Monday of every month, both Untold Lives and MEMOs' own blog will feature a post written by a member of the MEMOs team, showcasing their research in the British Library collections.

23 December 2021

Gift ideas from 'Beeton’s Christmas Annual' 1873

Are you looking for ideas for presents to give your loved ones?  Perhaps you will find inspiration in our selection of advertisements taken from Beeton’s Christmas Annual  1873. 

Advertisement for The Literary MachineAdvertisement for The Literary Machine Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

We start with The Literary Machine patented by J. Carter of London and used by Princess Louisa.  The device held a book, writing-desk, lamp, or meals in any position whilst also screening the user’s face from the fire.  It could be applied easily to a bed, sofa, chair, or ship’s berth, and was invaluable for students and invalids – ‘A most useful and elegant gift’.

Choice perfumery and Christmas novelties from Eugene RimmelChoice perfumery and Christmas novelties from Eugene Rimmel Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Next we have choice perfumery and Christmas novelties from Eugene Rimmel, perfumer to the Princess of Wales.  Rimmel’s perfumes included Ihlang- Ihlang, Vanda, Henna, Snow-White, Violet, Tea, Coffee, and the intriguingly named Jockey-Club.  As well as skin powders, creams and soaps, Rimmel offered crackers, boxes, baskets, fans, Christmas tree ornaments, and perfumed cards and almanacs.

Rowland's gifts for Christmas and New YearRowland's gifts for Christmas and New Year Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Rowlands’ products were said to be perfect for those planning to celebrate Christmas and New Year in company.  Their macassar oil imparted ‘a Transcendent Lustre to the Hair’, whilst Kalydor gave a radiant bloom to the cheek and a delicate softness to the hands and arms, removing ‘cutaneous defects’.  Rowlands’ Odonto made teeth pearly white and gave a pleasing fragrance to the breath.

Advert for the Nose Machine

Advert for the Nose Machine Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

How about a Nose Machine?  Alexander Ross of High Holborn was selling for 10s 6d ‘a contrivance which , if applied to the nose for an hour daily, so directs the soft cartilage of which the member consists, that an ill-formed nose is quickly shaped to perfection’.  Anyone could use it without pain.

Gifts from H. G. Clarke of Covent GardenGifts from H. G. Clarke of Covent Garden Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

H. G. Clarke of Covent Garden offered gifts to amuse. The Magic Sailor would astonish and provoke roars of laughter as he danced in time to any tune.  Owners of The Wizard’s Box of Magic would be equipped to perform ‘ten capital conjuring tricks sufficient for one hour’s amusement’.  The Enchanted Tea Chest allowed 100 perfumed things to be produced from an empty box.

Beeton’s Englishwoman’s Almanac and Ladies’ AnnualBeeton’s Englishwoman’s Almanac and Ladies’ Annual Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Also on offer was Beeton’s Englishwoman’s Almanac and Ladies’ Annual for 1873, ‘the most useful and attractive Almanac brought before the Public’ priced at one shilling.  The editor had contributed letters to the ladies on some delicate subjects and there were three coloured pictures: ‘I’ll have your tootsies’, ‘Brave boys, defiant geese, and a wise dog’, and ‘The lover’s vow accepted’.  Mrs Treadwin of Exeter had designed four point lace d’oyleys and the publication contained ‘a mass of practical matter connected with domestic and family requirements’, with ruled sheets for keeping accounts.

Advert for Christmas number of The Ladies Advert for Christmas number of The Ladies Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Christmas number of The Ladies was packed with seasonal stories, plays, songs, games and amusements, as well as 24 pages of high-class pictorial engravings by popular English artists presented in a decorative wrapper.

Iron wine bins and racks for mineral watersAdvert for Farrow and Jackson Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Farrow and Jackson, ‘Original Inventors’ of London and Paris, were selling a variety of iron wine bins and racks for mineral waters.

Advert for Page Woodcock’s Wind Pills Advert for Page Woodcock’s Wind Pills Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

And for anyone over-indulging in drink and food over the festive season, Page Woodcock’s Wind Pills were available, having wrought ‘wonderful and miraculous cures in Birmingham’.

Seasonal greetings from Untold Lives!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1873

 

02 December 2021

Oysters in the Black-Out

You can catch this Maison Prunier menu, dating from December 1940, in the small display about the Second World War, Life on the Home Front, in the Treasures of the British Library Gallery until 11 December 2021.  It forms a counter-point to the ration books in the same case which reflect the introduction of food rationing in January 1940 and the queues and hardships that followed.

Maison Prunier Menu December 1940Maison Prunier, Menu, [London], December 1940. B.L. shelfmark: LD.31.b.752.


The first Maison Prunier was opened in Paris in 1872 by Alfred Prunier and his wife Catherine.  Their granddaughter Simone, with the assistance of her husband Jean Barnagaud, took over the Parisian restaurant, which had become famous for its oysters, on the death of her father Emile in 1925.  Ten years later she opened the London branch in St. James’s Street, off Piccadilly and near Green Park.  Having looked at several potential buildings in the area she had chosen a dauntingly large site which had previously been a Rumpelmayer’s teashop.

The interior decoration was created by her friend, the artist Colette Gueden, and was based on Simone’s childhood recollections of Jules Verne’s Twenty thousand leagues under the sea.  The design included two glass cases which created the illusion that you were eating while looking out from portholes in a submarine.  The opening reception on the evening of 17 January 1935 was almost too successful in creating publicity and the restaurant was overwhelmed with eager clients the following day.  Among the subsequent patrons were the then Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson.

Simone championed the use of cheaper fish including herring and mackerel and her book, Madame Prunier’s fish cookery book, was first published in 1938 and reprinted several times.  In contrast to the restaurant perhaps, it was aimed at a fairly general audience, providing recipes for both the proficient and the less-proficient cook.

With the advent of war and the black-out in September 1939 the evening trade at Maison Prunier initially declined, but a prix-fixe menu encouraged people to return and by January 1940 it also opened on Sundays to attract those on weekend leave.  At the start of the Blitz in September 1940 the restaurant closed for dinner but again Simone came up with a plan to encourage customers back.  She appointed a taxi-driver specifically for Maison Prunier and advertised an air-raid lunch and a black-out dinner as you can see here.  With the difficulty of obtaining supplies and rationing, this was not a simple operation, and customer numbers remained relatively low.  Items which are rationed are clearly noted on the menu and as you can see 'only one dish of meat or poultry or game or fish may be served at a meal'.  However, the famous oysters were still available.

Though affected by bomb blasts and subject to the general restrictions on the amount that could be charged for meals, Maison Prunier survived the war and continued in business at St. James’s Street until 1976.

Alison Bailey
Lead Curator of Printed Heritage Collections 1901-2000

Further reading:
Madame Prunier, La Maison: the history of Prunier’s. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1957. B.L. shelfmark: 7939.g.12.
Madame Prunier’s fish cookery book / selected, translated and edited, with an introduction and notes, from Les poissons, coquillages, crustacés et leur préparation culinaire par Michel Bouzy, by Ambrose Heath. With a special foreword by Madame S.B. Prunier and decorations by Mathurin Meheut. London: Nicholson & Watson Limited, 1938. B.L. shelfmark: 7944.pp.13.

 

16 September 2021

Breakfast in British India

In 1810 Captain Thomas Williamson, a retired Bengal Army officer, published The East India Vade-Mecum; or complete guide to gentlemen intended for the civil, military or, naval service of the East India Company.  It is a fascinating book to dip into and this caught my eye:
’A breakfast in India bears a strong resemblance to the same meal in Scotland, with the exception of whiskey; the introduction of which, (if to be had,) or of any other spirits would be considered both nauseous and vulgar’.

After this surprising revelation about Scottish breakfasts, Williamson moves on to detail the bill of fare.  Breakfast for Europeans in Williamson’s India was generally a substantial meal: tea, coffee, toast, bread, butter, eggs, rice, salt-fish, kitcheree (kedgeree), sweetmeats, orange marmalade, and honey.  Sometimes, following hunting and shooting expeditions, cold meat and accompaniments were served.

Breakfast In India - A young married couple (an East India Company civil servant and his wife) breakfasting on fried fish, rice and Sylhet oranges, with servants in attendance..'The Breakfast' from William Tayler, Sketches illustrating the manner and customs of the Indians and the Anglo-Indians (London, 1842) British Library shelfmark X42 Images Online

European gentlemen rose at daybreak and, before breakfast, either went on parade or to their ‘field diversions’, or rode on horses or elephants, enjoying the cool morning air.  Williamson recommended wearing the clothes worn on the previous evening for exercise and then changing into a clean suit on return, sitting down to breakfast in comfort.

Williamson cautioned against eating eggs at breakfast, believing that they aggravated bilious conditions.  Eggs were ‘innocent’ in the climate of England for people with a robust constitution, but in Asia, ‘where relaxation weakens the powers of digestion, they are a pernicious article of diet’.  He also believed that salt-fish should be banned from the breakfast table, as eating it caused ’thirst, heat, and uneasiness’.

Newspaper announcement of a public breakfast, Calcutta 1785Calcutta Gazette 3 February 1785 British Newspaper Archive - also available via Findmypast

In the late 18th century it had been customary for the Governor General and members of Council to have weekly public breakfasts: ‘persons of all characters mixed promiscuously, and good and bad were to be seen around the same tea-pot’.  The breakfast was considered as ‘merely the preface to a levee’.  When Lord Cornwallis arrived, these public breakfasts were replaced by open levees.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Thomas Williamson, The East India Vade-Mecum; or complete guide to gentlemen intended for the civil, military or, naval service of the East India Company (London, 1810) 
Owain Edwards,’ Captain Thomas Williamson of India’, Modern Asian Studies Vol. 14, No. 4 (1980), pp. 673-682

 

In the mid-19th century, there was a selection of marmalades available in India. As well as orange marmalade, there was mango, citron, lemon, and ginger.

Marmalade types from Bombay Gazette 1863Bombay Gazette 3 February 1863 British Newspaper Archive - also available via Findmypast

What would Paddington Bear think of that?

Paddington – The Story of a Bear


Paddington Bear - advert for exhibition at British Library


14 September 2021

Memorabilia of Captain James Cecil Thornton

One of the most pleasing aspects of private paper collections is the small items of ephemera they often contain.  One example of this in the India Office Private Papers is a folder of memorabilia of Captain James Cecil Thornton (1888-1932), Royal Field Artillery, and Supply and Transport Corps, India and Mesopotamia.

Examples of memorabilia belonging to Captain James Cecil Thornton - tickets from Makinah Gymkhana Club and Baghdad Officers' ClubExamples of memorabilia belonging to Captain James Cecil Thornton - British Library Mss Eur D791 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The India Office Records also holds his Indian Army service file which gives some information on Captain Thornton.  Born in London on 22 August 1888, his nationality is listed as Scottish.  His father was George Thornton, residing in Eltham, Kent.  James Thornton joined the Royal Field Artillery in 1912 as a Second Lieutenant.  He clearly excelled in the role as he rose to be appointed a Captain in 1916.  In June 1917 he travelled to India, and in April 1918 was attached to the Supply & Transport Corps in Mesopotamia.  In January 1919, Thornton married Muriel Augusta Florence Hardwick, and they had a daughter, Rosemary Muriel Augusta, born at St George’s Ditchling, East Sussex on 2 November 1919.  The service record also notes Thornton’s language skills.  In February 1918, he passed the examination taken in Baghdad in colloquial Arabic.  He also had conversational Urdu and good colloquial French.

Front page of Indian Army Army service record for James Cecil Thornton Indian Army Army service record for James Cecil Thornton - British Library IOR/L/MIL/14/30321 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The folder of memorabilia shows the social life of an army officer.  It contains books of tickets for various clubs: Baghdad Officers’ Club, Makinah Gymkhana Club, and the Busreh Club.  There is also a programme of sports held by the 4th Brigade of the R.F.A. on 30 September 1917, and a programme for the R.F.A. Brigade Horse Show on 16 February 1918 at Samarrah.

Programme of sports held by the 4th Brigade of the R.F.A. on 30 September 1917Programme of sports held by the 4th Brigade of the R.F.A. on 30 September 1917 - British Library Mss Eur D791 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The folder also gives a glimpse into the tasks he performed as part of his duties.  There are two permits ‘to send goods up country’, dated Baghdad 26 October 1917.  The goods listed on the permits were a packet of Baghdad-made clothing articles, a bag of indigo, and 1 bale containing 61 packets of silk and other Baghdad-made articles.  There is also a statement showing the average rates paid for various articles including rice, wheat, barley, ghee, dates, millet, maize, lentils, firewood, sesame and onions.

Permit to send goods up countryPermit to send goods up country  - British Library Mss Eur D791 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

James Thornton left military service in 1922.  He returned to England to pursue a career as a solicitor in Brighton, where he was also responsible for organising the Horse Show for the ‘Greater Brighton’ celebrations in 1928.  In 1929, he suffered severe injuries in a tragic accident when he fell from his bedroom window.  The local newspaper reported that he was known to walk in his sleep.  He died in 1932.


John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Memorabilia of Captain James Cecil Thornton (1888-1932), Royal Field Artillery, and Supply and Transport Corps, India and Mesopotamia 1917-1922, British Library shelfmark Mss Eur D791.
Army service record for James Cecil Thornton, 1912-1922, British Library shelfmark IOR/L/MIL/14/30321.
Mid Sussex Times, 22 October 1929 and 29 November 1932, online in the British Newspaper Archive (also available via Findmypast).

 

31 August 2021

East India Company appointments by the Prince Regent – (1) Henry Meredith Parker

In December 1812 the Chairman of the East India Company received a letter from Colonel McMahon, Private Secretary to the Prince Regent.  The Prince had asked McMahon to express how much he would be obliged if the Court of Directors granted him a writership for Bengal for a young gentleman aged seventeen whom the Prince was desirous of serving.  The Company directors resolved unanimously that His Royal Highness should be presented with the nomination of a student for East India College with a view to appointment as a writer on the Bengal establishment.

Prince Regent's request for a Bengal writership December 1812Request of the Prince Regent for a Bengal writership December 1812 IOR/B/156 p. 996 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Nominations for East India College were normally shared amongst the Company directors, but sometimes others were granted the privilege of putting a name forward, for example politician Lord Sidmouth.

The young man being favoured by the Prince Regent was Henry Meredith Parker.  In July 1813 Henry was appointed Deputy-Assistant Commissary to the Forces but he then reverted to seeking a career in the East India Company.  In December 1813 the Court of Directors resolved that he should be appointed as a writer in Bengal without having to attend East India College if found suitable.  Henry was examined by Samuel Henley, Principal of East India College, and rated ‘preeminently qualified’.  The sureties who put up money to guarantee Henry’s good behaviour were his father and Colonel McMahon.

Writer's petition for Henry Meredith ParkerWriter’s petition for Henry Meredith Parker January 1814 IOR/J/1/29 f.19v Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Henry’s application papers state that he was born on 4 June 1795 in St George’s Surrey.  He had to provide details of his parents’ situation, profession and residence: ‘My Parents Mr and Mrs William Parker, reside in Bridge Street in the Parish of Lambeth on their Private Income’.  Henry did not reveal that his parents were both well-known entertainers.  His father William Parker was an equestrian specialist and for some years proprietor of a circus in Edinburgh.  His mother was Sophia Granier, a singer, dancer and actress from a large family of stage players. Henry played the violin in the orchestra at the theatre in Covent Garden.

Why did the Prince Regent wish to help Henry with his career?  It seems that the Prince had seen the Parker family perform.  William Parker had an older daughter Nannette by his first wife, and she was a celebrated actress who married the popular Scottish actor Henry Erskine Johnston.  Apparently the Prince took a fancy to Nannette and forced his way into her dressing room.  Her furious husband sought out the Prince and gave him a thrashing.  Johnston was arrested but managed to escape, hiding in London before fleeing north.

Henry Meredith ParkerSketch of Henry Meredith Parker from Colesworthey Grant, Lithographic sketches of the public characters of Calcutta (Calcutta, 1850) 

Whatever the reasons behind his appointment, Henry flourished in India.  Away from his duties at the Board of Customs, Salt and Opium, he had a busy social life - acting, making music, and writing poetry, plays and prose. His friend, the journalist J. H .Stocqueler, described him as ‘a man of rare talents and brilliant attainments’.  Henry’s younger sisters Sophia Zenana and Josephine joined him in India and married Bengal civil servants.

Obituary for Henry Meredith Parker
British Newspaper Archive – obituary for Henry Meredith Parker in Homeward Mail from India, China and the East 19 September 1863

Henry Meredith Parker died in Richmond, Surrey, on 17 September 1863.  His obituary in the Homeward Mail said that Henry was accomplished, kind and genial, the life and soul of British society in Calcutta.

I have found another writer’s nomination by the Prince Regent in 1815 and I’ll tell you about that in our next post.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/B/156 pp. 996, 1000 - Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 9 and 11 December 1812.
IOR/B/158 pp.960, 1210 - Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 23 December 1813 and 4 March 1814.
J. H .Stocqueler, Memoirs of a journalist (Bombay, 1873).
Philip H. Highfill, A biographical dictionary of actors, actresses, musicians, dancers, managers & other stage personnel in London, 1660-1800 (Southern Illinois University Press, 1973-93).
Donald Campbell, Playing for Scotland – A history of the Scottish stage 1715-1965 (Edinburgh, 1996).
Máire ní Fhlathúin (ed.), The poetry of British India, 1780-1905, Volume 1 1780-1833 (London, 2011), pp.237-269 Henry Meredith Parker.
British Newspaper Archive – obituary for Henry Meredith Parker in Homeward Mail from India, China and the East 19 September 1863 (also available via Findmypast).

 

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