The British Empire Library

A Judge in Madras: Sir Sidney Wadsworth and the Indian Civil Service 1913-47

by Caroline Keen

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
On his retirement as a Madras High Court judge in August 1947, Sidney Wadsworth returned to England. He spent the bitter winter of that year writing his memoirs of lndia - from 1913 when he had first arrived as a junior civil servant to the end of his career. He felt, at the time, that there was no demand for his story in book form. Many other returning Britons had comparable stories to tell and perhaps a period of reflection was needed after the hastened British withdrawal and the creation of a split Pakistan. So he deposited the typescript in the Centre of South Asian Studies in Cambridge, having attended the University there. It was 'discovered' by his grandson, Simon Wadsworth in 2009 which led to the family approaching Caroline Keen, an Indian historian.

Rather than publish the substantial memoir itself (375 pages), the author has told Sir Sidney's story using only short extracts but putting them into context. (It might have been useful to see a few pages together of the memoir to appreciate its style.) Unlike military officers there seem not to have been restrictions on marriage for civil servants and Sidney soon met and married Olive Clegg, the daughter of another ICS officer. There is no high drama in this book and from the extracts selected, little comment by Sidney on the wider political picture outside south India. He slept through the attack on Madras by the German cruiser Emden in 1914 which destroyed oil tanks on the harbour and led to a mass exodus of citizens. He was part of 'the flap' during the second world war when the threat of bombing resulted in another large scale desertion of the city, only to have people trickle back when the Japanese focus turned away from India towards Malaya. During the civil unrest of the 1920s, Sidney quelled what could have been a riot in Godaveri when a festival chariot procession nearly became a Congress-inspired political demonstration.

But on the whole, life was pleasant and peaceful, allowing the young couple to set up home in the various places where Sidney was stationed, including Vellore, Gudur, Madanapalle, Chingleput and Madurai. Madras was variously regarded as a 'backwater' and an old-established city that rather looked down on the newcomer, Calcutta, and of course, 'Delhi was a long way off as the saying went. In 1924 Sidney decided to join the judicial branch of the ICS and spent six months in London where he joined the Middle Temple. Returning to India he served as District Judge and there are interesting anecdotes about the cases he tried, and his observations on local tribes, including the Toda and the Sugalis, a gypsy community. 'Some Criminals' and 'Thieves, Usurers and SnakeCatchers' are two chapter headings. When at leisure, Sidney was persuaded to take on the role of 'district commissioner' of the Madras Boy Scouts, which he enjoyed and he was, with his wife, a keen gardener. His was a life well-lived and his story is well told here. The illustrations are rather a let-down - photography seems not to have been a hobby, so we have to imagine the various homes in which he lived, but this is a minor criticism.

British Empire Book
Caroline Keen
Hurst & Co
Review Originally Published
Spring 2022 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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