The British Empire Library

Lucknow: Families of the Raj

by Malcolm Speirs

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
When the author first visited the north Indian city of Lucknow during a family holiday in 1978, he can have had little idea how much would ultimately develop from the few days spent there. Unlike the majority of foreign tourists (and there are still not many), Malcolm Speirs has a deep connection with Lucknow - his family lived there for 145 years, and a collateral ancestor, the princess Sultan Muriam Begam, lies buried in the Qaisar Pasand cemetery in the old part of the city. The princess's story and that of other prominent Anglo-Indian families was told in the author's first book The Wasikadars of Awadh. This book is a sequel, which explores the lives of many ordinary European and Anglo-Indian families who lived in Lucknow during the British Raj from 1858 to 1947. By definition, Speirs writes, ordinary families rarely appear in official records, but there were a few years after the Mutiny of 1857-58 when many such people fell on hard times , having lost their homes , their jobs, and even their lives in the conflict. The compensation claims that these families made to Government form the starting point of the book and they make fascinating reading. For example , the list of property lost by Pascal Sequeira, who had worked in the Lucknow Residency before the siege included: 'about 10 Argand, Solar and reading lamps,' 'several marble statues,' '8 bedsteads complete with curtains , etc.' '1 large Musical box playing 12 airs', as well as fowling pieces, a sun-dial and five horses. The total value of all the goods lost was 13,480 rupees, equivalent to over £100,000 today. Sadly, Sequeira also lost his eldest son Edwin, and his wife Charlotte, who were both killed in 1857.

If we think bureaucracy is bad today, then spare a thought for the people then, some only semi-literate, trying to claim financial compensation from the government in India. In many cases, writes Speirs, payment was considerably delayed (or even refused) because claimants had unwittingly addressed their petitions to the wrong department. Then there were unseemly wrangles over claims because 'succour money ', that is the sums paid out for immediate aid, had to be deducted from the final total. Intimate details are laid forth in the petitions, like the description of Ellen Brown, widowed when her husband was killed in the Residency. She was a brunette of 4ft, 11 and a half inches , with a light complexion and a mark on the left eye, who already had an eight-month old son, born when she was only fifteen years old herself. Luckily Ellen was allowed to receive a small pension of 39 rupees a month even after she re-married in 1859.

As we move into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the mood lightens and there is an engaging short chapter on public entertainments that included 'Recitations' by prominent local citizens and coyly named comedy sketches. For researchers, the appendix of Europeans and Anglo-Indians in Lucknow between 1856 and 1942, which forms the second half of this book, will be invaluable, compiled as it is from ecclesiastical, educational, administrative, military and commercial records. This is a unique picture of a specific community over a period of nearly a century, using records that a conventional historian might ignore. It has resulted in a rich and intricate picture and is highly recommended.

British Empire Book
Malcolm Speirs
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2013 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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