Q&A

Why was my grand­mother in In­dia?

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QSarah Lee (my grand­mother) was born on 1 De­cem­ber 1858 in Bal­dock, Hert­ford­shire. I have some pic­tures of her in­clud­ing one of her on her 21st birth­day. On the back, it says it was taken by The Gar­ri­son Pho­tog­ra­pher, In­dia. I as­sume she must have been work­ing there – per­haps as a maid. How can I find out more? Alan Sturgess, by email

ASarah’s mother Edith died in 1869 and in the 1871 cen­sus we find Sarah stay­ing with her un­cle Ed­ward’s fam­ily. We also know her first child Ge­orge was born about 1883 in Burton La­timer, Northants, though no reg­is­tra­tion of birth has been found.

From Sarah’s 21st birth­day pho­to­graph, we know that she was in In­dia in late 1879 as her birth was reg­is­tered in the De­cem­ber quar­ter of 1858. She prob­a­bly trav­elled some­time af­ter 1875. It’s pos­si­ble she was back in Eng­land by March 1881 as there is a Sarah Lee age 22, born in Bal­dock, who is a do­mes­tic ser­vant in the house­hold of Is­abella Robert­son, widow of John Grant, Ben­gal Civil Ser­vice, whose two el­dest chil­dren were born in the East Indies.

The photo’s back­ground gives no clues as to lo­ca­tion and the no­ta­tion of ‘The Gar­ri­son Pho­tog­ra­pher, In­dia’ on the back isn’t help­ful as there were many army gar­risons across In­dia.

Although the BT26 in­com­ing pas­sen­ger lists date from 1878, many pre-1890 lists were de­stroyed by the Board of Trade in 1900, and there is no record of a Miss Lee re­turn­ing from In­dia at the right time. The out­ward bound BT27 lists do not start un­til 1890. The only records of ar­rival and de­par­ture in In­dia are This 21st-birth­day pho­to­graph was taken in In­dia, but what was Sarah Lee do­ing there? pas­sen­ger lists tran­scribed from The Times of In­dia on the Fam­i­lies in Bri­tish In­dia So­ci­ety (FIBIS) data­base; these mostly cover pas­sen­gers on P& O. Steer­age pas­sen­gers and ser­vants are not usu­ally named ( www.fibis.org).

Sarah may have gone to In­dia as a com­pan­ion, maid, or nurse­maid en­gaged to look af­ter a lady’s chil­dren on the voy­age – per­haps the wife of an army of­fi­cer or se­nior civil ser­vant. Gen­eral ‘be­low stairs’ maid and nurse­maid du­ties in In­dia were as­signed to the na­tive pop­u­la­tion, not English women. Al­ter­na­tively, she could have gone to join a male rel­a­tive. Check to see if any of her broth­ers or male cousins served in a reg­i­ment in In­dia or worked there – on the rail­ways, for ex­am­ple.

Her main mo­ti­va­tion may have been that of most young women who trav­elled there – to find a suit­able hus­band in In­dia. These women be­came re­ferred to as ‘the fish­ing fleet’; Anne De Courcy’s book of the same name was pub­lished in 2012. Sadly, those un­suc­cess­ful were ‘re­turned emp­ties’ to Bri­tain. Sylvia Murphy

Sarah Lee is listed in the 1881 cen­sus, at which time she was a do­mes­tic ser­vant back in Eng­land

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