Why was my grandmother in India?
Our experts unravel your riddles
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