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Human stories from the East India Company

This blog post has been written by Margaret Makepeace, Lead Curator for the East India Company Records at the British Library.

At the head of the East India Company sat the Court of Directors. Twenty-four men met at East India House in London to discuss the business of a vast commercial enterprise which also became an imperial agency during the course of the 18th century.

The Directors’ Court Room, East India House by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd c.1820.  © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

You might expect the minutes of the meetings of the Court of Directors to be rather dull administrative records.  But they are in fact the source of many fascinating human stories.  The Directors were responsible for a mighty organisation, but they always made time to consider the requests of individuals who approached them for help, no matter where they fitted into the social hierarchy.

In 1627 the East India Company established Poplar Hospital, an almshouse for its elderly or maimed sailors.  The first two pensioners admitted by the Directors were Tristram Hughson, whose right leg had been shot off in the Great James during a fight with the Portuguese, and John Ferne, who ‘by reason of the infection received into his brain by going down into the pump of the Charles had lost the use both of his speech and limbs’.

Hughson managed to keep his place at the Hospital in spite of the fact that he frequently misbehaved when drunk.  Ferne was expelled in 1634 when the Directors discovered that he had been living in the almshouse for more than two years with a married woman and had children.

Poplar Hospital in 1799 by James Peller Malcolm - reproduced in William Foster, John Company (1926). © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The Directors gave a place at Poplar Hospital to Robert Lewys in September 1651.  Lewys had received severe leg injuries when serving as a seaman on board the Mary in 1639.  He was attacked by a tiger cub which was being brought from India to England, probably as a present for King Charles I.

IOR/B/23 p.130 East India Company Court Minutes 10 September 1651. © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

William Whiteway, gunner’s boy on the East India ship Fortitude, was captured by the French in 1782 and then held prisoner in India for nearly ten years by Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan.  On his return to England in December 1792, the Company Directors appointed Whiteway midshipman on the Britannia and presented him with twenty guineas so he could equip himself for the voyage. In 1812 Whiteway was given a secure job as a labourer in the Company’s London warehouses as further compensation for his past sufferings. 

In 1815 a large deficit of £1064 2s 1d was discovered in the account of Thomas Woodthorpe, the keeper of the Company’s London pepper warehouse. Woodthorpe resigned but the Company decided to recover the sum owed from members of his family who had stood as guarantors of his honest and efficient service. His father asked for a reduction in the amount demanded, but the Directors merely extended the payment period. The debt was finally cleared in May 1822. When Thomas Woodthorpe died in Calais in 1832, his widow Sarah petitioned the Directors for relief from her distressed circumstances.  Her petition was rejected – Woodthorpe’s breach of trust was deemed too serious to allow much sympathy for his family.

These are just a few examples of the individual human stories which I have found in the minute books of the Court of Directors.  Thousands more await discovery through the wonderful new East India Company digital resource.

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East India Company, Module 1: Trade, Governance and Empire, 1600-1947 is available now and forms part of a unique three-module resource on the rich history of the English East India Company. For more information, including free trials and price enquiries, please email info@amdigital.co.uk

Watch our short video for a behind-the-scenes look at the collection with Professor Huw Bowen and Head of India Office Records at the British Library, Penny Brook.




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  • guest

    Roseanne Norwood

    Thanks for sharing this resource.

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    Michele Wears-Taylor

    How exciting, is love to participate/join since I know I have around 250yrs of British family in India!

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    Ashley Raye

    Thanks for Sharing, Interesting Reading.

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  • guest

    Tanay Kumar

    Nice Job.hope u will share also about indian women who battle against britesh power.

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  • guest

    Hilary Condon

    Look forward to some interesting stories.

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  • guest

    Patricia Lott

    Want to subscribe, thank you.

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    • Margaret Makepeace

      Hi Patricia, 

      Thanks for your comment. Would you like more information on the East India Company collection or subscribe to receive notifications when new blogs are published?

      Thanks,

      Laura @ Adam Matthew

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    Barbara Grover

    We have ancestors who were connected with the East India Company.

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