A common activity for the India Office was fielding enquiries from members of the public asking for help. These usually involved help in either travelling to India, in tracing friends or relatives, disputes over money, applications for jobs in government, requests for financial assistance. Many such enquiries survive in the Home Correspondence files of the Public Department in the India Office Records. To the majority of such enquiries the India Office declined help, and it is unknown how the situation was resolved. However these small cries for help still survive in the archives, and here are a small selection.
In April 1873, the India Office received a letter from EF Saunders of Railway Street, Chatham. Her son, John Cowlishaw had travelled to India in 1868 to work as an engineer in the Bombay Dockyards. Mrs Saunders reported that he was very ill in the workhouse at Lahore, and asked for any help or advice on getting him home. An enquiry with the Military (Marine) Department revealed that he had resigned his position as a third Class Marine Engineer on December 20, 1871. Saunders was advised to address an enquiry to the Secretary to the Government of the Punjab at Lahore.
In July 1873, Cossim Mooljee wrote to the India Office for help in returning to India. Mooljee had travelled to Mecca from Bombay in 1870, then to Constantinople via Egypt. While there, he had entered into an agreement with a Greek merchant to serve as a shopkeeper, and travelled with him to Naples and Rome. While in Italy, the merchant destroyed the agreement and abandoned Mooljee. With the help of the British Consul, Mooljee had managed to travel to London and secure lodgings at the Strangers’ Home at Limehouse where he had been for the past two months.
In September 1873, Ellis Meyers wrote to the India Office requesting a free passage back to India. He had arrived in London four months previously with a small fortune that he had lost in speculation. He wrote that he was ‘quite destitute of means of support at present, and if I was to remain longer here I am positive that I shall starve’. The India Office was not impressed, with one official writing in the file: ‘This request displays an unusual amount of effrontery’, and declined his request.
In October 1876, a letter was received from May Mitchell in which she described herself as a “helpless stranger in England without money or friends”. She had been a stewardess on a steamship, but had to leave the ship to go into the London Hospital due to ill health. Having recovered she was now unable to find a vacancy on a ship back to India. Although European, she had spent all her life in India and this was her first visit to England. She wrote, “The people of this country treat me strangely & I do not care to stay among them.” She had been around all the shipping agents in the city without success and had no money to advertise in the newspapers. She insisted that “I am not making matters out worse with me than they actually are I have literally nothing to live on.” Although sympathetic, India Office officials struggled to know how to help, as one noted, “Distressing as her case may prove to be, there is no precedent of a European being sent to India at the public expense.” However, a marginal note in the file stated that Mitchell had received a “private commission”, suggesting that she had managed to secure a passage back home.
This article first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives Blog.