Lockdown Research: Switching The Lens – And Discovering Elizabeth Purves

Baptism of Elizabeth Purves at St Giles, Cripplegate, on 28 August 1807.

I recently noticed that the London Metropolitan Archives has launched a new database – Switching the Lens – Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous Heritage, 1561 to 1840. This is an aspect of history that captured my imagination some time ago [ see, for instance, Suffrage Stories: Black And Minority Ethnic Women: Is There A ‘Hidden History’?]  and I was interested to see whether this new database would make the uncovering of individual histories any more possible. Through the centuries there have always been some men and women of BAME heritage living in Britain whose lives have, for one reason or another, been recorded in some degree of detail; the great majority, however, have hitherto remained untraceable. I gave details of the Switching the Lens website in my previous post and can now tell something of another life I encountered there, represented by a single entry in the database.

This entry in the St Giles baptism register tells us that Elizabeth Purves, born on 19 October 1799, was the daughter of ‘Richardson Purves, Merchant, and Rajoo, a Native of Hindostan’. But what is her story?

Richardson Purves, born c1764, perhaps in Scotland, was by 1789 an employee of the East India Company working in Bengal. By 1797 he was overseeing the Company’s indigo works at Patnah (now Patna, capital of Bihar province). Indigo was a very lucrative product and by 1801 Purves had established himself as an indigo planter at Tirhoot (450km from Patna). He remained there until about 1806 but then ‘retired to England with a considerable fortune derived from the indigo manufacturies’ (as quoted in a footnote in Singh, History of Tirhoot, 1922).

A view from ‘Middleton’s Complete System of Geography’, 1779

So it was as a nabob that, after c 17 years in the East, Purves returned, accompanied not only by a fortune but also by a 7-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. We know nothing of her mother other than the one name ‘Rajoo’, which was probably her surname. As in the case of Africa-born Eliza Herbert, we don’t know for certain whether Elizabeth Purves’ mother had died, or whether, when the child’s father decided to return to England, she had felt compelled to part with her daughter. However, in such cases it is obvious that the contest was unequal; the wealthy European father held all the cards. In my next post I will attempt to shine a tiny glimmer of light on the situation, over two hundred years ago, at Tirhoot after the departure of Richardson Purves. But I think it is incontestable, and is as poignant now as then, that Elizabeth was old enough when she sailed from India to carry with her clear memories of her mother, whom she would never again see.

It would appear that Richardson Purves was a diligent father, wasting little time after his arrival in England in arranging the baptism of his daughter. She could, of course, have been baptised in India but, for whatever reason, he had waited until the ceremony could be conducted in London. Because I have been unable to uncover reliable details of his parentage I cannot guess why he chose ‘Elizabeth’ as her name. It would have been interesting to know if it was a family name, his mother’s perhaps.

Three years later, on 24 October 1808, Richardson Purves married Jane Hyde (1781-1853) in St Margaret Pattens, Eastcheap. At the time he was a resident in the parish of St James, Clerkenwell, and it is to be presumed that young Elizabeth had been living with him since their return from India. Richardson Purves proceeded to father two legitimate daughters, Jane in 1810 and Frances in 1813. The latter was born in the family’s town house in Bedford Place, Bloomsbury, they moved later to Harley Street. With his Indian fortune Richardson Purves had also purchased a large estate, Sunbury Place, at Sunbury-on-Thames. That house, now known as Sunbury Court, still stands, owned for the last 100 years by the Salvation Army.

Sunbury Place, shortly before it was bought by Richardson Purves (courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum)

There were, of course, no censuses during the first third of the 19th century to give us proof that Elizabeth Purves was living with the rest of the family, but I believe she was. She certainly acted in concert with the other members, included, along with Mrs Jane Purves, Miss Jane Purves, and Miss Frances Purves, as a generous donor to a number of worthy causes, such as the Anti-Slavery Reporter (1831), to which she gave a two-year donation of four guineas, and to the Church Missionary Society to Africa and the East.

In 1841, when the first census was taken, Elizabeth Purves is listed at home with the rest of the family in their Harley Street house. However, when, in 1848, Richardson Purves died he made no mention of Elizabeth in his will, while going to considerable lengths to settle money on the unmarried daughters of another family, the Boldings. I have been unable to establish why this was but there must have been some underlying family or business connection that resists my attempts to tease it out. Provision must have been made for Elizabeth Purves in some arrangement that lay outside the terms of her father’s will because there is no suggestion whatsoever of anything other than that she was a completely integrated member of his family. When the 1851 census was taken Elizabeth is a ‘visitor’ at Sunbury Place, living there with the two Janes, her stepmother and half-sister. But yet again, when the senior Jane Purves died in 1853 there is no mention of Elizabeth in her will.

The mid-1850s saw the marriages of both Purves half-sisters. They were now in their mid-fifties and I had wondered if illegitimacy and her Indian heritage had hindered Elizabeth’s marriage prospects – but Jane, too, despite what I know to be her sizeable inheritance, had, for whatever reason, not married before now. Thus, on 4 July 1855 Jane Purves married a widower, Alexander Beattie, and on 31 July 1856 Elizabeth Purves married John Parker Bolding, widower of Mary* (nee Richardson). Mary’s brother, William Richardson, was the husband of Eleanor, John Bolding’s sister, at whose wedding Richardson Purves had been a witness. It is obvious that the Bolding, Richardson, and Purves families (very much including Elizabeth) had been closely entwined over a period of many years.

Elizabeth Purves was married in the parish church at Tunbridge Wells, the witnesses being Elizabeth Bolding (John’s sister) and Sidney Roper Curzon. Both Elizabeth Bolding and the Beatties lived in Tunbridge Wells, Elizabeth Bolding at Osborne House and the Beatties at Sunbury Place (presumably named in honour of Jane’s former home) and it was presumably with one or the other that Elizabeth Purves was staying at the time of her marriage. The Hon Sidney Roper Curzon, son of the 14th Baron Teynham, was the husband of the bride’s half-sister, Frances. I imagine that Richardson Purves, the nabob, was gratified that one of his daughters had married into the aristocracy, albeit into its lower echelons.

John Parker Bolding was a solicitor and the couple, with his three young children, lived for a time in Croydon, in a house named ‘Eversholt Lodge’. Eversholt in Bedfordshire was the parish in which John Bolding had been born and where his father had held an estate [see here for more about the Bolding family]. They later moved to 3 Bromfield Gardens, Richmond where, in 1888, John Parker Bolding died.

Sometime after Elizabeth moved to a house in Cambridge Road, Norbiton, a few minutes’ walk from the home, ‘Norbiton Place, London Road, of her widowed half-sister Frances. Elizabeth, supported by a cook and a parlour maid, lived alone, dying there in 1898. She left over £14,000, her executors being her stepson and the two stepsons of her half-sister Jane. Frances when she died shortly after, left only something over £200. Aristocratic connections had presumably proved expensive.

It was not, perhaps, unusual for a man in Richardson Purves’ position to choose to bring his child by an Indian woman back to England, but it would appear that the great majority of the offspring of such relationships did remain in India after the father’s departure. Moreover, a brief survey of the literature available to me (during a period when I cannot access a library) leads me to the conclusion that Elizabeth Purves was more fully integrated into her father’s subsequent family than many other mixed-race children. (See, for instance, here). This could have been a factor of wealth – Richardson Purves could certainly afford to support his illegitimate daughter – but it also must have been a matter of temperament.

Although Richardson Purves made his fortune in India and then returned ‘home’, there were certainly members of the East India Company connected to him wo continued to live and work in India in the second half of the 19th century and early years of the 20th. I wonder if Elizabeth Purves knew anything about them? I will do what I can in my next blog to follow the shadows they have cast, as revealed in documents created in India in the 19th century.

*UPDATE: Not that it’s particularly relevant to the life of Elizabeth Purves, but I’ve now worked out that Mary Richardson (her husband’s first wife) was a cousin of John Ruskin and from the age of 15, after her mother’s death, until her marriage to John Parker Bolding, lived with the Ruskin family in Herne Hill. Ruskin’s father, John James Ruskin, was brother to Jessie Richardson, Mary’s mother.

Copyright All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.

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  1. #1 by Patricia Franklin on December 10, 2020 - 11:09 pm

    Once again such wonderful research and resulting in an undiscovered gem. Thank you so much for everything you do.

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