Lockdown Research: Switching the Lens:Beyond Elizabeth Purves

In my previous post, ‘Discovering Elizabeth Purves’, I described something of the life of the Anglo-Indian daughter of Richardson Purves, who, c. 1806, having made his fortune in India, had brought her with him when he returned to England. While undertaking this research I was intrigued to discover that he had left behind at his indigo plantation in Tirhoot a man named John Purves, who had been listed in the New East India Kalendars for 1801 and 1804 as being in his employ. I thought it might be interesting to see what I could find about this branch of the Purves family, for it really would be too extraordinary if John Purves, who records show had arrived in India in 1797 specifically to assist Richardson Purves at Tirhoot, were not related to him in some way.

What I do know is that John Purves did remain in Tirhoot as an indigo planter, dying there in 1820. In the accounts drawn up after his death there is note of a payment to be made to ‘Bebee Razoo’, ‘bebee’ or ‘bibi’ being the term for an indigenous female companion/mistress. This is the only entry for a payment to an Indian woman. As I noted in my previous post, the name of Elizabeth Purves’ mother was rendered on the entry in the St Giles Cripplegate baptismal register as ‘Rajoo’. I did just wonder if that could have been a mis-transcription and perhaps the name should have been ‘Razoo’ (the name in John Purves’ accounts is written with a long tail to the ‘z’). That is, could the woman who appears as a payee in the 1820 accounts of John Purves be the mother of Elizabeth, the payment an indication of long-term maintenance ? Or, after Richardson’s departure, could she have then become the ‘bebee’ of John Purves? Or was she, perhaps, ‘bebee’ to John Purves, but an entirely different woman? Well, as usual with these attempts to peer behind the curtain that separates us from a different time and a different culture, who knows?

However, digging into the digitized India Office records I did find further evidence of the continuing existence of members of the Purves family in Bengal. For there is an entry for the baptism in 1825 of Mary, ‘daughter of John Purves, indigo planter, and a native mother’. There is no other mention at this time in the records of any John Purves other than the indigo planter at Tirhoot and I think it is safe to assume that the father of Mary is the man who was in the employ of Richardson Purves twenty years earlier.

John Purves died intestate so an inventory of his goods, as compiled for auction after his death, is the only surviving record of his life, providing a fascinating insight into the goods with which an indigo planter was surrounded. His extensive library, in particular, interested me. How did one amuse oneself in Tirhoot in the first decades of the 19th c? Why, by reading the Spectator, Edinburgh Review, Blackstone’s Commentaries, Smollett’s Works, Godwin’s Political Justice, Sporting Magazine, Debrett’s Peerage, Poems of Ossian, Smith’s Wealth of the Nations, Swift’s works, Farley’s Cookery etc etc – and numerous Voyages, Gazetteers and atlases. The household inventory does not, however, make any reference to Mary or any other child.

Seven years later the accounts drawn up, in a similar fashion, after the death of another Tirhoot indigo planter, Edward Egerton, do reveal something further about members of the Purves Indian diaspora. The first thing to note is that an 1829 announcement in the London Gazette discloses that one of the two men nominated as Egerton’s next-of-kin was his uncle ‘in England’, Richardson Purves. And, secondly, Edward Egerton’s accounts mention sums paid for the board and tuition of Miss Mary Purves, Mr William Purves, Mr James Egerton, and Miss Fanny Egerton. Extrapolation leads me to surmise that Edward Egerton was a relation of the late John Purves and, since his death, had been charged with care of his children.

I have explained that I’m pretty certain of the parentage of Mary Purves, who must have been born sometime before the death of John Purves in 1820, but what of William Purves? I can find no record of his birth or baptism but from the record of his death at Allahabad in 1870 I think we was born c 1812/1813 and, because he is recorded in Egerton’s accounts alongside Mary Purves, I cannot help thinking he must be her brother, another child of John Purves and ‘a native mother’. There is no record of John Purves having been married to a European woman.

Edward Egerton’s accounts reveal that in the early months of 1828 Mary Purves and Fanny Egerton received board and tuition from a Mrs M. Moore, but that, after November 1828, their care was transferred to Theophilus Reichardt. A little research showed that he was the Rev Reichardt, who had been born in Wurttemberg, trained in Basle, and had arrived in Calcutta in 1822 as a missionary under the aegis of the Church Missionary Society for India and the East. This was the society to which Richardson Purves and his family were generous donors. However, just at the time when he undertook the tuition of Mary and Fanny, Reichardt had left the Mission after a disagreement. He and his wife had then, as his obituary in the Calcutta Christian Observer (1836) reported, ‘entered upon the conduct of a seminary for young ladies in the city [Calcutta] where ‘he spared no toil, no pains, no watchfulness, to promote the improvement and comfort of his young charges’. I was pleased to note that the obituarist particularly mentions that ‘his was no stinted board at which his pupils fed sparingly’. Reichardt clearly remained close to Fanny Egerton for in the records of her marriage in Calcutta Cathedral in 1835 he stood as her ‘Next Friend’.

In 1840 Mary Purves married Richard Thaddeus Rutter and had two daughters – Mary, 1844, and Ellen, 1848. James Egerton was born in 1821, the son of James Egerton, an indigo planter. This information comes from his baptismal record, a ceremony he undertook late in life, in 1862. For this record he chose to give his father’s name, but not his mother’s. I think this indicates that he was certainly illegitimate and I am assuming that, therefore, his mother was Indian. I can find no trace of Fanny Egerton’s birth or baptism, but suspect she was sister to James. Her husband, Edmund Watterton Johnson, died in 1839. She had one son, born in 1837 and named for his father. She never remarried and died in 1872.

Edward Egerton’s accounts show that c.1828 young William Purves and James Egerton were receiving board and tuition from ‘Messrs Drummond and Wilson’. David Drummond was a Scotsman whose Calcutta school, Dhurmotollah Academy, offered the best English education, open to both European and mixed-race boys. Equipped with this excellent education William Purves entered government service, rising to become Registrar of the Board of Revenue in Allahabad. He married Harriette Ereth and had a numerous family, among whom the names ‘Richardson’ and ‘Egerton’ are threaded. One son, Robert Egerton Purves (1859-1943) became a renowned hydraulic engineer in the Punjab. I suspect that an effort was made to eliminate knowledge of an Indian ancestor; in his ‘Who’s Who’ entry Robert Egerton Purves merely described his parentage as ‘European’. He retired to England in the mid-1920s, bringing his family ‘home’ and ending an involvement with India that had lasted c 120 years. Although accompanied by children, unlike Richardson Purves he had made no fortune.

I daresay this post seems a little pointless, a good deal being, if not guesswork, then informed conjecture. But I have found the research instructive; on the way I’ve read something about the place of indigo in the 18th and 19thc Indian economy, the way in which the indigo factories were managed, and gleaned something of the position of those then known as ‘Eurasians’ and now as ‘Anglo-Indians’. Although I have absolute proof of the mixed parentage of Mary Purves, I cannot be sure of that of William Purves, or of Fanny and James Egerton. But it has been interesting attempting to unravel the truth. I wonder if Elizabeth Purves, an illegitimate Anglo-Indian living in England, knew anything of relations in India? There is a fascination about lives lived on the cusp of two civilisations.

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 Jane Kirby on December 18, 2020 - 4:05 pm

    Have you read Jenny Balfour Paul’s book, Deeper than Indigo? Very interesting.

    • #2 by womanandhersphere on December 18, 2020 - 5:20 pm

      I hadn’t encountered it..but am now ordering a copy. Many thanks for the tip. X

  2. #3 by Judy on December 18, 2020 - 4:17 pm

    Oh not pointless at all. Always a joy to read. Keep batting!

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