Britons Behaving Badly – Cautionary Tales from the India Office Archives.

So it has been a few weeks since I updated this blog, mainly because writing deadlines (incidentally a chapter for a Cultural History of Alcohol, forthcoming with Bloomsbury), industrial action, and dissertation marking are not conducive to blog composition. Even so, the past couple of months have given me the opportunity to start my research proper, and begin my archival visits.

Having had chance to get to grips with the reference system (thanks to the expert instruction of archivist Antonia Moon) and learnt how to follow up on information found in the archival documents by using additional reference materials such as the military and civil lists held by the British Library, it feels as though I’m making good progress. Along with reports, files, and financial sources, I have mainly been reading correspondence sent between the Bengal Presidency and the East India Company in London between 1800-1857, and then between the Government of India and the India Office in London up to 1930. The Company and the Government were extremely thorough in their recordkeeping, and copies of letters exchanged in India between stations and officers would also be sent back to Britain to be held in the central archives. This means there is a wealth of detail and insight into how the British government of India worked not in an abstract sense, but rather in terms of the concrete and quotidian management of British colonies.

I started working on India in relation to the more dramatic, and exceptional, events of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and the diaries, journals and reports from that period speak of a time when the Empire believed (rightly) that it was fighting for its life. However, sources such as the India Office Records offer an glimpse into the everyday existence of Empire, and the kinds of mundane duties, inspections and other tasks its servants would have to perform. They speak of disagreements over job titles, pay conditions, confusion over leave allowances and all manner of other petty issues that no doubt every contemporary HR department is still familiar with. Similarly, they are filled with sickness and ill health. In a report on the recruitment of Civil Master Armourers, we hear of Thomas Grant’s piles, about Philip Jones’ fevers and dysentery, Thomas Fletcher’s fits, and all that the Army decide to do about them. Reading these documents, it is clear that these are not the pasteboard heroes of Victorian melodrama that fill the stories of the Rebellion, but rather very real and very sickly flesh and blood.


McEwan’s advert, 1906. (Image Credit:

Health and infirmity were a near constant presence in colonial India, of course, but what links these cases (and what made them of note for me) is the suggestion in each instance that it was their own intemperate habits that were partially responsible for exacerbating their illnesses. Grant, Jones and Fletcher are small beer though when compared to others. Some of the more interesting work of my research so far has been found sifting through the correspondence that deals with the badly behaved Britons of Bengal; those officers, men and civil servants who disgraced themselves through their excessive drinking and pathological intemperance. The details of crimes and punishment of the private soldiers and NCOs are typically brief and factual, however, the officers warranted more thorough treatment, often with a series of letters exchanged, and extensive background information on the case provided, especially if the end result was a court martial, or removal from service.

One of the first series of correspondence I came across concerned the actions of Lieutenant Edward Routledge of the 12th Native Infantry, based in Barrackpore. Routledge arrived in the Bengal Presidency in January 1819, a veteran of the Nepalese Wars and possessed of 10 year’s service. His first few months there appeared to pass without incident, however, in August of 1819 Routledge suffered a spectacular fall from grace in which, under the influence of ‘strong drink’, he rode his horse about the cantonment with drawn sword and ‘putting everyone he approached in fear from their lives’. He was placed under arrest after he wounded a Sepoy (a native trooper) in the face, but refused to listen to the charges, pushed past his guards, and went to the bazaar to buy more drink. He was later found in his bungalow in a ‘state of beastiality [sic] both as to conduct and appearance that would shame even the lowest European’.

At first glance, you’d think this would be a fairly open and shut case, resulting swift punishment and a hasty departure for Routledge, However, as the tranche of letters go on to explain, the situation was not that simple and a lengthy investigation followed. Routledge’s situation is considered in a long letter of 20th June 1820 authored by his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Nichol, in which Nichol deplored the ‘outrageous violence of this unfortunate young man’s conduct whilst under the influence of intoxicating stimulants to which he is unfortunately habitually addicted’.

Nichol reserved judgment though on the grounds that Routledge ‘exhibited a constitutional infirmity which not only affects his intellect but frequently deprives him entirely of reason’. Accounting for his own behaviour, Routledge ascribed his intolerance of alcohol and loss of control to a fever contracted during his service in Nepal in 1816, and was supported in this assessment by the medical officer in attendance, Major Grant. In light of his apparent ill health, Routledge was placed on invalid pension and allowed (at his own request) to stay on in Bengal as he had no prospects back in England. However, it does not seem Routledge was to remain there very long; further letters from July and November 1820 describe how he was in a near-permanent state of intoxication with ‘barely a shirt on his back’, and the EIC records his discharge that year followed by further receipt of his pension in Europe in 1821. After that date, the records are silent.


Britons enjoying beer, and shrubbery. Image credit: rustic&

Routledge was by no means the last in this vein though. Elsewhere, and some fifty years later, the records tell the faintly tragic tales of Captain C.A. Coles of the Bengal Staff Corps, and of Mr Peirce de Lacy Henry Johnstone, Assistant Commissioner in the Bengal Civil Service. (Incidentally, my first few trips have also given me a new-found appreciation for the inventors of the typewriter, whose genius means that records after about 1865 are a hell of a lot easier for an accidental Victorianist like me to read…).

Coles was the fairly well to do son of a political agent (as recorded on his marriage certificate) and began his army service at 19 in 1868, noted as an ‘officer of promise and zeal’. However, in 1877 he was put on sick leave for intemperance at the verge of delirium tremens, and would then spend the next five years alternately back in service or drying out. A letter from his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Worsley, dated 17th July 1881, states that in his opinion Coles will never get over his evil habits, and is unfit for duty because he could not be trusted. Intriguingly, Worsley also writes darkly of how Coles suffered ‘a great disappointment’ in 1876 (which is not explained) after which he greatly deteriorated. Despite Coles’ list of symptoms, including enlargement of the liver, a white-furred tongue, flatulence, constipation, vomiting, nausea, and anorexia, the medical board ruled that his hepatitis and not drunkenness rendered him unfit, and that his illness was likely climate-related. Subsequent discussion conceded, almost comically, that his habits exaggerated the risk, but that he was not sufficiently intemperate for that to be the cause of his ailments. He was dismissed in 1882, and given £100 per annum on compassionate grounds.

Johnstone began what also appeared to be the start of a glittering career in 1871 when he was posted to Lahore, and then Ferozepore in the Punjab. Johnstone was again full of promise; assessed as a man of ‘unusual natural abilities’ in languages, he was a Boden Scholar of Sanskrit at Baliol, and had a similarly impressive proficiency with Persian, passing head of his year at the Civil Service open examination in 1869. After an excellent start at Ferozepore, however, he seemingly fell into bad habits, drinking to excess to the point of incapacity, and illegally removing court records in which he made improper judgments. When his colleagues reported him in 1875 (after numerous requests to resolve the matter privately) he was put on leave, and then on furlough until November 1877. Rather than rejoin the service as instructed though, Johnstone remained at Bombay for a further three months before eventually proceeding to Punjab. Posted to Hoshiapur and later Sialkot (in 1879), his conduct improved a little, but there were frequent relapses and he was subject to various official and ‘demi-official’ warnings. Johnstone was finally (and reluctantly) removed from service in 1884, retired on incapacity and pensioned at £290 plus £20 for every year of service per annum (a tidy enough sum of £19,000 a year in modern money according to the National Archives).

Of course, the nature of these records means that more negative drinking stories like this are common. However, a positive note might be found in the apparent compassion with which officers sought consistently to deal with these drunken men and their addictions across the century. They are condemned in strong language in the reports, but not necessarily in action, and are often met with a good deal of sympathy and leniency despite their behaviour, which, were we to find ourselves in similar states, is perhaps the best any of us might hope for.