William Gamul Farmer Case Study: The Letters

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Figure 1. Nonsuch Park, Surrey. Image courtesy of Penelope Farmer.

The Letters

The family letters were preserved in a dispatch box held in the family mansion at Nonsuch Park in Surrey, passed on to my father at the sale of the house in 1937. After my father’s and my brother’s deaths, the dispatch box fetched up in a niece’s house in Wales, where I encountered the letters for the first time, two years ago. The writers were William Gamul Farmer (1746-1797), his younger brother Samuel (1747-1839), who was a scarlet dye merchant, and their mother, Margaret Farmer (1725?-1797). There are also two letters sent to William by two business colleagues in London. The collection consists in all of thirty-six letters, most of which I have now transcribed, sometimes with difficulty and in need of help.[1]

Almost all the surviving letters from England were written in the 1770s. Of the thirteen sent from India by William himself, two (to his father) were dated 1763 and 1774; the rest were addressed to his brother Sam, between 1789 and 1795. The final group, from Surat, where William ended his career as Chief, are, thankfully – his later writing was hard to read — copies by one of his Indianwriters. (This duplication was common practice, so many of the ships carrying mail were lost at sea.)

From the beginning William’s task in India was to make his fortune, a theme that reverberates throughout both collections of his correspondence. How much money he made in India is still in question. But a letter in his own hand, dated June 1794, states that part of his gains are being sent back anonymously, to avoid suspicion—William was suspected by the Company of dubious transactions in the years he spent down on the Malabar Coast, 1792-4. The sums involved are described in full detail in the letter book and though not enormous compared tosome fortunes sent back from Bengal, they do appear substantial enough to indicate that the family’s subsequent rise from the merchant class might not have been due simply to Sam’s successful dye business, as the family have always assumed:  ‘the Farmers put the red into redcoats’ was the word around Nonsuch Park, the estate where Samuel set himself up as a country gentleman after William’s death. I will return to this at greater length, later in this case study.

There are twelve letters from Sam to his brother, between 1772 and 1777, detailing his life in London, his business, the health and doings of their father, complaints about their mother and their elder half sister in Chelsea. He details his attempts to get preferment for William, imparts gossip about friends, and outlines his love life.  The failure of his first attempt at courtship sends Samuel on an abbreviated Grand Tour, during which he is invited to a private meeting with the then Pope conducted entirely in Italian.[2] This encounter suggests, as does his frequent use of Latin and French tags, that the two brothers were well educated. (In one letter William explains attempts in patronage by Sir Francis Baring, of the banking family, was due to their having been school fellows:  certainly, Baring’s educational record in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography put him at Mr Fuller’s Academy at Lothbury, a well-thought of private school not far from the Farmer family’s home and dyeworks.).[3] Sam’s command of Italian echoes later evidence of William’s own language skills in India, including fluent Marathi, probable Persian, also working knowledge of Portuguese and, possibly of one of the languages of the Malabar.

There are two further letters from Sam.  One, dated 1784 and addressed to the younger brother of his partner, Goodwin, in Virginia, suggests his involvement in the slave trade; the second dated 1810 to his son, William Meeke Farmer, refuses to advance him the funds he requested following his wife’s first pregnancy but does make clear the by now considerable extent of Sam’s landed property.

The liveliest of the letters are five from William and Sam’s mother, Margaret Farmer between 1775—1777.  She was a difficult woman, evidently, complaining about everything and everyone and obsessed with money (not unreasonably, nominally an heiress, she was entirely dependent on largesse from her male relations, including by this time her two sons.)  Finally there are four letters, addressed to William between 1776-7, two from Harding Stracey, a clerk in the House of Commons Committee Office, by the tone of the letters an old friend, and two from William Richardson, Company Secretary at the Company headquarters in Leadenhall Street.  All touch on politics, East India Company affairs and gossip relating to both (Stracey’s brother was recently retired from the Company service in Madras).

In comparison to the family letters, the letter book is a much more extensive collection of correspondence. Some letters, again, are to William’s brother Sam, in England; others are to London bankers to whom he is intending to transmit his money.  There is also one loving and personal letter to Sam’s wife, Elizabeth, of whom William is clearly very fond. Many more—the majority—are to fellow East India Company servants, with some of whom he was clearly on affectionate terms. There are letters too to the Parsi or Portuguese merchants William did business with and to whom he wrote with equal respect and affection, together with several to Mr Murdock Brown down in Malabar, whose name will feature later. Many letters relate to his worries about sending home his fortune, worries caused by the French Revolution and the fears it aroused in England: ‘if the mob has its way we will be ‘republic of Albion’ he wails, in a letter from Surat dated 23 June 1795. Later that year (29 December 1795) William can be found making arrangements for his sudden departure from India, selling horses and carriages, sending other goods to auction and listing the few things he wants to take with him. Though I have not yet been able to transcribe these letters fully –in numbers they far exceed the original group—I have made a précis of their contents and copied some relevant passages. Even at a glance they make clear just how embedded William Gamul Farmer was within the East India Company hierarchy, and how extensive and sometimes affectionate his acquaintance was with his correspondents, many of them Company hands, often with a much higher profile than his own.  They includeJonathan Duncan, later Governor of Bombay, William Palmer of Delhi, one of William Dalrymple’s “White Moghuls” and Sir Charles Malet, the Resident at Poonah [Pune].[4]

It is the very informality of these letters that makes them interesting; what they leave out is as informative as what they put in. They indicate the kind of forces that drove this Bombay servant during his life in India, how he managed and continued to nurture his family relationships from afar, and of how the family managed and fostered their relationship with him, despite the parties being so distant in time and space. In this way, like other such letters, they help humanise our understanding of the effects and experience of Empire at home and abroad. Not least, in the way Sam passes on information about politics in London, and William describes events in India – particularly in the letters from Surat – they show, in informal terms, how ‘home’ became to seem ‘abroad’ and ‘abroad’ ‘home’ from the standpoint of the old India hand, no matter how he might continue to regard his original home in theory. Above all they make clear that what made India real for the Farmer family was William’s being there; his presence in India was far more significant to them than the nature of India itself.  Sarah Pearsall, focusing on trade in the Atlantic world, suggests that it was common for middle-class families of that time to send one member away. She adds that ‘strange new locations could force some to cling ever more resolutely to family ties’ and that ‘these ties could often helped to enable imperial and colonial power. …The family ….created worlds of trust and allowed for even long distances to be surmounted [helping] forge the tone of familiarity.’ [5]  William Gamul Farmer’s extensive correspondence allows us to trace these linkages between family, trade and empire from the perspective of the later eighteenth-century Indian Ocean world.

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[1] Thank you Margaret Woodall, archivist at Belmont House, Kent.

[2] Samuel Farmer to William Gamul Farmer (henceforth WGF), 29 March 1795.  The letters are in the private possession of the Farmer family.

[3] Samuel Farmer to WGF, 16September 1795.  For Baring, see John Orbell, ‘Baring, Sir Francis, first baronet (1740–1810)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1382].

[4] For Duncan, see Pamela Nightingale, ‘Duncan, Jonathan (bap. 1756, d. 1811)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8224]; for Palmer, see William Dalrymple, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India (London, 2002); for Malet, see David J. Howlett, ‘Malet, Sir Charles Warre, first baronet (1753–1815)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17876] .

[5] Sarah Pearsall, Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 13.