The Indian Seal Case Study: The Sykes Family

Francis syke's bank account

Page from Francis Sykes’s bank account with Goslings Bank 1770/1771 showing purchases of East India stock.

The fortune brought back from India by Francis Sykes was reckoned by his contemporaries to be one of the largest, indeed second only to that of Clive.  It was sufficient to enable him to buy two more large estates, Basildon Park in Berkshire and the Gillingham Estate in Dorset as well as a seat in Parliament and in 1781 a much coveted baronetcy.   But his wealth was not destined to last.  Even during his lifetime losses on his investment in East India stock, court proceedings, the rebuilding and decoration (never completely finished by him) of the house at Basildon Park, a ne’er do well elder son who ran up gambling and other debts (not to mention notorious and expensive court proceedings) meant that his estates were heavily mortgaged by the time of his death in 1804.

His son, the 2nd Baronet, survived him by only two months leaving three small children, the eldest son being four years of age when he inherited the baronetcy and the estates.  The inevitable mismanagement during his lengthy minority, coupled with protracted and presumably expensive court proceedings connected with family trusts, further depleted family resources, not aided by the 3rd Baronet’s own expensive tastes and his marriage to a beautiful woman similarly inclined who was Disraeli’s mistress for three years – indeed there is a strong possibility that Sykes money kept Disraeli out of a debtor’s prison.   Disraeli’s novel Henrietta Temple (1836) was inspired by this love affair and contained many heartfelt personal references, eg. “To violate in her favour every duty of society; this is a lover, and this is love.”    The heroine’s letters “are so like those of the real Henrietta that one is tempted to think that Disraeli transcribed them verbatim” (Disraeli – by Robert Blake 1966).   For the 3rd Baronet and his wife (but not for Disraeli) the eventual outcome was social disgrace.  The estates were sold off – the last, Basildon Park, in 1838.  Henrietta’s sons became successively the 4th, 5th and 6th Baronets and at each step the family money diminished.  In 1879 the most valuable Sykes chattels (including the largest portrait Gainsborough ever painted) were destroyed in a devastating fire at the London Pantechicon, a supposedly fireproof storage facility, and this again was followed by court proceedings against its owners.  The senior branch of the family died out and the descendants of the brother of the 3rd Baronet inherited the Baronetcy but without any of the money which had previously gone with it.  The 7th Baronet was a tutor at Cheltenham, the 8th a country parson.

FGS at Longview Tea Estate c 1933

Sir Francis Sykes 9th Baronet in Darjeeling c.1933


There is a family story that Francis Sykes was assisted in his escape from the English factory at Cossimbazar by an Indian princess (vide the family crest above) on the understanding that he would marry her.  When he did not she cursed him with the words “From the land you came, to the land you shall return.”  His father had been a Yorkshire farmer.  The 9th Baronet (1907-1990), who worked as a teaplanter in Darjeeling before World War II (and was married in Calcutta Cathedral) and later in his career as an agricultural estate manager, reckoned that the curse had worked itself out with him. The curse, if that is what it was, is nothing if not ambiguous but there is no doubt that the Sykes family was back to square one after only four generations.

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