Melvill Family Case Study


001 pm memoirs frontpiece

Figure 1. Philip and his father at Presmennen taken from Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill. Image courtesy of David Williams.

The Melvill Family and India

By David Williams 

Please note that this case study was first published on in May 2014. The case study was last checked by the project team on 19 August 2014. For citation advice, visit ‘Using the website’.

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On 3 July 1748, in the Scottish town of Dunbar, Baillie John Melvill and Jean Fall,[1] children of two of the prominent families of the town, were married.[2] Dunbar lies approximately 30 miles due east of Edinburgh and about the same distance north of Berwick-upon-Tweed in the county of East Lothian (which was called Haddingtonshire until 1921). John and Jean Melvill are my wife’s five times great grandparents.

John and Jean had seven children, four boys and three girls, who are referred to in this case study as ‘The First Generation’. The Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 had opened up opportunities for Scots, especially the younger sons of the landed and middle classes, in the now British armies and overseas in the expanding empire.[3] Two of the Melvill boys, John, the second oldest (c.1751-1818), and Philip, the youngest (1760-1811), followed this path. Both went to India as young men, but their experiences there could not have been more different. John spent the whole of his working life as a civil servant and judge in India before retiring back to England. Philip came back to Britain still a young man, married and had nine children. Two of his six boys died before fully reaching adulthood, but the other four all had long and varied careers in the service of the East India Company (EIC), three in London and one in India.

This case study explores how the lives of these six men and other members of the family were shaped by their connections, through work or marriage, to the EIC and India. By concentrating on Philip’s children and grandchildren, it illustrates how some British families made a multi-generational commitment to the EIC and India. Philip had twenty-nine grandchildren who survived to adulthood. Of the nine boys seven joined the EIC and of the twenty girls five married husbands with EIC connections.[4]

Soon after Philip’s death, a memoir of him was written anonymously by an evangelical friend (although it could well have been a relation) which has been the source for much of the information about his life.[5] The author had access to Philip’s journals and diaries which (s)he quotes from extensively. Shortly after the First World War (WW1), a great granddaughter of Philip, E.J. Joubert de la Ferté, wrote a book on the Melvill family which gives some of the history of their life in Dunbar, brief biographies of approximately 120 descendants and includes portraits of the some of the more notable members of the family.[6] It was published privately and had fifty-nine subscribers. In 1970 a three times great grandson of Philip M.E. Melvill (b. 1910), deposited a collection of documents dating from the early nineteenth century to the 1920s with the British Library (BL). Many of these refer to the origin of the Melvill family and, along with the memoir and book, have been used as the source of much of the information in this case study.[7] Also in the BL are some letters written by Philip to his wife in the years 1804-05.[8]

Because the same Christian names are frequently used in the family, where possible second names or initials are used to differentiate between members. If there is only one Christian name and the context is unclear, names are numbered in chronological order of birth dates. So Baillie John Melvill is ‘John I’ and Jean Fall ‘Jean I’.

The Melvills

The Dunbar Melvills were a junior branch of a family which had settled in Scotland in the eleventh or twelfth century. One source says that the family originated with a Hungarian nobleman called Malevile who accompanied the Saxon prince Atheling and his sisters, the Princesses Margaret and Christina, to Scotland in 1068.[9] He received lands in Midlothian from King Malcolm Canmore on which he built the first Melville Castle. One descendant wrote in about 1850 ‘We are descended from Sir James Melville of Hale in Fife, third son of Sir John Melville of Raith. Sir James was ambassador from Mary to Elizabeth and in James VI’s Privy Council and died in 1617. His brother Sir Robert Melville was raised to the peerage as Baron Melville of Monimail from which branch the present Earl is descended’.[10]

The spelling of the name varies from document to document. On many of the Dunbar parish records it is spelt Melvil with one ‘l’ while other branches of the family had settled on an ‘e’ at the end. As one later correspondent put it ‘Spelling seems of no account, it varies all through the old books sometimes one ‘l’, two ‘ll’s or with an ‘e’’.[11] The branch of the family with which we are concerned settled on Melvill but an ‘e’ was often added by census enumerators, parish clerks and others.

On the 1748 marriage entry in the Dunbar parish records, John’s title was Baillie, a civic official in local government in Scotland, specifically in burghs such as Dunbar, where baillies held a post similar to that of an alderman or magistrate in England. The equivalent to an English mayor was the Provost, a post held at that time by Robert Fall, one of Jean’s brothers. As well as being a baillie of Dunbar burgh, John was at one time Collector of HM Customs for the burgh. John and Jean lived in Dunbar and had a country house at Presmennen, about five miles from Dunbar.[12]

The Falls

The Fall (pronounced Faw) family was a major presence in Dunbar in the eighteenth century. Jean Fall’s grandfather Robert settled in Dunbar about 1692, having worked in Montrose, a coastal town some 50 miles further north from Dunbar as the crow flies, for the Earls of Haddington.[13] He became a member of the town council and represented the burgh (being the equivalent of an English MP) at the Scottish parliaments until 1702. He had four sons who established themselves in partnership as one of the major merchant enterprises on the east coast. They had a fleet of ships, trading as far as the Mediterranean, the Baltic and North America. They were the driving force behind the prosperity of Dunbar in the eighteenth century with interests in rope making, canvas and sail making, shipbuilding and fisheries. They were also involved in local and national politics and built themselves houses in Dunbar.

Jean Fall’s father, James (c.1685-1743) was one of the four brothers. He was the MP for Dunbar from 1734-42 and a baillie from 1735 to the time of his death. He built Dunbar House (later rebuilt and renamed Lauderdale House) at the north end of the High Street, one of the most prestigious buildings in the town. Another daughter, Janet (c.1725-1802), described as a coquette and a beauty, married Sir John Anstruther of Elie but rumours of the Falls being descended from gypsies, led to her been ostracised by society.[14]

By 1752 the management of the business had passed to the next generation, three cousins, Charles and Robert Fall (c.1724-96) and a Robert Melvill.In that year they established their most ambitious project yet, the East Lothian and Merse Whale Fishing Company which employed over 200 whalers in five vessels but never prospered. Deaths and crises in banking meant that the business retrenched although in 1787 Robbie Burns mentioned a visit to Dunbar and a dinner with Provost Robert Fall, ‘an eminent merchant and most respectable character’.[15] When Robert died the Fall empire had virtually ceased to be. Many of the assets, including Dunbar House, had been bought by the Earl of Lauderdale.

002 srirangapatha muralThe First Generation

On 3 July 1748, Baillie John Melvill and Jean Fall married. Their sons and the two generations that followed them were to be distinctly shaped by a commitment to the East India Company. In the first generation of the Melvill family, two sons, John (1751-1818) and Philip (1760-1811), had important (and in the case of Philip traumatic) East India Company careers in Bengal and Madras respectively.




007 jcm fatherThe Second Generation

As the second generation of Melvill sons grew up in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, they too opted for East India Company careers. While James Cosmo, Philip and Henry embarked on what were to become illustrious Company careers in Britain, their other brother Peter served the Company further afield in Bombay.




019 henrietta melvillThe Third Generation

By the third generation the pattern of East India Company service was set and many of the sons of James Cosmo, Philip and Henry (Peter had three daughters) worked for the Company. Unlike their fathers, however, this generation of Melvills largely saw service out in India.





021 Philip-MelvillConclusion

The Melvill family showed a commitment to the East India Company (and its successor organisation) and India from the last years of the eighteenth century well into the twentieth century. Those that did not work for the Company (such as the daughters) tended to marry into it. Through tracking the different generations of the Melvill family it is possible to see what such a commitment meant and did to British families of the period. 



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The text and research for this case study was primarily authored by project associate David Williams.



On 10 June 2014, Patrick Hilliard left the following comment:

Hello David,
Firstly well done with this project.I have been sifting through all this information over the last two years with visits to the British library sister is the goddaughter of Ann Melvill great granddaughter of Canon a Henry ,still alive today (90) her father Peter Hilliard was Ann’s cousin descending from Augusta and Sweedland Mainwaring via the Broadmead family.My interest lies in all these families.India is of course pre-eminent throughout .I would be very pleased to exchange on all this .you must have lots of interesting documents, I got to photos of Maxwell Melvill, swords of Henry 2 etc.and saw that there are plenty of documents of JCM 3(?) in Alberta…

I shall be sending a copy of your blog if I may o Ann in England as she is not computer equipped

Regards Patrick Hilliard





[1]In some references she appears as Joan or Jane.

[2] Dunbar parish records, 706/00 0050 0019.

[3] Alan Tritton, When the Tiger Fought the Thistle, The Tragedy of Colonel William Baillie of the Madras Army (London, 2013), pp. 7-8.

[4] In this the history of the Melvills over several generations complements the family biography of the Stracheys. See for example Barbara Caine, Bombay to Bloomsbury: A Biography of the Strachey Family (Oxford, 2005) pp. 17-22.

[5] Anonymous, Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill, Esq. Lieut. Gov. of Pendennis Castle, Cornwall: With an Appendix Containing Extracts From His Diaries and Letters Selected by a Friend…together with Two Letters and a Sermon, Occasioned by His Death (London, 1812). An abridged version of this was published in Edinburgh in 1825.

[6] E.J. Joubert de la Ferté, The Melvill Family, A Roll of Honour of the descendants of Philip Melvill and their immediate connections by marriage in the years of the World War 1914-18 (London, 1920).

[7] British Library, Mss Eur Photo Eur 071, referred to as the ‘BL Melvill papers’. They have been copied and bound in two volumes, with consecutive page numbers.

[8] BL, Add MS 58438.

[9] BL Melvill papers, pp. 66-9.

[10] Note by Sir James Cosmo Melvill, BL Melvill papers, p. 61. The reference was to David Leslie-Melville, 8th Earl of Leven, 7th Earl of Melville (1785–1860).

[11] Letter from Gwendoline Margaret Brodie Hoare to Michael Ernest Melvill, BL Melvill papers, pp. 170-6.

[12] Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill, p. 1.

[13]The details about the Fall family come mainly from The Falls of Dunbar on the John Gray Centre website at, accessed 17 August 2013.

[14] A. Francis Steuart, ‘The Falls of Dunbar and their Descent from the Gypsies’, The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries, 16:63 (January 1902).

[15] Francis A Groome (ed.), Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical (Edinburgh, 1882-5), © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2013., accessed 13 December 2013.