Melvill Family Case Study: The First Generation

First generation edit 2

The First Generation

John Melvill (‘John II’)

John II, born in Dunbar in 1751, the second son of John I and Jean I, was baptised in Dunbar church on 29 December of that year. Having gone out to India in 1777, the Bengal civil service records for 1780 show him as a writer at Burdwan, a town about 60 miles north of Calcutta. He gradually rose through the ranks in the civil service, being recorded as a factor in 1782 and a junior merchant in 1785. This was the period when his younger brother, Philip I, was staying with him to recuperate after four years imprisonment in Mysore.  By 1787 he was paymaster at Cawnpore, 300 miles south-east of Delhi in what is now Uttar Pradesh, returning to West Bengal in 1792 and becoming a judge in Dacca by 1803 with the status of senior merchant. In 1803 the British conquered Orissa, defeating the Marathas and driving them back to their heartlands where they were defeated by an army under Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Lord Wellington) at Assaye in September 1803. A commission was appointed, consisting of John and Lieutenant Colonel Harcourt, to execute a series of treaties with a group of independent rulers who dominated small tracts of territories between the coast (where the British were already) and the hills.[1] His final post, before returning to England in 1813, was as a senior judge at the Court of Appeal in Calcutta.[2]

On 4 February 1794 John married Dorothea Carrington (d 1799), the daughter of an estate owner in Barbados and sister of Sir Codrington Carrington (1769-1849), a lawyer in Calcutta at the time of the marriage and later Chief Judge of Ceylon.[3] John and Dorothea had two children in India, John III was born on 5 August 1796 and Edmund on 4 December 1797. Less than two years after the birth of her second son Dorothea died.[4] On his return to England, John II settled in London. On 15 June 1813 he bought Furnace Farm in Surrey at an auction at the Bank of England, paying £10,000 plus £998 for the timber. Furnace Farm covered about 385 acres, situated between what were then the villages of Crawley and Worth in West Sussex and about a mile from each. It had been part of the Cuckfield Place Estate, which had a total acreage of over 8,200 acres, belonging to Warden Sergison who had died in July 1811.[5] On the Furnace Farm map is written in pencil ‘Sold to Mr Melvill Esq’. In the 1960s, the expansion of Crawley meant that the farm and its lands became housing and light industrial buildings; its name is preserved as the district is called Furnace Green.

In December 1817 John II married Elizabeth Sneade (dates unknown) in Ludlow, Shropshire. He drowned shortly afterwards at Barmouth on 9 August 1818, leaving his ‘estate in Sussex’[6] to his son John III who had been educated at Eton and lived the life of a gentleman. He sold Furnace Farm in August 1819 for £9,000, the drop in value presumably being a result of the post-war agricultural depression, and lived in Amersham and Oxford before dying in Lincoln, unmarried and intestate on 5 March 1828 at the young age of 31. His younger brother, Edmund, also went to Eton before going to Trinity College, Cambridge in July 1817 where he graduated with a BA in 1818 and an MA in 1821 before being ordained at St Mary Marylebone in April 1822.[7] He was Chancellor of St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire where he died, unmarried, on 27 September 1857, leaving just under £30,000 (c.£1.5m in today’s money).[8]

Philip Melvill (‘Philip I’)

Philip I was born on 7 April and baptised on 13 April 1760 in Dunbar.[9] At the age of sixteen his father purchased a commission for him in the 73rd Regiment (Lord Macleod’s) Highlanders. He was required to go to the far north of Scotland, where Melvill relatives still lived, to raise a number of men for the regiment before he took up his commission.[10] In 1779 the regiment sailed for India, although there was a brief mutiny by some of the troops following rumours that the regiment had been sold to the EIC.[11] They arrived in the Madras Roads on 8 January 1780 after a ten-month voyage.[12] At that time Madras had no harbour and everything had to be transferred to smaller, local boats before the passengers were finally taken through the surf on the backs of local coolies.[13]

The second Mysore War had broken out soon after the arrival of Macleod’s Highlanders between the British and the forces of Hyder Ali, the Sultan of Mysore, who was allied with the French.[14] In July 1780, 800 Highlanders joined an army of over 4,000 men, mostly Indian troops, under the command of Major General Sir Hector Munro at St Thomas’ Mount cantonment near Madras, before marching to Conjeveram (present-day Kanchipura) about forty-five miles west of Chennai where Hyder Ali’s forces were camped.[15] There they were meant to meet up with an EIC army under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Baillie who had command of an EIC army of some 3,000 (mostly Indian) men. Baillie had been on campaign, under canvas, in what is now Andhra Pradesh for nearly eight months before being sent to join Munro in a forced march of over 300 miles in less than eight weeks.[16]

Hyder Ali sent 10,000 men and 18 guns under the command of his son Tipu Sultan to intercept Baillie. The first battle, on 6 September just outside Perambancum, some fifteen miles to the north east of Conjeveram, was a victory for the British; Baillie asked for reinforcements to be sent by Munro to enable him to advance further. Historically there had been conflicts between the EIC and British armies over the chain of command. EIC officers tended to be older and more experienced and had gained promotions over a long period, while British army officers usually obtained commissions and promotions by purchase. The mutual antipathy between the officers of the armies often led to disputes, orders being ignored and delays.[17] This was evident in this conflict. After an unexplained delay of three days, Munro sent a force to Baillie’s aid, which consisted of the 73rd Highlanders, including Philip I, and companies of European grenadiers and sepoys under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Fletcher. They linked up with Baillie on 9 September and advanced towards Hyder Ali’s forces. The next morning, near the village of Pollilur, they found themselves surrounded by the superior Mysorean forces and, although the British were initially successful, the sheer weight of numbers and casualties forced the final 400 or so men to retreat into a square and, eventually to raise a white flag. Although quarter was promised, in his papers Philip I described how some of Hyder Ali’s forces went berserk, killing the captured and wounded and it was only the intervention of the French officers under Colonel Lally that prevented all the British forces being killed.[18] The Battle of Pollilur was the worst defeat suffered to that date by the British in India. It is depicted in a massive and very detailed mural on the outside west wall of Tipu Sultan’s summer palace in Seringapatam (now Srirangapatna), some fifteen miles north of Mysore. Colonels Baillie and Fletcher can be identified along with the Frenchman, Lally.[19]

Philip had suffered terribly during the battle. A musket ball had shattered his left arm and a sabre severed the tendons on his right wrist. He suffered over twenty wounds and his memoir recounts that he was left naked on the battlefield for two days.[20] In all, the Highlanders suffered almost 100 dead, and 100 wounded. The latter, with just twenty three unwounded, were rounded up and imprisoned first in Bangalore and then some (but not including Philip[21]) were transferred to the fort at Srirangapatna. Held for four years, until the end of the war, only about thirty of the soldiers survived. Colonel Baillie himself died in November 1782, having been denied any medical aid and in terrible conditions.[22] Very few of the survivors were able to continue in active service. Philip went to Bengal to stay with his brother John and recuperate, and it was not until 1786 that he was well enough to attempt the journey home.[23] His wounds and treatment in captivity meant that, for a long time, he was unable to cut his own food and needed help dressing and undressing.[24] According to a letter written by his widow, he never regained the full use of his arms.[25]

002 srirangapatha mural

Figure 2. The mural at the Summer Palace, Srirangapatna, depicting the Battle of Pollilur. Note the defensive British square, the ammunition cart exploding, Colonel Baillie’s palanquin and, somewhere in the centre Philip Melvill fighting. Image courtesy of David Williams.

On his return he was offered a promotion to Captain and the command of an invalid garrison in Guernsey. There he met his future wife, Elizabeth Dobree (1770-1844). He married Elizabeth in 1788 and they had their first three children on the island. The Dobrees were a French Huguenot family who had left their property in Normandy following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and taken refuge in Guernsey. Elizabeth’s father Peter Dobree (1722-1808) was a dean in the protestant church in Guernsey and Philip’s memoirs record many discussions on religious topics.[26]

After five years in Guernsey, the threat of war with France led the Melvills to leave the island in 1793; the family moved first to Southampton then, after a severe illness, Philip applied to be put on the retired list and moved to Topsham in Devon. However, after a summer of recuperation in 1796, he was offered the command of an invalid garrison at Pendennis Castle in Cornwall. He took over a run down, ill-disciplined company and there was a running conflict between the invalid garrison and a militia regiment also quartered in Pendennis.[27]Within a year he was promoted to Lieutenant Governor, a post he held until his death in 1811. The castle commanded the entrance to Falmouth harbour and was an important defensive position during the wars with France. Soon after his promotion, Philip established the Pendennis Volunteer Artillery; in 1802 he helped found a Church girls’ school in 1802 and a boys’ school in 1805.[28] In 1807 he established the Falmouth Misericordia Society ‘for the relief of distressed persons’.[29] The anonymous author of Philip’s memoirs emphasised his Christian convictions, and this was echoed by other writers. An early history of Cornwall says of Philip that ‘he was respected and loved by all who were favoured with his acquaintance. By his death the affluent lost an amiable companion; and the poor, a benefactor who sympathised with them in their distress’.[30]

003 philip melvill

Figure 3. Portrait of Philip Melvill. Taken from E. J. Joubert de la Ferte, The Melvill Family (London, 1920). Image courtesy of David Williams.

004 elizabeth dobree

Figure 4. Portrait of Elizabeth Melvill. Taken from E. J. Joubert de la Ferte, The Melvill Family (London, 1920). Image courtesy of David Williams.



Figure 5. The memorial to Philip Melvill in Falmouth Church. Image courtesy of David Williams.

In 1804 Philip became seriously ill and a change of air was recommended. He took leave of absence and moved, with his family, temporarily to Bristol but he soon resumed his post at Pendennis while the family remained in Bristol. A number of letters written by him to his wife and children in this period have survived and illustrate the conscientiousness with which he carried out his duties.[31] Early in 1811 he decided to move his family to London where the children would have better prospects and relocated to Islington.[32] In August 1811 he returned to Cornwall to put his affairs in order before returning to London for the winter, but fell ill again.[33] This time he did not recover and died at Pendennis on 27 October 1811 at the comparatively young age of 51. His contributions to the town of Falmouth were recognised by the road between the town and the castle (now the A39) being named ‘Melvill Road’.


Figure 6. Pendennis castle. Image courtesy of David Williams.

His family continued to live in London but his widow Elizabeth, a woman ‘of strong character, piety, and keen intelligence’[34] was left with slender means and five of her children unprovided for.[35] Soon after Philip’s death she wrote to the governors of Christ’s Hospital School asking for financial assistance for her younger sons to allow them to remain at the school.[36] By this time his eldest surviving son, James Cosmo, was a clerk at the EIC. Elizabeth died in 1844 in Camberwell. On the 1841 census return she had been living in Grove Lane, Camberwell with two of her unmarried daughters and two servants.[37]

Other children of John and Jean

Little is known of the other children. The eldest son Robert (1749-?) never married. The eldest daughter Marion (1750-?) died in infancy and one of the other daughters Jeanmarried a Major Rose, a British army officer.[38]

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Note on tables: Each section begins with a simplified tree of that generation. All surnames are MELVILL unless otherwise stated. Names in bold are connected to the EIC and names in italics have India connections through career or marriage. A and B are links to the next generation table.

[1] John Beames, Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian (London, 1961), p. 260; John Joseph Stockdale, History of all the Events and Transactions which have taken place in India (London, 1805), pp. 222-33.
[2] Bengal Civil Service lists in BL.
[3] ODNB entry for Sir Codrington Edmund Carrington, T. F. Henderson, rev. Roger T. Stearn.
[4] Gentleman’s Magazine, April (1800), p. 395.
[5] William Budgen, Plans of the Cuckfield Place Estate. Situated in The Several under mentioned Parishes, viz, Cuckfield, Hurstpierpoint, Keymer, Slaugham, Balcomb, and Worth belonging to Warden Sergison, Esquire (1809), West Sussex Record Office, Sergison MSS 1/526 p27.
[6] John Melvill’s will 7 October 1818, West Sussex Record Office, Add Mss 28474.
[7] Cambridge Alumni database entry: – accessed 18 August 2013.
[8] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 14 November 1857.
[9] Dunbar parish registers, 706/0020/0222.
[10]Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill, pp. 9-11.
[11]Ibid., p. 28.
[12]Ibid., p. 32.
[13] V. Sriram, oral information, February 2014.
[14] The Second Anglo–Mysore War (1780–1784) was a conflict in Mughal India between the Kingdom of Mysore under its sultan, Hyder Ali, and the EIC/British government. Mysore was a key French ally in India, and the Franco–British conflict raging on account of the American Revolutionary War helped spark Anglo–Mysorean hostilities in India. The EIC’s forces were augmented by the King’s troops sent from Britain and Hanover, which was also ruled by King George III.
[15], accessed 15 February 2011, which quotes from James Browne, A History of the Highlands, and of The Highland Clans; with an extensive selection from the hitherto inedited Stuart Papers (Edinburgh, 1850).
[16] Tritton, When the Tiger Fought the Thistle, pp. 230-1.
[17] Tritton, When the Tiger Fought the Thistle, pp. 149-55.
[18] Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill, pp. 44-5.
[19] For a full description of the mural see Dr Veena Shekar, Historical Paintings of Srirangapatna (New Delhi, 2010), Ch 3.
[20] Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill, p. 46.
[21] An undated letter from Philip in the BL Melvill papers, p. 118, says he was imprisoned for four years in Bangalore.
[22] Tritton, When the Tiger Fought the Thistle, pp. 281-2. Baillie’s nephew erected a monument to him at Gumbaz, about a mile from Srirangapatna. The dungeon in the fort at Srirangapatna is named ‘Col Baillie’s Dungeon’ and is open to visitors. For the broader context of this captivity, see Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850 (London, 2002).
[23] Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill, p. 62.
[24]Ibid., p. 66.
[25] BL Melvill papers, p. 122.
[26] Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill, p. 74.
[27] Ibid., p. 34.
[28] Bob Dunstan, The Book of Falmouth & Penryn(Chesham, 1975), pp. 34-5.
[29] Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill, p. 122
[30] Fortescue Hitchens, The History of Cornwall, Samuel Drew (ed.) (London, 1824), Vol 2, pp.257-58S. As cited in Pasfield Oliver, Pendennis and St Mawes: An Historical Sketch of Two Cornish Castles (London, 1875), pp. 77-8.
[31] British Library, Add MS 58438.
[32] Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill, p. 129.
[33]Ibid., p. 133.
[34] de la Ferté, The Melvill Family, p. 6.
[35]Ibid., p. 6.
[36] BL Melvill papers, p. 122.
[37] 1841 census return HO107/1050/3, p. 4.
[38] BL Melvill papers, pp. 102 and 196.