Ships, Steam and Innovation Case Study

Blair and Gentle Lion

Figure 1. Blair Southerden sitting in the kitchen of the Swaledale Museum (run by Helen Clifford) with a copy of his book A Gentle Lion and other ancestors (2013). Image courtesy of Helen Clifford.


Ships, Steam & Innovation: An East India Company Family Story, c.1700-1877

By Blair Southerden (with Helen Clifford)


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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This contribution to the East India Company at Home project originates from a meeting with Blair Southerden who came up to North Yorkshire to give a talk to the Upper Dales Family History Group in July 2013. Having heard about the project he brought with him a copy of his privately printed book A Gentle Lion and other ancestors (2013).  In a section in this publication he reveals the story of the discovery of his Parsi origins, the family’s close connections with the East India Company, and how through his association with the Company civil engineer Ardaseer Cursetjee (1808-1877), Blair’s great great grandfather came not only to visit Britain several times, but also to set up home here in 1859.  The opportunity of presenting a case study from an Indian perspective seemed irresistible.  Ardaseer Cursetjee’s story reverses the usual tale of a white male East India Company servant travelling out to India, and coming home to England, and in so doing casts a different light on what ‘The East India Company at Home’ means. The story of Ardaseer Cursetjee and his English and Indian families adds a further dimension to the idea of the emotionally divided children of empire, presented by Elizabeth Buettner in her Empire Families Britons and Late Imperial India (2004).

The following adapted text is taken from Blair Southerden’s Gentle Lion, of which only 32 copies exist. It is re-ordered, reduced and expanded in certain areas to explore themes central to the East India Company at Home project – that is issues surrounding the construction of home and identity.  Blair explains that he was told as a boy that he had a great grandfather who was a Parsi from India. Yet in the dedication of the book to his mother he hints that there was a lost story.  As Blair phrases it, she knew so much more about her family than she was allowed to tell.  It was not until 2004, when he spent some time searching the internet for his ancestors’ name, Ardaseer, and found references to a civil engineer from the Indian shipbuilding family of Wadia that he pursued this part of his ancestry further.  He notes that it was a simple matter to locate the marriage record for Gustasp Ardaseer and Florence Neal, his mother’s maternal grandparents, which revealed Gustasp’s father as ‘Ardaseer Cursetjee, civil engineer’.  Their marriage took place at St Mathias Church, in the parish of Richmond, Surrey in 1879.  Discovering the origin of Gustasp’s name immediately took Blair back to the information he had found on Ardaseer Cursetjee, which led to the Wadia family and ultimately to his finding a further fourteen generations of ancestors, hitherto unknown to him, in India.  While Ardaseer Cursetjee achieved fame within his lifetime, as a naval engineer, and pioneer of steam in India, Blair’s discoveries about his life in Britain cast a completely new light on him, explaining perhaps why his story has not been widely recognised in India. The resulting case study we hope shows how historians with different perspectives can work together, to shed a revisionist light on the life of a forgotten innovator and his relationship with Britain.

A Short Note on Names

The Parsis have long used a patronymic style of naming and individuals were known by a combination of their own given name and that of their father, so Ardaseer Cursetjee was Ardaseer, son of Cursetjee. It later became the practice to adopt as a surname the name of an illustrious ancestor or traditional vocation of the family. In the preface to Ardaseer Cursetjee’s published Diary he states that he is of the Lougee family.[i] The family originally referred to themselves as being of the family of Lowjee and probably adopted the vocational name of Wadia only around the 1870s.[ii]  In the nineteenth century the present surname Wadia was adopted in India. It is a corrupt derivation of the word vadia meaning carpenter or shipbuilder.

Jamsetjee Bomanjee WadiaAn Indian shipbuilding dynasty

Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia (1808-1877) was born into a family with a long and illustrious connection to the shipbuilding industry. By the age of fourteen Ardaseer Cursetjee had, like other family members before him, begun working in the Bombay Dockyard. His early experiences of this trade shaped his life.

Diary insideVisiting England 1839

In the 1830s Ardaseer Cursetjee wanted to travel to England. After his first application to travel was rejected, he instead travelled to China. Later in the decade his application was finally approved and he arrived in England in 1839. While there Ardaseer Cursetjee made important engineering contacts, attended occasions such as celebrating Queen Victoria’s wedding and also spent time drawing plans of marine steam engines.  

Lowjee House Richmond c1998Personal connections: Setting up home in London

In around 1858 Ardaseer Cursetjee made a final journey to London and set up home there with an English woman named Marian Barber. Although the couple did not marry they did have children and establish a home.  We know that many East India Company servants formed liaisons with Indian women, particularly in the eighteenth century. Ardaseer Cursetjee’s story shows how one Indian reversed the pattern.

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The text and research for this case study was primarily authored by Blair Southerden, with contributions from Helen Clifford.

[i]  Ardasser Cursetjee Wadia, Diary of an Overland Journey from Bombay to England and of a Year’s Residence in Great Britain (Bombay and London: Henington and Galbin, 1841).

[ii] The Indian ancestry of the Wadia family has been comprehensively documented by Ruttonjee Ardeshir Wadia, who continued his father’s research and published two books The Bombay Dockyard and the Wadia Master Builders (Bombay, 1955) and The Scions of  Lowjee Wadia (Bombay, 1964).  He also printed a family tree tracing his ancestry back to the first Master Shipbuilder of the Honourable East India Company, appointed in 1734, and listing his male ancestry back a further seven generations