William Gamul Farmer Case Study: The Farmer family


Figure 2. The Farmer family tree. Image courtesy of Penelope Farmer.

The Farmer family

The two brothers, William and Samuel, born 14 months apart in 1746 and 1747, were the sons of George Farmer (1710-1784).  Farmer was a successful scarlet dye-maker, living above the family business in Hogg Lane Shoreditch, half a mile or so from what is now Liverpool Street Station and prosperous enough by the time of William and Samuel’s birth to employ three or four apprentices and to have premises substantial enough to house a family of eight.[1] Their mother, Margaret Shawalter, an heiress from Chester in Cheshire and their father’s second wife, gave birth to several other children, none of whom lived beyond early childhood. The marriage was equally unsuccessful. By the time most of these letters were written, in the 1770s, the parents were separated, the father retired and living in the country, the mother mostly back in Cheshire, but spending the odd winter in lodgings in London. Unusually, the entire family lived apart. Sam, having served his dyers apprenticeship and taken on the dye works alongside his father’s partner, Chamberlain Goodwin, remained in Hogg Lane. William was in India, while an elder half-sister, daughter of George’s first wife, whose behaviour according to Sam ‘would have disgraced an upper servant,’ lived by herself in Chelsea.[2]  The implied impropriety of such arrangements exercised Sam greatly when courting his future wife, in case it put her family off their marriage.

A stolid merchant family it was, however, in every other respect and defiantly English. The comments about France made after a sojourn by the brothers’ father in Boulogne prefigure attitudes within my family that existed into my own generation.  Writing to William on 8 July 1774, Sam asserted that their father ‘left the place as the apostles did when they were not well received, that is he shook the dust from his feet and cursed them, their wine was so thin and fluxed him, add to that the difficulty of procuring pipes and tobacco, you will not wonder at his stay being very uncomfortable, he lost all his belly, the very sight of him convinced that there was not such good beef in France as we have here’. Similarly these letters reflect what was until recently the family’s attitude to women—as does the fact that I, a history graduate, was never told that the letters existed. (Sam’s statement on his half sister ‘tis fortunate for the nation that Heaven has made her plain or she would have introduced the bend sinister into our coat of arms’ is merely an extreme version of such attitudes.)[3]  This tone to the family voice leaps out from the letters, not least in the constant complaints of the mother, Margaret Farmer, and in the complaints about her by her younger son, who also referred to the assets brought to him by his wife as his.[4] Margaret was clearly a difficult woman and such attitudes were then the norm, but you cannot help feeling for her, dependent as she was and even passed over by her own aunts who left the family estate not to her but her eldest son, William. Trailblazers these sons were not in this or any other way, and no more intellectually curious than some, if not all, of their male descendants.

More significant, however, was how close the two brothers obviously remained throughout William’s life, despite the geographical distance between them – a closeness that has been shown in other case studies here —for example, the Russell brothers of Swallowfield Park, Berkshire.[5] Such closeness between siblings may have been not so unusual then or in the following century: Jane Austen’s life and novels are full of it.  My Farmer grandmother’s diarybetween 1877-9,makes clear that apart from husband-trawling seasons in London, her social life too consisted largely of her many siblings, some of whom she continued to support throughout their lives.[6]  In Sam and William’s case their dysfunctional family may have made them still closer. ‘Sam is a good lad’ his brother said in his first letter home (October 1763), and so he remained, judging by his willingness to send William what he asked for. Despite the fact that none of Sam’s letters to William after 1778 survived, the correspondence that remains makes clear that they kept in continuous contact throughout William’s years in India. Not least he depended on Sam to supply his needs: clothing, hats, riding boots, medicines, claret, and, latterly, seeds for his garden. Their mother sends jars of her own preserves and the odd Cheshire cheese. These latter presumably were gratis: Sam’s efforts, in contrast, were not. Ever the merchant, he sends full accounts in his letters of what William owed him for these goods, as well as William’s share of support for their mother that Sam has advanced her. William for his part sends home shawls for his half-sister and for his sister-in-law after Sam’s marriage.  These often elaborate and expensive pieces of cloth were a common way of bringing India to the family at home throughout this period.[7]

The closeness between the siblings may have also have been augmented by their geographical separation. In an imperial context family remained the one constant for the absent member, living in a world barely comprehended by those back at home.  It was what the absent one depended on for retaining his sense of identity as an Englishman as well as for more material things they sent him, from clothes to homemade preserves. Similar intimacy between separated siblings in the nineteenth has been shown elsewhere: in Macaulay’s letters from India to his sister Margaretand in Murdoch’s Stewart’s references in his Memoir from Canada to his elder brother back in Scotland, for instance.[8]


Figure 3. Penelope Farmer and Margot Finn with the manuscripts. Image courtesy of Ellen Filor.

Before the letters surfaced, I had only known of the family connection with India via a set of 1789 accounts for a business in Bombay, which appeared after my father’s death and set me combing East India Company records for the surprisingly extensive evidence of this unknown ancestor’s career in India. William Gamul Farmer’s trips to Madras and Calcutta are recorded and the displeasure of his superiors at his belated return to Bombay: so too are his knowledge of Marathi and appointment as Secretary to the Maratha committee in 1777. His year as hostage in the Maratha camp between 1779 and 1780 and his attempts to extricate himself, in particular, are covered in a whole series of letters and documents.[9]

With or without the background knowledge, reading the letters themselves has been a far more affecting experience. Through this correspondence, my eighteenth-century family leapfrogs over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries straight into the hands and feelings of the twenty-first, colouring the official material in a much more gossipy, personal and recognisable way, not least by demonstrating those enduring family characteristics. The young William’s letter written from Bombay shortly after his arrival in 1763, along with another very affectionate letter to his father in 1774 are particularly revealing and touching, as are Sam’s accounts of his adventures in love in the 1770s. Sarah Pearsall comments that ‘family letters collections demonstrate that familiarity while certainly not the only style was the major note struck.’[10] Such a note, I should add, though invariable in the letters of Margaret Farmer, was not always apparent in her sons’ more political and commercially oriented communications. Yet they, too, when relating to family matters, take quite a different tone: the affection with which William addressed his father in 1774 makes the point precisely. ‘I daresay when I arrive in England again you will be an overmatch for me in walking. The affair of the shot in your arm might have been very serious one and you may thank God for the escape. If I was inclined to be superstitious there is great room to imagine that it was an immediate interposition of providence in favour of the poor partridges for I observe you say that it hindered your sporting about three weeks – in that time ……the young partridges begin to fly strong – and then my dear sir I believe there is no need to tell you – they are fully out of danger from you’ (16 January 1794).

Such letters humanise later less sympathetic reputations – William’s questionable dealings down in Malabar, for instance, and Sam’s curmudgeonly public record as an MP between 1810 and 1818, voting for the suspension of Habeas Corpus and against Catholic Relief.[11]It has been suggested to me by Diana Tillman, a Nonsuch historian, that the very openness, not to say intimacy, of this correspondence may have been due, partly, to the distance between the correspondents; feelings – grievances – affections could be more openly revealed and discussed with someone far away than with someone closer at hand.

Here, for instance, are the two rather touching letters about Sam’s courtship and marriage to a Miss Elizabeth Meeke written between 1776 and 1777. The union had been embarked on because of his need to make a profitable marriage, and the letters initially evoke a dispassionate description of his intended bride’s physical and moral qualities.  On 26 April 1776 Sam wrote that ‘She is above the middle size and well-made but rather stoops her neck, upon the whole is rather a fine-looking woman, her complexion is fair, fine blue eyes, good nose and fine hair, her face too wide around, her teeth small and even but not of good ivory but not black, her temper all gentleness and love, was never seen in ill humour or in a passion, she is sensible, but it is concealed by her timidity and diffidence’.

Kashmir shawl V&A reduced

Figure 4. Shawl. Kashmir, India. Early nineteenth century. IS.2081A-1883. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Less than a year later, on 6 March 1777, Sam reveals he has fallen in love. ‘I have been in possession of the best of women since the 16th of last November, it would be doing her an injustice not to say that at the same time she is the best of wives…. I informed you in my last letter that she was tall and genteel, good complexion and hair and very fine eyes, she wants nothing but fine teeth to be judged a very handsome woman indeed.’ (He can’t quite forget about the teeth; in a world of much sugar consumption, black English teeth and toothache are perhaps the slaves’ revenge.)  His love is confirmed, by the recent and coincidental appearance, of a harp, now the property of an American harpist, but first bought by Sam for his wife in 1782 for £150, which would have been at the time a very large sum. (According to the present owner, he paid rather more than he needed; business acumen deserted him in this private matter.) William, too, appears to have been fond of his sister-in-law; in the later letters he enquires after her tenderly and promises to send her those shawls from India. And the one letter to her that appeared in the letter book, 19 November 1795, more than confirms his affection.

The outpourings of the mother, Margaret Farmer, are still more intimate. They complain of everything: her family, her health, her doctor, her younger son, Sam, his new wife –she is only a merchant’s daughter but sets up for a woman of quality. She made me a visit of an hour and a half since I came to town and in that time I had enough of her’ (3 March 1777).  In a previous letter (5 February 1777) she had already decried Sam’s over-expensive coach ‘It is quite in taste painted an Apple Green and the armes [sic.] in brown. But the liveries are ridiculous, a maroon colour turned up with apple green laced with narrow silver lace at the cape and cuffs with silver tassels on the shoulder.’  Above all she complains of her lack of financial independence especially after the family estate owned by her aunts was left over her head to her elder son: (‘You are to know I have since found out when he [Sam Farmer] persuaded them to alter their wills I had the house in Barn Lane and £50 a year from the Estate which would not have enabled me to live in any very sumptious [sic.] manner but it was too much for a woman who will first and last bring a fortune of ten thousand pounds.’ (15 December 1775.)

William’s sojourn in India she bewails throughout her correspondence with him, attempting to persuade him to come home for good.  She promises him his own rooms in her house in cold Chester, and imagines happy tête-a-têtes on winter evenings.  On 23 April 1777, Margaret wrote longingly that ‘they have got the Chester Playhouse hired but what signify’s if there will be no Plays in winter those evenings are dreadful there … I think if you and I was to gather there we cd pass em away cheerful’.  It was a prospect that might well have explained William’s failure to return to England permanently until just before his death. Apart from the sadness of women separated from their young by the growth of the Empire, these letters reveal little of India and EIC matters.  Yet but for the future Empire they would not have been written. They are also exceptionally entertaining, full of contemporary and sometimes scandalous gossip, both private and public, of the kind of which William and his fellows would have been deprived, and might well have looked for. Her description on 23 April 1777of her successful and intelligent pursuit of the family patron, Lord Sandwich, on behalf of a protégé suggests real and frustrated ability with nothing to do and nowhere to go as her main problem, at the same time demonstrating the influence women could have even then where rare opportunity offered.

This last point helps illustrate something else that the letters make clear: the close connection the family had with the East India Company – Lord Sandwich being the patron they looked to for help in advancing William’s career with the company, though without a great deal of success. Many of Sam’s letters recount meetings with Sandwich and in one he outlines his lively defence of John Herbert’s behaviour in Balambangan, in the EIC council; he is very proud of his oratory here and his presence indicates that he was an EIC proprietor. William’s first letter from India, in October 1763, sending thanks to a range of EIC names, from Rous to Manship and the Moffatt brothers (not excluding Lord Clive himself), suggests that the family business was part of a healthy trading network that enabled William’s writership in the first place.

The decision to send William abroad would largely have been made by the men involved – not least the boy himself, fired by this prospect of adventure – on commercial and practical grounds. A mother’s regret at losing her son appeared to be of no account. Margaret wrote on 5 Feb 1777: ‘Sorry I am from my soul that you ever went to India but I never was considered a person of any consequence. Mr and Mrs Goodwin were the people always consulted, indeed you was so much set upon it that I learned to reconcile to what I cd not prevent in the belief that if young boys were crop’d out of employment they like themselves it hurts their spirits.’ Interestingly, one woman was involved in this decision, but not Margaret. Yet if it was George Farmer himself, his partner (Mr Goodwin) and Goodwin’s wife who urged the decision—a decision occasioned, possibly, by the bad behaviour for which William apologises in this first letter—they would have depended on inevitably male EIC connections. The fact of William’s having, unusually, been allowed to stay in the captain’s cabin during the voyage out – ‘he took very particular notice of me which is very seldom done and even lodged me in his apartment’– the captain was one of the Moffatt brothers (a prominent merchant family) – and of his being invited to dinner by a member of the Bombay council, shortly after his arrival, also implies good connections within the Honourable Company.

What leaps out from these letters is that India for the two brothers was above all a trading resource: nothing but ‘a large warehouse’, was how William described his Surat territory to Jonathan Duncan on 8 May 1795. This was an attitude noted, disapprovingly, by contemporaries such as William Macintosh, who decried the young men who, he claimed, ‘generally set out for [India] with ideas of acquiring wealth, which ideas being nourished not only by example but advice and exhortation soon grew up into the dominant passion of the heart and ruling principal of the mind’.[12]   This comment was borne out by the contemporary criticism of ‘Nabobs’, the nickname given to the wealthy merchants who returned to England to throw their financial and political weight about, after making their fortune in India, like those described in other studies here.[13]  In reality they were a small minority of the company servants who had headed out to India in the first place, hopeful of such riches (among whom might be numbered William himself).

Money is the letters’ chief subject throughout, not unreasonably, given the precariousness of such lives, where fear of bankruptcy stalked even the successful.  Bankruptcy had destroyed Margaret Farmer’s protégé’s father, as it had destroyed some of Sam’s fellow businessmen. (‘I hope the exaggerated accounts of the bankruptcies here have not alarmed you,’ Sam writes on 15 February 1773). Empire builders, bringing civilisation to the benighted ‘Hindoo’ in the way recommended by Thomas Macaulay seventy-five years later, the Farmers were not, any more than they were evangelical zealots out to convert the heathen like many of their other successors. (Most of the rare appeals to the Almighty are to be found in the letters from Margaret Farmer – and are of the most conventional kind.) There is no evidence in the family letters that William fell in love with the subcontinent, adopting its mores and its dress, in the manner of the ‘White Moghuls’ described by William Dalrymple, even if the letters in the letter book give a more nuanced picture of his life in India. Certainly he complains of much – calling some of his Indian contacts ‘thieves and rogues’.

At the same time the more personal letters, particularly the ones to Sir Charles Malet and William Palmer, both of whom had established Indian families, indicate that he wholly accepted their way of life. He asks to be remembered to Palmer’s Indian wife, adding ‘I remember her in 74 when she was young and very pretty and I was young, No need to be jealous – of your females I only troubled the Mattranney,’ suggesting that he himself was far from unsusceptible to the charms of Indian women. He ends this letter   ‘Yr faithful and affectionate friend’, indicating the strength of the friendship even though till the time of writing the two had not recently been in touch (17 June 1795). This was more evidence of how deeply embedded he was in Indian life in every respect, not surprisingly given how much of it he spent in the Durbars of Indian Rajahs and negotiating with Hindu and Parsee businessmen – not to mention the year he spent as hostage in the Indian army camp. His letters to his chief business colleague, the Parsi merchant Dady Nasserwanjee always begin ‘Dear Friend Dady,’ he sends diwali greetings to another, Hindu, contact, and frequently uses Hindi words in this correspondence, in particular the Hindi word for ‘fate’ whether in relation to his life or theirs.  Earlier on his career, according to the letters from his London business colleagues Richardson and Stacey, he had pleaded the cause of another Parsi colleagues being fleeced by impecunious English officers (10 March 1775 and 6 April 1776). And he also insisted on proper provision for other Indian colleagues and for his ‘loyal’ servant at his departure for England in 1796. But this did not stop his attitudes hardening over time. Pamela Nightingale in Trade and Empire in Western India quotes Farmer as suggesting, in 1789, that the Company should not leave trade to ‘Crew of Parsees in whose welfare the State has no interest and who on every occasion have plucked the Company without mercy’.[14]

Overall, William was what Thomas Macaulay later called ‘one of the young men who came out as Company servants and for whom banishment is their emancipation’.[15]  He was one of those who, unlike Macaulay, had become far so accustomed to what they saw around them as to regard India as normal if not always to be accepted as it stood. It was a world with which such men had to contend socially and professionally throughout their careers, especially in Bombay where English and Indian lived in much closer contact.  One near contemporary, Maria Graham, in her Journal of a Residence in India, published in 1812, complained of being much further from Indian life in Madras and Calcutta, places which William also knew.[16]  Macaulay, in contrast, retreated thankfully from closer contact with Indian life to a house in Calcutta surrounded by a garden and never ventured into the world beyond without shuddering at the immorality and squalor – ‘a dozen half-naked blacks!’ – described in an early letter home to his sister Margaret.[17]   The much more pragmatic accounts of William himself, let alone the more lyrical – sometimes even dazzled – accounts in James Forbes’ Oriental Memoirs (published in 1813) seem to come from quite different sensibilities, another world.  (Even if Forbes, in later life did advocate converting the ‘Hindoo’ to Christianity.)

I have a further point to make before detailing William’s career more fully. It is a philosophical rather than historical point that would apply to all communication between London and India at this date, given the distance between them and the length of time between letters and reports being written and their arrival in the hands of the intended recipient – not least because ships of that period were only able to sail at certain seasons of the year, in order to utilise more favourable winds and tides. Time has two different faces. On the one hand there is the linear time that the letter-writer is living through and describing. On the other there are the discrete moments in time, the snapshots, read by the recipient. The writer does not know as he or she writes where the recipient is, even if he or she is still alive. (Sam around 1775 complains as he writes that he does not know where to send the letters or whether or when they will reach William, currently – he thinks – somewhere between Calcutta and Madras.) The contemporary reader likewise does not know exactly how or where the writer is, six months having passed since the letter was written. This leads to various kinds of redundancy: here on 8 July 1774 is Sam, for instance, sending a millstone for William’s Biscuit Factory after he has closed it and Sam again, in the same month in 1774, chiding William for not writing to their father, though a letter had been despatched in January 1774.  And here he is being asked to send the seeds for William’s garden in a letter that would have arrived after William had left India for good.  Finally, in the EIC records of late 1795, Sam asks permission to send his brother a case of claret, just as William was about to leave Surat—permission fortunately was not granted.

I am also conscious of how little those back in England would have known about the real nature of life in India. They would have known about the health problems – William complains in his first letter about having fallen victim to the ‘bloody flux’ – dysentery – and they would have known about the malaria he suffered from and which probably killed him in the end. But how much they could have known – or at least comprehended – about his lodging, his environment, the climate, his travels within India, is harder to gauge. He may have been more open in his earlier letters to Sam; he claims he had told him more about the voyage out than he has time to tell his father. But these letters do not survive and those to his father are determinedly upbeat, even if he complains in the 1774 letter, as throughout his career in India, how difficult it is to make money there. But literary William is not: though many letters have not survived it seems unlikely he would have made the detailed, scholarly, almost thrilled descriptions of the country found in the Oriental Memoirs of his near contemporary James Forbes– who mentioned William as an ‘intimate acquaintance’.[18] Forbes’ memoirs were not published till the 1813 edition – edited, unfortunately, by a pious daughter and at a time when contemporary accounts of India were beginning to flood out – and descriptions of life in India through the second half of the eighteenth century were much rarer. Many were related to the captive narratives, discussed by Linda Colley, some of these by women of dubious reputation – Eliza Fay and Elizabeth Marsh, for instance.[19] If any of these volumes fell into the hands of the Farmer family the letters do not say.

The Farmers might have recognised – and been bored by – the stultifying English social life of Bombay, an island only a mile in length and lacking in English women. Sam might have been comfortable with the atmosphere of a place where, according to George Paterson in 1769 ‘trade and the means of getting money is [men’s] principal pursuit’.[20]   But could they have imagined the heat of a Bombay summer or the fury of the monsoon?  Or for that matter the prevalence of various kinds of wild life indoors and out of which later residents such as Mrs Sherwood complained? Could they have imagined the ‘execrable material effects’ of climate described by Macaulay?[21] Could they have understood that Bombay, with a relatively pleasant climate, as noted by James Forbes among others –the malaria inducing marshes by now mostly drained – was quite possibly rather less noisome and dirty than their own filthy and stinking city?  William’s family lived after all above the dye works, a notoriously smelly business and eighteenth-century London was far from being the ‘so clean city’ that surprised Indian visitors to my house in the 1980s. (An older man added; ‘but your people are so dirty’, a statement still more true in the eighteenth century: one of the many complaints made against nabobs when they returned to England was that they had picked up the effete Indian habit of washing daily).[22]

William, on the other hand, would have less difficulty in imagining life in England. He made several home visits (the first in 1768) spending two or three years in England between 1780 and 1784, and both his mother and his brother filled him in on life as it went on. Latterly he even tried to import something more of it than European dress – hence the seeds for his ‘English’ garden. His mother’s gossip about the Duchess of Devonshire’s dangerous metal corsets might have seemed very remote from Bombay but at least he could have appreciated the context and maybe been grateful to feel some connection to his family’s world.  John Gillis’ distinction between home as the family we live in and home as the family we live by seems apposite here.[23]  William never created a family in India to live in: the family he grew up in, thousands of miles away, was the one he lived by, as these letters suggest.

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[1] Thanks to Diana Tillman for her very helpful work on the Farmer family.

[2] Samuel Farmer to WGF  26 April 1796.

[3] Samuel Farmer to WGF 8 July 1777.

[4] Samuel Farmer to WGF 6 March 1777.

[5] Margot Finn, ‘Swallowfield Park, Berkshire’, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/case-studies-2/swallowfield-park-berkshire/ .

[6] Penelope Farmer, Sisters: An Anthology (London: Allen Lane, 1999), p .xvii ff.

[7] Margot C. Finn, ‘Colonial Gifts: Family Politics and the Exchange of Goods in British India, c. 1780-1820’, Modern Asian Studies, 40, 1 (2006), 203-231.

[8] See Catherine Hall, Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain (London: Yale University Press, 2012), and  Elizabeth Vibert, ‘Writing “Home”: Sibling Intimacy and Mobility in a Scottish Colonial Memoir’, in Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, (eds), Moving Subjects: Gender, Mobility, and Intimacy in an Age of Global Empire (Irbana, IL: University of Indiana Press, 2009), 67-88.

[9]IOR/P/D/62-5, British Library, African & Asian Studies.

[10]Pearsall, Atlantic Families, p. 13.

[11] R.G Thorne, History of Parliament online, Record for Samuel Farmer MP: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/farmer-samuel-1748-1839 .

[12] William MacIntosh, Travels in Europe Asia and Africa (London: J. Murray, 1782), pp. 250-253.

[13] For more on the concept of the nabob see esp. Helen Clifford, ‘The Dundas Property Empire and Nabob Taste’, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/aske-hall-yorkshire/ .

[14] Pamela Nightingale, Trade and Empire in Western India, 1784-1806 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 66.

[15] Cited by Hall, Macaulay and Son, p. 239.

[16] Maria Graham, Journal of a Residence in India (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co., 1812), p.136.

[17] Cited in Hall, Macaulay and Son, p. 216.

[18]Forbes, Oriental Memoirs, vol. I, p. 548.

[19] Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002); idem., The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History (London: HarperPress, 2007).

[20] Pamela Nightingale, Fortune and Integrity: A Study of the Moral Attitudes in the Indian Diary of George Paterson, 1769-1774 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 39.

[21] Hall, Macaulay and Son, p. 238.

[22] William Dalrymple, quoted in Tillman W. Nechtman, Nabobs: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p.171.

[23] John Gillis, A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual and a Quest for Family Values (New   York: Oxford University Press, 1996).