Provincial Society and Empire: The Cumbrian Counties and the East Indies, 1680-1829

Published earlier this year as part of our longstanding Worlds of the East India Company series, Kay Saville-Smith’s Provincial Society and Empire presents an unusual take on the Company and on the men and women who sought success and advancement in the East Indies. For these are not the people we might expect – City bankers, successful merchants and the sons and heirs of London elites – but people already on the edges of that society, out in the provinces of England, and in this particular case very far out in Cumbria. Who were these men and women? What took them to India? What did they do? How did they do? What wealth, connections, new ideas and outlooks did they bring with them on their return, and what effect did these have on Cumbria? Kay Saville-Smith (Director of the Centre for Research, Evaluation and Social Assessment in Wellington, New Zealand) explains more, including how this was not the book she planned in the first place….


The relationship between provincial society and empire during the long eighteenth century has long been neglected not only by historians of the East India Company and empire, but those concerned with provincial lives, regional change and the emergence of middling folk in the provincial urban renaissance. I would like to claim that tracing and exploring Cumbria’s encounter with the East Indies started as a purposeful venture designed to remedy that neglect. But I cannot. Provincial Society and Empire shows more than four hundred Cumbrians travelling to the East Indies between 1680 and 1829. It was a huge commitment of human and financial capital for the sparsely populated Cumbrian counties which have typically been portrayed as economically and socially on the margins of Britain’s global expansion and industrial transformation. It might be assumed that my devotion to uncovering that provincial investment was inspired by a sense that here was an obvious and significant story to tell. But it was not.

Only in hindsight, after the fact, has the importance of Cumbria’s encounter with the East Indies been revealed. Undertaking a history of that encounter was never obvious. The historiography of Cumbria’s eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been dominated by questions around the stalling of Cumbria’s industrialisation after a period of proto-industrialisation, the peculiarities and change in its social structure, the material and ideological construction of its landscapes, and its rendition as the Lake District. Those preoccupations shaped my original research intention: to explore the declining innovation of the Cumbrian iron industry and its association with the apparently shifting aspirations and sensibilities of its key families, the Knotts, Harrisons and the Ainslies. That research was still-born owing to one of the perennial anxieties of a historian, the removal of records from the public domain.

Sometime in March 2011, BDX 38 entitled Paul Reginald Benson Brydson of Water Park, Colton was removed from the local archives with the expectation that the records would be re-deposited. In four boxes, with a catalogue of some seventy pages and stretching from 1596-1920, there were transactions related to a succession of Cumbrian iron companies and works, estate documents, and letters. I came to Britain from New Zealand later in that year to access them. They had not been re-deposited. This was a dead end.

Provincial Society and Empire
The Cumbrian Counties and the East Indies, 1680-1829
by K.J. Saville-Smith

The idea of exploring Cumbrians’ encounter with the East Indies was a dejected, virtually flip, response to Professor Angus Winchester’s suggestion that there must be other aspects of Cumbrian history that would grab my attention. Like my interest in the Cumbrian iron industry, the idea of tracing the Cumbrian encounter with the East Indies was fuelled by my own familial connections. I was a direct descendant of the Harrisons and had kin connections with both the Knotts and Ainslies. I had found references to East Indies sojourns in all those families as well as other unrelated Cumbrian families. I knew that at least one other of my Westmerian ancestors had spent much of his very long life in India in the nineteenth century. Indeed, connections with the East Indies have always been part of my family’s ‘memories’ and are evident among my Cumbrian, Welsh and southern English kin. Those ‘memories’ undoubtedly contributed to my decision to undertake Asian history as one major, sociology was the other, in my bachelor’s degree.

I took on Angus’ challenge that I would have to show that Cumbrian encounters with the East Indies were significant for Cumbria and were, preferably, represented by some weight of numbers. Provincial Society and Empire is the result. Cumbrian counties were over-represented among the sojourners that flowed into the East Indies from the British Isles over the long eighteenth century. Cumbrian sojourners and their families were motivated by distinctly provincial preoccupations. Cumbrian attachments and networks shaped the East Indies careers of Cumbrian men and the marriages of Cumbrian women sent to India. East Indies resources flowed back into Cumbria. Many returning sojourners became part of a Cumbrian elite with parliamentary, and more importantly, local power and influence. They acquired or were enabled to develop land and build houses. They invested in iron, agriculture, banking and tourism.

I remain saddened that public access to records critical to our understanding of the Cumbrian iron industry appears lost. We must rely on Alfred Fell’s idiosyncratic, discursive and unsystematic history first published in 1908. But I have no regrets that I was forced to refocus my research. Uncovering, reconstructing and reformulating the lives of Cumbrian men and women travelling seeking their fortunes in the East Indies, their preoccupations and sensibilities has been an enormously exciting venture. It has been a fascinating process of cross-archival search, piecing together the past, and using techniques of family history and biographical research. I have been able to use the power of digital search and digitisation to ‘piece together’ fragments of the past including the letters, wills, memorials, school and East India Company records of sojourners and their Cumbrian friends and families.

Enumerating these many Cumbrian sojourners, exploring their place and familial attachments, and tracing the impact of East Indies sojourns on the Cumbrian counties have tested many narratives. It challenges the idea of Cumbria as marginal and retreating from modern world, backward and inward looking. It questions the idea that British India was ‘ruled’ by a small set of dynastic families whose connections, sensibilities and identity were forged in the East Indies. It demonstrates that the East India Company was more than about the interests of London-based merchants. This research shows that empire can not be seen simply, or even primarily, as a national project driven by political interests in the construction and legitimation of Union and a British identity. Provincial place-based networks and attachments were a material agent in what was to become British imperial expansion in India. The provincial world was deeply implicated in the East Indies and the East Indies shaped the provincial world and the constitution, influence and power of provincial social and economic elites.


This guest post is written by Kay Saville-Smith, Director of the Centre for Research, Evaluation and Social Assessment in Wellington, New Zealand. She completed her doctorate at the University of Lancaster.