Biographies reading list

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Reference books

  • Buckland, Charles Edward

Dictionary of Indian biography. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1906

Ever since its appearance in 1906, C E Buckland’s Dictionary of Indian Biography has been for generations of researchers the first place to look for a succinct summary of the career of anybody who was anybody during the history of British India. It includes both civil and military officers, non-officials as well as officials, scholars as well as statesmen, a sprinkling of eminent Indians and Indian Princes, Secretaries of State for India and other home politicians who influenced Indian affairs, a few senior East India Company and India Office officials, and a surprising number of European and Indian critics and enemies of the British in India.

This list indicates both Buckland’s strengths and weaknesses. To be included a person must have left a mark on history, but if your ancestor was an ‘ordinary Joe’, you will not find him. Nevertheless, if you come across mention of a senior officer or official or otherwise prominent personage during your researches, ‘Buckland’ is still a very handy means of finding out about him (there are hardly any women – I have found only Annie Besant on a quick search). Handy, that is, only for those of us able to visit a major library [in the British Library APAC reading room it is on the open shelves at 920.054], or lucky enough to own a second-hand copy or one of the Indian reprints of 1971 (Varanasi, Indological Book House) and 1999 (New Delhi, Cosmo Publications). However, the book can be read or downloaded at Internet Archive. (David Blake, FIBIS trustee, 2010)


18th & 19th century

  • Maitland, Julia

Letters from Madras during the years 1836-1839, with introduction, notes and appendices by Alyson Price. Otley: Woodstock Books, 2003

Lively and informative letters written to family in England by the then Julia Thomas, whose husband was a senior civil servant in the HEICS. The first few letters describe the outward journey, the bulk give much fascinating detail of life in Madras, Rajahmundry, summer retreats to the coast at isolated Samuldavee, and conclude with a trip to Bangalore. Price's additions to the original book first published anonymously in 1843, are most helpful, particularly in identifying many of the people of whom Julia writes. Invaluable for providing a woman's perspective on life in British India in the 1830s.

  • Pope, John Adolphus

Free mariner : John Adolphus Pope in the East Indies 1786-1821, edited by Anne Bulley. London: BACSA, 1992

The ships owned or chartered by the East India Company for trading in the far east have received a good deal of attention and much is known of their commanders and their voyages. What is not always realised is that they typically called at only about four ports in Asia: Bombay, Galle (Ceylon), Madras, Calcutta, and Whampoa in China. There were huge numbers of other independent British ships ("Country Ships") in the far east which provided a feeder service for other ports both within India and in surrounding countries (mostly what is now Malaysia and Indonesia). By great good fortune a first-hand account of one of these voyages has come down to us. John Adolphus Pope sailed on the Princess Royal 1786-8 and wrote letters describing the places he visited and people he saw. John was an intelligent 16 year old and his observations are sharp and well expressed, and bring alive as nothing else can this vital but under researched area of British/Indian trade. By further good fortune this important journal has been edited by Anne Bulley, who has done more than anyone to investigate this area. The book comes with a perceptive account of Country Ships and their trade and rounds off the story of John before and after his voyages. [reviewed by Richard Morgan, FIBIS trustee]

20th century

  • Dady, Dorothy S.

Scattered seeds : the diaspora of the Anglo-Indians. London: Pagoda Press, 2007

This coffee table book contains striking, full-page photographs of modern Anglo-Indians both young and old from India and around the world. Each image is accompanied by a brief autobiographical account and a personal assessment of what it means to be an Anglo-Indian. Here you will find the faces of a few famous men and women together with those who may well consider themselves ordinary folk. These, however, include people who have experienced great poverty; who have survived tragedy and setbacks; maintained a sense of humour; always been hospitable; faced the challenges of assimilation, found contentment wherever they have settled and are full of confidence about the future. These vignettes are a wonderful tribute to 'the diaspora'.

Dady prefaces these accounts with her own story and a brief history of the community.

A full review by Beverly Hallam, a FIBIS trustee, of this book is to be found in the FIBIS "Journal" no. 21 (Spring 2009) pp.49 & 50.

  • Dowley-Wise, Justine

In those days : a scrapbook of growing up in India in the days of the Raj. Lincoln, NE, USA: iUniverse, 2005

"There have been many memoirs of life in India during the last days of the Raj, but this is a worthy addition to that number, not least because the author was the daughter of a Calcutta businessman, and the British business community in India is perhaps less well represented in our collective memory of India under British rule than the India Civil Service or the Indian Army. When dealing with the historical background, the book does contain some errors of detail, but these do not detract from the authenticity of the author's account of her own personal experience as a child of the Raj... Dowley-Wise gives a very full account of the life experienced by a young girl growing up in India" including the hospitality offered by her family to the troops in wartime Calcutta. The full review by David Blake, a FIBIS trustee, is available on pp.48-49 of FIBIS "Journal" no. 15 (Spring 2006). Excerpts from the book and comments are available at Raj memories

  • Hearne, Tony

Farewell Raj : witness to the end of empire. Eastbourne, Tommies Guides, 2009

This is a film-worthy memoir of a “21-year old Army Sergeant during the month or two before and after ‘Independence Day' in August 1947. [The author] was a British soldier caught up in the daily rioting in Calcutta between the Hindus and Moslems . . . He very graphically describes the awful nightly scenes in that vast city at that time and the incapacity of the military power to do little more than observe their consequences.” Instead of early discharge bringing him release from the unrest, his train journey to farewell his parents in Lahore plunges him into greater danger when he is stranded after witnessing an atrocity and struggles to get himself back to safety. “This is truly an enthralling read – but the title gives little inkling of the excitement that the book contains.” (Reviewed by Peter Bailey, FIBIS Chairman, in the FIBIS "Journal" no. 22 (Autumn 2009), p. 56)

  • Richards, Frank

Old soldier sahib. Uckfield: Naval & Military Press, 2003

Private Frank Richards DCM MM, enlisted in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in 1901 and, in this reprinted prequel to Old soldiers never die, he recounts his experiences as a British soldier serving primarily in India and Burma prior to WW1. As the publisher says: "his descriptions of the soldier's life in those countries in those far off days and his anecdotes makes wonderful reading".

  • Yeats-Brown, Francis

Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography in 1930. It is a palatable sized introduction to the life of a Bengal Lancer from 1905 until the time his regiment was disbanded at the end of the First World War. However it is not a mere military account as the book divides naturally into three sections of interest. Primarily, the life of an English cavalryman in the Bengal lancers is presented. Days of regimental routine interspersed with pig sticking, polo playing and visiting nautch girls. The cavalry regiment comprises both English and Indian soldiers and the author easily assimilates the attitudes of both worlds – the society of the west and the mysticism of the East.

During the First World War Yeats-Brown is sent to France and later joins a flying corps in Mesopotamia – where is he captured by Turks. He eventually escapes and returns to India. However his days as a lancer are soon over and the reader is presented with a wonderful tour of India as he goes in search of practising gurus to learn the secrets of yoga and inner truth. An evocative and satisfying read. Recommended. (Beverly Hallam, FIBIS trustee)


  • Allen, Charles

Kipling sahib : India and the making of Rudyard Kipling. London: Little, Brown, 2007

This illuminating biography fulfills its subtitle in bringing to life the young Rudyard Kipling and the world which shaped him. Much about 'Ruddy' was typical of the time; born in Bombay in 1865, this "noisy and spoilt" child, along with his younger sister, was exiled to England for an education and returned to India as a teenager to pursue a career. It is the particulars of this troubled, self-opinionated, literary genius which fascinate, along with the wealth of background material such as the family connections to the Pre-Raphaelite group, the Bombay financial crash in 1865, J. Lockwood Kipling's position as a teacher of architectural sculpture and modelling at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay, the United Services College at Westward Ho! in England, British society in the hills, and the world of newspapers in India (at 16 years-old Kipling became assistant editor of the Civil and military gazette). Kipling's imperialism and, in particular, the antipathy he expressed in his journalism towards Western-educated Indians contributed towards his early departure from India, but Charles Allen balances this by showing how it is Kipling's understanding and empathy for those who lived at the bottom of Indian society -such as the peasant, the prostitute, and the ordinary British soldier - which infuses the most memorable of his writing. With illustrations, notes, glossary, select bibliography, and index.

  • Campbell, Christy

The maharajah's box : an imperial story of conspiracy, love and a guru's prophecy. London: HarperCollins, 2001

The story of Duleep Singh, last King of the Sikhs, who was brought to England as a boy following the annexation of his Kingdom by the British after the two Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s. With him came the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond. As an adult, despite being favoured by Queen Victoria, he turns his back on England and tries to regain his position in India.

Besides the impact this makes on his personal life, the book describes how he becomes embroiled in the 'Great Game' between England and Russia – whose help he tries to enlist. Fact is truly stranger than fiction and pages continue to turn.

The book contains relevant photos and there are full indexes and other references for the scholar. A most interesting and informative read! (reviewed by Beverly Hallam, a FIBIS trustee)

  • Dalrymple, William

White mughals : love and betrayal in eighteenth-century India. London: HarperCollins, 2002

This award-winning book unfolds the romantic story of Major James Achilles Kirkpatrick (1764-1805), the British Resident at the Court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the high-born Khair un-Nissa. Their marriage by Muslim rite in 1800 caused a scandal and secret investigations by the British, but, as the author clearly documents, James was not unusual in his appreciation of local culture and arts, nor in his adoption of local customs and an Indian wife. What was changing were British attitudes to assimilation, and long before the death of the children of James and Khair, the term 'gone native' had become one of contempt. The book provides a wealth of detail concerning the political maneuvering of the British EIC, their relationship with the French and key figures in the princely state, as well as the architecture of the city of Hyderabad.This article by William Dalrymple gives some background.

  • Hennessy, Maurice

The rajah from Tipperary. Sevenoaks, Kent: New English Library, 1972

This little book (under 200 pages) relates the rise and fall of the inimitable George Thomas (1756-1802), an Irish mercenary who was leader of a large contingent of soldiers, became the one-time lover of the renowned Begum Sombru and eventually established his own kingdom based at Hansi. The narrative reveals the complexity of a man who exhibited a ruthless courage in pursuit of his enemy but was loyal and generous in his dealings with his own men and those who hired them. Each chapter embodies quotes from relevant texts and footnotes to satisfy the academic. For the average reader, this book is an excellent introduction to this early period in the history of India and to the type of life lead by European mercenary soldiers. There is also a list of characters and glossary for ease of reference, plus a bibliography. An enthralling and unforgettable read. Recommended. (Beverly Hallam, FIBIS trustee, 2010)

  • Mountbatten, Pamela

India remembered. London: Pavilion, 2007

This is a highly unusual perspective on the people and events of India in 1947-48 provided by the diary of the last Viceroy of India's teenage daughter. Now as an elderly woman, Pamela Mountbatten has added explanatory text and a mass of family photographs to present a highly personal picture in which momentous events and great leaders, many of whom became friends of the family, are interspersed with some of the minutiae of life in the Viceroy's vast house and her work at a free clinic and the Allied Forces Canteen. The anecdotes about her pet mongoose with its insatiable appetite for fried eggs are a particular delight. There is the occasional repetition of detail between the commentary and journal entries but this is a minor irritation. As a non-politician's insider's account of the transfer of power this easy to read memoir is recommended. Includes an index and a list of key figures.

Family histories

  • Quick, Diana

A tug on the thread : from the British Raj to the British stage, a family memoir. London: Virago, 2009

“It has clearly taken Miss Quick many years to uncover her antecedents and she presents her story in a most readable way. The book is unusual in that [the author] relates the parts she has played as an actress to situations she herself experienced in real life and some of the experiences of her ancestors, several of whom appear to have undergone severe trials and tribulations. . . . This is a most welcome addition to the literature on the Anglo-Indian community and is a jolly good read.” (The full review by Allan Stanistreet appears in the FIBIS "Journal" no. 22 (Autumn 2009) p. 56)

  • Stevenage, Patrick Hugh

A railway family in India : five generations of the Stevenages. London: BACSA, 2001

This is a book of two parts, either of which is interesting in its own right, well-written and with a considerable number of photographs, drawings and reproductions to illustrate both sections. Be aware though that despite the promise of the book’s title, there is only one railwayman by name of Stevenage!

The first part traces the history of the Stevenage family in India, from the arrival of John Stevenage in late 1778, a private in the East India Company’s Madras European Regiment, to the family’s exodus, four generations later, in the years after 1947 and in the wake of Indian Independence. The author has researched his ancestors in great detail, helped by the extinction outside India of all other branches of the Stevenage surname which, while unfortunate, has had the happy consequence that any bearer of the surname must be related! However, the sketchiest family tree, the paucity of footnotes and the lack of a bibliography will surely challenge future Stevenage researchers who turn to this book for enlightenment.

The second, and longer, part is the author’s personal story, beginning in Bangalore in 1922 and ending with early retirement circa 1983 in Haywards Heath. Along the way, the author chronicles childhood, schooling and higher education in the Anglo-Indian community around Madras, initial employment in a bank before becoming a Traffic Officer with the Madras & Southern Mahratta Railway, a position he held until his decision to quit India. A fascinating picture emerges of back office work in managing traffic in the days before computers; the author also had a front-row seat in 1948 for Operation Polo by which the supposedly independent state of Hyderabad was forcibly integrated into the Union of India. Once settled in England, he secured a clerical job with British Railways, retrained as an accountant and ended up supervising the investment budget of British Rail. In this section, the absence of a bibliography is barely noticed. (review by Hugh Wilding, FIBIS Trustee)