John Jones: attempting to carve a career in India

on Wednesday, 02 December 2015. 1 Posted in Other

John Talbot (1717-1778) fathered four children outside of marriage, the third of these children was John Jones, who appears in the Lacock Parish records on 23 September 1764 as b.b.s (base born son) of Catherine Jones. John’s sister Ann, also the daughter of John Talbot had been born a year earlier. His half siblings were Thomas Elms (1758–1783) and Louisa Spicer Talbot, born and died at three weeks in April 1778. John Jones’ life is the most documented of the four, due to his correspondence with Martha Davenport.

John Talbot

John Talbot, the father of John Jones

Whilst Talbot acknowledged all four children and made provision for them in his will, John and Ann seem to have had more status than the other two. In a January 1778 codicil to Talbot’s will John and Ann were named as Executor and Executrix. As well as £500 to be inherited at 21 years, they were left the proceeds of the sale of the Salwarp Estate and according to the interpretation by Mr. Madocks of Lincoln’s Inn, “He means by his codicil to have altered his intention and to have intended all his Personal Estate as a specific legacy for the benefit of John Jones and Ann Jones” (1). Therefore, although the entailed properties and land remained within the Talbot family his personal effects from properties in London and Eltham were left to John and Ann. Their legacies were to be administered by their Trustees, Edward Popham and John Santer until they reached 21 years of age. No reason is given for John Talbot’s preference for these two children. Thomas was to inherit £300, a legacy which was reduced in the codicil from £500 from wills dated 1766 (2) and 1776 (3). Louisa, who had not been born at the time of the codicil was also to inherit £300 at 21 years, with the interest to pay for her education. As Louisa was unable to inherit Martha Davenport applied for the money to be paid to reduce the debts left by her brother, John Talbot (4). Some of John Jones’s progress in life is revealed in letters he sent to Martha Davenport and also her correspondence with men in authority in an attempt to secure his future advancement.

John Jones was educated at great expense at Lochees Military Academy, Fulham Road, London. It was a very fashionable Academy where the grounds were laid out as fortifications. The curriculum was based on bodily exercise and academic subjects which included modern languages and the ethos was one of public service (5). The fees for Lochees were £125 per annum, as a comparison Harrow School fees were approximately £200 per annum. John was being given a practical education which would make him eligible for a career as an officer in the army and provide him with the opportunity to make a living and attain status in his own right. John’s education finished just before John Talbot’s death, presumably due to lack of funds.

Unfortunately for John his military education was not enough to ensure his future career. Payment was required to obtain a Commission in the army and it seems that, despite the legacy left by his father, John did not possess enough capital to purchase one. Despite having many cares of her own, Martha found the time to assist John in improving his prospects. In January 1785, Martha wrote to Lord Lansdown requesting help for John in pursuing his career. Lord Lansdown had been a member of the Government and he and John Talbot were good friends. She informed him that John Jones and his sister were the acknowledged children of her brother and were "properly provided for, their finances have suffered because of the inattention and mismanagement of their Guardians". She explained that the situation "totally disabled the young man to follow the line of life he was educated for at Lochees Military Academy. My husband procured for him a Lieutenancy in in the North Gloucestershire Melitia till something could be done for him" (6). She described John as "about 20 years of age, bears the character of a gentleman and is a sensible, sober, well behaved young man". Lord Lansdown sent his regrets that he was unable to help as the East India Company was no longer authorised to send out Cadets and "the Army is overloaded with Claimants".

Records show that John joined the North Gloucestershire Militia as an Ensign on 28th March 1778 and was still listed as Ensign in 1780 (7). An Ensign was the lowest officer rank, equivalent to 2nd Lieutenant. Although 13 years seems young to become an army officer, boys as young as 12 years were accepted. His uniform was a red coat with blue facings and gold lace, similar to the 1790 coat in the picture below which is displayed in the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum. In the 1760s an Ensign earned a daily rate of 3s 8d with 3s subsistence. The Militia’s headquarters were at Cirencester but as they were embodied (deployed) due to the war in America they spent time in Essex, Kent, Tiverton, Plymouth and Wells, marching between the camps. The Militia existed to defend the country when the regular army were fighting abroad, but on the whole they had little work to do and an officer’s life was not onerous. In 1783 the Militia were disembodied (stood down) when the war in America ended, so the North Gloucestershires returned to Cirencester (8).

Soldiers of Gloucestershire

A uniform like Jones would have worn

It is not known when or why John left the Militia nor what happened in the interim, but in September 1786, John wrote to Martha from Madras (now Chennai), India, describing his plight (9). He told Martha that he had been five months at sea and had only two sightings of land during that time. He described the journey after the Cape of Good Hope as "heavy, vicious, blowing weather" which did not cease until they neared Bassa de Chagos, an Atoll in the Indian Ocean. His journey on a sailing ship would have been extremely uncomfortable and presumably frightening. It is likely that John could only afford a below decks passage which would have been crowded with men, women and children sharing the same space in insanitary conditions. Most people would have been seasick and have only restricted access to the deck. He also informed Martha that he had been able to send a letter to Ann "from off the Cape" in May, via Daniel Darke, Purser of the Deptford Indiaman. The Cape was a point at which letters could be passed from ship to ship, enabling passengers to send news to their families. He refers to Daniel as the brother of his good friend W. D. Darke of Bredon. The references to Bredon friends and his sister Ann reveals a close association between Martha and John. John also sends good wishes to Martha’s children in his letters, indicating his acceptance as a member of the extended family.

John did not describe his impressions when they anchored off Madras on 16 July 1786. Contemporary accounts describe the intensity of the heat, the cacophony of noise from the shore, the surprise at encountering Indians for the first time and also the poor state of the Catamarans used to ferry passengers ashore (10). The day after his arrival John went to Fort St. George to meet the Governor of Madras, Sir Archibald Campbell, who "received me with marks of politeness, but soon told me my doom".

Fort St George

An 18th century drawing of Fort St George

Campbell showed John an Act of Parliament which prevented posts being granted in India. In 1784 Pitt’s India Act created a Government Board of Control in England to oversee and approve appointments in India. Lord Lansdown must have presented John with a letter of introduction as he reports that Campbell expressed surprise that he should send out a young man not nominated in England. He offered John breakfast and a volunteer role in the King’s 36th Regiment. John accepted breakfast but declined the role of volunteer as there were already 9 volunteers who were paid only 1 rupee per day. Having made his own enquiries John returned to the Governor suggesting that he could be an acting Cornet or a Conductor of stores. A Cornet held the same rank as an Ensign, a conductor was responsible for the transit of ordnance around the country. However Campbell insisted he was unable to act and suggested John try elsewhere. With that in mind John began to make arrangements to go to Bengal to find a post as a clerk. However he decided to continue in Madras after he met a Colonel who persuaded him that he "could be in orders by the next board".


Sir Archibald Campbell

In a letter written to Martha on 25th February 1788 (11) John gave his address as Conductor of Stores, St. Thomas Mount, Madras. The location was close to Fort St. George which was the stronghold of the East India Company in Madras. As a Conductor John had no military rank and little hope of promotion beyond becoming a Departmental Officer in the Public Works Department. He begins the letter, "You have long been informed of my shabby appointment". John goes on to ask Martha to request that Lord Lansdown will speak to either Sam Smith or F. Baring who were both Directors of the East India Company. John also described something of the trials of life in India. He mentions numerous bilious attacks and suffering from fatigue due to "the constant grilling in the sun". He also mentions a friend who perished in the Great Desert. Many of the British population suffered from debilitating illness, not only because of the gruelling heat, the sanitary arrangements were poor and there was a lack of clean water. Dysentery, typhoid and typhus were rife causing death or long term effects on people’s health which must have been a constant worry for John.

John explained that his pay was barely sufficient to exist. Although the cost of life in India was much lower than in England, the hierarchical structure of society excluded all but the highest ranking people from polite society. No matter what a person’s status was in England, rank counted for everything in India (12). Therefore people considered to be lower ranks were not invited to dinners and would be castigated for speaking uninvited to those considered as higher ranks, which included wives and offspring of officers. John had been educated to be an officer and a gentleman, with all the social expectations that entailed. Army ranks could be purchased, but were very expensive: it cost at least £450 for the position of Ensign without a nomination. John wanted to be nominated a Cadet (First Lieutenant) so he could earn enough money and the hope of saving enough to purchase a Captaincy.

John describes entertainments such as a ballroom and a public theatre of which he is unable to take advantage partly for financial reasons and also because the social order would have made it difficult. Gambling with cards was a common social pastime which John would also have found too expensive. It seems likely that he would have had to lead a quiet life in comparison to many of his contemporaries in India. He expresses a wish to return to England saying "I would rather be a Pedlar than stay as I am". He obviously misses his friends at home and tells Martha that he has written to Ann, but without complaints which may distress her. He gives Martha permission to read any suitable parts of this letter to Ann. He also sends best wishes "to my good friend Prideaux and Mr. Shakespear" and says that he is collecting feathers for Miss Davenport.

A month later on 28th March 1788 John wrote to Martha with slightly more positive news, though it is mixed with disappointment. "This day I have been appointed an Ensign of Infantry with two more and was made the Eldest. I am thankful for this reason that tho I have toiled hard and lost near two years rank, an important loss to me, yet I am in the living of an officer". John had found himself at age 24 in the same rank as he had been in England aged 14. He tells Martha, "I first wore a red coat in the Militia. I have worked two in a blue and am now returning to my former and in all probability if the Directors maintain their opinions and inforce their orders – I shall be obliged to wear a brown one". The red coat is his military uniform and he would have worn the blue as a Conductor. The meaning of the brown coat is not clear as it had no place in military attire. He may have meant civilian clothing, though it seems just as likely that he was referring to a coffin. He continues by asking Martha for help in obtaining a nomination as a Cadet by writing to Lord Lansdown and asking him to speak to Mr. Baring. He says Captain Smith had taken down his name with a promise to remember him when cadets were thought of. Captain Samuel Smith was a prominent member of the East India Company Army and the brother of Nathaniel Smith, an M.P. and East India Company Director in England. He ends despondently by saying that if he is not recommended he may need to seek another profession, but that he enjoys soldiering. He thanks Martha, saying "I never can be ungrateful, sickness and disappointment may make me neglectful".

Between August 1788 and April 1789 Lord Lansdown became even more active in promoting John’s career. The long gap of inactivity between February and August is due to the fact that mail between India and England took a long time to arrive by sea. At times it was completely lost due to ships being wrecked at sea. On 14th August 1788 Lord Lansdown forwarded a letter to Martha from Nathaniel Smith who had looked into John’s case and found "his appointment inferior" and that John, with several others was treated "in defiance of the established rules". He says he has asked his brother (Captain Samuel Smith) to give directions to the Company. Lord Lansdown’s covering letter gave Martha permission to share the contents with John. In September Martha wrote to Lord Lansdown in response to John’s letter from March requesting his Patronage. On 14th March 1789 (13) Lord Lansdown asked Martha to send to Nathaniel Smith "a certificate signed by the Clergyman of Mr. Jones’ birth". He informed Martha that this would place him the first of the new nominations.

In 1791 John’s position was still a matter of concern to Lord Lansdown who wrote to Dr. Popham to say that he feels he has a duty of care for John. As Martha had died in 1790 Lord Lansdown could have forgotten the whole business, however he obviously believed himself to be responsible for assisting John. On 25th September 1791 (14) Nathaniel Smith wrote to Lord Lansdown to say that due to illness he had not been involved in East India Company business but that he had nominated John as a Cadet and would now investigate what had happened. On 19th November Francis Baring, another Director, wrote to Lord Lansdown explaining that some of the Appointments disallowed by the Directors were subsequently allowed with "an exception to Mr. Jones for reasons which do not impeach his character in the slightest degree". He then offers to look into the matter.

Lord Lansdown was eventually able to explain in a letter to Edward Popham what had occurred, he enclosed a document titled "Extract of Fort St. George Military Letter" dated 9th February 1792. He stated "What has hapened has been entirely owing to my overcare of him". When Lord Lansdown heard that all of Archibald Campbell’s appointments had been disallowed he obtained a fresh appointment from Nathaniel Smith. The Directors then changed their minds about Sir Archibald’s appointments, reinstating the orders, so that John had a double appointment. "The Government in India very unjustly as well as ungenerously, instead of leaving him his original appointment decided he must abide by the most disadvantageous, a strong picture of Indian injustice". In other words John was nominated as both an Ensign and a Cadet, he was granted the lower appointment of Ensign by the Directors in India. The Fort St. George letter confirms the case. There is a thinly veiled degree of vindictiveness in the decision, not towards John personally, but towards the British Government for interfering in the decisions made by the Government in India. It contains phrases such as "we have been induced to dispence with the execution of our repeated orders for annulling the appointment made by your Government since 1785". This is a reference to the India Act in which the British Government were attempting to exert more control over the activities of the East India Company by appointing a Board of Control in London. It was greatly resented by the Governors in India partly because they were a law unto themselves and partly because orders took 5 months to arrive from England and most business required immediate action. So despite the sterling efforts of Martha and Lord Lansdown, John became a victim of the power struggle between the East India Company in India and the British Government.

Little is known of John’s fate after this period except for a letter from Mr. Vezey to William Davenport Talbot, dated 11th January 1793. In answer to enquiries about John, by Barbara Davenport, he states that a friend at East India House informed him "that he saw the name of Ensign John Jones on the pension list from whence he concluded he had received a slight wound". John had still not been able to obtain a promotion, but he had survived for 7 years in India and was still in his red coat.


Jean Waltham

Lacock Unlocked Volunteer


1. 2664/1/2A/90
2. 2664/3/1E/30
3. 2664/3/2E/8
4. 2664/2/5B/81
5. Armstrong Starkey "Wars in the Age of Enlightenment 1700-1789".
6. 2664/3/2B/220
7. "The Royal North Gloucester" by Wilfred Joseph Cripps, 1885.
8. With thanks to David Read Archivist at Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum for information about the Militia
9. 2664/3/2B/223
10. "Sahib, the British Soldier in India" by Richard Holmes (2005)
11. 2664/3/2B/220
12. "Sahib, the British Soldier in India" by Richard Holmes (2005)
13. 2664/3/2B/29
14. 2664/3/4B/17