Friday, July 8, 2011

Education: The Key to Riches
The East India Company College

"1500 pounds will be given to any person who has influence to procure for the advertiser an appointment of writer either to Bengal or Madras. Address to A.Z. at the British Coffee-house"
This advertisement, which appeared in an English newspaper in 1800, makes it clear that a position with the East India Company was a valuable commodity. A 'writer' was a clerk, and if you were a clerk looking for a position in Bengal or Madras, you were almost certainly looking for work with the East India Company. Such a job ensured a wealthy future, always provided you lived through the dangerous sea voyage, the difficult climate, and the fevers and sicknesses of the sub-continent. The advertiser's investment of 1500₤ could be recouped many times over.

above East India House, Leadenhall Street, 1817

The British East India Company (BEIC) was a venture for pursuing trade with India and China that was already two hundred years old by the time of the Regency. But it was from about 1750 to 1850 that it virtually ruled India, and made fortunes for its directors, its merchants, and even its clerks or, as they were called, writers.

Positions as writers might be bought and sold and were undoubtedly objects, occasionally, of corrupt practice. But there was another way to obtain a writership, and that was through education. Education specifically at the East India College.

The East India College was established in 1806 to train young men, sixteen to eighteen years of age, for positions of clerks with the civil service in the East. It was situated temporarily at first in Hertford Castle which was a property of the Cecil family and leased out to various tenants over many years.

In 1809, the College moved to a purpose-built facility at Hertford Heath--four classically designed buildings surrounding a quadrangle which was the largest of its type in Britain. Its architect was William Wilkins, who also designed the National Gallery in London. Below is a modern photograph of Haileybury College, which is housed in the East India College buildings. I have altered the photograph, removing a dome added in 1877, in the hope that it simulates the appearance of the College in about 1810.

The hard work undertaken by the students of the College had a purpose which outstripped the classics courses of the scholarly universities. There was a Classical and General Literature course but practicalities were emphasized. Languages were chief among the classes--Hindustani, Urdu, Bengali, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian were all taught, by prominent scholars. Thomas Malthus, the great economics philosopher, was professor of Political Economy from the origin of the College to 1834. Law, Mathematics and Natural Philosophy were also important courses of training at the College in preparation for residence and work in a very different world.

Imagine the excitement of a young man of the middle or gentry classes, nominated by the directors of the BEIC for training at the College. It was a passport to a new world, to adventure, and to a secure future. The high spirits in the College Quad can only be imagined, and nearby there was a pub, The East India College Arms (it still exists as The College Arms) which must have seen its share of larks undertaken by the students. The 'nabobs' of Regency fiction perhaps began their careers at the East India Company College!

'Til next time,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Lesley-Anne,

Great post! I was wondering if you knew where records of writers in the EIC could be found? One of them is an ancestor of mine that I would like to know more about.