Friday, January 29, 2016

Marriage in British India

by Merryn Allingham

When I set out to write the Daisy’s War trilogy, I knew a fair amount about the Raj and its customs, including marriage. I’d read books, visited India a few years ago, and my own parents had married there. But in order to chart my heroine’s destiny over ten years between 1938 and 1948, I found I needed to know a lot more.

Captain Colin Mackenzie, Madras
Army, in Afghan Dress, 1842
The caricature of the Englishman in India - disdainful and contemptuous of Indian culture - is familiar from countless films and TV dramas, but the stereotype belies a much richer history. Before the 19th century, intermixing and cross-cultural marriages were common, with East India officials and English military men happily marrying local women. Some of the British men even took on Mughal customs, wearing Indian dress, writing Urdu poetry, establishing harems and generally adopting the ways of the Mughal governing class they replaced.

William Dalrymple’s research for his book, White Mughals, provides evidence for this. Reading through the wills of employees of the East India Company, he found that in the 1780s more than one-third of the British men in India left all their possessions to one or more Indian wives, or to their Anglo-Indian children. The wills suggested, too, an affection and loyalty on both sides, with British men asking their close friends to be executors and to care for their Indian partners. It was the rise of the Evangelical movement in England in the 1830s and 40s that slowly killed off this intermingling of ideas, religions and ways of life. Later wills written by East India Company servants show that the practice of marrying or cohabiting with Indian women had all but disappeared by the middle of the 19th century.

Following his marriage to Khair-un-Nissa in 1800, James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British representative to the court of Hyderabad, converted to Islam and adopted a Mughal way of life.

In 1858, following the Indian Mutiny, the British government disbanded the East India Company and the Raj became a discernible entity. Clear rules came into being regarding marriage for British men serving in India, whether they were military personnel or worked for the Indian Civil Service. Marriage to an Indian became taboo and marriage to Anglo-Indians, heavily frowned upon. Early marriage was seen as an impediment to a young man’s career and marriage was forbidden in the ICS before the age of 30 and made very difficult in the Indian Army. A marriage allowance was not paid until an Indian Army officer was 26, and it was customary to seek the Colonel’s permission to marry. He could refuse, and mostly did, until the young officer had achieved the rank of Captain. The military’s informal rule was that subalterns cannot marry, captains may marry, majors should marry, colonels must marry.

Bingham Arbuthnot
Indian Army cavalry
Husbands in the military were much sought after, and the most popular were those serving in what were seen as ‘good’ regiments in both the British Army and the Indian Army – the cavalry, in particular, was seen as having high status. Often young men from wealthy families were attracted by the hunting and the polo which were very much part of cavalry life, as well as the colourful and romantic dress uniforms: long blue jackets, scarlet and gold cummerbands and knee-length polished leather boots.

As soon as an officer decided to marry, there would be questions about the background of his proposed spouse. In a small community of British officers, it was necessary for a bride to get along well with other wives and to fit in with regimental arrangements. For the girl herself, marrying into the army meant a major readjustment. She was entering a male oriented society, dominated by military discipline, and one in which wives tended to matter only in terms of the rank of their husbands. She was forced to become part of the regimental ‘family’ whether she liked it not, and this left little room for individuality. The army wife was an appendage. Nothing more was required of her than to support her husband socially. Ideally she should be decorative, though presentable would do. She should be a good listener and not show cleverness. This wasn’t too difficult since most of the wives had enjoyed an indifferent education and had not been trained to do any job of work.

A tennis party

For the memsahib, life could be boring, claustrophobic and confined, though attitudes gradually changed over the early years of the 20th century. The pioneeers of the 1920s, who undertook voluntary work in nursing and teaching, had become more commonplace by the end of the Thirties. But overall memsahibs lived a life of intense boredom. Once they had agreed the day’s meals with their cook, there was nothing for them to do. People might visit for a game of bridge or for coffee and gossip. Husbands came home to lunch, then a siesta. After that, there was tennis at the Club, where our memsahib might stay drinking until dinner and then go on to a dance or perhaps a party. She might very occasionally have a love affair but it had to be extremely discreet – living was too communal and she dared not be discovered.

Amateur dramatics in British India

In no way did she live in a cultured society.The drama group of the cantonment might occasionally put on a version of The Pirates of Penzance or Kiss Me Kate, but there was little in the way of artistic pusuits. This was particularly true of the military – high ranking ICS members of the Club could be highly cultured and intellectual.

There were always more men serving in India than there were women to marry them. The advent of the steamship had for a long time meant quicker voyages and allowed men more easily to return home on leave to find a suitable bride, but there still remained a considerable surplus of males in the British India community. In Britain itself, the situation was reversed during the interwar years, with a desperate shortage of eligible men after World War I. It led to shiploads of hopeful girls traversing the Indian Ocean in search of a husband.

The season was crammed full of entertainments, and dances, balls, tennis matches and gymkhanas were all ways to meet the man of your dreams. This yearly influx of husband hunters acquired its own ironic tag, The Fishing Fleet. The Fleet sailed out to India in the Autumn, and any girls who had failed to find a husband or disliked the country too much to stay returned to England in Spring. They then acquired a new tag, that of The Returned Empties.

Other women, besides those in the Fishing Fleet, made the trip to India with marriage on their mind. These were the fiancées of serving soldiers (my mother included!) and ICS men. A special government dispensation had done away with premarital residence requirements, and they were allowed to wed immediately after they docked. A few hours after my heroine steps from the ship that has brought her to India, she is married in St John’s Afghan Church in Colaba, a suburb of what was then Bombay. Hopefully most brides did not face the dangers that were to confront Daisy!


Daisy’s Long Road Home is the third and final part of the Daisy’s War trilogy.
Amazon UK

Merryn Allingham worked for many years as a university lecturer and between job, family and pets, there was little time to do more than dabble in writing. But when the pressures eased, she grabbed the chance to do something she’d always promised herself – to write a novel. Over the next few years, she published several Regency romances but in 2013 adopted a new genre. Daisy’s War, a suspense trilogy, is the result. The books are set in India and wartime London during the 1930s and 1940s and the first in the series, The Girl from Cobb Street, was published in January last year. Books two and three followed in May and August, 2015.


  1. Fascinating to read and so much research gone into this. My own grandparents married in England prior to gran-dad's posting to India and my father and siblings grew up there as part of the British India Army 'family.' so a lot of this rings bells. Wishing you much success with your book. Wonderful photos too.

  2. Truly fascinating. Thanks for sharing :-)

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Jane and Christoph. So many people in this country have links to India - I'd love to hear all their stories.

  4. Great post. It's a good reminder that not everyone in any given period thought the same way or behaved the same way any more than people today do.

  5. Very interesting, thank you! I was introduced to the British in India by the works of Somerset Maugham. Later, I lived in Bangladesh for a time. The Indian Subcontinent is fascinating, little wonder it was the British Empire's Jewel in the Crown.

  6. Very interesting, thank you! I was introduced to the British in India by the works of Somerset Maugham. Later, I lived in Bangladesh for a time. The Indian Subcontinent is fascinating, little wonder it was the British Empire's Jewel in the Crown.

  7. Really looking forward to reading your trilogy. My mother Audrey Winter went out to India as young bride in 1939, came home during the last two years of the war, then went out again in 1946. She and my father stayed in India until 1950. I've recently published my mother's memoires, "Plucking the Moon from the Bottom of the Sea," which covers that extraordinary period in British India.


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