Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian

John Beames


Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian

John Beames


No one could have invented John Beames, whose vibrant and original memoirs were discovered by chance in an attic almost a century after they were penned.

He arrived in India in 1858 and worked there as a civil servant for the next 45 years, defending powerless peasants against rapacious planters, improvising fifteen-gun salutes for visiting dignitaries and presiding over the blissful coast of Orissa. His acquaintances spanned from lofty Rajas to dissolute Englishmen.

Vivid, candid and without fear of authority, Beames was a defiant individual in a huge bureaucracy. He writes with the richness of Dickens.

‘... accounts like these illuminate the dark corners of history.’ - TLS

‘... he is incapable of being dull.’ - Listener

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Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian
ISBN: 978-0907871-09-5
Format: 334pp demi pb
Place: India

Author Biography

John Beames was born on 21 June 1837, the day Queen Victoria came to the throne, in the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich. His earliest years were spent in Somerset before the family moved to London, where his father took up a succession of posts as a clergyman. In 1856 his headmaster at Merchant Taylors' school recommended him for a nomination to the Indian Civil Service, which took him to Haileybury College in Hertfordshire. He arrived in Calcutta in March 1858, before the mutiny of the previous year had been crushed. He held various posts in the Punjab early on but spent most of his working life in the Lower Provinces. In 1887 he reached the Board of Revenue, then the highest administrative post below the Lieutenant-Governor, in the province of Bengal. However his further career was impeded by views he expressed at a public commission on Indian education in that same year. He retired from the Civil Service in 1893 and returned to England. He died in Somerset in May 1902 age 65. He had eight children.

During his time in India he attained some eminence in the philological world. HisComparative Grammar of the Modern Aryan Languages of India was published in three volumes between 1872 and 1879, and was preceded by his Outlines Of Indian Philology in 1867. In 1891 he published Grammar of the Bengali Language. He was a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

His early death meant he never got to the end of his account of his time in India. He was also busy with other works including an (unfinished) Historical Geography of India.

He described himself as “an obscure person – an average, ordinary, middle-class Englishman”, and because of this, rather than in spite of it, he wrote his autobiography. 


Extract from Chapter One

Before I begin to write about myself I ought, I think, to give some account of my ancestors. These, as far as we know about them, may be divided into two groups, one beginning in the eleventh and stretching down to the fifteenth century, the other beginning at the end of the seventeenth century and descending in an unbroken line to the present day. With the first group our connection is, if not doubtful, at any rate not clearly traceable, so I shall merely mention a few of the best established facts concerning them.

Of course they ‘came over with the Conqueror’, like all respectable English families. It is the fashion to laugh at this claim, as a mere idle boast. But it is true in our case, at least if we are really descended from this family. In the Roll of Battle Abbey among the names of Duke William’s followers occurs the name Belemis. It is also spelt Belmeys, Beaumeis, Bealum, and in various other ways. Spelling in those times was not subject to any rules. There were three brothers of this name in the Norman Army – William, Richard and Walter. They came according to one account from Beaumez near Alençon, according to another from Les Beaumes near Avignon. They were attached to the service of Roger de Montgomeri, Earl of Shrewsbury, and obtained the manors of Tong and Donington in Shropshire, as also Ashby in Derbyshire. Richard was a priest and rose to be Bishop of London in 1108, and Warden of the Welsh Marches. He devoted all his episcopal income to the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral. His nephew, also called Richard, became Bishop of London about 1145. The Tong and Donington lines died out, the first in 1200, the second in 1329 but there was a third line settled in Lincolnshire represented by Henry de Belemis of Limberg Magna, and another at Sawtree Beaumes in Huntingdonshire. A de Beaumys also held lands in Sussex and near Reading, where there is still a ruined moat called Beaumys Castle.

About the year 1450 the last of various scattered notices of persons of this name is found. The family appears to have sunk into obscurity in the Wars of the Roses. Besides the identity of name, there is also the fact that their crest and coat of arms were the same as those we now bear to support the supposition that we are descended from them.

If so, it is most probably from the branch settled near Reading that we are derived, for about two centuries later the name Beaumes or Beames is found to be tolerably common in Berkshire and North Wiltshire, and some of them were bankers in Chippenham.

It was probably to this line that the John Beames belonged who, in or about 1728, married Sarah, daughter of the Revd John Power of Clifton near Bristol. This John Beames is sometimes called Roger Beames (by my grandfather in some notes of his which I have). I do not know why. He is said to have been born in 1695 and may be regarded as the founder of the present family. The Revd John Power by his will dated 26nd March 1743 bequeathed all his property at Clifton to his grandson John Beames, son of his daughter Sarah. This property remained in the family for several generations, in fact, a portion of it is in their possession still. Although the social position of John I, alias Roger, does not seem to have been very exalted, he was evidently of gentle birth, he was an armiger, and I have in my possession two silver shields of his or his son’s bearing azure six garbs or, 3, 2 and 1, crest a garb or; the same coat and crest as that of the old Norman de Beaumys.

I know nothing more about John I, except that he had two sons, John II and George. In an affidavit sworn at the Guildhall, London, by this George on 2nd December 1786 before the celebrated Wilkes, Lord Mayor, John II is described as ‘late of St Mary Overy’s Churchyard in the parish of St Saviour’s Southwark in the County of Surrey, victualler, deceased’ and George himself is described as a butcher of Oxford Street. The descendants of the Norman Barons had come down in the world, but not more so than those of many others whose names are in the Roll of Battle Abbey. These ancient names, as the Duchess of Cleveland shows, survive very largely among the peasantry when they have died out among the noble and gentle families.

 In 1749 John II married Sarah Halliday, and had two sons and two daughters. His eldest son died in a terrible manner when an infant thirteen months old. The father had been out and returning home stood for a while on his doorstep talking to a friend. The nurse, who was at an upper window, seeing him below held out the baby to see its father. The child in its eagerness to reach its father sprung forwards, slipped out of the nurse’s arms, fell and was dashed to pieces on the doorstep before its father’s feet! His second son John III was born in 1754 and baptized at St James’s Church, Piccadilly where the baptismal certificate was found a hundred years later by my father when he was Assistant Preacher of that church. The two daughters were named Sarah and Mary. The latter is said to have married one Connop, but beyond this, I have no information about them.

John III appears to have been at first in business, for in the affidavit above-mentioned he is said to have been of Thames Street, London, but now of Clifton near the Hotwells, Bristol. He evidently succeeded to the Clifton estates on the death of his father. The house in which he lived – Hillfield House – is still in existence at the lower end of Granby Hill just above the Hotwells. It must have been a fine old house then, though it is now divided into two and part of it is let out as a shop. Its gardens covered the whole hillside, and the fields surrounding it were long known as Beames’s hill fields. They and most of the garden have now been built over. At Hillfield my great grandfather lived till his death. He married a widow, Sarah Reeves (they all seem to have married Sarahs) whose maiden name was Ivyleafe, a strong-minded clever wornan.* He himself led a life of dissipation, drinking and gambling. Dreadful stories are told of his conduct. He belonged to a club in Bristol where play ran high and he gambled away the greater part of the Clifton property. Clifton was then a rural village, but it soon after became a fashionable watering place, and the land he gambled away became very valuable. As my cousin, old Benjamin Burroughs, from whom I have derived much of the information I am now recording, and who knows every inch of Clifton often says with a sigh, we might have been millionaires if it had nor been for this great-grandfather. The unhappy man eventually became insane and died in 1789. He left two children, and two sons had died before him in infancy; they were named George and Samuel.

The two surviving children were my grandfather John IV, born 16 May 1781, and Sarah, born in 1783. She married Benjamin Gustavus Burroughs, a physician of Bristol by whom she had a family of four sons and two daughters, of whom I shall frequently have occasion to make mention hereafter.

My great-grandmother thus left a widow devoted herself to the task of saving and managing what was left of the Clifton property. She was very successful and contrived to build up a very respectable income. She married for the third time, a Captain Powell (whether RN or Merchant Service I do not know – but he was a sailor of some kind), whom she survived, eventually dying on 19 March 1840 aged ninety-four. Ben Burroughs tells me she wanted to marry a fourth time after Powell’s death, and was with difficulty dissuaded by her children and grand- children. As all the property was left to her, she was well-off and kept up a good state at Hillfield House. She was fond of society and loved to give large parties; she held a prominent position in Clifton society. I have heard her described as a tall, rather masculine woman – ‘a grenadier in petticoats’ my father used to call her.

She sent her son, my grandfather, to the Grammar School at Sherborne in Dorsetshire whence in due course he proceeded to Exeter College, Oxford. After a time however he changed to Lincoln College. It was here that he displayed the first signs of his perverse and passionate character. The examinations for the B.A. degree had hitherto been held at each College separately, but about this time a new regulation was introduced under which the examinations were held by the University and the power of conferring degrees was taken away from the College authorities and transferred to those of the University. This change was strenuously opposed by the Heads of several Colleges, prominent among whom was Dr Tatham, Rector of Lincoln. A rumour was spread abroad that men from the recalcitrant Colleges would be unfavourably regarded by the Examiners and this roused much ill-feeling. My grandfather character- istically excited himself very much on this account and he went into the Schools bristling with irritation and prepared beforehand to see injustice in everything that was done. In the examination for Honours in classics, he was put on in Aristotle, an author whom he had, as he often asserted in later life, completely mastered. The Examiners had, it appears, fixed certain parts of Aristotle’s works as the tests, and when he had passed satisfactorily in those, he was put on in some part not included in the test. This he thought was done in the hope of plucking him, because he was a Lincoln man. So he refused to go on, flung the book at the heads of the Examiners, and stalked out of the hall pouring forth a volley of curses. This at least is how he used to tell the story. It did not transpire what, if any, punishment he incurred for this conduct but in the class lists for 1806 his name appears as second class in Literæ Humaniores, and he always asserted that though he was superior to Sir Robert Peel and other subsequently distinguished men who took Firsts in that year, he was refused a First on account of his outbreak. My father has told me that the story was well known at the time, and was confirmed by several of my grandfather’s contemporaries whom he had asked about it. After this he went to Lincoln’s Inn and was in due course called to the Bar in 1811. He rose rapidly in his profession, being a man of brilliant intellect, and indefatigable industry, marred however by the most violent temper. He was eminent as an equity draftsman and chamber counsel; as a pleader his success was not so great, his rudeness and violence of language making him unpopular with Judges. He gained in fact the sobriquet of ‘Cross Beames’, and there is an excellent caricature of him by the celebrated HB (John Doyle) standing in wig and gown under some crossed beams of the scaffolding of the new Hall of Lincoln’s Inn which was then being built, with the words ‘Cross Beames’ underneath. He was rather proud of this picture and had it hung up in his house! He used to spend his vacations at Hillfield House with his mother, or whenever he had a quarrel with her, an event of frequent occurrence, at Cowslip Lodge, a small house and estate near Wrington in Somerset- shire, some twelve miles south of Bristol. It was part of the Clifton property and is still in our family. He was an officer of the Royal Bristol Volunteers. The great European war was then in full progress and Volunteer corps were formed in all parts of the Kingdom. It must have been not later than 1811 that he married his first wife, Mary Collins. I am told that she was a very beautiful woman, and deeply attached to him. She was, however, very delicate, and being fond of society and amusement did not take enough care of her health. Her brother-in-law Dr Burroughs often, it is said, warned her that she was exerting herself too much, and going to too many balls and parties, but neither she nor her mother-in-law, Mrs Powell, with whom she spent most of her time, paid any attention to the warning. One evening at a party at Hillfield House she broke a blood-vessel, was carried to bed, and died in a few hours. She had been married only a little more than a year, and left no children. My grandfather it is thought felt her loss very acutely, but he never spoke of her again, and no trace of her was found at his death, save the name ‘Mary Collins’ in some old books. A little over a year after her death he married again. His second wife was Mary Pearson Carnarvon, only daughter and heiress of Dr Thomas Carnarvon, a physician of Greenwich. He had married one Jane Pearson, daughter of Dr John Pearson, a physician of York, whose wife Elizabeth was heiress of Sir Hercules Buck, the last of a Yorkshire family with strange Christian names descended from Sir Bezaleel Buck temp. Charles I. The Buck property had descended through Mrs Pearson to her daughter Mrs Carnarvon, and through her daughter it eventually came to our family. The landed property appears to have been sold, but Miss Carnarvon brought to my grandfather a sum of £36,000 in East India Stock and a considerable amount of house property in Greenwich and elsewhere. There was a large portrait in oils of Dr Carnarvon in the breakfast-room at Bashley. It represents a small man with a round, fair, clean-shaven face with delicate thin features and blue eyes, the hair powdered and tied in a knot behind, a scarlet coat with large polished steel buttons and frill on the breast. My brother Harry and my second son Frederick closely resemble him, and I am looking out for the reappearance of the type among my already numerous grandchildren.

Old Carnarvon’s temper was nearly as bad as my grandfather’s and they were constantly quarrelling, especially about money matters. So much did they disagree that they judged it advisable not to live in the same house any longer, though they had arranged to do so when the young couple were married. As my grandmother was very much attached to her mother, Mrs Carnarvon, the two ladies did not like the idea of being separated, so a compromise was arrived at. Dr Carnarvon lived in a big red-brick house on Croom’s Hill. This house faces north. It is still standing (1896) and is called Croom’s Hill House.* Opposite, but a little to the east, is another equally large red-brick house facing south which also belonged to him, and this he gave over to my grand- father who moved into it and lived there for some years. The two houses are on the brow of the steep hill leading down into Greenwich and are just outside the wall of the Park opposite the Ranger’s Lodge.

In this house was born on 1 February 1815 my father, Thomas Beames. He was named after Dr Carnarvon, a departure from the old family custom of calling the eldest son John, which, if one were to be super- stitious, one might say brought him ill-luck. In the same house on the 22nd February 1817 was born my Uncle John V. These were the only two children born of this marriage.

Soon after my uncle’s birth old Carnarvon died, and his widow removed from Croom’s Hill to a large white house in Park Lane, just opposite the eastern gate of Greenwich Hospital. It has been pulled down now. Here she lived for many years in company with a queer old Yorkshire woman, Miss Smith, who was my godmother and left me a legacy when she died thirty-odd years later. My father was very fond of his grandmother and often spent his holidays with her. The unfortunate dispersion of my grandfather’s library and the destruction of all his private papers after my father’s death during my absence in India deprives me of the power of assigning accurate dates in many cases to the events I am now relating. I can therefore merely record what I have been told by my father and grandfather, only in a few instances can I give the actual or approximate dates from the few papers which I have been able to secure.

About this time, that is, in or about 1818, my grandfather gave up the house at Greenwich and lived in his town house 24 Bedford Square, spending his vacations chiefly at Wrington. There was good shooting on the Cowslip Lodge estate, which he much enjoyed and my grandmother had many friends in the neighbourhood, among whom was Mrs Hannah More, who lived close by at Barley Wood and was in her time a celebrated authoress, though probably now forgotten. My grandmother was a highly educated woman with strong literary and artistic tastes, and had much cultivated society round her in London. My grandfather too was an extremely well-read man and when in a good temper could be very charming. There was great fascination in his talk even as an old man, and my father has told me that as a younger man my grandfather was highly popular in society. Some of the verses he has written in his wife’s album, which I have still, are very graceful and witty.