The Indian Raj and the Foothead Family

By Carol (okus) on March 16, 2010

Family stories can be the key to unravelling our ancestry, but sometimes we need to take them with a pinch of salt. Sometimes our own prejudices and preconceived notions can colour and cloud our research. Most stories are founded in fact, but may be embellished or minimised in the telling. Here is a small insight into the life of one family in the early 19th Century at a time when India played an important part in the history of Britain and its Empire.


EJ, Thirza and daughter Julia (all seated), with Julia's 3 sons

When I first started researching my family tree in the 1980s, I gathered as much information as I could from living relatives. My father had been brought up by his Mother’s parents Edward James (EJ) and Thirza Foothead, and gave me as much information as he could remember from his Grandfather’s stories. I was told that EJ believed his grandfather came from a reasonably wealthy family, but drink and debauchery had cost them their fortune. He also believed his father to have been a Sergeant Major in the Army who saw service in India. During his time there he had married twice, both times to Indian girls, both wives dying in childbirth. After his return he met and married EJ’s mother, Mary Anne Manning, there were also other children. He remembered swimming in Limehouse cut with his older siblings as a boy. The Cut ran at the back of their house and his parents ran the Seaman’s Mission in Limehouse.

We rather thought a lot of this was fanciful and the truth would never be known, but it was a starting point, and with a name as unusual as Foothead I was naïve enough to think it would be easy to gather what information there was!  I had not imagined how often, and in how many different ways the name could be mis-recorded or transcribed. Here I must pause to acknowledge the invaluable assistance I received with my research from the FIBIS, Families in British India Society, who provide research assistance for members at a nominal fee. Without their help it would have been impossible for me to dig all of the information out of the British Library archives, at least not without financing a prolonged stay in London.

It is amazing just how many of EJs memories have turned out to be true. Where I have been able to find supporting evidence, everything he mentioned has a pretty firm basis in fact, which adds credence to the bits as yet unverified.

The story starts in December 1799 when James Felix Foothead was born the son of a highly thought of Schoolmaster, James Foothead, and his wife Elizabeth, in St Giles, Bloomsbury, London, England. In approximately 1813 Elizabeth died and James promptly remarried. His new wife, Jane Norris was a young girl from Norfolk, with whom he had already had two children.  Then 1814 saw a major turning point in family fortunes; his brother Charles sold the school where they both taught and there was yet another public scandal surrounding their father “J.J.” who died, age 75, just 6 days after marrying his former Ward. This was widely reported in the gentleman's press at the time and following as it did two early incidents of bankruptcy, several court cases and a spell in debtors jail must have been at least a '9 days wonder' in fashionable society. Not long after this James changed his occupation from teacher to Tax Collector. There were an increasing number of new children and a steady move from the more affluent West End to the East End of London as their finances declined over the following years.

Against this background it is hardly surprising that James Felix left home as soon as he was old enough. He signed up for the East India Company Army the day after his 18th birthday in December 1817. He was embarked on the Marchioness of Ely bound for the Madras Presidency, India, in March 1818.  At this point he is recorded as being 5 ft 61/2 ins tall, having a long face with sallow complexion, blue eyes and dark brown hair. Interestingly on his discharge in 1848, although the rest of the physical description remains the same, he had grown to 5 ft 9ins tall. This difference was probably not a recording error at either point, but an unusual, hereditary, family characteristic. My father, my son and I have all grown at least 2 inches after reaching the age of 21!

In 1827, James Felix’s cousin Elizabeth also sailed for India, as a companion to a Mrs. Moorat whose husband, an Armenian Catholic, was returning to the country of his birth. It cost her family a bond of £200 to ensure her passage, a fortune at that time. She travelled extensively while there, returning to Europe in 1836, again with Mrs. Moorat and several of her children. Shortly after her return she married an Austrian Officer she had met while in India, indeed it is possible that the reason for the return home was the impending marriage. I wonder how much time if any she spent with her cousinwhile there ?

By January 1826 James Felix was in Nagpur and had married a local girl called Anne, I have yet to discover her maiden name, but she was at most 16 and probably only 15 when they married. Although I have not yet found a marriage record, I do have the baptismal record for their son, Thomas Henry, who was baptised in December 1826. The clergyman in Nagpur at that time, the Rev. Jeafferson, not only had atrocious handwriting but was very careful to annotate his records to show Indian blood on all his baptismal entries and as Thomas is not described as British-Indian, as is another child baptized the same day, I am reasonably certain Anne must have been of British/European origins.

Anne died in 1829, still aged only 19, and was buried on 29 September, in Kamptee cemetery. If EJ is correct, this must have been a subsequent pregnancy, not the birth of Thomas.  On the burial register James is described as a 'Road Sergeant'. What subsequently happened to Thomas Henry remains a mystery, I have found no death record, which would have been at Nagpur as they were still there when Anne died, but neither have I found any further references to him. However the name was never re-used and James was not original in naming his children, names being repeated on more than one occasion following the death of the original child.

James Felix speedily married again, in May 1830, by which time he was “Sergeant  Quarter Master in the Gun Dept”; his second wife was Margaret Simpson, described as a Spinster and ‘a European lady’ . It may be purely coincidence but the burial register which contains the entry for Anne Foothead also contains one for a Private James Simpson of the 2nd European Regiment. If this was Margaret’s father/brother or other sponsor then she would have been left in a very vulnerable position. Marriage to James Felix could have solved problems for both of them which may explain why they married so remarkably soon after Anne’s death. Perhaps James had a child or children in need of care, and to protect the reputation of the young lady, they married. The marriage entry is in a transcribed compilation from various Churches of the Diocese, these I believe were called Bishops transcripts, and illustrates another example of the Rev. Jeafferson’s appalling writing; the transcription has James name and status as Forthead, Willows instead of Foothead, Widower!!


Margaret and James' first child, James Edward was born in January 1832; at which time they were still in Nagpur and James was in the Quarter Master General’s Dept. Their second son, William was born in Vepery, in Nov 1833, and baptized the following January. He must have died at some point in the next 2 years, although I have not found a record, as his name was reused for William Henry, born in October 1836. By this time they had moved again and were now in Cannanore and James was Garrison Sergeant Major.

After 20 years with the East India Company Army, James retired from active service in 1839 and was pensioned.  The fourth child born to him and Margaret, Eliza Jane, although born in December 1838 was not baptized until June 1839, at St Mary’s, Madras, by which time James was a “Pensioned Sergeant”.

In October 1840 he was still in the Madras area when Ellen was born and was then a “Pensioned Staff Sergeant”; the subtle difference being due to the confirmation of his Sergeant Pension at the beginning of the year. Ellen died at only 8 months old but must have been reasonably healthy at birth as she was born in the October and not baptized until the following year on 26 May. She was probably baptized then because she was ill, and not expected to live; she was buried on 11 June 1841.

In May 1843 James Henry, now aged 11 died and was buried at Vizagapatam, but I do not know if the family had moved there, or if he was away at school at that time. In October of 1843, Miss Foothead and Mr. Foothead arrived in Madras, on the Sarah from Vizagapatam with an Ayah, several other young people and a clergyman. Unless the Mr. Foothead was James, neither parent was on the trip, but if it was James and Eliza, was the 7 year old William Henry elsewhere at school?  Perhaps the entry refers to Eliza Jane and William Henry, if so were they returning home or perhaps going to school?

I have found no further records for the family until James returned to England, “at his own request”, in 1848 when his occupation is given as Apothecary. His return may have been prompted by the award of an additional pension of 1 shilling a day, £18 5s per year, on top of his regular pension, as a time served Sergeant, if resident in Great Britain. It may also have been that having survived for 30 years, and with trouble brewing around him, he felt it prudent to take his two surviving young children, William Henry and Eliza Jane, back to the relative safety of England. As Margaret did not return with him, I believe she must have died earlier, though I have no positive documentary evidence for this, I think that it is probable that her death was before the death of James Henry. She is not mentioned in his burial entry, mothers normally are, even if not by name,  as “wife of” the father. If, as EJ believed, she did die in childbirth, it would have been with her 6th pregnancy and probably in late 1842/ early 43; there is about a 2 year gap between each of her older children so that would fit the pattern.

Thomas Henry did not accompany his father either, but by this time, had he survived, he would have been 22, working and quite possibly married himself. None of the adult Foothead children seem to have been close to their parents and all left home at around 18 so this is no surprise, and not necessarily an indication that he was dead. I have not yet found any other reference to him but it has taken me 30 years to find what I have, so that is not conclusive either way.

Although James Felix returned to England, this does not signal the end of the story. In 1849, in London, he married for a third time, his wife being local girl, Mary Ann Manning. They had a draper’s shop in Hill St, Richmond in the 1851 census and William (Henry) was at home with them as was the new born Edward James and Eliza was away at school in Hatcham, near Greenwich, but James was not cut out to be a draper, and that enterprise did not last long.

Limehouse Seamen's Mission today

When 'The Strangers Home for Asiatic and Lascar Seamen'  was opened in Limehouse in 1857 he became its first Superintendant. The home was built to accommodate and assist the large number of Lascars who found themselves stranded in London with little money, no language and no passage home, and much of the funding came from the Maharajah Duleep Singh and the East India Company. James would have been an ideal candidate for the job. Newly returned and therefore still familiar with Indian customs and ways, used to commanding large groups of men, and familiar with their languages and very aware how different the climate and life was in London. How long he held the post is unclear as I have only found one relevant reference, the accounts for 1857;     2010-03-15/okus/a9d167the early life of the Home is not well documented.

In 1861 James, listed as an EIC (East India Company) Pensioner, was living in Richmond Road, Dalston, Hackney, London with his wife, EJ and two younger daughters Elizabeth and Sarah. Although William and Eliza are both totally missing from the census, neither had died. In April 1857, Eliza Jane aged just 18 and on her own set sail as an assisted emigrant for Sidney, Australia. Some years later, still in Australia, she married the widowed son of a soldier, who was Greenwich born, and whom she had probably met while at school there. She may even have followed him to Australia as emigrating young, single, female and alone, to a totally new country, is not usual and she must have been very adventurous, had a very compelling reason or both.

William enlisted himself in the EIC Army, just like his father before him, aged 18 and as soon as he was old enough. At this time he was described as 5ft 6, with a fresh complexion, blue eyes and dark brown hair, very similar to the description of his father at that age, but of fairer complexion which suggest Margaret had been fairer skinned. He sailed on the Albuera, bound for Bombay on 23 Nov 1854. He started his career as a Private in the second European Light Infantry but, during his service, the EIC was reduced and its Military servants became His Majesty’s Army, so he ended his career as a Corporal in the 106th Foot Regiment.

His service was not as long or as fortunate as his fathers. He had reached the rank of Corporal by 1863, but was invalided back to England in July that year, still a single man and sailing on the Morayshire for London. He died in 1868 of Tuberculosis, probably contracted during his Army Service and probably the reason he was sent home.

It is ironic that James Felix died,  in London in 1880, of Typhoid  having avoided the disease for all those years in India. Of the 13 children born to him during his 80+ years, only 5, or just possibly 6 if Thomas lived, reached adulthood and only one, EJ, had children of their own. EJ also had “itchy feet” feeling there were “no prospects” in England, he left the UK for pastures new, not India this time, but New Zealand. Sailing on the Euterpe with his new wife in 1874, he founded a dynasty there, having 9 sons and 1 daughter, most of whom survived to breed on. One of his grandsons, Garry Foothead even found his way back to India, where he died, in Vepery, in 2001.

The Euterpe in 18832010-03-15/okus/01ee1e in New Zealand

So was great grandpa's story true? Well after 30 years of research I have established that: G. Great Grandpa did serve in India, but with the East India Company Army not the British Army. He did become a Garrison Sergeant Major; he spent 30 years in India which is rather more than a few! He did marry twice while there, but both his wives were European Ladies who happened to be born in India themselves, rather than Native Indian as Dad believed. His first wife, Anne died, aged 19, at the birth of their second child, so could be described as a “girl”. His second wife, Margaret also died in childbirth but that was with baby number 6, after 18 years of marriage and aged 33.

When he returned to England, G Great Grandpa James was 48, and he brought his surviving Indian born children with him. He did marry again, and for a time, was Superintendant of the “Strangers Home for Lascar and Asian Seamen” in Limehouse, a seaman’s mission indeed but not quite as I expected. The older siblings that Dad’s grandfather, E.J. remembered were Indian born; he himself was the eldest of the 4 English born children.

The moral therefore is: don’t take what you are told too literally – add a generous pinch of skepticism and double check everything you are told. People’s memories are often coloured by what they were told themselves and their own prejudices. They are a good base starting point for research but are not in themselves the whole truth. However if something isn’t totally accurate, don’t assume it’s totally false, or that someone is hiding something either! Too literal an interpretation can waste years and lead to dead ends.  Always remember just because you can’t find someone doesn’t mean they aren’t there, you may not be looking in the right place. Not all the records have been published, the IGI is far from a complete history and some of its records are just ‘wishful thinking’ by its contributors.

Carol Gilbert
December 2009

Related articles:
Britain, Family History, Foothead, India, Raj, The Strangers Home, UK

About Carol
Carol is from the UK but has roots going back all over the globe. She has always loved history and has been researching her family tree for 30 plus years. There are still holes of course and she has found the odd skeleton, but it all helps to make the past come alive.
Other interests are dogs; she has bred, exhibited and judged Golden Retrievers for many years; building miniature homes otherwise known as Dolls Houses; Collecting antiques and last but not least Gardening.

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Amazing! UniQueTreasures Mar 16, 2010 3:51 AM 1

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