A Vision of Beauty: Chapter 1

A Biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen by Marion Dell.

© CC BY-NC-SA unless otherwise stated; image copyrights are listed in the credits and they are not licensed for re-use.

Indian roots

Julia’s story – a fairy-tale beginning in India 

1. Pastel drawing of Adeline and Mary Jackson in England, 1846, by V. Dartiguenave.
2. Letter from John Jackson to his daughter Adeline, Calcutta, 8 February 1846. 

Julia’s story begins with a letter written by her father, Dr John Jackson, to his daughters, eight-year-old Adeline and four-year-old Mary Louise. This warm, loving, letter tells ‘My dearest Addy’ and ‘darling Mary Loo’ that they have another little sister, who ‘arrived yesterday at 4 oclock’. 

It is a very fine and pretty looking Baby, more like Addy than Mary Loo, and is a very good little Child doing nothing but sleep, never has been known to cry. What we shall call this little Sister I can not tell you but I think that we shall call it Julia after your dear Aunt, whom we all love so much. 1

Julia Prinsep Stephen was born on 7 February 1846 in Calcutta, the fourth child of John and Maria Jackson. Her father hastily scrawled his brief, blot-stained letter the following day, no doubt anxious to send the news with a ship due to sail. But it would be some six months2 before Adeline and Mary, sent ‘home’ to live with relations in London, would receive the letter from their ‘fond Papa’.

Julia’s life had an exotic, fairy-tale beginning. Her parents had recently moved to Chowringhee Road, renowned for the elegance and size of its beautiful mansions. It overlooked the large open space of the Maidan with the river beyond. The rooms looked out onto luxuriant gardens. Julia’s cot would have been put on one of the airy, cool verandas which shaded the house. She would be rocked by a nursemaid, just one of the many servants in the household.

3. Chowringhee taken from the Verandah, Bishop’s Palace, March 1828. Watercolour by Marianne Jane James, wife of the third Bishop of Calcutta.

Fanny Parks, on one of her visits to Calcutta in the 1780s, recorded that,

Calcutta has been styled the City of Palaces, and it well deserves the name. The Government House stands on the Maidan, near the river; the city, and St Andrew’s Church lies behind it; to the left is that part called Chowringhee, filled with beautiful detached houses, surrounded by gardens; the verandahs, which generally rise from basement to the highest storey, give, with their pillars, an air of lightness and beauty to the buildings, and protecting the dwellings from the sun, render them agreeable for exercise in the rainy season. The houses are all stuccoed on the outside and seem as if built of stone.3

4. Chowringhee Road View from No X1 Esplanade Row by Sir Charles D’Oyly. 1830s. 

How was it that Julia Jackson was born into such fabulously luxurious surroundings? Why were her parents in India? Dr Jackson ‘had gone to Calcutta in the twenties (I suppose)’, Julia’s second husband, Leslie Stephen, recounted briefly and uncertainly. Showing a singular lack of interest and attention he admitted, 

I once heard him tell of adventures by the way, whether from shipwreck or pirates – I am ashamed to say that I forget which – but he was little given to talking of himself.4

I discovered that John Jackson had in fact voyaged only once to India and, 25 years later, once back; without any ‘adventures by the way’. But there were adventure stories to retrieve. His father, Julia’s amazing grandfather, George Jackson, had encountered pirates and the dangers of shipwreck on numbers of occasions. Though his incredible exploits rivalled anything Virginia Woolf included in her novel Orlando, stories of George Jackson appear not to have been remembered or told in Julia’s family. Nor are there any family anecdotes about Julia’s equally remarkable, Indian-born grandmother, Mary Howard, who married George in Calcutta when she was only 15. Yet it was they who bequeathed Julia and her descendants their Indian roots.

George Jackson – Julia’s grandfather 

Julia’s grandfather was George Jackson. Her great-grandparents were William Jackson, a cobbler, and his wife Susannah Dean,5 who were married at All Saints Church, in their home town of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, 17 June 1746. Their son George was baptised in the same church on 17 January 1758. William and Susannah must have watched over him anxiously. Three baby sons had already died. William lived less than a week after his baptism, Edward less than a month, and John for less than a year.6 Only their daughter Elizabeth, seven years old when George was born, thrived. But George too grew up fit and strong. No doubt it was expected that he would become his father’s apprentice and carry on the family business. However, according to family story,7 about 1772 when he was 14, he decided to run away to sea and seek his fortune elsewhere.

George Jackson’s parents must have been devastated by his departure, and the loss of his earnings to the precarious family finances. At about the same time Elizabeth also left home. She made her life with her new husband, John Noble, in Nettleton, a village only about 25 miles away, but she apparently severed connections with her parents. More tragedy struck. William died suddenly in February 1776. According to his burial record he was ‘found dead on the common’; whether from mishap, illness or violent assault is not stated. George’s mother Susannah was left abandoned by her children, and destitute.8 She tragically died in the Workhouse and was buried on 20 January 1787 at Gainsborough All Saints Church. 

Meanwhile, far away in India, George had prospered. His adventures had begun when he left Gainsborough, and for a penniless boy wanting to board ship, he was lucky to be in the right place, at the right time. Though more than 50 miles from the coast, Gainsborough in the later 18th century was a thriving, busy port on the tidal river Trent. He would easily have been able to work his passage on one of the many cargo boats from Newcastle, York or Hull, loading and offloading coal, cloth and other goods en-route for London. But it was not just luck; he must also have been remarkably strong, resilient and resourceful.

5. Shipping at Gainsborough c.1770. 

There is a frustrating gap in the records. George could have arrived in London in time to be taken on by the East India Company as one of the lowest of the crew on one of the huge three-masted East Indiamen which sailed in January or February each year. Taking advantage of the most favourable winds and weather conditions they navigated the treacherous Cape of Good Hope and, if lucky, arrived in Bombay or Calcutta some six to eight months later. Or he might, like the young John Prinsep, whose descendants were to play a significant part in the life of Julia Prinsep Stephen, have got together just enough money to sail steerage, though he had to borrow from other passengers on the Rodney sailing from Portsmouth in 1771. However George Jackson got there, he would have been as overawed at his first sight of Calcutta as he sailed up the Hooghly River and tied up near Fort William as was John Prinsep, who described the Fort as,

regular, majestic and commanding. The stream seemed to widen as we proceeded and straight before us we beheld a stately forest of masts, vessels, an immense city and all the bustle of commercial business.9

6. A view of Calcutta from Fort William, c.1783. Watercolour by Samuel Davis, who became a Director of the East India Company in 1810.

George Jackson and John Prinsep, like hundreds of other young men, had come to India to make their fortunes, and their fortunes were all tied up with the East India Company. Its influence and power were inescapable. 

Calcutta and the East India Company (EIC) 

The EIC, also sometimes called the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) or the British East India Company (BEIC), was originally a trading company set up by London merchants and receiving a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I in December 1600. Its headquarters were in Leadenhall Street, London. By the 18th century it had established some of its many trading stations, called Factories, on the swampy inlets of the Hooghly River near Calcutta, now modern Kolkata. This was a staging post for its aggressive trade with China, particularly in tea for which the EIC had a monopoly, as it did later for opium. In the 17th and 18th centuries it also developed as a military force. Its private army, by 1803 numbering some 200,000 men, finally defeated French and other forces in India and gained control of the whole of Bengal. 

7. Old Court House and Writers Buildings (1786) by Thomas Daniell. 

Calcutta became the administrative capital and the EIC regulated and controlled all aspects of life. Company officials, particularly newly arrived young administrators and clerks, called Writers, were poorly paid and encouraged to borrow and to speculate to supplement their incomes. The Company relied on patronage, and kinship links, both in England and India. Letters of recommendation were needed to get jobs and promotion. Soon dynasties of Company ‘servants’ were established. Many members of these families were to become important in the life of Julia Stephen and of her parents, aunts and children, notably the Camerons, Dalrymples, Dickinsons, Grants, Impeys, Lushingtons, Pattles, Prinseps, Ritchies, Smyths, Stracheys and Thackerays.

The EIC’s trading empire expanded so quickly that soon the Directors in London could no longer finance or control it. The British Parliament sent Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of Bengal, in a futile attempt to try and reform the EIC. Increasingly it became a huge administrative, legislative and military organisation, only transferring that power in the mid-19th century to Queen Victoria and the British Raj.10 John Prinsep was fortunate that his family in England was well connected and, although he arrived penniless, he had letters of introduction to men well established in the EIC. 

Another new arrival, William Hickey, a young lawyer who soon became a friend of John Prinsep, was similarly impecunious but fortunate. He recorded how his

father wrote to Sir Elijah Impey, the chief Justice, with whom he had for many years been upon familiar footing, also to Mr Macpherson, a member of the Supreme Council. Mr Cane likewise procured many letters for me addressed to persons of the highest rank in Bengal. […] In short I believe there never was a man better recommended than myself.11

George Jackson – The Adventures of a Free Mariner

8. Portrait thought to be of Julia’s grandfather, 
George Jackson.12

George Jackson had none of these family advantages and networks of influence. He had to be self-reliant. While John Prinsep made his fortune as a Free Merchant, licensed by the East India Company but independently dealing in chintz and indigo, George Jackson became a Free Mariner. Free Mariners were skilled sailors and self-reliant, resourceful, buccaneers, crewing what were known as Country ships, which were usually built in their home country, India, and sailed from there around South East Asia, but not to Europe. All ships leaving British India were licensed and regulated by the hugely influential East India Company, but Country ships were privately owned by rich merchants and entrepreneurs. George Jackson was typical of an officer on one of these ships, trading for the owners, and possibly also for the East India Company, but also making lucrative deals on his own behalf. They hugged the coasts of India, China and the islands and archipelagos of South East Asia, bartering and trading as they went. Their cargoes were mostly cloth from India, tea and porcelain from China, and teak, opium and local foods where they could get them. Huge fortunes could be made by Free Mariners, but it was a very precarious and dangerous occupation.

George Jackson must have sailed on a number of ships, gradually gaining skills, promotions and experience of local conditions. When the Country ship the Princess Royal sailed from Madras in December 1785, he was her First Officer. When they dropped anchor back in Calcutta after a voyage lasting almost three years, George had been promoted to Captain. 

Stories of the voyage of the Princess Royal, December 1785 – October 1788

9. The Princess Royal in 1770 by John Cleveley the Elder. 

The Princess Royal was originally an East Indiaman sailing from Blackwall in London to China. By the time George Jackson sailed on her in the 1780s she was an old ship, ‘a dead sailor’ involved in the Country trade. She had become ‘no flyer and [was] a little leaky being deeply laden’, following one of the most lucrative trading routes to Macao and Canton. On board was a gifted story-teller, the Third Officer, John Adolphus Pope, only 14 when they set sail from Madras in December 1785. He was an educated, literate and very observant young man who wrote frequent, graphic, letters full of fascinating detail about life on board ship and his explorations in the various ports they put into. He sent back packets of letters, and interesting items he had collected, by passing ships to a friend, George, in India.  By a remarkable piece of serendipity his letters survived and were passed down to a story-telling descendant, Anne Bulley.13 Thanks to John Pope we have detailed, vibrant narratives of this adventurous three year voyage, and of George Jackson, the other officers, and their life on board the Princess Royal:

To give you some idea of a country ship, I will now give you a small detail of our manners and customs. First, we breakfast at 8 am. on rice-dhal, a kind of pea boiled together and called Kedjeree, biscuit, tea etc. We dine at 12 on roast fowls, ducks and a large dish of curry, with a few glasses of wine. We drink a 6 o’clock tea, and at 8 pm. supper same as dinner. The Lascars eat twice a day rice and ghee with a little fish, being the whole of their allowance – Nay, they find the fish themselves. However they seem to be well contented. They have to watch, all hands being continually on deck, rain or fair weather. This is one of the finest fishing countries and Mr J [Jackson] is one of the most industrious fishermen in the world. A kind of red cod are the most plentiful.

The Captain and his four officers seem to have been an educated, literate, multi-lingual group. There were books on board, though not as many as John Pope would have wished. He recorded that,

The Captain is a most industrious novel and play reader, Mr Jackson is a language master, Mr J [Jones] is a bit of a poet and your poor friend here has a smatter of all these matters. 

But there would be little time for culture. They sailed close to the shore, deep into river estuaries. At one time the Princess Royal was taking on board cargoes of beeswax, timber, birds’ nests, gold, betelnuts and mangosteens. At another they traded opium for gold and ivory. They carried few provisions but had to collect fresh water and hunt, fish and barter for their own food. They were entertained lavishly on shore by some local chiefs and merchants, but attacked or held hostage by others. Their purpose was trade. On 27 August 1786, John Pope tells his friend, George, ‘Our cargo being all out, Mr. J. [Jackson] went into Canton and took me with him’: 

Any description that I can give will convey but a faint idea of this place. The river for a Mile or two below Canton is covered with boats of various sizes from those of 100 tons down to a ferry boat all in motion and so close that it is with utmost difficulty you can get past them. Near the shore on each side boats are moored in regular streets for miles and miles.

10. Whampoa Anchorage near Canton c.1810. Unknown artist. 

John Pope was impressed by the size of the European warehouses, called Factories, with long verandas along the river front, and squashed behind them the grand houses of local merchants. Walking around the area they came to China Street which was

about 30 feet broad and a quarter of a mile long, inhabited totally by shopkeepers who deal wholly with Europeans, chiefly silk merchants, china shops, fan makers, lacquer ware and printers and such like. I have bought for you some paintings on paper, one set containing 113 paintings exhibiting the different trades in China – one set 57 plates of fishes – one set 94 of different fruits.

No doubt George Jackson was also buying up as much as he could from this cornucopia of covetable, marketable, goods. In the evening they were invited to a lavish dinner by a rich merchant who entertained them royally in his beautiful garden.

Canton, now named Guangzhou, was at that time the only Chinese port open to foreign ships, which had to anchor at the very crowded Whampoa Island. In September 1786, John Pope recorded

a gale of wind came on and we were forced to let go all our anchors and strike our masts and were in great danger. It luckily however subsided and on the 6th we got up to Whampoa. A number of ships are here of all nations. 12 Indiamen 2 Swedes 3 Danes 19 Country ships 2 Spaniards 2 Tuscans 1 Prussian. 

They were lucky to be sailing in a period of relative peace, during a lull in international hostilities between the rival trading powers of Britain, France and Holland. But pirate attacks were frequent where the pickings were so rich. Many ships were lost without trace, wrecked in what were crowded waterways with dangerous rip tides, sandbanks and whirlpools. They could be battered by typhoons and hurricanes, have their masts struck by lightning, or be suddenly becalmed for days on end. In just one month, November 1787, Pope tells of the loss nearby of the Ganges, the Jenny and the Argyle. Navigational aids were few and they had to create their own maps, not always very successfully; their passage from China to Malacca ‘was of a very unusual length for we unfortunately missed our way.’ When the Princess Royal arrived in Gingham from Canton, John Pope recorded that she was laden with a

great deal of coarse China ware – round dragon dishes cups of sizes, etc – umbrellas of silk and paper – some inferior tea and sugar – coarse silk – fireworks – toys etc all of which found a ready market. In return we have got a ship load of Pepper and Beetlenut.

This they were taking to Bombay where they planned to load up with cotton and return to China.

In May 1788 while they were in Rangoon, came the worst of their misfortunes. The Captain, John Forrest, aged only 37, died suddenly of convulsions. George Jackson became Captain, taking command of the ship, making arrangements for the well-attended funeral on shore, and dealing with a drunken Second Officer. He also had the tricky task of arranging provision for the Captain’s ‘wife’, who was on board. As the Captain had died intestate, the ship and all her cargo was impounded by the port authorities. This was a huge blow for George Jackson, since between them he and the Captain owned virtually all the cargo then on board and their financial and trading affairs were closely bound up together. George Jackson gained his promotion, but lost some of his fortune. 

Affairs were not sorted out until August when they were allowed to board their ship again and set sail with a load of teak. The Princess Royal, long and anxiously awaited by her owners and investors, finally dropped anchor back in Calcutta on 14 October 1788. The ship, now in very poor condition, was sold shortly afterwards. George Jackson was soon off trading again, this time as Captain of the Bridges, a two-masted ship called a snow, which was recorded as arriving back at Madras from Bengal and Sumatra, on 28 April 1789.14

George and Mary Jackson’s story

George Jackson was a wealthy man, with a remarkable career behind him, when he finally decided to settle down. In October 1796 he married Mary Howard in the Chapel at Fort William, Calcutta. He is recorded as a ‘Captain in the Country Service’, an occupation and status that would have been well understood in that community. His age was given as 38 years; his bride was only 15. But Mary turned out to be a strong, determined, worthy partner for her adventurous and more experienced husband. 

Mary had been born into a large, prosperous family in Calcutta, many of whom, like her father, were in the legal world. Her mother, Elizabeth Mitford, had moved from England to Calcutta with her first husband, her cousin and Somerset solicitor, William Ayres. There they had three children. When William died Elizabeth stayed in Calcutta and married another English solicitor, also called William – William Howard. With him she had a further six children, including Mary, who was born in 1780. Elizabeth was widowed a second time when William died in August 1795, just a year before Mary and George’s wedding. It was not unusual for girls to marry very young. Mary’s sister Kitty had married at 14 and Lydia at only 13 years and 11 months, each having their first child when only 15.

Mary and George began their married life in a city which was booming, but built on debt and speculation. Calcutta was full of self-made people whose fortunes were continually changing. The loss of a ship could ruin hundreds of people. It was an exciting, energetic, insecure city, growing at an alarming and chaotic rate, with luxurious suburbs such as Chowringhee and Garden Reach. The huge mansions of the Europeans and rich Indian, Armenian and Greek merchants and entrepreneurs gave it its name of City of Palaces. The area around Chowringhee, with some of the grandest neo-classical villas, was inhabited predominantly by British residents, but the houses were mostly built and owned by local Bengali merchants, who rented them out.

11. View of part of Chowringhee by Sir Charles D’Oyly, Calcutta 1830s. 

Newly arrived, William Hickey, saw a

noble view of Garden Reach and all its palaces downward, and upward Fort William with the magnificent city of Calcutta, a sheet of water more than nine miles in extent, nearly two in breadth, covered with innumerable ships of different sizes. […] The verdure throughout on every side was beautiful beyond imagination, the whole landscape being more luxuriant than I had any expectation of seeing in the burning climate of Bengal.15

12. A View of the Botanic Garden House and Reach, James Baillie Fraser, 1826. 

But these palaces were built in the midst of sprawling slum dwellings for the huge labour force which supported the city’s growth. Starvation and disease were rife. In 1771, as John Prinsep recorded, one of the many droughts

had left the most deplorable marks behind of its ravages in the half-stripped bones of men not yet removed from the outskirts of the town and the floating bodies of others moving up and down with the tide, a prey to vultures perched upon them.16

The much-travelled Eliza Fay, arriving in May 1780 in search of the picturesque, saw only the romance and beauty of the scene: 

The town of Calcutta reaches along the eastern bank of the Hoogly; as you come up past Fort William and the esplanade it has a beautiful appearance. Esplanade-row, as it is called, which fronts the Fort, seems to be composed of palaces. […] The noble appearance of the river also, which is much wider than the Thames at London bridge, together with the amazing variety of vessels continually passing on its surface, add to the beauty of the scene.17

13. View taken on the Esplanade, Calcutta, 1797 by Thomas Daniell. 

Trade and transport all depended on the river and shipping and after his marriage George continued his adventurous and profitable voyages. In 1801 he is recorded as ‘mariner’ in the East India Company’s Register of Employees, but under ‘Miscellaneous’, suggesting that though he sometimes worked for the Company he remained a Free Mariner. Mary must have frequently been left alone and probably remained living with her recently widowed mother. 

Mixed race relationships in 18th century India

14. Sir David Ochterlony, the British Resident in Delhi c.1820. Artist unknown.
15. John Wombwell, a chartered accountant from Yorkshire, relaxing at his home in Lucknow c.1790. Artist unknown. 

Brought up in Calcutta, Mary would have been prepared for the fact that her much older sailor husband would have had Indian mistresses, then known as bibis. In the 18th century social relations between Europeans and Indians were very close.18 Merchants, traders and entrepreneurs of all nationalities collaborated and had joint ventures. Most Europeans embraced Indian culture and learnt Indian languages, especially Persian which remained the language of trade, medicine and the legal system. Many adopted Indian customs, smoked hookahs, chewed betel and wore local clothing, as George Jackson has done in the portrait above.

George Jackson and other officers brought their families on board the Princess Royal. His relationships with Indian bibis, were typical of the inter-racial liaisons which were condoned, even encouraged. David Gilmour claims that ‘most British men in India spent at least part of their careers living with at last one Indian or Eurasian woman […] It was not a matter of class, temperament, availability, or an excessively licentious manner of living. In the eighteenth century it was what happened.’19

16. Major William Palmer [1740-1816] with his second wife, the Mughal Princess Begum Faiz Bakhsh, their children, her sister, Nur Begum, and servants in Lucknow.  There is some dispute over the artist, but it is usually accepted as an unfinished painting by Johan Zoffany, 1785, now in the British Library.

bibi would be well provided for, often with servants and household of her own, as was William Hickey’s bibi, the very beautiful Jemdanee.20 Hickey thought her kind hearted, interesting, witty and affectionate. He was distraught when she died when their son, William, was born.

17. Jemdanee. Portrait by Thomas Hickey, 1787. 

It has been estimated that between ‘1780 and 1785 a third of the wills of company men, filed in Calcutta, made mention of Indian bibis. In the same period half of the children baptised in St John’s Church, Calcutta, were illegitimate.’21 The EIC thought that such relationships led to social stability, and regulated and documented them as they did everything else. Mixed-race children,22 whether legitimate or not, were acknowledged and not stigmatised. They were baptised in English churches and their births and deaths officially recorded. Most of the boys followed their fathers into the Company’s service. The EIC also made provision for girls and for orphans. Richer parents sent some mixed-race children back to England for education or took them to live there when they returned. Some European men openly married Indian wives.

18. Two of the children of James Kirkpatrick and his wife Princess Khair un-Nissa, painted by George Chinnery, 1805. Born Mir Ghulam Ali, Sahib Allum, and Noor un-Nissa, Sahib Begum, when the children were sent back to England to live, they were given English names: William George Kirkpatrick and Katherine (Kitty) Aurora Kirkpatrick.23

When George married Mary, he had at least one acknowledged child. George Jackson, born 9 December 1795, and baptised on 11 January 1796, is recorded in the register for the Presidency of Bengal as the ‘illegitimate son of George Jackson, Master mariner’. No mother’s name is given. Sadly two-year old George, died at the beginning of February 1798. But another illegitimate son, James Lewis Jackson, was born in December 1799, three years after Mary and George’s marriage. He was not baptised until February 1803. Since again the mother’s name is not given on the record it is impossible to know if she was also the mother of George, or a different bibi. Mary accepted these children, recording their names and significant dates in her diary. James remained in India following his father into the Country service, but was welcomed by George and Mary when he visited England in 1814. 

It was nearly four years before Mary and George had their first child. He was born in Calcutta on 29 September 1800 and was again called George. He was not baptised until 8 March the following year. It is probable that the unusual delay in starting their own family, and in baptising George’s two sons, was the result of George making other long voyages away. Between 1800 and 1816 George and Mary had nine strong children, who all grew to adulthood. George and William were born in Calcutta; John, Mary and Charlotte in Hackney, London; and Hannah, Howard, Edward and Caroline in North Reston, Lincolnshire.

Leaving India

Sometime in 1803, George and Mary made the startling decision to leave India. They were part of a lively, prosperous community in a town which was booming. Mary had never been away from Calcutta and her large, close family; George had not been in England for more than 30 years. But seemingly, like many other expatriates, he had a dream of returning ‘home’ to retire and put down roots after his many voyages. An auction sale was held on 1 July 1803, of their house, furnishings, carriages, horses, books and other belongings, ‘the property of George Jackson Esq. proceeding to Europe’.24

19. Basildon Park, now owned by The National Trust. 

George had prospered in India, but he had started with nothing, and did not have influential family networks to secure lucrative positions for him. He was not one of the hugely rich nabobs, who came back to buy vast estates, build grand houses and purchase political power.25 Most chose imposing neo-classical architectural styles, like Francis Sykes’ grand house, Basildon Park.26

A few, like Sir Charles Cockerell, nostalgically copied Indian design for the exterior of his home, Sezincote, in the Cotswolds. He also brought home with him his Indo-Portuguese bibi, Estuarta, and four natural children, whom he installed in a house in Brighton.27

20. Sezincote – ‘India in the Cotswolds’ – a fusion of English and Indian style.

[….] Down the drive,
Under the early yellow leaves of oaks;
One lodge is Tudor, one in Indian style,
The bridge, the waterfall, the Temple Pool –
And there they burst on us, the onion domes […]  
Stately and strange it stood, the Nabob’s house,
Indian without and coolest Greek within.

From Summoned by Bells by John Betjeman.28 

An estate in Lincolnshire

21. St Edith’s Church, February 2018.

George Jackson was a wealthy man, and presumably he wanted to feel settled, with land under his feet and something to pass on to his family, but he was not interested in ostentation or influence. In May 1804, he bought a modest estate at North Reston, in his home county of Lincolnshire. It included a small manor house dating from the late 17th century, a farm with outbuildings and some 700 acres of land, and St Edith’s Church, originally Norman. It had no grand carriage drive, large ornamental gates, or landscaped gardens. It could not rival Basildon Park or Sezincote, but, had his parents still been alive, they would have been astounded at what had been achieved by their son, destined, they thought, to be a cobbler in Gainsborough.

22. The Manor House. Inset, February 2018; Main picture, Once renovated, 2020.29

Birth of Julia’s father, John Jackson

The Jackson family however did not move straight to North Reston but remained for a time in the London borough of Hackney, and it was here that Julia’s father, John, was born on the 17 November 1804, ‘Saturday morning 4oclock’ according to his mother’s diary. He was baptised at St John’s Hackney the following month. Mary and Charlotte were also born in Hackney. The family moved to their Lincolnshire home in time for the birth of Hannah in April 1810.

It was a huge change for George and especially for Mary, who must have felt the loss of her close family, her numbers of servants, and their help with her babies and household. Five years in Hackney might have dulled the memory of the colour, smells and heat of India and let them get used to the cold, wet, grey English climate; but at least there was some of the noise and bustle of a close community, which they would have been used to in Calcutta. Here in this isolated part of rural North Lincolnshire they had few neighbours.30 The nearest town was Louth, four miles away by the turnpike road, which bypassed the house. There was no lively company, no noise of shoppers in crowded streets, no ships loading and offloading, no colour. Instead their desolate view was of flat, grey, water-logged fenlands and the churchyard which adjoined their garden. George had never farmed. But they seem to have made a success of the enterprise and to have been happy. 

John Jackson’s childhood in North Reston, Lincolnshire

As Julia’s father, John Jackson, was growing up in North Reston he would have known his father, George, not as an exotic adventurer, but as an elderly landowner, with a large agricultural estate to run and a rapidly increasing young family to support. He would have seen his mother occupied with the household and almost permanently pregnant or nursing, eventually having nine children to care for. His was a typical English middle-class upbringing. His father was no doubt eager to provide the academic education for his sons, that he had never had. All the Jackson boys were enrolled intermittently at the acclaimed Grammar School in nearby Louth. Famous alumni who were there at the same time as the Jackson boys, were the explorer John Franklin and the future Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson and his brothers. 

23. Old Grammar School Louth from a drawing by E. Hull published in The Laureate’s Country: a description of places connected with the life of Alfred Lord Tennyson (1891) by Alfred J. Church.

Things seemed to be going quietly and well until the sudden and unexpected death of George Jackson. There is a family story that he died while shooting at a burglar, but this appears to be unfounded.31 Mary recorded in her diary ‘My beloved husband died in a fit the 20th April about 1 o’clock in the morning 1823, Sunday’.32 His memorial plaque in St Edith’s Church adds that he was 65 and left ‘a widow and nine children’. 

By the time his father died, 19-year-old John Jackson had already left home, and in October 1825 followed his older brother George to Cambridge University. At St Catherine’s College, John was taken under the wing of his tutor and relative, George Corrie. Here he studied for a degree in medicine, before also studying medicine at University College London, again financially supported by George Corrie.

George Corrie’s brother, Daniel, and John Jackson were cousins by marriage. Daniel was married to Elizabeth Myers, whose mother Hannah Ellerton, was Mary Howard’s half-sister. George and Daniel grew up in Lincolnshire and the families had close contact. George became a Cambridge don and Daniel went to India and eventually became Archdeacon of Calcutta. Each brother gave the young John Jackson invaluable support.

24. Left: Hannah Ellerton (1772-1858) drawn by Colesworthy Grant. 25. Right: Daniel Corrie (1777-1837) drawn by Colesworthy Grant. 

John Jackson – beginning life in India

1830, the year John Jackson turned 26, was a momentous one. He was awarded his Bachelor of Medicine degree from Cambridge, and became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, qualifications which allowed him to apply to the East India Company.33 In January he passed the exams to become an Assistant Surgeon. Thanks to the Corrie brothers’ patronage, and the system of kinship recommendations, he had already received a promise ‘of a Bengal Assistant Surgeon’s appointment for July 1830 for Mr John Jackson, a relative of Mrs Corrie, wife of the Archdeacon of Calcutta’.34

So Julia’s father, Dr John Jackson MB, MRCS arrived in Calcutta on board the Elphinstone in November 1830, well qualified but virtually penniless. He would begin a more colourful, adventurous and lucrative life than he might have had in England, and would not leave India for 25 years.

Assistant Surgeon was a junior grade. He would be paid little and would have arrived with few funds, having already had to pay for his own passage and extra for accommodation at the Captain’s table. He was also required to purchase a copy of Sketches of the most prevalent Diseases in India and a signed Letter of Appointment. But he would find hospitality and a ready welcome. His older brother, William, was already a well-established Calcutta solicitor with a wife and two children. His younger brother Howard, a Free Mariner like their father, had also arrived in Calcutta earlier that year. His grandmother, Elizabeth Howard, had not long died, but he had a vast array of aunts, uncles and cousins living there.35 His mother’s half-sister Hannah Ellerton was born and brought up there. She kept up a lively correspondence with Mary Jackson and a detailed diary.36 And living in the grandiose Bishop’s Palace were Daniel Corrie, the Archdeacon of Calcutta, and his wife Elizabeth, Hannah Ellerton’s daughter. Few young men could have arrived in India with a better, or more diverse, support network there to greet them. 

Like all doctors with the EIC, when he arrived in India John Jackson was attached to a regiment. He was posted to Saugor for basic training with the 16th Foot Regiment and was for some time in Ghazipur and other outstations, familiarising himself with Indian diseases and local conditions and languages. He was required to speak Hindustani at least. He also needed to be an accomplished horseman. He returned to Calcutta frequently for his work and to enjoy the society, staying with family or renting a house. By 1833 a mutual friend reported to George Corrie that John Jackson was happily settled in a large house near Calcutta.37 He travelled on horseback and by river, an often dangerous journey because of sandbanks, currents and floods. On one occasion in April 1834 he and Daniel Corrie were nearly drowned when their boat was overturned by a sudden tidal surge.38

Then his life changed for ever. He met and fell in love with an outstandingly beautiful young woman called Maria Pattle, usually known as Mia. They were married in St John’s Cathedral in Calcutta on 17 January 1837. 

It was Mia Jackson who bequeathed to her daughter, Julia, her French style and connections.

26. Left: Maria (Mia) Pattle. Drawing by G.F. Watts, c1850. 27. Right: View of St John’s Cathedral c.1826 
by James Baillie Fraser. St John’s was built by the EIC in 1787, its design based on that of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, with colonnades added later. It was the Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta until St Peter’s Cathedral was built in 1847. 

From: A Vision of Beauty: A Biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen by Marion Dell. © CC BY-NC-SA unless otherwise stated; image copyrights are listed in the credits and they are not licensed for re-use.


I am very grateful to the late Mary Bennett for giving me a copy of her book about her great-grandfather Who Was Dr Jackson?: Two Calcutta families: 1830-1855 (London: BACSA, 2002), for discussing her grandmother, Mary Fisher, Julia Stephen’s sister, with me, and for giving introductions to other family members. She also told me of research by the late Anne Bulley whose book Free Mariner (London: BACSA, 1992) has been invaluable in fleshing out the story of George Jackson. I am hugely grateful to Mike Wood for pointing me to his exhaustive family tree which includes George Jackson and his many descendants, www.woodlloydfamilyhistory.com. Also to other descendants, Rob Darlington and Nikki Vine, who kindly sent me a transcript of Mary Jackson’s diary, a portrait believed to be of George Jackson, and copies of some Jackson family letters, www.nikoko.co.uk. Staff at the Lincolnshire Archives, in Lincoln, were most helpful in locating material on North Reston and Gainsborough and in trying to find out more about the death of George Jackson. I am indebted to Jean Howard, local historian in Lincolnshire, who very generously shared her knowledge of the local area, and provided copies of records from Louth Grammar School, not then publicly available. She came to unlock St Edith’s Church for me and tramped around North Reston on a very cold, wet, February day. I am grateful to Sarah Fletcher, assistant librarian at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, for forwarding material on Dr. Jackson’s academic and medical qualifications, and correspondence with George Corrie. I am grateful to staff at the British Library for helping me to locate relevant diaries, letters and illustrations, mostly from India Office Papers, and for permission to reproduce them here. 

Picture credits

  1. Adeline and Mary Jackson, 1846. Family possession.
  2. Letter from John Jackson to his daughter Adeline. See footnote 1.
  3. Chowringhee taken from the Verandah, Bishop’s Palace, March 1828. © The British Library Board. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019wdz000004251u00000000.html (accessed 19/02/21).
  4. Chowringhee Road, View from No X1 Esplanade Row. © The British Library Board. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/chowringhee-road-from-no-xi-esplanade (accessed 07/03/21).
  5. Shipping at Gainsborough c.1770. From Ian Beckwith The Book of Gainsborough (Oxford: Barracuda Books, 1991).
  6. A view of Calcutta from Fort William. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collectionhttps://b02.deliver.odai.yale.edu/08/16/0816a60a-40d4-4e1b-9600-1f05472956f8/ba-obj-2227-0001-pub-large.jpg (accessed 19/02/21).
  7. Old Court House and Writers Buildings, 1786. Aquatint with etching. © The British Library Board. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019pzz000000095u00000000.html (accessed 19/02/21).
  8. Portrait thought to be George Jackson. Family possession.
  9. The East Indiaman ‘Princess Royal’. Oil on canvas. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND. https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/15037.html (accessed 19/02/21).
  10. Whampoa Anchorage near Canton. Oil on copper painting. Unknown artist, Peabody Essex Museum, USA. https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/rise_fall_canton_04/gallery_places/pages/cwBTW_1810b_M20531_Wham.htm (accessed 16/02/21).
  11. View of part of Chowringhee. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:18197 (accessed 07/03/2021).
  12. A View of the Botanic Garden House and Reach. Coloured aquatint© The British Library Board. https://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019xzz000000644u00004000.html (accessed 07/03/2021).
  13. View taken on the Esplanade, Calcutta, 1797. Engraving and aquatint. © The British Library Board. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019xzz000004322u00001000.html (accessed 07/03/2021).
  14. Sir David Ochterlony, the British Resident in Delhi c.1820.        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Ochterlony (accessed 19/02/21).
  15. Portrait of John Wombwell smoking a hookah. Gouache on paperLucknow c.1790. Frits Lugt Collection, Institut Néerlandais, Paris. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Wombwell_smoking_a_huqqa.jpg (accessed 19/02/21.
  16. Major William Palmer with his second wife. © The British Library Board. https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/major-william-palmer-with-his-second-wife-the-mughal-princess-bibi-faiz-bakhsh-191213/search/venue:british-library-7061/page/9 (accessed 07/03/21).
  17. Jemdanee. An Indian Lady, believed to be Jemdanee bibi of William Hickey, by the unrelated Irish artist, Thomas Hickey, 1787. © National Gallery of Ireland. http://onlinecollection.nationalgallery.ie/objects/2775/an-indian-lady-perhaps-jemdanee-bibi-of-william-hickey (accessed 16/02/2021).  
  18. The Kirkpatrick Children. Oil on canvas. The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. https://www.irishartsreview.com/foreign-service/ (accessed 16/02/21).
  19. Basildon Park.  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/6c/Basildon_Park_country_house.jpg (accessed 07/03/21).
  20. Sezincotehttps://www.sezincote.co.uk/sezincote-house (accessed 07/03/21).
  21. St Edith’s Church, February 2018. Author’s own photographs.
  22. The Manor House. Inset: February 2018, Author’s own photograph. Main picture: The Manor House, renovated, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/808078282694131/posts/to-let-6-bedroom-manor-house-6-reception-roomsstable-and-paddocknorth-reston-lou/1683444351824182/ (accessed 07/03/21).
  23. Old Grammar School Louthhttps://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t43r15217&view=1up&seq=59 (accessed 16 February 2021).
  24. Hannah Ellerton (1772-1858). From Lithographic Sketches of the Public Characters of Calcutta by Colesworthy Grant. © The British Library Board.
  25. Daniel Corrie (1777-1837). From Lithographic Sketches of the Public Characters of Calcutta by Colesworthy Grant. © The British Library Board.
  26. Maria (Mia) Jackson. Platinum print of a drawing by G. F. Watts of Maria Pattle Jackson., Leslie Stephen Photograph Album, Mortimer Rare Book Collection, MS 00005, © Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, Massachusetts.           https://compass.fivecolleges.edu/object/smith:1342164 (accessed 10/04/21).
  27. View of St John’s Cathedral. © The British Library Board.https://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019xzz000000644u00019000.html(accessed 7 March 2021).


For abbreviations and full publication details of frequently used texts please see the Bibliography.

  1. Letter from John Jackson to Adeline Jackson 8 February 1846. ©British Library Board OIOC papers F446. The aunt for whom Julia was named was Julia Margaret Cameron. Her second name, Prinsep, was a tribute to her uncle, Thoby Prinsep.
  2. In 1846 sailing ships from India still took about 6 months to navigate the treacherous route around the Cape of Good Hope back to England. Within the next decade the advent of steam ships and the opening up of the overland route up the Red Sea and across Egypt to the Mediterranean, reduced the journey time to only about 6 weeks.
  3. Fanny Parks, Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, quoted in Laura Sykes (ed.), Calcutta through British Eyes 1690-1990 (Oxford: Oxford University Press1992) 20.
  4. Leslie Stephen in Alan Bell (ed.), Sir Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1977) (MB) 25.
  5. Susannah’s name is spelt differently in different documents. I have chosen to use this version throughout except when quoting.
  6. William was baptised 27 May 1747 and buried 2 June 1747; John baptised 27 January 1755 and buried 16 December 1755; Edward baptised 2 November 1756 and buried 3 December 1756. All at All Saints Church, Gainsborough.
  7. Mary Jackson’s diary. Transcript kindly forwarded by Nikki Vine.
  8. George had another sister, Charlotte, baptised 14 April 1762. There are no subsequent records for her, so I assume that she also died in infancy. Elizabeth (1750 – 1823) and John Noble (1737 – 1829) had a child, William, in 1774, so she must have been in Nettleton before this time. Their second child Robert was baptised five days after their wedding in June 1777. They had seven further children, but there is no record of contact with her parents after her move to Nettleton. No Jackson family member was recorded as present at her wedding. Susannah’s burial record states ‘Susanna Jackson from the Workhouse A: 65’.
  9. Memoir of John Prinsep, unpublished. ©British Library Board IOR.MSS Eur C97.
  10. For more on the complex history of the EIC see Anthony Webster, The East India Company: Trade and Conquest from 1600 (London: Harper Collins, 1999). For a detailed, revisionist history see William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (London: Bloomsbury, 2019)
  11. William Hickey (1749 – 1830) was an adventurer and a lawyer, now best known for his volumes of vivid, detailed memoirs. In March 1778 he visited John Prinsep at Barrakpore where he was hospitably entertained ‘at his manufactory for printing cottons.’ Alfred Spencer (ed.), The Memoirs of William Hickey. (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1913-1925. 4 volumes) Vol.2 101 and 161.
  12. Portrait thought by the family to be George Jackson. Courtesy Nikki Vine. The photograph in family possession has the name G Jackson on the back but is undated. It looks authentic.
  13. Anne Bulley’s book Free Mariner (London: BACSA, 1992) is based on the letters of her ancestor, John Pope, who sailed on the Princess Royal. See p.54 for transcription of the crew list. I follow Mary Bennett (Who was Dr Jackson? 28 n4) in believing that George Jackson’s recorded place of birth, Lancashire, is a transcription error for Lincolnshire, and that this is Julia’s grandfather. Other dates and evidence cited in this chapter support this.  Anne Bulley subsequently deposited John Pope’s letters in the British Library. The following extracts are from Free Mariner, pages 57-100.
  14. Ships at Fort St George 1789: Snow Bridges, G. Jackson from Bengal at Atcheen April 28 1789. (B.L. PRO.CO 77/26/7106).
  15. William Hickey’s Memoirs. Vol.2 120. See n11.
  16. John Prinsep, Memoir. See n9.
  17. Eliza Fay, Original Letters from India. (London: The Hogarth Press, 1925)171, 172. For Eliza Fay’s adventurous life see the Introduction by E.M. Forster, who particularly admired her ‘delightfully malicious’ character sketches.
  18. For more on inter-racial relations at this time see Ferdinand Mount, The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805 – 1905 (London: Simon & Schuster, 2015); William Dalrymple, White Moghuls: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India (London: Flamingo, 2003); David Olusoga, Civilisations – First Contact: The Cult of Progress (London: Profile Books, 2018) 123-146; and David Gilmour, The British in India (London: Penguin Random House, 2019) 283-333.
  19. David Gilmour The British in India 283.
  20. For the story and image of Jemdanee see William Dalrymple, White Mughals 37-9.
  21. David Olusoga Civilisations 128.
  22. In the 18th and 19th centuries the term Anglo-Indian did not denote mixed race. It was used to describe a British person who was born, or lived for a long period, in India. The Jacksons and the Pattles, for instance, would have been called Anglo-Indians.
  23. William Dalrymple tells, and illustrates, the story of James Kirkpatrick, Khair un-Nissa and their children in White Moghuls.
  24. Catalogue in family possession.
  25. Nabob was a derogatory word for returning Anglo-Indians with huge fortunes, a corruption of Nawab meaning an Indian ruler. See Michael Edwardes, The Nabobs at Home (London: Constable, 1991).
  26. Francis Sykes was a business colleague of one of Mia Pattle’s ancestors, Thomas Pattle. See Chapter 3. His grand country mansion, Basildon Park in Berkshire, is now owned by the National Trust. For more images see http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
  27. Jan Sibthorne’s case study on Sezincote was first published on https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk in May 2014.
  28. From Summoned by Bells by John Betjeman, (London: John Murray, 1989) 121. Betjeman, then a student at Oxford University, was a frequent guest at Sezincote when it was owned by the Dugdale family.
  29. Author’s own photographs. February 2018. The Manor House was then the subject of disputed inheritance and in a very dilapidated state. It has recently been renovated.
  30. John Marius Wilson in his Imperial Gazeteer of England and Wales, describes North Reston in 1870, when John Jackson’s brother Howard was Lord of the Manor. The total population was 44 in 8 houses. It had changed little since the entry in the Doomsday Book of 1086, where 13 households were listed.
  31. Mary Bennett claims that he died ‘shooting at a burglar at two in the morning’, Who was Dr Jackson? 4, but I can find no evidence in local newspapers or archives to support this family story. Mary’s diary is not always accurate, but is probably so in this entry.
  32. Mary Howard’s diary, family possession.
  33. John Jackson, university record. Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, from the Earliest Times to 1900, Venn and Venn, St Catharine’s College archives, University of Cambridge. EIC Surgeons’ records including numerous medical staff applications, supporting correspondence, and medical staff records, are in the India Office Papers, British Library, accessed via http://www.findmypast.co.uk.
  34. Correspondence of George Corrie, unpublished, St Catharine’s College archives.
  35. John Jackson’s Howard aunts, uncles and cousins were a remarkably enterprising, hard-working and adventurous family. Some remained in Calcutta or other parts of India, often employed by the EIC, in the legal profession or the Bengal army. Many were well travelled, with births and deaths recorded in Batavia, the Far East, Africa, Canada and Ireland. Some returned to London and became solicitors or doctors. Mary Howard’s sister Kitty became Lady Keith when her husband was knighted. See www.woodlloydfamilyhistory.com.
  36. Hannah Ellerton’s unpublished diary. British Library, OIOC papers C9381.
  37. Letter from Robert Dixon to George Corrie, 9 February 1833, unpublished, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.
  38. Letter, Calcutta, 6 May 1834. Memoirs of the Right Rev. Daniel Corrie, LL.D. By his brothers, (London: Seeley, Burnside, and Seeley, 1867) 566.