The Body in the Barrel

Did the Body in the Barrel go round
the Cape of Good Hope?

1. James Pattle (1775-1845).

James Pattle caused as much controversy after his death as during his life. He died on 4 September 1845 at his house in Chowringhee Road, Calcutta. It was alleged that he drank himself to death, though this is unlikely as he was already 69 years old, far older than most civil servants in India at that time and the oldest still working for the East India Company in Bengal. So while he, like his companions enjoyed his wines, he was not notably more excessive than others. His memorial states that he died of a long and painful illness, though what that was has not been recorded.

He had by all accounts, requested to be sent to England and buried next to his mother in the Parish Church at Camberwell. This was most unusual – the voyage was long and difficult, and the heat excessive. Moreover he does not seem to have been particularly close to his mother, Sarah, and she had been dead for more than thirty years. He does not mention his father, Thomas Pattle, who died in 1818, and was also buried next to Sarah in the Church of St Giles at Camberwell.1

However all the stories agree that the body was preserved in either rum or brandy and fastened firmly into its cask. There are endless and varied versions, of what happened next, some more fanciful and lurid than others but most include the ‘fact’ that the body in its barrel was on the same ship as the grieving widow, Adeline Pattle.2.

2. Adeline Pattle (1793-1845).

She is recorded as a passenger on the Precursor along with her two youngest daughters, Sophia and Virginia, her married daughter Louisa Bayley with her husband Henry, three-year-old Adeline and new baby Mia Louisa, and their one Indian and two European servants. It has usually been assumed that the body in the barrel was also travelling with them, and according to several versions, it was the shock of seeing the bursting of the barrel just a few days into the voyage, on November 11th, which caused Adeline’s death. She was then buried at sea. 

But what about the body in the barrel?  The more I read the story the more convinced I am that the barrel must have been on a different ship. Adeline, waiting to get her affairs together, and for Louisa to have her baby before sailing, did not leave Calcutta until 9 November – two months after James’s death. In the heat of India no-one would want to keep the barrel longer than necessary, so it seems probable that it was despatched to England on the earliest ship possible. Moreover I think that Adeline would have chosen a ship which was taking the long route round the Cape of Good Hope back to Europe, once the only route. The barrel would have been loaded in Calcutta, and not unloaded until it reached England. 

3. The Precursor.

The modern P&O steamship Precursor now took the much faster route up the Red Sea, across Egypt and by the Mediterranean back to England. But Adeline was travelling twenty-four years before the opening of the Suez Canal and the journey involved an overland section in Egypt. Passengers and all baggage had to be disembarked, transported through the desert, and re-embarked on a ship in the Mediterranean. I cannot imagine that she would have planned to transport the barrel on the back of a camel or in a crowded baggage cart for such a journey!

There are many traveller’s tales of the difficulties and dangers of this overland trek, sometimes made on camels and at risk of attacks by brigands.3 One of the liveliest is that of the young Emily Metcalfe making the journey in reverse, returning from her education in England to her parents in India in 1847. She was on board the steamship Indus from Southampton to Egypt and then transferred to the Haddington to Calcutta. Fellow passengers were Sophia Pattle with her new husband John Dalrymple, on their honeymoon journey.4

Emily records in her diary5 that they had a rough passage in the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay, stopped in Gibraltar, had a day in Valetta, Malta, and arrived in Alexandria. Then they had to disembark from the Indus with all their belongings and transfer to a steam-barge to travel all night up the Mahmoudieh Canal to Cairo.

The boat was densely crowded with passengers, and of course all the snug berths were given over to the elderly members of the party, the younger ones having to sleep on the floor or wherever they could find a resting-place.

We arrived at Boulac on the canal before daylight, and were then driven in omnibuses to Shepherd’s Hotel at Cairo, preceded by Arabs running with flaming torches. The hotel was already overflowing with passengers from India who had reached it before we did, so again no beds were available and the elder members of the party laid down on couches in the public rooms, but we younger members decided to have baths, and were escorted by Arabs through narrow lanes to some establishment were we could get them. 

The younger members of the party then remained enjoying ‘the fun and excitement’ of Cairo throughout the night before resuming their journey.  

There was then no railroad in Egypt, and the mode of progression across the desert from Cairo to Suez was by small, covered vans drawn by four horses that had been scarcely broken in at all, and driven at tremendous pace by drivers armed with long whipsI forget how many vans were needed to accommodate all the passengers from the ‘Indus’, but each held six people, and our party, which consisted of my uncle and aunt, our friends Mrs Macdonald and Mrs Tierney, myself and Major Charles Havelock, packed ourselves into one that evening to be driven to Suez during the night. It was a most uncomfortable conveyance, and the journey, for those who were not strong, a most trying one. […]

There were three halts made on the way to Suez, the drive occupying from seventeen to eighteen hours, across the desert. The caravanserais, or rest-houses, were large enclosures, built of sand and mud, in which there were one or two large rooms (quite bare of furniture except for tables and chairs) where tea and rough meals were provided for the passengers; and there were smaller rooms where travellers were expected to arrange their dress on the journey. Everything was in the roughest style. In the stables attached to the caravanserais were relays of horses for the vans, and about ten of these cars started together at the same hour, followed at the space of three hours later by another set, and again three hours later by a third, according to the amount of accommodation required.

It was a headlong gallop the whole way across the desert, where there was no regular road but only a beaten track along which the cars were in the habit of passing, and as the horses were very wild and often swerved off this track, it was no wonder that in the darkness of the night, going at a furious pace, accidents occasionally happened.

Such was our experience, for in the dead of night, when we were all dozing (or trying to doze despite the shaking and creaking of the carriage) we felt a tremendous shock, and the carriage was overturned. We had gone over a large boulder, and come down with a tremendous smash.

Three of the occupants of the car were lying on their backs on the ground, and the other three, of whom I was one, were either thrown on top of them or thrown out of the door. The Arab drivers rushed after their horses, which had got loose, and we had to attend to ourselves as best we could. 

The carriage wheels were broken and it could not be repaired. Emily found the walk to the nearest caravanserai on a beautiful starlit night a fascinating experience. No doubt her youthful excitement at the novelty was not shared by all the passengers! The following morning they were able to get into a new van and finally arrived in Suez where they stayed in a large hotel run a by a Frenchman and dined on ‘tolerable food – roast pigeons and macaroni’.  

We had to remain there until the rest of the passengers came up from Cairo, and the P&O steamer from India arrived to take us all on. This it did two days later, and a boatful of Anglo-Indian passengers took over the hotel while we went on board and occupied the cabins they had vacated.

Knowing of such conditions Adeline would not have planned to take James in his cask on such a journey. The body in the barrel must surely have gone on its own by the Cape of Good Hope.

Marion Dell
April 2021

Picture credits

  1. James Pattle. Extracts from an August Garnerey painting. Family possession.
  2. Adeline Pattle. Extracts from an August Garnerey painting. Family possession.
  3. The Precursor. ©The National Maritime Museum. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND. (accessed 10/04/21).


  1. For the deaths of Sarah and Thomas Pattle, see Biography Chapter 3.
  2. For the death of James Pattle and stories of the barrel that burst, see Biography Chapter 4.
  3. For accounts of many hazardous and incredible journeys see E.M. Forster (ed.) Eliza Fay: Original Letters from India (London: Hogarth Press, 1986).
  4. For Sarah’s marriage and the honeymoon journey see Biography Chapter 4.
  5. See M.M Kaye (ed.) The Golden Calm: An English lady’s Life in Moghul Delhi. Reminiscences by Emily, Lady Clive Bayley, and her father, Sir William Metcalfe (Exeter: Webb & Bower, 1980) 90-93.