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Travels to India at the Turn of the Century by British Women

With two degrees in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.


The British Raj

The British Raj, or the Raj, was formed in 1858 after the Sepoy Uprising, which officially ended the governance of the East India Company. At this point, the British Crown took control of all political oversight of India. Many British authors found inspiration by travelling to India at this time, writing stories such as the Jungle Book, and A Passage to India. At the turn of the twentieth century, Queen Victoria was the Empress of India. Which after the mutiny of 1857, sent more British troops to India, so that there would be a higher ratio of British service men than Indian. This meant there was a significant increase in journeys to the Raj. As a result, a network of railways in India were created in the late 19th century. Further, there was better transportation one could seek out for the journey. No longer did one need to round Africa on a long and dangerous expedition. India at the turn of the twentieth century became more modern and started to develop new roads and improved communications.


Travels in India

These improvements lead to easier travel from England (Home) to India. As more soldiers were being sent to the Raj, this meant more wives were also traveling. Further, young eligible ladies left their lives behind at home, and braved the journey to India in search of a husband. Additionally, women authors, such as Maude Diver, were striking out in search of new adventures writing stories along their routes. Diver wrote many novels based upon her travel and life in India, such as An Englishwoman in India and Kabul to Kandhar. Female scientists and researchers also began to strike out alone going abroad to India for matters of research during this time. With more people, specifically women, travelling to India, books on the matter became increasingly popular. One such book was the Practical Guide for Persons about to Reside in India. The book begins by providing the longest and shortest routes to India with the P & O steamer being the longest.

Safer, cheaper, and more comfortable methods of travel encouraged more women to venture into places which had previously been visited only by diplomats, the leisured upper classes, intellectuals, and adventurers. Most of those travelers had of course been men. For British Women, the journey to India was a long and arduous one. There were several routes that one could take for the journey, each offering its own hardships and rewards. British women travelling to India got their first taste of the hierarchy to expect, their first glimpse of the wild and vast country, and formed new bonds that would shape their lives to come.


Travels by Rail

At the turn of the twentieth century, there were far more ways of travelling to India. The longest route usually took around two months with the shortest route taking perhaps a month. This was a far distant cry from early journeys around Africa on sailing ships that could take up to six months if the weather did not cooperate. The most popular form of travel was the Peninsular and Oriental, or P&O, Line who had the largest fleet of ships. The longest route was via Southampton with the shortest sea voyage being through Italy to Brindisi. Books, such as Indian Outfits and Establishments were a Godsend, as it laid out the exact route one would take to their destination. Further, it precisely detailed what necessities and clothing to pack and what should be left to professional movers. Such information was quite useful to a woman traveling, whether alone or with her spouse. The lengthy journey was typically a training ground for life in India.


Female Hierarchy

One’s social status depended upon what one did for a living, or what one’s husband did. The woman with the highest social standing, called the burra memsahib, was the one whose husband held the highest station or most senior post. By default, all women would defer to her in all situations. The senior woman always had the best seat, the first choice, and the last word. As women managed social life, such hierarchy was taken very seriously. This was true on the journey, as well as when living in India. Once in India, there was a psychological comfort in knowing where one belonged. The British community had class distinctions and learning these distinctions on the trip to India helped in preparing for a woman’s new life.

The uprising of 1857 did not even destroy this respect of rank for women. Aboard ship, the highest-ranking woman had the best sleeping quarters. Soldiers wives were often given rudimentary quarters below decks, as their husbands were lower in rank than perhaps a captain. In the earlier years of sailing, wives had often joined their husbands sleeping with the animals in the lowest part of the ship and going without sunlight or fresh air for months on end. As communications and travel improved, more women began to travel, and accommodations became better, yet the social ranking was kept in strict order. One woman gave Miss Evelyn Bell a piece of sage advice in saying “Don’t try and be too clever in India. It doesn’t go down.” Maude Diver, in 1909, remarked on the social norms and hierarchy expected of women in India by saying, it is with “extreme backwardness of Anglo-Indian society in regarding the modern advance in the intellectual and social position of women.” Old hands were often known to offer advice to novice travelers, as they journeyed and enjoyed their first glimpse of India.


Her First Glimpse of India

India is a wild and vast land that provided arid deserts and lush tropical climates. There was color everywhere in clothing, the landscape, and the color of people. Even the languages were colorful. Being greeted at port with the shock of seeing saris in bright pink, emerald green, and scarlet set against brown skin. Merchants sold fruits and curry shouted their wares was often more than a British woman could handle. This overflow of mixed cultures and scenery was often overwhelming for newcomers. To be able to first experience their new home from the relative comfort, and safety of a ship or train eased the transition for many. Newcomer Monica Lang remarked upon her arrival in 1920, “It would take me a lifetime to get anywhere near an understanding of this strange country with its dramatic contrasts of wealth and abject poverty, beauty and squalor, intangible mysticism and downright cruelty.” For many European women, train travel was their first view of India. They were often seated in compartments for British women only and had little to no contact with Indians.


Life Aboard Ship

Miss Emily Metcalf, travelled by boat up the Ganges River remarked that “It was one continual picnic from morning until night.” Traveling by ship was one of the best introductions for women to India. From the deck, the country could be viewed from a safe distance. One could appreciate the scenic beauty without feeling overwhelmed by the immensity and strangeness of the country. With so much time spent travelling, and the newness of a strange country, it is no wonder that friendships were formed quickly during the journey. Some women who were on their way to meet an intended spouse found themselves in last minute love affairs amid the beauty of India.


Forming Bonds of Friendship

Regardless of the limitations of class and status, many women became close to their fellow voyagers. Margaret Hunt journeyed to India for her first time in 1932. She was joined by Helen Scudder who boarded in Marseilles. This friendship changed Margaret’s onboard experience. Helen drew her into new activities and became a social mentor for Margaret. This mentoring proved useful in later years when Margaret was on another journey. Traveling from Madras a few years later, Margaret shared a cabin with Mademoiselle Suzanne Courriere that changed her life for years to come. The effect that Mme. Corriere had on Margaret was one in which she was so comfortable and content, that she had never felt the same way with any other companion. She remarked that “Her companionship had been the most satisfying of the many ephemeral relationships I remember experiencing on my voyages to and from India.” When they went their separate ways at Marseilles, Margaret never heard from Mme. Corriere again, but their friendship stayed with her long after the journey ended.


Fishing Fleets

Not all women onboard ship was looking to make friends. Some women found the company of strangers to be overwhelming and attempted to find privacy. Of the women that travelled abroad to India to be married, they were often divided into two groups. Pamela Hinkson remarked, “They were divided into two classes, those who sat alone dreaming and those who made the most of their last fling.” For the British in India, marriage was a necessity even if it was not a marriage made in heaven. Marriage was often considered the only career for a woman and was of usefulness to a man. Bringing a wife to India, proved a man’s seriousness about the country. The young brides to be made the journey to India, were to be accomplished yet innocent, smart, but not too smart-as Miss Bell had been informed, and ready to meet their husbands.

Fishing Fleets were the term for women who traveled to India to look for husbands. One unattached young woman, Kathleen Wilkes, traveling to become a governess in India, met a man aboard ship and engaged in a whirlwind romance. They soon became engaged much to the joy of those on board. Not all romances brought marriage. Some were but last-minute flings before the realities of being a wife in Raj set in. Most engagements were quick with only letters and photographs exchanged between the bride and groom to be. Others were simply arranged by family and friends. It is little wonder that some sought a last romance before meeting her betrothed.

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Lasting Memories of Travels to India

India was a vast and rich country with different colors, voices, and scenery. To experience it from the safety of the ship or train was beneficial for many women. India could be very overwhelming to a newcomer and being safe with those who were new friends made the transition easier to bear. The trip to India was an important passage for women travelers at the turn of the twentieth century. It helped them to understand what awaited them at journey’s end and to better prepare for their new life living in the Raj. British women travelling to India got their first taste of the hierarchy to expect, their first glimpse of the wild and vast country, and formed new bonds that would shape their lives to come. By the turn of the twentieth century, travel to India was taken up by more women. Some sought husbands while others sought adventure and knowledge. Whatever their reasons, the journey for these women was a training ground for what to expect living in India. On the journey, women learned quickly to stick to their own class or status of women. Further, higher ranking women, often wives of higher-ranking men, were to be deferred to in all situations. They were also the ones who would oversee social situations once in India and it was best to learn this early so as not to make a mistake. Lodging on the journey was also evidence of this hierarchy. Lower class women were given the simpler accommodations, while those of a higher class naturally received better quarters. Despite the status separations, many friendships were forged quickly during travel. Many women found themselves to be afloat in a new world and tended to cling to the familiar and therefore one another. Most of these were short lived, ending as the trip came to an end. Nevertheless, they all had a profound impact on the women. For some, it brought them out of their shyness and emboldened them to try new things. For some women, they found love and a husband on board ship.


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India: Detailing the Articles Which Should Be Taken Out, and the Requirements ..." HathiTrust. Accessed January 06, 2019.;view.

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18, 2012. Accessed January 14, 2019.

Kirsty. "Neglected Women Writers' Month: Maud Diver." Theliterarysisters. March 04, 2016.

Accessed January 14, 2019.

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Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 25, 2021:

Bee W, I enjoy reading the article about travel to Indian especially by British women folks. So much historical information from a long and interesting read. Apart from marriage, one best thing that will ever motivate a person to venture to India is the beauty of the country specially in summer. Thanks for sharing and the read.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 25, 2021:

Bee W, I enjoy reading the article about travel to Indian especially by British women folks. So much historical information from a long and interesting read. Apart from marriage, one best thing that will ever motivate a person to venture to India is the beauty of the country specially in summer. Thanks for sharing and the read.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 25, 2021:

This is a very well-written, very interesting article. I can't imagine so many women making that long trip in the 1850s. Then, the women had to adjust to a new country and marriage some of the time. I enjoyed reading, Brandy.

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