11 May 2013

Husband hunting in British India

My favourite area of history for reading and writing has always been social hist­ory, regarding marriage, child rearing, dom­es­tic architecture, education, men’s and women’s careers, collecting in the arts, entertainment and transport. Royal chronicles and military histories leave me relatively unmoved. So I was delighted to read The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj, written by Anne de Courcy and pub­lished by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2012. The only thing I found difficult was the sexist language of the time.

British soldiers, traders and administrators had been travelling to India for a very long time. But in the later C19th, ev­ents were chan­g­ing.

Firstly the India Act enhan­ced Par­l­iam­ent's control ov­er the East India Company i.e the British government now ruled the colony, rather than a company of traders. Later Governors General were faced with the very real task of governance. Legislation after legislation back in London ensured that British rule reformed India’s law, commerce and education. In 1858 the British formally exiled the last Moghul ruler to Bur­ma, ending the Moghul Empire. Clearly many more young British men were going to be needed to run the country.

Secondly transport was improving rapidly. The Suez Canal design was published in December 1858 and work started on the shore of the future Port Said almost immediately. The canal formally opened to shipping in Nov­ember 1869. And inventions that improved ship engines soon made steam-shipping between Britain and India economically viable. The long and risky journey around South Africa could be avoided.

Anne de Courcy's book

Thirdly British soldiers and administrators were no longer allowed to mix with Indian women, let alone marry them. Men were warned that a strong connection with the motherland should guide their choice of a mate. And since most officers in India almost never visited Britain until their retirement, who were they to marry? The level of sexual frustration must have been intense, and seems to have been diverted into tiger hunting and polo playing.

Between 1850-1910, a third of young middle class women in Britain were unmarried. If a woman could not find a husband by her early 20s, she was doomed to a life of spinsterdom. These “surplus to require­ment” women would have been advised to think of moving to a target-rich environ­ment in the Empire, especially India. Single British men, with rel­iable incomes, were located all over India, starved for family life, sex and fun; these men were very keen to find eligible women to mar­ry. British women who were not attractive or too poor to find a hus­b­and at home would expect to succeed beautifully in India.

Surpringly (to me) the British men in India were fitter, more sporty, more handsome in their uniforms and more sex-starved than their male friends in Britain. The fishing fleet and the fishermen were onto a win-win situation.

And there was another thing. A young married couple in India would expect to live more comfortable and exciting lives than they could at home, with as many servants as they needed, good quality housing and vice regal parties for every occasion.

The newly arrived women had plenty of opportunities to be seen. A hectic social scene was on offer in British India, with dances, hunting parties, cinemas and theatres, picnics, tennis games and royal or vice regal invitation.

And, with single men greatly outnumbering single women, each man had to move quickly. If he wanted to catch a woman before another man made a move, the romance had to be pursued very quickly, foll­owed by a short engagement and a lovely wedding. Courtships that might have lasted a year or two in Britain were completed within a month in India. The fishing metaphor was useful again – women were snapped up out of the bridal pool as fast as possible.

Tennis Doubles
Photo credit: The Guardian Newspaper

It seems that once the honeymoon ended, married life in British India was not necessarily blissful. Big city women suddenly found that their new husbands had been given remote outposts to command, that the weather was beastly and that disease was rampant. All wives in the world might have found their lives subordinated to that of their husbands, but Fishing Fleet brides were lonely AS WELL AS rigidly controlled.

Naturally the new wives were ranked according to their husband's position. I was partic­ularly struck by the idea of the Warrant of Precedence that showed the exact status of everyone working for the crown. Protocol was clear.

De Courcy allowed the women themselves to describe the colourful world in which they found themselves. The very evocative writing often came from those courageous fishing fleet women who left their letters and diaries to following generations.

Would I have travelled there myself, had I not found a husband at home? My tolerance for heat ends at 36c; I have zero tolerance for humidity; and I am terrified of spiders and scorpions. Worst still I would not have allowed my children to be taken to boarding school 10,000 ks from home. But I would also not have liked seeing my mother’s disappointment every day of her life, had I remained single. So while wom­en who travelled were too young and too virginal, I really do understand why their mothers believed they were looking after their daughters by sending them away. The pressure to marry was relentless.

At the end of a year’s fishing, the would-be brides who failed to land a husband had to be shipped home as “returned empties”. Readers will have to be old enough to remember milk being sold in glass bottles to understand this appalling metaphor.


Andrew said...

I am guessing most would have had some connection to India before they went, perhaps a relative already there.

Hels said...


Certainly! Single women were not allowed to leave Britain until they had sorted out a relative to stay with, until the wedding. It could have been an uncle or a brother in law, for example, but could not have been a hotel.

Linda Robertus said...

Thanks for posting this. The book sounds fascinating, will look it up!

Hels said...


352 pages but well worth reading.

I had assumed that a man married at home and then the young couple left Britain together, to take up his position in India.

Or that a man married at home and sailed to India, leaving the wife and children back in Britain.

columnist said...

And not only to India either, but to other parts of the Empire. As a child of the Empire, (born in Singapore the year before its independence), this is a book that will fascinate me. My mother was not not in the fishing fleet, but a Colonial Officer - a science teacher, and she met my father in Singapore, who worked for a shipping company, (not a fishing fleet!). But this was post war, so things had changed considerably from the time of Anne de Courcy's book.

Ann ODyne said...

oh dear, the absolute shame of those poor women returning from 'a long holiday' in India.
Thanks for solving a family history question that rolls around my mind from time to time. One of my great grandfathers was born in 'Karrachee' in 1847 when his fathers regiment was part of those endless wars, and it made me think he must have been important to be allowed to take a wife with him - but now I know, thanks, that Bridget Nolan must have just been plain and plain desperate to have married an army man 10 years older. They both died in Melbourne 1897 and 1900.

Xenophon said...

Probably one of the best books to these subjects (marriage, sex and colonialism) is Burmese Days by George Orwell.

Hels said...


Courcy acknowledged that single women were advised to move to ANY parts of the Empire where single British men had been posted. She focused on India, to be sure, but it would be interesting to know how relevant her story was to other British countries.

Your mother might have been a bit lonely in Singapore, until she married and integrated with the ex-pat community. But at least she had a very important educational role in her own right.

I cannot imagine how lonely those other poor women felt, being sent to remote outposts where their husbands were busy, away all the time.

Hels said...


I don't know about plain and desperate, but if Courcy's figures were accurate, a third of young middle class women in Britain were unmarried. Your great grandmother was actually smart :)

Hels said...


I wouldn't normally seek out a _novel_ as a source of historical information. But Orwell was a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma for many years and knew colonial life well. Thanks for the reference.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is interesting to compare this situation in India with the American West (and possibly Australia--you would know much better than I) at about the same time, with a dearth of marriageable women. The matchmaking in India seems by comparison so proper and controlled, with salaried officers and respectable, chaperoned English ladies. The frontier areas were much wilder, with greater risks, yet many new fortunes and social orders were also started there.

The problem with the Wild West is the the myths have taken over the popular conception, and for non-specialists it can be difficult to winnow out the reality.

Hels said...


nod.. it is interesting that societies with a need for young women to come in and become wives and mothers will come up with different strategies to attract them.

And the opposite is also true. When WW1 ended and the ex service men needed to go back to their old jobs, Britain had a lot of fully employed young women it needed to get rid of (see http://tinyurl.com/cnszwyd).

So for this and other reasons, the British government launched the Free Passage Scheme for people to go to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


iancochrane said...

Very different times Hels!

re: "At the end of a year’s fishing, the would-be brides who failed to land a husband had to be shipped home as 'returned empties'."

I imagine that would have came with a considerable social stigma attached, but wonder if those stronger (who had no interest in marriage) may have taken it as a reprieve from an arranged marriage? Or would they have had the strength & income not to go in the first place?
Cheers, ic

Hels said...


What would have happened to a young woman who did not marry, either by choice or circumstance? Forbidden to work, except as a domestic or private tutor, the middle class woman would have had to have lived under her father's roof and financial control until the day he died. Then the house would pass to the oldest son and the spinster sister would be transfered to the control of her (I am guessing) reluctant brother and sister in law.

I think taking your chances in India would have been preferable, as any woman who had read Jane Austen's life story would have suspected.

umashankar said...

Some of those traditions have been passed down from the rulers to the ruled and their progeny.

Stories of the colonial era make for engrossing read. I am going to pick up this one quickly. That is a fantastic overview of a promising book.

Hels said...


Thank you. The students and I love discussing Indian architecture, with a particular focus on the arrival of the East India Company and onwards. Couldn't agree more.. stories of the colonial era still have lots to teach us.

By the way, I recently found another book on colonisation and decolonisation which I am reviewing next month in the blog.

Mandy Southgate said...

Wow, what a fascinating post and topic. I wouldn't have minded the heat and spiders but I couldn't have handled a rural backwater in my 20s and for much of my 30s. It was the driving force behind me moving to London - I couldn't cope with being stuck in South Africa while concerts, festivals, films and (what seemed to me) the entirety of culture and pop culture was exploding in the UK.

Hels said...


The concept of a fishing fleet was horribly sexist, plus it broke up families at home for decades at a time.

Nonetheless I think it must have served the needs of single men and single women well - otherwise the system would have ended after the first shipload of women wrote back to their mothers in despair.

Re leaving home to a more cultured, more happening city, I agree. Young people have been doing that for ages. Think of all my lovely artists and poets who left Russia, Lithuania and Poland to flood the cafes of Paris from 1900 onwards. No-one went home.

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Hels said...


thank you. I hope you get an opportunity to read the book and see if your perspective is the same.

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