18th Century Calcutta: Life for the British

Exactly what British life in 18th century Calcutta was like varied. It was often dependent upon a person’s job or status within the East India Company (EIC). Some Englishmen prospered significantly under the EIC and returned to Britain with great wealth, which allowed them to establish sprawling estates, create lucrative business, and gain political power.

18th century Calcutta survey

Pen, ink, and watercolor survey of the country on the eastern bank of the Hughly, from Calcutta to the Fortifications at Budgebudge, including Fort William and the Post at Manicolly Point in 1785. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Other Englishmen were not so lucky. Some died in India never having acquired a fortune and never having been able to leave. However, that did not deter determined Englishmen from seeking their fortunes in exotic Calcutta. Among those hoping to get rich between 1750 and 1800 were people like Warren Hastings, Robert Clive, Charles Cornwallis, Sir Elijah Impey, and Eliza de Feuillide’s father, Tysoe Saul Hancock.

Clive described Calcutta as “one of the most wicked Places in the Universe. Corruption, Licentiousness and a want of Principle seem to have possess’d the Minds of all the Civil Servants, by frequent bad examples they have grown callous, Rapacious and Luxurious beyond Conception.”[1] Despite his description life in 18th century Calcutta had its perks. There were just like the perks found in Madras where it was particularly amenable for an Englishman if he was one of the “well-to-do-senior … bachelor officials of the Company in Bengal.”[2]

“The young factor was awakened by a posse of respectful servants. A barber shaved him, cut his fingernails and cleaned his ears. For breakfast he had tea and toast and as he sat at table the hairdresser attended to his wig. When he had finished his tea his ‘houccaburdar softly slips the upper end of the snake or tube of the hucca into his hand. When he drove or rode to the office he was preceded by eight to twelve chubdars, harcarrahs and peons, with the insignia of their professions and their livery distinguished by the colour of their turbans. The hours of work were light, nine to twelve in the hot weather and ten to one-thirty in the cold.’”[3]

As to the lives of women, a Mrs. Sherwood, who was married to a Captain in the King’s army, traveled to Calcutta in 1805 with her husband. While there she interviewed a Mrs. Shoolbred, who had lived in Calcutta for many years. Sherwood then detailed in her journal what she learned from Shoolbred about the lifestyles of women living in 18th century Calcutta, which for some consisted of much idleness. Sherwood’s journal was then edited and published by F.J. Darvey Darton as The Life and Times of Mrs. Sherwood (1775-1851:

“A lady … is called some time before sunrise, and her ayah brings her every article of dress, completely clean, fresh from the dhoby. She is enveloped over her morning wrapper in a splendid Cashmere shawl, and she is then carried out to take the air, either in a carriage or open palanquin. Soon after sunrise she returns, and having taken some coffee, she goes to bed and if she can, sleeps soundly for an hour or two. She is roused before the family breakfast-hour, in sufficient time to go through a somewhat elaborate toilet; not that she uses the smallest exertion herself, but goes through every process of bathing, hairdressing, and so on under the hands of one or two black women.

The lady’s toilet being finished, she issues from her apartment into the hall, where a breakfast is set out in the most elegant style, and where many gentlemen soon drop in. The meal is a public one, and continues some time, during which much polite conversation is carried on; the company then disperses, and she withdraws to some elegant room, where she reads a little, does a little fancy work, receives or write a few notes, or receives some lady visitor. She knows a good deal of the gossip of the Europeans, but little of the ways and habits of the natives.

A little renewal or change of dress is made again before tiffin, at which time the table is set out with the same display as a breakfast; and the vacant seats are again occupied by guests. This is the best meal of the day, and much wine and pale ale is drunk. The party does not often sit after tiffin, and our lady withdraws to her own suite, takes off her outer dress and ornaments, and lies down, remaining asleep or perhaps reading till the heat of the day is past, and the sun low. Then follows a still more elaborate process of dressing, with an entire change of every article of wearing apparel, and the lady goes forth to take the air in her carriage, generally on the course, where she meets all the great people of Calcutta, and has the opportunity of smiling on her female friends and receiving the bows and compliments of the gentlemen. On her return she adds a few jewels to her dress, and sits down to dinner with her husband, after which she most often goes out to a ball or assembly, for which a last and still more magnificent toilet must be made.”[4]

While some British men and women lived a life of luxury in 18th century Calcutta, not everyone did. For instance, Hastings, who became the first Governor-General of India and who befriended Hancock and became godfather to Hancock’s daughter Eliza, led a spartan life in many ways. He ordered only two suits and one frock coat yearly and claimed he did that merely for the sake of fashion. He also provided these details to his wife:

“I eat sparingly; I never sup, and am generally abed by ten. I breakfast at six; I bathe with cold water daily … I have found that when I can adhere to my early Hours, and morning Rides, I get tolerable Health. I have also made Trial of a total Abstinence from Wine, of which I have already experienced the Benefit, and will continue it.”[5]  

Warren Hastings. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

For those people who were not counted among the elite, their lives meant a lot of hard work. These people were ordinary workers such as EIC junior clerks, known as “writers.” They were kept busy providing detailed records related to EIC’s managerial decisions, company doings, and financial and accounting activities. They also recorded meeting minutes, made copies of orders and contracts, and filed reports and copies of ship logs.

Other hard workers living in 18th century Calcutta included people like Hancock. He served as a doctor on his first trip and when he returned a second time, he returned to doctoring even though he disliked it and complained that the “practice of Physick” was not profitable but rather “perfect slavery” and that his medical practice was a “labour without profit.” Moreover, he found himself constrained to keep a costly carriage so that he could visit his patients who for the most part resided at their country estates and only went into town on business.

Besides doctoring Hancock also became involved in a partnership to provide chunam because he hoped that between the doctoring and the partnership, he would be able to provide for his family living back in London. The chunam was to be used for public works projects and was plaster made from sea-shells burnt into lime and made in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, called Sunderbunds by Hancock. To ensure that the workers did not cheat the overseers and that the overseers did not cheat the partners, surprise visits were made by Hancock and his partners to the chunam site. These visits Hancock detailed in letters written to his wife Philadelphia:

“Imagination … can scarcely form an idea of a more dismal place than the Sunderbunds … all entirely covered with jungles so thick that you cannot see ten feet into them, except in some few places where the salt-makers have cleared the ground for the space of fifty or a hundred yards. Throughout all the woods, there is no fresh water but at two places. The only animals are the rhinoceros, tygers of a very large size, deer and wild hogs. The rivers abound with fish. In the Sunderbunds are neither houses nor hutts, therefore the people who are employed in making salt or chunam are obliged before sunset to remove in their boats from the shore into the middle of the rivers; where they are not perfectly safe, for the tygers sometimes swim off and take then out of their boats. We have unfortunately lost eight men by these terrible beasts.”[6]

Other hard workers in 18th century Calcutta were missionaries. Many missionaries came intent on delivering the native people from a state of “moral darkness” and “wretchedness” as Britain was supposedly “destined by Providence.” Moreover, according to the The Friend of India, a book published in Serampore, Britain was “placed at the head of the European world in point of influence, and actuated by a concern for the welfare of mankind … to inherit a mighty empire in India and to dispense to Eastern Asia the choicest of blessing.”[7]

Among the missionaries who went to Calcutta was a Swedish man named Reverend John Zachariah Kiernander of the Protestant faith. He opened the Mission School for the children of EIC employees but when the EIC needed the premises, he purchased the ground for another school and church and built the church mostly at his own expense. It was named Beth-tephillah or “The House of Prayer” and opened on 23 December 1770.

John Zachariah Kiernander’s Beth-tephillah Church. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jemima Kindersley was an English travel writer who married Colonel Nathaniel Kindersley of the Bengal Artillery in 1762. She and her husband set sail for India in June of 1764 and arrived a year later. The couple then stayed in India until 1769 and Kindersley wrote an account of her voyage and her time in India that was originally published in 1777 under the title Letters from the Island of Teneriffe, Brazil, the Cape of Good Hope and the East Indies by Mrs. Kindersley and then republished later as volume 5 and titled Women’s Travel Writing, 1750-1850.

Kindersley noted that Calcutta was continually increasing in size and population. Part of the reason for the population increase was due to the EIC hiring employees to help with their operations. In fact, Kindersley reported that the inhabitants were multiplying so fast, there were never enough houses to accommodate them. Moreover, the new fort in Calcutta, Fort William, was described by her as an “immence place” and a “town within itself.” Among those who resided within this fort were engineers, officers, EIC writers, and numerous soldiers.

Kindersley reported that despite 18th century Calcutta being large and many houses existing, it was still an “awkward place.” This she attributed to the housing shortage because anyone who could afford a plot of land built a house. Moreover, because there were no regulations or rules related to construction projects, people were constantly building and what they built was dependent on personal taste “without regard to the beauty or regularity of the town … [making it look like houses] had been thrown up in the air, and fallen down again by accident.”[8]

This created a city that was a mishmash of buildings and with no zoning laws a straw hut could be built next to a fine house or a shoddy house next door to commercial warehouses. It also meant that servants and construction workers who had nowhere to sleep or live built for themselves some sort of meagre straw hut often next to the fine house of their master, which according to Kindersley thereby ruined any view the elite homeowner might wish to achieve.

18th century Calcutta in 1788

View in Calcutta in 1788. Courtesy of British Museum.

The interior the houses in 18th century Calcutta were decidedly different from those found in England. Because of the vermin and heat, both paper and wainscot were deemed improper. Walls were usually white and plastered in panels. Floors were also plastered, and carpets generally did not cover them as they added to the heat. Therefore, if a floor was covered it was usually done with a “fine matt” that was nailed down to hold it place.

Furnishing and decorating a house in 18th century Calcutta was no easy task either. Furniture was “exorbitantly dear” as it was difficult to obtain and so rooms were often sparse and when furnished with couches and chairs, like the buildings found in Calcutta, rooms tended to be a mishmash of furniture from varying eras and styles. The most common furnishings for the British residing in places like Calcutta was what they could obtain from European ship captains. However, some British citizens did order furniture from China, but by the time such orders appeared, the purchaser was returning to Britain.

The sturdy beds and nicely stuffed mattresses that people used in England were not the norm in 18th century Calcutta. People generally slept on what was referred to as a cot. These were designed in several pieces so that they could be easily and readily moved because when people traveled, they took their bed with them. These movable beds were also generally covered with either gauze or muslin, and people also slept on thin mattresses or on top of quilts because of the pervasive heat.

Kindersley maintained that in 18th century Calcutta the thing most like a street was called the Buzar, a name given to the place where anything and everything was sold from one of the “shabby-looking shops” that dotted the street. The British rarely entered this area, but if they did and if they tried to bargain for themselves, they were usually cheated. Therefore, most Englishmen left purchasing at the Buzar to their servants who purchased whatever their British master or mistress might desire.

18th century Calcutta - buzar

The Buzar in Calcutta. Courtesy of the British Museum.

In 18th century Calcutta there were also distinct parts in the city where certain ethnic groups resided. For instance, one section housed the “Armenians” and those called “Portuguese,” who, according to Kindersley lived in chimneyless huts built of mud and straw and produced “disagreeable” cooking odors. The primary contact that occurred between these people and the British was that the British employed them: Women served as servants and cooks while the men often functioned as EIC writers.

British residents living in 18th century Calcutta generally had servants. Moreover, “until 1764, African boys or Indian ocean islanders (coffres) could be imported as slaves to be pages and postillions. European servants were generally considered to be unsatisfactory, they were fleeced in market, were a constant source of complaint and often left without notice to open bars or businesses on their own account. European women servants were even more unreliable, leaving, usually soon after arrival, to get married.”[9] Hastings, Impey, Clive, Cornwallis, and Hancock certainly relied on local servants versus European ones.

Tysoe Hancock’s family. Left to right, Tysoe, the maid Clarinda, Eliza, and Philadelphia. C. 1763–5 by Joshua Reynolds. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sometimes British residents had numerous servants. For instance, William Hickey, an English lawyer best known for his Memoirs, which in their manuscript form covered 740 pages, was not necessarily wealthy by Calcutta standards. However, he employed “sixty-three [servants], including eight whose only duty was to wait at the table, three to cut the grass in the garden, four grooms and one coachman, two bakers, two cooks, a hairdresser and nine valets. The richer merchants employed upwards of a hundred servants.”[10]

Army officers also had servants. Despite having to undergo forced marches or strategic moves many officers took their servants with them on these journeys. For instance, in 1780, “a captain, throughout the Mysore campaign, was accompanied by his steward, his cook, his valet, a groom and groom’s assistant, a barber, a washerman, and ‘other officers’ besides fifteen coolies to carry his luggage, his wine, brandy and tea, his live poultry and milch-goats.”[11]

The British living in 18th century Calcutta also enjoyed a full social life. There were numerous dinner parties throughout the week, formal balls on Fridays, and church to attend on Sundays. There was also a whist club that gentleman never wanted to miss, even though it had heavy stakes and could easily ruin the fortunes of an unlucky gambler. Other interesting activities include boating down the many rivers of India.

Despite 18th century Calcutta being a bustling, exotic place, the goal of most British citizens was to “make it rich” and leave Calcutta for good. That is exactly what Hastings and Hancock did once they made their fortunes. They both left in January 1765 aboard the HMS Medway. However, even though the achieved great wealth, it didn’t mean they were set for life. A few years after returning to London, both suffered financial difficulties because of their luxurious lifestyles and because of failed investments in India. It did not take long for them to realize that the expensive lifestyle they wanted could not be sustained in London unless they returned to India, which they did around 1769.

In Hastings case, he was successful on his second trip and returned to London in 1786 fabulously wealthy. Hancock’s story was nearly opposite. He died in India and was not mourned for months until his wife and daughter, Eliza, learned of his death in a letter that took months to cross the seas. Moreover, the good fortune of Hancock’s wife and daughter after his death was due to a trust that Hastings established for his goddaughter.


  • [1] G. Forrest, The Life of Lord Clive v. 2 (London: Cassell, 1918), p. 311.
  • [2] S. C. Ghosh, The Social Condition of the British Community in Bengal: 1757-1800 (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1970), p. 187.
  • [3] D. Kincaid, British Social Life in India, 1608-1937 (London: George Routledge & Son, Ltd., 1938), p. 85–86.
  • [4] S. C. Ghosh. 1970, p. 188.
  • [5] S. C. Grier, The Letters of Warren Hastings to His Wife (London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1905), p. 323, 376.
  • [6] Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine v. 175 (London: William Blackwood, 1904), p. 503.
  • [7] The Friend of India, Containing Information Relative to the State of Religion and Literature in India with Occasional Intelligence from Europa and America v. 1 (Serampore: Mission Press, 1818), p. 4.
  • [8] E. Cotton, Calcutta, Old and New: A Historical & Descriptive Handbook to the City (Calcutta: W. Newman, 1907), p. 87.
  • [9] R. Cavaliero, Strangers in the Land: The Rise and Decline of the British Indian Empire (London: I.B.Tauris, 2002), p. 75.
  • [10] D. Kincaid. 1938, p. 82.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 83.
  • [12] E. B. Impey, Memoirs of Sir Elijak Impey: Knt., First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature, at Fort William, Bengal; with Anecdotes of Warren Hastings, Sir Philip Francis, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, Esq., and Other Contemporaries; Comp. from Authentic Documents, in Refutation of the Calumnies of the Right Hon. Thomas Babington Macaulay (Simpkin, Marshall, and Company, 1846), p. 13.
  • [13] E. Cotton. 1907, p. 91.

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  1. Hels on January 13, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    I love this topic and have come back to British history in India many times, especially the East India Company. But I must have forgotten to mention the 18th century missionaries who arrived “intent on delivering the native people from a state of moral darkness and wretchedness as Britain was supposedly destined by Providence.” If Britain was truly believed to have been placed at the head of the European world in point of influence, by a concern for the welfare of mankind, then no wonder the British lived the way they did. They had been placed in India as both inspirational mentors and moral instructors.

    many thanks

    • Arijit Das on August 21, 2022 at 2:06 pm

      Indeed a great read, loved the way how its quoted from the British Raj era. Though they had not been placed in India as ‘inspirational mentors and moral instructors ‘ but as mere looters. They came to India as they were way inferior to India in terms of economy and resources, tricked us in believing they were here only for a trade or two, turned out to be imposters looting and colonizing Indian subcontinent and other Asiatic countries.
      The least they had in their mind was to bring any good to Indians. Hels as you are keen observer of history i believe to my best you would find immense joy in learning what where they here for.

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