British Social Life in India in the 18th Century

British social life in India during the 18th century was filled with numerous activities for those who worked for the East India Company (EIC). Among the British living in India were many well-to-do bachelors who were senior officials of the EIC. James Mackintosh wrote about them in his Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa 1771-81 and noted that their workdays were leisurely lasting from about 10am to 2pm.

Many of these bachelors also had mistresses with most of their mistresses being local Indian women or “half-caste mistresses.” Company men also fell in love with and married local girls, and it was these “unsuitable marriages” that caused EIC authorities to try to prevent them by importing British girls, with the hope that company men would marry them instead. For the British women to get to India they had to take an long overseas journey and that resulted in many English travelers “recording their relief at catching sight of the harbor of Madras after many weary months at sea.”[1]

The desire for British women in India also resulted in Calcutta, a city that some people described as the “gayest” of all the Anglo-Indian cities, having a higher population of women that any other settlement. That was partly because young women like Jane Austen‘s aunt, Philadelphia Austen, and Margaret Maskelyne dared to travel by ship to India to find a husband. In Philadelphia’s case she married doctor Tysoe Saul Hanock and Margaret married Robert Clive, the first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency.

Philadelphia Austen Hancock. Courtesy of Rowan and Rowan.

Because there were so many single men and women available, courting was a huge part of British social life in India. It also meant that men would sometimes go to great lengths to obtain the hand of a woman they desired. This was the case with a Mr. Calvert who purchased a “smart carriage” to win a lady’s approval. Apparently, “having been refused by a Miss Philpott, [he] tried to increase his value in her eyes by purchasing an English post-chaise, the four horses being driven by postillion in very rich liveries.”[2] His ploy worked because a month later they were engaged.

Another aspect of British social life in India was that many people attended church on Sundays. Nonetheless, attendance in many cases had nothing to do with religion and more to do with the recent arrival of a ship that had aboard it available single women from Britain. According to author Dennis Kincaid:

“All the gentlemen … even if racked with bile and indigestion after their Saturday night festivities, rode early to the customs office and waited in a crowd round the door jostling each other in rivalry to escort the ladies to their seats. Etiquette allowed this gallant gesture even among strangers and it was the usual method of introducing oneself to a lady whose acquaintance one wished to make. In consequence there were generally frayed tempers and torn coats among the gentlemen on the first Sunday after the arrival of a ship from England, setting rumours flying round Calcutta of a youthful charmer or an amiable heiress. … Having escorted the ladies to their seats the gentlemen lounged against the walls or pillars, whispering and ogling. The local clergy were not such as to inspire respect and attention during their service.”[3]

Social life in India also included family and friends. Children were of particular interest because according to author Deidre Le Faye, “The English children were evidently the plaything of the whole group, news of their health being anxiously sought and transmitted whenever any member of the community was away.”[4] In addition, information about those who remained in India was mentioned regularly in letters home:

“Mrs. Hancock sup’d last night at ye Gardens & sup with Us again to Night there all snug … Mrs. Hancock & Miss Ironside sup at the Gardens to Night … George and Bob [Vansittart] are both very well & Miss Betsy Hancock. … Little Betsy is very fond of Miss Ironside & her Guitar.”[5]

Eliza de Feuillide. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

British social life in India also meant socializing with foreigners regularly. One of the most prevalent ways that was done was at the dinner table. People like Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India, were known to regular invite foreigners to dinner where conversations covered everything from politics to fashions to the latest duel. Most of these dinnertime meals consisted of eight or nine courses, many of which were heavy on meat. In fact, “one doctor recommended plenty of meat to strengthen the blood, … [and then] he suddenly ‘fell dead after eating a hearty dinner of beef.’”[6]

Warren Hastings. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

British social life in India also included lots of liquor, often with meals. That was partly done because liquor like port was recommended to prevent against fever. Besides port, people drank a variety of wines, cordials, and brandies and few of these drinkers were connoisseurs. To demonstrate, one gentleman gave a dinner party and obtained three dozen of the best clarets that cost him sixty-five rupees a dozen. He reserved the claret for dessert and served a cheaper wine at dinner that cost him eighteen rupees a dozen. However, when the more expensive claret was presented to his guests, they “unanimously decided that what they had drunk during dinner was infinitely the best, it being uncommonly high-flavoured, delicious wine, whereas the other as abominable, not fit to be drunk.”[7]

Drinking of course sometimes resulted in drunkards such as when a party was given on 3 November 1775. Numerous women drank so much cherry-brandy, they began pelting each other with pieces of bread. Bread pelting then became fashionable and even resulted in competitions with the champion being Daniel Barwell, son of Richard Barwell, an early trader with the EIC who amassed one of the largest fortunes in early British India. Daniel was reportedly so accurate he could extinguish a candle from four yards away with a bread pellet.

Despite the game’s popularity, bread pelting eventually ended after a Captain Morrison lost his temper when he was unexpectedly hit by a piece of bread in the face. In response, he threw a leg of mutton at the offender, who then issued a challenge. A duel followed as “the resort to the pistol was in these times common in India, where men’s tempers seemed to become as fiery and as peppery as the favourite dish at their tables.”[8] It also resulted in the bread pellet thrower being nearly killed.

One activity that was far less dangerous than bread pelting was riding or driving along the sea front. It became a favorite activity for the British because winds from the sea brought fresh air and people could see if a new ship had arrived or if one was leaving. There were also plenty of friends to be found in and around docks, farewell or arrival dinners were often held, and people could see someone off or welcome a new arrival.

Taking an airing was another important part of British social life in India. For instance, in Calcutta, English residents were known to enjoy a daily carriage ride. They appeared either at sunset or just before the sun rose in the morning in an area just outside the city. The spot became popular for airings because it was devoid of smoke and as it offered clean, fresh air, the British took advantage of it by driving themselves around a “sort of ring” that was about two miles long.

Another popular activity related to the British social life in India was whist, a card game that though tactical and strategic, had simple rules. Everyone played it and it was probably no surprise that a whist club rose up. It was always crowded despite players being susceptible to “very heavy” losses and several gentlemen even reported their disappointment when they missed an evening of whist, chief among them being a chaplain who reported how irritated he was to have to postpone “because he had a d—d soldier to bury.”[9]

British social life in India - whist

A real rubber! At whist. Courtesy of British Museum.

Societies were also sometimes established and that aided British social life in India. One society that became popular was the Catch Club, a men-only club as women were not admitted. The club provided an excellent supper, after which catches, glees, and songs were sung by members late into the evening. The following description gives some idea as to why the Catch Club came into existence:

“It was originally established by some musical men, seceders from a meeting called the Harmonic, at which the younger people of both sexes being more pleased with their own rattling chatter and noise, … gave great offence to the real lovers of music. A party thereupon resolved to establish a sort of club, where none of the profane should gain admittance and women to be excluded altogether.”[10]

British social life in India also involved boating. In the evening boats could sometimes be seen traveling down the rivers with colored lanterns at their bow. Families could also be found riding along “sedately” as they were rowed in a fancy covered barge accompanied by the strains of sweet music in the air. In addition, sometimes wealthy gentlemen were rowed in boats by incredibly large Bourbon or Mauritius slaves dressed alike in fancy costume as Lilliputian turbaned black slaves blew French horns that then mingled with the echoes of gongs and the noise of conches from inside Hindu temples.

Dances, balls, or receptions were regularly given and rarely did a week go by without one being held somewhere in Calcutta. People generally dined at home with friends before attending such events and therefore tended to arrive in large raucous groups rather than as singles or couples. In addition, rooms where such events were held usually did not have fans and because parties tended to be held in the evening, rooms were lit by candles. That intensified the heat and made dancing practically unbearable:

“Imagine to yourself [wrote Asiaticus] the lovely object of your affections ready to expire with heat, every limb trembling and every feature distorted with fatigue, and her partner, with a muslin handkerchief in each hand, employed in the delightful office of wiping down her face, while the big drops stand impearled upon her forehead.”[11]

Still despite the challenges associated with dancing when bands or orchestras struck up rooms were always crowded. One memorable party held in May when Calcutta was intensely hot was a masked affair hosted by Edward Fenwick. The heat however did not stop participants from arriving hidden behind masks and wearing fancy costumes and it did not stop attendees from dancing up a storm, doing so until seven in the morning.

British social life in India also involved the use of the hookah, an oriental pipe for tobacco that had a long flexible tube which drew smoke through the water of its bowl. Smoking from the hookah occurred after dinner around the time the women withdrew leaving men to themselves. What was smoked consisted of a “mixture of sweet-scented Persian tobacco, sweet herbs, coarse sugar, spice, etc.,”[14] but because it was found to be so pleasant, many women began to also smoke the hookah too.

British social life in India - hookah

Scene of an EIC writer smoking a Hookah. Courtesy of the British Museum.

British social life would not have been complete without gossip. Some people claimed that Calcutta was rife with rumors because more women lived there than any other settlement. Of course, local newspapers didn’t help matters. Even though they tried to give the appearance of stopping rumors, they spread gossip or in other words “hypocritically affecting to teach and uphold public and private morality, in reality [they] pandered to the impulses of the prurient and the vicious.”[12]

One newspaper in Calcutta known for spreading rumors was the Bengal Gazette founded by James Augustus Hicky in 1780. It frequently reported on the doings of women, but especially one femme fatale named Miss Emma Wrangham. She was considered the “social star” and belle of Calcutta. Hicky regularly referred to her by her Christian name, initials, or one of several nicknames, “Turban Conquest,” “St. Helena, Filly,” “Chinsura Belle,” “Hooka Turban,” or “Beauty.” As she had many hopeful beaus, Hicky also gave them nicknames such as in the newspaper report that follows:

“March 1781. Public Notice : Lost on the Course, last Monday evening, Buxey Clumsey’s heart whilst he stood simpering at the footstep of Hooka Turban’s carriage: as it is supposed to be in her possession, she is desired to return it immediately, or to deliver up her own as a proper acknowledgment.”[13]

Despite a full social life in India for the British, the goal for many Brits was to return to home. They wanted to be reunited with their families and friends and when they did finally set foot again on British shores their names were usually mentioned in newspapers along with remarks about the faithful servants who accompanied them home. However, leaving India did not necessarily mean all thought of it was forgotten. By the 1700 and 1800s it was common for people to visit one of the many watering places, like Bath, Celthenham, or Tunbridge Wells. There they found they could not only restore their health but also become reacquainted with their old Bengal friends.


  • [1] D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide (London: The British Library, 2002), p. 13.
  • [2] D. Kincaid, British Social Life in India, 1608-1937 (London: George Routledge & Son, Ltd., 1938), p. 89.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 92–93.
  • [4] D. Le Faye. 2002, p. 18.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 18.
  • [6] D. Kincaid. 1938, p. 70.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 87l.
  • [8] C. MacFarlane, Our Indian Empire: Its History and Present State from the Earliest Settlement of the British in Hindostan to the Close of the Year 1846 (London: G. Routledge, 1847), p. 180.
  • [9] D. Kincaid. 1938, p. 81.
  • [10] W. Hickey, Memoirs of William Hickey v. 2 (New York: Knopf, 1923), p. 167–68.
  • [11] D. Kincaid. 1938, p. 92.
  • [12] H. E. Busteed, Echoes from Old Calcutta: Being Chiefly Reminiscences of the Days of Warren Hastings, Francis and Impey (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Company, 1897), 167
  • [13] Ibid., p. 175.
  • [14] D. Kincaid. 1938, p. 83.

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