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George Evans (c1795-1842) and Jemima Drage (1801-1886)

By the start of the nineteenth century the East India Company was the largest and most powerful company in the world. Set up as a trading company over three hundred years earlier, it had become a major political and military force, effectively controlling the whole of India except the Punjab. East India House, newly extended on Leadenhall Street, was the centre of its operations; and from there hundreds of employees acted as a government for the millions on the other side of the world.

Competition for places in the EIC was fierce as the conditions in the company were, in many ways, very progressive. (Note 1) Managers operated a system of ‘paternal benevolence’ which meant that employees had access to free medical advice and care; received sickness pay; were given £2 on the birth of each child; wages were secure and regular; and, most importantly, all workers qualified for generous pensions. The system was criticised by Sir John Hall when making a statement to a parliamentary Select Committee in 1832, as he thought it led to inefficiency and loitering; but it was certainly popular with the workers. The working day was short: whereas employees at the Royal Dockyards worked from 6am – 6pm, the hours at the EIC were 9am – 3pm, short enough for many to have a second job in the afternoon. Unsurprisingly there were far more applicants for places than there were jobs, so a system of patronage meant that all prospective employees needed to be recommended by a director. The number of applicants also meant that those being offered work had often come from educated backgrounds. Hundreds of teachers, attorneys, brokers, chemists and most other middle class professions were all appointed as warehouse labourers between 1800 and 1830, so it isn’t surprising that the literacy rate was vastly higher than in the population as a whole. Almost 20% of employees, though, had previously been servants, probably because this position allowed easy access to men of influence who could speak personally to an EIC director. More surprisingly, perhaps, was that fully 50% of those appointed as labourers were between 30 and 34. The company was prepared to sacrifice a little physical strength for the maturity and experience that age brought.

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East India House in 1830


James Gillray's cartoon lampooning the REIV

George Evans was a very small cog in this vast machine. Records show that he matched the average applicant to a T when he joined the EIC in 1821, as he was a servant and aged thirty-one. He had been a servant to Mr John Irving, (Note 2) an MP and businessman who had travelled extensively, including a Grand Tour of Italy, Prussia and Belgium in 1814, and would soon be instrumental in negotiating the loan by which Austria repaid the UK in 1823. He was a close business partner of Sir Thomas Reid, a director of the EIC who had introduced hundreds of labourers, so would have had easy access to recommend George to him. George would probably have met Sir Thomas at John Irving’s house, and would probably have found him easy company as he was described as ‘always accessible…(his) mildness was such that he seemed to give confidence to the poorest…’ We have no way of knowing how long George had worked for John Irving, but it seems possible that being a servant to a travelling bachelor might not have suited a newly married man, which is why George looked for work elsewhere so soon after his marriage.


George was initially hired as a labourer in the tea warehouse where, although the work was mainly manual, men were expected to have a certain level of literacy so that the paperwork could be completed (and George’s confident signature on his marriage certificate showed that he was literate). Two days after he started, he was also required to join the Royal East India Volunteers, where his call up papers show that he was 5’ 9 1/4’’, significantly above the average height for the time. The REIV, formed in 1796, was run as a military regiment with officers and men, and strict discipline. Incidents such as the Gordon Riots, to say nothing of the revolution on the other side of the Channel, had made the managers nervous, and the REIV was designed to protect the company’s warehouses and valuable merchandise in times of trouble. In 1814, towards the end of the Napoleonic War, and partly because of criticisms from outside he company, it had been wound down; but a few years later the government was asking for it to be re-instated as an ‘additional means of protection and security to the Metropolis’. In 1820 the Cato St conspiracy, an attempt to assassinate the cabinet, and the general unrest around King George II led to the re-establishment of the regiment later that year, so George would have been one of the early recruits


Thomas Horsfield whose letter supported George's application for a higher salary

Tea was an expensive luxury, so every day the men were ‘rubbed down’ as they left work to check that they weren’t hiding company property on them, and several employees were found with ingenious means of carrying contraband; but George was not subjected to this regime for long as, two years after he started, he was moved across to East India House as an extra watchman; and shortly after that he became a messenger, which is how he described himself when his first child was born in 1823. George was well over thirty by now, (Note 3) older than most when they start a family. Whether that was as a result of working for the much travelled John Irving or serving in the Napoleonic War is not known but family life for the next few years would be much more stable.


George and Jemima Drage had married in 1820 at St Martin’s in the Field, although neither came from that part of London originally. (Note 4) Jemima had been born in Barkway, a village in Hertfordshire, about 35 miles from London. Despite its size it was an important stopping point on the coach journeys between London and the North-East and several of its inhabitants had used that to grow rich. Jemima’s family was not one of the rich ones, her father being an agricultural labourer, and her move to London may have been to find work. Her parents did not baptise their children but Jemima was baptised in London as an adult, probably when she was working as a servant as well, and possibly as a preparation for her marriage.

In about 1827 the family of four moved to Newington, on the other side of the river, so each morning George walked the two miles to London Bridge and on to the city. At this time Newington was still quite green and retained something of a village identity, although the London smog was not far away. It was a pleasant place to live and bring up a family as George continued to rise slowly up the ranks of the EIC, becoming a messenger and doorkeeper in the Library and Museum in 1832, when the the Committee of Library ‘Resolved that George Evans, one of the messengers on the establishment of this House be appointed to supply the vacancy of Door-keeper in the Library, occasioned by the death of William Sharland and that he be allowed a salary of £90 per annum’ (Note 5)


Despite this promotion, £90 a year soon proved too little for George’s increasing family and, in 1836, he petitioned the company for an increase, stating (note the spelling!) that he found the ‘situation is very distructive to my clothes having all the books and these departments to keep clean and having a large family i am not able to appear so respectable as the situation requires, having many partys of distinction to attend to, also of other classes that require great attention to prevent them from taking down and missplacing the books, your Humble petitioner hopes your Honours will place him on a level with respect to salary with the Office Messengers in general or such augmentation as your Honourable Committee may be pleased to alloy...’. His supervisor, Thomas Horsfield, recommended the salary increase to the Committee and said ‘I have pleasure in stating that in his endeavour to perform his ordinary duties with faithfulness and also to contribute to the qualification of visitors to the Museum and Library in an attentive and obliging behaviour. I have no hesitation in the recommending the respectful petition’.  Thomas Horsfield was an American naturalist whose travels to indoinesia and Batavia had given him an international reputation. He had recently joined the museum was the keeper, and would soon become its curator, so his was powerful support. The increase was granted and George’s salary rose to £110.

By 1837 there were seven mouths to feed and, although his eighth child died young, the others survived to adulthood. Most were destined to become (or marry) clerks, but one son, George, became apprenticed to a local mathematical instrument maker, and went to stay with his master, James Tree, who lived nearby in Newington.


Although competent at work, George was an ill man, and in 1842 he died of tuberculosis, despite the medical care provided by eth company, leaving Jemima to bring up seven children. Fortunately the East India Company operated a widow’s pension fund and at a meeting on 19th December the trustees resolved that ‘the widow and seven children of the late George Evans be admitted on the fund as pensioners of the third class, the former at the rate of £11.12s per annum, and the latter £4.1.8d per annum each, commencing from Christmas next, the date up to which his salary has been paid by the company’.

Jemima had seven children to look after, but never re-married. Now that she had a pension there was less of an economic imperative, and her older daughters were in their late teens, well old enough to help run the house. She continued to live in Newington as most of the children left home, and was still there into her sixties, sharing the house with Emma, who had married a local bank clerk, and Mary. Her eldest daughter had married a messenger, but he was now the clerk at the Baptist Mission Society in Holborn. They lived in a house provided by the Mission and Jemima chose to leave the Surrey suburbs and move into London to be with them. Emma had stayed near Newington and, when her husband died, Jemima back to be with her widowed daughter. Now in her eighties she would not have been able to offer much help beyond company, but she was able to die in an area she had known for most of her life.

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The library at East India House

George's petition asking for a higher salary

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1. Most of the background detail in this biography comes from ‘The East India  Company’s London Workers’ by Dr Margaret Makepeace. She also provided some guidance on where to research the EIC records

2.The records simply say that he had been a servant to 'Mr Irving' but George's sponsoring director was Sir Thomas Reid, who was a very close business partner of John Irving. I don't think there is any doubt that he is the right 'Mr Irving'

3. George's exact age is hard to pin down as his death certificate and EIC papers suggest he was born in 1789/90, whereas the 1841 census leads to dates of 1792-6. None of these sources is known to be particularly reliable, although with two sources giving c1790 that seems the most likely

4. The witnesses to the marriage were Thomas and Ruth (nee Watson) Arrowsmith who had married at the same church in 1812. There is quite good evidence that Ruth was related to Jemima's mother

5. William Sharland died aged 71, so George could have expected to have many years of work ahead of him. His will describes him as a 'gentleman' and its several pages showed that he had a considerable wealth, including property and investments, to give away. 


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