Of the Bengal Engineers

Copied by Charlotte “Toto” Hankin from the original by Slater.
Bequeathed on her deathbed to Lucy Philips (nee Lucy Burr),
a close friend of J.A.C. as a young man (see later).

Chowringhee in 1798 (Source:)

James Arden Crommelin was born in Chowringhee on February 2, 1801. At that time it was changing from a village close to Calcutta to becoming a small suburb. Chowringhee has been described as lying on one of Calcutta’s arterial routes carrying an aura of prestige and importance. Charles Russell Crommelin, his father, was then approaching 38 years of age and had been married to his second wife, Anne Wilkinson, for just over two years. Anne Susannah, their first child, was still living. She died one year later making JAC the oldest child.

JAC remained in India until his mother returned to England following the birth of their last child, Henry. He would then be about 7 or 8 years of age. He describes in one of his letters (24.01.1807) to William Sadler (Charlotte’s husband then in Lincolnshire) how he and his brother Tom (Thomas Lake) stayed in the house of the Rev. Thomas Blyth, Rector of Knowle in Warwickshire:

“The nursery was on the top storey on the left as you went upstairs.Tom and I slept together in the room opposite.It was when the dreadful Ratcliffe Highway Murders occurred.We used to take a candle and look into the closet and under the bed before we dared get into bed.”

He goes on to write:

“Last month I jumped over a two feet cat-gallows and bathed until the 3rd of November”.

He kept fit and healthy. Whilst in England he was educated at Harrow and at Addiscombe [the East India Company College] prior to entry into the Company.

There are letters from him in Eastbourne. He stayed possibly with the Hankins at Plas y Bridell (Bridell Hall or Manor) close to Cardigan, or at their house Banstead in Surrey. Whilst in Wales in 1820 he made a drawing of a little cottage. See the cottage below and beneath Plas y Bridell as it is today -- a nursing home. It will be remembered that JAC’s mother died there when it was occupied by her daughter Charlotte Hankin.

"Cottage" by JAC, 1820. (Enlarge)

Plas y Bridell (Bridell Hall or Manor) near Cardigan. (Enlarge)

For entry to Addiscombe and to the EIC he was nominated by the late Richard Parry and Richard Warington, directors. His Guardian was shown as his parent, Anne Crommelin of Banstead Surrey.

He sailed for Calcutta to join the Bengal Engineers and next we hear of him in a letter from his father to his son John Dethick Crommelin [JAC‘s half-brother] dated 23.10.1821 telling of the arrival of JAC on the Albion and of his being met by Colvin, CRC’s agent. He mentions as an aside that Tom (Thomas Lake) will go into the Law, and Henry into the Church. (Things turned out rather differently!)

In January 1822 JAC, whilst travelling with his brother George Russel Crommelin, receives a letter from his father telling him how he has received a letter from his wife, Anne. She and Lotte [Charlotte Frances --later to marry George Hankin] and Tom had been to see the Coronation of King George IV and attended a Grand Fete.

Later in January, JAC is instructed by his father to arrange through Colvin to book immediate passage to the Cape on the Fairlie for George and to engage a reliable servant for him. George is suffering from ‘heat and India fatigue’ as diagnosed by his doctors, Macwhirter and Nicholson. [A sea voyage is the recognised ‘cure’ for such a problem.] He will meet his half-sister, Maria Elisabeth, who, with her husband Mordaunt Ricketts, is in the Cape at this time.

Charles Russell Crommelin hopes to meet the two brothers at Kedgeree as they come down the Hoogly to join the Fairlie lying off from the village at the mouth of the Hoogly. He sends his best wishes for JAC’s 21st birthday on February 2nd. He also tells him he will receive his ‘Nest Egg’ and advises him to make a will.

In March JAC is settled in Calcutta and being told by his father [in Contai] to visit Mr and Mrs La Primaudage, his mother’s greatest friends. He instructs JAC to learn the native languages as quickly as possible and sends him a brace of pistols, two sabres and a horse.

In April JAC is with his father at Contai but soon to be away at Calcutta where he would be based in the Fort. News has arrived from Banstead that Charlotte has fallen in love with George Hankin. Meanwhile Tom is growing into a young giant.

Further letters in May and June to JAC mention that he will settle 15,000 pounds sterling on Charlotte when she marries Hankin. By mistake, he has opened a letter to JAC from Lucy Burr--she is pining for him!! His father goes on to say that he expects to make a Lac (100,000 Rupees) of commission from his trading in salt. About this time, JAC, having heard of his prospects from his father, has written to Lucy Burr proposing marriage, much to his parents’ approval.

Meanwhile, George on the Fairlie has been unable to land at the Cape and is now bound for St. Helena either to land there and wait in hope of a returning vessel to take him to the Cape, or to go on to England. [Such were the vagaries of sea travel to and from India!]

August 1822 sees a long letter to JAC telling him that the engagement of Charlotte to George Hankin has been announced. George is entering into Holy Orders and CRC sees their home in England as a suitable place for James’ future children. [Looking somewhat ahead!!]. JAC's mother is arranging to come out to India in 1824 now that the children are off her hands. (Henry is to stay with the Hankins after the marriage) and Tom will accompany her to India. CRC wishes her to remain in England until after Charlotte is married and a Living for George H. has been purchased. Thus he expects her to arrive in India in late 1825.

JAC has a rival! Lucy Burr is being looked upon by another! His mother writes to tell him to write to Lucy clearly stating his intentions. His letter of June will not have arrived yet. JAC, presently at Fort William, is posted to Saugor in the Central Provinces - a picturesque area where he will find Capt. Roberts who married Fanny Ricketts, and thus a family connection.

On the 26th September 1822, Charles Russel Crommelin died. JAC arrived just in time for the funeral.

JAC’s military career stretched from the 24th November 1821 until his retirement on January 1st 1843. He had excellent connections throughout India and the EIC but perhaps he never made as much of his career as he might have, unlike his half-nephew of Lucknow fame, William Arden Crommelin.

He was engaged on survey duties until October 1826 having been promoted to full Lieutenant on May 1st 1824 when he was permitted to enter the services of the King of Oudh. He resigned from His service in October 1828 to take up the appointment as Adjutant and visiting Officer of Engineering Works. He was on furlough to England from February 1830 until reporting at Fort William in March 1833. Of this period nothing is really known. He must have stayed with his mother and his sister, leaving England shortly before his mother’s death. And what of Lucy Burr? She married Philips …but still thought of JAC…. On his return he was posted to Dum Dum [developed in the second world war and now the site of Delhi airport] as Executive Engineer having been promoted to Captain on June 25th 1830. He was granted 6 months leave from September 1836 to visit the Straits and China where his father had been before him.

From June 30th he was on leave to The Cape of Good Hope. Whilst on leave in that region he, together with Mr. Ball, Chief Officer of the Hoogly then lying in the Roads and Mr. Bruce Sheward of the Hoogly, ascended the Peter Botte (2,520 ft.) mountain above Port Louis, Mauritius on October 29th 1837. On the summit they planted the British flag and drank bumpers of champagne, toasting the young Queen Victoria. Their loud hurrahs being answered from the plains below by "Vivas!" and the waving of handkerchiefs!

After his return to India he became Superintending Engineer North Western Provinces and promoted to Major. In 1841 he was granted leave to visit Darjeeling. On January 1st 1843 he retired from the Service, drawing a pension as a Captain with the rank of Brevet Lt.Colonel (a rank that is granted for outstanding service but which does not carry the pay of the rank!).

JAC acquired extensive land in Darjeeling shortly before it was developed as a hill station. His property can be seen on the Trigometrical Survey of India based on Observatory Hill, Darjeeling. It consisted in the main of three houses--Banstead, Bryngwyn and Belombre. Over the years he developed the land and then as cash became tighter [due to changes in the exchange rate of sterling to the rupee] he sold to the Darjeeling Hill Railway to build a rail terminal in Darjeeling, and to the Rajah of Cooch Behar, a great socialite in the town.

An early picture of the cart road into Darjeeling with the Himalayas in the background.
From the archives of the British Library (copyright)

Darjeeling lies at the foot of the High Himalayas (“The Abode of the Snows”) between Nepal, Tibet and minor states to the east. As such, many travellers passed through and rested. One of these was Dr. J.D. Hooker, the great botanist who roamed the world collecting specimens. He stayed with JAC as they planned collecting tours. Below is his picture and likeness.


An early picture of Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills
with St. Andrews church in the background and the hill from which the first survey
of that area of India was carried out.

In the late 1840’s the Royal Family of Nepal, the Shahs, was overthrown by the Ranas (a problem that remains to this day). Members of the Shah family fled to Darjeeling and the protection of the English. Amongst these were two brothers and a sister - princes and a princess of the Shah family. They stayed with JAC and he married the princess, Mary Anne Rajendra. They were married in nearby St. Andrews Church on August 20, 1851. In this church are records of other family marriages and baptisms. The marriage produced seven daughters and no sons.

    Mary Ann Crommelin

  • Mary Ann Crommelin married George Francis Popham Blyth, Archdeacon of Burma and later the first Bishop in Jerusalem who built the Cathedral and the College. She was born July 28, 1850; d. June 20, 1908, at sea. Mary Ann was buried at sea in the Straits of Messina.
    • Their youngest daughter, Estelle, lived into her 102nd year.
    • Their son, Captain Reginald Crommelin Popham Blyth (below) was Killed in action on June 4, 1915 at Gallipoli. He served with the 1st Battalion Glosters, attached to 2nd Royal Fusiliers. Captain Blyth was born June 24, 1877 in Darjeeling, India; educated at Brasenose College, Oxford and served in South Africa 1899-1900 (Boer War). From 1908-1915 he was attached to the Egyptian Army under the Sudan Government. He married Norah M. Yates, August 2, 1911 in Kensington. They had one son, Lionel, born June 16, 1912. Capt. Blyth's death is listed on the Helles Memorial, Turkey.

    Captain Reginald Crommelin Popham Blyth

  • Harriet Frances Crommelin died young. Born December 1, 1851, Darjeeling, India; d. July 8, 1852, Darjeeling, India.

    Charlotte Emilia Crommelin

  • Charlotte Emilia Crommelin [the grandmother of the writer of these notes], married the Rev. William Sadler, Classics Master at St.Paul's School, Darjeeling, and later Rector of Aunsby with Dembleby Lincs. England. She was born November 14, 1852, Darjeeling, India; d. December 13, 1896, Aunsby Lincs, England.

  • Juliana Bowling Crommelin did not marry. She was born December 4, 1854, Darjeeling, India; d. June 11, 1892, Darjeeling, India.

  • Cecelia Louisa Crommelin was born February 4, 1856, Darjeeling, India. She married Harry Parker and from this union came a grandson, Cecil Crommelin Parker.

  • Catherine Frances Crommelin was born November 28, 1857, Darjeeling, India. She married Arnold Forbes, January 5, 1906.

  • Lucy Henrietta Crommelin was born January 19, 1860, Darjeeling, India; d. February 2, 1928, Darjeeling, India. She also did not marry but lived on in Belombre. When she died in February 1928, her will left problems as to the disposal of the estate which is a story in itself. With her death, the Crommelin presence in India came to an end. There were Crommelins in India from 1710 to 1928 when Lucy Crommelin died in Darjeeling - 218 years! So you see they had a long presence there and one that is most interesting to study.

Meanwhile Mary Anne [with these names she was christened] left JAC after the birth of Lucy, and returned to her own people. JAC was buried in the old cemetery in Darjeeling at the edge looking down into the tea estates, the jungle, and the far distant plains. Today the cemetery is a near ruin inhabited by families of monkeys. Lucy is also in the cemetery but I have never been able to find her grave.

James Arden Crommelin led a full and energetic life. These notes have traced only the direct line from Marc Anthony to James Arden. There is much of fun and interest about many other Crommelins in India that remains to be written one day.

To end, here is a picture [we are now in the age of photography] of JAC in old age.

R.H.C.P. Spring 2008

James Arden Crommelin, aged 90, in 1891.

The grave of James Arden Crommelin, Darjeeling, India

A gifted artist with watercolors, James Arden recorded some lovely scenes in India.

The Taj Mahal, Agra

The Kutb Minar, near Delhi

The Fort, Allahabad

A water-spout, Contai, Midnapore District (Bengal)
1 September 1822