A steamship to India and some seasick hounds: the travel diary of Rachel Sheringham

The Norfolk Record Office has a collection of nearly 700 diaries, some typed and some written by hand. One of the most interesting is that of Rachel Sheringham, who went out to India with her husband and two small children by steamship from Liverpool in 1901.

Rachel’s second husband, Arthur, was a retired Colonel in the British Army, who had formerly been stationed at Poona, a few hundred miles inland from Bombay. The Sheringhams originated in Fakenham, Norfolk, and their return to Poona at the start of the twentieth century was for pleasure and to revisit old friends, rather than work.

The journey itself, going via the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal, is a fascinating account of how a British family transported its whole way of life to the Indian sub-continent, even including a pack of hounds so they could indulge in their passion for hunting once settled in their new home! On 14 May, for example, a cold, wet day with a heavy sea running off the coast of Italy, Rachel says in her diary,

‘The hounds were very wet and miserable and seasick, and were showing signs of colds and cough. The kennels have now been covered with tarpaulins and the poor beasts seem thankful for the shelter.’

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A page from the diary of Rachel Sheringham, 14 May 1901. Norfolk Record Office: MC 1913/1

A page from the diary of Rachel Sheringham, 14 May 1901

When they arrived in Bombay, they were met by a member of the Bombay Hunt, a Mr Birkett, who rode in a dog-cart with Colonel Arthur Sheringham. The rest of the family rode in a carriage followed by their belongings in a ‘long procession of 17 bullock wagons carrying kennels containing hounds, luggage and sacks of Spratts dog biscuits’.

Clearly they were not taking any chances on not being able to buy what they wanted in Poona!

On arriving in Poona, the Sheringhams found that a house had been prepared for them by a housekeeper, and there followed a long succession of social occasions.

‘We received dozens of invitations to dances, dinners, luncheons, at homes and every sort of function. The Governor and Lady Northcote were particularly kind. On one occasion Arthur and I, with hounds and horses, stayed at Government House for the night, ready for a lawn meet the next morning’.

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Watercolour by Rachel Sheringham of the bungalow at Singhur, 1905. NRO: MC 1913/3

As this was in the days before it was fashionable to have a tan, both Rachel and the Colonel dealt with the heat of India with the usual British reserve. ‘It was a little hot,’ Rachel wrote in her diary, ‘But Arthur in his helmet and I with a green lined white umbrella felt no inconvenience’.

The family made two trips to India, eventually returning to Caston in Norfolk for good in 1906. The diary was not discovered until 1979, when Ruthie, Rachel’s daughter, died and her effects were sold at auction. Margaret and Ian Newton of Cromer published the diary in 1991, under the title Port Out, Starboard Home, with the addition of photographs of the author and her family. The NRO has a copy of this edition on its open shelves in the searchroom, as well as the original (written by hand in a hardback, blue exercise book) in the repository, this has the catalogue reference MC 1913/1.

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