Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber week 24

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There was a story popular many years ago among the old salts in David MacBrayne’s fleet of west coast steamers (now CalMac) about a party of young women from the islands travelling to the Clyde in search of employment and potential husbands.

During the journey, one of them was re-reading her character reference from the local clergyman, without which she was unlikely to find work, when a gust of wind blew it out of her hand and away it flew into the Minch.

The captain, on coming across this otherwise gregarious female in a tearful state, inquired what the problem was. On being told, he said he would provide a replacement. He was at the top of the gangway as she was about to disembark and, true to his word, handed her a letter written on the vessel’s headed-notepaper which read simply: ‘This is to certify that Catriona McNeill lost her character while she was aboard this vessel.’

Young ladies leaving these islands in search of soulmates, or partners, as it would be more politically correct to refer to them today, is not new.

From the 19th century, when the Raj – the rule by Britain in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947 – was at its height, hundreds of young women, called the ‘Fishing Fleet’, went out every year to find husbands among the East India Company’s administrators, soldiers and businessmen.

The East India Company (EIC) paid their passage and, if successful in hooking one of their employees, gave them an allowance which continued for life, even if the woman was widowed.

These prospective brides, often away from home for the first time, were divided into ‘gentlewomen’ and ‘others’, and were warned that if they misbehaved they would be put on a diet of bread and water and sent back from whence they came. Those who were rejected by even the most desperate company men, also had to return to the UK after a year, and were known as ‘Returned Empties’. What a label!

The largest number of eligible British bachelors apparently lived in Madras, which had been the centre of trade and industry since the early beginnings of the EIC, and was well known as the catchment area for the Fishing Fleet.

The way of life in the Raj, at least for those who occupied front seats in the establishment and were well aware of the invisible barrier that lay between them and those occupying the humbler stations, has been well catalogued.

One writer recorded in 1933: ‘Here [in Madras] I spent nearly three years of sheer pleasure and interest. There was the Indian scene to explore plus the social pattern of dancing, riding, swimming and picnics, mah-jong and amateur theatricals, choir singing, trips up country in my father’s inspection cars, visits, snipe-shooting, paper chasing and rowing on the Adyar river.’

Another wrote in her diary: ‘As most young women would notice pretty quickly, there was little mixing with Indians, apart from the servants in every bungalow. Indeed, it was possible for many Englishwomen, in particular for regimental wives, never to meet anyone Indian except their own servants and those of their friends.’

It seems extraordinary to us in 2018 that such a gulf existed between the two races, and that sophisticated, intelligent, well-educated Indians, descended from a civilisation far older than that of their overlords, should have been so badly treated and had their innate good manners taken advantage of.

But, as one of my more left-wing friends constantly reminds me, it is still thus on some estates in the Highlands.

For those self-imposed exiles, there was one saving grace – the Army and Navy Society Stores (ANSS) catalogue which kept them in touch with what their friends back in old Blighty were eating, wearing and using. ‘Blighty’, incidentally, is a slang term for Britain or often specifically England. Though it was used throughout the 1800s in India to mean an English or British visitor, it was first used during the Boer War in the specific meaning of homeland for the English or British but it was not until the First World War that use of the term became widespread.

John Munro, Lorn Ironmongery, Oban, letterhead 1913. Photographs: Iain Thornber
John Munro, Lorn Ironmongery, Oban, letterhead 1913.

John Munro, the owner of the Lorn Ironmongery and Highland Yacht Depot, Oban, whose advertisements in The Oban Times in the 1900s announced he could provide every requirement for a cottage to a castle and a trout rod to a steam yacht, was a born entrepreneur, but not even he could match this catalogue.

The ANSS was a department store group in the United Kingdom, which originated as a co-operative society formed by a group of army and navy officers. The aim of the co-operative was to supply inexpensive but branded goods to its members and was based on two earlier models – the Civil Service Supply Association and the Civil Service Co-operative Society.

The society leased part of a distillery premises in Victoria Street, London, and by February 1872 it began selling groceries. The following year, it offered stationery, a drapery, fancy goods, tailoring, a chemist and even a gun department.

The store was too small for the business so the company rented a house next to their warehouse and acquired a further warehouse in Johnson Place.

By 1876, the business was now offering a banking department to its members, and had expanded internationally by opening stores in Paris and Leipzig. Soon it added furniture and an estate agent to its business as the society continued to grow, so new locations were added.

In 1890, stores were opened in Plymouth and Mumbai, India, while in 1891 a further store was opened in Karachi. This Indian adventure continued with stores opening in Calcutta in 1900 and others in New Delhi, Shimla and Ranchi in the 1930s.

I have a copy of the 1939-40 catalogue and price list in front of me. If you think the latest online catalogues are amazing, try borrowing this illustrated 1,127-page beauty from your local library.

There are several thousand items for sale from fishing tackle, tropical canteens, hunting, polo and racing saddlery, card games, photographic equipment, toys, binoculars, garden pavilions, carpets, tooth brushes, paraffin lamps and radiators, oatmeal soup, skis, toboggans and skates, bed pans and even a moth eradication service.

Reading this magnificent book reminds us what this country was capable of producing and why it once led the world in the supply industry. Argos, J D Williams, Littlewoods, House of Bath, Debenhams, House of Bruar and Amazon – eat your heart out!

Iain Thornber