A letter written by Lord Elphinstone to his sister in 1838, when he had recently taken up the post of Governor of Madras under the East India Company.
Madras, May 10th 1838
My dearest Elly
Since last I wrote to you on the 18th of April I have received four letters from you, two by the Semiramis, the steamer which came round the Cape (nos 20 and 19) and two by the monthly steamer (nos 26 and 27), from the latter of which I was delighted to hear that you had got through the worst part of the winter and that the thaw had at length begun. You could imagine how droll it seems to think of frost and snow at Madras, and how gladly we would exchange a little of our sunshine against your sleets and snowstorms! However this year we have comparatively nothing to complain of. We have escaped the usual 6 weeks of Sirocco, or rather of that improvement upon the Sirocco, the Long Shore wind, and we have hardly had a day without some sea breeze. The consequence is that we are all in a state of preservation quite astonishing and if the land winds are not worse than usual we shall all grow fat. I have taken a house at a place on the top of the nearest Ghats, within a night’s journey to Madras, which is 2000 feet higher than the level of the sea and consequently some 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the Plains, and as I shall not (be) able to leave Madras this season except for a few days at a time this little change will occasionally be very grateful. This I leave you to imagine when I tell you the state of the thermometer during this month at Madras. The mean temperature of the whole month day and night taken during a series of years, is 86.8. Maximum 99.2 and minimum 78.5.
Walter Elliot is greater than ever with his Animal Kingdom. He has got a Palace or a Museum in the garden (an old gardener’s house) whence he carries on his dissections and has got more dried fishes and heads of beasts than one has seen in the picture of an old magician’s cell. He has also got two fine young Royal Tigers and a bear, which we send for sometimes after dinner to play with the ladies in the verandah. The other night they all three walked into the drawing room, when the bear, seeing himself in the looking glass, began to get on his hind legs and to look big, but when he saw his new friend in the glass do the same he walked off. The tigers took no notice of the looking glass but nestled themselves among the cushions of the sofar (sic) and looked very comfortable. They are young and quite harmless but we shall soon be obliged to give them up as playfellows. One of them got hold of my thumb the other day and held it like a vice but let it go without breaking the skin. The strength they have in their forelegs and paws is quite curious and they roar in the most zoological garden fashion.
I was so much amused with the signalement (Fr: report) which you sent me of yourself that I am tempted to describe myself and my habitation for your amusement. I am dressed in a white jacket of grass cloth, a stuff five times thinner than cambric, with brown holland continuations of the same sort of stuff that window blinds are made in England. I am sitting in a room about 32 feet long by 18. At one end there are two venetian doors into an anteroom of about the same proportions, at the other two windows which look to the South which is not here our warmest aspect as in England for at 12 o’clock the sun is vertical and before that it shines on the windows which look to the East and the evening those of the West. On each side of my room are three venetian doors, those of the last opening onto a verandah itself enclosed with venetian blinds and about 12 or 14 feet wide which runs along the whole front of the house, those to the west opening into a room which has been used as a bedroom, but of which I do not make any particular use. The walls of my room are of a very ugly slate-coloured stucco which is thought to be good for the eyes. The doors and windows (which are all venetians) are painted green, the floor is covered with a very old and yellow Bengal mat, the table at which I sit is an old fashioned writing table covered with blue cloth with drawers on each side and a square hole in the middle to put one’s legs in. There is on the top of this a treacherous drawer placed there for the express purpose of breaking ones knees, such a table there used to be in the old library at Cumbernauld. My table is covered over and above the blue cloth with bundles of papers, leaden weights covered with marble paper, almanacks, long lists, some letters of yours and a letter book, a huge glass inkstand, a silver bell, a box for writing paper and envelopes, a little clock given to me by the Queen Dowager and two large tumbles full of roses and sprigs of myrtle. Add to all that a few sheets of blotting paper on which I am scribbling and a wooden pen tray and voila tout. Within 3 feet of my head when I am sitting and as many inches when I am standing hangs the friendly punka, good at a pinch but not to be used constantly as it make one sleepy and headachy. I think now that I have drawn my picture and that of my accessories.
I suppose by this time you are in Scotland. I shall be curious to hear whether you determined to take up your residence there or not and I hope you will get a place wherever it is that suits you, and that will agree with your tastes and fancy as well as your health. Adieu dearest Elly, believe me always your most affectionate brother, E.
I have a great friend of Walter’s coming to me, Major Havelock. He is to take his place of Private Secretary but I think this will be a temporary arrangement.
John Elphinstone, 13th Lord Elphinstone, (23 July 1807 – 19th July 1860) was a Scottish soldier, politician and colonial administrator. He was twice elected to Parliament as a Scottish representative peer, and held governorships in both Madras and Bombay. His tenure in the latter coincided with the Indian Mutiny.
Governor of Madras 1837-1842. Governor of Bombay 1853 – 1860
His letters are to his step sister, Eleanor Margaret Gibson-Carmichael (later Begbie on her marriage to Alexander in 1828). John’s mother Janet was the daughter of Cornelius Elliot, and on the death of her first husband, Sir John Gibson-Carmichael by whom they had the daughter mentioned above, Janet married the 12th Lord Elphinstone. They had only the one son, who was thus a cousin of the Elliot clan, and who was particularly close to Walter as they both served in Madras. Walter was appointed Elphinstone’s private secretary in 1837. While Elphinstone moved on Walter served his whole career in Madras, retiring in 1860 (see the reference in the 1860 letter).
Janet’s brother, James, was the father of both Walter and of Eleanor, Wynne’s grandmother. One of Eleanor’s sons, Arthur – known as Thurie in the diaries – married another Wolflee Elliot, Caroline – known as Lena in the diaries and it was Lena who somehow came to possess these letters which were passed to Wynne on her death in 1920.
The 1838 letters were written while Walter was away, collecting his new bride Maria Dorothea, whom he married in Malta. Walter had joined the East India Company at the age of 18 and went to Madras in 1820. He became Elphinstone’s private secretary in 1837 (see mention of his temporary replacement by Havelock). He eventually became Member of the Council in Madras, and finally retired and returned to Scotland in 1860. His natural history and archaeological passions are amply illustrated in the letters!
The Queen Dowager mentioned in the letter is Queen Adelaide. Elphinstone had been appointed lord in waiting to Willian IV from 1835-1837, when the King died. He was appointed as Governor of Madras by Lord Melbourne in that year, and at the time it was thought that his appointment was made in order to dissipate the rumour that the young Queen Victoria had fallen in love with him.