Searching for Leslieganj

Many British citizens are unaware of their Indian ancestry. Mark Davies set out to find the story of his Irish ancestor.

One word! That was all it needed to enable me to discover more than a dozen totally unexpected ancestors from the Indian sub-continent; to locate a Jharkhand village which retains the name of a progenitor, and to identify a British ancestral line going back nearly a thousand years. That word was ‘Calcutta’, the birthplace to which my mother’s grandfather, Edward Hind Wood, confessed in the 1881 British census.

I say ‘confessed’ because there had never been the slightest hint, not so much as a whisper, within our family of a connection with India, and the suspicion is that Edward felt that his Anglo-Indian origins were best kept under wraps. As an otherwise unremarkable Surrey stockbroker, this was presumably in the interests of both his social standing and his career prospects.

From this initial one-word clue, it proved relatively easy (starting with the Families in British India Society website: to piece together four connected lines of Anglo-Indian descent, all beginning with late eighteenth-century unions between British-born East India Company employees and unidentified Bengali women. The men in question were two civilians: Matthew Leslie (c.1755–1804) and Ralph Uvedale (c.1747–1813), both from Cork in Ireland, and two military officers: Thomas Wood (1765–1834), an engineer from Perth in Scotland (after whom Wood Street in Kolkata is named), and Thomas William Clayton (c.1754–1804), whose origins remain unclear.

Highly intrigued, I decided in 2009 to follow in some of these ancestral footsteps. Having visited India several times previously – initially as a teenage backpacker in the 1970s and later as a representative of the overseas development charity Oxfam – I needed little incentive to return to a country that I had always found enthralling, inspiring, endearing and frustrating in about equal measure. This time, however, my yatra would be imbued with a much more personal significance, and my sister’s daughter, Emma, decided to come too.

Of the four men, the Irishman Matthew Leslie struck me as the most intriguing. From various sources, it was possible to trace his career from a first posting as a young East India Company Writer in Calcutta in 1773 through to his final appointment as a Member of the Bengal Board of Revenue in 1803. In between, he had operated from at least five different locations in Bengal, but it was the years that he spent as only the second Collector of the newly-formed Ramgarh Hill Tract (c.1786 to 1794) that most interested me, because, on the western edge of the district for which he was responsible, near Daltonganj, there is a small township which still carries his name: Leslieganj.

Leslieganj immediately took precedence among the places that I most wanted to visit; unfortunately, it still remains so! For various reasons, climatic and political, it ultimately proved unreachable. Emma and I had been invited to make our base under the extraordinarily hospitable roof of Bulu Imam, who is head of Sanskriti, an NGO in Hazaribagh which is chiefly concerned with the rights of the local tribal population. Hazaribagh lies on the eastern side of the Chotanagpur plateau; Leslieganj lies to the west. Rather than make a circuitous journey, we decided to take the shortest route, straight up and over, on minor roads and tracks, by hiring a car and driver. Unusually for the time of year (January), it rained for almost the whole day, and eventually, a collapsed bridge obliged us to abandon our quest some 30 km’s from Leslieganj. This was a disappointment at first, but on reflection, it may have been just as well.

A few hours earlier, we had had an unnerving encounter. On a lonely stretch of road, where the dense tree cover encroached on both sides, we had rounded a bend to find a tree trunk barring our route. As we drew to an unavoidable halt several men appeared from the undergrowth. Their leader wore an inscrutable expression, but carried a decidedly ‘scrutable’ axe over his shoulder! An animated conversation ensued, during which Bulu’s diplomatic skills came to the fore, the barrier was eventually removed, and we were allowed to proceed.

It was at this point that I questioned the wisdom of what had initially seemed a very smart idea: publicising my intended visit to Leslieganj in advance. The idea had been to encourage contact from anyone with information relating to my ancestral quest, and the day before, I had given interviews to one Hindi and one English-language local newspaper. The former had wasted no time in placing an article prominently on the front page of the next day’s issue. The result was that on our return journey by a different, busier route, people were instantly able to deduce that we were the foreigners who were in Chotanagpur ‘to ferret any place linked to their ancestors’ (as another newspaper quaintly phrased it). But as quite possibly the only Europeans in the entire state, where Maoist insurgency remains strong, it was probably not exactly the brightest of moves to have announced exactly where we were going and when!

As my later attempt to reach Leslieganj by the more straightforward route from the west was foiled by a Maoist-inspired transport strike, the township remains even now an elusive taunt to my imagination. Exactly what Matthew Leslie did to warrant his enduring association with the place remains a slight mystery. It seems to have been during his time as Collector that it was established as a military station (named locally Chhauni), and I suppose it was logical that, as the senior official in 1786 when land throughout in Ramgarh was allocated to native officers ‘as near as possible to the Stations to which they had been attached’, it was, therefore, he who was considered most deserving of commemoration.

Having been denied access to one Leslieganj, however, another beckoned! This was near Patna. In a survey of 1811 this ‘Lesleygunj’ (or ‘Lasligunj’), in the division of Bakipur Jaywar, was said to have comprised between 125 and 200 houses. It was, according to the author, ‘founded by Mr Lesley’ and ‘was once large, but has of late gone to decay’. Today there is no obvious sign of this settlement. Matthew Leslie had been based in Patna prior to his transfer to Ramgarh and lived there again from about 1798 to 1802 as a senior judge. This explains why he left the property in Patna to his Indian ‘bibis’. These women – one of whom is in all likelihood my four-times great grandmother – are named in his will as Zehoorun (or Zehounun) Khanum, late wife of Meer Mahomad Hussein (or Hassan) Khan; Heera Beeby; and Zebon. By naming the former husband of Zehoorun, Leslie appears to be emphasising her respectability and indeed her high status. These women were evidently more than just mistresses or concubines.

Leslie also named six children in his will. Quite how all this extra-marital, inter-racial activity went down with Leslie’s family back in Ireland is unclear. In 1781 he had received a visit from his older brother Charles Henry, who had been sent by their father to help with the probate affairs of their uncle, Colonel Matthew Leslie, who had died on a route march from Cawnpore to Bombay in 1778. This visit seems to have had a profound effect on Charles Henry Leslie – about whom his mentor had written prior to the voyage from Britain that he ‘he is idle and … not fond of work’. On his return to Cork, however, he seems to have undergone a profound change. Logically as a result of his brother’s influential presence in Patna, a city renowned for its production of saltpetre, Charles, with absolutely no background in the trade, established some gunpowder mills which later became the largest in the British Isles. But that is another story!

Cork is the city from where the Leslie family’s remarkably long lineage can be traced with reasonable certainty. This extends back to the twelfth-century first Laird of Leslie (in Aberdeenshire, Scotland), who is supposed to have married a daughter of King Duncan of Scotland. It means, somewhat bizarrely in a world where the differences between human beings are sadly a cause for friction rather more often than they are for celebration, that I, my immediate family, several newly discovered Indian ‘cousins’ in four continents, and many hundreds more unknown, can all claim Scottish royal descent!

So what a revelation that one word ‘Calcutta’ has been! I may still know very little about my great grandfather Edward Hindwood (as the name came to be written), who was Matthew Leslie’s great grandson, but what a wealth of information he inadvertently revealed when he wrote down those eight letters! And not least among those revelations was that my mother was finally able to understand, well into her nineties, why she had been given a middle name of ‘Leslie’, rather than the conventional English girls’ name of Lesley!


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