Creature Comforts, Wine and Spirits: Inside the Home of a Peripatetic British Agent

Karen Stapley

Author

Archival Specialist, British Library
‘What can I buy from the current post holder?’ was the first consideration of a newly appointed British Agent in the Empire. Frequent moves meant that provisions, furniture and necessities for entertaining were bought and sold rather than transported with Agents from post to post.

‘What can I buy from the current post holder?’ This was usually the first consideration of any new appointee – or their wife – to a political post within the British Empire.

Although Political Agents and Residents were generally provided with a home, they were expected to furnish them themselves. The easiest way of doing this was to purchase the furniture, stores and other supplies the previous Agent or Resident was willing to sell.

Not least Lewis Pelly, one of the most important British Political Residents in the Persian Gulf Historically used by the British to refer to the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Often referred to as The Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. (1862–73) whose next posting was in Rajputana (present day Rajasthan, India). In 1874, when Pelly was departing this post as the Agent to the Governor-General he provided his successor, Sir Alfred Charles Lyall, with a comprehensive twelve-page list of all the belongings and stores available for purchase, should Lyall and his wife be interested.

Residency Furnishings

Many of the items on the list were furnishings considered necessary for a Political Agent A mid-ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Agency. to live comfortably and to entertain guests, such as crockery, dinner services, cooking utensils, tables, chairs, book-shelves and rugs and carpets. Some of the more unusual items on Pelly’s furniture list included a piano, a billiard table, a photographic apparatus, a telescope, shades and other apparel for five chandeliers and even the chimney!

There was also a section of the list devoted to framed pictures, which included pictures of Her Majesty Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).

A list of furniture that Alfred Charles Lyall intended to buy from Sir Lewis Pelly. Mss Eur F126/9, f. 23
A list of furniture that Alfred Charles Lyall intended to buy from Sir Lewis Pelly. Mss Eur F126/9, f. 23

Camping Supplies and Provisions

Other essential items were furnishings necessary for travel including camping supplies such as boxes, trunks and food stores. Far from today’s folding furniture, a British official of Pelly’s stature required sofas, an armchair, three different types of table and a portal bathtub. These were also offered to Lyall for sale.

A good store cupboard of food was essential, so tinned fruit and vegetables, sardines and herrings, were offered alongside ox tongues and pigs’ cheek. A vast array of condiments and sauces including anchovy sauce, chilli sauce, salad oil and mushroom catsup (ketchup), provides a hint at Pelly’s palate.

Entertaining

The most intriguing aspect of these lists were the parts devoted to entertaining. The collection of drinking glasses that a resident appears to have required include: ‘Beer tumblers, Champagne classes, Claret glasses, Wine glasses, Liqueur glasses, Soda water glasses and Finger glasses’.

The glasses were used for Pelly’s extensive collection of wine and spirits. His list included fourteen different types of red & white wine amounting to thirty-eight dozen bottles. The liqueurs’ list was equally extensive covering grand chartreuse, vermouth, whisky, cherry brandy and curacao. There was, of course, a copious amount of beer, too.

A separate list was supplied of ‘boxed wines and spirits’ for use in camp which amounted to a further twenty-two dozen wines, three dozen beers and spirits including sherry and port.

While posted to places as far from Britain as India and the Gulf, the climate may have been difficult for Agents and Residents to endure, but at least they could always rely on comfortable furnishings to remind them of home, as well as other, more intoxicative comforts.