The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857 – Update two years on…

Regular readers of the blog will be familiar with the East India Company at Home Project. Run originally from University of Warwick and latterly from UCL, the project aims to examine the history of the British country house in its imperial and global context.

Here the project Research Fellow Dr Kate Smith reviews the project in its third and final year. And what a three years it has been!

The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857 – Update two years on…

Much has happened since I last wrote about The East India Company at Home project for the Family and Colonialism Research Network in October 2011.

  • The project and project team now reside in the Department of History at UCL.
  • Our website has grown to include twelve case studies written by the core team and project associates and approximately twenty-five more will be added before the project ends in August 2014.
  • 276 project associates participate in the project.
  • Study Days organised at the British Library, University of Edinburgh, North Yorkshire County Record Office and National Museum Wales.
  • Public talks given at various locations from country houses such as Valentines Mansion and Gardens in Ilford to local history societies such as the Coventry History Association.
  • Academic papers given about the project and our research at a range of conferences and seminar groups across the country.
  • A Mid-Project Conference delivered in May 2013 and an end-of-project conference organised for July 2014.
  • Exhibition and public engagement work carried out in collaboration with Osterley Park and House, a National Trust property in Hounslow (see image below) and Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Hounslow .
Osterley Park

Osterley Park and House, image courtesy of Stuart Howat Photography

All this activity has provided little time to pause for thought! Nevertheless, in standing still here (briefly) in this blog post it is possible to begin to understand that this project has already created multiple outcomes and is likely to also have multiple legacies.

Outcomes and Legacies

As part of the core team’s outputs, I am writing two journal articles. One is concerned with the ways in which imperial connections shaped the spaces and material cultures of country houses and how those sites in turn directed broader conceptions of empire. The other article will address the roles that houses played as emotionally-charged sites. It studies imperial women’s letters to demonstrate the different ways in which women wrote of houses to build homes and familial networks during the eighteenth century. The PhD student on our project, Ellen Filor, is writing her dissertation entitled ‘“Home is Everything to Me”: The Global Routes and Imperial Spaces of Border Scots in the East India Company’, which examines the imperial connections that shaped the lives of Scottish families in the Borders.  At the same time, Helen Clifford, Senior Research Fellow on the project, is working with a team at the National Trust to publish a pamphlet on Chinese wallpaper in National Trust houses across England and Wales.

Alongside these more traditional academic outputs the core team and project associates have produced a substantial body of research that is publically available on the project website. The studies cover a range of topics from longings for a farmhouse in Banffshire to ‘Chinese’ staircases in north-east Wales and from emotive handkerchiefs and familial collaboration in Berkshire to the English and Scottish network of houses owned by Lawrence Dundas. In considering the future of the website and the legacy of this research, we have begun to consider the possibility of producing an e-book containing the different studies.

While this body of research is important and substantial, one of the most surprising and exciting aspects of the project has been our methodology. Through our project associate group we have worked closely with a range of different people who are not based in History departments and are often not based in academic institutions at all. We have collaborated with curators, heritage sector professionals, local historians, family historians, archivists and independent scholars to create and disseminate new research. These collaborations have significantly enriched our work. At the same time we have also engaged with audiences who had little prior interest in the East India Company or British material culture. For example, through our exhibition at Osterley Park and House we worked with National Trust volunteers and members of the public to create oral histories and photographic portraits. These portraits have now travelled to Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha Hounslow to appear in another exhibition, engaging further audiences.

Preparing for the exhibition at Osterley, image courtesy of Stuart Howat Photography

Preparing for the exhibition at Osterley, image courtesy of Stuart Howat Photography

Relationships have been key to these collaborations. Slowly, over the last two years we have managed to build relationships with various individuals. These people, although often working in different areas, have shared our interests in the East India Company, empire, objects, houses and families and have generously given their time and expertise. Only by working with people with different areas of knowledge and skill sets have we managed to cover a variety of topics and geographical areas in a short space of time. Through informal conversations and more formal feedback sessions and processes we have learned that the individuals and groups we have worked with have also benefited in terms of gaining skills and knowledge. We hope to capture and reflect on the ways in which these collaborations have worked and the challenges they have revealed through an edited collection.

With only eight months to go until the project’s end we are now busily writing up case studies, reading drafts, giving papers and preparing for the end-of-project conference entitled Objects, Families, Homes: British Material Cultures in Global Contexts. Over two days (11-12 July) an international group of scholars will gather at UCL to discuss themes pertinent to the project including: imperial families, identity, collecting, material culture, houses, homes and public history. The call for papers deadline has passed, but to find further details about registering for the conference please visit our website in March.

We hope to see you there!

Kate Smith

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