John Charles Mason Collection of East India Company Papers

Scope and Content

Papers collected by John Charles Mason relating to the marine branch of the East India Company, the Bombay Marine (later the Indian Navy), and the administration of maritime pensions for those serving in India. The papers relating to the Bombay and Bengal Marines, Indian Navy and Bengal Pilot Service date from 1852 to 1882. Papers relating to the Marine Department date from 1787 to 1885. Papers relating to East India Company pensions date from 1824 to 1878 and were probably collected by Mason in the 1870s. Papers relating to the transport of troops in India date from 1833 to 1871. The collection also contains copies and transcripts from published and unpublished sources related to naval practice in India, dating back to 1707.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Charles Mason (1798-1881) was the marine secretary of the colonial Indian government between 1837 and 1867. His career spanned the 1857-1859 Indian uprising as well as the subsequent decline of the East India Company and the transfer of government to direct rule under the British Government. John Charles Mason was the only son of Alexander Way Mason, the chief clerk in the secretary's office of the East India Company's home service. In 1817, after working in a solicitor's firm, he received an appointment in the secretary's office at East India House. After twenty years employed upon confidential duties under the committee of secrecy he was made secretary of the newly established marine branch of the secretary's office in 1837.

As secretary of the marine branch, Mason made a number of improvements to the Indian Navy and the coasts of India were surveyed. When the government of India was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown in 1858, Mason retired from service. The following year he was recalled and appointed secretary of the marine and transport department at East India House, and afterwards at the India Office in Whitehall. In 1865 he was appointed the member to represent the government of India on the committee on the Indian overland troop transport service, in recognition of the evidence he furnished to the select committees on the transport of troops to India. He retired from service in 1867.

Source: G.C. Boase, 'Mason, John Charles (1798-1881)', rev. Katherine Prior, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -'

Sir Charles Wood MP (1800-1885) was president of the East India Company Board of Control from 1852 to 1855 and from 1859 to 1866 was Secretary of State for India. During this period preparations were made for the transfer of the government of India from the East India Company to the Crown. In 1853 he saw through the extension of the East India Company's charter in a new India Act, which continued the joint governance of India. From 1859 to 1866 Wood steered through Parliament Acts to strip the East India Company of its administrative and military powers, and he reorganised the army in India. He was created Viscount Halifax on 21 February 1866.

Source: David Steele, 'Wood, Charles, first Viscount Halifax (1800-1885)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

The East India Company itself was established in 1600 as a joint-stock association of English merchants with exclusive rights to trade to the 'Indies'. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the 'new' East India Company had been transformed from a largely commercial body into a major territorial power in India. In 1784 the British government instituted standing Commissioners (the Board of Control) in London to exercise supervision over the Company's Indian policies. The Acts of Parliament of 1813 and 1833 opened the British trade with the East Indies to all shipping and resulted in the Company's withdrawal from its commercial functions. The Company continued to exercise responsibility, under the supervision of the Board, for the government of India until 1858. With the India Act of 1858 the Company and the Board of Control were replaced by the India Office, which functioned, under the Secretary of State for India, as an executive office of United Kingdom government.

The Bombay Marine was the fighting navy of the East India Company in Asian waters, as opposed to its mercantile marine. It was recognised as the oldest of the Company's armed forces, having been established to protect trade along the West Coast of India. The Bombay Marine was constituted and maintained by the East India Company, subject to the Government of Bombay and the Supreme Government of India. However, the Bombay Marine did not have the constitutional authority to maintain martial law, particularly in relation to the ranking of officers, and the disciplining of desertion. In 1830 the Bombay Marine was renamed the Indian Navy and its remit broadened to all the seas around India. Preparations were made in anticipation of assimilation with the Royal Navy. The Government of India passed a number of Acts in the 1840s and 1850s to develop a new Indian Naval Code, which enabled better administration of the force. The Navy was abolished in 1863, being replaced by a revived, non-combatant, Bombay Marine. In 1877 the revived Bombay Marine and the Bengal Marine were combined to form HM Indian Marine, which became the Royal Indian Marine in 1892 and the Royal Indian Navy in 1935.

The Bengal Pilot Service was responsible for guiding sea-going ships up the Hooghly river from the Sandheads to Calcutta, and vice versa. The Hooghly, owing to its numerous shoals and shifting quicksands, presented special difficulties for navigators.

In 1627 the East India Company established an almshouse at Poplar, for the mercantile marine. The Poplar Pension Fund was originally established to finance the upkeep of the almshouse, but was later extended to provide benefits for disabled or otherwise unfit officers and seamen of the East India Company's Mercantile Marine, their widows and children. Lord Clive's Fund was a legacy, worth £70,000, that was left by a grateful Mir Jafar Ali Khan, who owed his position as Nawab of Bengal to Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. On Jafar Ali's death in 1765, Robert Clive used the legacy to start a pension fund for the Indian Army, with the primary aim of helping disabled soldiers and widows. Payments were ex gratia and recipients were subject to a means test. The last pensioner was admitted around 1886.

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by the John Rylands Library from the bookseller Percy Mordaunt Barnard of Royal Tunbridge Wells in September 1915, along with a collection of printed publications relating to the East India Company (pressmarks R41875-R41927).


Description compiled by Henry Sullivan and Jo Klett, project archivists, with reference to:

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1928 (English MSS 141-169).

Custodial History

Each item has a pressmark ranging from 22377 to 22404; the origin of these marks is not known. Many items have India Office stamps.

Related Material

For other India-related papers in the English Manuscripts sequence of the John Rylands University Library see: