Coombes

The Story of Elizabeth Coombes 1837 – c.1929

Malcolm Billinge 2019

Our study of East Street in Bovey Tracey showed that in 1871 two Indian-born sisters were boarding at Mrs Loveys’ school, Church Hill House.[1] We were interested to find out the story of these girls, and especially why they had been born in India.

In 1862 at Poona in the diocese of Bombay twenty-four year old Elizabeth Coombes married George Moore, a clerk / overseer at an army department in Bombay.[2] Elizabeth had been born in Hennock, a small rural village on higher ground adjoining Bovey Tracey.[3] Her father was an agricultural labourer and by 1841 the family  was living at Warmhill.[4] A marriage to a local working man would have been the more likely development and so Elizabeth’s story raises several interesting questions. How did Elizabeth come to emigrate to India? How long did she and her husband spend there? If they had children, how were they cared for and educated and what is known about their later lives? Did Elizabeth maintain contact with her family in Hennock and did she return there in later life? Were there any grandchildren living well into the twentieth century? And, in the final analysis was Elizabeth’s decision to sail to India worthwhile?

Elizabeth’s family background

Elizabeth had three brothers, and their father Robert was a labourer. Their mother was née Mary Cole who later worked locally as a laundress.[5]

In 1851 her eight-year old brother Thomas was still living with his parents, whereas eleven-year old William was a servant in a farming family in nearby Christow. John aged fifteen and Elizabeth aged thirteen were living at the Hennock vicarage with the curate, his wife and their two-year old daughter. John was a servant and Elizabeth a nursemaid.[6] Who would guess that she would be the one to move to a distant land?

In 1861 while Elizabeth was preparing to marry George Moore in India her brother William was a carpenter and her brother Thomas was apprenticed to a blacksmith – both were still living in the traditional rural community of Hennock. Her older brother John was a wheelwright in Kingsteignton.7i]

Elizabeth in India

It is not known whether or not Elizabeth met her future husband, George Moore, in England prior to their wedding. Possibly not as George hailed from rural mid-Ireland and it is difficult to see how a romance in or near Hennock could have materialised.

It is possible that Elizabeth went out to India with the so-called ‘Fishing Fleet’ and met George Moore in Bombay.[8]   

Elizabeth does not feature on the 1861 census presumably because she had by then sailed to India, either in her late teens or early twenties. The Suez Canal did not open until 1869 and although there was a somewhat shorter ‘overland route’ to India, Elizabeth would probably have had to endure the many weeks at sea rounding the Cape of Good Hope, possibly in a sailing ship, although the P and O steamship Hindostan had been operating between London and Bombay from at least 1856.[9]

Elizabeth’s move to India was at a momentous time with the Indian Mutiny taking place during 1857 and 1858. 

A Benefactor for Elizabeth?

What prompted Elizabeth to leave her home in Hennock for a new life in India is not known, nor are the circumstances under which the decision was taken, nor the wherewithal for the necessary financial commitment. It does seem likely, that members of a local family called Warren were involved in this development.

In 1861 Elizabeth’s parents and two of her brothers were living at Hazelwood cottage, adjoining Hazelwood House in Hennock.[10] Robert’s occupation was given as ‘Hind’ which is a medieval term for an agricultural worker, but one living in close proximity to the farm or the squire’s residence and therefore with a status above that of a general agricultural labourer. Hazelwood House was occupied by two unmarried sisters of private means – Charlotte and Selina Warren. These ladies were not of local stock but were members of a prestigious family from Edmonton in Middlesex.[11]

Fast-forwarding twenty years, and we can see the India connection. In 1881 Charlotte and Selina were living with their brother Frederick Warren in Kensington whereas Hazelwood House was occupied by a governess, two servants and three young children who had all been born in India. Frederick Warren aged eight, Elizabeth Warren seven and Leonard Warren three who were the children of George and Barbara Warren, with George being a nephew of Charlotte and Selina Warren.[12]

George Warren had married Barbara Gibbon at Fort William, Bengal in 1872.[13] George was described as a ‘zeminder’ – a large land owner and rent collector and he lived at Gorakhpur. In 1911 George described himself as a retired Indian estate manager.[14]

George’s wife Barbara Gibbon was born in Gorakhpur and her father Hugh was an indigo planter there.[15] Hugh died at the age of thirty-two in 1844 only three years after the birth of his daughter Barbara.[16]

Following George and Barbara’s wedding in 1872 they had three children born Gorakhpur in 1872, 1873 and 1878 and it is these three children who were living in Hennock, without their parents or even their aunts Charlotte or Selina Warren, at the time of the 1881 census.

It would appear that George Warren, in marrying Barbara Gibbon, became the manager of her family’s indigo estate at Gorakhpur.

The supposition is that Charlotte and Selina Warren who employed Elizabeth’s father, Robert Coombes as their Hind in some way impressed Elizabeth with their account of the life of their nephew George Warren in India and an arrangement was made for Elizabeth to emigrate there some time before the 1861 census.

The care of children born to British parents in India

The care and education of children born to British citizens who had made a life for themselves under the British Raj in India was an unenviable but unavoidable issue. In 1881 the three very young children of George and Barbara Warren were living in a fine house in Hennock but without their parents, who were probably in India, or their aunts who were living in Kensington Square. This appears to have been only a temporary arrangement because a fourth child, Hugh was born at Hennock during the last quarter of 1881.[17]  Further details of the experiences of these four children is beyond the scope of this article only to say that the Warren family was living in England by the time of the 1891 census.[18] Children separated from their parents in India is a recurring theme.

The children of Elizabeth and George Moore

Elizabeth Coombes and George Moore had three children who were born at Satara, south of Bombay between 1863 and 1866 and two more at Poona in 1872 and 1878.[19] It is likely that the five children remained with their parents in India but a development is recorded in the 1881 census. Most British children born in India were educated in India but if parents could afford it their children might be ‘sent home’ to spend at least some time receiving an ‘English education.’ Elizabeth and George are unlikely to have been at all well-off but in 1881 their three oldest children were in England with Maud and Georgiana attending Mrs Loveys’ School in Bovey Tracey.

Mrs Loveys’ school at Church Hill House, East Street, Bovey Tracey              

Church Hill House East Street Bovey Tracey. Frances Billinge 2018.

Thomas Loveys was a land agent working for Alexander Adair Esq. of Colehayes on the edge of Bovey Tracey and his wife Susan was from the 1860s described as a schoolmistress.[20] In 1871 there were two girls from nearby parishes living with the Loveys at Church Hill House and in 1881 there were five girls aged between twelve and seventeen. Three of these were from Christow and Torquay but Maud and Georgiana Moore were from India. Maud was seventeen and Georgiana fourteen. Mrs Susan Loveys was the schoolmistress and her daughter Anna a governess.

The girls’ mother, Elizabeth had presumably chosen this very small educational setting because there was a link with the Loveys’ family on her mother’s side and it was only a few miles away from her parents’ home in Hennock.[21]

Many small schools were established in the mid-nineteenth century and they were used by the less well-off families living in India who could not afford public schools such as Haileybury or Cheltenham College. The small High School for Girls in Newton Abbot provided ‘Arrangements for Indian children’ although in 1901 only one of the secondary-school aged pupils had been born in India.[22]

Maud and Georgiana’s sixteen-year old brother Charles was, in 1881 a boarder at St. James’ Grammar School, a small school for boys in West Teignmouth. Charles was one of twelve borders but the only one born in India, nearly all of the others being from Devon or neighbouring counties.[23] Charles later joined the army and undertook service in Malta (1888-1890) and South Africa (1899-1903).[24]

For young teenagers like Maud, Georgiana and Charles, having to live so far away from their parents and having to make friends with pupils who did not share their foreign birth must have been a considerable challenge – but at least, unlike the three Warren children who were living at Hennock, separation for the Moore children appears to have taken place a good deal later in their childhood.

Family developments

In 1881, with their three oldest children at school in England, it would appear that Elizabeth and George remained in India with nine-year old Edith and three-year old William. Elsie May, their sixth child was born in 1884 with Elizabeth then forty-six and George a Lieutenant Assistant Engineer.[25]

By 1891 George described himself as a retired army captain – late of the Public Works Department, Bombay and he was living in Newton Abbot with Elizabeth, Edith eighteen and Elsie six. Their son Charles was in the army but no record has been found for their younger son William. With the family was their married daughter Georgiana Hewett, aged twenty-four and also their three-year old grand-daughter Gwendoline Tucker.[26]

George and Elizabeth later moved to London where he died in 1920 and she probably died in Woolwich in 1928.[27] Their younger daughters Edith and Elsie Moore did not marry. Edith became a hospital-trained nurse and Elsie a dancing teacher, both living in London in their later years.[28]

Maud and Georgiana as marriageable young ladies

Maud and Georgiana Moore, having gained some education at Mrs Loveys’ school in Bovey Tracey, did what many young ladies in their position did and that was to return to India in order to join their parents, but more importantly to seek husbands who were very often considerably older than themselves.[29]

In 1885 Georgiana, aged nineteen married Augustus Hewett, aged thirty-two at Belgaum, near Bombay. Augustus was an army surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps and their marriage was witnessed by her parents.[30] Elizabeth and George who were soon to return to the UK.[31]

One year later Maud, twenty-four married William Tucker, thirty-eight, also at Belgaum with her father George but not her mother Elizabeth as a witness on this occasion.[32]

William Tucker was described as a chemist and also a merchant and in all probability he and Augustus were associates if not friends. Augustus, as well as being a Member (later fellow) of the Royal College of Surgeons was also a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries and his army medical department would have required a continual importation of drugs especially in the light of the many diseases that afflicted and killed more servicemen than the sporadic fighting ever did.[33]

Maud and Georgiana can be seen to have ‘married well’. Maud’s husband William was born in Somerset but Georgiana’s husband Augustus had been born, like herself in India and his father was a Major-General in the Army of India.

Maud and Georgiana’s married life

In 1891 Georgiana Hewett, aged twenty-four was living/staying with her parents in Newton Abbot and in 1901 she was a lady’s companion in West Teignmouth. Her husband Augustus’ whereabouts are difficult to trace as he was initially in India, stationed in Sunderland in 1888, became a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1900 and is missing from the 1901 census, possibly because his services were required in the Boer War.Augustus retired from the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1903 but in 1911 whereas Georgiana was living with her parents in Chelsea, Augustus was living with a thirty-seven year old housekeeper at The Wilderness, Hampton Hill, Middlesex.[34] Georgiana and Augustus lived apart from thereon and they do not appear to have had children. Augustus died at Staines in 1935 aged eighty-two and Georgiana in 1947 aged eighty-one.[35]

Maud and William Tucker had five children two of whom were born in India, Gwendoline in 1887 and Wilfred in 1891. Ella was born in Newton Abbot between-times in 1888 and it was there in 1891 that three-year old Gwendoline Tucker was living, not with her parents but with her grandparents Elizabeth and George Moore.[36] It would appear that Maud moved between India and England in the later 1880s but for some reason Gwendoline was ‘left behind’ at a very tender age whilst her mother took the infant Ella back to India in time to give birth to Wilfred in Bombay in 1891. This apparent ‘abandonment’ of Gwendoline was reminiscent of that of Leslie Warren, the three-year old member of the Warren sibling trio who were ‘living alone’ in Hennock in 1881.[37]

The Tucker family moved back to Dartford, England and in 1894 Ella, aged six died there.[38] Two more children were born, Harold in 1895 and Leslie in 1899.[39] William Tucker then worked as a chemist and druggist but his wife Maud died in 1912 at the age of forty-nine.[40] William died in 1924 aged seventy-nine. Three of the Tucker sons signed up for the army and two fought in WW1 They all appear to have survived the war but Leslie was discharged as being medically unfit and Harold died of an unknown cause in 1918.[41]

Elizabeth and George Moore’s progeny

Elizabeth and George had six children but only Maud had children of her own. Maud and William Tucker had five children. Gwendoline was born in 1887 but died in 1918. Ella was born in 1888 but died in 1894. Harold was married in January 1918 but died in April of that year. Leslie was discharged from the army in 1918 on sick grounds before serving abroad but the next year he married Violet Wood and the following year Patricia Finella Tucker was born near Birkenhead. Patricia died in 2000 in Flintshire aged eighty. Patricia Tucker is the sole great-grandchild of Elizabeth Coombes so far identified but Maud and William’s third son Wilfred married Josephine Louise Murlis Green at Bromley in 1918 and it is possible they also had children.[42]

Social Elevation

Elizabeth Coombes came from a humble social background as in all probability did her Irish husband George Moore. However George, in becoming an army captain in charge of a public works department would probably be considered to have been upper working-class by the time of his retirement. Their daughters Maud and Georgiana who received their education in Bovey Tracey, however both married professional, middle-class men with William Tucker being a chemist and Augustus Hewett an army surgeon.

Some indication of social elevation may be gleaned from considering the estates upon death of Maud and Georgiana – with values estimated for present times.

When Georgiana’s husband Augustus Hewett died in 1935 his estate was £899,000. However, Georgiana and Augustus were living apart and it was his housekeeper who acted for probate.[43]

Georgiana died in 1947 and her estate was £53,000. She used the Public Trustee in her probate and the recipients of her estate are not known.[44]

Maud’s husband William Tucker left £40,000 in 1924 with probate managed by their sons Wilfred and Leslie Tucker.[45] Georgiana and Maud therefore had modest wealth and when we consider the occupations of Maud’s sons, Wilfred an agent and Leslie a manager then we can see that Elizabeth Moore’s children and grandchildren had risen into the lower middle-class social stratum.

Georgiana’s younger sister Edith Moore died in 1957 and her estate was £19,000 with probate to her nephew Leslie Tucker. Edith was an unmarried nurse and again, her occupation and modest estate indicate a lower middle-class family social status. Finally, their brother Charles, after his army service, worked as a draughtsman surveyor which would elevate him to a middle-class social position.[46]

Maintaining family contacts

With three of Elizabeth Moore’s teenage children at school in Bovey Tracey and West Teignmouth in 1881 there would have been plenty of opportunities for contact between them and their grandparents in Hennock and probably Elizabeth herself (and George?) would have returned to England on occasions during these years. Living in Hennock in 1881 were Robert and Mary Coombes, the children’s grandparents and also their uncle Thomas, his wife from Bovey Tracey and their five children aged between one and thirteen.

Ten years later Elizabeth, aged fifty-three and her husband George, fifty-eight were living at 24 St Leonard’s Terrace, Wolborough, Newton Abbot and there were still many members of the extended Coombes’ family living in Hennock including Elizabeth’s brother Thomas, an agricultural labourer who was at home with his wife and the five younger of their eight children.

Come the turn of the century Elizabeth and George Moore had moved, first to Chelsea and then to Woolwich and we are left to wonder to what extent Elizabeth was able to keep in touch with her family roots in Hennock. Some degree of continuing contact is, however indicated when Elizabeth’s son Charles died at the age of seventy-nine. Although he too had been living in Woolwich he died in Newton Abbot at 88 St Leonard’s Road, Wolborough and his sister Edith the unmarried nurse, was present at his death.[47]

Whether or not Elizabeth’s husband George was able to maintain contact with his family back in Ireland is not known and records are difficult to obtain. One pleasant observation is that when his daughter Maud and her husband William Tucker reared their family two of their sons, Wilfred and Leslie were given their maternal grandfather’s surname as their middle names – Wilfred Moore Tucker and Leslie Moore Tucker. In this way, if in no other the Irish family background was not forgotten.


[1] 1871 Census The National Archives

[2] British India Office Ecclesiastical Returns www.findmypast.co.uk

[3] Hennock Baptism Register 1837 Devon Record Office, as Elizabeth Anne Coombe.

[4] 1841 Census The National Archives

[5] Census and marriage record

6i] 1851 Census

[7] 1861 Census The National Archives

[8] Anne de Courcy. 2012, The Fishing Fleet- Husband Hunting in the Raj (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

[9] Homeward Mail from India Chinas and the East 1 January 1857, p. 22.

[10] 1861 Census

[11] The brother of the Warren sisters was British Ambassador in Munich, The Bristol Times and Mirror, 19 June 1841, p4.

[12] 1881 Census

[13] British India Office Ecclesiastical returns – FMP

[14] 1911 Census

[15] 1911 census

[16] British India Office Wills and Administrations – FMP

[17] Hugh Gibbon N. Warren birth registered Oct/Nov/Dec 1881 www.freeebmd.org

[18] 1891 census

[19] British India Office Births – FMP; 1891 census; 1911 census

[20] 1861 census

21i] 1846 Joseph Cole married Sarah Loveys in Hennock parish register

[22] 1901 census

[23] 1881 census

[24] British Army Service Record www.findmypast

[25] 1891, 1901, 1911 census

[26] 1891 census

[27] www.freebmd.org.uk

[28] 1938 Electoral Register

[29] Margaret MacMillan, 1988. Women of the Raj (London, Thames and Hudson)

[30] British India Ecclesiastical Returns – FMP

[31] 1891 census

[32] British India Ecclesiastical Returns – FMP

[33] Medical Register 1913 www.findmypast

[34] 1911 census

[35] England & Wales, national Probate calendar – Ancestry

[36] 1891 census

[37] 1881 census

[38] www.freebmd.org.uk

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] www.ancestry.co.uk

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., Probate.

[44] England & wales National probate Calendar – Ancestry

[45] England & wales Deaths – FMP

[46] British Army Service Records – FMP

[47] 1891 Census;  England & wales Civil Registration Death Index; www.ancestry.co.uk