Wordsworth's weak link to the East India Company

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

I wrote last week about the National Trust's Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery.  Subsequent to this, I wrote to the Trust about this passage about Allen Bank, a house near Grasmere.

"The poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850) lived for a time at Allan Bank. He and his sister, writer Dorothy Wordsworth (1771–1855), are both known for expressing views in opposition to slavery.

Their brother, John Wordsworth (1772–1805), became Commander of the East India Company ship Earl of Abergavenny in 1801.  He captained two successful voyages to China, in which the family invested.  Wordsworth’s third voyage would have made the family a considerable sum, but the ship sank a few days into the journey, causing the death of John and many others."

I did not get a helpful reply (after a promise, I was fobbed off), but less than three minutes on the internet revealed a readily available account of the sinking of the Earl of Abergavenny (including details of the investments by the Wordsworth family) which was not referenced in the report.

These investments turned out to be money lent to their brother so that he could buy goods in the UK to sell in China; and then to buy goods in China to sell back here.  The link to the East India Company was that this was happening (as was common practice with officers) on a Company ship.

It makes me wonder why the second paragraph (above) was included in the text.  It’s not as though William or Dorothy Wordsworth were key figures in the East India Company's work or had any link to what it got up to in India.  What they invested in was trade between the UK and China hoping for a return on capital.
So what? you might think.  Of course, old money didn't really approve of trade.  Old prejudices, it seems, die hard at the Trust.  I'm giving Wordsworth the last word on his brother, although I note that, replacing "him" by "it" could be how an increasing number of people seem to view the National Trust today:
"We have lost him at a time when we are young enough to have been justified in looking forward to many happy years to be passed in his Society and when we are too old to outgrow the loss”.
* John Wordsworth and the wreck of the Earl of Abergavenny.  Researched, compiled and edited by Ed Cumming.  Honorary Fellow of the Nautical Archaeology Society

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • I should like to correspond with you about this as I am a senior member of Jesus College where we are engaged in discussions about the link between Tobias Rustat and the RAC . He was a quite small investor in the company, his portfolio being extensive. Most of his wealth was spent on furthering university education for the poor (Coleridge came to Jesus on a Rustat scholarship). Yet this has been enough for colleagues to insist that Rustat's memorial in the chapel should be removed. I'm wondering whether you would see parallels between the Wordsworths as investors and Rustat. It's all quite fascinating. If you collide with Ian White my friend and former Master her please give me regards.

    • Thanks for your comments.

      I’ve been following the Jesus / Rustat issue, but only through commentary in the press, so I would not describe myself as in any sense informed on the matter. I am not, of course, really informed on the Wordsworth’s investment question either; what you read in my blog is just about all I know.

      On the face of it, there would not seem to be parallels in the two investments. Rustat was an investor in the RAC, albeit small as you note, whereas the Wordsworths were not investors in the EAC, as far as I know. Thus, the Wordsworths are not caught up in the accusation of making profits out of human misery. Their guilt is associated with seeking returns on their capital, and, of course, being linked to the EAC in doing so.

      There would seem to be good parallels, however, in how Rustat and the Wordsworths are now being viewed by Jesus College and the National Trust, respectively. This is in the sense that one relatively minor aspect of their history which is viewed as unworthy is deemed to outweigh everything else they have done and contributed. In this sense, they are just two examples of a disturbing trend.

      • I explain the significance of this link here in terms of the age-old issue of writers needing money to avoid being dependent on patrons who might cramp their freedom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIUljLIZZ_g