A tale of three cities: Calcutta, Southampton and Florence: the Stibbert family and museum.

Author:Clearkin, Christine
Position:Giles Stibbert - Essay


The city of Florence has an unlikely link with Southampton through the Museo Stibbert (Pls 1, 18). General Giles Stibbert (1734-1809), Lord of the Manor of Portswood in Southampton, made his fortune in India, and his grandson, Frederick Stibbert (1838-1906), devoted his life and the family fortune to amassing a varied collection of costumes, both civilian and military, and high quality handicrafts. He transformed the family's Florentine home on the Hill of Montughi, originally purchased by his mother, into an original house-museum to hold his collection. He lived alongside the objects on display and the rooms were arranged in such a way as to show his taste and learning.

The Museo Stibbert today is a rare example of a 19th-century eclectic home combined with a cabinet of curiosities. It is made up of more than 50 rooms, mostly as Frederick had envisaged them, such as the world-famous European, Islamic and Japanese armouries, the ancient and modern picture gallery, furnishings, textile, china, ceramics and bronze collections, in short all the best in artistic handicrafts. The founder's presence, like that of the villa's other residents of a century ago, can still be felt in these rooms. Frederick, his mother and sister lived the life of a comfortably well off upper-middle-class family. Frederick Stibbert, in his will, wanted to leave his museum to the British Government and, only in the case of rejection, to the city of Florence, with the obligation that it be opened to the public and that it be supported by a foundation with which he endowed it by a considerable sum (for the time). (1) The British Government declined the offer and two years after Frederick's death, in 1908, the Florentine authorities set up the Museo Stibbert.

Giles Stibbert (Pls 2, 3), the founder of the family fortune and grandfather of Frederick, was born on 14 July 1734. (2) In the List of the Officers of the Bengal Army, 1758-1834 he is said to have been a native of Kent, (3) but his family 'pedigree', in the possession of the Museo Stibbert, reveals that his father's family came originally from Norfolk, (4) while his mother's came from Kent. The List goes on to state that he went to sea as a Captain's servant, and in c1756 'enlisted in the ranks of H.C.S. under the patronage of Robert Clive' (1724-74). (5) 1756 was a significant year in India since it saw the fall of Fort William, the East India Company's establishment at Calcutta, to the forces of Siraj ud Daula, Nawab of Bengal, an event that culminated in the infamous 'Black Hole of Calcutta' incident. (6) A combined force of sailors and soldiers, under the command of Admiral Charles Watson (1714-57) and led by Clive, retook the establishment in early 1757. (7) Stibbert was part of that expedition, and in spite of being wounded (8) must have realised that his vocation lay in being a soldier and not a sailor. He went on to serve as an Ensign during the Battle of Plassy (1757) 'and amongst other officers was presented with an honorary Medal by the Nawab Jaffah Ali Khan'. (9)





This was the start of his distinguished army career in the service of the Honourable East India Company. (10) The Company was originally established by Royal Charter, under Queen Elizabeth, in 1600 to trade directly with suppliers of spices and cloth in the East Indies, thereby bypassing the Venetian and Portuguese monopolies on these goods. Other countries, notably the Netherlands and France, also founded trading companies around that time and competition could be fierce. Over a period of years, the Company came to realise the potential of trading in Indian textiles, the main source of which was Bengal, and in due course its principal establishment or factory ceased to be Surat/Bombay to become Calcutta instead. (11) The season in which the Company could trade was determined by the Monsoon winds, so it was necessary to accumulate goods in quayside warehouses during the rainy season in order that they would be ready to load on to ships immediately favourable winds returned. These warehouses, and the trade that supplied them, had to be protected and so the need arose for armed guards, and in time these militias developed into the Company's own army. (12) This Indian Army was distinct from that of the King, i.e. the British Army, in three main respects: the ratio of officers to men of the rank was much lower, so that a Captain might lead a battalion of troops instead of a Colonel; promotion was by strict seniority--who had held that rank longest--rather than by ability, money or influence, and hence the importance attached to backdated promotions; and finally there was no provision for leave or retirement from the service. Pay was regular if not considerable and was augmented by a local allowance, known as batta, and could be supplemented still further by the bazaar fund (bazaars were the principal means of victualling the army), and the collection of local revenues. Prize money was shared among officers and men who had won battles or conquered cities. (13)

Stibbert took to the life as an army officer and he saw plenty of action (1756-93) when the French and British struggled for trading supremacy in India. In 1758 he fought against the French both in Bengal and then in the Deccan (central India) as a Lieutenant of Grenadiers. He took part in the Storm of the strong Fortress of Masulipatam in April 1759 and was 'one of those Officers who first entered the place at the head of the Grenadiers... the whole Garrison and the Marquis De Conflans [the French Commander-in-Chief] being made Prisoners of War'. (14) In 1759 he was promoted to the rank of Captain (Pl 2) (15) and two years later he raised 'a battalion of Native Infantry, which, in 1764, became the first in number'. (16) The battalion saw action at the Battle of Ghiriah and also the Siege of Patna (both 1763), where Stibbert was badly wounded. Officers of native (sepoy) battalions were generally regarded as superior to those of European ones. (17) At the Battle of Buxar in 1764, Stibbert, with a field rank of Major and in command of the left wing of the British front line, under the overall command of Major Hector Munro, was part of a decisive victory against the combined armies of Shah Allum II, Moghul Emperor, Mir Kassim, Nawab of Bengal, and Sujah Dowlah, Nawab of Oudh, the result which was to establish British power in Bengal. (18)

In January 1765, Captain Stibbert, under the command of Major Sir Robert Fletcher, was ordered to lay siege to the hitherto impregnable Moghul fortress of Chunargur. Sir Robert's forces, meanwhile, marched off to lay siege to Allahabad. On 8 February the fortress of Chunargur surrendered to Stibbert's forces after a sustained and bloody battle, and in commemoration of this he was granted permission to have his own coat-of-arms (Pl 4). (19) The fortress was restored to Sujah Dowlah, the Nawab of Oudh, in the peace of that year. (20) According to the citation which accompanied Stibbert's application for a coat of arms, 'Mogul Shah Allum, who had then joined the English Army with his Forces against the Vizier Sujah Dowla, conferred on the said Giles Stibbert the Title of an Omrah [a Grandee of the Mogul court] of the Empire, and honoured him with many Marks of his Favour'. (21)

Official recognition of this feat came when Lord Clive, Governor General, promoted Stibbert to the post and rank of Major in May 1765, backdated to the previous May, for his 'Loyalty, Courage and Good Conduct'. (22) Later that year, in the December, Stibbert married 20-year-old Sophronia Rebecca Wright, the daughter of a clergyman, in Calcutta. (23)

Promotion in the Indian Army was necessarily slow, and it took 11 1/2 years for Stibbert to be raised to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Part of this delay, however, was due to his resignation in 1767 on a point of principle. He was later to publish an account of the episode as a public vindication of his honour. The document opens:

Major Stibbert having been very unjustly superseded in Bengal, without any Cause assigned, and without being able to obtain any Redress, on Application, from the Governor and Council of Fort William, or the Honourable Court of Directors in England, the following Letters, &c. are given as an authentick [sic] State of his Case. (24) The issue was that two officers, Majors Grant and Pemble, apparently brought out from England with Lord Clive in 1765, were appointed to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, (25) in spite of the fact that 'Major Stibbert was at that Time the eldest Major on the Bengal Establishment, and stood the first for Preferment to a higher Rank'. (26) Lord Clive, in his replies to Stibbert's letters of protest, referred him to the Court of Directors, while the Directors referred him to Lord Clive. Stibbert offered his resignation because he felt strongly that both his honour and his record of service had been affronted and also his prospects for promotion damaged. The President and Council of Fort William in Bengal accepted his resignation in May 1767, and wrote, 'May Giles Stibbert, hath upon all occasions maintained the reputation of a Gentleman and a good and gallant Officer in the Service of the Honble United East India Company of England ... and is permitted to resign his last Commission in order to return to Europe'. (27) He returned to England in 1768, where he continued to seek satisfaction.

According to his brief biography in the List of the Officers of the Bengal Army, he was on furlough in England in c1769 to 1772. (28) In fact he did not return to India until 1775. In the interim the first of his three sons, Thomas (Pl 6), was born in May 1771, to be followed by Giles in 1773 and Robert in 1774. (29) All were born in London. Initially the Stibberts lived in rented property at Red Lion Square in the City of London, but later bought a house in Hereford Street...

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