Questions raised over Croydon’s links with controversial East India Company

By Tara O’Connor, Local Democracy Reporter

Debates around place names linked to Britain’s colonial past have been sparked by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement this year.

Across the country calls are being made for statues and monuments to be reviewed for their links with slavery and the British Empire.

Conversations around Croydon’s link to this history have also begun.

Between 1809 and 1861 the East India Military College was based in Addiscombe. It was where soldiers trained for the company’s army in India.

At the height of its rule in India, the East India Company had a private army of about 260,000, twice the size of the British Army, and came to rule large areas of India.

It was formed as a trading company in the 1600s and started life getting involved in the highly profitable spice trade.

Croydon honours famous figures in the East India Company through its road names including Elgin, Havelock, Outram and Canning roads. All fall within the East India Estate Conservation Area, which was created in 2007.

To shine a light on the history of street names in the area, Addiscombe East councillor Jeet Bains held an event last month where locals could discuss the history.

He said that the group agreed that more education on England’s history with slave ownership was needed.

Cllr Bains said: “I’ve been in this area for 31 years and I never really thought about it.

“I think there are some people who will baulk at the idea of talking about it, it is almost ‘how dare you’. I am of the view that we should talk about what things are named in the public realm.

“There are a lot of reasons things get named but there is a lot of unspoken things wrapped up in it, like people’s sense of personal identity

“I think if we don’t talk about it the only avenue left is for people to get angry.”

Mira Armour is chairwoman of the local residents’ association, which was instrumental in the creation of a conservation area.

The Havelock Road resident of 20 years said: “The conservation area being designated was very important for the reason that we needed protection from ruthless developers.

“Since it was designated, we didn’t have much input into the name, it was just given because of the historic connections.

“I think it is a bit unfortunate that the name was chosen, we know that the East India Company has been controversial and had a negative impact in history.

“Our intention wasn’t to celebrate the East India Company, it was to protect the history and Victorian architecture of the area.”

She, like Cllr Bains, thinks changing the name of the conservation area would be easier than changing any of the road names.

Ms Armour said that naming the conservation area after Addiscombe Place, the central building of the military training seminary, would be a good option.

Jon Wilson, a professor of modern history at King’s College London, told us about the history of the controversial company in Croydon.

He said: “It was mainly in the early 1800s, army engineers, gunners and artillery officers were trained to fight wars and build in India.

“When the rebellion of 1857 happened, it was abolished, the academy was closed. The same army officers were trained in ordinary army academies, like in Woolwich.

“The land where it was situated was sold and new streets were built in the late 1800s.

“What is interesting is the names of the figures have very little to do with the history of the East India Company in Croydon. They were named after the heroes of 1857, those who lost their lives.

“There is nothing particularly significant to Croydon about the names Elgin and Havelock.”

The professor said that he thinks more education about all aspects of British history is good and thinks it is important to discuss names which are in the public realm.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future, a non-partisan think-tank that works on identity issues.

He spoke at the meeting organised by Cllr Bains and thinks that conversations about the history of the British Empire should happen locally.

“Croydon is linked to a very big part of the story of the British Empire in India,” said Mr Katwala.

“I think everybody knows that there was a British Empire, but most people won’t really know about what the East India Company was about, it is a really interesting part of the story.

“The military academy was a company, it would be like Amazon or Starbucks having an army.

“It was a private company that ended up ruling India. The 1857 uprising was a massive turning point, the British government took the view that if there was an empire the government had to be in charge of it.”

But he did not think it was yet time for discussion about changing names.

He added: “I think it is too early to say, ‘should we start changing names?’ if people don’t even have the information.

“We can’t change what happened in the past but we are all responsible for how we live with that past.

“Our experience is that people want the conversation, the story of empire is massive but when we can start from a local link we can open up the larger story.”

Pictured top: Cadets from Addiscombe Military Seminary, photographed c1858. The four cadets on the seat, from left. are Augustus B. Portman, George E. Hancock, Farquhar D. MacKinnon, John F and Cookesley

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