Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Cunningham connection with North East India

Previously I have written about Alice's extraordinary connection with North East India and Bhutan specifically. Knowing that I also have deep connections with India through both my Grandfather, Sir Charles Banks Cunningham, and through my Grandmother, Lady Grace Cunningham, I asked my brother John to let me have a bit of the detailed history. I'm sure that without John our family history would have been lost long ago, so I thank him for the following history.

My Grandmother, Lady Grace Cunningham, was born Grace Macnish, the eldest of four sisters. Her father was Hugh Macnish who in turn was the youngest of five siblings. Hugh's elder brother Neil (1836-1905) was a merchant in Glasgow becoming a partner in LJ Cochrane & Co and accumulated a considerable fortune. He married Agnes Garroway who's father was a doctor in Glasgow. Tragically she and their son died in childbirth and Hugh died a widower in 1905. He left his fortune to his three sisters and his four nieces, Grace, Florence (known as Abo), Margaret and Christina (known as Chota).

Hugh Macnish was born on 7th September 1841 in Campbeltown, Argyll. At the age of 23 he went to Australia with his friend Neil Mackinnon to make their fortunes. Neil was the errant nephew of William Mackinnon who at the time was in the process of building a trading empire that would become Inchcape Group. In 1856 he had established, with partners, the British India Steam Navigation Company which would become one of the great shipping companies of the world. By 1864 Sir William had persuaded his nephew to move to India and to accept a position in his business. In his letter to his nephew he wrote "I don't know what to advise with regards to Hugh. I have thorough confidence in his integrity and will be glad if we can give him a lift up". Neil and Hugh left Australia and travelled to India under the sponsorship of Sir William.

Hugh became involved in the rapidly growing tea planting industry in Assam where Sir William had estates. In 1875 he was manager of the Dinjan Tea Estate and the following year became manager of the Greenwood tea Garden in Dibrugarh, Assam. This was a 540 acre tea garden owned by Macneil & Co and provided challenging living conditions for planters and their families. Malaria and cholera were rife and infant mortality very high. Macneil & Co had been set up by two of Sir William's nephews, Duncan Macneil and John Mackinnon in 1872. They steadily diversified their interests into coal mining, tea gardens, railways and river transport. They looked to Campbeltown for reliable managers for their businesses and Hugh was an ideal fit. Hugh worked for them for over 20 years and built a significant shareholding in the business, retiring to Campbeltown in 1895. By 1915 all the partners of Macneil & Co had retired and given the close family connections it was not surprising that Inchcape took over the partnership. Given their shareholding the four sisters interests in Incpape were represented by Grace's husband Sir Charles Banks Cunningham taking a seat on the Inchcape Board.

Hugh's four daughters all survived to a grand old age. My grandmother Grace and my great aunts Florence, Margaret Mary Summer and Christina Katherine. Only Grace was born in Assam and returned to Campbeltown in 1889, Hugh returning in 1895. By the time my great grandmother died in 1936 her three daughters were all married and living in India. Grace was married to Charle Banks Cunningham Inspector General of Police in Madras, Florence was married to Francis Stewart a District Magistrate in Bellary. Margaret was married to Neil Macmichael who held judicial appointments throughout India and Christina was married to Alexander MacEwan, Secretary to the Board of Revenue in Madras.

I will now try and get in touch with the Greenwood tea garden to arrange a visit when we arrive at Guwahati and do some more digging into the Cunningham connections with north eats India.

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