Stories from the Parish Registers: Maria Sophia Rose, from Bengal to Ifield

By Alice Millard, Research Assistant

Following on from the blog on Charles Douglass and Ann Glanville, published in October 2021, this blog explores the story behind another entry in the parish registers. This time, we are looking into the life of Maria Sophia Rose; a Bengali woman who, at a young age, was brought to Britain by Colonel James Capper of the British East India Company and lived in Ifield.

Please note that some of the language used in the original parish records includes offensive and insensitive terminology. The inclusion of these terms is not an endorsement of such language, but are there to authentically represent the original document.


During a search of the parish register transcripts, I came across an entry in the Ifield burial register which showed that a woman called Maria Sophia Rose was laid to rest on 13 May 1847, aged 86. Accompanying Maria’s burial entry was a small note describing her as “a woman of colour”.

Maria’s entry in the Ifield burial register, 18 May 1847 (Par 109/1/5/1).

Throughout my search of the transcriptions, I had not come across this surprisingly modern use of terminology and was curious about Maria’s heritage and how she came to live in Ifield. As the burial entry gives her age at death as 86 this meant that she was born around 1761. A quick search of the baptism records on Ancestry brought up many entries, but I found one that I believed to be Maria’s:

Baptism entry of Maria Sophia Rose, aged 12 years old, in the Westminster parish register, 18 January 1776. London Metropolitan Archives.

Maria’s baptism entry describes her as a “Negro Girl about 12 Years old”. This would make her year of birth c1764. Despite the discrepancy of three years between her age on the baptism entry and the burial entry, I strongly suspected this was the same Maria. The description given of her ethnicity is likely to be a misnomer. The archaic term “Negro” was commonly ascribed to individuals from Africa and is thought to have come from the Spanish word for black. In this instance, it is possible that the vicar settled upon this word without much thought for Maria’s true birthplace. At the time, the average British person’s vocabulary for, or awareness of, other ethnicities was extremely limited.

A page from the Sussex Archaeological Society volume number twenty two showing Maria's monumental inscription transcription.

In Memory

of

MARIA SOPHIA ROSE

a Hindoo native of Bengal

In the East Indies.

Brought to this country at about

Ten years of age

By Colonel James Capper

And from that time domesticated

In the family of his brother

Richard Capper Esq.

Of Bushey

In the County of Hertford

And for the last thirty years

A resident in this Parish

From her attachment to

Mrs Elizabeth Lewin

Daughter of the said

Richard Capper

Inscription transcribed in Sussex Archaeological Society vol. 22



Maria’s memorial inscription (M.I.) gives us an insight into her life and how she came to be in England; a relatively rare biographical record for many people, not just for early diaspora. The M.I. tells us that Maria was a “Hindoo native of Bengal”, a region of India. Maria was at least no longer a practising Hindu as she had been baptised under the Church of England. However, many Bengalis were, and still are, Hindus. It is therefore likely the inscriber conflated her ethnicity and her religion; reflecting the cultural prevalence of Hinduism in Bengal, and more widely across India.

The M.I. tells us that Maria was brought to England by Colonel James Capper, who was an army officer in the British East India Company (BEIC). The BEIC was founded in 1600 in order to trade with countries in the Indian Ocean. It quickly became a monopoly and it accounted for half of the world’s trade. You can read more about the BEIC on Wikipedia and discover the BEIC archives at the British Library.

James married Mary Johnson in London in 1772. Two of their daughters, Eliza and Louisa, were baptised at the BEIC’s Fort St. George in Madras, India. The BEIC’s activities in India were, by this time, extensive; Bengal having been conquered in 1757.

We do not know how, why and when Maria came to be associated with James. Looking to her M.I., the use of the word “domesticated” to describe her early life in England feels ambiguous, but suggests an oppressive effort to adapt Maria to life in England. It is possible that she was one of the hundreds of thousands of Indian people who were exploited into indentured service and slavery during Britain’s colonial rule in India. Yet, despite having been brought to England by James around 1774, Maria’s M.I. tells us that she joined the household of his brother Richard Capper.

Richard Capper was a senior barrister of Lincolns Inn, London, but lived in Bushey Hall, Hertfordshire for much of his life. We can assume that Maria lived in Bushey Hall at some point, although it is also possible she resided in a London property; Richard had several London residences in his life, including a property in Great Ormond Street and John Street, both in Holborn, and in Lindsey Row, Chelsea.

Bushey Hall in The Historical Antiques of Hertfordshire by Sir Henry Chauncy, 1700

At some point during the 1810s, Maria moved to Ifield. As her M.I. states, she was ‘attached’ to Elizabeth Lewin nee Capper, the third daughter of Richard Capper. Richard’s wife Mary had died in 1810 and Maria became part of the household of Elizabeth, who married Rev. Spencer James Lewin (1766-1842). Spencer was born at Ifield and became the Vicar of Ifield for 52 years. Whilst it is likely that Maria joined Elizabeth’s household as a servant, by the 1841 census Maria was living on independent means and separately from the Lewins. Perhaps, Maria received a pension from the family, or was left a sum of money in a will.

Maria Rose as she appears on the 1841 census (bottom entry)

Maria’s life in Bengal, London, Hertfordshire and Ifield will remain obscured. But, the existence of her memorial inscription testifies to the impact she had upon the Capper and Lewin families, who chose to mark her death with a permanent tribute.


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5 thoughts on “Stories from the Parish Registers: Maria Sophia Rose, from Bengal to Ifield

  1. Hi I ‘m a 5 x g grandson of Richard & Mary (Ord) Capper of Bushey Manor. Thanks you for your published research and I can provide more information and correct some errors.
    Maria Sophia Rose must have accompanied in 1772 Colonel James Capper & his wife Mary (nee Johnson married 1772 presumably in India) to England as this is where their first daughter Marianne was born in 1773, probably @ Bushey where they stayed with brother Richard & family (Capper Family tree details this). Colonel James & Marry Capper then returned to Fort St George, Madras where 2 other daughters were born Elizabeth Henrietta 1775 and Louisa 1776.

    On the basis that Maria Sophia Rose was baptised 18/1/1776 then this would have been arranged by brother Richard & Mary Capper, given Maria was in their household, which included 6 children, Mary (1760), Isabella (1762), Elizabeth (1763), Eleanor (1765), Frances (1766) and Robert (1767). So comments
    a) What specific parish in Westminister, was Maria baptised? There are 38 listed.

    As Richard was a long term Barrister of Lincoln’s Inn, the baptism may have been St Clements Dane. Richard had various London residences in 1760s Great Ormond St, Holborn, 1770 @ John St, Holborn and died in 1800 at Lindsey Row, Chelsea. Being Landed Gentry, he had inherited 3 Manors all close together in Hertfordshire, with the major one Bushey Manor (where now a school is) which Manor house was demolished early C20th and is not Bushey Hall (bear in mind centuries ago the area was all Bushey Manor but not in Richard Capper’s time (1730-1800). Richard’s wife Mary died in 1810 and Maria Sophia Rose then was in the household of Richard & Mary’s 3rd daughter Elizabeth who married Rev Spencer James Lewin (1766-1842) born at Ifield and who was the Vicar and Patron of Ifield for 52 years.

    With Elizabeth (Capper) Lewin dying in 1845 and buried at St Margarets, Ifield then it is presumed the Lewins had bequeathed Maria funds to live independently in the Ifield Vicarage for her 2 remaining years of her life.

    My ancestral line is via Richard & Mary (Ord) Capper’s 2nd daughter Isabella (b 1762), who baptised her youngest son, Richard James Nixon (1799-1837 died an army Captain at Madras, India) after her father and uncle Col James Capper. This Capper & Ord family were very progressive and religious, with Isabella (Capper) Nixon (1762-1829) daughter Isabella Barbara Nixon (1798-1843) marrying Rev. Thomas Binney (1798-1874) involved in slave abolition with the Earl of Shrewsbury.

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    1. Hello Shane,

      Thank you very much indeed for your reply to our blog post on Maria. It’s fascinating to hear of these corrections and how Maria came to be in Ifield; thank you for taking the time to write to us. I can also confirm that Maria was baptised in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster.

      Very best wishes,
      Alice – WSRO

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  2. Thanks Alice for your prompt response. 2nd query do you know where in London James Capper & Mary Johnson married in 1772? All I know is that her father was a James Johnson of Hereford. Regards Shane

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