We are used to thinking of our own era as the age of global travel, with people able to move around the world swiftly and with ease. Yet the story behind Caroline Purves Home and her family shows the vast distances people were prepared to undertake 150 years ago as they chased new horizons and profitable careers. Caroline’s life and that of her family intersects with that of Portobello’s for a relatively brief period of about 20 years before the surviving members disperse across Britain and beyond. Their fascinating history is marked by international connections, travel, and the reach of the British Empire. Caroline was born in 1830 and baptised in Little Stanmore which is in the London Borough of Harrow. But her story is firmly intertwined with that of India and the East India Company with a family association stretching back to the mid-18th Century.
Life in colonial India was one that would have been familiar to Caroline. Her father Richard Home was a Captain in the East India Service as was his brother John, moving up through the ranks until he was a Major General. All of his siblings followed similar paths, the men entering military service, the women marrying officers. Her mother Francis Fraser was also from an army family, her father being Lt. Colonel Charles Fraser of the Bengal Army. We don’t know if Caroline grew up in India or whether she was sent back to England as many children were to keep them safe from life threatening illnesses such as cholera. The climate would have been harsh with fiercely hot summers in the area the family was stationed. She was part of a large family, 12 children. 8 of them were born in India, 3 died as infants. The 4 boys who reached adulthood all had careers in India, 3 of them joining the Bengal Engineers and 1 the Indian Forest service. Her older brother Duncan Charles Home died in the 1857 Mutiny, and was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for bravery, having tried to breach a gate in Delhi with explosives. Her sister Frances Harriet married a surgeon in Bengal. The other 2 sisters Jane and Augusta remained single, sharing a home in Brighton in later years.
Caroline married Lt Col Robert Warden Fraser of the 45th Bengal Native Infantry in 1852 when she was 22 and he was 46. They married in Meerut, India. The age gap can be seen in other marriages in the family and perhaps reflects a path where men forged their military careers first, attaining income levels that they could then support younger wives and start families with. Their first child Robert Alexander Home Fraser was born in 1853 in Benares, Bengal. Their next child, Marion Louisa Warden Fraser was born in Portobello in 1855 so the family must have moved here during that 2 year period. Robert Warden Fraser is referred to during subsequent censuses and records as retired. They lived at 11 East Brighton Crescent and can be found in the 1861 census there. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious connection for the family with Portobello or even Edinburgh. However several of the graves in the churchyard are for families associated with service in India in the various armies there so that might have formed an association for the Frasers. Caroline and Robert went on to have another 6 children. John Home Biddulph Fraser was born in 1857. Everard Duncan Home Fraser in 1859. The next 2 children are described on their death certificates as premature births, their ages recorded in hours rather than years: Francis Home Fraser died in 1860 aged 10 hours, Hugh McLean Fraser died in 1863 aged 4 hours. Another child followed in 1866, Richard Home Fraser. Then in February 1868 aged 37 years, Caroline gave birth to Edith Caroline Fraser and died as a result of what is recorded as postpartum bleeding following the birth, a condition resulting from the loss of an excessive amount of blood that the body cannot recover from. Edith lived a mere 5 days, her death being recorded as a failure to thrive.
Robert Warden Fraser went on to marry again, 2 years after Caroline’s death, marrying Helen Robertson. She was 32, and he was 64. The 1871 census records them living in 10 Bruntsfield Place with all the surviving children. The eldest Robert AH Fraser is described as working in an insurance office. The household includes a nurse although it is not clear if this is for the youngest child Richard who is 4 years old, or for Robert Warden Fraser himself. He died in 1876 leaving his second wife £300 a year, plus additional yearly payments for the education and care of the children from both marriages. His estate was recorded as being worth £13,898 which in today’s monetary value is a substantial amount.
By 1881, Helen Fraser had moved again and her family now consists only of Marion, and Norman, the son she had with Robert. Marion eventually marries in 1885 at the age of 30. She marries John Lea, a solicitor and by 1901 they have moved to Hale in the Manchester area which is where her husband originates from. Everard Fraser entered the Consular Service in 1880, starting a career that would take him to Shangai where he would eventually become Consul General and knighted. Richard Home Fraser joined the Royal Navy and is recorded as living in St. Germans Cornwall as a Lieutenant in 1911. John Home Biddulph Fraser is the other family member recorded on the gravestone as dying in 1875. He appears in the Fraser household of the 1871 census, but then seems to disappear. A John Home Biddulph or Fraser is recorded as dying at sea on board a ship called the Darra in 1876. Whilst not a complete match, the name is distinctive and the Darra offered passage to Australia and the Far East. The eldest son Robert AH Fraser also disappears after 1871. There are several possible listings of similar names on passenger lists heading for Australia and New Zealand which could explain this but are not conclusive.
It can be tempting when reading a family story such as Caroline’s to fill in gaps with supposition and educated guesses because it raises such fascinating questions. What did it feel like to leave her colonial life behind so soon into her married life, a place of privilege and wealth where her high ranking husband and family connections would have guaranteed her status? She also left behind all her extended family and networks of friends and appeared to have no personal connections with Scotland or Portobello. And how would she have felt when in 1857, the Mutiny swept across Bengal? When we look back we can see clearly the shameful treatment of India through British rule, not least the fortunes that men such as Robert Warden Fraser were able to make through it. But a woman born into that era and society whilst enjoying immense privilege would have had limited power and choices.
Her story also raises questions around issues of marriage and motherhood. Both she and her mother had large families at a time when infant mortality was still high. Her mother had a child every 2 years. Caroline similarly had 8 children in 16 years. And at a time when marriage was necessary for women’s financial security, it is interesting to compare Caroline’s life to that of her 2 youngest sisters who never married, perhaps because their father’s wealth accumulated during his time in India left them with an inherited allowance that meant they could retain their independence. Similarly Helen Fraser never remarried, moving down to England with her son where she lived until her death in 1926.
Of course, these are all questions that have no definite answers and we cannot create fiction out of bare facts. But it is perhaps hardest to resist weaving a story out of the events after Caroline’s death, with Robert Warden Fraser’s second marriage to a bride 30 years younger than himself who moves into a household with his 4 children. 6 years later she is the main beneficiary of his wealthy estate.
Sources from Scotland’s People, Ancestry UK, Findmypast.
Robert Alexander Fraser
Marion Louisa Warden Fraser
Richard Home Fraser
Everard Duncan Home Fraser
Caroline Purves Home
Caroline Purves Home Fraser
Francis Home Fraser
Hugh MacLean Fraser
Edith Caroline Fraser
Robert Warden Fraser
Helen Robertson Fraser
Deaths At Sea register
“John Home Biddulph or Fraser” on the Darra leaving port of Poplar
Caroline Purves Home and Robert Warden Fraser
Marion Louisa Warden Fraser and John Lea
Richard Home Fraser and Leonora Keddle
Robert Warden Fraser and Helen Robertson
Census records used: 1861, 1871, 1881, 1901, 1911
Robert Warden Fraser’s will
Public Family trees for Fraser and Home on Ancestry UK