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The Powerful English Barber of Lucknow

Credits : Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones

Volume: 12, No: 06 ; June-2018

This is all about the relationship of an English Barber George Harris Derusett, with the Nawab. It suggest that the barber the real power behind the king, a companion, the king s’ food taster, his wine supplier and his agent! The details suggest the author dispelled whatever doubts there were about the annexation of Avadh. Here the author, Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones MBE, a well know historian and researcher unveils the dramatic rise and fall of Lucknow’s English barber. This is a book extract from Dr Rosie Llewellyn- Jones’ book ‘Engaging scoundrels true tales of Lucknow’.


The king had admitted quite frankly that he loved the English, and wanted as many English people around him as possible. He had taken at least one Anglo-Indian woman into his harem and he appeared quite frequently, as his grandfather Saadat Ali Khan, in English attire. But the company chose not to capitalise on the king’s anglophilia. Instead they declared that his attachment was to the wrong kind of English person, a view that seemed to them fully borne out by subsequent events.

The barber quickly became notorious. His ill-fame spread beyond Avadh and he was satirized by the press. Col John Low, the British Resident, reported as his painful duty’ that at palace supers, guest ‘have at several times seen His Majesty dancing country dance as the partner of Mr. Derusett! The latter dressed after some grotesque masquerade fashion, and His Majesty attired in the dress of a European lady’ There were, Low hinted darkly ‘still more gross, indeed more shocking indecencies’.

In August 1836 the Agra Ukhbar (sic) reported ‘the barber, Dersuett, has retired from the service of the King talking with him His Majesties deep regret, and several lacs of rupees. The rest of the reptile tribe, the Jeweler, the coachman, etc, will migrate when they have nothing left to consume’.

Derusett disappeared, a mythic figure, but he had played his part. The justification for annexation, if the British needed one, was an odd little postscript in 1847, when he met the Magistrate of  Fatehpur, Mr. Sherer and ‘declared that [Knighton’s] book was a pure romance, but the [Derusett] was too interested a party to be received as an impartial critic’.

Early in 1994, I learned that relatives of George Derusett were living in England and Canada, with some precious family possessions, including the barber’s Cash Book for the crucial years of 1835-36 when he was at the height of his powers. There was also as exquisite court suit of canary yellow silk, brocaded with silver work, made for his young son, suddenly George stepped out of the pages of history and became a real person, a man who had returned to England with the money got in Lucknow who speculated unwisely in a distillery and the new railway companies, and who was declared bankrupt in 1854. A flattering contemporary portrait of him exists with his second family, in which he is playing as accordion. His ginger curls frame a well-rounded, shrew face, and he wears a waistcoat of Indian fabric over his ample stomach.

By the time he arrived in Calcutta in the late 1820s, George was a trained hairdresser, who likes many coiffeurs, felt a French name would suit him better, and he became Dersuett. He worked at his trade, but business was not good and he was reported as ‘a barber and hairdresser who was glad to cut anybody’s hair for one rupee’. He tired to diversify by setting up a shop in partnership with Mr. Boaz as provision merchant.  But this venture did not prove profitable either, and he decided to travel up country to Lucknow sometime during the winter of 1830-31 ‘to look for any sort of employment that he could obtain’. Dr. William Stevenson, the company doctor in Lucknow at the time, later described how George’s luck suddenly changed. The King had often asked the resident to procure English servants for him, and among other a Hairdresser ….[George] happened to one day cut the Resident’s hair– that the King heard of this, and immediately applied to have in his own service’. By July 1831, George was already as established favorite with the King, so much so that when he fell ill, the King grumbled that his absence ‘creators much inconvenience in the performance of the household business.’ A solution was found. George’s brother, William, was also a hairdresser, and also in Calcutta. (The two brothers may have travelled out together.) To William’s delight ‘sometime in July 1831, I received an offer of employment to serve His Majesty the King Oudh and enjoyed by my brother to leave Calcutta as early as possible by Dak.’ William arrived in Lucknow in such a hurry that he forget to obtain a license to reside in Avadh, and this had to be back-dated and provided.

William soon found himself a young Anglo Indian wife, Sarah Duboist daughter of a bandmaster in the King’s service and the couple hired the Dilaram Kothi, a tall, English-looking house on the north bank of Gomati, conveniently opposite the King’s palace of Farat Baksh, and joined to it by a bridge of boats. Two years later in, 1834, William was dead, and his baby son fatherless, George promptly asked the king and got, the King to pay the sea passage from England for a third brother, Charles, and ‘Master George. The barber’s own son, The Resident, when asked later by the company how so many Englishmen came to be employed at the Court, explained that George had recommended hid brother to the King and after William’s death, he was ‘succeeded in the same way by a brother Charles Derusett.’

George now moved himself and his son into the Dilaram Kothi together with a woman mentioned in the Cash Book only as Mrs. D’. Where she came from and where she went is a mystery, but it seems likely that she was Indian, for there are reference to a silver mouth piece’ for her hookah (rarely smoked by English or Anglo-Indian woman), and the fee for her medical expense paid to Hakim Yakub Ali Beg, not Dr. Stevenson who normally attended Europeans.

The entries in the Cash Book begin on 25th Nov. 1835 and show how deeply George was by then involved in the King’s affairs. There can have little time left for hairdressing, and in fact to Indian barbers from Calcutta were now employed by him as assistant hairdressers. George’s many purchased and commissions for the King show a wealthy, if extravagant monarch, and also confirm contemporary description of Lucknow as one of India’s richest, cities, indeed a panorama of pomp, luxury and frequent celebration.

The barber was firstly in charges of ‘all His Majesties pleasure Boats, Budjerows, pinnaces, etc. All most beautifully fitted up, some with richly colored silken sails etc, [and] all the bridges crossing the river’. A major project was the conversion of a very large pinnace, purchased in Calcutta from John and James Beaumont and renamed the ‘Sultan of Oudh’ in honor of the King. It was brought up to Lucknow with a sixteen man crew and docked in front of the Farhat Baksh, even grander than any ship on the waters of the Gomati. George explained that ‘The King ordered me to convert her into a three-misted vessel, and to give her a much the appearance of a ship (sails and all) as possible, to have sixteen to eighteen guns, to spare no expense in fitting her up in the handsomest manner..

Another appointment held by George was Master of the Royal Robes (European). On first examining the poshak-khana or wardrobe, it was found that several of the King’s coats had been sporting, unwitting, the crescent gilt buttons of the East India Company. I soon altered the state of things’ he wrote working form diagrams supplied by Mr. Nuthall, Tailor habit and pelisse maker of Calcutta George sent him the King’s measurement and got a number of European suits made up. His majesty was delighted with this new style of dress that he would not allow any person else to medium him’ George noted the King’s measurements on a scrap of paper he was of 271/2 George subsequently employed two Europeans, Mr. Garztein (or Garstein) and then Mr. Powers, to superintend the fourteen tailors and chikan work embroidery in making European costumes than up country tailors I spared no expense …. Clothes were made for the Royal woman too, from European Green satin, for the King ‘saw in the wide Indian pyjamas. Which are called ghagra, a resemblance to a British lady’s evening gown and liked them so much that made the Begums of the palace wear them?

By 1835, domestic expense in the Royal household were being channeled through George’s hands, from the re-tinning of cooking pots, the purchase of 2 pairs of Jockey Boots for HM Coachman, and hides for the kettledrums’ to pitterahs and  mumdahs’ (felt covered pots for transporting ice). Outside the palace one or more of the Royal stables was under George’s care too, though here his duties were delegated to Raja Bakhtawar Singh, one of the Kings officials who, together with Darshan Singh, superintended building works for the King. Another nominal appointment was that as head of the King’s Menagerie across the Gomti, ‘a sort of park-ranger, in fact as Knighton described it as well as the superintendence of the palace garden and the building of an ice-house. George also supervised the Royal hunting parties which now lasted for days rather than weeks, as they had done fifty years earlier. But the most elaborate preparations still had  to be made including the provision of tent pieces, bamboo, twine, curtains, food and wine as well as hire of temporary porters and carts to move all this equipment, new thatching on the covered carriages and inspections and repairs to bridges and roads that the Royal parties would cross.

Like other employees, George had to lay out own  money for goods required by the King, and to pay the wages of the tailors, carpenters, ship-fitters, gardeners and other workers under his charge. He presented his monthly bills to the King, which was reimbursed from the treasury the actual bills were long scrolls of paper, joined as necessary, and rolled up as maps. Knighton describes one of George’s bills which, when unrolled, measure four and a half feet long, and totaled Rs. 90,000 (Pounds 9,000).  Many people had found it curiously difficult to extract money from the Royal purse for wages or items bought, but George had discovered a way around this as John Low reported. ‘Mr. Derusett and the natives, who execute commission for the King, generally take the opportunity of getting their accounts or their applications for advances of money, signed by the King when his majesty is in a state of intoxication.

Indeed the King’s drunkenness and wild supper parties were a cause of frequent complaints by the Resident, acting on the Governor General’s instructions to monitor closely Nasir-ud-Din Haider’s behavior. On several occasions low had had to rebuke the King for the extraordinary liberties which he allowed Mr. G. Derusett to take with him’. All the community knew that Mr. D. was a man of dissipated and disreputable character…. [He] invites the other guests. They were always in the same mood as the King’ the n there was shameful occasion when the king, in his cups had insisted on going to the Chandganj fair, across the river and a know rendezvous of prostitutes and a vile tribe of Eunuchs (hijra). After this last episode the Resident took the King aside and told him privately to reform his drunken habits. Low wanted to spare him the embarrassment of being told off in front the courtiers, but the well meaning gesture was wasted when the King promptly related the private conversations to eager listeners and added that happen what may he will counties to himself and that he would drink Hip Hip Hoora’.

 The supper parties continued and Mr. Derusett is going on accumulating immense sums of money (he has already several lacs of Rupee) by taking advantage of the King habits to obtain from his majesty, when in a state inebriety orders for the payment of accounts of commissions for the buildings for the keep of Horses etc. All low’s annoyance at the King’s behavior became focused on Geroge, a working-class man in class ridden English society. It would be unfair to call it snobbery, because it was simply perceived as the natural order of things at the time people like George and his friend John Rose Brandon were not gentleman, in the nineteenth sense. It was inevitable that a Colonel and Resident of the East India Company like John Low. He was projecting the wrong image of an Englishman in India.

There were certainly a number of decent, respectable, family men in Lucknow engaged in trade and manual occupation, but George was not one of them. He clearly exerted that amount of influence over the King, Which the Resident felt should have been his. Moreover, he was creaming off large sums of money which the Company thought could have been better spent or indeed put towards their own longstanding debt with the King. There were also a number of complaints about him by other Europeans, which up to the Resident for action.

Although a favorite with the king who called him his dearest friend and brother often drinking to excess with him and sometime hugging and embracing him in the presence of the servants of the palace George was not popular among many of his English contemporaries in Lucknow.

Credits : Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones


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