State Library of South Australia

Transcribing Tales: From Pewsey Vale to Poona: the letters of Thomas Gilbert

Date: 14 December 2015

Beginning at the tender age of nine years while boarding at St Peter's College, Tom Gilbert regularly wrote home to his family, continuing while he was at Cambridge University, working in India, and serving in World War One. Home was the magnificent Pewsey Vale estate in the Eden Valley, famous for wool, wine and racehorses.

Tom Gilbert garlanded with flowers after a traditional Indian workplace farewell 1916 PRG 266 11 1 10
Tom Gilbert garlanded with flowers after a traditional Indian workplace farewell 1916 (PRG 266/11/1/10)

Born in 1889, Tom was a grandson of wealthy pioneer pastoralist Joseph Gilbert, for whom Gilberton is named, and who acquired Pewsey Vale in 1839. After gaining an Agriculture Degree at Cambridge University, Tom took up a position in the Indian Agricultural Service advising local farmers. The outbreak of World War One saw him serve as a cavalry officer in the Indian Army Reserve, and then in the Royal Flying Corps in Egypt and England 1917-19, where he earned the Air Force Cross. After the war he returned to civilian life in India, retired in 1924, and died in 1937.

In 1968 the Gilbert Family donated its large family archive dating back to 1840 to the State Library (PRG 266). The archive has the usual letters, diaries and family memorabilia, including 272 letters by Thomas Gilbert. But there are also artworks, military artefacts, and six types of photographs-carte-de-visite, cabinet, tintype, glass plate negatives, albums and prints. The donation of this family archive followed an earlier gift of 200 children's books and 50 games, known as the Gilbert Collection. This collection is one of the centrepieces of our Children's Literature Research Collection.

With the Library's focus on the Centenary of Anzac, Thomas Gilbert's war service in India is of interest. Lyndall Fredericks, one of the Library's 13 enthusiastic transcription volunteers, has transcribed the first 50 letters in series 7 (1913-25) and is well into the next 50. Lyndall says:

As a transcriber, what do I enjoy most? Reasonable handwriting, good spelling, a letter or diary that is interesting to read, and which encourages me to investigate new places and people. Tom Gilbert ticked all the boxes! His letters are very entertaining, mentioning places and events that open a window into life in India in the public service. Most of the letters were written from Dharwar, a town now called Dharwab in the state of Karnataka in south western India, which explains the hot wet season and the hot dry season he talks about. The seasons affected his beloved piano, which he tried to maintain himself, but had to resort to a professional tuner. He loved his garden-quite a few names were of plants that grow well in South Australia, such as dahlias, cannas, salvias and roses, and he grew vegetables such as scarlet runner beans.

Extract of a letter from Tom Gilbert to his mother PRG 266 7 1 C

Extract of a letter from Tom Gilbert to his mother (PRG 266/7/1 C)

Tom's letters from India start:

Camp Salara
March 6th 1913

Dear Mother

To-day being a Treasury holiday, my clerk and overseer have struck work, and I'm forced to do likewise. Having exhausted my stock of light literature, I'm reduced to attacking private correspondence several days too early. Have got to raise the strength to receive several native swells from Gardars and Ras Bahadurs downwards-besides this I have no special object in being here except to see the country.

Gokak 9 March 2013

Arrived here yesterday to join my Director. The Director sleeps, I've just ceased to do so, and hope he'll wake soon as I want my tea. I seem to have remarkably little to write about-the weather is worth noting as being about 10° hotter than in Salara, quite wrong of it as the reverse should be the case.

He enjoys his work:

Am here till to-morrow morning when I return to Dharwa and go to Belgarm the next day. Chief object of my visit is to see what they were doing with the ensilage-reported that cattle wouldn't touch it-no wonder, as they were only offered the top mouldy layers. When the cattle got the proper stuff, they ate it greedily-I've seldom seen animals more keen on their food. As we've been advertising ensilage made from grass with great confidence, it was rather a shock to be told that it was no good.

He has a busy social and sporting life:

The mania for dinner parties here is worse than ever-I over-ate so often last week that I had to issue a warning that I should refuse all invitations till I'd recovered. However one can't plead 'seedy' for an invitation issued a week ahead! Have been out riding with Mr Turner and the Nawab of Savanur-beat the last named over about mile. We had a great race on the occasion of Mrs Syles' puzzle gymkhana-the donkey race was especially amusing-my donkey upset me twice, then made a bolt for its foal-I've forgotten what won the animal race, but a duck did very well.

Things get more serious when he writes to his father on 7 September 1914, but he is still interested in commerce as well as the war:

Thank you for letter written shortly after the declaration of war. I wonder if the share market has recovered at all after the first alarm-it has done so here, at least in so far that shares are quoted. Cotton will suffer a great deal here but I imagine not to the same extent as wool with you, as a large proportion of Indian cotton is consumed internally. Orders have been issued warning the 'ryol' not to sow cotton, but by the time the warning filters through from Collector to Mamlatdar-from Mamlatdar to village officer, and from village officer to the villager, the crop will be well above the ground.

A week later he writes to his father about the news reports:

We get very scanty and often contradictory war news in spite of the Press Bureau. It is further confused by items 'ahead of the mail' from the Australian papers-I fail to understand why you get more news by telegraph that we do. The Times of India fortunately publishes very excellent leaders, distinguishing the probably true from the probably false-these articles also possess the virtue of being reservedly optimistic and are cheering to read.

In the 50th letter of this series, dated 29 July 1916, we learn that he has been appointed 2nd Lieutenant in the Indian Army Reserve of Officers in the 27th Light Cavalry at Lucknow, and so we come to the end of the transcript so far. With more to follow, you will enjoy dipping into the life and times of one of South Australia's most important pioneer families in Thomas Gilbert's letters.

Story by Carolyn Spooner

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