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Wives took their husband’s rank, so that senior ladies had their “own” sofa at the Club and first use of the loos after dinner.

What drove the Fishing Fleet girls in their thousands to this alien land?

In its early days, when journeys by sail could take up to six months, many Company officers only came home once, if at all, during their service.

Some formed liaisons or marriages with Indian girls.

For others, the Company developed the practice of sending out batches of prospective brides, whom they maintained in India for a year, during which time they were supposed to find a mate.

Calling cards were de rigueur and there was even a document entitled the Warrant of Precedence that showed the exact status of everyone in British employ so that seating at official dinners, for instance, could be arranged according to seniority.

For here marriageable men outnumbered women by roughly four to one and were avid for wives.

In India a girl who was too plain or too poor to find a husband in Britain would be showered with proposals; and she and her husband would live life at a much higher standard than either could at home, with a retinue of servants, spacious bungalows and all the sport you could wish. As one of them, Veronica Bamfield, put it: “I was one of the lucky few on whom India lays a dark, jewelled hand, the warmth of whose touch never grows cold to those who have felt it.” Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy (Weidenfeld, rrp £20) is available from Telegraph Books at £18 £1.35 p&p.

The answer was the inexorable, increasing pressure to marry.

It is difficult for us today to realise that for most of the 19th century, a girl without fortune or great beauty became a non-person if she did not marry.

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