Book traces role of Addiscombe college that built an empire

READER OFFER: Inside Croydon subscribers can save £££s on the price of an important and definitive new book about the history of the Addiscombe Military College, its staff and cadets

A copy of an important new history of the Addiscombe Military College was presented to the Croydon Museum yesterday to add to its collection.

Addiscombe Military College and the Cadets who Forged an Empire is historian Kate Birbeck’s third book, and one in which she had much help from the archivist at the Museum of Croydon.

Birbeck’s hefty book – it runs to more than 600 pages – is the first to provide an in-depth record of the layout and estate at Addiscombe, as well as accounts from the staff and cadets who worked and trained there.

The Addiscombe institution trained officers for the East India Company’s private army, and so played a significant part not only in Croydon’s history, but in the history of Britain and its empire.

The hardback book contains more than 650 rare photographs and draws on archive material from all over the world, providing a fascinating insight into a part of London’s history.

Many of the cadets who graduated from Addiscombe would “become household names due to their heroic exploits, achievements and battlefield endeavours”, according to Birbeck.

Private army: cadets posing around the cannons in front of the Addiscombe Military Academy, which trained officers for the East India Company

“Others, after leading long and steady careers, would retire with a good pension and eventually pass away quietly in a bath chair to the gentle ticking of a parlour clock,” the author said.

“And many would end their days at an early age in a sweat-soaked bed, dying of terrible diseases, infections and wounds. They all shared a common bond, and that was the military institutions in which they trained.”

The Addiscombe Military Seminary, or College as it was later known, was established in 1809 to train engineers, artillery and infantry officers not for the regular British Army, but specifically for the East India Company’s own military.

These “Indian” officers would go on to take part in virtually every Victorian military campaign. From the dusty plains of South Africa and Afghanistan, to the steaming jungles of Burma and the windswept deserts of the Sudan, they fought and, often, died.

Addiscombe’s engineer officers mapped many parts of the world as well as India, and also built railways, irrigation projects, churches, libraries and schools, many of which are still in use today.

The Indian Mutiny in 1857 led to the East India Company losing control of its vast commercial empire, and its regiments, including the officers, who were incorporated into the British Army. Addiscombe College was now surplus to requirements, and its doors closed for the final time in 1861.

Almost the entire college was immediately demolished and the land turned into a posh suburb.

But the subject of photography had been introduced to the college’s curriculum in 1855 and was eagerly embraced by the cadets. The results of their endeavours were pasted into decorative albums and treasured, though with the passage of time they, too, were gradually forgotten, ending up lost in attics and dusty archives. Until now.

Birbeck’s book includes more than 400 individual narratives exploring the staff and cadets’  lives, both at Addiscombe and their careers beyond its austere iron gates.

The book is being officially launched this week at the Clash of Empires Exhibition being held at the Royal Philatelic Society headquarters, where Kate Birbeck is giving a talk on July 14.

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1 Response to Book traces role of Addiscombe college that built an empire

  1. Sharon Owen says:

    Thanks for letting me know about this book. I have ordered it. I am doing some work with a film company, Stanley Arts, The Heritage Fund and the local Croydon Anglo-Indian community who settled in the Croydon area in the 1950’s/60’s so this is of interest to me. The performance is on Sunday 16th July at Stanley Arts.

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