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The Bonham Family and the East India Company

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It is not easy for us to comprehend the scale of the influence of the East India Company in the 18th, and 19th centuries: even comparisons to modern companies like Microsoft, Pepsi-Cola or Virgin do not start to help us to realise the global influence and power it exerted. And of course it did not only make huge profits in its own name. It afforded the entrepreneur with an ideal opportunity to make his own fortune as well as securing substantial revenues for the Company. Many family fortunes were made in this way. It was accepted as a suitable career for the second or third son of the familiy to work for the Company and indeed substantial backing was needed to buy into a post such as Captain of an East Indiaman. Many of the top position on ships were filled by the sons of the famous people of the day.

The Bonham  family was a good example. Captain Samuel Bonham (1677-1745) had already established much of his fortune from the slave trade and used his great wealth to build the family home at Orsett House in Essex (now a boarding school). In 1713 he married Jane Pinson and they had two sons, Samuel and Pinson. Pinson achieved high rank in the East India Company and he was Captain of the 'Norfolk' which was at Canton in 1757 and 1761 (a fairly normal gap between round voyages which at the time could still take around two years). He was so succesful that he returned to Canton in 1781 as the owner of his own vessel. On one of those early trips he ordered an armorial porcelain service bearing the Bonham arms and crest. He also ordered a matching set of armorial gaming counters (see pics. 2,3). In order to celebrate the marriage of his elder brother Samuel to Sarah Richardson, a further armorial service was ordered probably by him on his second visit to Canton, this one showing the impaled arms of his future sister-in-law. A second set of counters was possibly ordered at around this time but not with the full arms, just the family crest of a mermaid and a star to the reverse (see pics 4 and 5). It is just possible that the counters with only the crest were part of the same set as the armorial shown in pics. 1 and 2, as the style of decoration is very similar indeed. There was still at this time no set pattern for the composition of the sets of gaming counters: some had the crest and arms on one side; others had the crest on one side and arms to the other; some sets had only the full arms on certain shapes and just the crest on others. But there is sufficient evidence here to allow the supposition that there were at least two sets of counters produced for the Bonham family in the early 1770's (none is yet recorded with the arms impaling Richardson).

Samuel and Sarah lived at Great Warley Place, also in Essex. They had three children, Pinson (who was to become a General and then Governor of Surinam), Henry ( later M.P. for Rye) and George (who entered the East India Company and became a Captain). George was at Canton in 1799 as Captain of the 'Walmer Castle', where he presumably ordered another armorial porcelain service - and more m-o-p gaming counters (see pics 1, 6 and 7). George was killed in a  typhoon while Captain of the 'True Briton' in the China Seas in 1810.

The wealth of the Bonham family was very evident from the number of services and sets of gaming counters ordered: these all involved very significant sums of money well beyond the reach of anyone except the most affluent. There are not many families who were able to afford at least three services and three sets of gaming counters.

The sets of counters are good examples of the way that counters developed. Pictures 1-4 show good quality mother-of-pearl decorated in the  typical style for 1760-1770 with detailed scrolling foliage and flowers; good use of back-hatching in and out of the central roundel; a single-line border as was often used before the introduction of identifiable, standard borders. The later set is also typical of around 1800: bright shiny m-o-p; a clear border pattern ( though not a widely-used one in this form); beautifully detailed flowers typifying the European influence; 'milled' edges similar to coins; and a superb 'Harlequin' type pattern to the reverse. These counters were very probably ordered by George in around 1790-1800 for his elder brother Henry, hence the monogram HS.

Please refer to Chinese Armorial Porcelain  by D.S. Howard (two volumes) for details of the armorial services.

The arms of Bonham (bart.) are:   Gules a chevron engrailed between three crosses formee fitchee argent . Crest: a mermaid proper.(Burke's General Armory)

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