History KS3 / GCSE: How British migrants made fortunes working for the East India Company

European powers started trading with India from the early 1500’s.

At first, all British trade was dominated by the London based East India Company, which was granted the monopoly on trade with India in 1600.

Over the following 200 years the company became increasingly prominent in the European trading routes with India.

Historian David Olusoga, meets Professor Margot Finn, an expert on the period, and profiles the Russell family who purchased Swallowfield House near Reading, which is today a block of luxury flats.

The house symbolises how these so called Nabobs, British migrants in the employ of the East India Company, returned from India as extremely wealthy men, which allowed them to establish themselves at the higher end of the British class system.

This short film is from the BBC series, Migration.

Teacher Notes

Key Stage 3

The story of the Russell family illustrates links between East India Company wealth and industrialisation.

One generation gets rich in India and the next invests in the railways.

This and the short film on Irish migrants show the Industrial Revolution from two perspectives: those whose labour built the railways and those whose money paid for them.

In each case we know the migration story and their living conditions in England. Students could create a display, presentation or script explaining the importance of the railways, the roles played by Russell and an Irish ‘navvy, and their contrasting lives.

“To some extent it still is”, says David Olusoga about the practice of showing off wealth to climb the class system.

Students could look at 18th and 19th century examples and compare them with current ‘celebrities’ who operate in a similar way.

Key Stage 4

A key idea here is how the Empire - and in this case the East India Company - enriched Britain and enabled inequalities that persist to this day.

The story of the nabobs shows how temporary emigration to India made it possible for middle class people to become extremely wealthy and then use their wealth down the generations to gain and keep power.

Margot Finn explains how this happened in the case of the Russells, step by step.

Students could create a flow chart illustrating that process, an insight into how power and influence works.

They could investigate similar local examples.

They could look at powerful families or institutions that became wealthy through the East India Company, slave plantations or the Triangular Trade.

Or they could simply answer the question: ‘Why and how did the Russells do so well?”

Curriculum Notes

This short film is suitable for teaching history at KS3 and KS4/GCSE in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Fourth Level and National 4 and 5 in Scotland.

More from Migration:

The story of black migrants in Tudor England
The story of the Palatines who migrated to Britain in the 1700s
Black people in Britain during the Atlantic slave trade era
The story of British indentured workers emigrating to America
The Irish migrants who moved to Liverpool during the Industrial Revolution
Jewish migration to Manchester in the late 1800s