The Gwillim Research Project

In 2018 an international research network, headed by the McGill University Library Rare Books and Special Collections, inaugurated The Gwillim Project. The partnership is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2019-2022)

Research undertaken by students and scholars is unlocking new resources to explore the themes of exchange, gender, traditional and local knowledge, and climate change, illuminating the larger world of southern India under the ‘Company Raj’, and, making accessible both textual and visual observations of an environment radically changed since the early 1800s. 

What are we researching?

The Gwillim Project centres around the unpublished correspondence and artwork of two English sisters, Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds, who lived in the East India Company settlement of Madras, now Chennai, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. 

The four volumes of their affectionate letters home are in the British Library, and are peppered with small sketches and full of rich details of local culture and domestic life in Madras between 1801 and 1808.

In addition to their private correspondence, the two sisters created an extraordinary visual record of the landscape and inhabitants of Madras and environs. The original watercolours are now held in the Blacker Wood Natural History Collection at McGill Library in Montreal and in the South Asia Collection Museum in Norwich, UK.

The Research Network

The Project’s multidisciplinary international network was established in 2017 and includes research collaborators and partner institutions in Canada, India, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Our group includes researchers investigating climate and environment change in the Indian Ocean world; textiles and dress of English and Indian women; local histories and festivals in Madras; the history of ornithology and botany in India; material culture and women’s work; gender roles in England and India; traditional foods and local knowledge; social and political cultures in Madras in the early 19th century.

For a full list of our network, see the Network page of The Gwillim Project website.


For more information on the sisters and their family, see Personal Lives on The Gwillim Project website.

Transcriptions of the letters are available on the Letters page on The Gwillim Project website.

For a closer look at the watercolours, and essays on the sisters' training and techniques, see the section on Artwork on The Gwillim Project website.

To read short research essays prepared by scholars and student research assistants, see the Case Studies.

For more information please access The Gwillim Project website.

You can watch all 9 episodes of The Gwillim Project Online, our 2020-21 Symposium, on the Gwillim Project YouTube channel.

Watch for our book Women, Environment, and Networks of Empire: Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds in Madras, to be published by McGill Queens University Press in 2023. 


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