The lines of history

Why do Indian Railways mark their origin to a date 16 years after the first rail journey? What did Karl Marx know that we don’t? Economist Bibek Debroy marries nuggets with nostalgia in a definitive new book on the railways. Lounge presents exclusive excerpts


Bibek Debroy. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.
Bibek Debroy. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.

In 1953, the centennial year of Indian Railways, India issued a postage stamp to celebrate the occasion. But the date 1853 is both right and wrong; the postage stamp is both right and wrong.

At 3.35pm on 16 April 1853, flagged off with a 21-gun salute, a train with 14 railway carriages and 400 guests left Bori Bunder for Thane (then Tannah). With three steam locomotives (Sindh, Sultan and Sahib), it took 1 hour, 15 minutes to make the journey. Bori Bunder station is no longer used. A non-stop EMU (electric multiple unit) train from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to Thane still takes 57 minutes! The Bori Bunder-Tannah journey of 16 April 1853 was the first commercial passenger service, but not the first train in the country. Karl Marx clearly knew this, since he talked about steam engines in the Burdwan coal districts. But Indian Railways decided to celebrate its centenary year in 1953.

A locomotive from Southern Mahratta Railway at the National Rail Museum in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.
A locomotive from Southern Mahratta Railway at the National Rail Museum in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.

It must be placed on record that no photograph exists of the 1853 journey. And the reader should keep in mind that any photograph or postage stamp purportedly showing that train should have pictured three engines, not one. No one seems to know what happened to the locomotives Sahib and Sultan. They just vanished. Sindh was luckier. The locomotive was last seen on a plinth at what used to be the Byculla office of GIPR (Great Indian Peninsula Railway) in Mumbai. Sindh was brought to Delhi by Indian Railways later, but no one knows what happened to Sindh thereafter.

The saloon used by the maharajas of Bhavnagar and Mysore, at the National Rail Museum.. Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint
The saloon used by the maharajas of Bhavnagar and Mysore, at the National Rail Museum.. Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The 1853 fare from Bombay to Thane was Rs2 and 10 annas for first-class travel, Re1 and 1 anna for a second-class ticket, and 5 annas and 3 pice for the third class. However, this was for the subsequent journeys, and not for that first train ride in April 1853. Since all 400 passengers invited were VIPs, including Lady Falkland, wife of the governor of Bombay, they probably paid nothing. An apocryphal story tells us that the governor, Lord Falkland, didn’t think the railway line was a terribly good idea, and wasn’t part of the entourage.

The saloon used by the maharajas of Bhavnagar and Mysore, at the National Rail Museum. Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint
The saloon used by the maharajas of Bhavnagar and Mysore, at the National Rail Museum. Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint

If quiz book facts need to be amended a bit about the first train in India, one should mention 1837 and Chintadripet. The Madras Presidency of the British owed its origins to Madraspatnam, a fisherman’s village. There were other villages in Madras Presidency, and one of these was Chintadripet, or Chinna Thari Pettai, to use the original name. Chintadripet means a “village of small looms”. This village was established in 1735, when the governor of Fort St George was George Morton Pitt. One of the merchants of the city possessed a garden where the Cooum river winds past Periampet. A village for spinners, weavers, washermen, painters and temple attendants was established in that large garden. This became Chintadripet.

Read an interview with Bibek Debroy on the bookhere.

Debroy also created a railway trivia challenge for Lounge. See the quiz here

A railway outfit called Red Hill Railroad (RHR) is associated with the name of Chintadripet. There is occasional, cursory mention of this in many written records, even before references to Bori Bunder-Thane in any records.

The Red Hill Railroad was built in 1836, nearly two decades before the Bori Bunder-Thane railway. The best account of this relatively neglected railway line is in a piece written by Simon Darvill, from which we learn the following.

Steam engines decorated with different themes for Railway Beauty Contest at New Delhi railway station in November 1976. Photo: HT
Steam engines decorated with different themes for Railway Beauty Contest at New Delhi railway station in November 1976. Photo: HT

First, it wasn’t quite an experimental line. There was probably an initial 3-mile-long line from Red Hills—to the north of Madras City, which gets its name from the red hills there—to the stone quarries around Little Mount—a small hillock in Chennai, along the banks of the Adyar river—but this eventually merged with RHR’s permanent line. Second, it was built to carry granite for road-building work, leading to an estimated annual savings of Rs28,000 on a Rs60,000 budget for building roads in the Presidency. It was a freight railway, but passengers also travelled on it. Third, though it was planned for animals to pull the train, two or three steam locomotives (one of which was built by the Madras Corps of Engineers) were also used. Fourth, the rolling stock possibly consisted of road-carts on railway wheels. Fifth, the rails were produced in Parangipettai (Cuddalore district). Sixth, the railway cost Rs50,000 crore to build.

Locomotive No.216 stationed at the Jubbulpore (now Jabalpur) station in the 1930s.Photo: David Churchill
Locomotive No.216 stationed at the Jubbulpore (now Jabalpur) station in the 1930s.Photo: David Churchill

More than one newspaper report on the railway is available on the IRFCA (Indian Railways Fan Club Association) website. From the Madras Gazette of 4 May 1836:

“A small piece of railway has been laid down near the Chintadripet Bridge to show how little labour is required on a road of this description, a cart is placed upon the rails, loaded with stones, which is easily moved up a slightly inclined plane by one hand, from whence it returns by its own weight to the place from which it was first propelled...which is worth the inspection of the good people of Madras...”

"It must be placed on record that no photograph exists of the 1853 journey. And the reader should keep in mind that any photograph or postage stamp purportedly showing that train should have pictured three engines, not one. No one seems to know what happened to the locomotives Sahib and Sultan. They just vanished. Sindh was luckier"-

The Red Hill Railway was closed in 1845. On the closure, Darvill wrote, “It is unknown how long the RHR was in use for. In an extensive article in The Foreign Quarterly Review, written in May 1845, about the prospect of building a railway system in India, a footnote concerning the RHR stated that, ‘The Red Hill Railway was dependent on a canal and as that occasionally dried up, the railroad could not possibly answer (sic); for when there was no water to float the barges, the trains which brought down granite to fill them could not of course be needed.’ ... From the fact that the railway is referred to in the past tense, it can be inferred that it had closed prior to the article being written. It is known from the paper about the locomotives that experiments ceased abruptly after the second test as Capt. Cotton had become ill and went to Tasmania on sick leave. It would be a good supposition that the railway’s decline came after Cotton left Madras as he was the driving force behind the railway; it was certainly the reason for the cessation of experiments with locomotives. Whatever the reason, it was the end of railways and locomotive traction in India for the time being.”

The Capt. Cotton in question is Arthur Thomas Cotton (1803-1899), identified more with the construction of irrigation and navigational canals, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Cotton is the one who proposed that experimental line in Chintadripet. Those cost figures were also his estimates. With Arthur Cotton away in Tasmania, interest in the railway also declined, temporarily.

Excerpted with permission from Indian Railways: The Weaving Of A National Tapestry by Bibek Debroy, the 10th title from the series on Indian Business edited by Gurcharan Das, Penguin Books.

*****

An ode to the ‘Iron Horse’

In 1894, George Herbert Trevor authored a book, ‘Rhymes Of Rajputana’, which was, as the title implies, a collection of poems on various aspects of Rajputana/Rajasthan—its lifestyle, culture, traditions and history.

One of these poems was titled ‘Famine In Rajputana, 1892’; it spoke about how the Iron Horse had saved Rajasthan from famines.

The goddess of Chittor in olden time

Craved regal victims—superstition tells:

But this gaunt spectre ravages and dwells

Among the poor, in poverty and slime,

Tempting despair and maddening to crime.

We read in former days how dried-up wells

And barren fields brought death; Old chronicles

Speak of slain hecatombs: but now like chime

Of bells o’er hills the railways’ scream is heard.

The Iron Horse has saved the land and scared

The spectre Famine, like some bird

Disturbed at its foul feast.

Had God but spared

The poor man’s cattle, ah, what joy had stirred

The hearts of those for whom in need He cared!

*****

Rudyard Kipling’s railway legacy

Many of the Kipling stories, including ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, were first published by the Indian Railway Library. This was a publishing concern set up by A.H. Wheeler in Allahabad in 1888; Wheeler had a monopoly on selling books at railway stations. Both the Indian Railway Library and Wheeler are part of the historical legacy of the Indian railway system.

The Indian Railway Library was Kipling’s idea. He needed money to fund his return to England in 1888 and for something that was a bit like a world tour. To this end he approached Emile Edouard Moreau with a proposal that his stories should be republished (they had all been published earlier) in cheap prints. Illustrated by Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, six such collections were published—‘Soldiers Three’, ‘The Story Of The Gadsbys’, ‘In Black And White’, ‘Under The Deodars’, ‘The Phantom ’Rickshaw And Other Eerie Tales’ and ‘Wee Willie Winkie And Other Child Stories’—all at Re1 each. Nothing else was ever published by the Indian Railway Library. As for Emile Edouard Moreau—who was born in 1856—he is often unnecessarily confused with the French playwright Emile Moreau, who was born in 1877, the year when AH Wheeler was set up (1877 is usually cited as the year that AH Wheeler & Company was established, though 1874 is also mentioned sometimes). Emile Edouard Moreau happened to be in Allahabad at the time because he was an employee of Bird and Company. Moreau’s grandfather, James Bird, had also been in the bookselling business.

Predictably, Moreau was fond of books, and so was his friend, Arthur Henry Wheeler. A.H. Wheeler was then in Allahabad, though he moved to London later. In Allahabad, he possessed a huge collection of books, too many to take back home. Since passengers, especially the upper classes, had got into the habit of reading on train journeys, Moreau volunteered to sell Wheeler’s old and unwanted books from a wooden ‘almirah’ at the Allahabad railway station. This venture was so successful that in 1877, AH Wheeler and Company was set up as a partnership. Arthur Henry Wheeler and Moreau weren’t the only partners. There were also Arthur Lisle Wheeler, W.M. Rudge and Tigran Ratheus. The company had offices in Allahabad and London.

Especially in the north and the east, AH Wheeler and Company took off. It not only had the exclusive rights to run bookstalls on railway platforms, it also became the sole agency for issuing advertisements on behalf of the railways across most of India. T.K. Banerjee joined the firm in 1899 and, after World War I, became a partner. AH Wheeler and Company added vernacular books and journals to its product line.

Eventually, Moreau retired and returned to England. Interestingly, his house in Brighton was named Fairlie Place, and was the headquarters of the EIRC (East Indian Railway Company). When Moreau retired, the Banerjee family took over the equity of A.H. Wheeler.

Let us make that exclusive rights privilege a little bit more precise. AH Wheeler and Company didn’t have an exclusive monopoly throughout India—understandable, because of the fragmented way in which the railways developed. It had a monopoly everywhere, except for what later became Southern Railway and parts of South Central Railway. This monopoly was scrapped in 2004.

In the south, there was Higginbotham’s, which too had a monopoly till 2004. Higginbotham’s was based in Chennai. Abel Joshua Higginbotham was reportedly a stowaway on a ship. On being discovered by the angry captain, he was dumped in Madras. Eventually, Higginbotham bought the stock of the Wesleyan Book Shop, a book store in Madras that wasn’t doing too well, and this became Higginbotham’s on Mount Road. This was in 1843. By 1859, Higginbotham’s was the most important bookshop throughout the south. In 1859, Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was the governor of Madras, said to Lord Macaulay in one of his letters: “Among the many elusive and indescribable charms of life in Madras City, is the existence of my favourite book shop ‘Higginbotham’s’ on Mount Road. In this bookshop I can see beautiful editions of the works of Socrates, Plato, Euripides, Aristophanes, Pindar, Horace, Petrarch, Tasso, Camoyens, Calderon and Racine. I can get the latest editions of Victor Hugo, the great French novelist. Amongst the German writers, I can have Schiller and Goethe. Altogether a delightful place for the casual browser and serious book lover.”

When the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) visited India in 1875, Higginbotham’s became “booksellers to his Royal Highness”, an honour that no other bookseller in India ever received. In 1888-89, Abel Joshua Higginbotham would go on to become the sheriff of Madras. When he died in 1891, his son took over the business (that ownership would pass into Indian hands in 1945).

Higginbotham’s wasn’t purely into selling books. It also ventured into publishing. For our purposes, what is important is that Higginbotham’s had the monopoly for operating bookstalls in all railway stations that were under South Indian Railway and Southern Mahratta Railway.

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