ALTHOUGH THERE WERE ALREADY villages on the banks of the River Hooghly where the city of Kolkata (Calcutta) now stands, the Britisher Job Charnock (1630-1693), a man of commerce, is often regarded as the founder of Calcutta. He died there and his remains are interred in a charming mausoleum (1695) of oriental design in the churchyard of Kolkata’s former cathedral, the church of St John.
Job does not rest alone in that structure. His companions include the surgeon William Hamilton, who died in 1717. He had cured Ferukseer, the “ King of Indostan”, and beneath his memorial, written in English, there is another written in Persian script. Job’s wife Mary lies next to him. She died in 1700. There is no mention of his other wife, an Indian named Maria. There is also a memorial to Martha Eyles, who died in 1748, having first been married to John Gumley (who died in Dhaka in what is now Bangladesh), and then married Edward Eyles, who was on the council of Calcutta’s Fort William.
Whereas Martha Eyles had had two husbands, Mrs Frances Johnson, whose remains lie in a mausoleum a few feet away from Charnock’s, had a more exciting marital record. Born in 1725, she died in 1812 at the age of 87. Frances had four husbands. First, she married Parry Purple Templer, then after his demise , James Altham. Mr Altham died of smallpox a few days after marrying Frances. Next, she married William Watts, and they produced 4 children. In 1774, after the death of Mr Watts, she married the Reverend William Johnson. He survived until Frances died.
Apart from the above-mentioned graves in the churchyard of St John’s, there are many others that commemorate the deaths of early European inhabitants of Charnock’s Calcutta, and there is also a memorial to those who died in the Black Hole of Calcutta, but more about this at a later date.
LAST NIGHT, THE 18th of January 2023, a relative by marriage hosted us for dinner at a historic swimming club in Kolkata. It was established in 1887. However, it was not until the 1960s that Indians were able to become members.
Despite India becoming independent of British rule in 1947, many of the prestigious clubs established in India prior to that date did not admit Indians as members until several years later.
In the 1960s, when eventually the Tollygunge Club in South Kolkata began admitting Indians as members, my father-in-law was offered membership to this exclusive previously ‘whites only’ club. He turned down the offer because he was a nationalist at heart and was upset that the Club had remained racist so long after 1947. In contrast, he happily became a member of the Bangalore Club, which welcomed Indian members almost immediately after Independence.
It is a mark of the tolerance of Indians that elite clubs (and some schools) were allowed to exclude non-Europeans so long after 1947, and, incidentally, that statues of Queen Victoria (and other British ‘worthies’) can still be found intact in many Indian cities.
IN FEBRUARY 1961, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip paid a visit to Kolkata (Calcutta). People lined the streets along which they drove. Every now and then their car stopped and the Queen shook hands with people in the crowds. A little girl stepped forward to shake Her Majesty’s hand. Thirty-three years later that little girl became my wife.
Apart from shaking hands with the future Mrs Yamey, the Queen visited Kolkata’s Anglican St Paul’s Cathedral. Unlike is namesake in London, it does not have a dome. It was built to replace the older St John’s Cathedral. St Paul’s foundation stone was laid in 1839 and the gothic revival edifice was completed by 1847. It was designed by Major General William Nairn Forbes og the Bengal Engineers. Since its completion, various disasters have necessitated repairs, but the edifice looks to be in good condition.
The Cathedral is full of interesting features, a few of which I will now mention. The stained glass window at the western end of the church was designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones. The mosaic panels that can be found on the east wall were the creations of Arthur Blomfield, who was involved in the design of many Victorisn churches in London. The walls of the nave have the crests of the Dioceses of the former Anglican Province of The Church of India. Prior to 1947, St Paul’s was the Mother Church of what are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and Sri Lanka.
I noticed that the pews in the nave are divided into male a female sections, separated by the central corridor. A Church worker explained that the sexes are no longer separated during services and that the signs marking where men and women should sit have been left as historical curiosities.
The TocH Chapel was dedicated on Armistice Day 1927. It contains the impressive sculpted funerary memorial to Sir Charles Allen, Chairman of the Calcutta Corporation. It also contains the helmet of an Indian soldier who died while fighting in the 1971 Bangladesh War. Next to this is a crucifix made from charred timber from a war damaged house in Bangladesh. These monuments to those who fell in Bangladesh are remarkably moving.
I have mentioned a few things that interested me in St Paul’s. In addition to these, there are plenty of memorials to Britishers, who came to India for one reason or another, and died there. One example of these is George Ham from Bristol, who drowned in the River Hooghly in 1866, aged 33.
Photographs of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the cathedral are on display within it. When my wife saw these today, the 18th of January 2023, she remembered shaking the hand of royalty back in 1961, and told me about it.
TODAY, WE SENT some books from Kolkata to Bengaluru (Bangalore) to lighten our luggage because domestic flights in India restrict the amount of baggage one can carry. The process reminded me of sending books from other countries.
I used to visit Yugoslavia a lot when it still existed. One one occasion, I wanted to send some heavy books from Belgrade to London. I went to a large centrally located post office. Within the building there was a counter for wrapping parcels. For book post, the books had to be wrapped a certain way. They had to be packed so that a part of each book was left uncovered. This was so that the customs and postal people could see that it was books that were being dispatched.
In 1984, I visited Yugoslavia’s neighbour Albania, which was then under the strict Stalinist dictatorship headed by Enver Hoxha. We had to travel through Yugoslavia to reach and leave Albania. I had read that books from Albania would be confiscated by the Yugoslav customs, and that it was best to post any books bought in Albania back to the UK. In anticipation of this and following the advice that parcel wrapping materials were not available in Albania, I brought brown wrapping paper, adhesive tape, and string from home.
I bought several books in Albania and wrapped them up with the materials I had brought from England. Along with a fellow traveller, an Australian post office official, I took the parcels to a post office in central Tirana. The parcels were weighed by a person at a counter, and he handed me the right amount of stamps for each package. After affixing the stamps, I handed the parcels to the Albanian post office worker. He examined them, then tore off one of the stamps before rapidly reapplying it. I had inadvertently stuck on the stamp upside down. As he restuck the stamp, which bore an image of Albania’s fictator, he said “Enver Hoxha “. Apparently, sticking him upside down was considerable disrespectful. My Australian companion was horrified. He exclaimed: “Removing postage stamps from mail is against international postal regulations. He shouldn’t have done that.”
Today, in Kolkata, we took our books to a post office in Park Street. Pn ots steps, there are several men who wrap and label parcels to be posted. One of them took our books, wrapped them in cloth bags, and then in a strong plastic sheet, which he carefully sewed up with a beedle and thick thread. This was then wrapped in another layer of plastic, sealed with tape. Upon this he wrote the address to which it was being sent, and our address in Kolkata. Then the whole thing was wrapped in tough transparent plastic to protect the parcel from adverse weather conditions. After this, he carried to parcel to the correct counter, where we paid the postage: about £2.75 for 8 kilograms. The wrapper’s charge was less than £1.
The books I sent from Yugoslavia and Albania arrived safely. So have other parcels I have sent by post from one Indian city to another. So, I am reasonably optimistic that our 8 Kg packet will arrive ‘in good nick’.
I FIRST MET THE GIRL who is now my wife at University College London (‘UC’). The college was founded in 1826 for Jews, atheists, dissenters, and women. Its principal founder was the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). His mummified body is on display in one the college’s buildings.
Several thousand miles from UC in the city of Kolkata is the now disused Alipore Jail, which was opened in 1864. It was within its walls that many Indian freedom fighters were interred and some executed, by the British when they were ruling India.
Today, the prison has been highly restored and is open to the public as a museum. Here one can see the cells in which, for example, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sri Aurobindo, and Subhas Chandra Bose, were incarcerated. Visitors flock to se the gallows and the autopsy room nearby. Other attractions include the prison hospital and the centrally located ‘watch tower’. As one explores the vast prison, the air is filled with patriotic songs, including “Vande Mataram” blasting out of loudspeakers.
The watch tower is an octagonal building with windows on each of its eight sides. It is an example of a panopticon, a structure invented by Jeremy Bentham in 1787. The panopticon was an institutional structure from which guards (of a prison or a mental asylum) could survey the whole institution. It was to be positioned so that the inmates/prisoners could all see the panopticon. It was designed so that the custodians could look out but the inmates could not see within it. Bentham’s idea was that if the inmates could not see into it, they could not know whether or not they were being watched. Thus, as few as one custodian could keep an eye on the whole institution and the inmates had to behave all the time as they had no idea whether they were under observation. I suppose the system worked because panopticons were constructed in many prisons including that at Alipore.
The panopticon was invented long before cctv and traffic speed cameras were even thought of. Like the panopticon, from which inmates could never be sure that they were not being observed, cctv and speed cameras can employ the ‘panopticon effect’. As you can never tell whether a cctv camera or a speed camera is switched on, when you spot one, it is wise not to do anything wrong, which can be detected by these devices.
When we visited the former prison, now museum, we had no idea that it had a connection with our alma mater, UC. Information panels on the walk of the watch tower include a portrait of Jeremy Bentham alongside some information about his invention. A visit to the jail is worthwhile but do not go on a Saturday afternoon when it is swarming with visitors. It is ironic that the sturdy bolts of the doors of the cells have to be kept locked, not to keep the inmates confined but to prevent the eager visitors from entering them.
THE CHURCH OF ST JOHN in central Kolkata was built by the British East India Company in the 18th century. Its foundation Stone was laid by Warren Hastings in 1784. We had visited it today, the 13th of January 2023, mainly to see the magnificent painting of the Last Supper by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810). We also spent time looking at the memorials that line the walls of the church. Suddenly, my wife pointed at one of them, which is of great interest to me at the moment. It commemorates James Pattle, who died in 1845 aged 68, an his wife Adeline, who died the same year aged 52. Whereas James is buried in London, Adeline was lost at sea.
My interest in this couple is related to a book I am writing about one of their daughters, who became one of the most famous British photographers during the 19th century. You will learn more about her after I publish my book.
James was born in Calcutta, as the city was named in his time. He was educated in England, and returned to Calcutta, where he became a High Court Judge. Adeline was born in French Pondicherry. Her maiden name was De l’Etang. Her father was a French nobleman who has fled from France to French India after the Revolution. He had been in charge of the French Royal stables and became important in the welfare of the East India Company ‘s horses in Calcutta . Her mother Therese had some Indian ancestry. James and Adeline married in 1811 at Bhagulpur in India. They had 10 surviving children.
⁸After James died in his home on Chowringee, he was placed in a barrel of preservative spirits so that, according to his wishes, he coukd be buried in London beside his mother in Marylebone Parish Church. Adeline travelled from Calcutta to London on the same ship as her husband’s corpse. Adeline died at sea according to the memorial in St John’s, but this might be incorrect. In any case, Adeline died a few months after James.
James’s remains did reach England, but they are interred at St Giles Church in London’s Camberwell. It is in this church, not the one in Marylebone, where his mother was buried.
The memorial in St John’s Church must have been placed because his fellow British citizens held him in high regard. The memorial was also a token of love given by their sorrowful childrenAs for his famous daughter, I will leave you in suspense!
THE PRESTIGIOUS TOLLYGUNGE Club, where we are staying in Kolkata, is close to a metro station. The Club’s manager recommended that we used it to reach the city centre quickly rather than taking a much slower taxi into town.
The Kolkata metro, which now has three lines, began operating in 1984.
We travelled from Mahanayak Uttam Kumar Station, which is above ground to Park Street, which is subterranean. At the ticket office each traveller is given a circular plastic counter in exchange for the fare, which depends on the distance to be travelled. At a barrier operated electrically, the counter is placed on a designated panel, and the gate opens to admit the traveller to the platforms.
The clean trains are very efficiently ventilated with an air-conditioning system. There are sections of the carriages for ladies only. Passengers were using their mobile phones in the underground stretches of the journey, which suggests that, unlike in London either broadband or WiFi is available on the train while in a tunnel.
Electronic screens provided information about the journey and the use of the trains in Bangla, English, and Hindi. Announcements made over a loudspeaker system were in Bangla and English.
The train ran smoothly and passengers seemed very calm and polite. The journey was twice as fast as if we had gone by road. Although we travelled at a quiet time of day, the train was quite full. I imagine that during rush hours, we might not have been so comfortable.
All in all, our brief experience of the metro was very satisfactory. After disembarking at Park Street station, we bravely crossed a six lane main road to reach Park Street, which we discovered has now been renamed ‘Mother Teresa Sarani’, but most people still call it by its older name.
WHEN WE LANDED at the huge airport that serves Kolkata (Calcutta), it looked much as it did 3 years ago. Only one of the 6 or 7 baggage retrieval conveyor belts was in use and the vast airport seemed almost empty. The situation was the same when we last used it in December 2019.
We made the long ride from the airport to South Kolkata in a vehicle that was not available 3 years ago: an electric taxi. While being driven in this advanced form of vehicle, I wondered whether much else had changed in the city. Although there is much new construction at the periphery, it seems that delightful old Kolkata simply looks a little older.
A visit to the busy New Market (aka ‘SS Hogg Market’) revealed little obvious change. Our first port of call was at the excellently and tastefully stocked Modern Book Depot, where we chatted with the owner and made a few purchases.
Our search for a small funnel took us around the market buildings. A small store crammed full of kitchenware was able to fulfil our quest. We had been looking for this simple item in three other cities – in vain.
To our great relief, Nizam’s restaurant looked much as it has done for many decades, although an additional dining area has been added. The walls of the two older eating areas are decorated with framed theatre (English and Bengali plays) and cinema posters (mainly films made in India).
Nizam’s was founded in 1932, and has been well-known for its tasty kabab (‘kathi’) rolls ever since. A paratha is fried in oil on a tava, and cooked mutton or chicken is placed on it plus or minus a a beaten egg. When the paratha is ready, it and its contents are rolled up and wrapped tightly in paper. According to the customer’s choice, chillies can be added before the paratha is rolled. The management of Nizam’s states that the paper wrapped rolls were invented so that in the era prior to Independence, British men and their casual, temporary, female companions could eat the rolls without getting grease on their fingers. Whatever their history, these kabab rolls are highly enjoyable.
From where we were sitting, we were able to see the paratha dough being strenuously kneaded by a young man rhythmically thrusting his hands into the stiff paste. I was also able to watch other men threading meat onto metal skewers and others grilling the meat on glowing charcoal. The dough is formed into spheres a little smaller than tennis balls . These spheres are then flattened to make circular discs, which are then fried on the tava as already mentioned.
Walking around New Market and driving between it and south Kolkata revealed that the centre of the city I love has not succumbed to the often tasteless modernisation that has affected many other cities. I enjoy the unchanging appearance of Kolkata, but many people who have lived there bemoan the fact that it is a dying city. This is not say that Kolkata lacks vitality. It is still full of life, but as far as business opportunities are concerned, both the present and the future are not looking particularly optimistic.
THE CHURCH OF ST MARY in Fort St George in Chennai (Madras) was constructed by 1680, when it was consecrated. It is the oldest Anglican church east of Suez.
The church contains a memorial to the founder of the famous American Yale College – Eliahu Yale. He had been Governor of Chennai’s Fort St George, where the church is located, between 1687 and 1692. He had also been the vestryman and treasurer of St Mary’s church.
The font within the church is made of a form of black granite known as Charnockite. This stone is named after Job Charnock (c 1630-1693). A member of the British East India Company, he is credited with founding a British settlement at a pre-existing village on the bank of the Hooghly River. Although the place had already been settled long before his arrival, Charnock’s establishment grew into what is now Kolkata (Calcutta).
In about 1678, Job entered a romantic relationship with a Hindu woman, whom he called Maria. They produced a son and three daughters. The daughters were baptised in the font in St Mary’s in Chennai in August 1689. A few years later, Job died. His funerary monument is in Kolkata, where he passed away. Like the font in Chennai, Job’s tomb, which is housed in a mausoleum in Kolkata, is made of Charnockite. This form of granite can be found in the south of India. It was local to Chennai but far from Kolkata. This type of rock was first described in Tamil Nadu and was named in honour of Job Charnock.
Apart from the font and the memorial to Yale, the church of St Mary’s has many fascinating sculpted monuments to Britishers who died in India or on their way to or from it.
THE PHOTOGRAPHER Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879; ‘JMC’) was born in the Garden Reach district of Calcutta (now Kolkata in West Bengal). Her father, James Pattle, was a prosperous English official in the East India Company. JMC and her six sisters, the surviving children of James and Adeline Marie Pattle, had a Bengali ancestor, Thérèse Josephe Blin de Grincourt (1768-1866) She was JMC’s maternal grandmother, a Bengali woman who had married a French man, Ambroise Pierre Antoine de l’Étang (1757-1866, whose presence in Bengal was recorded in “The India Office List 1825” as “De l’Étang, Chevalier Antoine, Knt. St Louis, assist. Stud at Poosa, 1796” (Poosa is in what is now Madhya Pradesh). They married in 1788. At that time, it was not uncommon for European men to have lasting relationships with Indian women. This is well-described in William Dalrymple’s book “White Mughals”. Later, in the 19th century, such interracial liaisons were heavily frowned upon. It was expected that ‘white’ men would only marry ‘white’ women. Incidentally, Thérèse was daughter of a French colonist and his Bengali wife.
As with her sisters, JMC was sent to France to be educated. She remained there from 1818 to 1834, when she returned to India.
In 1835, suffering from ill-health, JMC travelled to the Cape of Good Hope. This part of what is now South Africa was favoured as a place to convalesce by Europeans based in India. It was in the Cape that JMC met not only the famous astronomer and an inventor of photography Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), but also the man whom JMC would marry in 1838: Charles Hay Cameron (1795-1880). Charles was in the Cape recovering from a malarial illness. A disciple of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, he was a reformer of law in India and education, who also invested in coffee plantations (in 1848) in Sri Lanka.
Julia and Charles married in Calcutta, where she became a prominent hostess in the city’s British Indian society. During the 1840s, she corresponded regularly with John Herschel about developments in the science and technology of photography. He sent her two dozen calotypes and daguerreotypes, which were the first photographs he had ever set eyes on. The Camerons raised eleven children: five of their own; five orphans (children of relatives); and an Irish girl named Mary Ryan (whom they found begging on Putney Heath).
The entire Cameron family relocated to England in 1845, possibly because their two older children had settled there, and Charles had retired. They settled in Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent. They became friendly with one of their neighbours, the poet Henry Taylor (1800-1886), who had worked in the Colonial Office under Robert William Hay (1786-1861), who might well have been related to Charles Hay Cameron’s mother. Later, the Camerons moved to East Sheen, which is closer to London than Tunbridge Wells.
It was through Henry Taylor and Julia’s sister Sara (1816-1887), who was married to Henry Thoby Prinsep (1793-1878), an official in the Indian Civil Service, that JMC was introduced to a set of noteworthy Victorian cultural figures. Henry and Sara had returned to England from India in 1835, and were living in (the now demolished) Little Holland House next to the house of the artist Lord Leighton, near Holland Park in west London. Their home became a meeting place for famous artists, as will be described later. It was here that Sara held a salon for pre-Raphaelite artists, poets, and aristocrats with an interest in artistic activities. At Sara’s home, JMC encountered, amongst other worthy cultural figures, the poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892).
Tennyson rented Farringford House in Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight (‘IOW’) in 1853, and purchased it three years later. In 1860, after a long visit to Tennyson on the IOW, the Camerons bought a property next door to Tennyson’s and named it Dimbola after one of their (then coffee) plantations in Sri Lanka. TO BE CONTINUED