Railway Colonies in India by John Alton Price

Railway Siding in Jamalpur

When quite a child in India I had gathered, from the odd word I happened to overhear, or the odd attitude one observed when the subject of Railways was mentioned there seemed to be an antipathy towards ‘those Railway people’. I found this somewhat mysterious and puzzling : however, not being in contact with any of the Railway Colony; they lived in the extreme north of Delhi and we were housed in the south or ‘Posh’ area as some saw it. I also remember being told to stay clear of the area where they lived. This rather upset me and I thought the attitude was somewhat curious, not to say unfair. I found out as I grew older and a bit more knowledgeable that the Railway people were considered a bit ‘Racy’ and not quite up to the mark or shall we say a bit common. In much later days I was to discover for myself that these opinions were positively unfair and rather, or downright ignorant. I had in my ‘growing up’ days had very little contact with railway people in India, except for the occasional meeting through rail travel.During my service in the Military I was to be Posted to a quite important Railway Station called Jamalpur, in Bihar. It was early May 1942 and our Unit was transported to a wooded area to set up Camp. Four of us shared a 1201b. tent and after erecting same in the late evening we turned in to sleep as we were shattered. The ground was to be our resting place for a time until wire framed beds were received. Of course the inevitable happened: a storm hit us on the first night and we were nearly washed away. We hadn’t had the energy to dig a trench around the tent; this being the most important procedure after the erection of a tent. I remember waking, and with disbelief seeing ‘Taffy’ suspended against a tent wall which he was trying to hold in place! However, we dried out the next day. Our task at this scrub jungle site was to build roads and erect accommodation for Stores, and Ammunition would be placed in the forested hill area, with the help of local native labour.

Railway Siding in Jamalpur

Makeshift Mess

Railway line past No 2 sub-depot

Forest Camp near Jamalpur, Biha

We were encamped about four to five miles from the town so going into town was quite a long walk. Part of the way, about a mile or so was provided with a railway line and if the hand operated Trolly was at the right end of the track we could take an enjoyable ride. A Message had been received by our Colonel that his Unit would be welcome to visit the Jamalpur Railway Institute; this was looked forward to with anticipation. Arriving at the Institute we converged on the Billiards Room and Bar to introduce ourselves. We were made most welcome and on my part, almost right away I met a chap called Lawson who went to my School, but very much earlier. I also met another Railway Engineer whose brother I knew from Bombay. Invitations to Dinner were given and I was to meet their families at a later date. We were all informed that we would be Honorary members of the Institute and were to come and go, when and as we pleased. In the following eight or nine months the building of our Field Depot progressed. In the mean time we had to abandon the original site because of its unsuitability in the Monsoon. Apart from the danger of, and the fear of flooding, the scrub and forest was the home of many Scorpions and Snakes. It was while we were in this jungle camp site that one of our boys died of Heat Stroke. The Doctor attending him was very upset: as he explained that if sufficient Ice could be had (we had none and the vehicle bringing a supply from the town arrived too late) he would have saved Woodford’s life. Rapid arrangements had to be made for a funeral which was performed the next day. I was one of the Pallbearers. At least the lad was given a splendid Military Burial.

Our Tent in the forest

First locomotive on East Indian Railway

Enterprising shoeshine boy

Tent companion

I was rather disappointed to leave the wildness of this scrub jungle because the hills made fine walking country and there were one or two villages, not far away which were inhabited by Tribal people; very shy at our approach but quite harmless and it was interesting to observe in their primitive way of life.A Headquarters was built near the town and Stores were housed in an area at the south outskirts near a railway line. Work was fairly hectic through the humid hot (up to 113F at times) Summer as supplies were urgently needed in Assam for the Burma Campaign. A number of us suffered from Prickly Heat rashes and sores in other parts, that is, mainly in the ‘Crutch’ area. Calamine lotion was liberally used! .Our spare time was fully used with various diversions; for example football. Three of our Unit were invited to play for the Railway Institute team in an annual tournament. Fancy playing games in these hot and humid conditions, we must have needed our brains examining. But we were very young and could take a lot of punishment! It was a bit cooler in the late evening when we played.

The Railway Institute was a ‘Godsend’ and we were to discover its joys quite soon. On Saturdays a dance was held. The Musicians who entertained us were a small family of Philippinos; very nice people. These dances were well attended and we found the company most friendly and agreeable. We were given invitations to Dinner and made many friends here. One of our chaps even married into the community and I was later, many years later to meet him in my local Library in London. Of course we got together on occasions to reminisce with him and his wife. I, through an old school member (who I have already mentioned) was introduced to several members of the Railway Colony. I got to like the people and always received friendly treatment. I was fortunate even to get on closer terms with a very lovely blond girl (who had recently come down from her school in the Hills) I was to meet Pamela in Calcutta a few years later where she was training to become a nurse.

Ablutions on a new camp-site

Amunition valley – Jamalpur

Sunday walk – hills near Jamalpur

Village on the banks of the Brahmaputra

I was to discover that Jamalpur had the third largest Railway Workshop in the World (or so I was told) and was responsible for the training of Railway Engineers who came to the Workshops after they had passed out of their particular schools of academia. Consequently most male members of the town were Railway Engineers of one kind or another, However high or low in status I found them most agreeable. I was never able to have a guided tour of the workshops but I’m sure the inner workings of the railway would have been interesting. In the front of the Workshop buildings, on a three foot high pedestal was placed a Locomotive which happened to be the first Engine to ride the rails of The East Indian Railways. I have a photo of the beautiful machine.The European Railway Institute (the Indians had their own Institute) was a fairly comprehensive Club of a good standard. The facilities were: Swimming Pool and Tennis Courts and some Courts for Badminton. Inside the Club was a good size Hall used as a Cinema and on Dance nights the chairs were cleared to the sides and some tables set up. Also ‘Housie Housie’ (Bingo) and Whist games were also played here. Next to this was a very well furnished ‘Cocktail’ Bar for the Ladies… .or anyone for that matter. Through to a Library and Reading room. The Billiards room also had its own Bar, all the necessary Wash rooms and Lavatory’s were included in the building. Many happy hours were spent at this Institute and many friends made. There was just one snag and that was the long walk back to the original Camp. One night my torch picked out a snake, which one of us almost trod on. It was curled up between one of the railway sleepers on the line. Of course on our approach it was on the attack so with a swipe from the cane I was carrying (our Camp Orders advised everyone to carry canes) it was despatched. The snake was a Banded Krait and I took it back to Camp and laid it out on a table for the night meaning to remove its skin the next day. The next morning I was not very popular because a couple of our tent mates were not able to sleep!

Our working life at Jamalpur was quite hectic. Some civilian girls were taken on to work as office clerks; this did make working hours more pleasant. Our spare time was well employed and enjoyed due in very big part to the way we were accepted and entertained by the civil population and of course the many facilities the Railway Institute provided. My eight months in Jamalpur were happy and I could write much more about the Colony but I have other Stations to mention.

Small boats on the Brahmaputra

Grinding corn, tribal village, Bihar

Some shy tribe folk

Transport for road building

From Jamalpur I was Posted, on promotion to Assam, a paradise for lovers of nature which I experienced in some measure. Birds, Butterflies, and snakes were in abundance. Insects by the million, including the Fire Fly that lit up the bushes at night. Many Scorpions of various types, in fact, Flora and Fauna ad infinitum. There were also beautiful Orchids, but usually out of reach, growing on large trees. The Game Sanctuary at Kaziranga was nearby and the wonderful Brahmaputra River. Jungle to be explored but the heat and humidity was something else. December to January and pant Feb: were quite pleasant. During the Monsoon it was very wet and humid, to say the least. Up in the hills the annual rainfall was 450 to 500 inches! I went to some of the better known Railway Colonies such as Gauhati, Sylchar and Sylhet; but I had no contact with the civilians working for the Railways. On the Main line through Gauhati to the North, the Americans at one stage employed some of their own Locomotives, in conjunction with and the help of the Assam Railways to speed things up when transporting supplies for the Burma Campaign. Silchar incidentally, is famous for Tea growing and had also the first Polo Club in India. I did use the railway as transport on a few occasions but I never met any Railway people as such, except on one occasion. I did meet a retired Manager of the Bengal Assam Railways who was a well known Big Game Shikari (Hunter). This was on a Convoy trip through Cooch Behar State in North Bengal. Mr Gibbs and his family entertained some of us who were travelling, by Convoy to Imphal. He also took us on a trip to the Lower Dours forest (of which he was an Honorary member and used to conduct Shoots for the Raja of Cooch Behar) to show us a forest Inspection Bungalow sited on a cliff top surrounded by a dry Moat to keep Elephants out. This Bungalow was used by the Forest men when they made their inspection rounds of the forest. From the Bungalow, in the evening especially, all types of Jungle creatures were observed when coming down to a stream for a drink. Also very near, in fact from Mr Gibbs house, from a raised covered veranda the Himalayan range of Kanchanjunga could be seen; only on a clear day of course. We were given to understand that the distance from the veranda to the mountain peak was about a hundred and fifty miles; as the ‘Crow flies’.Later, during 1944 I was to do fleeting trips to Mohuda, Gomoh and Ranchi. The latter town being famous for an Asylum for the Insane. At Gomoh on an evening visit to the Railway Institute dance, I met the family of a chap called Healy who had been in Assam with me. I was, therefore a centre of interest, for a short while as his family wanted news of their son who they thought might be too close to the Japanese Army! I also attended a dance, by invitation from the Hendersons who were related to some old friends of ours in Delhi. This was at the Railway Institute in Howrah (Calcutta). Here again the Railway people were most kind and entertaining.

Cycle ride – Jubblepore


Enjoying rain after a hot spell

In 1944 Dhanbad, in Bihar was to be a site where a Mobile Unit was assembling and getting ready to move to Imphal which is in Manipur State on the border with Burma. We were encamped near the Trunk road to Calcutta and about four miles out of the town. Dhanbad was also an important Railway Colony. On my first visit to the European Railway Institute I was to discover two people I had met in the distant past. Bertie and Della were related to an old friend in Delhi. We had an entertaining evening at the Saturday dance and I was asked over for Dinner at a later date. Also I met some keen Hockey players who suggested I take a team over to their ground sometime. I did this, and here again I met a young lad from my School. We spent a few engagements on the hockey field, also with some of the local Railway teams and two or three Military sides. A few games of hockey and football, also Volley Ball, and to be more serious, Small Arms Traininq and Parades were our main daytime occupation until our convoy was ordered to depart for Imphal, via Calcutta. However, before departing from Dhanbad let me tell you a little about the Colony. Yet another experience of meeting people who kept the Railways of India smooth running and efficient. The Railway Institute itself was not quite of the same standard of the one at Jamalpur, but nevertheless the people were sociable and welcoming. The main population, from what I gathered, was of mixed European, Eurasian and Indian cultures and worked almost entirely for the Railway, on the East India section.Outside Dhanbad the land was rich in Coal so this area of Bihar was mainly a Mining place. Employing thousands of Natives who had a fairly miserable and poor life. The Climate was not very healthy and many natives suffered from Elephantiasis and other complaints. Mining Engineers there were of course, to run the business and the man I mentioned earlier, Bertie was one. His home which I visited was outside Dhanbad and his Club, a very fine affair, at a place called Kulti. The Club members made us Military types welcome. I will never forget the evening I went to Bertie’s place for Dinner. On arrival I was received by Della and her Mother. Bertie was not present yet; apparently he had gone with a railway chum called Bowen (who incidentally I had met some years earlier up in the Hills) after a reported Leopard ‘Kill’. After we had been chatting for forty minutes or so Bertie and his friend arrived looking a bit ruffled. Bowen had a couple of nasty scratches on his face and the left sleeve of his jacket had been torn loose. The report goes that the said Leopard was on its ‘Kill’ and took fright when the Shikaris approached. The animal made a dash to escape and Bowen was in its way so it knocked him down and escaped: he was severely shaken but not badly injured. However, he was a hospital case for anti Tetanus injections to stave off blood poisoning because of the bad scratches. I believe a few stitches were also necessary. Anyway, after the incident had our full attention we carried on and enjoyed our dinner.

Asansol, quite near to Dhanbad is also an important Railway Colony; I was able to go there only once, to the Cinema and some shopping before our long trip to Imphal. Though I have passed through the station many times going to, or away from Calcutta.

This brings me to Jubbulpore, which I have included in another article. However, I remember some things which I haven’t mentioned previously. Jubbulpore was not only an important Railway Colony, but also quite a large Military presence was always kept here. The Station is a Junction on The Great Indian Peninsula Railway; therefore, it has fairly large Workshops and employs a big number to work the railway. The civilian population is quite a mixture of Europeans, Asians and Eurasians who run things. For some reason there are many Mail Train Drivers here who are almost all European (many who are Domiciled). A few of the Drivers are Indian. At this time in the early Forties Indians were taking over more important jobs, not only on the Railways but everywhere. Independence was near at hand. There were a lot of good sports people amongst the younger members of the Community. Haverlock Luxor a Boxer, I’ve mentioned in another article. The Smiths, one of whom held the l00yds Sprint record and his sister who played Hockey for India. There were many others, too numerous to mention here. This Railway Community, apart from a few Goondas (rascals) were good to us Military types and very hospitable. I entertained some of the boys and girls I became friendly with, from time too time at the Ordanance Club with Tennis, Dances, Billiards: that sort of thing. I was sorry to leave Jubbulpore; apart from all this the Shikar in the outer areas was excellent. I went to the station in the late evening to catch my train heading for the North to Delhi, with mixed feelings but was pleased to see seven or eight friends turned up to see me off. Jubbulpore and Jamalpur will always remain in my memories with fond feelings.In retrospect I can honestly say that I found the Railway Community people most interesting and pleasurable to meet and socialise with. Of course I had to report my findings to some of the intolerant (perhaps even ignorant) groups I had grown up with in Delhi and Simla!

Filed in: History Of Jamalpur, Jamalpur Workshop Tags: , ,

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