Great Western of Bengal Railway Company, Calcutta, 1845-1847

Railway-BurdwanStn1855
বৃহৎ পশ্চিমাঞ্চলিক বঙ্গ রেল কম্পানি, কলকাতা, ১৮৪৫-৪৭

The story began with Dwarkanath Tagore’s first exposure to railway in Naples on his way to England in January 1842. He wrote home, ‘Think what my sensation when it passed near my carriage’. Soon after he had several occasions to enjoy ‘the greatest wonders of England’ – the train ride. He could well imagine the enormous commercial potential of railway transport in a resource-rich country like Bengal for movement of goods, and passengers as well. Dwarkanath came back loaded with freshly gained experiences and ideas for exploring new industrial ventures. The railway was surely one of those. Dwarkanath landed in December 1842. He had a plan to go back to England next October, but was destined to postpone it until March 1845. See: Partner in Empire

Dwarkanath-Frederick RSay-x

Dwarkanath Tagore by F.R. Say. 1842

Dwarkanath revisited England in March 1845 with intention to secure permission of the Court of Directors of the East India Company to start construction of railroad from Calcutta to the coalfields above Burdwan. On April 14 he arranged to register a company, named ‘Calcutta and Ganges Grand Junction Railway Company’, with the objectives of making and maintaining a line from Calcutta to Rajmahal. Afterwards, on the suggestions of several parties familiar with the location in India, it was considered advisable to extend the line to some point on the Ganges further up towards the north-west, and decided on extending the line to Patna. Incorporating this addition to the former project Dwarkanath registered his company on the 23d of April, 1845 with a new name ‘Great Western of Bengal Railway Company.’ Dwarkanath “consented to act as trustee to the company in India, and his firm,Carr Tagore and Co., created in 1834, was appointed as the agents of the new company in Calcutta.

Dwarkanath tried his best to make a deal with the East India Railway Company, lately incorporated in England under the leadership of Rowland McDonald Stephenson, but never succeeded. Interestingly, ‘Tagore was the man Stephenson came into contact with’ on his arrival in Calcutta in 1843. They had common interests and ‘both dreamed big.’ Stephenson in 1844 wrote a smart persuasive article on the prospect of railways in The Englishman, a paper that Tagore owned that time.

by Camille Silvy, albumen print, 6 March 1861

Rowland Stephenson by Camille Silvy, 1861

“He spoke in terms of trade as well as social uplift, and often quoted views of native merchants such as Tagore, Mutty Lal Seal and others who welcomed railways.” He simultaneously published reports of other railway companies that brought the subject alive and familiarized it to the local and British readers.” See: Two men and a railway line

Dwarkanath’s primary motive was to secure permission to initiate construction of the line by proposing to raise one-third of the capital required for a railway from Calcutta northwest to the coalfields above Burdwan. He faced there greatest opposition from Stephenson, the Chief of the East Indian Railway Company. Stephenson wanted the line to begin from a point 20 miles above Calcutta, where the line would cross the river Hughli. This line would go straight onto Benares, and subsequent later lines would develop towards Delhi and Agra. The Court of Directors of East India Company preferred to guard the interest of the British company, and had reservations ‘to permit a company under native management – to construct such an important railway line’. The Court sanctioned the circuitous route along the Ganga as Stephenson proposed.

Within few months, Dwarkanath Tagore died ‘at the peak of his fortune’ luckless, on the evening of Saturday August 1, 1846. With him died the prospect of his railway enterprise. The Great Western of Bengal Railway Company met for the last time on March 20, 1847 and approved dissolution of the company.

Subsequently on the 15th of April 1847, a proposal was initiated for amalgamation between ‘East Indian Railway Company’ and Dwarkanth’s ‘Great Western of Bengal Railway Company’. Toward the end of that year the two companies merged into a new company under the banner of ‘East Indian Railway’ (EIR) with Rowland Stephenson as its founder MD.

Small locomotive used to draw cane cars 2 ft. gauge, India

Small locomotive 2 ft. gauge

Two years after Dwarkanath died, the Court of Directors of East India Company on recommendation of Lord Dalhousie the then Governor General of India, finally signed an agreement on 17th August,1849 with EIR for construction of a short experimental line from Calcutta to Burdwan. See: History of Indian Railway

This sanction may be reckoned as a belated tribute to the departed soul who breathed his last with dream unfulfilled.

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Ice House, Calcutta, c1833

Ice_House_Calcutta_by_Frederick_Fiebig_1851
বরফ ঘর, কলকাতা, c১৮৩৩
In May 1833, Daniel Wilson, Calcutta’s Lord Bishop, wrote to his family in England: “The weather is perfectly suffocating. None can pity us but those who know our sufferings”. The The British East Indian Company looked for means to get regular supply of ice for the European community in all seasons. Every winter, ‘Hooghly ice’ regularly arrived in the city in large quantities from Chinsurah, about 40 kms away. But this was filthy ice, more like slush, made by freezing water in shallow pits. This was not the kind of ice what the Company wanted for Calcutta. The demand was satisfactorily met through the venture of Frederick Tudor, a Boston merchant, of transportation of this extremely fragile commodity from the US on his specially equipped ship, Tuscany. The ice that Tuscany brought was sparkling clean Massachusetts ice. Calcutta’s British residents raised enough money to set up an ice house to preserve the precious cargo. At four annas a pound, Massachusetts ice was cheaper than the Chinsurah slush. The ‘frozen water’ trade, as it was then called, flourished. Ships carrying ice arrived at regular intervals—from a modest 100 tonnes in 1833, the trade increased to almost 3,000 tonnes in 1847. The price of ice also came down to about two annas per pound. Often, ships bringing ice would get delayed. Ice was rationed and one had to produce a doctor’s certificate to get it.
Over a period of 20 years, Frederick Tudor made a profit of US $220,000 just from Calcutta and went on to become the ‘ice king’. Ice continued to be exported to India packing ice into the hold of shipfor another fifty years with ice-houses in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras as well.But in 1862, the world was introduced to ice-making machines and one in particular met the fancy of the colonial state: Siebe’s Ether Ice-machine. In 1878, with the formation of the Bengal Ice Company, India’s first ice factory, followed by the Crystal Ice Company, sounded the death knell for the American ice trade. The two companies soon amalgamated under the style of the present Calcutta Ice Association, Ltd. See more The ice houses at Calcutta and Bombay no longer exist.
This view of Ice House, Calcutta, is from a hand-coloured photographic print by Frederick Fiebig, dated 1851. Courtesy of the British Library, London.

Taylor and Company’s Emporium, opposite Palmer’s House, Lall Bazar, Calcutta, 1826

টেলর কোম্পানির দোকান ঘর, নিলাম ঘর, লাল বাজার, কলকাতা, ১৮২৬

Before Chowringhee was grown to a grand centre of amusement and entertainment for the European communities, Lall Bazar had been the best attraction for them. Calcutta’s first theatres, hotels and restaurants, coffee house, ball rooms, shops and markets were all clustered around Lal Dighi.  From the junction with Mission Row, there is eastward down the length of the street. The grand house dominating the composition is the house of John Palmer, Palmer was one of the richest merchants of then Calcutta, the so-called Prince of Merchants, but in the end became a pauper because of his habit of charity. Palmer’s house was sold shortly afterwards to the government and converted into a police station, now the police head quarter. Beyond it, on the intersection with Chitpore Road, is the house that served as a court for the Justices of the Peace. Opposite Palmer’s house stand the emporium and auction rooms of Taylor and Company.
This is a coloured aquatinted plate no. 16 from James Baillie Fraser’s ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’, painted in 1826.

East India Company’s Factory, Cossimbazar, 1795

view_of_the_East_India_Company's_Factory_at_Cossimbazarকাশিমবাজারে ইস্ট ইন্ডিয়া কোম্পানির কারখানা, ১৭৯৫
Cossimbazar was the chief overseas port in Bengal from the 16th to the 18th centuries and as a result, all the different European nations who traded with India had a factory in the town. By the close of the 17th century the English factory, depicted in this drawing, was a highly profitable enterprise. The factory owed much of its wealth to its location, near Murshidabad, and to the efficiency of the Commercial Agent and Chief who ran the factory. Its position as chief overseas port in Bengal was surpassed by Calcutta at the end of the 18th century and the town began to decline.
Watercolour of the rear view of the East India Company’s Factory at Cossimbazar in West Bengal by an anonymous artist working in the Murshidabad style, part of the Hyde Collection, c.1795. Inscribed on back in ink: ‘North view of the Cossimbuzar Factory House.’.