Return to Naini Tal

A crew of British women on the lake at Naini Tal, Northern India, in 1867. The same women are in both pictures, one photograph was taken with hats and jackets, one without.

22 June 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch greets HTBS readers in India: Namaste.

Were my jottings for HTBS done in search of Internet fame and/or fortune, I would be very disappointed as neither have been forthcoming. I could improve things by producing ‘clickbait’ (‘You won’t believe what the winners of the 1985 Boat Race look like today’), but I have always written for my own amusement and education and, if anyone else is interested, that is a bonus. However, recently I was intrigued to find that I am – temporarily – ‘big in India’ (though ‘big’ is a somewhat relative term in the Internet world where, for example, 9-year-old ‘YouTuber’, Ryan Kaji, has had 30 billion views of his videos).

On 5 June, I posted The Rowing Memsahibs of Naini Tala piece in which I claimed that two pictures that I had discovered are the oldest known photographic images of a women’s racing crew. They were taken in Naini Tal, India, in 1867,  and I included much background material on this former ‘hill station’ built by the British to escape the summer heat of the plains. HTBS editor, Göran R Buckhorn, tells me that views of the article followed the usual pattern, i.e. most on the first day of posting followed by fewer over the next two days and then virtually none. But, says Göran:

…on 18 June, something happened: someone in India must have found the article. The stats show 385 people from India had found HTBS and the article was read 557 times. The day after, the piece was read by 704 readers, 590 from India… [By] 20 June, “Rowing Memsahibs” has found 183 readers of which 152 are from India…. 

The north end of Naini Tal pictured in 1925. © Regents of the University of Michigan.

By HTBS standards, this is ‘viral’. At present, Rowing Memsahibs is still at the top of our ‘Most Popular Posts’ sidebar, a position usually taken by the most recently published article. No similar reaction was produced by my earlier piece on Britain’s rowing legacy in the Indian subcontinent, From Empire to Independence: Indian Rowing Reincarnatedand I speculate whether interest has been fuelled by the alumni of St Joseph’s College in Naini Tal whose defunct rowing club I mentioned. The alumni appear to be a tight-knit group, proud of their old school, a former seminary that is nicknamed ‘Sem’ (hence the somewhat ambiguous unofficial motto for an institution begun by the Congregation of Christian Brothers, ‘Proud to be a Semite’).

St Joseph’s, high on the hills above Naini Tal.
A blazer badge from the former St Joseph’s Boat Club. Picture: @semalumni
When SEM had a boat club and a regatta, 1966. Picture: @semalumni
The disused St Joseph’s Boat House today. Picture: @semalumni/Garima Arya.

Whatever the reason for the sudden popularity of Rowing Memsahibs in India, it is a good excuse for me to post some pictures of Naiti Tal that I did not have space for in the original article and also to flag a delightful online memoir of a pre- and post-First World War childhood in Naini Tal and other places in ‘British India’ by ‘Missahib’ Daphne Gordon.

Not Daphne Gordon and her siblings, but a picture of other British children in India under the care of their ‘Ayah’ or Indian nanny.

Daphne Gordon’s 1996 25-page memoir is titled A Himalayan Sunset. Pages 1 to 11 is her chapter on Naini Tal and the house that her family lived in, ‘Craiglands’. Chapter 2 is about living in the state capital, Lucknow, and Chapter 3 covers her time as a teenager in Allahabad (now Prayagraj). Sadly, there is no mention of rowing. While the whole concept of Empire is now an uncomfortable one, a feeling that has been particularly highlighted by recent events, the story is mostly told through the eyes of an innocent child, so perhaps it can be enjoyed for the charming piece that it is. Some extracts from the first few pages may illustrate this; they are interspersed with images from an earlier time at Naini Tal.

A view of the north end of Naini Tal in 1866.

I was running around the compound with my friend Rhundi, whose father had been our gardener before he died, and whose mother was blind and had been allowed to live on in the servants quarters, and was given a small pension by my father. Rhundi and I built houses under the sweet lime trees or in the branches of the guava trees, and made pots, cups and plates out of mud and water and put them in the scorching sun to dry out. Rhundi always wanted us to make-believe we were important – rajahs and ranis and princesses living in palaces. I, on the other hand, wanted to pretend that I was Maid Marion awaiting Robin Hood and his merry men…. 

A pre-1914 postcard showing some of the boathouses on the lake.

We were leaving the hot plains for Naini Tal up in the hills… The heavy luggage, including the piano which would have been reduced to powder by the white ants if left behind, was stacked in crates onto a bullock cart….

Naini Tal Regatta, 1907.

Our lovely home called Craiglands had been built on a piece of land scooped out from the hillside, a part of which was covered with (cedar trees) which sighed and wailed day in and night out, and from here the edge of the garden dropped into eternity…. Sometimes an army of baboons would climb up the hillside and leap onto the breaches with little babies clinging to the tummies or backs of their parents. I was always terrified of these huge grey creatures with thin black faces… 

The spot (marked ‘x’) where the women’s rowing crew were pictured in 1867. This photograph was taken two years earlier.

During the winter months wild beasts, driven by hunger, and unable to hunt for food in the frozen jungle, would search for easier prey which was always to be found round human habitation… My mother often heard a leopard lapping at the rainwater tub outside the bedroom. Sometimes, it would sit on an overhanging rock panting, and on moonlit nights one could see it quite clearly…

How the British magazine “The Graphic” imagines life in a hill station in 1885.

During the winter in Naini Tal, there was a very beautiful phenomenon which we called the ‘Winter Line’. As the snow fell on the mountain peaks a faint pink line appeared on the horizon as if encircling the world. As the peaks got whiter the line got darker, and by the time we went down to the plains it was a deep red.

Daphne continues with tales of suffering dust storms and locust plagues, of finding cobras in the garden and scorpions in the bathroom, of swimming in the lake and picnicking in the hills, and of dealing with both devout nuns and rude boys. The full text of A Himalayan Sunset is posted on the Cambridge University website.

One comment

  1. Dear Tim,

    After you posted this  wrote to my (Newnham) rowing friend in India to ask whether she had passed on the link about Nainital to other people. This is her reply.

    /I have spoken to my young friend about the Nainital Lake rowing photos and she did send it to someone in Mumbai who handles the alumni mailing for at least three schools in Nainital so he  must have passed it on!/

    I don’t know whether that helps explain the matter?

    Jane Kingsbury //

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