Catherine Dyas and Friends: Naini Tal’s Unwitting Pioneers

Catherine Dyas pictured sidesaddle on her pony Tottles in Nainital, British ruled India, in June 1867.

16 November 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch returns to his favourite Hill Station. 

On 5 June 2020, I posted The Rowing Memsahibs of Naini Tal, a piece in which I claimed that two different photographs of the same group of women posing in a rowing boat that I had discovered on the Internet (one for sale in the UK, one in a museum in Texas) were the oldest known photographic images of a women’s racing crew. They were taken in 1867 in Nainital, then in British ruled northern India, a “hill station” built by the colonialists to escape the summer heat of the plains. It was one of the few such places with a lake suitable for rowing. 

The women in the photographs seemed to be wearing uniform rowing costumes and I was pleased to discover confirmation that organised boat racing by women existed on Naini Tal at this time. In her book, Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India (1988), Professor Margaret MacMillan of the University of Oxford wrote: 

Ladies who had been too tired to do anything much on the Plains found in the cool air (of the high altitude settlements) that they could take up sport… At Naini Tal, the lake was the scene of ladies’ rowing races. In 1867, young Barbara Kerr reported proudly, she was fortunate to be part of the crew of the Lieutenant-Governor’s daughter, which had ‘a very swell costume of dark blue stuff trimmed with scarlet braid and looped up with 15 scarlet anchors’. 

The “Undine” crew pictured on Naini Tal in 1867. “Tal” means “lake” so strictly speaking, the town is Nainital and the body of water is Naini Tal but, historically, the use of both seems flexible. The spelling is also variable with “Nynee Tal” in use in the past. Nainital was then part of the North Western Provinces and Oudh and today it is in Uttarakhand State.

Two weeks after posting Memsahibs, I produced Return to Naini Tal in which I noted that my original post had, in HTBS terms at least, gone viral in India with over a thousand views there. I also linked to a delightful memoir of a pre- and post-First World War childhood in Naini Tal and other places in “British India” by Daphne Gordon, a 25-page 1996 publication titled A Himalayan Sunset

Finally, early this month I found a programme from the Naini Tal Club Regatta of 1915 and the result was A Raj Regatta. It was good to see that, 48 years on from the two photographs of 1867, women were still very much part of the rowing scene on Naini Tal. 

I thought that this may have been the end of discoveries about women’s rowing on Naini Tal but, happily, I was mistaken. On 20 October, Tim Dyas, who lives on Mallorca, posted a comment on my original Memsahibs article saying that he is writing a book partly based on the journal of his great-grandmother, Catherine Dyas, who lived with her husband, Joe, in Nainital from 1865 until November 1867 and who was passionately involved in boat racing there. Catherine and her crew were photographed in their boat, the Effie, probably at the same time as the Undine crew pictured above, but sadly this image has been lost. 

Tim Dyas then emailed me more detail: 

I am writing a book about my great-grandfather, Joe Dyas, who was a canal engineer in the Punjab from 1845-1864 and from 1865-68 in Roorkee in the North Western Provinces which is why they rented a house in Nainital. 

The book is also about his wife Catherine, her sister Harriette, Joe’s sister Eliza and younger half- brother Dick Dyas – it is not a family history so much as the story of one generation of a family and their friends. It is based on hundreds of letters, photographs, official documents and Catherine Dyas’ private Journal which she kept every day for 15 years. 

I am about 3⁄4 way through writing the book and there are two chapters with about 75 pages on the Nainital period – if it ever gets published an editor will no doubt get out his scissors… I am sending you the pages which are specifically about the regatta season of 1867, although there are plenty of other mentions of boating on the lake to the strains of whichever regimental band was in Nainital at that moment, racing against friends or rowing under a starry sky. 

Catherine was 28 in 1867 and was energetic and enthusiastic about a variety of activities, including riding, singing in the church choir or arias during ‘At Homes’ at Government House…, collecting ferns, making dresses, cooking etc. And if that wasn’t enough, she put her heart and soul into rowing! 

Keeping occupied. Amateur dramatics in Nainital in 1871, presumably in the Assembly Rooms by the lake. It looks very amateur and very dramatic. Picture: J. Paul Getty Museum Open Content Programme.

There is a Miss Drummond in the Undine crew. Professor MacMillan’s quote shows that the Miss Drummond, mentioned by Catherine as one of the crew of the Undine, is indeed the daughter of the Lieutenant Governor, the Hon Edmund Drummond – which in turn shows that the ‘very swell costume of dark blue stuff trimmed with scarlet braid’ is the dress of the Undine.

Mrs R Drummond may have been the sister of Edmund Drummond. Catherine usually calls Edmund’s wife ‘the Hon Mrs Drummond’ to distinguish them.

Parts of Tim Dyas’s writing on Naini Tal’s regatta month of August 1867 are reproduced below. I have included pictures and captions that are not part of his proposed book. 

Selections from Chapter 17: Last Year in Nainital

August (1867) in Nainital was the month for regattas, the band by the lake and balls. Catherine joins a ladies crew, the Effie, at the end of July and by the time of her wedding anniversary they are practicing regularly:

7th August. Eve of our wedding day 7 years ago… then to the boat, went up the lake and down again – we are a bad crew. Miss C Reade stroke – me 3, Miss Guise 2, Miss Reade 1, Miss Lottie Burroughs to steer. I came home fearfully late in the dark and with a lantern… 

Naini Tal photographed in October 1868. It had a pleasant climate, spectacular views of forests of pines, firs and cedars and rows of snow capped peaks in the distance, all appealing to the Victorian taste for the romantic pastoral. The site of the “Undine” picture is marked with an “x”. Picture: J. Paul Getty Museum Open Content Programme.

There is evidently a lot of room for improvement, and they sometimes go out with a coach called Mr Bethune. She and Miss Guise often rush from rowing practice to choir practice or a church service and she can hardly fit everything in:

10th August Saturday … a scramble all the morning, this daily boating makes it hard work to get thró one’s day’s duties. After luncheon went to practise at the church, tried 176 in Ancient and Modern, a lively tune. The (two) Miss Reades could not come out, so Miss Guise and I rode with Mrs Larkins to the Band, it was great fun and we got on pretty well – I was home in better time. 

One day they are grilled in the midday sun and the next they get a good soaking or take cover till the rain stops:

Went to the 4 oar, but rain came on, and we did not get more than 3 minutes rowing and had to sit in Drew’s verandah for an hour. 

Drew’s is a shop where dress materials, hats etc are sold. It seems that its premises are next to the boathouse and the Assembly Rooms. 

A pre-1875 photograph showing Nainital before a disastrous landslide of 1880 that destroyed most of the buildings seen here. The site of the Undine crew picture is marked “x”. The assembly rooms seen behind the Undine crew are marked “A”.  “B” is the site of a bazaar, probably of Indian shops. Catherine was not pleased when one of her servants took her five-year-old son to the bazaar without her permission. A boathouse is at “C”, possibly the one that the Undine ladies used.

Catherine occasionally mentions her arch rivals – the Undine. The rivalry is not usually all that friendly: 

14th … after the evening service I went to the boat, and after encountering Miss Drummond and all her crew, who were very vicious, had a nice lesson but felt unaccountably tired doing our 500 yards (457 metres). Rode home by the rising moonlight. Did Tasso. 

She is continuing to persevere with her Italian by translating Torquato Tasso, a well-known 16th- century poet. 

Miss Guise has to drop out of the team and she is replaced by a Miss Wylly. Catherine is in a team of Misses and as a married woman of 28 is definitely the older woman occasionally somewhat irritated by the silliness and chatter of her crew.

9th We had a nice little practise only the girls were rather silly and quarrelsome… 

20th Was doubtful whether to go out in the boat with those silly girls or not at noon! But pouring rain decided for me. 

But on the whole Catherine thoroughly enjoys every aspect of the racing, not least dressing the part in the crew uniform of scarlet and grey.

13th Got up early and cut out my boating dress.

19th Lovely morning but very wet afternoon which prevented my grieving at not being able to row “in our dress” at the Band…. I went to the “At Home” in the evening, black Tulle and red roses, had a pleasant evening. Fine night – sung a quartette “No tocaran” we made a great noise. 

21st Bound my hat and got ready my boating dress generally, it rained faster when I wanted to start, but I got out at last and as far as St Loo where I found the Sprys (the crew of the ‘Kitty Spry’), Major Gilbert and Mrs Cookson. We waited about an hour and it cleared so we did our race. Twice in 4 minutes, we all had our dresses on, and we looked very nice, it was pleasant, only fearfully dark and wet for going home. 

Catherine and an entry and a drawing from her journal on Sunday, 8th April 1867: “Trimmed my sailor hat, it looked so pretty…”

I did a search for ‘Undine Nainital’ and to my astonishment up came two photographs that were the focus of an article called The Rowing Memsahibs of Naini Tal by Tim Koch about women’s rowing in the 19th century to be found on the website, Hear The Boat Sing. There are two high- quality photographs of the 6-oar Undine crew in their boating dress with the Assembly Rooms in the background, one with and one without their crew jackets and boaters. These were almost certainly taken in mid-September 1867 as Catherine writes that her crew was photographed on Thursday, 17th September and the photographer probably took these crew photographs either on the same day or during the same period: 

17th September Thursday Very busy with fancy dresses. Had to go down at 3 o’clock for our crew photograph.

She does not name the photographer this time, but it was almost certainly Saché as he had established a studio in Nainital by this time and photographed the family in early June; he was still in Nainital as on the 30th September she ‘took a ride as far as Saché on Pompey’. He was probably the only photographer in the area and she did not need to name him as she had done in 1866 and in June 1867. Unfortunately the photograph of the Effie has not survived, and I only know their colours were scarlet and grey because she mentions them in her journal a year later when she is once again living in Dalhousie… 

The Undine rowers with hats and jackets removed. The long photographic exposures required at the time did not allow for holding smiles and this has reinforced our strange idea that the Victorians were a humourless lot.

In her entry for the 26th August, Catherine is helping her friends in the Kitty Spry crew: 

26th Entirely occupied in preparing for the Colours of the ‘Kitty Spry’, white and violet caps, flag etc etc; after lunch went out in our boat and practised a great deal starting etc. Returned in the dark. 

Thus we know the colours for the Kitty Spry were white and violet, those for the Effie were scarlet and grey, and those for the Undine were dark blue and scarlet. 

As the end of August and the day of the big race approaches excitement builds up. There are a total of four ladies crews, the Effie, the Hilda, the Kitty Spry and the Undine, and they all compete with different handicaps. This was necessary not least because the Undine was a 6-oar and the rest 4-oars. Very possibly the boats were mismatched in other ways.

A view of the lake from the Nawab of Rampore’s House, October 1868. Picture: J. Paul Getty Museum Open Content Programme. 

The first race is held on the 27th…

27th Tuesday The great day at last! Felt quite excited, finished the Colours with some for Jim – then we all dressed and had early lunch, I went off for Miss Wylly. Joe and Josey went down together and dear Jim with the Cannons – he wasn’t a bit shy… 

Catherine raced in the Effie crew against her old rivals in the Undine crew and her friends in the Kitty Spry crew

We were fearfully beaten but put a good face on it and accepted refreshments from the Undine; we remained out late and returned in pitch darkness with a lantern – very tired and down in the mouth for the “Spry” was utterly beaten also. Came in third. 

28th Dear Joe kindly decided me on going to church so Josey and I tramped in the rain to Miss Wylly’s, who said she was very bad with pain in her side – I was a little late and Mr Cowley (the vicar of St John’s in the Wilderness) annoyed me afterwards by saying we pulled so badly in the race! I found Harrie and Lottie at the (boat) sheds and we were embarking when the indifferent Miss Reades came up and we did the course twice and I returned in the dark as usual. 

29th Thursday Fixed for our 2nd race but how it did pour till nearly 4 o’clock and when it ceased the wind rose and the lake was thought too rough four our 4 oar so the regatta was postponed till Saturday, however Joe and Tickell, Miss Guise and I went out in our boat and I rowed with her, also inspected lamps there, and she gave me red berries; rode up by daylight, put on my black Tulle to be like our crew and berries in hair in front and on skirt and went to the ‘Regatta Ball’ with Mrs R Drummond – waltzed a little and enjoyed it, the floor was so nice – home at 3 o’clock. 

Pictured in 1868 at the bottom left of this photograph is the Anglican church at Naini Tal, St John’s in the Wilderness, where Catherine sang in the choir. Picture: J. Paul Getty Museum Open Content Programme.

 31st Sat Captain Thomason and Tickell breakfasted here and they also remained to lunch after which we went down to the famous boat race that we were (determined) to win. I picked up Miss Wylly and Miss Guise en route. 

Catherine’s description of the handicapping is somewhat confusing but it seems that, for this 500-yard race, the four-oared Hilda started in front, the four-oared Effie started in the middle, 30 yards behind Hilda but 10 yards in front of the six-oared Undine – which was at the rear. 

(The Effie) went off well, (drew away from) the Undine, passed the Hilda for about 300 yards, then we got tired and the Undine gained on us, got up to us and passed! Oh misery! Our feelings were indeed indescribable… (Then) it threatened for rain and Joe took me away home, where Jimmy wept bitterly at hearing that we had been beaten. I copied music and tried to forget it. 

There is a curious postscript: 

4th September Wed … I forgot to say that yesterday Mrs Drummond begged me with the others to accept the prize we didn’t win, but I had to decline…. After a dear little quiet service at “Belmont”, joined my crew, rowed a little – home to dinner and went on tidying. 

Catherine is tidying the house because her old friend Mrs Sandford is coming up from Agra to stay – the regattas are over but the social life of Nainital is still in full swing. 

Tiffin with friends – and the invisible servants. An image from after Catherine’s time but one that she would have recognised.

Tim Dyas later commented on the postscript of Wednesday, 4th September: 

‘Mrs Drummond’ could be either Mrs R Drummond or the Hon Mrs D. I think it is more likely to be the latter who has the power to offer the first prize as the Lieutenant Governor’s wife. There must have been some argument regarding the handicapping system (in particular with her sister-in-law Mrs R Drummond) and perhaps the “First Lady of Nainital” wanted to pour oil on troubled waters, even though her own daughter is the leading light of the Undine – all speculation!

Tim D. is also keen to dispel the common image of the Victorian upper-class woman as a delicate creature: 

(Catherine) and her friends were riding almost daily, not just on the mall in Nainital showing off their horses and their latest hat, but also for hours at a time up and down the steep hills. They also frequently went walking in the hills, either for picnics or to collect ferns… Also whenever she could, she joined her husband Joe on his ‘marches’ or inspection trips along the canals he had built or was building. These journeys lasted weeks, on camel, horse, elephant or in buggies. They endured considerable discomfort and hardship none of us would put up with today, even though they had servants and ayahs. Catherine was small for a rower, but must have been very fit. Reading her journal has certainly changed my image of the Victorian woman.

Tim Koch concludes:

The chapter invokes a wonderful image of the full life that the British made for themselves in Nainital – however much we may be critical of the concept of Empire today. However, for HTBS Types, I think the best aspect of Catherine’s journal is that it confirms that many of the women were serious and competitive rowers who suffered the sport’s highs and lows, arguments and disputes, just as much as their modern day counterparts do. 

By our standards it is easy to mock the women’s sporting efforts but their commitment to physically demanding competition in heavy boats wearing highly restrictive clothing in a sometimes harsh climate can only be admired. Further, they probably had no role models as the handful of sports that were deemed as suitable for women 150 years ago did not usually require much effort by heart, lung or muscle. To repeat the conclusion in my post, A Raj Regatta

It is unlikely that many, if any, of the female rowers of Naini Tal thought of themselves as radical pioneers – but surely that is what they were. Postscript: A previous piece on HTBS about Britain’s rowing legacy in the Indian subcontinent is From Empire to Independence: Indian Rowing Reincarnated.

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