Home > Calcutta (Kolkata), Calcutta Heritage, General > Wreck of Sir John Lawrence, the advent of Kolkata – Puri rail link

Wreck of Sir John Lawrence, the advent of Kolkata – Puri rail link

Wreck of Sir John Lawrence

The advent of Kolkata – Puri rail link

The Mullick Ghat Flower Market and the adjoining ghats has always been a hunting ground for photographers. The top view of the chaotic flower market or wrestlers posing in front of the iconic Howrah Bridge are some of the most prized photos.

But hidden from the photographers is an almost invisible marble plaque telling a sad but interesting tale. Located on the wall on the right of the stairs leading down to Chotulal Ghat (also called Mullick Ghat) is a bilingual (Bengali and English) dedicated to the memory of ship wreck victims.

The Bengali version reads as

ইং ১৮৮৭ সালের ২৫ এ মে তারিখের ঝটিকাবত্ত সার জন লারেন্স বাস্পীয় জাহাজের সহিত যে সকল তীর্থযাত্রি (আধিকাংশ স্ত্রীলোক) জলমগ্ন হইয়াছেন তাহাদিগের স্মরণার্থ কয়েকটি ইংরাজ রমণী কর্ত্তক এই প্রস্তর ফলক খানি উৎসীগৃত হইল।

The English version reads as

The stone is dedicated by a few English women to the memory of those pilgrims, mostly women, who perished with the Sir John Lawrence in the cyclone of 25th May 1887.

Cyclones and ship wrecks were nothing uncommon in the Hooghly River but this wreck was important and it lead to a significant change in the history of Indian transport and paved the way for Kolkata – Puri rail link!

According to historian Anil Dhir the plans of a Kolkata – Puri link was mooted in early 1860s when two early British promoters of railway construction in India, Marshman and Stephenson, had taken the assurance of the Dharma Sabha of Calcutta that a pilgrim might board a train without losing his caste and the merit of his pilgrimage. This petition and several others that followed, were turned down.

During the late 1870s it was estimated that the number of pilgrims travelling from Kolkata to Puri annually is about five to six hundred thousand this would guarantee handsome profits to investors. These appeals were repeated time and again in Odia and Bengali newspapers but all were turned down.

Some foreign companies took advantage of the growing demand and started steamer services between Kolkata and Chandbali. Steamships which could take on a thousand pilgrims were operated and the services advertised in the papers. The passage fare was expensive and mostly the rich took the steamers. They would send the children and womenfolk on the steamers and they themselves took the Jagannath Sadak. The five-to-six-day sea journey would bring the pilgrims to Chandbali, from where they would make their way to Cuttack by palanquins or bullock carts and continue to Puri.

 

Bilingual (Bengali and English) plaque dedicated to the memory of ship wreck victims of Sir John Lawrence

Bilingual (Bengali and English) plaque dedicated to the memory of ship wreck victims of Sir John Lawrence

McLin and Company ran a regular service on its steamship ‘Sir John Lawrence’. On May 25, 1887, the ship sailed from Kolkata’s Chotulal Ghat (also called Mullick Ghat) for Chandbali with 750 passengers, mostly women, and a crew of 30 comprising six Englishmen. Nothing was known of the ships for two days until another ship reported wreckage and dead bodies floating off the coast. The ship had sunk with its entire passengers just a few hours after it had steamed off. Most of the women who perished were from well-to-do Kolkata Bhadralok families. The few Englishwomen who drowned were wives of high officials.

The Report of the Marine Court of Inquiry to the Government of Bengal found that the Sir John Lawrence was carrying more than her proper complement of passengers and that the tragedy occurred due to the shipmaster’s irresponsible navigation. This led to an uproar and the demand for the railways to Puri became more powerful.

In 1881, Baikuntha Nath De, an influential Zamindar, founded the ‘Balasore Railway Committee’, which sent a carefully-prepared memorandum to the Government of Bengal asking for construction of a direct rail link between Calcutta and Madras through Orissa’s coastal plains and of a branch line to Puri. This railway, they argued, would not only provide a faster and safer means of transport for the Jagannath pilgrims but would also reduce the incidence of cholera epidemics by improving the pilgrims’ lot and could, furthermore, serve as a famine protection line.

After the wreck a Bengali daily reported “Railway lines have been constructed in all directions for the benefit of Europeans and of their trade. The interests of natives of India have been sacrificed to the interests of Europeans. A railway line to Puri will be hailed with delight by 16 crore of Hindus, for it will lessen the dangers and difficulties and put an end to their sorrows and fears.”

The public pressure had its effect and a survey for a rail line from Calcutta to Cuttack, with a branch line to Puri, was finally sanctioned. The line opened in 1899, but the full journey was possible only from 1900 when the bridges over the major rivers of Odisha had been completed.

Today thousand of Kolkatans, both pilgrims and tourist, take a train to Puri but sadly the tragedy of “Sir John Lawrence” has long been forgotten.

Source:

Shipwreck that got the Railways to Odisha, The Pioneer, Bhubaneswar

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