A Relic of the Ganges Steamer Companies

by Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Tim Wilsey is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College, London and an Assistant Editor of Victorian Web. Formerly he was a senior British diplomat.

The paddle steamer Bhopal, seen by chance at Khidirpur (formerly Kidderpore) docks in Kolkata (Calcutta), was one of four vessels ordered in 1945 by the India General Navigation and Railways Company (IGNRyC) from William Denny and Company of Dumbarton, Scotland. She was 205 feet in length and 60 feet beam but with a draft of only just over 5 feet; essential for the shallow waters of the Indian rivers. Its engine delivered 122 nominal horse power (nhp). At the time the IGNRyC was replenishing its inventory of steamers after the ravages of the Second World War during which several of its vessels were commandeered for military use to carry supplies from Calcutta to the supply bases for the Burma campaign against the Japanese at Guwahati, Dibrugarh and Dohazari.

The paddle steamer Bhopal at Kidderpore docks, Kolkata
Figure 1. The paddle steamer Bhopal at Kidderpore docks, Kolkata

These were familiar routes for the IGNRyC which had been formed in 1844 to carry goods and passengers on the 1700 miles of interlinked Gangetic rivers, a term which embraces the modern Ganges, Yamuna, Hooghly and Brahmaputra. Following a survey by Captain Thomas Prinsep in 1828 the first steamer began work in 1834. As Mr Johnston of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) wrote in 1947 "The first steamers were stern wheelers about 120 feet long by 22 feet beam, with engines of 40 to 90 nhp, giving a speed of up to 7mph. In those days the same steamer never conveyed both passengers and goods. Passengers were taken in an 'accommodation boat', which was towed behind the steamer."

Bhopal had a predecessor with the same name, also built by Denny's, in 1895 for the rival Rivers Steam Navigation Company (RSNC). The RSNC, created in 1862, was a great competitor of IGNRyC until an agreement in 1889 by which they became known as the Joint Steamer Companies operating many services together whilst maintaining separate management. MacNeill and Co (later MacNeill and Barry) acted as managing agents. Both companies bought paddle steamers from Denny's, which had cornered the market for the great rivers of South Asia. Denny's provided most of the paddlers for the Irrawaddy Flotilla in Burma. Out of a total of 33 vessels which IGNRyC purchased from Denny's between 1899 and 1949, 21 were paddle steamers. RSNC between 1856 and 1949 purchased some 84 paddle steamers from the Dumbarton company plus around 50 other vessels from barges, tugs, and dredgers to cargo ships.

The 1897 Gazetteer of Benares District reports:

The chief navigable river is the Ganges, and this stream still bears very considerable traffic, though its importance has been greatly diminished by the construction of railways ... In 1897 the India General Steam Navigation Company extended the steamer service from Patna to Benares, but the venture did not prove profitable and was abandoned after a few years.

A series of factors caused the decline of river transport on the Ganges between Calcutta and Allahabad and Benares (now Varanasi) between 1834 and 1913. The biggest factor was the construction of the railways between 1855 and 1870 but there was also the problem of dacoity, the lowering of the water level (particularly after the construction of the Ganges and Yamuna canals), the constant problem of silting and moving sandbanks and the resultant damage caused by running aground. As Johnston says, "The fact is that for eight months in the year, there is no satisfactory means of river navigation between Calcutta and the main Ganges stream in the case of vessels proceeding up-country."

A detail from the IGNRC share certificate showing a paddle steamer.
Figure 2. A detail from the IGNRC share certificate showing a paddle steamer.

So increasingly the new paddle steamers were used north east of Calcutta in Bengal and Assam to transport jute and tea for export. The steamers would bring their merchandise through the treacherous tributaries of the Brahmaputra, and Hooghly and return laden with basic supplies for the riverine towns and cities. These vessels worked together with the railway companies. Passengers were transported in both directions, often connecting to railway services at hubs such as Guwahati and Goalundo.

Johnston comments that "In 1911 no fewer than 225 passenger steamers were listed as belonging to six companies, five [of which] were railway companies. Their passenger services were intended mainly as ferry services supplemental to, and not in competition with, the railway services."

As the 1913 handbook for the Eastern Bengal Railways puts it:

To visit Bengal without travelling on the great rivers which intersect that province would be almost as bad as going to Agra without seeing the Taj Mahal, and one may see something of the rivers and appreciate their importance as highways of commerce without making the long journey to Dibrugarh. For example, if one goes from Calcutta to Dacca the rail journey is broken at Goalundo and from there to Narayanganj is continued by steamer. The night mail from Calcutta deposits one at Goalundo in the early hours of the morning, and there is little time for the tourist in a hurry to see much of this village and to appreciate its importance as a trade centre before he leaves on the steamer for Narayanganj. But Goalundo, the terminus of one section of the Eastern Bengal State Railway, merits some description. The groups of thatched huts of which the village consists are a poor index to the transhipment trade of this busy mart. It is situated at the junction of the Padma, or Ganges, and the Brahmaputra, and daily services of steamers connect it with the railway systems at Narayanganj and Chandpur, and with the steamer services to Madaripur, Barisal, Sylhet and Cachar. There are also daily services of steamers up the Padma to Digha Ghat in the dry season, and Buxar in the rains, and up the Brahmaputra to Dibrugarh.

The timetable between Calcutta and Dibrugarh from Indian Bradshaw 1934 (with thanks to Jimmy Jose IRFCA)
Figure 3. The timetable between Calcutta and Dibrugarh from Indian Bradshaw 1934 (with thanks to Jimmy Jose IRFCA)

One other steamer service of note was local to the Calcutta area, provided by the Calcutta Steam Navigation Company. Julian Cotton wrote, "Those wishing a pleasant trip down the Hooghly may avail themselves of the opportunities offered by the Calcutta Steam Navigation Company, whose steamers ply daily from Armenian Ghat to Ullubaria, where commences the High Level Canal to Midnapore."

With Partition in 1947 the fleet was split in two and, in 1959, Pakistan River Steamers Limited was formed, in turn becoming the Bangladesh River Steamers Ltd in 1972 after independence from Pakistan. The company and its 321 vessels became part of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation. As late as 2008 the Mahsud and Lepcha (built by Denny's in 1929 and 1937 respectively) and two other paddle steamers were still operating the "Rocket" service in Bangladesh on the Buriganga River from Dhaka to Khulna with ten intermediate stops, a distance of 354km.

An advertisement in Bradshaws (1934) with thanks to Jimmy Jose and IRFCA
Figure 4. An advertisement in Bradshaws (1934) with thanks to Jimmy Jose and IRFCA

Ian Jack in his book Mofussil Junction came across the Bhopal in 1989. He writes, "I wanted to go to Balagarh, a little place about thirty miles up the Hooghly from [Calcutta], where I'd been told by someone in the Calcutta Port Commission, there was a kind of steamer graveyard.... Soon we saw them moored in a line and facing upstream, their bows making waves in the current: four large paddle steamers with rusting hulls and tall funnels painted in the black and white livery of the old Joint Steamer Companies, which had employed them to carry cargoes of tea and jute from Bengal and Assam down to the docks at Calcutta.... We trod on crumbling iron and rotting wood and so we crossed from the Canara to the Parcha to the Mongnai and then to the Bhopal: the oldest dated from 1919 and the newest from 1946."

That was 25 years ago. The Bhopal has since lost the black and white livery on its funnel and is looking very much the worse for wear. Its days are surely numbered.

Further reading