September 25, 2009

Memories of my travel by train as a child

The late Norma Probert grew up in pre-partition India where her father, Mr Percival Middlecoat served on the North Western Railway as senior driver of the Frontier Mail. Mr Middlecoat passed away early in 1936 after having contracted pneumonia, incurable at the time. Norma, who studied in St Deny's School in Murree (now in Pakistan), is a British citizen now, aged 83, and is settled in the UK. Mr Middlecoat drove the Frontier Mail well beyond Rawalpindi towards the Khyber Pass, and was known as a 'speed king' among his colleagues. Here Norma has great memories to share with us about the train her father drove, the train which will be remembered for all time to come as Imperial India's most classic train.
.
THE FRONTIER MAIL, which ran from Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province to Bombay (now Mumbai) in Central Provinces, was the first luxurious and prestigious and the first, fastest train in the Indian Subcontinent. During the Raj years it was partly used for the convenience and speed of troops unloading and boarding ships to and from the UK and of course for the speedy transfer of mail. The soldiers travelled by third and second class tickets; the officers and civilian railway personnel travelled First Class. It was a luxury passenger train. The train was then pulled by the enormous steam engines of the day.
.
The Frontier Mail made its debut in 1928 and received the accolade in 1930, by The Times of London, to be named as the fastest train in the British Empire. I would like to think this accolade was partly due to my father who was a senior driver of this very train during the years of 1930 to 1937. He was known by his colleagues as ‘Speed King Percy’ because he held the record of driving his train in the fastest time and, as far as I know, his record was never beaten in his life time. He died at the age of 48 (a comparatively young man) of pneumonia; a deadly disease in those years before antibiotics. He loved speed in other ways too. He owned the fastest motor bike of the time and the fastest racing car. He was a scholar and a speed freak.
.
In 1934 the Frontier Mail was also the first train in the Indian Peninsula to have an Air Conditioned compartment.
.
I remember travelling in the Frontier Mail train as a child. We moved from place to place, and so we had our own bogey (carriage) – part of it for our goods and furniture and a six berth compartment for the family. My Dad did not always drive during these journeys as he had to help my mother to look after us children.
.
We travelled in style. Our compartments had leather (or look alike - I am not quite sure) berths which had back rests in upholstered buttoned down material similar to what one sat on. These back rests could be folded down if one wanted to use the berth as a bed or kept upright in the day as a couch. The upper berths were well padded beds but could be locked upright during the day to enable more space. The middle top berth stayed in situ because the centre berth was clear and could be used as a couch. Each compartment had its own WC and wash basin with running water.
.
Knowing the luxury of the Raj, the material of the berths was probably made of real leather. The train was not a walk-through train. The bogeys were all separate carriages and one could not walk through trains as one does here in UK.
.
Before the a/c was installed we had electric fans. I think there were six in each six berth carriage. The windows had two kinds of shutters; one mesh to stop insects but allow air through. This could be opened or closed at will. The other one was made of polished slatted wood. The shutters were manoeuvrable. The slats could be opened or shut to darken the carriage from the heat of the sun. There were locks on the door and the windows for safety on the journey. The windows also had pull down blinds – again to cut out glare and heat.
.
Every driver travelled with his batman (assistant). That is the name my father used for his helper, because my father’s family were all military men. The assistant did odd chores of running about on platforms when the train was stationery, getting anything that was needed and seeing to the welfare of the family in general.
.
We were served with Spencer’s food by liveried bearers (waiters) on silver trays, silver cutlery and bone china Spencer logo crockery! The plates and tea services were white with a green and a gold stripe around the boarder and the Spencer logo on each piece of crockery. The meals were strategically ordered at one station. The waiters would board with their menus at one of the stations. We would order from an a la carte menu. They then sent the order to the next station by whatever communication was used in those days and we would be served the food choices at the next station; the used trays and crockery being cleared at yet another station. The timings of the stops were coincided with meal times as the journeys were long, sometimes running into 48 hours depending on one’s destinations.
.
The Frontier Mail ran like clock work – arriving at each station on time. Of course there were the usual hold ups of signal failure, cattle crossing the tracks at villages etc. But the main objective was to arrive at all the main stations on time.
.
Sleeping on trains was a joy to me. I loved the rhythm of the wheels on the track, the chug of the steam locomotives and the rocking motion of the train. It was like a sedative and we kids slept well.
.
Since I was 11 years old when my farther died, I have a good recall of these exciting and memorable journeys. We children loved the noise, the hustle and bustle of the various platforms that we stopped at – the calling of wares ‘gharam gharam chai’ (hot, hot tea) is one I remember well and many other sellers of sweet meats and delicacies wandered the length of the platforms calling out their wares which we were not allowed to eat, much to our disappointment!
.
We loved our Spencer meals though as they were restaurant class. There were steaks, grills, casseroles, stews, delicious fish and some Indian dishes too to select from.
.
Yes, my childhood and the North Western Railway are truly tied up with memoirs.
.
Norma Probert