Anu Kumar tells the story of two unsung Britishers in the 19th century, whose efforts kicked off the railways in India.

Imagining a world linked by a network of railway lines was well nigh impossible in the 19 century, but in 1850, an engineer called Rowland Macdonald Stephenson believed it entirely feasible. He wrote of a railway line that would run from London to Calcutta, reducing journey time to 10 days, with only two halts in between: One on the French side of the English Channel and the other at Dardanelles, the narrow strait off north-western Turkey. Not only that, Stephenson wrote of a railroad connecting Persia (Iran) through Afghanistan to Baluchistan, and still another that ran along Nepal, following the Eastern Himalayas, down the course of the Brahmaputra, to China and farther on.

Stephenson’s railway dreams began in 1841, when, as a 33-year-old engineer looking for prospects, he left London for Calcutta. Calcutta was the centre of the East India Company’s operations and to young men with initiative it held a world of opportunity.

There were some who went to work in the native courts, others sought employment in the EIC, and then there were those with dreams and little finance, who, despite the backwardness of a new country, saw its potential as an arena for investment, for construction and manufacturing, and to support their arguments, they wrote that such moves would benefit a country like India.

Among these men were railway promoters such as the one Stephenson became, and his contemporary, John Chapman. If the “Orientalists” discovered India for the west, the railway adventurers created it anew. Both were men shaped by the Industrial Revolution. By the 1840s though, railways in Britain had lost much of its way. In an age of laissez faire capitalism, companies had come up chaotically; lines were made haphazardly, people displaced. It’s a story that has hardly been told.

The line from Calcutta

Once in Calcutta, Stephenson noticed that coal from Raniganj coalfields, near the present Bengal-Bihar border was transported to Calcutta in expensive slow-sailing country boats. The river Damodar had a circuitous route and was unpredictable in seasons of heavy rainfall. Stephenson instantly realised the possibilities of a railway line that could shorten costs and distance. He was supported by Indian merchant princes such as Dwarkanath Tagore and Mutty Ram Seal, yet his initial proposals were dismissed as wild. Not just the East India Company, its court of directors in London and the Board of Control of the British Parliament were equally dismissive.

An undaunted Stephenson made a trial survey of the Ganga plain in 1844 with three assistants. That same year, he set up the East Indian Railway company to negotiate with the three government bodies that were always trying to scale down each other’s terms, especially with regard to the guarantee. The latter would become a permanent feature of early rail construction of India, where shareholders were assured a minimum return on their capital by the government.

Not really convinced about the efficacy of the railways, the EIC engaged its own engineer Frederick Walter Simms, to tour the country in 1846, in just the manner Stephenson had. Simms’ report confirmed the railways were possible in India but being understandably circumspect about its ultimate prospects, he suggested that an “experimental” line be built first: one running from Allahabad to Kanpur or from Calcutta to Barrackpore. This was in keeping with the current view, still largely sceptical about the railways in India.

Stephenson for his part remained certain that railways in India would in time prove a commercial success. Already native merchants travelled extensively with their goods, many had gomashtas (agents) in the main cities of Bombay and Calcutta. Pilgrim traffic too would sustain the railways and lastly, if India had good infrastructure, such as the railways would ensure, it could produce almost anything. His arguments paid off. In 1847, an agreement was signed for the EIR to build its line from Calcutta to Ranigunj. It would soon stretch on towards Delhi via Mirzapore.

All the equipment and building materials including chairs, fish-plates, pins, bolts and even iron for building bridges were shipped from England to Calcutta via the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, for the Suez Canal would open only in 1869. A lot of the ironwork for construction was stolen during the revolt of 1857. There were other hazards when a cholera epidemic in late 1859 claimed the lives of hundreds of labourers and their British supervisors.

His Indian railway dream fulfilled in large measure, Stephenson moved on to China. In 1864, he was commissioned by Jardine, Matheson and Company, a trading body that had made its fortune from the opium trade, to plan a railway network for China. On his advice, a railway line in Beijing was constructed, for he honestly believed the Chinese refusal stemmed from ignorance about the railways. This line was destroyed and a second line built in 1876 met a similar fate. The Chinese government eventually gave in; they granted concessions to build railways in the late 1890s to a company cofounded by Jardine, Matheson and Company.

Little is known of Stephenson’s personal life. His railway dream sent him to various places just as it would his contemporary, John Chapman, the man behind the Great Indian Peninsular Railways. The GIPR’s line from Bombay to Thane would be India’s first railroad in April 1853. Chapman was as multi-faceted as Stephenson, but unlike Stephenson, he also had radical political views. Chapman’s fascination with the railways followed his inventive work first on the Hansom cab, and then the airplane, all in the 1840s.

The Hansom cab, a ubiquitous feature of London’s streets, was first an awkwardly designed vehicle. Chapman’s inventiveness led to his substituting smaller wheels for the old ones that had made the vehicle stand too high. The driver’s seat placed higher and behind the passenger carriage allowed him to monitor passengers.

These cabs were a success but in 1841, he left following disagreements, a feature that was to recur often in his life.

Chapman moved on to the concept of a steam-driven “aerial carriage” designed by William Henson and a colleague. Chapman devised a whirling arm instrument to test the movement of air past solid objects. The three of them developed another model, with wider wings and also running on steam, but this never took off, literally, thus scaring away investors.

All this happened in the early 1840s, nearly six decades before the Wright Brothers made their maiden flight at Kitty Hawk in 1901. By then, Chapman was already drawing up plans for a railway line that would stretch 2,100 km from Bombay to a port on India’s east coast, crossing the rich cotton-growing regions along the way. Chapman himself undertook these surveys in difficult terrain. Following the EIC’s readiness to negotiate, Chapman and a few others set up the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, as a joint-stock company. Chapman, though, was soon forced out of the GIPR. He wanted a suitable position and salary but was dismissed, receiving meagre compensation for his work. In 1854, aged 53, he died from the cholera he had somehow contracted.

Chapman was ahead of his time. On the one hand he spoke for British interests that would benefit from railway construction projects, and on the other, he was against Britain’s “right to rule” over several million Indians. At a time, when shipping was considered a more promising venture, and railways in the Oriental world was deemed too risky, Stephenson’s and Chapman’s efforts paid off. Their own lives remain undocumented and unsung, but in a matter of decades, the Indian railway system was to become one of the largest in the world.