As we enter the month of May, with roses blooming all over and May Queen contests being planned in hotels, restaurants, clubs and residential colonies, one’s thoughts go back to the 1890s which saw Delhi’s first May Queen being selected. This is as per hear-say. Some however claim that the first such event did not take place during the viceroyalty of Lord Curzon but when Lord Lytton as Governor-General came here in 1877.
Going by what Norah Nicholson used to say till her death as a nonagenarian many years ago, the first May Ball was held at Ludlow Castle, where the European Club had been moved from the Town Hall because of a plague epidemic scare in 1898. She had, as a young girl, heard from her grannies that the function saw the crowning of Miss Ball as May Queen. Could have been a memory lapse for the contest winner’s father (Ball Sahib) was a noted magistrate at Agra in early 20th Century and later migrated to South Africa where he set up a lucrative legal practice. His daughter (living in the house on the hill) became May Queen in the city of the Taj in the 1920s, long after the famous contest was held at the Savoy in Mussoorie. According to the late Mrs Roberts, born in 1880, the name of the dimpled girl who won the title in Delhi was Heather Jones, and when she was crowned her admirers went wild with joy, while her rival Charmain Miller’s supporters gulped down their disappointment with large pegs of whisky on a night which was unexpectedly cool for that part of the year because of a strong breeze blowing from the Ridge.
Among those present were the Houghtons, Campbells, a visiting writer, Miss Saunders, Mr Maidens, who founded Maidens Hotel, a number of CMS clergymen and a Catholic priest of St Mary’s Church. This reverend Father impressed on the gathering that the first-ever May Queen was the Virgin Mary, to whom the month of May is devoted. Present also were the proprietors of London Stores, Spencer’s and Carlton’s from Kashmere Gate. Some Punjabi Muslim shoe merchants (who came to Delhi during the time of Shah Alam) and the Khatri businessmen, who settled down during the reign of Shah Jahan, also managed to enter Ludlow Castle hall. It’s worth mentioning that the Qaum Punjabian’s main face at that time was the Hanafi Siddiqui, whose family was more interested in setting up printing presses, madrasas and building mosques. The Khatris were headed by Lala Chunna Mal who, along with other elite, both Muslim and Hindu, used to “take the air” in the spacious Kashmere Gate area, then the lungs of the city. The most boisterous were the Tommies from the Red Fort and Daryaganj. They had come in their one-horse carriages, sounding trumpets, blowing whistles and raising hurrahs before parking their Ticca gharries at the hackney carriage stand on Ludlow Castle Road, which continued to exist till the early 1970s.
If one were to go by the treatise, “Delhi between Two Empires”, that was the time when many of the Mirzas and Mirs had come down a step or two from their high pedestal to become school teachers and clerks because of income constraints. Better off than them were the karkhandars or owners of small factories. One wonders how many of these neo-rich managed to be at the club which had presumably relaxed its rules for the much-touted May Queen show. According to historian Naryani Gupta, the Civil Lines had ceased to be the main residential area for the Europeans by then and “second-class Europeans” had begun to settle down north of Qudsia Garden and Nicholson Park. They were mostly Telegraph and Railway employees, like the ones depicted in the film “Julie”, in which Om Prakash plays the role of a bottle-happy Anglo-Indian dad. To select the May Queen may not have been the railwaymen’s prerogative but their presence at the renamed Delhi Club could not be overlooked as Heather’s father was a senior railway engine driver. Charmain Miller, first runner-up “and taller by far, burst into tears, burying her sweet face in her delicate hands as her boyfriend tried to comfort her with umpteen kisses,” recalled Mrs Roberts in the 1960s. The May Queen contests now are more lavish and popular but somehow one always thinks that the cultural pastures were greener when the Civil Lines was the centre of fashion, with hotels like Lauries, Cecil, Suisse and Maidens vying with each other. Railwaymen did not usually frequent them but still they formed an influential community since New Year’s Eve 1867, when the first train arrived in Delhi and its whistle was heard in the Walled City.