Life & Style

This Anglo-Indian family has worked with the Indian Railways since 1856

Noel Fuller with a loco before it was scrapped

Noel Fuller with a loco before it was scrapped  

As Noel, the last of the Fullers, is set to retire, it is the end of an era for the family that has been associated with the Indian Railways since the first train rolled out of Royapuram

The Anglo-Indian community is synonymous with the Indian Railways. It was entrusted with building the railways, manning, maintaining and operating trains across the country for centuries. They were the backbone of this intricate network that keeps the wheels of the nation moving. Often, generations of Anglo-Indian families found themselves employed in various roles in the Railways — from guards, ticket collectors, foremen, firemen, technicians to loco drivers.

One such Anglo-Indian family that has been an integral part of the Railways, here in Chennai since the first train rolled out of Royapuram in 1856, is the Fuller family. Ever since, for generations, members of the family have been employed by the Indian Railways in various capacities. And this month, it is set to break that tradition as Noel Fuller, the last of the Fullers to have worked with the Railways, is set to retire at 60.

As he counts down the days to his retirement, we are seated in the little garden at his home in the Railway Quarters, Tambaram. Surrounded by lush greenery, the quaint colony is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis it is a part of. Noel settles himself on a bench and says that his ancestor Thomas Fuller, was, in all likelihood, present when the first train rolled out of Royapuram station. “When my uncle Norman, retired as a doctor in 1997, he decided to trace the Fuller family history. He would go to the Family History Center in Florida and patiently go through the microfilms that recorded births, marriages and deaths in the British Commonwealth nations,” says Noel, adding, “Since the fathers’ or grooms’ professions are recorded in these certificates, it was the natural place to start.”

Every time Norman came across something noteworthy, he would make a note and send it across to his younger brother Patrick Fuller (Noel’s father). Incidentally, Patrick was a motor driver in the Railways himself. He would take these notes and go to churches across Tamil Nadu to find more details about family members. “This attempt to reconstruct the family tree took my father to Thanjavur, Coimbatore, Coonoor, Madurai and Chennai,” says Noel, as bird song fills the air and an ambulance siren wails in the distance.

Patrick Fuller (Noel’s father) as a motor driver

Patrick Fuller (Noel’s father) as a motor driver  

As details began emerging, the family realised that their association with the Railways dated back to 1856 with Thomas Fuller’s profession being listed as driver. This first emerged in his son John Edward Fuller’s Baptism certificate. Needless to say, John too went on to serve in the Railways as a driver as did his son Albert James Fuller who joined the Railways as a fireman in the early 1880s as stated in his wedding certificate to Ellen Matilda Narcis (dated 1889). During the course of his career, Albert went to Asansol, where he died of a heart attack following which his family returned to Madurai. His son, John Burton Fuller (Noel’s grandfather) began working as a fireman in the steam loco shed at the age of 14. He was eventually promoted and retired from service as a loco foreman at Calicut. His son and Noel’s father, Patrick, too joined as an apprentice mechanic in the South Indian Railways in Trichy in 1951. He eventually moved to Chennai to work in Tambaram as a loco driver and his family settled down in the Tambaram Railway Quarters in 1953.

Home is here

The quarters is where Noel spent the better part of his childhood. “Life in the quarters was always very different. Electricity came to the quarters only in 1965. In the 50s and early 60s, we relied on kerosene lamps and candles. So once it got dark, one got back home. I spent my childhood floating paper boats during the monsoons, climbing trees, and making catapults to bring down mangos from the neighbour’s garden. We would tie up cycle tyres on trees to use as swings. Those were simpler and happy times,” he recalls.

Ellen Matilda Narcis with her five children

Ellen Matilda Narcis with her five children  

In 1980, when they were taking on fresh hands in the EMU workshop in Tambaram, Patrick asked his son to apply. Noel got accepted and began working as casual labour on October 28, 1980 for ₹6 per day. “A few years later, I became a permanent khalasi. I gradually grew in rank and am now a senior technician in the pneumatic department,” he says, adding, “The Railways always took care of us: it afforded us a roof over our heads, medical care, schools, and passes to travel.”

But most of all, the Railways gave them stability. Of the seven siblings, Noel is the only one to have chosen to work in this line. “Back then, a job with the Railways was coveted. Also, in the 70s and 80s, there weren’t too many employment prospects for youngsters,” he says, explaining why in the community, education was never stressed upon. “We had a saying, ‘After the fifth form, it is the platform.’”

He recounts how close knit the Railway community has been. “We celebrate Deepavali, Eid and Christmas together. If the lady of the house is unwell, the neighbours will bring us food. If there’s a death in the family, they will cook for everyone coming in. If one is returning from outstation, one can be assured of a hot breakfast made by the neighbours to welcome one back.”

Noel Fuller, an Anglo-Indian Railwayman, whose family has been working in the Railways since 1856 Photo: B Velankanni Raj

Noel Fuller, an Anglo-Indian Railwayman, whose family has been working in the Railways since 1856 Photo: B Velankanni Raj   | Photo Credit: B_VELANKANNI RAJ

For Noel, who has spent most of his life in the quarters, it is going to be hard to give it all up after his retirement on November 28 this year. However, he is looking forward to celebrating one last Christmas in his home here, before he moves out. “I will carry with me a treasure house of memories that time cannot erase.”

It was while working in the Railways that Noel met Linda, now his wife, then working as a teacher. The two eventually had two sons, Denzil, a marine engineer and Andrew, a Captain in the Indian Army. “We had decided early on to provide the boys with a good education. In today’s cut-throat competition, an education is what will set you apart. So the boys went to boarding school in Ooty,” he says.

“I am glad my boys have gone into a different calling. Someone famously said that one needs to lose sight of familiar shores if one has to explore the mighty ocean. The familiar shores for us is the Railways for generations,” he smiles.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 9:57:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/meet-the-fuller-family-working-with-the-indian-railways-since-1856/article30074618.ece

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