Harry Hobbs: Old Calcutta’s Beloved Chronicler
Most residents of present-day Kolkata haven’t heard of someone called ‘Harry Hobbs’, but to those researching Kolkata’s history, his name often brings up a smile. For he was an author of the twelve or so chronicles written in first person carrying the most authentic recounts of the rapidly changing social saga of British Calcutta in particular and imperial India in general. Even today, his now out-of-print books, are the treasure troves of information and background material for generations of scholars, researchers and writers.
Harry Hobbs (1864-1956) arrived in Calcutta in 1883 to work as a piano tuner. He had left a wretched apprenticeship in a piano factory in London, and reached imperial Calcutta at the age of 19, to start life anew.
Hobbs was a remarkably sanguine young man, cheerfully travelling enormous distances by canoe and in palanquins.
– He set off on these adventures in what the English considered an exotic land, merely to tune the pianos that the Europeans had insisted on bringing to India when they arrived in the subcontinent.
Between 1884 and 1887, Hobbs was posted in Burma (now Myanmar), where he worked for Samuel Harraden’s Harold & Company that made musical instruments. By 1893, his services were so sought-after that he started his own business, ‘H Hobbs and Co Ltd’, which he ran from 4 Esplanade Row East, in Calcutta. It was the very house in which Warren Hastings had lived.
Hobbs lived above his shop until his death in 1956. At some point, his shop moved to 9 Esplanade Row East, then to 21, and thereafter to 9 Old Courthouse Street, close to the Great Eastern Hotel. He advertised his business as ‘Pianoforte Importers, Repairers and Tuners’. He was also a gifted piano player and had an extensive library of music.
During the 73 years he spent in Calcutta, the city changed in many different ways, and Hobbs clearly revelled in it, or else he wouldn’t have so delightfully recorded its every nuance. Hobbs was the author of a dozen or so chronicles written in first person and recounting the rapidly changing social saga of colonial Calcutta, in particular, and imperial India, in general. These memoirs and accounts are mostly stories of everyday lives but are a valuable resource that scholars refer to even today.
The list is long and engaging and starts with his very first work, The Piano in India – How To Keep It In Order (1914). This was followed by books such as It Was Like This! (1918), The Romance of the Calcutta Sweep (1930), Spence’s Hotel And Its Times (1936), Indian Dust Devils (1937), Scoundrels And Scroungers (1937), Scraps From My Diaries’ (1954), and his best-known work John Barleycorn Bahadur – Old Time Taverns in India (in 1943).
In Indian Dust Devils (1937), Hobbs writes that in India, “drink was cheap and drinking fashionable” and that it occupied a “prominent place” in society in relation to leisure but also to acquire general health and well-being against adverse weather and rampant disease.
– In his chronicles, he had frequently stated that no social history of Calcutta would be possible without recognising the amount of drinking done by the British and the babus, especially in the 19th century.
His book John Barleycorn Bahadur: Old Time Taverns In India (1943) navigates the labyrinth of the culture surrounding epicurean delights in a compelling storytelling style. He wrote: “How many difficulties have been smoothed over a friendly drink will never be known, nor can it be estimated how much comfort it has given to those depressed by loneliness and over-work in a bad climate.”
Through most of his books, he tells stories of a time when Calcutta had European barmaids and a thriving, if not-at-all-publicised or talked-about, slave trade. In one of his essays about the barmaids he writes, (which he had read as a paper in The Calcutta Historical Society in 1941) – ‘The opening of the Suez Canal in November 1869 (small ships passed through as early as March 1867) made the journey to India comparatively easy and the fashion started of bringing girls out to serve behind hotel bars. In the leading British hotels, they were engaged on agreements for six months, some remained but comparatively few stayed beyond their time. One or two found a husband on board who took them off at Colombo or Madras and they failed to report back at Calcutta. Others, perhaps more fortunate, married in Calcutta. One bright damsel attracted notice by putting in place a fellow who thought he could shine with her— "So you’re the maid, are you?” and was told, "Yes, I am, …” feeling herself insulted, put one hand on the bar and vaulted over with ease, smacking the Lothario’s face. In her early years she had been in a circus. Many of the "Mashers” who came for wool went away shorn. The girls were something of social lionesses in their own circle, ruling over a little kingdom of their own.’
Hobbs writes how goras (Caucasian) or firanghees (foreigners) were crazy about fried Mango fish (Topse Machh in local parlance), and that for Europeans, caviar was not sturgeon roe from the Caspian Sea but the roe of local freshwater carp such as Rahu or Catla (Machher Dim in local parlance). It was the most coveted accompaniment to drinks in Calcutta's taverns and bars. But Cholera and Food poisoning were rampant as well, as a popular jingle went -
“You’re quite all right inside the bar,
But Khubburdar, the caviar”.
Hobbs peppers his chronicles with some stellar nuggets of Anglo-Indian social life in Calcutta during the British Raj. His book, Spence’s Hotel And Its Times (1936), based on a broadcast address he delivered for the King’s Jubilee celebration at Calcutta Radio Station, provides an engaging history of Calcuttan hospitality in the eponymous institution. Hobbs, attributing to an anonymous old company hand, describes the arrival of a ship off Chandpal Ghaut (one of the famous steps of river Hooghly) in 1830’s - ‘At length the traveller finds himself ashore where he is in peril of being torn to pieces by the palanquin bearers. If he is wise, he scrambles with all possible speed into the first one. Our new arrival has introductions to several residents of Calcutta, but the days of promiscuous hospitality have passed away… The traveller, therefore having tumbled into a palanquin, as primed by a fellow voyager, shouts “Bara Potch Khanna” which is the name by which all the bearers know Spence’s Hotel…It is managed by the Proprietor, John Spence, who may fairly be said to have originated hotels in Bengal. For the sum of Rs. 6 per diem, Rs. 40 per week, or Rs. 100 per mensem, he feeds and houses the guests comfortably.’
Apparently, Spence’s Hotel had a coffee house and was the headquarters of ship captains where all kinds of shipping news were procurable, letter bags made up and refreshments were available at a moment’s notice for the seamen.
The details are so real, perhaps because Hobbs had been employed at the hotel at some point in his life. He was 'Special Director and Manager’ of the then famous but now demolished Spence's Hotel in Calcutta.
Bengali novelist Mani Shankar Mukherji (under his moniker Sankar) based his hugely popular novel Chowringhee (1962) on the lives of people at Spence’s Hotel in a newly independent India. In one of his other titles, Thackeray Mansion (published as Gharer Moddhe Ghar in Bengali), as well as in various interviews, Mukherji says he knew Harry Hobbs well and had met him when the latter was working at the hotel. Mukherji was a clerk then and frequently visited the hotel to meet his boss, Noel Fredrick Barwell, the last English barrister at the Calcutta High Court, who was a permanent boarder at the hotel.
In Thackeray Mansion, Mukherji recalls an anecdote that Hobbs had once narrated to him. He had told him that before the British government installed gas lights on the streets of Calcutta, every household in various areas of the city had been ordered by the municipality to keep an oil lamp lit in front of the house, throughout the night, as otherwise the whole city would have been engulfed in unholy darkness sans street-lights and thereby paving way for robbers and bandits a free-run at their tradecraft. Only Hobbs would be privy to gems like this!
Without Hobbs, we may not have the exciting stories we now know about ‘ice’ in Calcutta. In these times of LED lights, ride-hailing apps and cloud kitchens, it is difficult to imagine what life must have been like even in the 19th century. Ice, for instance, was a novelty and something to be both savoured and treasured. Hobbs provides an exciting account of the arrival of ice on a ship that had docked from America.
Quoting the memoir of J H Stocqueler, editor of The Englishman newspaper, Hobbs said in his essay -Romance of Ice – in his book John Barleycorn Bahadur: ‘It was an hour after dawn one morning in the late spring of 1833 — a time of the year when the cool air and fogs of February are suddenly exchanged for the hot winds — that a faithful domestic came to my bedside with the strange intimation that a ship (the Tuscany) was off the town laden with burf…The khidmatgar persisted in his assertion and exhibited an unwonted anxiety that I should rise. What could he mean? Ice from America! An entire cargo!
‘So, I at once jumped up, bathed while my horse was being saddled, and then rode down to the ghaut. Engaging a paunchway, a small native ferry, I pulled on board the Yankee clipper and verified the assertions of my servant. I was allowed to peep into the abyss which contained the treasure. In square masses of the purest crystal, packed carefully and scientifically. To add to its beauty, a quantity of rosy American apples reposed upon the surface of the glacier.’
Hobbs wrote that Stocqueler bought some ice and asked his servant to bring it home.
“How is this?” Stocqueler asked.
“Master, all make melt.”
“Did you wrap up it well in the cloth?”
“No, Sahib, that make ice too muchee warm.”
“Did you close the basket?”
“No, Master, because that make ice more warm.”
“Then the ice had the full benefit of sun and air? Idiot!''
That morning, the breakfast tables of Englishmen and the wealthy elite of Calcutta glittered with lumps of ice! The butter dishes were filled and goblets of water were converted into miniature Arctic seas with icebergs floating on the surface. All business was suspended until noon. People rushed about to pay each other congratulatory visits. Everybody invited everybody to dinner, to taste claret and beer cooled by the American import.
Hobbs may have arrived in India as a piano tuner but he made the right contacts and through his merits rose to become an important personality. Why, he was even Municipal Commissioner of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation in the 1930s and 40s.. While he was never a part of the British Civil or Military Services in India, he was very much a part of the ‘Reserve Volunteers’ in India and an active member of the Calcutta’s Port Defence Corps.
– He was also a member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal and was considered an authority on old Calcutta, old theatres in India, on hotels and taverns, on English music, and Anglo-Indian social life.
He was also well-acquainted with Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor to the Bharatiya Janata Party, when the latter was President of the Society in 1943-44.
Academicians such as Dr Ramesh Chandra Majumdar and Dr Kalidas Nag, both acclaimed historians, knew and respected Hobbs and served on various committees of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, alongside him.
Hobbs was also a member of the Calcutta Historical Society. Although not a trained historian, he had a keen eye and an erudite pen to chronicle the life and times of imperial Calcutta. It is through his essays and books that we know of Dave Carson, the famous Blackface minstrel artiste of Calcutta of the 19th century. It is his writing that has helped us rediscover the lost history of Spence’s Hotel and the Great Eastern Hotel. One of his essays on maverick, Calcutta-based hotelier Federico Peliti is displayed by his great-granddaughter, Luca Peliti, in Italy, on her website.
Martin Tucker, the grandson of Harry Hobbs, writes in his book The Chingri Khal Chronicles (2006), that Hobbs had a wife and a family who lived in the coastal resort town of Bournemouth, England. During a visit to Australia, Hobbs had met Jennie Larkin, a pretty Irish-born girl and the two had married. Although the couple lived in Calcutta after their marriage, Jennie returned to England for the birth of their third child. Their two older children, who were born in India, had not survived. Hobbs did not accompany Jennie and stayed back in Calcutta as he considered the city his home.
– It was also rumoured that during his tenure at Spence’s Hotel, he had fallen in love with a colleague, a Miss Briscoe, and had a lifelong affair with her.
‘Chingri Khal’ means 'Shrimp Creek' and refers to a small inlet near Diamond Harbour about 45 km south of Calcutta. It is one of the gateways to the Sundarbans. In the early 20th century, it was a place where men from the Calcutta Volunteer Rifles, of which Hobbs was a member, would go to practice firing and to get away from the rigours of the city.
Hobbs obviously had fond memories of the place because he named three of his Bournemouth houses after this creek. His grandson carries on his legacy for he has chosen the creek’s Bengali name as the title of this biographical book on the British raconteur and his family.
Hobbs visited Bournemouth off and on but his heart was in India. He died in Calcutta on 15th May 1956, at the age of 92. News of his death was reported on the front page of The Statesman newspaper on 16th May 1956 and his obituary was published the day after.
– It claimed he had been the “oldest living and longest dwelling European resident in Calcutta as well as in India”.
Hobbs was described as a musician, satirist, journalist, businessman and an author. The obituary also said that since he was a very upright man, he had many friends as well many foes, “because of his straight-talking”!
The then Mayor of Calcutta, Satish Chandra Ghosh, referred to Hobbs in his condolence speech as a “distinguished citizen” of Calcutta and the Municipal Corporation paid its respects by adjourning its sitting on that day. Hobbs is buried in the Bhawanipore Cemetery and his now-derelict tombstone bears the inscription: ‘His pen was his sword’. Thanks to his “sarcasm [which] could be searing, even vindictive and unkind… his many friends nicknamed him ‘Calcutta’s Bernard Shaw’,” wrote Raleigh Trevelyan, while reviewing Martin Tucker’s The Chingri Khal Chronicles in The Times Literary Supplement in 2006.
In 1937, after nearly 55 years in imperial Calcutta, the colourful English raconteur, hotelier and business owner, took stock of his life on the subcontinent in his book Indian Dust Devils. He couldn’t have better summed up his time in India than in his love for the little pleasures of life. He wrote: “Looking back, it hasn’t been so bad. I have enjoyed more responsibility than I might ever have hoped for at home; better food and whisky than is generally obtainable in my native land; cheap tobacco and servants.”
Calcutta’s chronicles would not be complete without Harry Hobbs, his love for the city and, of course, his pen.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Devasis Chattopadhyay is the author of the book Without Prejudice, a columnist and a Kolkata history buff.