The Great Eastern Hotel: Once the Jewel of the East
Celebrations tend to be muted when a year has been as difficult as 2020. A pandemic-ravaged world has turned the page on the calendar with a sense of wariness.
Curiously, though, in 1857, the Europeans in Calcutta pulled out all the stops to make merry. It was the year of the Great Revolt, which had left thousands dead in British-India and led to the loss of this crucial territory for the British East India Company. In Calcutta, one of the first cities established in India by the British, The Bengal Hurkaru carried advertisements of shipping firms offering voyages to England and Australia, an announcement of consignments of imported Stilton cheese, and the sale of popular Bengal almanacs and diaries for 1858.
Amid the flurry of advertisements, there was one from David Wilson & Company, owners of the Great Eastern Hotel, the longest-surviving hotel in Kolkata, India and all of Asia. The advertisement announced that the hotel’s department store, ‘Hall of All Nations’, had plentiful stocks of Christmas fare – turkey, ham, beef, and a wide variety of cakes, sweets and biscuits. Hall of All Nations was large, and it sold everything a lady or a gentleman needed in those times.
William Walker, a Scottish-born Australian writer, under the pen-name ‘Tom Cringle’, wrote a series of letters around this time in The Times of India, under the heading ‘Jottings of an invalid in search of health’. In these letters, Walker wrote, “During Christmas and New Year, Hall of All Nations constitutes one of the greatest sights of Calcutta. A ragged beggar may go at one end with a week’s growth of stubble on his chin, and rags on his back, but let him possess the universal medium, he may be shaved, have his hair cut, get a hot bath, fitted with new cloths cut in first style of London, new boots, new hat, and, oh a new sensation, a good dinner. And should he be a family man, he can buy a new crinoline for his wife, together with bonbons and toys for his children. It has its coffee room, billiard room and dining rooms… they also make all sorts of cakes and ginger nuts and bake excellent bread.”
As a ritual, on the Christmas Eve, in the early evening, the leading lights of the city – the civil and the military servants of the East India Company, the Rajas, Maharajas and Baboos – would drop in for a customary drink on the ground-floor hall of the hotel before proceeding to their respective private parties.
David Nunis Cardozo, known by his stage name ‘Dave Carson’, one of the earliest American performers in imperial India and the famous Blackface Minstrel artiste of 19th century Calcutta, wrote a famous song about the Hall. It went:
‘To Wilson’s, or to Spence’s Hall On holiday, I stray. With freedom call for mutton chops And billiards play all day. The servant catches from afar the hukum, ‘Jaldi jao, hey khidmadgar Brandy, sharab, bilayetai pain Jaldi lao.’
For the 1857 Christmas and 1858 new year, Wilson Hotel’s (nickname of the Great Eastern Hotel based on the founder’s name, David Wilson) advertisement in the Hurkaru had the following statement tucked in it, obliquely referring to the Revolt:
“It is our hearty hope, that we may with our numerous Friends, join to celebrate a MERRY CHRISTMAS notwithstanding the heavy misfortunes that have befallen the Indian Empire since we last met to discuss the right good cheer which had been provided for all India and its Inhabitants, in that Monster Establishment, ‘THE HALL OF ALL NATIONS’. Having however good reason to suppose that the British rule in India, is about being established in a firmer manner than ever it was before, we expect, not unreasonably, that our Friends will need the choicest and rarest articles procurable, to enable them to usher in with great glee, A HAPPY NEW YEAR.”
The Revolt of 1857
The Great Eastern Hotel had an awfully close association with the Revolt of 1857. Describing the sentiment among the British and other European citizens of Calcutta at the beginning of the Revolt, Sir Henry Cotton wrote in his book Calcutta Old And New: A Historical And Descriptive Handbook to the City (1907): “It was all but universally credited that the Barrackpore brigade was in full march on Calcutta, that the people in the suburbs had already risen, that the King of Oudh (Wajid Ali Shah) with his followers, was plundering Garden Reach. Those highest in office were the first to give the alarm. There were secretaries to Government running over to Members of Council, loading their pistols, barricading their doors, sleeping on sofas. Members of Council abandoning their houses with their families and taking refuge on board the ships in the river. Crowds of lesser celebrities, impelled by these examples, having hastily collected their valuables, were rushing to the Fort… almost every house belonging to the Christian population was deserted… The Great Eastern Hotel, which was then in fact, as it still is in the language of the thika-gari-wallahs, Wilson’s Hotel, became the rallying place of the European community.”
The Early Years
The Great Eastern Hotel was not the first hotel in Calcutta. That honour goes to John Spence’s Hotel, which opened in 1830. However, when the latter shut, the Great Eastern Hotel became the oldest-surviving hotel in Calcutta, or for that matter, India and Asia.
The hotel was founded by David Wilson, known among his peers as ‘Dainty Davie’ and who owned a confectioner’s shop in the 1830s, in Cossaitollah (now Bentinck Street in Central Kolkata). It was an establishment where English society gathered to enjoy the best food and drink available in the city, or so wrote Major Harry Hobbs in his book John Barleycorn Bahadur (1943). Douglas Dewar wrote in his book Bygone Days in India (1922) that there were three reputed bakers and confectioners in Cossaitollah in 1840 – Wilson, Ahmuty and Payne. Ahmuty and Payne did thriving business till the British stayed in India and then slowly faded into oblivion. Wilson’s name persisted.
For its stature, scale and the reputation it acquired, the opening of the Great Eastern Hotel was announced with no fanfare, just a very long and mundane announcement in the newspaper. On 6th November 1840, on the second page of The Englishman and Military Chronicle, the Calcutta Biscuit Establishment – D Wilson & Company issued a notice, which simply stated: 1) D Wilson & Company, established in 1834, was shifting from Cossaitollah to 1 Old Court House Street 2) New premises will be open as soon as repair and alterations are completed 3) There will be a family hotel, a coffee shop and a salon to partake ice or cooling drinks and 4) Assurance of quality product under strict supervision of Mr D Wilson, an Englishman.
– The hotel opened as the Auckland Hotel, named after Lord Auckland, Governor-General of India.
It was renamed the Great Eastern Hotel in 1915. The inauguration advertisement of the Auckland Hotel at the crossing of Rani Moody Gully (later British India Street) and 1 Old Court House Street appeared in The Englishman and Military Chronicle on 19th November 1840. That advertisement was regularly repeated in newspapers till 6th December of that year, for a couple of weeks after the hotel was opened on 19th November.
W W Tayler of the Bengal Civil Service made one of the earliest references to the Auckland Hotel in his book Thirty-Eight Years in India (1881), “On our return from the Cape of Good Hope at the latter end of 1842, we went at once to rooms at Wilson’s Hotel where, the first night of our arrival we experienced in the dead of night the unpleasant sensation of an earthquake — as we were sleeping at the top of an unusually high house, the sensation was not pleasant, and there was a great desertion of beds by the pale-faced occupants, but no catastrophe.”
Sir William Howard Russell, the famous Irish war correspondent with The Times, London, who had covered the Revolt of 1857 extensively, paid a visit to Calcutta after the Revolt. He arrived in the city at the end of January 1858 and was put up at the Bengal Club. The Great Eastern Hotel made him curious. Russell wrote about the Hall of All Nations rather cynically, “In one large house there is an attempt to combine a tailor’s, a milliner’s, and a dressmaker’s, a haberdasher’s, a confectioner’s, a hardware man’s, a woollen merchant’s, a provision dealer’s, a grocer’s, a coffeehouse… with a hotel and other trades and callings. I should say, from my experience, the hotel suffers from the amalgamation; but it is a great advantage to have at your feet all you want, though I must confess I could not manage to get a chop one morning for breakfast…”
The concept of the Hall of All Nations did not meet with Sir William Howard Russell’s approval. Clearly, the concept was a new one, even to a well-travelled Londoner. It was probably unappreciated largely because the concept was way ahead of its time.
This reference to the shops is reminiscent of a story from a later period narrated by Major Harry Hobbs, in his book John Barleycorn Bahadur.
When the elderly Sir Frederick Roberts was the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in 1885, Calcutta was still the imperial capital of India, and therefore the headquarters of the British Government during the winter months. Church Parade on Sundays in Fort William was a society function. All those not in uniform attended in top hats and frock coats. After the service, important personalities gathered outside the church for a chat and to exchange social niceties, while ordinary folks stood around and gazed in awe.
The Great Eastern Hotel had brought in Tommy Hayes from London to run their ‘Shirt’ department in the Hall of All Nations. Hayes was a handsome man and a first-class tailor as well, and was also very conscious of his qualities. Sundays in Fort William with the redcoats, band and brilliant uniforms caught his fancy. He was craving to be a part of that civil and military milieu of Calcutta society.
So, he went in for a top hat and frock coat, and mingled with that crowd as though he was born to that eminence. Pushing himself to the front, he raised his hat to the Commander-in-Chief one Sunday, who shook his hands. Sir Frederick Roberts regretted being unable to recall the smart and courteous young man’s name and was very embarrassed.
“Made yr shirts,” whispered Tommy Hayes, in a propah London accent, delighted but slightly deferential to the Commander.
“My dear,” said a visibly relieved Sir Roberts, to Lady Roberts, “let me introduce to you Major Schurtz.”
Sans Souci Theatre
Calcutta’s famous theatre of the 1840s, Sans Souci, started its journey at the same spot where The Great Eastern Hotel is situated, at 1 Old Court House Street, before it found its permanent spot at 10 Park Street on 8th March 1841.
The theatre was opened by popular stage actor Esther Leach after the Chowringhee Theatre burnt down in May 1938. It is generally believed that Sans Souci Theatre was opened on 21st August 1839 at Ezra Mansion on Waterloo Street. However, this is not correct.
Remember the newspaper advertisement of 6th November 1840, where D Wilson & Company had stated that very soon they would open a family hotel in the four-storey building on the premises of 1 Old Court House Street? This is where Thacker & Company was situated. Sans Souci Theatre operated out of the basement hall of Thacker & Company, where a 400-strong audience could be accommodated.
Confusion arose over the address as Thacker & Co was located on the corner of Waterloo Street and Old Court House Street. At some point, historians incorrectly stated that Sans Souci operated out of Ezra Mansion, on the opposite side of Waterloo Street, a myth that has since been perpetuated.
The truth is that the Great Eastern Hotel and Sans Souci both started their journeys in the Thacker & Company building at 1 Court House Street. After the theatre moved to its permanent venue, the hotel converted the basement hall it was using into its famous Hall of All Nations department store!
After David Wilson Left India
David Wilson left India around 1862, after setting up a joint-stock company and handing over the charge of running the hotel to its board. He was no longer actively involved in managing the hotel and only held a small equity stake. However, he continued as the London agent of the hotel and, after his death in 1881, his son D H Wilson continued as the London agent.
But the hotel discontinued his services in 1894 through a confidential memo dated 9th August 1894, on charges of financial misappropriation based on an enquiry instituted in 1886. From 1862 to 1886, the Board of Directors mostly consisted of friends and well-wishers of Wilsons, and they did not run the hotel very efficiently.
– In 1886, the company and the board that were controlling the Great Eastern Hotel along with nominees of the Wilson family went into voluntary self-liquidation.
Eventually, the hotel and its properties were sold to a new company. Effectively, from mid-1886, David Wilson and his family ceased to be a part of the hotel that David Wilson had built 46 years earlier.
Shirley Tremearne – The Prime Mover
When the Great Eastern Hotel changed hands, the only member from the earlier Board of Directors who continued as a member of the new Board was a man named Shirley Tremearne. Major Harry Hobbs in his book John Barleycorn Bahadur says that Tremearne claimed descent from one of the oldest families in Cornwall, England, and this greatly favoured him as a businessman in India.
Born in 1848, he came to Calcutta when he was just 20 years old, to join his brother in the firm, Tremearne, Day & Co. When he landed in the city, Tremearne found that the firm and his brother had both vanished as completely as if they had never existed! But Tremearne was very resilient, not to mention talented. He landed his first job at the Accountant-General’s office in Rangoon (now Yangon in Myanmar), then worked at the Calcutta Currency Office, and was private secretary to two successive Chief Justices of the Calcutta High Court.
Tremearne was a success in his legal profession and he eventually became Assistant Registrar of the Calcutta High Court. He was associated with the Great Eastern Hotel since the early 1880s, initially as its legal consultant, and later as an ordinary Director of the Board.
Montague Massey in his Recollections of Calcutta for over Half a Century (1918) has an interesting story to tell about Tremearne and the ghari-verandah – the large balcony overhanging the footpath on the façade of the Great Eastern Hotel. The balcony required the sanction of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, which was entitled to charge a fee of Rs 100 per month for such sanction. The corporation, however, refused to sanction the plan as the balcony was huge, unless the hotel agreed to pay a monthly fee of Rs 300.
The Board of the hotel was in a fix as they had already placed the order for the verandah as the municipal corporation’s engineer had previously approved the plan. However, Tremearne was one of the Directors on the Board and being a legal expert, found a loophole in the Municipal Act and refused to pay the fee of Rs 300. The municipality climbed down, accepted the Rs 100 per month fee and settled the matter.
– The huge balcony overhanging the facade of the hotel on the Old Court House Street became the first ghari-verandah in Calcutta.
It inspired many such overhanging balconies throughout the city.
In 1891, Tremearne gave up his job at the Calcutta High Court to become the Managing Director of the Great Eastern Hotel. Eminently suited for the position, Tremearne pulled the Great Eastern Hotel out of the mud.
Tremearne also owned India’s oldest economic and financial magazine Capital, considered a precursor to present-day financial dailies and magazines in India. It was not so much his association with the Great Eastern Hotel that made Tremearne influential in Calcutta’s s business circles but mainly his ownership of Capital magazine and his association with the Calcutta High Court. This allowed him to write what he liked and suppress what he was paid to keep out, said Major Hobbs in his book. He was also a leader of Calcutta’s merchants and mercantile groups, and an influential member of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
One would think that was sufficient to stoke the ambitions of one man but not Tremearne. He was also an active member on the Board of the Alipore Zoological Garden along with Nawab of Murshidabad, the Maharaja of Burdwan, and senior civil servants of the city. In 1905, Tremearne, being the owner of Capital magazine, along with Motilal Ghosh, tried to form a union of journalists of European and Indian origin supporting Amrita Bazar Patrika in favour of Home Rule.
Interestingly, Major Hobbs says he always consulted a particular jyotishi, or astrologer, in Moti Lal Seal Street, before taking up any important undertaking.
Tremearne led the Great Eastern Hotel to great glory and retired in February 1921 to Bangalore. He died there on 7th July 1923, within sight of his 75th birthday.
Indianisation of the Hotel
After Tremearne retired from the Board of the Great Eastern Hotel in 1921, and after it had long since become the most coveted hotel in the East, a group of Indian investors picked up the controlling equity stake in the Great Eastern Hotel Company Limited. They did this on Tremearne’s advice.
They were A H Bilimoria of A H Bilimoria & Company, Chaitanya Charan (CC) Pyne, a prominent Calcutta stockbroker from Amherst Street; and J M Roy of North Calcutta’s Masjid Bari Street, a relative of CC Pyne; along with the Maharajas of Burdwan and Coochbehar.
This group of investors, known as the BPR Syndicate (Bilimoria, Pyne & Roy) controlled the Great Eastern Hotel from 1921 or thereabouts, till it was taken over by the West Bengal Government due to mismanagement, non-performance and upheaval in industrial relations in the 1970s. Around the time of the Second World War, B K Roy, son of J M Roy, took over as Managing Director of the hotel, and steered it to greater heights, along with Cecil B Green, a full-time Director. However, due to animosity between the other two major equity holders, Bilimoria and Pyne, Roy couldn’t do much to resurrect the hotel after it ran into trouble in the early 1970s.
The Hotel’s Great Influencers
Among some of the most illustrious guests to have checked in at the Great Eastern Hotel was Mahatma Gandhi, who stayed there for 15 days during a trip to Calcutta in 1896. In his words, “From Madras, I proceeded to Calcutta, and I knew no one there. So I took a room in the Great Eastern Hotel. Here, I became acquainted with Mr Ellerthorpe, a representative of The Daily Telegraph of UK. He invited me to the Bengal Club, where he was staying. He did not then realise that an Indian could not be taken to the drawing room of the club. Having discovered the restriction, he took me to his room. He expressed his sorrow regarding this prejudice of the local Englishmen and apologised to me for not having been able to take me to the drawing-room.”
In 1891, Rudyard Kipling’s encounter was vastly different, and he stated, “The Great Eastern hums with life through all its hundred rooms. And joy of joys, fancy stepping out of the hotel into the arms of a live, white, helmeted, buttoned, truncheoned British policeman! While Indian policemen patrolled most of the other areas of that part of Calcutta, British policemen were stationed outside the Great Eastern — to turn bullock carts into by-lanes, out of the way of the ‘Burra Sahibs’, an indication of the kind of people who would frequent it.”
– During the Second World War, soldiers of the Allied Forces passing through Calcutta were accommodated here.
Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese leader, was believed to have stayed in the hotel during a short visit in 1948. In those days, the entire entourage of a visiting head of state would be put up at the Great Eastern Hotel, without hesitation. When Russian leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin visited Calcutta in the late 1950s, their party of nearly 70 stayed in this hotel. Another celebrity guest to grace the hotel is Queen Elizabeth II, who stayed here in 1961.
In his lifetime Wilson’s was a favourite hangout of Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1824 -1873), the torchbearer of the Bengal Renaissance, a gifted linguist and a polyglot, a talented poet, writer and dramatist, and a pioneer of Bengali drama. In fact, in 1842, there was a huge hue and cry in conservative society for Madhusudan Dutta to visit the hotel and partake of food and beverages there.
A famous saying of 19th century Calcutta goes: Three ‘Sens’ spoilt the Bengalis – Istisen (Railway stations, encouraging them to travel), Keshub Sen (by provoking people to think differently, free-thinking) and Wilsen (Wilson’s hotel, by providing an alternative lifestyle).
Plenty has changed since the hotel defined a new lifestyle. The iconic establishment declined rapidly in the 1970s, prompting the West Bengal government to take it over. But the government could not turn around its failing fortunes. The government even nationalised the hotel but failed to prevent it from going under.
Finally, the hotel had a private owner once again, when the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group bought it in 2005 and reopened it in 2013, after it was meticulously restored and expanded. For the Great Eastern Hotel, this was a new era in hospitality. But even though the trappings are new, the benchmark set by a confectioner who dared to dream hasn’t changed.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Devasis Chattopadhyay is the author of the book Without Prejudice, a columnist and a Kolkata history buff.