Riordan Family history

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In 1925 my father was posted to the British Army in India for (I think) two years. He was initially based at Lucknow, not far from Nepal. I think he visited Darjeeling, and he talked a lot about the North West Frontier (between India, now Pakistan, and Aghanistan, but I don't know if he actually visited the area.

(His letter is On P&O paper, in an envelope from the Taj Mahal Hotel -- stamps removed. Presumably he had travelled by ship from Australia, and had arrived in Madras a week or so earlier.

Attached to the Lincolnshire Regiment Lucknow, India. 12 October 1925

Dear old people,

As you see I am now with the Regiment -- I arrived in Lucknow last Wednesday. Say people, there is such a deuce of a lot I want to tell you that I don't know where to start. I will not tell the world that this is the cats whiskers but it is better than I thought it would be -- however to begin at the beginning.

The trip from Madras [Chennai] to Bombay [Mumbai] was rather a momentous one as we travelled the whole way across the Deccan, which is a vast plain extensively cultivated, with few trees and very similar to the plains country at home. It was devilish hot and the meals were not too wonderful so we were all jolly glad to arrive in Bombay. Here we were met by Colonel McFarlane, who has been out here for two years. He piloted us down to the Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the show places of India. Thanks to him we secured a special rate (it normally costs around 30 bob a day). It is really a wonderfully fine hotel and much bigger than anything we have in Australia.

We were busy in the morning listening to the Colonel (he could talk) and in the afternoon he took us out to Malabar Hill in taxis. Bombay has 1 million inhabitants, some very fine public buildings, native police, train drivers, taxi wallahs, in fact everything seems to be native. From the gardens on Malabar Hill one has a wonderful view of the teeming city. The Hill is the residential quarter but it's attractiveness is rather offset by the fact that there is a filthy "tower of silence" on the top where the Parsees leave their dead to be eaten by the swarms of crows. We drove back through the slums -- ye gods, the stench was wonderful.

We left Bombay at 12.30 next day by the Punjab Mail on the great Indian Peninsula Railway. Macquarie (who was going to Cawnpore [Kanpur]) and I were in the through car for Lucknow. In the afternoon we passed through some very interesting country higher up, very green and studded with fantastically shaped hills some of which were surmounted by ruined forts. At 11 next morning we reached Jhansi. Here our carriage was taken off and attached to the Lucknow mail on the O and R Railway (dunno what it stands for). By this time we had come to the great Plains which stretch right to the Himalayas.

The appearance and dress of the people had changed also. At 4.30 Macquarie left me at Cawnpore and I had a lonely two hours run to Lucknow. On arriving there, to my consternation I could find no one from the unit, but an aged patriarch dashed up and announced himself as my bearer. I let him get my stuff out and then two subalterns (very apologetic) and my real bearer turned up. They took me to the Mess and then down to the Mohammed Bagh Club.

I found I was in the bungalow called the "wamen” (it is one, two) with them and two or three other fellows. They and everyone else with whom I came in contact with were most extraordinarily decent. Next day was the usual weekly holiday so I was able to look round and take stock of my surroundings. All the Cossacks (?) and Officers bungalows are in the Cantonment, a huge place with wide streets, big grassy camp grounds and magnificent trees everywhere. Strange to say I have found about 19 gum trees growing along the mall; poor old fellows they look very discouraged. We are right away from the city which contains 2 million natives -- I haven't smelt them yet!

The garrison consists of two regiments of British infantry, three native battalions, a regiment of cavalry (Hussars, I think), the 15th Lascars (Indian Army), a brigade of field artillery and other troops. I should say that altogether there are about seven or 8000 troops here. Owing to the great distances everyone rides pushbikes and it is most incongruous to see a spurred and helmeted officer, complete with sword, riding a push bike! The uniform worn consists of shirt, shorts (supported by the belt of a Sam Brown), boots, stockings and puttees and a big 'toupee' or helmet. At night white mess uniform is worn.

The Lincolns officers are very decent indeed to me and there is no trace of the traditional British standoffish this in their manner towards me. They are really a remarkably fine collection of fellows. The day's programme is:

6am Chota hagri (morning tea)

7am Parade

8am Brekker

9am parades (until 12)

lunch -- sleep till five (I can't)

5pm to 7pm sport, etc.

8pm dinner

Everyone has a bearer (or personal servant) who does the combined jobs of valet, guardian angel, boots and kit cleaner, etc. Then there is the sweeper who performs the menial tasks and the punkah wallah, who supplies the place of an electric fan, and the chokador, or night watchman. The bearer takes one down in all cash transactions but is otherwise wonderfully honest, and wouldn't dream of touching one's money. He sees that one's clothes are mended, folded, washed, cleaned, laces one’s boots etc and sees that no-one else takes the Sahib down. It is really wonderful how they look after one. About the only thing my fellow doesn't do is bathe me or clean my teeth for me. He buys everything I need.

Of course, I can't help feeling rather the stranger within our gates and as I'm not yet a member of either of the clubs I'm a bit out of things, and the afternoons are very boring but apart from that I like life. On Saturday night I went to the pictures with the rest of the Subs. We drove down in state in the Victoria and on arriving at the Theatre I passed the gallery packed with officers of the Lancers, Punjabis, artillery, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, and our own people. The white uniforms, decorations and medals, and the different coloured overalls made a very pretty picture. Down below with scarlet sashes NCOs, men with khaki fatigue caps, blue and scarlet fatigue caps, scarlet trousers, khaki uniforms -- a brilliant mass of colour. Fancy a scene like that in Australia! The picture was an old Betty Blyth one (Southern Love) with underdressed ladies. I should not think it would add very much to the white man's prestige. At the conclusion of the show a picture of the King was shown as the orchestra played "God save the King" and the audience, natives and whites, stood to attention rigidly until the end. Fancy that in Australia!

On Sunday morning I went to church with the others at 6am. As a result of the mutiny everyone goes armed and I wore my sword with much pride. The church parades comprised men from the cavalry, artillery, DCL Infantry, the Lincolns and the white officers from the native regiments. The choir consists of the DCLI Regimental Band and drummer boys took the place of the usual young villain in a white surplice. After the service all the troops marched past the general -- a wonderful sight.

First the cavalry, then the gunners, then the Lincolns and finally the Light Infantry who looked the best of the bunch. They came along as a devil of a place, the NCOs in crimson sashes with rifles at the trail and led by a bugle band, then the Regimental band -- a very fine show.

So far I have only bought two pieces of brass -- a very fine pair of brass vases which cost me 15 rupees -- a damn sight too much of course, but after I had haggled so long that they took five rupees off the price I was physically and mentally exhausted. Naturally I'm beastly homesick and bursting to hear from your people and Gran(?). I think I'll perform a pas seul when I do get a letter.

I hope you old people and Dick are jolly well and that the weather is behaving very well.

With much love

From your affectionate son, Adrian

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 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019

Crossing India by train