New Year's Day Lecture 2016

by Curtis Devereau

‘This year’s New Year’s Day Lecture has come about by a mix of extreme good fortune and uncanny coincidence.

Had I, Curtis Devereau, not been in the vicinity of Darjeeling researching material for my next book, and further had I not called in by chance to the Raj Bar at Jorebungalow to quench my thirst, then I would not have overheard a conversation between two old railwaymen sitting in the corner of the room. As it was, I was only able to catch a few of the words, as the juke box in the corner was playing "Mere Sapno Ki Rani" at an extreme volume, but what I heard was enough to set in motion the train of events that will unfold for you this morning.

The two men were reminiscing about the old days on the Darjeeling Railways, and in particular the carriage of tea. It was the use of the word "Railways" that made my ears prick up. We all know about the Darj, or the Toy Train, but the conversation was obviously about another line somewhere else in the area, somewhere near the well-connected town of Kalimpong, where tea gardens to rival those of Glenbourne and the Teesta Valley were a source of wealth to the traders in that district.

I decided to engage the old men in conversation, and offered to buy them drinks. This loosened their tongues further, and stories spilled out of the nearly forgotten Tea and Ginger line that ran between plantations. It was a narrow gauge line, I was told, of slightly wider gauge than the two foot Darj line, and was worked almost entirely by diesels, although there were rumours of a steam engine which was bought just after the First World War. Very few people had seen this locomotive though, which quickly fell out of use and was was put into storage at the back of the locomotive shed. The local joke was that it was called after a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh, but the men couldn't remember which one.

The railway closed in the early 1960's, with some of the track being lifted. Some rails had been left in situ, but the diesel locos were quickly sold on. There was no record of a steam engine, but according to legend it had been forgotten, and still sat in the ruins of the now abandoned engine shed shed.

Fuelled by this information I knew I had to try and find this line, and further information gathered along the way was sent back to the Island for translation, along with two very grainy photographs passed to me by one of the old men I had talked to.

When the translations were complete I had a series of map references, plus some dimensions and part numbers that set my pulse racing. If this venture was successful then a mystery of almost a hundred years would be solved. It led me to believe that this could be my greatest adventure yet.

The journey from Darjeeling to Kalimpong was fairly easy, but from there things would be less straightforward. The River Teesta was to be crossed, and passage made through the Nathu La pass, but from there it was oxen and cart over uneven roads, plunging through steep valleys and meandering along stony tracks clinging to the sides of hills, where a drop of several hundred feet was a constant danger. Using my map references and by asking locals along the way, at last I came to the point I was looking for to really start the search for the long lost tea and ginger line.

Just by the Tharpa Choling Monastary I found the first trace of the line, almost buried in the earth. A set of rusted rails was detected using my trusty metal detector, and when exposed the two rails gave a rough gauge of 38 inches. From here it was a case of following the pings from the detector, I knew from the information I had that the length of the line was around seven miles. As I progressed I took measurements of the gauge at strategic points, it varied between 35 and 38 inches.

Along the way I encountered quite a few locals, curious to know what was going on. One encounter led me to a meeting with one of the village elders who remembered the line very well, "many many diesels" he said. I quizzed him about the steam engine, "only one time, very bad" was the reply. I asked how I could find out more and was somewhat startled when he said that I would have to speak to Orry. I assumed that the name was a local one, which just happened to sound like a name from my homeland.

A night’s rest in a local hostel provided a chance to do some detective work, how many people in this area could have the name Orry, not many I guessed, quite wrongly, as it turned out. The first surprise was that the name was indeed spelt O-R-R-Y, and the second was that there were thirteen Orrys living in the district, most with a mix of Nepali, Bengali and Indian surnames, but one, Orry Kerruish, stood out.

Sadly, upon finding Orry Kerruish, he knew nothing about the Tea and Ginger line, having arrived in the district in the 1970's during a gap year between university and employment, and liking it so much he never left. His home was easy to find though, with the Three Legs flying proudly on a flagpole in the garden. Orry had integrated himself into village life very sweetly, teaching the local children Manx Gaelic and culture with huge success, so much so that lots of folk greeted each other by saying "Howya doing yessir", or "Hey Boy", and those wishing to leave the district by crossing the River Teesta were always told "there'll be a boat in the morning".

Ultimately it was another Orry, Orry Shrestha, who provided the vital clues to the location of the steam engine. His step-father Dharmalal was the son of a railwayman, and had told Orry many tales of the old Tea and Ginger line, its rickety track, vintage wagons and smoky diesel locomotives. He had also referred to a steam locomotive known as "Pharoah", which had arrived in the district in the early 1920s, as the line was being finished. Orry said his father told him that the loco was only steamed on three occasions, and it had failed to complete the trip along the line, having to be rescued by teams of oxen on each occasion. It was, he said, a mystery why such a useless engine should carry such a grand name.

Dharmalal’s father was employed as Locomotive Superintendent by the Tea and Ginger line, and on his recommendation the steam engine was immediately mothballed in disgrace at the back of the shed and two diesel engines brought in to replace it. He wrote a report on the engine, listing its faults very briefly in a one line summary in the workshop ledger.

During the late 1950's as Dharmalal’s father was coming to the end of his working life, the railway was visited by a family of Europeans, the father of the family a scruffy man in a filthy overcoat, his wife, who was referred to as the "Lady like Dragon" and their son, a miniature version of his dad, only wearing a smaller but equally scruffy overcoat and sporting a mop of well-greased hair.

They were interested in the steam locomotive, and wanted Dharmalal’s father to show it to them, or at least prove its existence. Dharmalal’s father took out the slip of paper from his workshop ledger and sold it to them for four thousand Nepalese rupees. They took it away to be translated, but returned furious, dismissing it as gibberish and demanding their money back. The slip of paper then disappeared into the ether, only to reappear when I met the old railwaymen in Jorebungalow.

Shortly afterwards, Orry Shrestha put me in contact with another family, the aged grandfather of which was the last remaining former employee of the Tea and Ginger Railway. Although very frail, he agreed to take me to the derelict locomotive shed, saying it would probably be the last time he ever saw "Pharoah" before he passed away.

To even find the shed was not easy, as it was hidden away behind a sea of makeshift corrugated-iron homes, but by following the pings of the metal detector and using the old man’s knowledge, we eventually found ourselves standing outside the rusting doors of a stout windowless building. Two rails snaked through the baked mud outside, before disappearing under the closed doors.

A substantial iron padlock held the two doors closed. It looked like our quest might end there, but close inspection showed that although the padlock had been slipped through the hasp and staple, it had never been snapped shut, and had rusted solid in the open position. It was quickly lifted away, and the heavy doors swung open for the first time in over fifty years. Light streamed into the first few yards of the interior, disturbing all manner of creatures within. A jumble of discarded oil cans, spanners and wire lay scattered between the rails, with the interior growing darker and darker as we carefully picked our way further inside.

“The ‘Pharoah’ locomotive arrived in crates”, said the old man, “and many men toiled to put her back together. It took a long time, but they thought it would all be well, as the man who sold her to us said it was a very good engine, very few miles run, and in very good condition. It had only had one previous owner and he had hardly used her at all, in fact she was so good that another railway even asked to borrow it to help complete their line. But when she was being reassembled we found some parts missing and broken, including the nameplates which were snapped in half, and with some loose letters”. I listened intently, as did Orry and Dharmalal, while we slowly inched our way through the gloom to the end of the shed. We were faced by a wall of wooden packing-crates, some of which bore the name ‘’British Commercial Lorry and Engineering Co., Ltd.’. In the dim light, our guide suggested that we dismantle this wall, which we did slowly and not without difficulty. Before long we gained a view of a locomotive standing on the rails beyond the packing-case wall. The light was very poor, but as our eyes adjusted to the gloom, we could make out the shape of a locomotive cab and side tanks. As we worked our way past the locomotive we found that it stood on two driving wheels on each side and a radial pony truck. The boiler was missing: "Gone to hospital to power laundry" said the old man "many years ago".

Using my torch I found my way into the cab. Inside I found what looked like a grease-top turban, but was in fact a turban covered in a mix of grease and dust. I scraped away the grime on the handbrake to reveal a serial number. Opening my notepad I compared this to the notes I had brought with me and the translations that had been made from the Nepali documents. The numbers matched, and I allowed myself a smile of triumph before turning to my companions. "People have wondered about this old loco for a hundred years” I said, “ And I can tell you now, without doubt, that this is no ‘Pharoah’, although I can see where the name came from. The broken nameplate was mistaken for Rameses, but this, gentlemen, is Manx Northern Railway locomotive Number 1, ‘Ramsey’, built by Sharp Stewart in Manchester in 1879. You will find that each part bears the Works Number 2885, and that the slip of paper given to the older Old Overcoat was not gibberish, but a very astute definition of its operational capabilities. "Couldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding" was not a code: it was proof that the Tea and Ginger line had been duped into buying a thoroughly worn-out engine”.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, this New Year’s Day lecture is beyond all doubt my greatest triumph. I have the honour of revealing to the world a locomotive which has been lost for almost one hundred years, and am prepared to act as an honest broker for anyone wishing to purchase and restore this unique piece of railway history.

Thank you and best wishes from Nepal on this momentous day’.