The winter of 1905-06 saw a revolution on Indian roads; Calcutta witnessed the introduction of the first bus service in the world outside Western Europe and USA, a development that led to public acceptance of motorised transport once and for all.
Remember, this happened at a time when most parts of the city did not have electricity and the only public transport available was horse drawn trams. It must have been a major surprise for the general public to see a regular motorised bus service, run and operated by a group of adventurous young Englishmen who lived and worked together to keep the service in the city going. However, this story has a twist at the end, so read on!
Bus service pioneers
Led by couple of engineers then working for East India Railway (one of the many private railway companies operating in the region), a small group of Englishmen rented a two-storied house in Ballygunge with a working shed and a large water body. Also sharing the property were some officers of the Calcutta Electric Supply Company. The house has since vanished but reports seem to indicate the property was none other than the premises, presently occupied by the Ballygunge Science College of Calcutta University on Ballygunge Circular Road. At that time, it was owned by Mr Jerry, an employee of the Government of India Mint on Strand Road. However, this cannot be proved for sure. Interestingly, a water body does exist on the Ballygunge premises even today. The leader of the group, Mr Kettle was posted at the Liluah Rail Works of E.I. Railway but he soon gave up his job (or was sacked, according to some reports). He started sounding out financiers and businessmen in the city to get the bus business off the ground.
As the motor bus clearly offered greater advantages over horse drawn trams, the group managed to raise enough resources to send their leader to England to procure buses. He soon returned from England with a fleet of three double-decked buses made by Dennis and thus started the Calcutta Motor Bus Service in the city.
These double decked vehicles had an open upper floor reached by wide external stairs in keeping with the practice followed in London and Paris, while the lower deck was a closed one with a wooden body and glass panes. The upper floor passengers perhaps had to use their umbrellas or frantically seek shelter at the lower level when it rained!
The group of foreigners lived rent free on the premises and collectively maintained and serviced the buses daily after office hours and flagged them off every morning. Their rent was adjusted against the hours of work they put in every day on the buses. Once the buses left to pick up passenger, they could go off to their normal office jobs. As most motor vehicles in the city were driven by owners, the group had to select and train young men to drive the buses, so the area was also the training ground for aspiring drivers. The results, as reports of the era show, were most amusing.
Accidents were a daily affair in the training zone though no life was lost; the casualties were the structures and plants there. The lamp posts in the area were knocked down again and again.“Outside the gate, the lamp post on the opposite side of the road was the starting point and goodness knows how many times that was flattened out” according to a report, written by
W Bates. He adds, “I imagine that almost every lamp post from Ballygunge to Lower Circular Road had contact with our buses at one time or another”.
Bates was one of the officers working with this group. His salary at his actual job was `330 a month, with `30 a month deducted to pay for his passage home (to visit England on leave). The rent free accommodation suited him fine.
The buses plied on three routes; two of them ferried passengers from all over town to the G.P.O. area while the third route ran from G.P.O. to Kidderpore. The service became very popular in a short time and generated substantial sums but the management of money left much to be desired. The problem was simple – the promoters would not put up cash for spare parts. In spite of the fact that these buses were built like iron clads and ran on solid tyres, a time came when renewals were necessary. Lack of new parts or spares meant very long hours had to be spent at the repair shed, which was not possible for team members to keep who had their normal office jobs. The lodgers were very keen on the service and slogged late into the night and from early morning, but they had limited time because they had to get to their respective offices by 9 am daily. If one bus had a serious break down, lodgers working in the G.P.O. area or in Howrah had to drop the repair works and rush off to office on their bicycles, which naturally took a longer time. And sadly, along the way, they went past upset passengers waiting in vain for the bus to come by.
Naturally, the service started becoming unpopular. The original team leader, Kettle, who managed the finances had already become a problem as far as others were concerned.
Nonetheless, to rebuild the company’s goodwill and not cause any further inconvenience to the passengers, others held a meeting and decided to retire one bus and use it to supply spares for the other two. This solved the problem for couple of years and two buses ran regularly. The abandoned bus suffered a sad but useful end!
Thereafter, the second bus had to be scrapped as well to keep just one bus on the road. Even then the service was very popular and the bus ran packed. Then, disaster struck. The company supplying petrol and lubricating oil sent a bailiff to seize the buses because, as it turned out, the team leader had not been paying bills for some months. A hunt was started for this worthy individual and someone reported he was in hospital, being treated for fever. This proved to be false. The man in question had checked himself into a hospital but had quickly signed himself out and caught a steamer to sail off to London leaving both the oil company and his former friends-cum-colleagues in deep trouble. He had covered his tracks so expertly that it took his friends three days just to find out that he was already in the high seas in a steam ship going to Britain. He had proved to be a real trickster and was never caught. He never came back to India either. The bus company folded up. It would be many years before a public bus service was launched in the city.
Calcutta’s double decked buses were not the only transport to run on the roads. Companies supplied bare chassis for smaller buses in order to run bus services in districts. The chain driven bare chassis could be converted to canvas topped 12-14 seaters to ply on narrow roads in the suburbs or rural areas or serve zamindari or princely estates.
Gibbons of England was a clever body builder, which came up with a brilliant idea for a ‘purdah’ bus. To shield the ladies of the high and mighty from public eyes, the company offered bus bodies of varying types and sizes.
In ‘purdah’ buses, the passengers were protected by wood screens, or cane curtains (called chik) or at the very least, glass and fabric curtains. Ladies could thus travel by road with their modesty protected, within the motorised ‘purdah’.
Harassment by bus operators was a routine practice. One amusing story on the reputation of bus operators goes like this; the Raja of Natore (now in Bangladesh) was travelling by his own bus to Tarapith (which was in his estate) when it was flagged down by a family on a rural road. While the Raja told his staff to pick up the group, the head of the family refused to get into the bus, yelling at the doorman, “First you tell me what you will charge, for you people are cheats – you pick us up and then ask us to pay extra on one pretext or the other, without caring for the fare chart”. It was only after much coaxing that the family could be persuaded to board the bus. To the credit of the head of the family, the Natore ‘Raj’ realised what was going on and initiated measures in his area to curb the extortion and malpractices of bus operators.