Passage to India, 1947

by Angela Dunford Wood

It had been snowing since before Christmas, and now it was early March 1947, and the weather had not changed. Snow was banked unevenly each side of the roads, like petrified clouds. The white fields lay stunned and silent. I was tucked into the back seat of the car with a rug and hot water bottle on my lap. Cars didn’t have heaters then. Beside me was my 3-month old daughter, Cynthia, in a carry-cot covered by a blanket, together with my mother.

We set off at 8am to drive to London from my parents’ home in Buckinghamshire for me to catch the train to Liverpool. My father sat in front, and a friend drove the car carefully along the icy road.

I shivered as I looked out of the window, with a mixture of emotions, partly because of the bleak outlook, but also from apprehension about the journey I was about to undertake to India with Cynthia        .

My thoughts went back to early 1946. It had all happened so quickly. Colin and I were out for a walk during a week-end visit to my parent’s home. We were resting on a log in the wood after a steep climb up the hill when he suddenly turned to me and said:

“The time has come, the walrus said to speak of many things.”

Of course I knew this quotation, but what on earth———–? I looked at him blankly, and he continued without more ado:

“Will you marry me?”

I was dumbfounded. No preliminaries, not even a kiss or a cuddle —–I ask you!

I haven’t known you very long,” I said shakily. True, we’d been going out together  since I’d met him just after Christmas, but this was only a few weeks later, and we’d never  more than held hands, and had the odd kiss, and danced together.

“Well you’d better make your mind up soon, because I’m due to join my regiment in India soon.”

I told him I’d think about it. We did have a kiss then, before racing down the hill and back to my parent’s home. There must have been some magic in the air, because within a few days while Colin was staying I got to know him better and realised I did love him and wanted to marry him. It was like a dream, I couldn’t believe this was really happening, but somehow I knew this was the right decision, and I felt more certain every day.

So it was like a whirlwind; we got engaged on 8 February, and married on 12 March from my home. After a brief honeymoon we returned to my parent’s home where we stayed for several weeks before Colin sailed for India. I couldn’t go with him as wives had to wait their turn before being allocated  a passage on a troopship, according to the length of time of separation from their husbands.

Before he left, I realised I was pregnant and I wasn’t offered a passage for several months. I was advised by my doctor not to travel until 3 months after I’d had the baby, so I decided to stay with my parents until it was time to go. They were very caring, and looked after me with love.

Now it was nearly a year later, and I was about to be reunited with this man I’d known only briefly, with his daughter in my arms.

I had feelings of excitement, anticipation, and insecurity. What if I didn’t like Colin after all this time? It was too late to think about this now.

It took several hours of slow, careful driving, with a few stops on the way, before we reached Euston station and located the waiting train, which had several feet of snow on the roof.

The platform was crowded with troops loaded with kit-bags, and civilian passengers and their friends and relatives who had come to see them off. The air was thick with smoke and frosty breath from the mouths of the noisy mass of humanity with their farewell messages.

As I boarded the train, I said a tearful goodbye to my parents. I didn’t know if I would ever see them again. I expected to be in India for several years.

The train journey to Liverpool seemed endless. It was very cold in the carriage, and I noticed a drip falling regularly onto Cynthia’s blanket from the snow on the roof above, and hastily moved her carry-cot a few inches, as far as our cramped conditions would allow.

The stevedores who were supposed to load the luggage onto the troopship Georgic, had all gone home as it was late. The soldiers coming off the train had to heave the trunks and baggage into the ship’s hold, rather roughly.

We were herded on board and allotted our cabins. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw where I was to sleep. I had a bunk in an 18-berth cabin, with a string cot attached to it. The cabin was like a hospital ward with bunks close together along each side, some with cots attached like mine. We were all wives, some with children or babies. It was very spartan; the only porthole was blocked by a life-raft fixed over it outside. The one wash-basin was inaccessible, and we all had to share a communal wash-room with basins side by side, and the only privacy was in the lavatory.

After changing and feeding Cynthia, which was last done on the train, I collapsed on my bunk and slept.

Next day, we were told where and when to get breakfast, and I had a look out on deck. It was bare apart from lifeboats and other equipment, and there were park benches fixed to the deck at intervals. They had just been painted dark brown and were still sticky to touch. It was very discouraging. There was hardly any room to move in our cabin, and we were told that the Captain made an inspection every day at 10am, when we were all to be out of the cabin. I ignored this instruction, as I said I had to feed my baby at this time. I sat on my bunk breastfeeding Cynthia when the Captain came round, and I looked at him defiantly. He went away after a cursory glance round the cabin.

I had to bath the baby and later wash her nappies in a tin washing-up bowl which someone at home had wisely suggested might be useful, and that proved invaluable.

There was a very basic lounge at the end of which was a notice board on the wall showing the ship’s route and daily progress, and also a daily news bulletin which made depressing reading. India seemed to be in turmoil, especially in the Punjab, which was my destination. My husband had written before I left home to say that he would meet me when the ship docked in Bombay.

However, 10 days later, when we got to Port Said where some of the troops disembarked, there was a message from him saying he might not be able to meet me, as he was engaged in quelling the riots which had broken out. That was a daunting prospect.

It became very hot and stifling in the cabin, which smelt of stale sweat and babies’ nappies. We didn’t have disposable ones in those days. On deck the atmosphere was even worse. The heat wafted, stinking of dirt and dust, spices and dung, and the noise was deafening with traders and the crowds ashore.

Some tradesmen were allowed on board to sell materials and trinkets, and men in gallabias (loose cotton robes, which most of the natives wore) called gully-gully men performed conjuring tricks for the passengers left on board.

When we left port, I was transferred to another cabin, luckily much more spacious, and occupied by just one other woman, an Indian lady who was very pleasant and friendly. She showed me how to wear a sari, and I envied her colourful ones and determined to buy one for myself one day. It became even hotter as we sailed through the Red Sea and many people chose to sleep on deck, with men on one side and women on the other. I joined them with Cynthia, and it gave us a bit of relief.

One day I read on the bulletin news: ‘Riots in the Punjab, Murree in flames’. This was where I was going. My heart sank, and I began to wonder whether I should have stayed at home. As we approached Bombay we had to line up and were asked by an official what our destination was. I said ‘Rawalpindi’ which was where my husband had arranged for us to break our journey before driving up into the hills. My luggage and papers were all marked Bombay, which was where I was expecting Colin to meet us. I just hoped he’d be there. The voyage had taken 3 weeks.

When the ship docked, the wives and families all lined the deck, trying to spot their husbands waiting for them on the quayside. I dressed Cynthia in her prettiest dress, and made myself look presentable, and waited on deck in anxious anticipation, with the others. I was aware of the heat, and the even more pungent spicy, dusty smells than I’d experienced in Port Said. The noise of the crowd ashore, mingled with the excited cries of those on deck, were deafening. Wives called out ‘There he is, I’ve seen him!’ waving frantically and jumping up and down. I waited and waited – in vain. No husband. Eventually I was summoned to speak to a man from Grindlay’s Bank with a letter from Colin enclosing some money, saying he was sorry not to be able to meet me, and suggesting I find an hotel in Bombay, and book myself a passage on the Frontier Mail, which was a train running every few days to Rawalpindi, a 48-hour journey. I felt quite unprepared in every way, to make the arrangements myself, not knowing the country or its language or customs, and with a fractious baby and all my luggage to contend with.

I was lucky to be befriended by a very kind and capable colonel’s wife on board, who took pity on me and suggested I should ask to be able to remain on board until the ship turned round for the return journey. She contacted her brother-in-law who was a director of the Indian railways, and he had a compartment reserved for me in two days’ time.

This was a great relief, and I found there was another wife who was also staying on board. She had sprained her ankle badly, and had to rest up for two days. She was going to Lahore, which was on the same route as my train, so we travelled together until she left the train there. I still had some way to go, and I was transferred into a 4-berth cabin with just one Indian lady. It was reasonably comfortable, but hot and stuffy and if the windows were opened, a shower of smuts was blown in from the engine, and it was even hotter. We bought food from the vendors at the stations at which we stopped on the way, and I had to ask for boiling water for drinks for Cynthia between feeds.

After two nights and two days we reached Rawalpindi, and I left the train with Cynthia in her carry-cot, to be met by an army sergeant. He saluted smartly and asked ‘Excuse me madam, are you Mrs Dunford Wood?’ I was so thankful that someone knew who I was, that I almost embraced him. He busied himself seeing to my luggage, and I asked him where my husband was.

‘The colonel isn’t able to come today, as he’s occupied with the rest of the company quelling the riots’

‘But what about my husband?’ I persisted. The sergeant explained that my husband had been appointed temporary lieutenant-colonel, as one of his senior officers was on leave and the other one had been promoted, and Colin was the next in seniority although he was only a lieutenant!

From then on things went smoothly. I was driven with the baby and all the luggage in an army staff car to an hotel, and shown to a self-contained chalet in the green, spacious grounds of Flashman’s Hotel in Rawalpindi. It was a calm haven after the noise and bustle of the street on the way there, which was a cacophony of screeching horns and street vendors. There were cattle wandering along the middle of the road in some places, and pedestrians pushing carts, and wobbling cyclists careless of other traffic.

Once we’d arrived I took stock of my new surroundings, and as if by magic, an ayah arrived for me, and a bearer, who took care of all my needs. The ayah spoke English, and was a Christian, and had been engaged for me by friends of Colin’s. She competently took over the duties with Cynthia, and the bearer sorted out the luggage. We stayed in that chalet for two days, and I took my meals in the main building of the hotel.

Then, suddenly, Colin appeared at the door of my chalet. There he was, tired but tall, bronzed and handsome. All my bells started ringing. I was holding Cynthia at the time: for a moment we just looked at each other, then I thrust the baby into the ayah’s arms and rushed to embrace Colin.

At last my troubles were over.

Angela, at Flashman's hotel after her epic journey, photographed by Colin the day they were re-united.
Angela, at Flashman’s hotel after her epic journey, photographed by Colin the day they were re-united.

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2 responses to “Passage to India, 1947”

  1. Thanks for such a wonderful update on the story.
    People were certainly made of sterner stuff back then.

  2. Wonderful and forwarded on to most of the grandchildren. Well done indeed Jamie. C xx and I visited just that spot at Flashmans Hotel in 2011!

    Cynny Sharp

    +44 (0)1297 443312 +44 (0)7866427431

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