Today 26 °C
Tomorrow 26 °C
Sunday 27 °C

Fading Memories Of Planter’s life in British Assam – Aberdeen


Main memory would be that it was big wood life. I know it in private golf course one day. Someone pulled the door.

An area where I was in, about 90% percent was Scotsman and 80 percent was native are in ruins and the North East anyway. (Not Audible)

I mean I was surrounded mainly by Scottish people. They celebrated St. Andrews, they found more than we ever did here. Between that and the New Year celebrations we used to go attain. I think all those Aberdeens  first of all and opened up Tea estates. 

Bill Miller and John Grimmer and Gordon Isaac recalling the times in the Tea gardens of Northern India. Very much part of the Scottish tradition in the region for it was solider Robert Bruce who discovered tea growing wild in Assam in 1823 and his brother Charles who began the process of clearing the jungle for its exploitation.

The first 8 chest of Indian tea arrived in Britain in 1838 and for the rest of the 19th Century, Scottish companies like Duncan brothers and YOU Group led the rush for Black Gold. 

At that time you weren’t employed by the agents who were known, what you did there (Not Audible)Duncan brother so they sent you up country, you’ve got to all live up there and you’ve got hide in all the trees and vegetation and prepare for the tea planter. Soon as that job is finished that means you start again so you are back to Calcutta (Not Audible).

By 1900, Nine hundred thousand acres of jungle had been filled for Tea cultivation in India and Sir Lanka. And a huge enterprise was created. 

Aberdonian brother, William and Jon Jackson were tea planters in Assam. 

And they turned to the native cities engineering expertise to develop new machinery for the industry. 

John Glimmer was an apprentice engineer in Aberdeen and a colleague from the Bruce Family regaled him with his brother’s stories from India – the land of opportunity. John didn’t need much convincing. 

The brother was driving a white and a brand new car. None of my friends had never seen or smelt a new car of any description and that is where my interest initiated from. 

It would be rewarding but it would also mean 5 years terms of exile from family and friends in a very different environment. In Assam and in the Dhuhars of the foothills of the Himalaya. In the late 1940’s, long journeys by sea and rail finally took you to within striking distance to your destination.

Hi Mr. Bruce, Harry Cane and Dusty Miller. 

After we left the (Not Audible) visit (Not Audible) to get to the tea estates. It was quite a queer journey. We had an estate in rural Bengal. The hill was over 7,000 feet and the bungalow was at 2,800 feet. And it was beautiful.

I was impressed by the proximity of the Himalayas, the back grind of the path of the Bengal that we were in, was the first range which went up to maybe 7,000 feet or so? 

The bushes are all triangular plantings, 4 and half 4 and half feet. What you do is comes up to lovely tea bushes touching each other and then what you do is align a tree, it’s like a billiard table, beautiful. And the shade trees over so many bushes and then it will all pass through what you call pagdandi.

While I arrived there at 2 o’clock in the morning. They said that, oh well you will have to get up now, it’s time to go to work and I was like, I just got to bed but they said it’s a different kettle of fish, now you are here in Assam, so at 6 o’clock that morning, I was out again and then I met my Badasaahib. I was a manager and the others assistants at the factory. 

The tea estate I went to the factory with my broken down body just finished. I went down I was astonished that smelt of the tea and men standing there and packing the tea with their feet and boxes, so I said it’s not very hygienic. They said husshh, don’t say anything. That was my impression on my first drive. 

I went straight from the air field straight to the local club because the club was celebrating Christmas. So I saw the Tea estate sometime very early in the next morning. We had a wonderful time at the club. And I thought if this is tea life, this is wonderful. 

Our first glimpse of paradise. On his first morning of his office tour John was immediately made aware of the downside of working in the Garden of Eden. And the multi-tasking required the Saahib when confronted with local difficulty.  

Apparently a tiger had run through a handful of their cows and they wanted me to do something about it. And so being the big white hunter I was like yes, I will go and I will have a look at this. 1st time I was this foot prints in the sand, they were about the size of soup plates. I had managed to borrow a gun but we never saw the tiger and I was delighted. 

So were you expected to deal with this tiger? Oh yes, anything that happened on the estat,e as the Saahib, you were expected to find a solution or sort it. I was delighted when I couldn’t do anything about that one. 

Now they said, you had a bungalow to build us. A bungalow to build. And I said I have never built a bungalow in my life but we had the mechanics, the engineers, the raj mistris, they were Muhammadans and there were the builders, there were the rang walas, there were painters and you get the box walas, they make the tea chest. I mean at the tea estate the work is done in one place. 

Most arrivals didn’t need their own bungalows, which were built on stilt because of the early belief that malaria rose in vapours from the ground. Claret Isaac began her married life there. Harry Cane went out as a bachelor. 

I shared a bungalow to start with, with this chap from Dandi. Canto was his name. He had one side of the bungalow and I had the lower. It was a tin bath, which was filled by servants with 4 gallons drums, the toilet was very sparse of course, the accommodation was very sparse as well, we had an iron bed, tea chest for side table and a rather prehistoric chest of drawers for our clothing in there. 

So there had barely been a (Not audible)? Absolutely yes, it was and in fact it was. 

I think I looked right into the bungalow and thought hmm.. bachelor pad, very spars, no curtains? Need to do something about this. And I thought, how are we going to cope with 2 bearers, a cook…I don’t need all of these. 

Somebody to sweet the floors, somebody cleans your shoes, pardoned! 

We had a lot of servants and John ended up as a superintendent, then we had even more servants. You had a cook, you had a bearer and you had an Aaya, who sort of looked after the kids when they came. You’d play golf in the morning and then you’ve probably stayed on and played on the bridge in the afternoon kind of business you know, It was funny life but it was good life.

Bobby Duccket from Aboian on the leisured lifestyle of the British wives but among the older generation of the bachelors tea planters, the long and forced exile and isolation of the many tea gardens led to a social phenomenon common throughout the British empire. I had one contemporary in mind , who didn’t come home because he had so many children there, he stayed out there and died out there.

They said you could not get married until you were a manager. And the generation of the tea planters that were my first managers and in their case, it meant 20 -23 years before they could get married. So many of them had an Indian woman and many had families. And many of them finished up in Dr. Grahams homes in Kalimgpong. 

And one the other people, older generation we had, 5 or 6 people up in Kalimpong homes. 

Dr. Graham’s homes dealt with Anglo Indian children. But I thought that those that did try to look after their family were few and far between a lot just you know, there’s a lot, you bring their family up and that’s it, you’re paid off. 

Dr. Graham’s homes began as an orphanage, St. Andrews colonial homes in 1900 and was to set up to care for the Eurasian children of the region. Today it is an important education establishment. The 1950’s and 60’s when this generation of men were there society was changing. But the work was demanding as ever. The hours were hard and the work was hard too. I mean had to do certain things in the factory for instance, if you started early in the morning, you had to be there to see the pri-mover went over to start with and you would get cracking, then you would see everything is operating properly, then you go back for breakfast , then come back again and then in the evening, at the end of the day’s manufacture, you had to be back to see that the engine was stooped and that everything was ship-shaped fashion for the next day production. 

You could not afford a break in the peak season. You were always behind your manufacture deadlines because of the volume of leaf coming in. In the height of the season you working nearly 24 hours a day. Well not quite 24 but 22 anyway. because by the time you finished one manufacture your ready to start for the next day’s manufacturer and that went on from Monday until Saturday. 

As we’ll hear, labour relations were generally good but as different unions vide for supremacy towards the end of their stay, the mangers often get caught in the middle sometime with tragic consequence. And there were some scary moments before things settles down again. There was more than one they had killed and they stuck a couple in the boiler as well. 

What do you mean? They killed the planters. He had a pretty close one. A riot in Essans, I had one. I was not too barred. I got stoned across my forehead  and lots of blood and they broke every window in the office because I wouldn’t give in to a demand that they were making. It wasn’t very pleasant for quite some time.  As long as you have a sense of humour with them, I crack a joke great fun! Well after I left them, they went to South, I couldn’t get over it, a part time business because they are so close to labour in India. 

They were wonderful people to work with. There were some tremendous guys. I had one fellow, who after I had left the area took a day and half train journey to see whether he come and work with me again, I mean that’s the sort of loyalty you used to get. And it was something to do respect, sometimes it was embarrassing they would be coming along in the bicycles and they’ll get off the bicycle as they pass you and some would come along and bow down and touch your shoes and things like that I found that a bit embarrassing, you know. 

But the strict social hierarchy of the Indian society was replicated in the British Raj. And some of these estates in Assam reflected the ways of the past. 

Superintendents thought they were God’s right hand. Senior managers thought they were God’s left hand. Junior managers sucked up as much as they possibly could. And the assistants were relegated to the far reaches of the bar. Some of the old managers’ wives, you couldn’t go up to their bungalow in the evening to see them, you had to be invited and what happened, they were setting up breakfast and the bearer would come in with plate and say... Mr. and Mrs. Cormbay wish your company tonight for dinner. I think the worst of the lot for that was the Mamsahibs. The superintendent’s wives, I don’t know what the hell they thought they were, they lived in a planet of lowly assistance except maybe for Christmas time when you were having dances because you were then expected to dance with all these battle axes. 

In fact in some clubs the bar was divided up into sections. You know you had your superintendents, you had your managers, then your assistants below that you know. Not one would talk to the other, all were in their individual groups. 

Richard Simpson – perhaps being physically close to the law of the jungle made the British and Indians adhere to strict social structures for danger was never far away. An early planter advised sleeping with a loaded revolver under your pillow to deal with curious panthers. These men all knew of  fatalities involving fellow scots in encounters with wild animal. That was a hazard of the locale but John objected to the social hierarchy extending to sleeping hours.

10 o’clock, it was lights out. So we finished off sleeping on  the bungalow verandah underneath the mosquito net and somewhere through the middle of the night, we used to get up, plunge ourselves in a cold bath, dry ourselves off and go back to the veranda and try and get some more sleep. The manager I had at that time had a small lighting plant. He had electricity. He even had his own air conditioner. I called them all the miserable things you could possibly ever think of. Our lights went off at 10’clock and his lights were lit till five to ten and he sat in luxury all through the pre monsoon when we got temperatures of over the 100 degrees. 

My wife and I sat just in the verandah at half past five in the morning, it was lovely. And have a cup of tea. I said to her well look at that and there was a head coming in. And that planter had 20 acres of tea and coming out was one of them touched the tea, they pull out the shade trees and it was quite funny cause one little. what we call a bachaa, what we call a young one and he misbehaved and the mother Elephant was obviously annoyed and she hit him the on the foot and he would go eee eee eee! And  that was the a bit side of our way to stop them I built right around the parameter on this part where they came in a deep ditch. But the devils would come in and start to honk us (Not audible). 

One occasion they went up against the bungalow and we could feel the bungalow rock, they didn’t break it down they probably were scratching themselves and they went off again. 


The entertainment that the coolies had in the evening was most of the drumming, most of it were quite happy. When you are going travelling night time in the car you’ll see all the tiger and the other animals wild buffalo and things like that, jumping from one side of the jungle across the road to another.    

Some of the boys went hunting Don Mackenzie. he was the great one for the gun. He and palor were shooting one day and we shoot a tiger or a leopard. We would run and shoot again because he said to his assistant. do that. Running with the tiger and put them down and sat there, start clawing his knees and Donald went to help out and he got knocked over as well and the tiger was in-between the 2 of them. 

Subscribe Now!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.