Building a Railway in the Indian Jungle

Susan Payne

Poster promoting Bengal Nagpur Railway
HALS Ref 86736

In 1887 two brothers left the peace of the Hertfordshire village of High Cross, north of Ware to travel to India to help construct a railway through the jungles of India. Stephen Martin Leake recalled his experience in a series of articles for the Bengal-Nagpur Railway Magazine in 1929, copies of which are held by Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (document reference 86736-9).

Stephen and his brother Richard arrived in Nagpur at the end of May 1887. Several months went by before work began in earnest due to the rains and time taken to assemble a workforce. Undeterred Stephen enjoyed rounds of golf with members of the Madras Infantry stationed nearby, as well as duck and snipe shooting with a government engineer.

By November, the work moved to the Pendra Ghat district, a mountainous region in the modern state of Chhattisgarh. The railway was to run for 12 miles, working its way up 600 feet at a gradient of 1:100, through cuttings, over bridges and through tunnels. Conditions were challenging. To begin with all exploration work was done on foot. Supplies came in from distant settlements by pack bullocks and donkeys, including equipment, dynamite and bricks for construction. A weekly bazaar was organised to allow the many workers (men and women) to purchase necessities.

In the early days Stephen, Richard and the other engineers lived mainly on goat and rice. A herd of goats being kept for the purpose. The whisky came from Bombay. They were quartered in a bungalow constructed on a rock outcrop. “We frequently had panthers round the bungalow and one evening lost our dog, who was taken while we were at dinner”.

Tunnel construction was handled by Pathans (an ethnic group native to Central and South Asia) serving with the British regiment at Kamptee, near Nagpur. The tunnel was started at both ends simultaneously, meeting after a year’s work. Stephen describes the last phase “The final shot was fired from the south side, while we awaited the result in the north. On going up to the face, we found a small hole, just large enough to shake hands through!”
The tunnel was a success but apparently not all went to plan: “As far as I remember, the curve is a bit tight about the centre of the tunnel, although I have never heard that this has caused any trouble. We did not talk about it at the time!”

Stephen was made an honorary magistrate in the area. This meant extra police guards and a government clerk with experience of managerial duties. Luckily there seems to have been very little crime to deal with as there was no lockup. Anyone under suspension had to be tied to the office safe and watched over by the cash guard.
Plate-laying, which consists the laying of sleepers, rails and fastenings, began in mid-1889. By this point material was brought in by train, going as far as the most recently laid track.

At the end of the rains and in cold weather, fever swept the workforce. “My brother and I used to take enormous doses of quinine, believing that quantity must tell in the end. It did not, however! We often tried various fever mixtures advertised in the papers, all to no effect, for we had regular goes of fever until we left the district”. December 1891 marked the completion of construction work and both brothers were granted one year’s sick leave.
Stephen and Richard returned in 1892, but the post-construction work does not seem to have appealed very much. There was only one train service each day, stopping at all stops. Running the railway service in the end did not compare with the exciting construction work. Stephen left India in 1900, after 13 years of service for the Bengal-Nagpur Railway.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. Thirty years later the Bengal-Nagpur Railway invited the brothers to join the annual inspection of the railway. Stephen’s thoughts on return were of wonder of the changes made both on the railway and the regions through which they travelled. “I suggest every member of the staff should make a note that he will revisit the railway thirty years after leaving. Daily developments make no impression.”

This page was added on 10/08/2021.

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