Remember our young friend Billy (God bless his soul), who unfortunately perished to a bad bout of dysentery on landing in Kolkata in the early 1900s? The one whose letters from his betrothed Rose lay undelivered for centuries at the Dead Letter Post Office standing right in the heart of Dalhousie Square, Calcutta? While the poor soul didn’t live to see too much of how European Calcutta shaped up, his friend Henry (Harry) Talbott survived a few more monsoons to visit the Great Eastern Hotel a number of times before finally retiring and returning to England as a senior clerk with the Royal Insurance Company. Harry was one among the thousands of British young men who had gambled to come all the way to a new country halfway around the globe lured by money and a life of possibility with less of a competition. Luckily for him, unlike poor Billy, Calcutta was, by then very close to London in terms of its architecture, culture, and populace.
In fact, Harry Talbot also met his wife Charlotte on one of the Sunday masses to the St. John’s Church and had lived in a small flat with his wife and three daughters at Park Mansion till his retirement. For many like him, a family visit to the Great Eastern Hotel on the Old Court House Street after a day well spent at the Maidan once a month, was ultimate entertainment. Yes, the Great Eastern Hotel, now known most commonly as the Lalit Great Eastern Kolkata, was perhaps one of the grandest hotels of Colonial India.
Irrespective of its grandeur and popularity, Great Eastern was not, in reality, the first hotel in European Calcutta. What actually was, ceased to exist since around the 1880s. Then known as Spence’s Hotel, this rather non-decrepit building, standing opposite the Telephone Bhawan today, had seen its heydays. Opened in 1830, the magnificent Spence Hotel was believed to be the first-ever hotel in Asia. With trade and commerce booming like never before and Calcutta being at the heart of it all, those days saw an increasing number of visitors coming in from different countries of Europe and Asia. John Spence could realize the importance of a hotel and started one at the corner of Esplanade Row West and Government Place West, just across the road from the Western gate of Government House (Raj Bhawan). Through its glorious presence in the city for about half a century, the Spence Hotel had hosted eminent personalities as well as served as neutral grounds for political unions.
Infact French Novelist Jules Verne, in his book ‘The Seam House’ wrote “… before dawn, on the morning of our start, I left the Spence’s Hotel, one of the best in Calcutta which I had made my residence ever since my arrival”. And yet, it is now but just a name that remains etched in novels, remembered through movies, and in stories of reunion between mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, and many more separated during the Treaty of Lahore signed by the British between 1846 and 1849.
In fact, if a popular belief is to be considered, noted novelist Shankar’s (Manishankar Mukhopadhyay) famous book that made waves as a film, Chowringhee, was perhaps based on the story of this once grand hotel that in 1880 was shifted to Wellesley Place (renamed Red Cross Place) to accommodate new offices and different government departments and then simply faded into oblivion without even having registered a proper date.
While John Spence opened the magnificent Spence’s Hotel to the world, baker David Wilson, ‘Dainty Davie’ as he was popularly known among his friends, opened a bakery on Bentinck Street (then known as Cossaitollah Lane) alongside two more confectionaries that served the much sought-after bread, muffins and evening drinks to the officers of the British East Indian Company. While Ahmuty and Payne, the two other confectioners on Cossaitollah Lane sustained till the end of the British Raj, Wilson stayed on and to expand and emerge as one of the most renowned and oft-visited hotels of British India. Indeed, long after the name of Wilson faded from the annuls of the stories surrounding this longest functioning hotel in Asia, Great Eastern Hotel still implies an enigma!
Dainty Davie was soon convinced by his regular customers, acquired adjacent buildings intending to open a luxury hotel. With Spence’s already functional, hotel business seemed like quite a lucrative business. And so, on 19th November 1840, David Wilson opened the doors of Auckland Hotel after George Eden, the Earl of Auckland, Governor-General of India between 1836 and 1842. With 100 luxurious rooms, the Auckland Hotel (known more commonly as Wilson’s Hotel back then) was to be one of its kind for years to come!
The Auckland Hotel continued to grow and thrive alongside the Spence’s Hotel through the 1840s and 50’s as more and more people continued to get used to a luxury hotel in the city that would also cater to their necessities and offer dining out experiences. By this time, the civil and the military servants of the East India Company, and the new Indian class of Baboos were so accustomed to the luxuries of hotel life that most of their evenings would be spent there. To the extent that even before heading for private parties, they would take a detour and stop at the Wilsons for a drink or two. In a famous song making rounds in the city then, penned by David Nunis Cardozo, known by his stage name ‘Dave Carson’, the widely acclaimed black-skinned American performer of 19th century Calcutta, mentions the daily life and routines of such visitors to both the grand hotels.
“To Wilson’s, or to Spence’s Hall
On holiday, I stray.
With freedom call for mutton chops
And billiards play all day.
The servant catches from afar the hukum,
‘Jaldi jao, hey khidmadgar
Brandy, Sharab, bilayetai pain
In the years following the Great Sepoy Mutinee of 1857, as the British gentry in India reeled from great losses, the Auckland Hotel offered a welcome relief. Infact to cater to the needs of this class the hotel introduced a departmental store – ‘Hall of All Nations’ that was to provide all necessities under one roof. In the words of Scottish-born Australian writer, William Walker during these trying years in Calcutta, ‘During Christmas and New Year, Hall of All Nations constitutes one of the greatest sights of Calcutta. A ragged beggar may go at one end with a week’s growth of stubble on his chin, and rags on his back, but let him possess the universal medium, (he meant money 😊) he may be shaved, have his hair cut, get a hot batch, fitted with new cloths cut in first style of London, new boots, new hat, and, oh a new sensation, a good dinner. And should he be a family man, he can buy a new crinoline for his wife, together with bonbons and toys for his children. It has its cake room, billiard room and dining rooms… they also make all sorts of cakes and ginger nuts and bake excellent bread.”
Interestingly in a newspaper called The Bengal Hurkaru, there could be noticed an advertisement from D Wilson & Co, the owners announcing that the hotel’s departmental store, ‘Hall of All Nations’ that sold everything a lady or a gentleman needed in those times had ‘plentiful stocks of Christmas fare – turkey, ham, beef and a wide variety of cakes, sweets and biscuits’.
This famous ‘Hall of All Nations’ again curiously shared its location with the Sans Souci Theatre, a historical colonial-British theatre in the heart of Calcutta between 1838 to 1849. Sans Souci, believed to have been operating from the basement of Thacker & Company standing on 1, Old Court House Street before it shifted to its later location, was started by Esther Leach, temporarily during the construction of the Park Street building. This building, and the ones at 2 and 3 Old Court House Street, apparently was acquired later by David Wilson, when he planned to expand Wilson’s Bakery into a hotel. The basement that was used by the theatre was later converted to ‘Hall of All Nation’, because of its vast space. Some others however say that Sans Souci was within the premises of Ezra Mansion opposite what is now ‘Bakery & Wilson’ – the renovated bakery at the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel. Unfortunately, there remains no one today to corroborate the real story.
Sir Thomas Russell, Irish War correspondent with ‘The Times’ London, wrote about the ‘Hall of All Nations” back in 1858, “In one large house there is an attempt to combine a tailor’s, a milliner’s, and a dressmaker’s, a haberdasher’s, a confectioner’s, a hardware man’s, a woollen merchant’s, a provision dealer’s, a grocer’s, a coffeehouse… with a hotel and other trades and callings. I should say, from my experience, the hotel suffers from the amalgamation; but it a great advantage to have at your feet all you want…”. Indeed, being way ahead of its time, the management went haywire, but ‘Hall of All Nations’ was indeed a concept that gave Wilson’s Hotel an edge over Spence’s and ensured its survival over the latter.
‘Savoy of the East’, as it was often referred to has many more such interesting stories attached to it and a single post hardly does it justice… so be back for more…soon!