Geoffrey Johnston


   Geoffrey James Ower-Johnston,

                           22 March 1929–28 April 1981

by Mandakini Arora



Photo of Geoffrey, 1958 (courtesy Iona Leak)

On the evening of 28 April 1981 a mob of workers surrounded Geoffrey James Ower-Johnston in the Rungmook and Cedars tea factory near Sonada, Darjeeling. It was a time of troubles for the garden. Workers’ pay was in arrears. Poor financial management, labour agitation and recent natural disasters had put the garden into the red.

In 1972 Geoffrey wrote to fifteen-year-old Iona Leak in Britain that “things in this country have been getting more and more difficult and I think if Daddy [Iona’s father, Nigel] has found something he likes to do he is well off out of it.” Iona’s father, Nigel McLean Leak, had worked on Rungmook and Cedars for Geoffrey from 1956 to 1970 and was now back in Britain with his three children. In the same letter Janet, Geoffrey’s wife, asked Iona whether she was in touch with other British tea children from Darjeeling. “There are now no British children here,” she wrote, “as all the British people are leaving except us!”

The state government of West Bengal, communist since 1977, listed Rungmook and Cedars as a “sick” garden. The West Bengal Tea Development Corporation then made a move to take over the garden, promising workers that they would have their dues. But, on 28 April 1981, Geoffrey had a stay order from the Calcutta High Court that might give him just a little breathing room. The workers were not pacified. Months of no regular payments or rations had driven them to despair.

The details of what happened that dark evening are murky. Geoffrey and the workers argued for a time, and then, tired, Geoffrey turned away. By one account, when challenged about the gun he always carried, Geoffrey handed it over saying he didn’t need it. As he made to walk away, several men, either garden workers or men hired for the purpose, attacked him from behind with daggers and spears. He was stabbed brutally and repeatedly.

It took a while for the police in Sonada town, 4 miles away, to get the news and come down to the factory. Geoffrey was dead. An English friend of the Johnstons, Marigold Wisden—who was secretary of the Darjeeling Planters Club—was called to break the news to Janet.

Geoffrey was buried in the old English cemetery in Darjeeling, where the epitaph on his white marble tombstone reads: “In loving memory of Geoffrey James Ower-Johnston of Rungmook. Born: 22 March 1929. Murdered: 28 April 1981. Beloved by so many, betrayed by so few. His like will not be seen again.”

Geoffrey was now one with the hills that he loved so well, albeit in Darjeeling town and not in his beloved Rungmook. An English son of the Indian soil, he was most in his element in his workaday clothes, driving or walking around the plantation or tinkering with machinery in the factory. One acquaintance remembers that at day’s end Geoffrey’s shorts would be stained with grease from machinery and dirt from the plantation.

Geoffrey was born in Cedars on 22 March 1929. The following year a baby sister, Ellen Joy, arrived. Geoffrey was sent to school in England. He returned in 1946, when he was sixteen years old. He sailed from Liverpool for Bombay on the Britannic, accompanied by his mother, Gladys Maud. In 1951 at the age of 22 he took over the running of the garden from his father. Geoffrey’s father and mother

moved to South Africa, where they lived until their deaths in 1967 and 1970 respectively.

Third in a line of Johnston tea planters in Darjeeling, Geoffrey had roots in the hills

going back at least as far as 1866.

His grandfather, James Johnston, appears that year in the Thacker’s Directory for

Bengal, the North-Western Provinces, the Punjab, the Central Provinces, the Rajpootana States, Oude and British Burmah
as assistant manager of Dooteriah

Tea Estate, owned by the Dooteriah Estate and Tea Company. Tea planting in

Darjeeling was relatively new at this point, but it was growing rapidly and one 19th-

century observer writes of a “teamania” in the 1860s.

By 1870 James had been promoted to manager. His star rose rapidly. In 1877 he is listed as divisional manager for the Land Mortgage Bank of India, which owned Moondakotee, Nagri and Kurseong Tea Estates. James is also listed as joint proprietor of Naxalbari Tea Estate in the Terai. By 1890, in addition to being divisional manager for the Land Mortgage Bank of India and owner of Naxalbari, James had set up a 125-acre plantation in Sonada called Cedars (also known as Neej Kaman, Nepali for “one’s own tea garden”). Within 2 years of buying Cedars, James died. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, had at least one child, James Ower-Johnston.

Born in 1880 James Ower-Johnston was christened in the church at Hope Town, a small English-style town, 2 miles from Sonada. He was but a boy when his father died. In 1903 at the age of 23, he was proprietor and manager of Cedars which increased that year to a sizeable 590 acres. He had also inherited Naxalbari Tea Estate.

Rungmook Tea Estate meanwhile had been established around 1877 near Hope Town. John Calvert was its manager, and B. Dickinson its owner. By 1888 Calvert had become joint proprietor of Rungmook with Dickinson; after Dickinson’s death in the early 1890s joint proprietorship passed to his widow. Calvert died in the early 1920s.

From the 1930s to the mid-1950s there is (so far) no historical record of Cedars or of ownership of Rungmook. Most likely, James Ower-Johnston bought Rungmook from Mrs Calvert and merged Rungmook and Cedars. It is also possible—given that James Ower-Johnston sailed to India from England in 1945, followed by Geoffrey and his mother in 1946—that the family, including Geoffrey’s younger sister spent the World War II years (1939-45) in England.

Having completed his schooling and back in Darjeeling, Geoffrey was given charge of Cedars while his father managed Rungmook.

By all accounts, Geoffrey was a colorful, quirky, larger-than-life figure. When his mother died in South Africa in 1970 Geoffrey brought back her white Mercedes-Benz car to Rungmook and drove it recklessly on hill roads that were ill-suited for a large, European-made car. Yet it was said that he could drive down the road from Darjeeling to Rungmook, perilous at the best of times, with his eyes closed or even in one of the dense, soupy fogs for which Darjeeling is known. Geoffrey was a keen and skilled hunter and shot a few bears on Rungmook-Cedars. As a teenager, he often teased people on the garden by making them hold up targets for his shooting practice. He had several dogs, one of which was always with him when he went to the factory or did the rounds of the plantation.

As a young man Geoffrey developed a long and lasting relationship with a young Nepali woman worker. It is said that Geoffrey’s father disapproved. He and Gladys Maud arranged for Geoffrey to meet and marry Janet Payne, an Englishwoman who was working in South Africa and knew Geoffrey’s parents when they lived there after having left Darjeeling in 1951. Geoffrey and Janet were married in Calcutta in the early 1960s. They had no children.

Janet left India after Geoffrey’s murder. She went to Britain and worked in a girl’s school on the Isle of Wight where she died in 1996. She was never able to get any compensation for Rungmook-Cedars because it was held that the garden was submerged in debt.

Stark and desolate, Geoffrey’s iconic white car stood outside the Darjeeling Planters Club for a long time after his death.

And so the history of the tea-planting Johnstons in Darjeeling came to an end. This history had begun with James Johnston’s appointment as assistant manager of Dooteriah Tea Estate in the mid-19th century. It ended in 1981 when James’s grandson, Geoffrey James Ower-Johnston, lay hacked to death in the Rungmook-Cedars factory.

Mandakini Arora knew Geoffrey and Janet Johnston in the late 1970s when her father was manager of Rungmook and Cedars Tea Estate. She is doing research for a book on the Johnstons of Rungmook.  She would be grateful to hear from anyone who has information on/memories to share of Geoffrey James Ower-Johnston or the history of Rungmook and Cedars Tea Estate. Please email her at: