A Tale of Two Tea Planters

 February 3, 2017

A tale of two tea planters: Claud Bald and F G Marsh

As a child, I knew that my maternal grandfather, F G ‘Fred’ Marsh, had been a tea planter in Darjeeling. My mother was born at Phoobsering Tea Estate in 1921 and considered herself to be ‘Indian’, her sister was born at Ging in 1919 but saw herself as ‘English’. I also knew more vaguely that my maternal grandmother had also been born there and her father, Claud Bald, had ‘written the book on tea’.

Much later in life I wanted to know more about my ancestors. Below is a summary of what I know with some pictures which revealed what Claud Bald and some other relative looked like together with a host of as yet unknown people. Perhaps you’ll know some of them.

 Claud Bald a tea pioneer

Claud Bald was born in Glasgow in 1853, to John Bald, a coffee merchant, and his wife Marjorie Wylie. As a youth, he trained as an engineer.

Claud began planting on the Lohargur Tea Estate in the Terai in 1877 at the age of 24, and he was also on Adulpore in the Terai at this early period but details are not known. In about 1881, he joined the Lebong Company in the Darjeeling district where he served successively as manager at Barnesberg, Badamtam and Tukvar over the next 26 years.

David Bald, a younger brother of Claud’s, is the first of the family to appear in Indian records. He died of cholera in Calcutta in 3 April 1883 at the age of 24. He had been assistant foreman at ‘Sindaria’ in Darjeeling though I cannot find what or where Sindaria was. Perhaps David had gone to India in the care of his older brother or perhaps he joined him there later.

Sometime in 1883 Claud was presented with a small traveling clock awarded by Lieutenant A B L Webb of the Northern Bengal Volunteer Rifles, which implies that he was a member already. If the NBVR conducted their exercises and games in February, as was the case much later, he was probably a member well before then.

Perhaps his brother’s death also underlined his mortality. In October 1883 at the age of 32 he married Glaswegian lass Margaret Ker, 8 years his junior, the eldest daughter of William and Margaret Ker. Mrs Ker was also a woman of strong religious faith. It is not clear where the marriage took place.

Why did he go to Darjeeling? Was it his engineering skills? He had arrived in the region at a time of rapid growth for the tea industry. In 1859 Dr Brougham started the Dhutaria garden and between 1860 and 1864 the Darjeeling Tea Company established four gardens at Ging, Ambutia, Tukdah and Phoobsering and the Lebong Tea Company established tea gardens at Tukvar and Badamtam. Tea production from 1866 to 1874 had increased by 89%, from 1874-1885 to 56.8%, from 1885 to 1895 by 22.4% and from 1895-1905, there was an increase of 5.9%. The increase was possible as the area of tea cultivation doubled from 1866 to 1874 in a period of two decades and increased by 34.8 %from 1874 to 1895.

In 1907, he became manager of the Tukvar Company’s estates, holding this position until his retirement in 1918 at the age of 65. Claud was a supporter of missionaries and was also treasurer of the Union Church in Darjeeling. A poem in the Darjeeling Advertiser described him as a ‘planter in the Master’s field’.

 Fred Marsh arrives

Fred Marsh was born to English immigrants Henry and Mary Marsh in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1891. He arrived in India sometime in 1912. Why did Fred move from South Australia to India? His eldest sister Edith was already there with her husband, Percy Clark. Clarke was a Baptist missionary in the part of Bengal which is now Bangladesh. She was often unwell and went to Darjeeling from time to time to recuperate. Fred had also gone there to learn the local languages ahead of becoming a missionary himself. Fred’s objective changed when his younger brother Frank felt called to missionary work a few years later.

‘Marsh’, as Claud called the young Australian Fred, was his assistant manager from January 1913 effectively managing Singla TE. While he was there he married Claud’s eldest daughter Margaret in December 1917.  

Claud was impressed with Fred as a son-in-law and also with his work ethic and horsemanship. He supported Fred’s successful bid to become manager at Phoobsering in April 1919. Later that year, Claud left Darjeeling to spend his retirement in Worthing. Tea had been Claud’s life and his book Indian tea: its culture and manufacture, Thacker & Spink, 1903, was revised in 1908, 1917 and in 1922 as a retirement project. Bald also wrote The cultivation of ficus elastic published in 1906 and in 1919 published Drainage for plantations: a practical hand-book, which in part explains the operation of his invention of the sighting clinometer used to measure land flow. He died in 1924.

Claud’s son – named after him and known by his middle name Wylie - did not take up plantation management, although he worked for tea agents Mango & Co in Calcutta and eventually moved to England changing direction completely.

Fred, along with most tea plantation managers from the area joined the Northern Bengal Mounted Rifles (NBMR). In his case, he joined shortly after the declaration of World War I, some two and a half years after his arrival.  Claud had retired from the NBMR by that time.

 Fred’s time at Phoobsering

Every February, the Marsh family travelled to Julpaighuri where the NBMR had what Mum called their ‘war-games’. After the adults had dined in the eating tent, called the ‘mess’, the children would dine with their Ayahs. As Mum’s birthday was 14 February, she enjoyed tinned birthday cake on these occasions and thought this was all very ‘boat rumrah cha’ – highbrow.

On 15 January 1934, a severe earthquake opened up the ground under the Phoobsering house, probably some 70 years old. The house was rendered unliveable. Given the likelihood of more earthquakes, Fred decided to design a new ‘earthquake proof’ house. Fred and Margaret lived in half of the old house while the new one was being built. Arthur Ansell, an engineer who worked with Darjeeling Tea Company and family friend, designed the new house based on a concept of Fred’s. Under the house were six concrete rollers and the house itself was essentially a pre-stressed concrete block. The theory being that in an earthquake, the whole block would move but not break. The house has since survived a number of strong earthquakes.

Times were bad in India in late 1939 early 1940, as they remembered it. The war was already having a ‘terrible effect’ though was not clear on what this actually was so early in the war. Japan did not seek to invade British India via Thailand until late in 1941 and the Bengal famine did not come to prominence until 1943. Perhaps some foodstuffs were being redirected at this early stage but the impact of this was probably not apparent in 1939. Most likely what stressed Fred was something happening on the estate which he felt powerless to deal with. Labour may well have been requisitioned by the Government which would have affected the availability and cost of labour on the estates and so had a negative impact on tea production. In any event, he had a nervous breakdown, and was ordered several months leave. Initially he spent about three weeks in Calcutta Hospital.

With her father’s leave, the decision was made to travel to Victoria, Australia, where Fred’s brother Frank lived. Fred left his two daughters in Australia and returned to the tea plantation. Australia was a much safer place than ‘home’.

Fred and Margaret returned to India to ‘do their bit’ for the war effort and tea production continued to increase strongly. Fred and other NBMR members were involved in moving food supplies between Burma and India and facilitating logistics for some British and Australian troops though the details are not known. Tea planters in Assam are well known for facilitating the evacuation of refugees from Burma but there is no known account of what the Darjeeling planters did though it is acknowledged that they did something. It seems that the NBMR were not formally ‘embodied’ for World War II.

In about April 1947, Fred decided that he was coming back to Australia. The ‘communists’ as Fred called them, had stormed many of the factories including the tea factories. Every window in the Phoobsering house was broken. Fred felt they had no choice but to leave the country though their original plan was to remain there even past retirement.  This was the time of India’s independence being established, and many locals were eager to sever ties with Britain.

Between October 1945–4 July 1946 Fred was subjected to what he called the Communist Party’s ‘war of nerves’ which intensified from February 1946. This was followed by what may have been a nervous breakdown and an extended period of sick leave to recuperate which he spent in Puri in Odisha to the south-west of Calcutta. The NBMR had apparently been used to control unruly union activities during WWII and probably during this period which, if correct, may have been a factor.

Fred and Margaret Marsh arrived in Melbourne from India in July 1947 where they remained for the remainder of their lives.  As a widower, Fred visited Darjeeling and Bhutan in about 1967 after working for 10 years with an insurance company. He died in 1979 at the age of 88.

 Some pictures of Claud and Fred and others

 

 

 Claud Bald (centre with beard) at Tukvar in 1914. His wife is seated in front of him.
The lady to the right of Bald appears in a few photos but is not identified. Two of
his daughters are also in the picture and the man standing second from the right
is probably assistant manager W E Dominy. Others are not identified: it is
possible that the troops are NBMR even though there seem to be two kind of uniform.
 

  

  Tukvar about 1915. Fred Marsh on the right with his wife Margaret seated in front
of him. His mother-in-law Margaret Bald and two of her daughters standing. The
tall man on the left is unidentified but may be George Nash who was a friend of
Claud’s and manager at Soom TE. The man next to Fred is not known but as this
is a ‘family’ is likely to be a close friend or relative.

 

 

Tukvar about 1915. Claud Bald with his wife seated in front of him and daughter
Margaret far right. Another daughter is seated. The distinguished lady seated in
the middle is not known.  The man standing with pipe on the left might be Charles
Ansell who worked at Tukvar with Claud.  The other two men are not known and
the woman standing is the same woman who is in the 1914 photo.

 

 

 Charles? Wilson, Margaret and Fred Marsh, Malcom Webb (Assistant Manager at
Ging), unknown dog, Arthur Ansell (Proprietor, Ansell & sons Engineering and
son of Charles who had worked with Claud Bald) and Daisy Ansell at the new
Phoobsering house circa 1935.

 Leon J Lyell

 

leonjlyell@gmail.com