The “Great” Eastern witness to the life of a city

“A man could walk in at one end, buy a complete outfit, a wedding present, or seeds for the garden, have an excellent meal, a burra peg (double) and if the barmaid was agreeable, walkout at the other end engaged to be married”. (City of Dreadful Night by Rudyard Kipling)

There was a famous saying in 19th Century Calcutta around how Three ‘Sens’ spoilt the Bengalis – Istisen (Railway stations – Bengalis and travel go a long way in history), Keshub Sen (He propagated free-thinking and gave more courage to people to deviate from the normal) and Wilsen (David Wilson – for establishing the Great Eastern Hotel and providing an alternative lifestyle).

Our young friend Henry Talbot might not have been too rich or too important to be a regular at the Auckland Hotel, but he certainly must have been to a number of the glittering parties held at the great elaborate ballrooms of the hotel. In fact, what Kipling meant in the lines mentioned above was how the “Hall of All Nations” was inseparable and significant, and certainly the highlight of the then Auckland Hotel, also known commonly as Wilson’s Hotel. Now, have you ever wondered why and how Auckland Hotel became the ‘Great Eastern Hotel’? Well, apparently Wilson’s Bakery on the Cossaitollah Lane held the official name of Great Eastern Bakery, rendering the hotel its new name once Lord Auckland no longer needed to be pleased. And yet today the bakery and pub that stands today retains the name of the founder – The Bakery & Wilson’s.

Picture courtesy: Archived pictures from list of links in the Resources

After making necessary additions, the name of the hotel was changed from Auckland Hotel to Great Eastern Hotel Wine and General Purveying Co. in 1865, which was further shortened almost half a decade later to Great Eastern Hotel. Within a couple of years, in a landmark decision by the management, Peary Chand Mitter, popularly known as Teck Chand Thakur was included in the board of directors – the first time ever for a British organization. Wilson, in the meantime, had left for England in 1862, leaving it to a board comprised mostly of friends and well-wishers of the family to run it while he acted as the London agent.

Posters from over the years now available on display at the Bakery. Picture courtesy: Archived pictures from list of links in the Resources

The year was 1883 and the glitter of lights and lavish parties thrown at the Wilson Hotel had been the talk of the town and anyone invited to these parties would have to be specially connected or socially endowed. Indians, apart from the Babus and Zamindars, were only allowed in as durbaans, porters, pankhaboys, lightman or cleaners and this handful was in high demand in their own communities where they would boast of having a peek into the lifestyle of the Sahibs-Memsahibs and Babus-Bibis. Like most things Auckland Hotel did, it recorded another first this year! Electricity was just about coming into India and being the capital of the British Raj, Calcutta was among the first cities in the country to start shifting from gas lights and hand-drawn punkhas to electric bulbs and fans. Now, if it was coming to the city, it needed to come to the Wilson’s Hotel first! And it did. In 1883 it became the first luxury hotel in Asia to get electricity brightening its glitter manifold further justifying the adjective it was referred to as – ‘Jewel of the East’. Wasn’t it obvious then, that our friend Henry would want his beloved Lola and his children Anna and James to experience what they would have been exposed to had they been living in London once in a while? He would, in fact, come home once a while with fresh cold cuts from the “Hall of All Nations”.

David Wilson died in 1881, and his son continued as an agent till 1894 whence the hotel board charged him with financial misappropriation. In fact, it was in 1886 that the board chose voluntary self-liquidation largely due to their inability to run the hotel efficiently and eventually the hotel and its properties were sold to a new company. As the new board took over, the only member remaining from the older one was Shirley Tremearne, who had earlier been associated with the hotel in the capacity of a legal consultant from the early 1880s, being an Assistant Registrar of the Calcutta High Court and thereafter was an ordinary Director of the Board. He gave up his job at the High Court to take up the job of the Managing Director of the Hotel and as was natural of him, pulled it out of its dire straits.

Among the many changes that Tremearne made to the hotel, one was the building of a gari-verandah, again a first that later inspired many such hanging balconies in the city. In his work ‘Recollections of Calcutta for over Half a Century’, Montague Massey writes that the large balcony overhanging the footpath on the façade of the hotel, that is now a signature of the property was added around 1918. The balcony needed a sanction from the Municipal Corporation, which could cost about 100 rupees a month back then. The Corporation however thought it to be a good opportunity for minting money and raised the amount to 300 rupees a month. Now, the hotel board, which had already placed the orders for the construction of the verandah as per previous approvals from the corporation’s engineer landed in a difficult situation and this is where the legal background of Tremearne came into play to pave the way for a style that went on to decorate many a heritage property across the city. Being a legal expert, Tremearne, the Managing Director as well as a member of the Board of Directors of Great Eastern Hotel, as it had come to be known by then, dug out loopholes in the act imposed by the Municipality and refused to pay the increased amount. After much deliberation, the authorities were forced to revert back to the normal rate of 100 rupees a month, finally settling the matter and giving the hotel its famed hanging balcony.

Picture courtesy: Archived pictures from list of links in the Resources

After a long, glorious stint, Shirley Tremearne retired from the hotel board in February 1921 and died a couple of years later in Bangalore. On his advice the controlling stake of the hotel was taken up by a group of Indian investors – A H Billimoria, CC Pyne, J M Roy and the Maharajas of Burdwan and Coochbehar, together known as the BPR Syndicate. J M Roy’s son B K Roy had, in fact, as the Managing Director along with Cecil B Green as a Director taken the hotel to a great height till the bitterness between investors Bilimoria and Pyne became a roadblock to further development and in 1970 the State Government took up the controls of this heritage hotel, largely due to mismanagement and non-performance. Continued efforts to turn the tide towards the better functioning of the hotel failed and the State Government, albeit reluctantly, had to sell off the property to the best bidder – the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group in 2005.

Through its century and a half long and more journey, the Great Eastern Hotel has literally been a silent witness to half of the life of Calcutta. How from being the capital city of the British Raj it was pushed to the background, how buggies and palkis came to be replaced by busses and cars, how the gas-lit city skyline gradually became disturbed by electrical lines, how the people and their dresses, culture, habits changed, how from being considered as ‘the best hotel east of the Suez’ by eminent writer Mark Twain the hotel once stood dilapidated and beyond hope. And yet it lived!  

The Great Eastern Hotel: Standing the test of time. Picture courtesy: Archived pictures from list of links in the Resources

To quote Rudyard Kipling again from his short story The City of Dreadful Night, “… The Great Eastern hums with life through all its hundred rooms. Doors slam merrily, and all the nations of the earth run up and down the staircases. This alone is refreshing, because the passers bump you and ask you to stand aside. Fancy finding any place outside the Levee-room where Englishmen are crowded together to this extent! Fancy sitting down seventy strong to table d’hote and with a deafening clatter of knives and forks! Fancy finding a real bar whence drinks may be obtained! And joy of joys, fancy stepping out of the hotel into the arms of a live, white, helmeted, buttoned, truncheoned Bobby!” Indeed, while Indian Policemen were stationed in other parts of the city, right outside the hotel could be found British Policemen, Bobby as they were lovingly called by Britons.

While European Ambassadors and Officers put up at the hotel quite regularly along with various heads of states, authors and news correspondents covering major events, Great Eastern Hotel has seen a whole deluge of eminent guests. To name a few, this list included Rudyard Kipling in 1891, Mahatma Gandhi in 1896 when he stayed for 15 days, soldiers of the allied forces during the Second World War through 1940 to 45, Ho Chi Minh in 1948, Russian Leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin along with their party of 70 people in the late 1950s.

However, if Wilson was still running the show in the 1960s, the one guest he would perhaps be happiest about was Queen Elizabeth II and her retinue of guests. Through the 1970s the cricketers visiting the city would also put up at the Great Eastern, largely because of its proximity to the Eden Gardens. From hosting film stars to cricketers to journalists to politicians through their stays and the parties, this great lodging has been witnessing and entertaining inebriated difficult guests, members of the Aristocracy clinging on to a show of their once grand lifestyles, clandestine affairs of public figures and publicity-seeking film stars.

After keeping the doors shut for 9 long years that it took to restore this heritage hotel, the Lalit Suri Group opened the doors of a brand new and yet a century and a half old Lalit Great Eastern Hotel in February 2014. Restoring most parts of the building that stands as a heritage property, the current structure is a blend of three different eras of history not just of the city but of the entire country. With Heritage Wing I covering the Victorian Era and Heritage Wing II flaunting the Edwardian Era the remaining block has a more contemporary flavour. The Bakery and the Pub still bear the name of the Founder, the flavour (well, almost) as well as the charm that led to the birth of this hotel. As an ode to the heritage status of the hotel the interior decorators, with a nod from the owners have used artefacts of yore to adorn this blended structure. Starting from brass and charcoal irons, bread moulds, ovens, dough kneaders, to old silver water jugs, luggage racks, old furniture, iron beams with rivets, brass pillars, burnt brick walls, and even the old spiral staircases have all been retrofitted into this modern 5-star hotel. The grand piano, manufactured in Hamburg by MF Rachals & Co., that was once the heart of Maxim’s – the bar was painstakingly and expensively restored by Braganza & co to adorn and fill the bar with music every evening even after a century.

Picture courtesy: Archived pictures from list of links in the Resources

It is really worth every penny to visit the Tea Lounge, Gazebo, Pub or the Bakery. So, do drop in and experience history with a Heritage walk of the Hotel!

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