Our exotic lives as Children of the Raj

PUBLISHED: 12:15 29 October 2007 | UPDATED: 18:13 26 February 2010

Betty and Martin Whitworth

Betty and Martin Whitworth

BETTY and Martin Whitworth go back a long way. There's a 1929 photograph of them at one of the fancy-dress parties that were staple fare for ex-pats in India.

An oil painting of Martin's father in dress uniform

BETTY and Martin Whitworth go back a long way. There's a 1929 photograph of them at one of the fancy-dress parties that were staple fare for ex-pats in India. The four-year-olds are elbow to elbow: Martin a stern British bobby and his playmate cute in mop cap as Little Miss Muffet.

Their fathers worked together in the Indian Army and the youngsters became friends. Mind you, it wasn't all sweetness and light.

“Can I tell you a little story?” Betty grins. “I used to be allowed to play with his Hornby train set - and then came the awful day when I was clumsy and went and trod on one. And he swore at me!

“So I ran all the way back to my parents - I was told this later - and apparently said 'I'm not going to marry Martin Whitworth after all. He says he's going to beat my baby! He's got a horrid temper!'”

That was one utterance that wouldn't come to pass.

Although the pals soon went their separate ways - and wouldn't see each other for 20 years - they eventually met again at a wedding in London.

Damaged locomotives were forgotten and they themselves fell in love, getting married in August 1953 on the one fine weekend of a dismally grey and dreary summer.

Off they vroomed in Martin's two-seater Lagonda for a honeymoon on the French Riviera, only to suffer a bad breakdown halfway there and being forced to revise their plans. They did enjoy a week in Paris, however.

The Whitworths have now lived in Woodbridge for nearly four decades - with a spell in Colchester before that.

“We've known each other 78 years. Not bad, is it?” chuckles Betty.

Having spent their childhoods in India, they're part of the band of adults known as Children of the Raj - people whose families lived and worked there during the days of British rule.

There are more of them than you might think. The British Raj - the word means “rule” in Hindi - stretched from 1858 to 1947.

Betty had often wondered about this particular aspect of British history, its extent and legacy. Then, reading a 2005 book called Children of the Raj galvanised her into action.

The study, by Vyvyen Brendon, a former head of history at a school in Cambridge, explored the lives of the young progeny of traders, soldiers, civil servants, missionaries, planters and engineers - youngsters who, once they were sent back to England for schooling, often went years without seeing their parents.

Betty had a letter published in the EADT and received replies from “Raj” adults. Vyvyen Brendon also got in touch, offering an illustrated talk. This was held in June at the Octagon hall at Woodbridge Methodist Church.

Now Betty has a folder containing the written memories of about 20 local Children of the Raj, the furthest flung now living in Aldeburgh, and a number of get-togethers have been held.

Uniting many of the experiences in Vyvyen's book is a sense of loneliness among children obliged to adapt to unfamiliar cultures, spending term-time in boarding schools and holidays with unfamiliar families.

Happily for Betty and Martin, childhood in India proved idyllic.

They've got another old photograph: of young Betty Goldney receiving two silver cups from the Governor's wife. They laugh that it's a typical Children of the Raj scene.

“You've got the Governor's wife, in a long dress in the middle of the afternoon. You've got the young chap standing at the back, dutifully clapping - he might even have a monocle! And at the side of the picture the 'old man' sitting down,” says Martin.

Betty was a year old when, in 1926, she sailed to India in the old troopship Marglen - her cot slung between her parents' bunks in the cramped cabin.

Her father was posted first to Rajkot and then to Lucknow and its hill station Naini Tal, a beautiful place built around a lake in an extinct volcano crater 6,000 feet up in the Himalayas. The family decamped there several summers in succession, taking a train to the foothills, then a scary car ride of 20-odd miles on a road cut into the hillside. “In some places the drop was over 1,000 feet.”

Electric lighting was common, at a time when it was a rarity in rural Britain, but there was never any water laid on. All pools were drained once a week, to discourage the breeding of mosquitoes.

“It seemed there was a servant to cope with every need, including a 'chokidar', I believe himself an ex-burglar, who would go round the house at night making coughing noises to keep away any thieves or bandits, and also to show he was still awake! But I never got used to the wailing of the jackals at night,” says Betty.

“From time to time families used to go on shooting expeditions in the jungles, usually around Christmas time, camping in tremendous style with a full outfit of camp furniture and a special canteen of crested camp cutlery. Naturally, the retinue of servants went along too, and of course the adults always dressed for dinner. What a bygone age!”

It's the little things she remembers most clearly - “the tremendous excitement and bustle of train trips, where the whistle blew many times before the train actually went . . . I was terrified it would go without us.

“Trains to Naini Tal started in the evening and we children would be dressed in our pyjamas before we set off. Cars were a recognised form of transport, but most short journeys around the town were made in pony traps called tongas. In one of these we would go to the station, trying to keep awake against the rhythm of the traditional bells on the pony's harness.

“On reaching the railway station one entered a world of pandemonium whatever the hour of day or night. Half the population seemed to live there, each shouting to his neighbour. Coolies moved boxes without using barrows, merely turning them over end-over-end, letting them fall on their sides each time with a bang. Good packing was essential!

“Martin says this noise was so familiar that he first thought thunder was the sound of God's coolies moving gigantic boxes around in Heaven!”

Another experience she enjoyed was sleeping outside. “The children would be on one side of the house while our parents were entertaining guests on the other, and then later on the servants would carry our beds to join our parents.

“Life was extremely gay for our parents” - in the old-fashioned sense of that word. “I loved to see them all dressed up in their evening clothes, the men in uniform often as colourfully as the women, when they came to say goodnight.

“One of the clubs where they had many parties had a wonderful way of welcoming its guests. On arrival, there was a chute which they went down, to be received at the bottom by their hosts. Certainly this must have been a good way to break the ice at any party!”

Betty was eight when she and her parents moved to the North West Frontier. “We children had a lovely time in Quetta: riding, swimming, amateur theatricals and parties. I had my own pony, riding most days, and winning two silver cups.”

Martin, meanwhile, had been born in Quetta, while his father was at the staff college.

He recalls his fourth birthday party, “when each child had to bring a captured beetle and we had a beetle race on the hard tennis court, which my stag beetle won.

“I also remember Christmas shoots from Lucknaw: one at camp in the jungle, where one of the elephants did a trick of taking a kettle with its trunk, filling it and passing it back to the mahout for our tea. Another shoot was for crocodiles from a boat on the Gogra river, camping at nights.”

When Martin was six or so his father engaged a retired trooper from his regiment, as an orderly - “a marvellous old boy who used to take me around on his bicycle. He had a cushion on the crossbar of his bike and I used to ride around on that. He used to take me to all the native Indian beanos, bazaars, galas - these great festivals they had from time to time. I was forever having garlands put around my neck!”

The pattern was generally to send a son home to Britain at seven, and a daughter at 10.

Martin was brought home in 1933 and later went to school at Shrewsbury in 1939. “My parents managed to come home for at least a month of each of my summer holidays, but they went back to India when war broke out and I didn't see them again for four years.”

He got a state bursary to study engineering at Cambridge. He'd taken up rowing at Shrewsbury to avoid cricket, at which he claims to have been hopeless, and his skills on the water stood him in good stead. Martin rowed in the 1944 and 1945 university boat races against Oxford. Four unofficial races were held during the war, with Ely one of the unlikely substitute venues to replace London. His first competition was a defeat for Cambridge, but the following year brought revenge.

Martin received his call-up papers for the Royal Navy about a week after VJ Day. After naval engineering college at Devonport he went to the Far East, and was demobbed in 1947 after serving as a sub-lieutenant in the British Pacific Fleet, having visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki a year after the atomic bombs were dropped.

He joined shipbuilder Thornycroft in Southampton, but left after deciding the job wasn't going anywhere. A new post found him chief engineer of a boat involved in a clandestine operation, ferrying “pixies” - Albanian revolutionaries - into Albania in a (generally unsuccessfully) attempt to bring about the downfall of Enver Hoxha's austere regime.

Based in Malta, Martin did that for two years. There was usually one operation a month, at the darkest new moon.

“You rowed them into the shore. You had to carry them on your shoulders up the beach, so they didn't get their feet wet or leave footprints all over the place; then sweep the beach with brushwood to rub out all the footprints, then take the brushwood out to sea and ditch it in the Adriatic.”

On one trip back to England to pick up spares he learned of a wedding his parents were attending, went along, and met Betty again.

He worked in London after the Albania job finished. He and Betty met quite a few times and married in 1953.

His bride's life post-India had had its moments, too.

As a 10-year-old, Betty had sailed to England on the Kaiser-i-Hind in 1935, via the Suez Canal. The family was soon given a telegram with bad news: The Quetta area had suffered a devastating earthquake and their house had been flattened, with 30,000 people killed in 30 seconds.

The people renting it had survived, but were badly hurt. The husband, an army doctor, had had to dig out his wife.

Betty initially went to a boarding school in Dorset and her parents returned to India after their leave. They could salvage only a few Persian carpets, including the pale green one that now graces a sitting-room at the Whitworths' Suffolk home.

Betty hadn't particularly baulked at having to leave India and be separated from her parents.

“We knew that was going to happen and we just accepted it. I once fell out of a tree, I remember, and there was nobody to really comfort you. But it's only little things.

“I suppose there were lonely times - but much more when I went to my grandmother. If anybody had asked me, I'd have said I'd rather stay at the little school during the holidays, because they took us out and it was like one big family.”

Fast-forward a few years and we find Betty at secretarial college, and then working in Baker Street for the Special Operations Executive - the HQ of the resistance movement in Europe.

After the war she worked for the United Nations in Vienna - a city, like Berlin, divided into different zones of control and feeling the shivers of the cold war. It proved, she says, one of the most exciting times of her life.

Later, with the situation in Czechoslovakia looking a bit volatile, her parents were keen she should come home, which she did in 1948.

England was “absolutely dreadful then, with rationing and everything looking really miserable”. The chance to go to Bermuda, where an uncle had at one time been acting governor, was too good to miss. Betty lived and worked there for more than two years.

Back in England she joined the Foreign Office, and after about 18 months was poised for an overseas posting, probably to Baghdad . . .

“Meanwhile, other things had happened. I'd re-met Martin, after a gap of 20 years. So instead of going abroad I resigned, and then the next year we got married.”

After working for a firm of management consultants in London, Martin got a job with the engineering firm Paxmans at Colchester. Their first child was born not long after.

He later worked again for Thornycroft, and then became works manager at the Ipswich firm Reavells in the final years of the 1960s - which is when they made their home in Woodbridge.

After the company was taken over twice in 12 months he joined a firm of consulting engineers with whom he stayed for two decades, up until retirement in 1993.

Despite the variety of their adult lives, those childhood years in India are never far from their minds.

“I have nothing but happy memories of the friendliness of the Indians, particularly Pirian, our wonderful and loyal kitmagar (a servant) of seven years,” says Betty, who was secretary of Kyson school in Woodbridge in the 1970s, while children David and Christine were growing up.

The Whitworths didn't want their Children of the Raj events - the talks and gatherings - to become simply a cosy excuse to reminisce about the old days.

Donations made during a recent curry lunch for 19 folk have been added to money from the June talk by Vyvyen Brendon and enabled Betty to send a £200 cheque to the Salvation Army to aid victims of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, including helping with the cost of two new schools.

Neither of them has ever been back. “Too late now!” Betty laughs.

INDIA has been in the news because 2007 marks the 60th anniversary of partition, when the land was divided into two sovereign states: India and Pakistan.

TV programmes and writings have tended to major on the repression of the independence movements - which the Whitworths feel is part of the story but not all of it.

Martin accepts India was enveloped by the British Empire for commercial motives and thinks the administration was a little slow in recognising there was such a strong movement for independence in 1940 or so. But, at that stage, “The British were more concerned with what was going on at home, with air-raids and the bombing of London. They were thinking about their children back in England.”

Betty's disappointed that articles haven't mentioned anything good about the British influence. “I know there were probably a lot of things wrong, but there was also a lot that the British did well and the country benefited.”

The positives, she says, include a stable government based on English law - and, stemming from that, a good police system, law courts and so on; extensive railway and postal systems; decent roads; irrigation systems, and other things that sustained employment - and taught them cricket, to our cost!

Martin points out that the Indian Army of British and Indian officers and men, including Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Christians and so on, with which his father served in France and Palestine in the first world war and in East Bengal in the second, was the largest purely volunteer force in the world.

When Betty went out in 1926, it was only seven years after the Amritsar massacre - in which British Indian Army soldiers had opened fire on a gathering of men, women and children and killed 379, according to official figures - but Betty witnessed no lasting rancour.

“There was a bit of trouble on the North West Frontier, but on the whole all was quiet. I don't believe all the Indians hated us. We had some wonderfully loyal servants who would be waiting for us when we returned from England and gave us a great welcome.

“I do remember there was no feeling of menace or that you had to be careful. I do remember the poverty. Even as a child I thought it was awful and it upset me - to see someone with half a leg, begging - though you got used to it.”

“Of course, you forget any bad things, but I look back on it being a very happy childhood.”

THE dreadful experience of one Child of the Raj - who in later life would move to Suffolk - made international headlines in 1923.

Mollie Ellis, aged 17, fresh from boarding school, was the daughter of a British major. One April night, while her father was away, she was sleeping under mosquito nets with her mother when intruders entered.

They murdered Mollie's mother and abducted the girl, dragging her off in nightdress and slippers.

It was thought two notorious criminals were behind the abduction, and would have taken Mollie towards Afghanistan - a dangerous area.

Officials decided that only a couple of Afridi men with a detailed knowledge of the local tribes and their customs should attempt to find the teenager, and that they ought to be accompanied by an English woman.

Lilian Starr, a nursing sister at Peshawar mission hospital, insisted she would go - despite her medical missionary husband, Vernon, having been killed by tribesmen five years earlier.

The trip was arduous, but eventually the would-be rescuers reached the Khanki Valley.

After long negotiations Lilian Starr was able to meet Mollie and take her back. Betty Whitworth says the girl had been confined to a small room, looked after by local women. Mollie hadn't been raped or tortured, but had feared she was going to be killed.

Mollie was reunited with her father. She'd subsequently known Betty's parents in India and, as chance would have it, later came to live in Woodbridge, in Seckford Street. She died in the town in the 1990s. It is only lately that the Whitworths have seen Lillian Starr's personal account of the story and met her daughter Stella, who gave them a copy of the attached photograph.

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