Memories of India - Peter Arthur Aubrey Thomas

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The original document was written by Peter Arthur Aubrey Thomas [1] who has a FamilySearch FamilyTree profile at ID L8TR-LFM. It is an 8 year old boy's view of British Raj family life in India written many years later from memory.



It must have been 1920 when Daddy [2] and Mummy [3] and I [4] set sail for INDIA again. According to our passport we went via France landing at Boulogne 16 March 1920. All I can remember of the journey is a glimpse of the white plumes of the Life Guards out of the window of the cab taking us to across London, and Mummy [3] complaining about the cabin, either cross channel or at Marseilles. At Marseilles we had a meal at a restaurant; I was scandalized when the white aproned cook turned around to reveal scarcely any clothes under his white apron.

At Bombay we visited someone so that my first memory of India is of a curtain of beads. I imagine water dripping down them to keep the air cool, but surely this cannot be true. Then came the long train journey, the slow climb up the Western Ghats and (once again, is it imagination?) seeing a distant Taj Mahal.

I THINK Mummy [3] and I went straight to Chakrata to stay with Grandad. I recall nothing of any first visit to Meerut, but can see with live amazement the winding road from Dehra Dun up the foothills of the Himalayas, the steep precipice on our right, the steep cliffs on our left, the passing places with ponies and hillmen drawn aside out of the path of the hired car.

I fear Grandfather was not impressed by his grandson. My first mistake was to be afraid of the four dogs, jumping and barking a welcome when we arrived; then I managed to tread on the tail of the smallest (Aunty Mabel's [5] ) dog and suffered a small bite for punishment. As time went on I became good friends with Carlo, the black spaniel; but even the Grandad regretted giving me a toy revolver because I drove Carlo frantic firing it off at nothing (I must have had a good supply of caps) "Ruining, a well trained gun dog!" Grandad complained. Later when Daddy [2] joined us for a time we three, Carlo, Daddy and I, went shooting and Carlo retrieved the black hill pheasant that Daddy shot, using only his good left hand, out of a tree. Aunty Mabel [5] was great fun, introducing me to the (unmentionable because rather native) delights of roasted Gram (whole split peas) and sweet jellabies and goulab jamins, and never cross - though even she was not really pleased when I trod on her dog.

After a time we moved down to another bungalow owned by Grandad. To this day I can look out from the verandah over the immense vista, hill after hill, valley after valley with pale hints of rice fields, to the long line of everlasting snows; Bandarpunch, 20726, Kedarnath 22770, Badrinath 23190 and Nanda Devi 25649. These are the very hills that Kipling describes in the last adventure of Kim. To this day I can watch the house martins building their nests under the eaves and in the verandah; I can see the Langurs, the big grey monkeys come swooping across the road to the trees at the bottom of our sloping garden.

WE spent two summers at Burke Villa. I cannot disentangle which memory is which, but it was a golden time. There was Chakrata itself, three hills and two flat necks of land between, Kailana Neck and the parade ground. Daddy [2] took me to a church parade at the latter, long lines of kilted highlanders forming three sides of a square, the colonel with his splendid broadsword, the hilt gay with its red silk Rayner tassells. Two young ladies riding by Kailana Neck, the subject of obscure scandals, while I was captivated by a large "bird-butterfly" and watched the vultures on their dropping whitened trees down the khub beyond the drystone wall that limited the road. Burke Villa, named after Granny, a Burke before her first marriage, was a little way down the eastern or north eastern slope of the range of hills. Two roads led up from it to the main area of the hill station. The one on the left as you face the snows led up to a little school I attended for a time. Once at least I was accompanied by Uncle Fred's [6] large black retriever that he left with us, and all the natives passed by on the other side. Once returning on my own there was a hiss in front of me at dip and bend of the road: I ran back a little way and threw stones until I felt the road would be safe before carrying on. What kind of snake it was I never knew.

There was always a fear of snakes, they would came into the house and had to be chased out again, but I saw only two. One large rock python that Uncle Fred [6] and some others killed and coiled up near the right hand gate, and one small black Krait more deadly even than a cobra, killed by a soldier who was walking with the cousins' Nanny.

Aunty HIlda [7] and Marjorie [8] and Bobby [9] stayed with us for at least part of one summer. We went for walks together, dug a cave in the garden behind the house, made mud pies, and did lessons and wept over them. Uncle Fred [6] came sometimes, and when they left us, they left his black retriever: he terrified Bobby by jumping up and knocking him down out of sheer friendlyness, but the dog and I became fast friends. Uncle Walter [10] , Aunty Rose and their grandson Christopher came to stay nearby. Christopher was a year or so younger than I and very spoilt. Granddad had made me a bow out of a branch he cut from one of his cherished fruit trees; to keep the peace I had to let Christopher have it and of course he promptly lost it.

On one occasion Uncle Fred [6] took Marjorie[8] and me with him on a shooting (?) expedition in the jungle. We trotted along behind him chatting away along the narrow jungly paths, scaring all the game for miles. Then I got leeches on my legs sucking blood through my stockings; they had to be frightened off with a lighted cigarette. To cap it all we came across a hornets' nest beside the path and had to make a wide detour. He never took us shooting again. The jungle was always exciting as well as beautiful. Tree ferns hung from the trees, but leopards might do so too, and once we heard the bark a deer gives when there is a tiger about. One year there was the excitement of a number of forest fires; we could see them burning away on the hillsides at night. And then one day we hurried home from our walk because, looking down, there seemed to be a fire near Burke Villa. Sure enough when we reached home the fire was just across the road from the garden and the troops were at work with shovels and brooms beating out the flames. Fortunately the road served as a fire-ride. The fires were blamed on that villain Gandhi and his supporters, but I think they were just due to the drought.

The Coles did not stay with us all summer; there was no-one with whom to share the apricots when they fell ripe and sweet from the tree. I eat too many of them and paid for it with a tummy upset. The road to the school also led to the hospital. I shocked everyone once by remarking how handy the cemetery was, nice and near the hospital. To reach that road one passed the servants quarters. Daddy [2] painted a picture of Chethia, the gardener, but my favourite was the sweeper, lowest caste of all, and shameful to relate, but he would spend time chatting to me and doing little conjuring tricks. He was I think the head sweeper of Chakrata - if so I can't imagine how he came to work for us. Mummy made him a coat out of an old dress, dark blue with dark blue buttons, and he was very proud of it. Our Bearer, chief of the servants, rather like a butler, was himself a priest, a rather easy conscienced hill Brahmin. He was pleased to be working for another priest of a sort and was not too particular about touching untouchable things.

Once when Uncle Fred [6] was with us we all went for a picnic towards Deoband. The way wound down, down through the jungle, past a clearing with a little hill village, the upright Bahari women covered In silver coins and bangles, on down to clearer land in the valley bottom, across the stream (more leeches) and up, up the other side.

Marjorie [8] and Bobby [9] , being younger were carried most of the way in Dandy, a sort of boat shaped conveyance carried by coolies front and rear. I walked most of the way. The picnic was near a forest of great bamboos, the stems as thick as my head reaching up into the sky.

Sometimes of an evening we would look out across the darkling valleys to some far hillside where a flickering flame and distant drums would tell of some village celebration, festival or wedding, But always our lives were levied against this immense view of snow clad mountains and splendid sunsets.


Of Meerut there are fewer memories, partly, because we spent less time there. There were hot nights with the punkah fanning to and fro overhead. There was a smaller, more formal front garden with neat beds of flowers watered by tiny irrigation channels, and a dry earthy back garden shaded by a large tree, the home of a family of the ground squirrels, busy little striped creatures, and a pen of noisy Guinea fowl. There were occasional drives in a Chevrolet that Daddy [2] had for his visiting: I can smell the little cooking fires of cow dung in the cool of the misty evening.

Meerut Manse

From Meerut we had two exciting excursions. One was to Uncle Fred's [6] at Lahore. We traveled in Uncle's very own travelling coach, bedrooms, living rooms with a separate coach for his servants. The only Blackbuck I saw were from the windows of this coach. At Lucknow we visited a grass farm to see the irrigation system, and the workers opening and closing the feeder channels with their feet.

The other outing was to Delhi for the Duke of Connaught's Durbar He came mainly to lay some foundation stones for New Delhi. We were allotted quarters in the city of tents put up to accommodate the official visitors. Our "house" consisted of three tents, a large circular double bell tent living room, with circular space round the inner actual living area, bedroom tent and bathroom tent joined on behind. Aunty Lily [11] shared the tents with us. We went to a second floor window somewhere to see a motorcade of Rajahs going to be presented to H. R. H. all very gorgeous in their ceremonial silk and satins, jewels and plumes. One of them rode in a Rolls Royce whose body was fashioned as a great white swan. On the night that Daddy [2] and Mummy [3] went to the Viceroy's ball, I stayed the night with the children of Rev. R Revnell, head Wesleyan chaplain in the Indian Army. We all slept top or bottom of what seemed to be a big double bed. During the night there was a commotion as the servants chased en animal through the room - memory says it was a hyena, but it seems likely to have been a jackal one of those we heard howling round the tents at night. I went with the Revnell children to see a procession next day and was impressed by the splendour of the red, blue, white and gold uniforms of the Viceroy's Guard. There was also a visit to New Delhi (I Remember walking along a new road cut through a little hill of Mica) to see a stone laying, but the highlight of the whole affair was a visit to the Fort, the old Imperial Palace of the Moghul Emperors, for some sort of garden party. When evening came the place was transformed into a fairyland, colored lights strung along the banks of the ornamental canals and under the marble footbridges. After dark we went up onto the battlements to see the fireworks - two forts shooting rockets at each other, a giant picture of the King and Queen and Duke of Connaught, a great half moon of blue. While we were at Delhi we went to see the Kutb Minar, a tall tower of Moghul times. Daddy [2] and I climbed to the top. There was also the sickening business of watching the divers who for a few annas would plunge down, far, far down into a ruined water tank. Oddly enough, one clearest memory is of reading and being read to out of my Illustrated Alice in Wonderland (where is it now?).

Apart from the sweetmeats I can remember little of the food in India; a pilough at Grandads, chicken and greasy rice; curried meat balls; mangoes, which I never greatly fancied; lichees, which I did. I can see the kitchen at Burke Villa, with what was the standard range of that time but made out of mud, mud oven, all heated by charcoal or wood. I can see the cook cleaning the saucepans with ashes. He makes up the full tale of our servants; bearer, cook, gardener, sweeper - I don't think there were any more.

Mummy and I left India in August 1922, as we came down from Chakrata for the last time and drove towards the Siwalik Hills and Dehra Dun it was through a snowstorm of pale butterflies. We left Bombay on 12th August and ran slap into a monsoon storm in the Arabian Sea. I was sea sick for days and could keep down nothing of the arrowroot and milky foods they tried to help me with. At last we were huddled miserably on deck when a waiter brought a plate of roast beef for someone else. Can I have some of that?" and I was cured.

Daddy left India to join us again in Newquay in January 1922 and must have joined us shortly after my 9th birthday.


  1. Document held in the archives of his son Frazer Thomas and supplied by email `My father's memories of India' to John Mayes dated 2 May 2020.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 William Wallace Thomas 1866 - 1933 FamilySearch FamilyTree profile ID KLK3-22R
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Lydia (Cole) Thomas 1879 - 1957 FamilySearch FamilyTree profile ID MHP7-3FP
  4. Peter Arthur Aubrey Thomas 1913 - 1997 FamilySearch FamilyTree profile ID L8TR-LFM
  5. 5.0 5.1 Mabel Daisy Cole 1881 - 1932 FamilySearch FamilyTree profile ID LDSG-93G
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Frederick Eustace Cole 1875 - 1939 FamilySearch FamilyTree profile ID KLKW-7YZ
  7. Katherine Hilda Annie Clarke Williams B1884 FamilySearch FamilyTree profile ID KLKW-7YH
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Marjorie Katherine Cole B1913 - 1992 FamilySearch FamilyTree profile ID LXM9-845
  9. 9.0 9.1 Possibly Frederick Dennison Cole B1916 - abt 2002 FamilySearch FamilyTree profile ID LDSG-KR4
  10. Walter Samuel Sharpe 1869 - 1935 FamilySearch FamilyTree profile ID KLK3-CKY
  11. Lily Catherine Miriam Cole B1884 FamilySearch FamilyTree profile ID LZBX-6LB

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Categories: British Raj