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“I think this is going to be the longest letter I have written… I’ve such a lot to tell you…”

In late 1944, as War raged in the Far East, a young Scottish soldier arrived at Dr Graham’s Homes on leave. His name was Stephen Dick. During his three-week stay, Stephen met many of the characters who lived and worked in the Homes at the time. Towards the end of his visit, he wrote a long letter home to his family to tell them about his experiences. He also included some of the photographs he had taken on campus. Together, they provide a fascinating snapshot of Dr Graham’s Homes as they were in the mid-20th century – and of how much has changed.

The following article reproduces some of the highlights from Stephen’s letter, which has been kindly provided to us by his son, David. To read a copy of the full letter, scroll down to the PDF link at the bottom of this page.

A missing telegram

Stephen’s DGH story begins in late November 1944, around the time that Allied Forces were liberating Belgium and northern France while, in the East, the US Air Force was beginning to move on Singapore and Iwo Jima. Stephen’s own unit had been posted to Burma (now Myanmar). But on 17 November, his mind was elsewhere. Granted three weeks’ leave, he had set his heart on a journey up into the high Indian Himalayas, to visit a place that had been recommended to him by a friend. That place was Dr Graham’s Homes – or the St Andrew’s Colonial Homes, as it was then known. He had the address of the superintendent of the Homes (more of whom below). Unfortunately, in a rather comical twist, the message sent ahead of him to request accommodation didn’t arrive in time.

“The telegram arrived without any date on it – with the result that when I did arrive no one was expecting me, because the second telegram saying I was definitely coming didn’t arrive until three hours after I did,” he laughs, in the opening of the letter. “However, I’m jumping ahead too fast…”

A hair-raising journey

When his leave was confirmed and the telegram sent, Stephen made his way to Calcutta. On 24 November he boarded a train north, the first of several that would take him up into the Himalayas towards Kalimpong. “The journey up was made first on the standard gauge railway and then about 40 miles from Kalimpong you change to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which has a gauge of about 2 feet. Try measuring 2 feet on the kitchen table[...] The width of the train itself is about 5 to 6 feet so you can imagine the overhang. Needless to say, it seldom exceeded 20 miles an hour, but that didn’t detract from the pleasure of the run. In fact, had it exceeded 20 miles an hour it would have caused some anxiety[…] After about 20 miles on this railway, during which it climbs very gently up the valley of the River Teesta, we eventually arrived at the terminus from which we had to make a fifteen mile journey by road up hills of one in two right up to the mountaintops. The Teesta Valley is very pretty. It is very narrow and the mountains rising sheer up on either side are covered with thick jungle. In the monsoon it is a raging torrent but was pretty low just now. It winds so much that you almost think you’re coming back to where you started from. Every 2 miles or so there is a very small station, at each of which there are literally thousands and thousands of oranges piled up in mounds from the orange plantations nearby, waiting to be dispatched to Calcutta and other markets. You can buy baskets of 150 or so for about three shillings. Does that make your mouth water?”

Entering Kalimpong

Like so many first-time visitors, Stephen was stunned by the setting of the Homes. He attempts to paint a picture of the scene for his family in the letter.

“I think it would be best if I tried to explain Kalimpong to you, so you will have an idea what I’m meaning later on. The village itself is set in a sort of dip about 500 feet below and between the two topmost peaks in the local mountain range. The residential parts are on the slopes of both of these peaks which face the village. On the one peak are all the Homes, schools and people connected thereto, and on the other are the two hotels and the houses of practically all the civilians who are not connected with the Homes… It is about 2 miles up a fairly steep slope to the centre of the Homes area, on Deolo Hill as it is called, but there is a footpath which runs down near the top of the range which cuts it down to about 1½ miles.”

The Homes in the 1930s: pictured here in the decade before Stephen’s visit

“He foresaw the need”

Though Stephen was only dimly aware of it, the Homes were going through a period of serious upheaval at the time of his visit. Dr Graham had passed away just two years earlier, in May 1942. The Homes were under new management (see below). Three years later, as India gained its independence from Britain, the school would transition from the St Andrew’s Colonial Homes to the title we know today: Dr Graham’s Homes. Stephen tried to explain the Homes’ raison d’etre to his family. “The St Andrew’s Colonial Homes were founded about 1900 by a Dr Graham, who must have been a very fine gentleman.He foresaw the need for such a place to take these homeless Anglo-Indian and often illegitimate children and, in addition, to give them a proper education, and believe me it is a proper one too. There are about 500 to 600 children there, about half and half girls and boys although nowadays about 25 to 50% are legitimate and owned and accepted by their parents. But there are some very sad stories about the other ones.”

Mr & Mrs Duncan

For the first part of his stay at DGH, Stephen lodged with the school superintendent, Rev James E. Duncan, and his wife (later moving to the Holiday Home “about half a mile further up”). The Duncans were actually new to the Homes themselves, having only arrived in June of 1944. It’s fair to say the role was keeping them occupied. “Mr & Mrs Duncan as you can well imagine were very busy all of the time. Whenever any lads or girls were going anywhere or leaving for jobs, they were always invited to breakfast the day they were going. In addition, all the children whose birthdays arrived on a certain day used to come to tea or something like that. In addition, the nurses when they had a half-day once a month were invited up for tea. Some of the nurses and children when they were leaving for good used to stay for perhaps 3 or 4 days or more.”

A very different world

Stephen captured some of the local workers at DGH on film, including the Duncans’ staff. “The two bearers are for serving meals etc at left and right, second from the left the sweeper, next the ‘bobje’ or cook, then the gardener and lastly, in front, the odd-job man,” he writes. Around the same time, he also recorded a “double wedding” between four local children. “The two boys were 12 and 14 and you can see them with the chains around their necks, one at either end of the front row. The two girls were 9 and 11. The one who is 9 is sitting third from the left, all wrapped up. No wonder! She was not in the least interested in her wedding, poor kid. She had a temperature of 104 and was in the fifth day of measles. Aren’t they terrible! They would not put her in the hospital because it would spoil the wedding! They all get married about that age in Nepal and generally throughout India it is the same.”

The Kalimpong bagpiper

Like many visitors to DGH, Stephen was astonished and delighted to spot a bagpiper amongst the local celebrants – bagpipes, of course, being a legacy of the Homes’ Scottish founders. “Can you see one part of it at the right-hand side [of the wedding photograph]. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. There was a man there with bagpipes. The other band is not in the picture. It consisted of about 6 men with horns and the music is beyond description. If you could imagine about 6 Indian bands like you hear on the wireless all playing at once you will get some idea what it sounded like. However, they thought it was wonderful.”

Hymns, concerts and a last-minute organ call

Judging by Stephen’s visit, singing competitions were every bit as popular in the 1940s Homes as they are today.

“On the Monday […] there was a grand prize-giving and concert for the breaking-up [before Christmas],” he writes. “It was really a very good concert and was very well done considering there was nobody in it older than 16.” Stephen was equally impressed by the cathedral worship. “The church services, especially those before the school broke up, almost used to bring a lump to my throat,” he added. “If you can imagine about 600 children singing the hymns, really as if you meant it, you will understand what I mean.”

In the meantime, Mr Duncan got wind of the fact that Stephen knew how to play the organ. So he soon found himself drafted in to join the school’s musical output.

“On the Saturday […], the lady organist left for home so I will leave you to guess what happened. Yes. Mr Duncan asked me to play the organ for the two services, 10am and 4pm on the breaking-up Sunday. It was a 3 manual one, pumped up by an Indian. I’m afraid I kept him hard at it because for some of the popular hymns I had all the stops out which caused him to perspire a bit. However, I think I managed OK although the voluntaries caused me some trouble. I must have done quite well because I was asked to play again the Sunday before I left. I thoroughly enjoyed playing and Mr Duncan was most profuse in his thanks.”

Tables piled high with cakes

Like many DGH newcomers, Stephen was interested to learn about the Cottage system of boarding that John Graham had established several decades earlier. “Each holds about 30 children; I think there are eight boys’ and eight girls’ cottages, and infant and senior ones,” he explains. “Each cottage is in the charge of two ladies, a housemother and the house auntie. Can you imagine having 30 boys or 30 girls to look after and keep out of mischief? Their ages range from about 6 to 12 in the normal cottages. The elder boys do the housework, gardening, cooking etc under the house mother’s supervision but all the boys have various jobs to do.” With Christmas looming, he adds, the Cottages were in a celebratory mood. “Each one of the Christmas parties which each cottage held before the school broke-up sent out an invitation to yours truly. I thought it was very kind of them indeed, as I was usually the only serviceman there, sometimes 2 or 3 but not much more. I had great fun. They all started off with a colossal feed and, knowing boys, you can imagine what that was like. The tables were all joined together and piled high with hundreds and hundreds of cakes and sandwiches so that it was almost impossible honestly to see the tablecloth. In about 30 minutes there was nothing to be seen but empty plates. That happened every time. After that we had the Grand Old Duke of York to start off the party games. More than once, I had visions of sponge cake repeating – but thankfully nothing happened any time. One game they had is where everyone got a strip of paper. They were all in well-known pairs! For example, one of the papers would have Anthony and somebody would have Cleopatra, another was Robert the Bruce, somebody else in the room with the spider. After you had found your partner, you had to go outside and come in afterwards and act a silent charade. I was the spider one, so the boy I had as a partner and myself came in. He had to try 7 times to climb up a chair while I watched attentively. We must have done it pretty well because everybody guessed it right away.”

Friends in Fraser Cottage

Stephen seems to have made plenty of friends during his visit – particularly in Fraser Cottage, where the older boy pupils lodged.

“One day in my second week I was introduced to Miss Belcher, the housemother of Fraser, the senior boys’ cottage. She is very nice too and has been out since 1934. Five years ago, at the outbreak of war, she was due to come home, but owing to the war had to get her leave in South Africa instead. She introduced me to the Fraser boys and from then on, I knocked about with them a lot. They were a great lot. I had a lot of fun with them. One thing I shall never forget and that is the genuine politeness of all the boys and girls in the homes. After I had been introduced to any of the cottages, the boys always addressed me with ‘Good morning, sir’ or whatever time of day it was, and that was the same until I left.”

Stephen (seated, front) and the boys of Fraser Cottage: “[This is] the suspension bridge over the Rhylley river; the other one was taken almost underneath the bridge at the bathing rock.”

The orphans in the nursery

During his stay, Stephen also popped in to the Lucia King nursery, then run by a woman called Miss Peglar. The little orphans dutifully clambered into the playground for group photographs – one on the “chute”, and on a climbing frame known as “the jungle gym”.

“I shall not forget my first visit to Lucia King cottage,” he recalls. “All the children shouted all the time, if you know what I mean; they are all under 5, of course. As half of them at least don’t know their fathers, I was somewhat embarrassed at the beginning by having about 15 children start calling me daddy. Poor kids, they don’t know what it is to have a daddy. However, Miss Peglar tactfully intervened and told them they were to call me ‘uncle’ so, from then on, uncle I was. That wasn’t quite as bad, but it did make me feel very old. I was asked to play nursery rhymes and Christmas carols for the children during tea.”

In those days, the nursery also had its own pony, pictured here with one of the nursery children.

A picnic with the Fraser boys

When school broke up for the Christmas holidays, Stephen noted that “about 50%” of the children stayed on at the Homes (mostly because, being orphans, they had no other home to go to). “I was rather sorry for those who were left behind but I think they will have quite a good time,” he writes. To cheer things up, he decided to organise an outing for pupils in Fraser. “I suggested to Mrs Duncan that I might be allowed to take some of the boys from Fraser House for a picnic on the Friday, so it was duly arranged. Actually, they took me. We decided to go to the river Rhylley (the place in the photographs). Kalimpong is about 4,200 feet above the Rhylley river, which is about 200 feet, so you can imagine it. It seems to be a Homes’ tradition when going on a picnic to rush there as fast as you can. We did the 5 miles down there in about an hour and a half. You should have seen me leaping from rock to rock (like a stag at bay – no that’s not quite right – like a young foal). Anyway, it was as bad as any jungle course I’ve done. They told me that they do it every second day but Miss Belcher thought they were exaggerating a bit. However, they do about 15-mile picnics twice a week or so. It is a tradition by the way, and no disgrace whatsoever, that all the children walk about in bare feet and the soles of their feet are as tough as shoe leather[…] We had a great time there. The boys all bathed in the pool but I’m afraid it wasn’t deep enough for my lanky form. We left about 2.45 to climb back up the 5 miles and eventually arrived at about 5.30, tired but happy.”

Father Christmas pays a visit

Stephen was due to leave DGH just before Christmas. But he ended up staying on for an extra day when the military truck that had been assigned to collect him failed to arrive. As it happened, the Lucia King team had another use for him. “We went down to Miss Peglar’s again and she had an idea! Could we help to put up the Christmas decorations for the kids? Sure we could, and we stayed there until 11.30pm. All she could offer was 3 tables and an old pair of rickety stepladders. And what a time we had! It was I who did all the climbing as, unfortunately, I was the tallest. The first part wasn’t so bad, I had 3 tables on top of each other and I had to fix 4 chains up with a bell right at the centre. The nurses told me they did it last year but I don’t know how as it took me all my time to reach the roof let alone press the drawing pins in. However, I managed OK. The 4 corners were worse as I had to use the rickety stepladders. Three of the corners I had something to hold on to but the 4th there was just bare wall. You know how you start to unconsciously lean forward when you descend? Well, I did, toppled over, kicked [RAF serviceman Jimmy] Burton on the nose and landed on the floor unhurt. We started about 8pm long after all the children were in bed and at 9 the nurses were sent off to bed by Miss Peglar so we really got started. We hung decorations from the lights, walls, doors etc until we had them all up. We eventually said goodnight to Miss P at about 11.30. The next morning about 9am before I left at 10.30 I ran down to Lucia King to see how the decorations looked in daylight. The kids were altogether amazed and couldn’t understand it. Bare rooms the night before and all this in the morning. Miss P told them that two of Father Christmas’s friends had come. She didn’t say we came on reindeer, that I know of anyway, but personally I’m glad I did not come on one.”

The man behind the camera

Before he left Kalimpong, Stephen took a portrait of himself on the steps of Graham House. To our eyes, he looks the picture of assured 1940s style. But he clearly wasn’t totally happy with how the image came out. “[This] one is yours truly in his curry suit and tie,” he writes. “My suit wasn’t as shiny as it looks, and my shoulders are not as humped as that. Although you can’t see it, I was leaning slightly forward which makes them look that way. Apart from that it’s me!”

As Christmas Eve approached, Stephen started on the long journey back to Calcutta. He bought and posted some sweets for the children in Fraser Cottage and the nursery, hoping they would be there in time for Christmas Day. After that he penned his letter home, thanking his mum for a recent parcel (toothpaste, boot polish, books, notebooks, cigarettes), and recalling again his Himalayan adventure.

“I’m very glad to hear that everyone is keeping OK as I am,” he writes, signing off. “But I really had a wonderful time in Kalimpong.”

Map of Stephen’s stay at Dr Graham's Homes

Read Stephen’s full letter

Stephen’s family has kindly provided us with a full-length version of his letter home from DGH, which you can read in PDF format here.