London to Calcutta, in a Bus – Outlook India

Kolkata News

With the COVID-19 pandemic throttling all ideas of ‘real’ travel for the past few months, everyone has been exploring the virtual world, when suddenly somebody discovered the report of a London-Calcutta-London bus tour which took place a little over 60 years back. Now the digital world is rife with reports, old photographs, and tales of similar overland bus tours that happened not so long ago.

The most popular mention that is doing the rounds is a 1957 trip organised by Oswald-Joseph Garrow-Fisher, in a bus named The Indiaman that he owned and drove (recall, large merchant ships used for trading between Europe and southern Asia from 16th to 19th century were called The Indiaman).

The bus began its journey with 20 passengers on board among whom seven passengers (two women and five men) returned to London, thus completing the round trip.

The bus departed from London on April 15, 1957. Tickets cost £85 for the London to Calcutta section and £65 for the return journey. It travelled through France, Italy, Yugoslavia (as it was then known as), Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. During the trip, passengers stayed overnight in hotels (or camped out where there were none). The bus reached Calcutta on June 5 and returned to London on August 2 of the same year, apparently 16 days behind its scheduled arrival date. Interestingly, one of the reasons for the delay was the closure of the Pakistani-Iranian border beyond Lahore owing to the Asian Flu epidemic.

Then Calcutta’s iconic newspaper The Statesman covered the arrival of the bus in the city and posted an image of it parked on Wood Street. The report stated that one of the passengers was a 76-year-old Mrs J Scotter, whose only resentment was ‘the barrage of questions that newspaper men put to her at every important town’ they stopped.

According to a New York Times report (by Leonard Ingalis), which covered the return of the bus to London, Garrow-Fischer said he was not as alarmed by the cliffs and hairpin bends of Mount Ararat region in Turkey as of the ‘narrow roads with soft shoulders and wandering cyclists in India’. (Except for the major expressways, the latter remains true for Indian roads even today). The NYT report contained many interesting anecdotes, including one that says the British Embassy in Teheran were so relieved to find that the news of all the passengers being murdered by bandits was only a rumour, they organised a cocktail party for the group.

One of the passengers, Peter Moss, 22, did not return to London but continued his journey eastwards, by sea, to Malaya. The diary, photographs and sketches of his journey later formed the basis of his book ‘The Indiaman – When the Going was Good by Land and Sea’ (published by Galda Verlag), which gives a fair description of the journey by bus.

If you dig into the net world, you are likely to find many interesting references to the journey. Such as an image in the archives section of the website named Old Classic Cars shows some of the women passengers standing in front of the bus while a crowd of Indian men, women and children looked on curiously. The accompanying note said that the bus was a high mileage AEC Regal III which was used for the first four trips while a purpose-built AEC Mandator was used later on.

However, this was not the first cross-continental journey by road. In 1956, six students from Britain’s Cambridge and Oxford universities travelled from England to Singapore. According to the Post Magazine, the expedition not only received several sponsorships but was also supported by a young David Attenborough, who provided film stock and edited the team’s colour footage into a black-and-white television documentary for the BBC.

Another post that is doing the rounds is the one about ‘Albert’. The bus left Sydney (Australia) on October 8, 1968, reached London on February 17, 1969, and returned to Sydney the same year. Operated by Albert Tours, there were also regular tours between London and Calcutta as well as between Sydney and London. You may read more about it here.