Photo Treasure: 1912, Kolkata at the high point of British Raj

H Hobbs & Co, 4 Esplanade East, Kolkata, lit for the British royal visit. The shop sat next to the Military (Ordnance) Department. Harry Hobbs (1864-1956) arrived in Calcutta to work as a piano tuner in 1883. In 1893 he established his own company, H Hobbs and Co Ltd which advertised as ‘Pianoforte importers, repairers and tuners, player pianos and extensive library of perforated music. Agents for Ky-Ko non-electric fans’. Hobbs lived above the branch on 4 Esplande East until his death in 1956 (apart from travel to the UK and abroad). The shop itself moved to 9 Esplanade East and then 21 Old Courthouse Street. For a period before and then again during and after World War II, he was also ‘Special Director’ Manager of Spence’s Hotel (now demolished). He was a succesful businessman and Calcutta character, writing a number of newspaper articles and books on Calcutta life. By the time of his death his obituary made the claim that he had been the oldest living European in India. Information on Hobbs from various sources including from ‘The Chingri Kal Chronicles’ by Malcolm Tucker, Hobbs’s grandson.

An impressive collection of photographs of India, dating more than a century ago, have been discovered in a shoebox in an Edinburgh institute, London. However, identity of the photographer is a mystery.
The rare and fragile glass plate negatives, which date back to around 1912, show life on the subcontinent at the high point of the British Raj and mostly detail life in Kolkata, which was a major commercial hub.
The plate-glass negatives were found by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland in Edinburgh.

“The 178 negatives were found in a shoebox for a pair of grey, size 9, Peter Lord slip-on shoes, and were stored in their original five-by-eight-inch plate boxes,” the commission said. The negatives had been wrapped in copies of the Statesman newspaper dating from 1914.
“As the negatives were still wrapped in newspapers from 1914, it is possible that they were transported back to Britain from India at this time, and have remained unopened until now,” the commission said.
However, the commission does not have any details about the provenance of the rare photographs. “Among the theories are that the photographer was a British civil servant headquartered in Kolkata, or was connected to the jute trade, as many Scots were at the time.,” the commission said.
“We don’t know for sure how the negatives came to be in our collection. We receive archive material from countless different sources, from architectural practices to generous donations from the public, and sometimes take large amounts of material in at once, and often documentation for historical deposits does not exist,” RCAHMS architectural historian Clare Sorensen said.
“Over time all this new material will be inspected and catalogued as part of our collection and then made available to the public. It’s fantastic that a small shoe-box contained such a treasure-trove of photographic imagery, but in some ways it’s not unusual. Our experience as an archive has shown us that some of the most interesting discoveries can be made in the most unlikely of places,” she added.
The commission approached John Falconer, curator of photographs at the British Library, who correctly identified some of the locations.
The 178-photograph collection includes images detailing celebrations for the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Calcutta in 1912, the only visit by a British monarch to India as Emperor of the subcontinent. The photographs show Kolkata’s buildings lit up at night in tribute. The collection also includes photographs of ships arriving at the Chandpal Ghat, the main landing place for visitors to Kolkata along the Hooghly river; and pilgrims gathered for a religious festival on the Maidan in the centre of Kolkata.
The collection also includes photographs of Britons playing tennis and socialising as part of their day-to-day lives in India in the early 20th century. The photograph collection can be viewed online at (…).