Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Darjeeling’s historic graves

Find A Grave allows anyone to search their online database and add pictures and information. 

Registered users can upload pictures of headstones, create new entries or suggest corrections to existing entries. The site is owned by, but it is free to use.

Although it has been running since 1995, interest in Darjeeling is taking off. A number of entries have been made which makes it easy for the historically minded to take pictures of graves or add new information. You might find a virtual look-see interesting. 

Entries exist for the following cemeteries
  • Darjeeling Old Cemetery, 
  • Jalapahar New Cemetery, 
  • Jalapahar Old Cemetery, 
  • Singtom Cemetery, 
  • St Colomba's Cemetery, 
  • Darjeeling where the specific cemetery is not identified, as well as 
  • Kurseong Cemetery. 
Of course, more locations and people can be added.

If you live in the area, you may wish to take your camera for a peaceful look through a local historic graveyard. When taking pictures of graves please make sure inscriptions can be read - or make a note of them to submit with the picture. Sometimes a bit of water on the grave can make things easier to read. In some cases, you may need to pull out some weeds. Gently rubbing the headstone with dirt will often highlight the inscription and not cause any harm.

The tomb of General George W. Aylmer Lloyd overlooking Darjeeling.

General George W. Aylmer Lloyd obtained the deed of Darjeeling for the British from the King of Sikkim in 1835. He was in charge of the triangulation of the Himalayas for the Trigonometric Survey of India. His tomb is registered by the Archaeological Survey of India as monument number N-WB-60.

A screenshot of the page for General Lloyd.

While many graves date from the Raj it doesn’t mean all the people buried there are English. There are many Scots, Irish and Welsh and there are some locals and a number of non-British Europeans. Possibly the most famous non-Brit is Alexander Csoma De Koros the Romanian born author of the first Tibetan-English dictionary. He’s one of General Lloyd’s neighbours at the Darjeeling Old Cemetery. 

Also in the Old Cemetery is the grave of the not-so-well known Louis Mandelli an Italian tea planter and amateur zoologist and ornithologist - and possibly a political refugee.

Mandelli's memorial as seen from the road looking downwards.

The inscription on Mandelli's grave tells us something about the man and how well he was regarded.

to the
memory of

But what if you’re not in Darjeeling?

You can still take part in the effort if you have some pictures or if you’ve been searching for your Darjeeling connections and have information to add to the current listings. There are still many unknowns...

Let me know how you go!

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Fred Marsh’s Indian war service

When I was a primary student in the 1960s, ‘Remembrance Day’ – or Armistice Day as mother called it – was the opportunity to wear family medals to school. As my parents didn’t have any medals, I wore my grandfather’s. These were different from most other medals at school: they were older and they were from India.

Fred Marsh's medals
Fred Marsh's Indian medals.
Left to right; WWI service medal, King George VI Coronation Medal and
NMBR long service medal.

‘Grandpop’, Fred Marsh, had joined the Northern Bengal Mounted Rifles (NBMR) a week after World War I was declared. This was a civil militia unit and most of the members were tea planters like the 23-year-old Fred. However, for the War, the NBMR was ‘embodied’ into the Indian Army.

I did not think of asking what he did during the War. The only story he mentioned when I was a child was that he had some responsibility for provisioning troops including Australians and Englishmen. There was some anxiety to ensure that troops would be provisioned with either Vegemite or Marmite depending on their nationality. Neither wanted the other’s ‘national dish’ which each agreed was unpalatable. Americans, of course, would eat neither. 

Getting specific provisions was not easy, so Fred got what he could. An important factor in keeping all the troops happy was to remove any labels from the large tins in which such provisions arrived. This ensured that he could give the Aussies Vegemite and the Englishmen Marmite from the same container. 

I liked this story because it suggested he wasn’t involved in any fighting and had a bit of enterprise and humour.

A toothy Fred about the time he arrived in India in 1912

Recently I obtained a copy of memoirs written by a nephew of Fred’s, Bob Clark. Bob was born in Darjeeling to one of Fred’s sisters and the two developed a life-long friendship. His amazing book records three of Fred's NBMR experiences in World War I. I had never heard these stories before so I follow Bob's outline of them.

After Fred enlisted, he was trained as a cavalry officer at Jalpaiguri on the plains below Darjeeling. In February 1915 the still-single Fred spent his pre-embarkation leave with Bob’s family in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh but at that time in India’s East Bengal. 

Jalpaiguri Camp 1914

Bob’s father apparently took photographs of Fred in uniform, with five-year-old Bob by his side. Both stood strictly to attention with rifles by their side. At the end of his leave, Fred returned to Jalpaiguri expecting to be sent to a theatre of war. But on the final parade, he was told to report for 'special duties'. And then began an unusual military exercise.

The Panama Canal had been opened in August 1914, but problems had already developed. The Culebra Cut was silting up as the retaining walls were failing. It was decided to plant some water-loving growth as the best chance of holding the soil together. A species of bamboo which grew only in Sikkim – to the north of Darjeeling - was selected as the most suitable. 

This bamboo flowered only once in every twenty-five years, but botanists at Kew Gardens, London, had records which suggested it should have flowered recently. The seed would be mature for collection at the time that a hastily organised expedition could arrive. Fred, because of his knowledge of the local languages and managing people, was selected to guide the botanists, three thousand metres above sea level, in Sikkim. As predicted, they found seeds ready for collecting and these were eventually planted on the banks of the Canal.

When that commission was completed, Fred was posted to a Forestry Unit on the borders of Sikkim logging timber for the insatiable requirements of the war machine. He remained there until early 1917 when as a trained cavalry officer he was called to join a unit hastily collected to put down an uprising which began in Malabar on India’s south-west coast. These tensions had been simmering for decades and were presumably heightened during the War as poor Muslim residents of Mophla looked to the head of the Ottoman Empire as their spiritual leader. (Things would come to a head soon after the War.)

The unit which Fred was involved with consisted of five hundred Bengalis. However, they were not trained soldiers, they were labourers from the Kolkata jute mills supervised by a handful of trained officers, presumably including other militiamen. The troops travelled across India by train and then marched out to find the enemy. They met the enraged throng advancing and armed with long spears ‘ten thousand strong’, in Bob’s account which also places the confrontation in Pune. 

The Bengali troops had rifles, but they had no experience and little will to fight an angry army which outnumbered them. As the two forces faced each other, Fred considered that his last moments had probably come. The Army began to advance. Suddenly, without a shot fired, the horde turned and fled apparently in confusion.  

There must be much more to the story of course, though attempts to find details have so far not been successful. Indeed, at present, it has proven impossible to locate Fred’s war service record. There is a good chance it exists in the Indian archives along with those of hundreds of other ‘embodied’ militia members. The only way to know for sure is to visit. Any reader comments are very much welcomed!

While we are now becoming more aware that significant numbers of Indian soldiers were supporting Britain’s War efforts across the world in both World Wars, there is a largely untold story of Europeans who made their home in India supporting its defence efforts.

Fred was discharged from the Army shortly afterwards and returned to tea planting. Following Bob’s story, this would be about mid-1917. The year was busy for Fred as he married the boss’s daughter, Evelyn Bald, in December. Because of the many men who had not returned from the War, he was appointed, well below the normal age, as manager of the Singla tea garden. Bob visited Fred and Evelyn there for Easter 1918. 

Fred (right) with his new bride Evelyn and mother-in-law Margaret Bald at Singla c. 1918.

But what of the Vegemite / Marmite controversy?  Bob didn’t mention it.

There are a couple of good reasons for the silence. Firstly, Vegemite wasn’t invented until 1922 so it could not have been part of Fred’s World War I experience. Secondly, his memoir says nothing of World War II and at that time the two were living on different continents.

A couple of years before my grandfather died, I visited him with a friend who had a car… My friend raised World War II and asked my grandfather what he did in India. As I remember it, there was only one sentence on about an episode I had not heard before. The subject then changed.

‘Oh, we moved food supplies between India and Burma’, he said flatly.

Well, that fitted in with the Vegemite story. Later I wonder why he didn’t have any service medals for World War II. Unlike my parents, who neglected to get theirs, he would surely have made a point of getting his.

The answer to that question turns out to be simple. After World War I, the NBMR was reconstituted as a volunteer militia and Grandpop immediately joined up again. They continued their community service, occasional crowd control and regular annual training activities in Jalpaiguri until being disbanded in 1947. However, the militias did assist in the war effort even though they were not part of the Indian Army. The work of the Assam tea planters in the evacuation of Burma is reasonably well known, but the precise contribution of the NBMR remains unknown. The formal mechanism of engagement was through the Indian Tea Association and support would have been in the form of logistics and possibly repurposing tea garden labour for infrastructure projects. 

Along with the photo of the two young soldiers, there is more to be discovered…

Further Reading

Monday, 27 April 2020

Charles Ansell remembers his time in Darjeeling

In February 1925, Charles Ansell wrote an account of his life which is transcribed below. Charles and my great-grandfather Claud Bald were good friends and Charles’ son Arthur became friends with Claud’s son-in-law, my grandfather, Fred Marsh. Explanations in the text and are shown in [square brackets].

Leon J Lyell

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Ansell

Charles William O'Brien Ansell’s memoir

I was born November 1846, at Poplar, London; attended local Schools and I joined the Blackwell Iron Works as an apprentice on 1st January 1861. My work started at 6 A.M. which involved my getting up at 5:20 for I walked to my work a good mile and half away and, as in the evenings, I attended evening classes, my days were pretty occupied. Later I joined Mr Thomas Hyde of Fenchurch Street where I picked up a good knowledge of Civil and Hydraulic Engineering, which was becoming prominent at that time owing to Sir William Armstrong. Afterwards, I was in charge of the machinery of "The Hercules", a dredger belonging to the Trinity Corporation of which the Duke of Edinburgh was Chairman of the Committee. 

When I joined the S. S. "Far East" for India. We came round the Cape and she was full up with passengers including my future wife [Ellen Mary Molloy, 1852-1923] who was returning from St. George's Convent Dublin accompanied by her mother and sister. This was an auxiliary screw steamer.  We left London 26th of April 1867 going round the Cape and stopping at Point-de-Galle [in Sri Lanka] and Madras [now Chennai]. We finally reached Calcutta [now Kolkata] on the 17th of September 1867. I have remained in this country ever since. The above steamer was chartered in Calcutta and the breaking out of the Abyssinian War (1867) and thus my engagement was broken; so I looked, for another berth and got a billet under Mr Thomas Watson, Superintending Engineer, Boradale Shiller & Co., as extra hand, but soon afterwards I was made 2nd Engineer. I went to Annesley Bay [in Eritrea]. The Chief Engineer committed himself by getting liquor which, he obtained easily on account of his position and giving same to some European Sergeants. These got drunk and misbehaved themselves. They were tried and heavily punished, while the Chief Engineer was court-marshalled and subsequently deported to Suez [in Egypt], and I was ordered to assume the duties of Chief Engineer by the Port Officer. On my return from Abyssinia [Ethiopia], I had to resume the grade of 2nd Engineer; another man being appointed first. 

At Calcutta, I got a shore job from Messrs Jessop, & Co. I was put in charge of their Garden Reach [a neighbourhood of the city of Kolkata] Branch. There were 2 European Boilermakers there at the time: Newman and Gallacher. I left there owing to the bad temper of one of the partners who abused me and with whom I quarrelled. About that time, I met Mr Watson who gave me back my old job. There was a new Chief Engineer named Todd who was said to drink a bottle-and-a-half or so of Exshaw's brandy per day. On the 9th of March 1869 on returning from Saugor, we anchored and the Chief gave an order that caused an accident and I was badly scalded. The next day at about 1 o'clock I was taken to General Hospital where I remained till the end of May. Meanwhile, a man named Thomas Udell I was appointed to carry on in my place, but they only succeeded in going as far as Achipure, when they burnt the port after boiler firebox; they returned to Calcutta and went under repairs. The new Engineers both got the sack. Captain Milner came to the Hospital the next day and told me all about it. Meanwhile a man named Hamilton was appointed. to carry on the repairs. While in hospital, I was permitted to go up for my examinations and passed, as Chief Engineer. My certificate being the 23rd for Bengal. The next day the owners sent me a letter appointing me Chief Engineer. At the end of May, I received my discharge from Hospital, and I took up my appointment to serve on the "Paris." Later I joined the "Alexandra". 

About that time, I learned that the Tukvar Co. were intending to adopt tea machinery of which there was very little in use. I applied and obtained the appointment 1st of October 1871 and so my connection with tea began. I left Calcutta with, my wife and 2 children on the 18th of December arriving in old Siliguri 1st January 1872, Kurseong on the 5th and Darjeeling (Tukvar) on the 11th. There I erected and worked the machinery and I might mention that I was put in charge of the cinchona plantation. In 1873 Mr Robert Graham, the Superintendent went home on leave, and during his absence, the factory was burnt down (January 11th 1873) but I rebuilt the factory and repaired the machinery in time to get to work for the season 1873. In 1874 it was decided to pull down the old factory and rebuilt a pucca [Indian word for 'good quality'] one. I rebuilt it to my own plan (with the old machinery) and it was the admiration of the whole district and the Company gave me a bonus of Rs. 500/- which was better than all the admiration. It had been arranged in my appointment that if I learned the work thoroughly, I should succeed Mr Graham. In 1875 Mr Graham was allowed to resign and I applied for the management, but in the meantime, the Directors had all been changed and the new ones thought Tukvar required an infusion of new blood as manager and they appointed Mr Thomas B. Curtis, but wrote to me that they had no wish to dispense with my services. I at once resigned because as I wrote and told them, they had broken faith with me. 

I then took up a billet as Engineer to Dr Brougham's [Tea] Estates, namely Dooteriah, Kaleg and Gazailidonbah [Guzlidubah] in the Dooars (of which Dick Haughton was the original Pioneer) and his Banstead property in Darjeeling. On my way to Gazilidonbah for water power, I met Mr & Mrs Pillans of Phoolparrie, [Phoolbarry] one of the Pioneers of the Dooars. While I was at Gazilidonbah, one of my Syces [man employed to look after horses] died with Malaria fever. I left with one Syce and two ponies and returned to Dooteriah. Malaria broke out in my Syce and myself. Mine lasted several months and the Syce's nearly two years. I remained in Dooteriah till May 1878 and intended becoming a planter altogether but machinery being introduced I was constantly asked to do Engineering here and there and so I eventually established an Engineering business which I called the "Darjeeling Engineering Works", and in 1880 I started the present business of "Ansell and Son" at Toong, now the property of my youngest son Arthur Molloy Ansell. 

Among other things I won the Gold Medal at the Calcutta Exhibition 1883-1884 and in 1886 I designed the hydraulic portion of the Darjeeling Electric light and most of the Water power of this district is due to me. I might mention that in 1872 I first tried drying tea without charcoal successfully. Sir Richard Temple, Lieutenant Governor of Bengal gave me two interviews at Government House in connection with this and at his Honour's request, I met Dr [Sir William] Schlich, Conservator of the Forests for Bengal. I patented the idea of the first endless tea drying machine in 1876. 

I have been a very keen volunteer. I served nearly 2 years in the Royal Naval Reserve at home, and out here I was an original member of the Darjeeling Volunteer Rifles in 1873 now called the North Bengal Mounted Rifles. I rose to the rank of Major. After nearly 43 years’ service, I was permitted to retire as Honorary Lieutenant Colonel, V. D [abbreviation for “Volunteer Officers' Decoration”], I hold the long service medal granted in Queen Victoria's time. The Volunteer Officers' Decoration of King Edward's time and the Delhi Durbar Jubilee medal of the present King's reign. During that long term of service, I never took leave of absence and was always found efficient at examinations. I am a first-class Magistrate of nearly 30 years’ service. I have always tried to do my duty to my country. 

The death of my dear and devoted wife, who after 53 years was taken from me was a great blow. She was a child in Lucknow right through the terrible [1857] siege, and she was returning to India from School at home when I met her. She was loved universally. Unfortunately, I have myself lately suffered a stroke which has left me partly paralysed, but I am slowly recovering. My life has been full of incidents and the foregone is only a summary of some of them. At a future date if possible, I shall try and write out some of the details. This has been written to dictation at the request of my old friend Mrs A. M. Lennox and many other kind friends. 

Just now I see the announcement (by cable) of the death of George Nash [1843-1924] of Mineral Springs and for many years’ manager at Soom [Tea Estate]. I met him unknowingly in 1871, the circumstances of which I will relate later. 

Since writing the above my old friend G. W. Christison [1837-1924 who was also at Tukvar] has passed away aged 86 and another dear old friend, Claud Bald [1853-1924] has been taken too. 

CW Ansell, V.D.
Toong, 1st February 1925

Charles Ansell died 25 May 1927 at Toong, Bengal, India, and is buried at the Pankhabari Road Cemetery, Kurseong, in what is now West Bengal, India. You can see his FindAGrave entry. As yet I don’t have a picture of his gravestone.

The Delhi Durbar of 1911, with King George V and Queen Mary seated on the dais.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Claud Bald’s well-travelled clock

A piece of good luck led me to an object once owned by Claud Bald (1853-1924), my great grandfather. He had carried from India to England and though discarded after his death, it now holds a new significance.

The item is a ‘carriage clock’, a small, spring-driven clock, designed for travelling. The genre was developed in the early nineteenth century France which manufactured thousands for export. Initially an expensive individually made item, their popularity increased and they were mass-produced and a simplified style was introduced for ‘English tastes.’

Claud Bald’s carriage clock. 

The clock is six inches (15 cms) high with the handle up. Its simplified style and ungilded brass indicate a mass-produced ‘bread and butter’ item. Several British manufacturers made these clocks and many were exported to India during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The peak year of production was 1889 for the Paris Exhibition and this one was made shortly before 1883.

The clock probably came in a leather carrying case, now lost, with an opening to show the clock face.

The clock, however, is special because of its unique inscription; ‘Presented by Lieut. A. B. L. Webb N.B.V.R. H. Coy. won by Claud Bald 1883’.

Claud Bald’s carriage clock inscription.

What happened to the clock after Claud died?

Until 2014, the clock was owned by ‘Pam’ in England who inherited it in the 1990s from her father who collected clocks as a hobby. Her father had found it in a second-hand shop in Worthing, cleaned it and found a winder to match the clock mechanism. Intrigued by the inscription and being a member of the Friends of Broadwater Cemetery in Worthing, Pam looked at the cemetery records and found ‘Claud Bald’ retired tea planter was interred in 1925.

However, ‘N.B.V.R.’ remained a mystery.

Pam posted notices on family history sites, which is how I eventually made contact. She and her sister offered the clock as a gift feeling that its place was with Claud’s family. I was able to confirm the meaning of the initials.

NBVR means…

‘NBVR’ refers to the Northern Bengal Volunteer Rifles who are believed to have been formed in 1873.

They became the Northern Bengal Mounted Rifles (NBMR) in 1889. Early records of the NBVR have not survived so details are not clear. Their first annual report was produced in 1882, apparently as part of a recruitment drive. Most original members were former soldiers and as they retired, remaining members realised that they needed to recruit men who did not have a military background.

Growing up in Glasgow, Claud Bald had no military background and may well have responded to a recruitment drive.

History of the unit

The Naval & Military Gazette and Weekly Chronicle of the United Services, Wednesday 19 September 1883, p. 238, says;

The second annual report of the Northern Bengal Volunteer Rifle Corps shows the total strength of that body to be 296 Volunteers and forty-five cadets—an increase of ninety-five on the previous year. At the annual inspection the inspecting officer expressed his great satisfaction with regard to the efficiency of the companies.
The numbering of later NBMR annual reports suggests that they took the first annual report of their militia to be the year of the first report of the NMVR.

By about 1914 most tea planters were expected to join and the majority did so.

What is clearer, is that the Corps was raised at the instigation of Mr A M Macdonald, Superintendent of the Darjeeling Tea Company and William Lloyd and A B L Webb (who presented the clock to Claud) of Lloyds Bank and E J Webb, Tea Planter.

Only five annual reports of the NBMR exist in three libraries (two in the UK and one in Japan).

Claud, the clock and the corps

The NBMR pattern was to hold annual ‘war games’ (as my mother called them) at which prizes were awarded for proficiency in skills such as shooting. Claud was probably awarded the clock in one such competition. He had been in India for about 5 years before 1883.

The designation ‘H. Coy’, short for H Company is at present unresolved. By 1914, H Company appears in the NBMR Annual Report as a Cadet Corps and would have been based at one of the district’s Schools. If it was a Cadet Corps in 1883, Claud would have been an officer.

The clock was for a long time the only evidence that Claud Bald joined the militia. He is not mentioned in the London Gazette as being awarded the ‘Volunteer Officers' Decoration’, so we can surmise that he remained a private. Though there is no record of the length of his service he may well have remained a member while his health allowed; he had a reputation for being healthy and ‘faithful’. In 1915 Claud and several other older planters were made honorary members of the NBMR. This seems to be a category of retired members who were not officers.

The following extract of a poem ‘Darjeeling’s Resplendent Transendency’, in Captain J A Keble, Darjeeling Ditties and Other Poems: A Souvenir, Darjeeling (1908), p. 8 reads;

‘Mr Claud Bald of Tukvar. 
Healthy, trusty, popular,
Noted Planter, faithful sealed,
Worker in the Master’s field!’

Some photographic evidence...

The picture marked ‘Tukvar Tea Estate 1914’ (below) is another treasure. The assumption that the troops were NBMR was confirmed by comparing the picture with a group photo of the 1914 Annual Report where people can be identified in both pictures.

The ‘visitors’ presence seems to imply that Claud had maintained a long connection with the Corps, though the occasion is not known.

Tukvar Tea Estate 1914. Claud Bald (with beard) with family and NBMR friends. 

The three seated officers in the above photo also appear below.

Officers in the NBMR at Jalpaiguri, from the 33rd Annual Report 1913-1914. 

The clock moves from India to England and then to Australia

Claud brought the clock with him to England in 1919 after he retired. It was significant to him. However, it seems to have been disposed of by the family, perhaps because it held no strong sentimental value to others.

But the clock has now shared its story, travelled halfway around the world again, after Pam kindly presented it to me in Worthing, and is treasured once more.

The NMBR crest and motto. 

'Fideliter', means 'faithfully' or, by implication, 'with reliance on God'. It also turns out to be an apt word to associate with Claud Bald, who was dedicated to his profession and a regular supporter of Baptist missionaries and the Union Church in Darjeeling.

Where are the annual reports?

The NBVR and all but five of the NBMR annual reports seem to have been lost. Do you know the whereabouts of any Please let me know! 

Read some more on Claud and his son-in-law at A tale of two tea planters.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Utopia is a dangerous ideal: should we aim for ‘protopia’?

by Michael Shermer

Utopias are idealised visions of a perfect society. Utopianisms are those ideas put into practice. 

This is where the trouble begins.

Thomas More coined the neologism utopia for his 1516 work that launched the modern genre for a good reason. The word means ‘no place’ because when imperfect humans attempt perfectibility – personal, political, economic and social – they fail. Thus, the dark mirror of utopias are dystopias – failed social experiments, repressive political regimes, and overbearing economic systems that result from utopian dreams put into practice.  

The belief that humans are perfectible leads, inevitably, to mistakes when ‘a perfect society’ is designed for an imperfect species. There is no best way to live because there is so much variation in how people want to live. Therefore, there is no best society, only multiple variations on a handful of themes as dictated by our nature.

Sir Thomas More, statesman,
by Hans Holbein via Wikipedia.

For example, utopias are especially vulnerable when a social theory based on collective ownership, communal work, authoritarian rule and a command-and-control economy collides with our natural-born desire for autonomy, individual freedom and choice. Moreover, the natural differences in ability, interests and preferences within any group of people leads to inequalities of outcomes and imperfect living and working conditions that utopias committed to equality of outcome cannot tolerate. 

As one of the original citizens of Robert Owen’s 19th-century New Harmony community in Indiana explained it:
We had tried every conceivable form of organisation and government. We had a world in miniature. We had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. … It appeared that it was nature’s own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us … our ‘united interests’ were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation.
Most of these 19th-century utopian experiments were relatively harmless because, without large numbers of members, they lacked political and economic power. But add those factors, and utopian dreamers can turn into dystopian murderers. People act on their beliefs, and if you believe that the only thing preventing you and/or your family, clan, tribe, race or religion from going to heaven (or achieving heaven on Earth) is someone else or some other group, then actions know no bounds. From homicide to genocide, the murder of others in the name of some religious or ideological belief accounts for the high body counts in history’s conflicts, from the Crusades, Inquisition, witch crazes and religious wars of centuries gone to the religious cults, world wars, pogroms and genocides of the past century.

We can see that calculus behind the utopian logic in the now famous ‘trolley problem’ in which most people say they would be willing to kill one person in order to save five. Here’s the set-up: you are standing next to a fork in a railroad line with a switch to divert a trolley car that is about to kill five workers on the track. If you pull the switch, it will divert the trolley down a side track where it will kill one worker. If you do nothing, the trolley kills the five. What would you do? Most people say that they would pull the switch. If even people in Western enlightened countries today agree that it is morally permissible to kill one person to save five, imagine how easy it is to convince people living in autocratic states with utopian aspirations to kill 1,000 to save 5,000, or to exterminate 1,000,000 so that 5,000,000 might prosper. What’s a few zeros when we’re talking about infinite happiness and eternal bliss?

The fatal flaw in utilitarian utopianism is found in another thought experiment: you are a healthy bystander in a hospital waiting room in which an ER physician has five patients dying from different conditions, all of which can be saved by sacrificing you and harvesting your organs. Would anyone want to live in a society in which they might be that innocent bystander? Of course not, which is why any doctor who attempted such an atrocity would be tried and convicted for murder.

Yet this is precisely what happened with the grand 20th-century experiments in utopian socialist ideologies as manifested in Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist Russia (1917-1989), Fascist Italy (1922-1943) and Nazi Germany (1933-1945), all large-scale attempts to achieve political, economic, social (and even racial) perfection, resulting in tens of millions of people murdered by their own states or killed in conflict with other states perceived to be blocking the road to paradise. The Marxist theorist and revolutionary Leon Trotsky expressed the utopian vision in a 1924 pamphlet:
The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psychophysical training. … The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.
This unrealisable goal led to such bizarre experiments as those conducted by Ilya Ivanov, whom Stalin tasked in the 1920s with crossbreeding humans and apes in order to create ‘a new invincible human being’. When Ivanov failed to produce the man-ape hybrid, Stalin had him arrested, imprisoned, and exiled to Kazakhstan. As for Trotsky, once he gained power as one of the first seven members of the founding Soviet Politburo, he established concentration camps for those who refused to join in this grand utopian experiment, ultimately leading to the gulag archipelago that killed millions of Russian citizens who were also believed to be standing in the way of the imagined utopian paradise to come. When his own theory of Trotskyism opposed that of Stalinism, the dictator had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico in 1940. Sic semper tyrannis.

In the second half of the 20th century, revolutionary Marxism in Cambodia, North Korea and numerous states in South America and Africa led to murders, pogroms, genocides, ethnic cleansings, revolutions, civil wars and state-sponsored conflicts, all in the name of establishing a heaven on Earth that required the elimination of recalcitrant dissenters. All told, some 94 million people died at the hands of revolutionary Marxists and utopian communists in Russia, China, North Korea and other states, a staggering number compared with the 28 million killed by the fascists. When you have to murder people by the tens of millions to achieve your utopian dream, you have instantiated only a dystopian nightmare.

The utopian quest for perfect happiness was exposed as the flawed goal that it is by George Orwell in his 1940 review of Mein Kampf:
Hitler … has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. … [Hitler] knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice …
On the broader appeal of Fascism and Socialism, Orwell added:
Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. … we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
What, then, should replace the idea of utopia? One answer can be found in another neologism – protopia – incremental progress in steps toward improvement, not perfection. As the futurist Kevin Kelly describes his coinage:
Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualise. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.
In my book The Moral Arc (2015), I showed how protopian progress best describes the monumental moral achievements of the past several centuries: the attenuation of war, the abolishment of slavery, the end of torture and the death penalty, universal suffrage, liberal democracy, civil rights and liberties, same-sex marriage and animal rights. These are all examples of protopian progress in the sense that they happened one small step at a time.

A protopian future is not only practical, it is realisable.

This essay is based on Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, published by the author in 2018.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

A Melbourne Masonic mystery part 3: The foundation stone

Part 2 of the story described the Freemasons of Melbourne before they knew they had no place in the foundation stone ceremony for the University of Melbourne. This concluding part of the story looks at why Hiram might have imagined he’d been ‘uninvited’ and suggests what might have really been going on.

Barry’s response to Levick

Levick’s letter to Barry has apparently not survived. We do have Barry’s immediate response, however. It is worth a close reading.

Melbourne April 29 1854


In reply to your letter of the 28th inst, I have the honor to inform you that it was proposed to adopt, on the occasion of laying the foundation stone of the University, the arrangement & order of procession observed on the 15th of November 1850, when the separation of the Colony of Victoria from the Colony of New South Wales was celebrated by a procession to open the Prince’s Bridge.

His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor would have laid the stone. No form of prayer would have been read.

The members of the various Lodges of Free and accepted Masons took their place on the 15th of November 1850 after the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows and before the general body of inhabitants who joined the procession.

If it be the wish of you, Gentlemen, & the members of your Lodges to do honor to the procession by giving your attendance, timely notice will be published of the day on which the Ceremony now proposed will take place.

I have the honor to be Gentlemen your obedient Servant

Redmond Barry


Robert Levick. W.M. of the Australia Felix Lodge 697 [English Constitution]
J. W. Hall [sic though the actual WM seems to have been ‘M. Hall’]. W.M. of Lodge of Australasia No 773 [English Constitution]
Henry T. Shaw.  R.W.M. Lodge of Australasian Kilwinning 337 [Scottish Constitution]
J. Elliott. W.M. Lodge of Hiram. No 349 [Irish Constitution]
(Addressed to Robert Levick)

Barry is saying that the Freemasons were not included in his plans for 1 May except to be part of the procession. Invoking the Bridge Opening as a precedent was a convenient way to avoid the question of Masonic ceremony and is perhaps a deliberate obfuscation. The precedent should have been the foundation stone ceremony for the Bridge, but that would not have suited Barry’s purpose.

What was his purpose? ‘No form of prayer would have been said.’ The Bridge event is not invoked for this sentence and he is talking about what had been proposed for 1 May.

The next paragraph invokes the Bridge opening again on the subject of where the Freemasons would appear in the procession.

Freemasons could take part in the procession and witness the event along with everyone else if they wished but nothing more. There is no suggestion that they would officiate in setting the foundation stone and no formal prayers of any sort were to be read.

The Masters understood this clearly. There is also no suggestion of any face to face meeting

The event and letters to the editor

What occurred on 3 July 1854? Shortly after noon the governor's carriage led the procession to an untidy paddock one mile north of the city. There was no formal representation of either Freemasons or Oddfellows. Was there a boycott?

Raised seats surrounded three sides of the place where the stone was to be laid. Barry, wearing 'the very handsome robes' of the Chancellor's office, conducted Lady Hotham to her seat under a canopy. She and her husband inspected the plans of the building and expressed themselves satisfied. The Argus was less satisfied with the attendance: the spectators were fewer than expected, and ladies were not numerous.

The Melbourne correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote an entertaining account which included the following:

‘… a very noticeable feature in the affair was, the military aspect it presented to an onlooker, not only were the whole of the soldiers there under arms, but there was a strong detachment of dragoons with drawn sabres present. … a friend … said it was “the way they managed these things in Ireland." But however well it chimed in with the military notions of the Irish Chancellor of the University, and acting Chief Justice of Victoria, Englishmen generally felt it to be out of place, and thought it smelt too much of continental despotism. I may remark that there is a hankering after military display in some quarters here, for I saw it noticed in the Argus, the other day, that on the opening of a new church by the Bishop, on Sunday last, "a detachment of soldiers was present". Probably we shall hear next of "strong detachments" being present at missionary and prayer meetings.’

Barry gave a protracted speech and the Argus reported that 'when the learned gentleman desired to be most impressive, he became the least audible'. Full details of the event have been preserved in a publication prepared by the University’s convocation.

The foundation stone was actually two stones: one in the ground and the other suspended above it from cross-trees. After Hotham had replied to Barry's speech, some coins and the constitution of the University were placed in a cavity in the lower stone. The cavity was covered with a brass plate carrying a Latin inscription composed by Barry. The plate pronounced that the university had been 'instituted in honour of God, for establishing young men in philosophy, literature and piety, cultivating the talent of youth, fostering the arts, and extending the bounds of science'. Hotham spread mortar with a silver trowel (inscribed with La Trobe’s name), the upper stone was lowered, and, tapping it with a mallet 'in Masonic fashion three several times', he declared it well laid.

Although the Argus describes the tapping as being ‘in Masonic fashion’ it was not in any sense a Masonic ceremony. Barry offered a prayer but the words are not recorded. In both cases these actions are more likely to have been customary practice.

We are now ready to hear ‘Hiram’. His letter appeared in The Argus, on Thursday 6 July 1854.

To the Editor if the Argus.

Sir - I regret that the ceremony of laying the foundation stones of the two public buildings by His Excellency Lieutenant-Governor Sir Charles Hotham yesterday, was not attended by any of the various public bodies who at the similar ceremonies of laying the foundation stones of the bridge and hospital by His Honor Mr La Trobe, on the 20th March, 1846, joined and contributed to enliven the procession; but more particularly regret the non-attendance of the Freemasons.

I am myself a freemason, and jealous of the privilege of our order, and among them I rank the right which in England is almost invariably conceded of being present and assisting in the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of all stately and superb edifices.

I had understood that the officers and members of the several Melbourne lodges had been invited through their respective W. M.s to assist at the ceremony when it was arranged to have taken place on the 1st of May, and should have been glad to have availed myself of the invitation then, had not the domestic affliction of Mr. La Trobe necessitated its postponement.

But why has not the Invitation been renewed? For on inquiry of a brother Mason whom I casually met, he informed me that the W. M of his lodge had not received any, nor did he believe that any other master had: nay, he went so far as to intimate that he had hardly expected from what he had heard that the invitation would be renewed; but he declined giving any reasons, as he said that the matter had been left in the hands of the W. M s, and that he placed confident reliance in their judgement.

Now, Sir. I don't in the least understand this, nor why, in a colony like this, Freemasons should be deprived of a privilege belonging to them - a privilege which they highly prize and one which is moreover cheerfully granted them in England on all occasions - [w]ether through the caprice of the officers by whom the arrangements are made, or from any other cause.

I do not mean in the least degree to question the authority of the masters of the lodges, or to impugn either their actions or their motives; but it does seem to me that some explanation is due to the large body of the fraternity who, like myself, may have expected to have been honored with an invitation, and, like myself, are mortified and annoyed at finding that they have been neglected,

Yours faithfully, HIRAM

Melbourne, July 4th.

We do not pretend to interfere with the motives or decisions of the mysterious race of W. M.s, P. G.s, &c.; but we confess that we think the foundation stones in question are quite firmly enough laid as they are. Why the Freemasons did not attend, or were not invited, we are not in the position to say. Possibly the world Is getting old enough to think that It can begin to do without the pretty babyisms of the blue apron. Ed. A

The story of Hiram is well-known to all Masonic constitutions (Hiram was set upon by three ruffians who tried to steal secrets they were not entitled to) and may suggest the writer felt persecuted so it is only a signal that the writer is a Freemason. The letter refers to supposed customs ‘in England’ suggesting the writer was English and thus a member of an English Lodge.

The response came swiftly and was published on 7 July.

To the Editor of the Argus.

Sir, - Permit me to make a few observations in reply to the letter of your correspondent Hiram, which appears in your paper of this day, and to your own remarks on the subject upon which it treats.

I believe that the masters of the several lodges have no wish to keep back the truth from any brother, however much they may condemn the mode in which he has thought proper to make his inquiry, and however little they may be disposed to recognise his right to receive a reply to an anonymous communication, addressed to the editor of a daily paper.

I will therefore state at once, and without further preface, that your correspondent has been rightly informed that the several Melbourne lodges had the compliment paid them of being invited by His Honor the Chancellor or the University of Melbourne, through their respective masters, to assist at the ceremony of laying the foundation stone on the first of May: as also, that it had not been renewed, and that the masters had not expected that it would be.

It seems hardly necessary to vindicate the acts of the masters, on whom, in the absence of a Provincial Grand Lodge, devolved the duty of considering the invitation: as, however, their silence may be misconstrued, I will proceed to say that they felt that, under the proposed arrangement, they had no alternative but to decline it.

It would occupy too much space in your valuable column to insert the correspondence which took place between them and His Honor the Chancellor upon the occasion, and your correspondent, or of any other proved brother, can, if he desired it, have access to the documents on application to me in a regular manner in open lodge.

It may suffice to say that among other objections, the following were Insurmountable: -
It was not contemplated that the stone should be laid, or assisted to be laid, by a Freemason.

The customary masonic ceremonies were to be neglected; and, above all, no form of prayer was to be observed.

I feel satisfied that the enunciation of this last startling fact will deprive every true brother of the least trace of mortification or annoyance at having been absent from the ceremony, and will only have the effect of inducing a change of those feelings into pure astonishment that such an omission should have been determined on by Christian authorities, in a Christian community. And now will your correspondent allow me to offer, on behalf of himself and the alleged large body of Mason to whom he refers, a little advice?

Let me recommend him and them to lose no time in joining, and thereafter regularly at attending, one of the lodges in this city, when it will be their own fault if they have again occasion to seek for the elucidation of any supposed masonic mystery in the columns of a public journal.

Having disposed of Brother Hiram's letter, I will now, with your permission, remark briefly on your own comment. ...

[The writer then addresses the editor’s remarks about Freemasonry.]

Yours faithfully,

M. Hall. W.M. Lodge of Australasia, N 773. [A Lodge of the English Constitution]

The Editor could not resist the opportunity to repeat his views in more detail concluding that ‘we hope the day is fast coming when a body of worthy and intelligent men shall be able to go about a grave undertaking sensibly and in plain clothing’ which was criticism not only of Freemasons but all those who enjoyed dressing up to elevate themselves above their peers - judges, mayors and a Chancellors.

So, what happened?

There was probably an initial expectation that Freemasons would take part, though Hall thinks that this was also planned for 1 May. The Freemasons were not uninvited. The WMs declined the invitation. Did anyone ask Barry why the foundation stone laying for the Prince’s Bridge was not a better precedent? Levick was probably aware of the facts but seems not to have raised it.

After some months a formal report was printed in The Freemasons’ Monthly Magazine in 1855 published in England which provides a considered summary:

‘A correspondence, involving an important Masonic principle, took place during the past year. The Chancellor of the Melbourne University, the Acting Chief Justice, Judge Barry, solicited the Masonic Lodges to attend a procession for the laying of the foundation stone of the University. But as prayer was not to be offered up on the occasion, or the Masons either to lay the foundation stone, or, after its being laid by a civilian [ie Hotham who was not a Mason], to adjust it with the usual Masonic observations, they declined to attend, to the general satisfaction of the Craft.’

However, there is one further thread in the tapestry which may explain why the Masonic leadership didn’t wish to press the case. The lodges were collectively becoming better educated and were focussed on growth and development. Hall didn’t address Hiram’s assertion of the Masonic ‘right’ to take part in such events in England, though perhaps he would have privately.

Thomas McCombie revived Masonry after the Goldrush.
Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

The Lodge of Hiram was just being brought out of its Gold Rush slump by the efforts of Thomas McCombie (1819-1869). McCombie was a journalist, merchant and politician and founding master of the Lodge of Hiram. He had probably been elected master of the Lodge in April replacing ‘J. Elliot’. The Lodge formed a committee on 4 July 1854 to take ‘all steps necessary’ for the formation of a Provincial Grand Lodge and by 8 August John Thomas Smith had been recruited to lead the effort.

From support role to centre stage

The aforementioned ‘eminent member of the Craft’ provided this somewhat clumsily worded insight. It suggests another issue for which the change of Lieutenant Governor provided the opportunity to resolve quietly. It may also be the other unmentioned issue which Hall referred to. Barry’s insistence on ‘no formal prayer’ and dismissal by silence of the idea of a Masonic ‘right’ to conduct such ceremonies, may have been a convenient way to change what seems to have been the Melbourne custom of ‘assisting’ the Governor in foundation stone laying ceremonies. Barry may well have been in silent agreement with the change and after La Trobe, Governors were not ‘assisted by Freemasons’ in laying foundation stones.

Here is the relevant section from Fairfax;

‘Contrary, however, to prescriptive right, to take a secondary part in such ceremonies, the brethren assisted Charles J. LaTrobe, Esq., Superintendent of Port Phillip, and in his subsequent position as Lieutenant Governor of Victoria, to lay the foundation stones of several public structures, namely, the Supreme Court in July, 1842 ; Prince's Bridge and the Hospital in March, 1846; and the Benevolent Asylum in June, 1850. The R.W. Master of the Australasian Kilwinning Lodge, with the Masters of the other lodges, laid the foundation-stone of the Temperance Hall, Russell-street, in December, 1846.’

In contrast, the Foundation Stone of the Freemason's Alms-houses was laid on 17 July 1867. The ceremony was conducted entirely by Freemasons. The Governor, Sir John Manners-Sutton, was present as a witness and was not a Freemason. He spoke after the ceremony.

The foundation stone ceremony at the Gas Works in December 1854 was explicitly a Masonic ceremony. The stone was laid by ‘Brother J T Smith’ who in his address said ‘Gentlemen - in compliance with your request to the Freemasons to lay with masonic honors the foundation stone of the Melbourne Gas Works.  …I have had the honor of performing this interesting ceremony.’ Smith was a Freemason, a member of Parliament and the Mayor. The event was well-attended with both military and musical entertainment, perhaps organised in part by McCombie who was a shareholder.  Hotham was toasted – in his absence.

Brother John Thomas Smith, Mayor and Masonic leader.
Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

The third example is the foundation stone ceremony for Collingwood Bridge on 7 November 1856. The entire ceremony was a Masonic one, although they were supported by the Oddfellows and a military band. The guest of honour was the Mayor of Melbourne who made clear he was a Freemason. Although not named he was probably John Thomas Smith.

The Fairfax reference suggests that what occurred in La Trobe’s tenure was unusual. It may have been one of the things corrected with the arrival of Freemasons, such as Levick, who were ‘fully conversant’ with the various rituals. Barry may well have had the same view.

Barry could not entirely escape the Omnipotent. He did say a prayer. Though it was not formal and, as far as the press was concerned, it was certainly silent.

Two Postscripts

Item 1
The Lodge of Australia Felix No 697 met on Friday, July 7, 1854, with Brother Robert Levick Worshipful Master in the Chair. After regular business Levick brought before the notice of the Lodge the (unspecified) conduct of the Worshipful Master of the Australasia Lodge Brother M. Hall.

Brother J W Hill proposed, that ‘the members of this Lodge express in the strongest terms their disapprobation of the Conduct of the W.M. of the Lodge of Australasia, and at the same time they would wish to express the fullest confidence in the W.M. of their own Lodge believing him to be quite capable of Carrying out the onerous duties entrusted to him. Carried unanimously.’

The issue is not stated but involved some kind of joint activity between the Lodges. There were only two at the time; 1 – arrangements to meet the new Governor which Hall took the lead in and seemed to go well, 2 – the non-participation at the University where Hall responded to Hiram.

What is the principal duty of the WM? Everything it seems. ‘If lodge functions go awry, it is the Master who bears the blame’. If ‘Hiram’ was a member of Hall’s lodge, Hall could be held responsible for his public outburst. Levick and the other WMs had successfully managed their memberships in not making a fuss.

Item 2
The Argus thought ‘the foundation stones in question are quite firmly enough laid … without the help of the Freemasons’. Why then did the Convocation of the University of Melbourne create a replica of the covering plate in 2007? The building was finished within two years, but the foundation stones and plate went missing. Perhaps they lie buried on the location of the wing of the original building which did not go ahead. Or perhaps some miffed Masons wanted to make a final point and it waits to be discovered.

In any case, the stones were somehow not firmly enough laid to be found again.

This concludes the series. The story will also appear in the 2020 edition of the ‘Transactions’ of the Victorian Lodge of Research with full footnotes. A more academic version will be published in March 2020 and readers will be informed when this takes place.

The University of Melbourne, Victoria Illustrated 1857. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.