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The TeaGRAM Podcast • May 21 • Ep. #8 - Leon J Lyell, a Melbourne based resident, shares his nostalgic story of his connections to Darjeeling Tea [31:55]

Boroon Mahanta: Our guest this time is a Melbourne resident like me. We met in person for a cup of tea and a chat, indulging in some nostalgia over India last weekend. Leon is a retired university administrator, a part-time family historian and a blogger, and a full-time history student enrolled in a Masters in Philosophy. 

Happy Tea Day Leon, how are you celebrating today?

Leon Lyell: Well, today this conversation is the celebration. Also, when I go home, I’ll brew a nice cup of Rujani Muscatel and enjoy that with a bit of reading of tea history. 

Boroon: Wonderful. So tell us about your family connection with Indian tea. 

Leon: Well, there are three points of connection. My mother, my grandfather and my great-grandfather. Mum was born at Phoobsering tea estate, a hundred years ago this year. And really enjoyed her early childhood there. She was sent away with her sister to England, a place she'd never been to before from about the age of eight. And then after that, returned again and enjoyed her teenage years and studied a bit more in Darjeeling. So that's the first part. Obviously, mum was born there. So her parents were there as well. 

Her father, Fred Mash was born in Adelaide in about 1891. He answered an advertisement in the newspaper where the Labon tea company was looking for an assistant manager and someone who had experience in agriculture and management. My grandfather had looked after his father's wheat farm in the valley. And it was fairly unproductive because of the soil. So his mother sent him away. He tried sugar growing in Queensland, but didn't like the labour situation. There's a chance that he looked after a tea plantation, which had been started up in Queensland at the time. So he may have had, may have been open to say he'd been to a tea plantation before. Anyway, he was invited for an interview in Calcutta. And my grandfather reckoned that he got the job because he knew what to do with the cutlery when he met the directors.

My grandfather's father had been a businessman in Adelaide. And so they did a lot of business, so it came naturally to him and he got on very well with his boss who was the manager of the  Tukvar Tea Estate, Claud Bald. So, this is about 1912. He started there and his contract was renewed once. There were three-year contracts. It is interesting to see today, a contract might have a car allowance in those days. His contract had a pony allowance. So some things changed, but some things are similar and, Claud Bald, I think supported him very well in the letters I've seen.

He gave Fred Marsh a good rap. In 1917, Fred Mash signed two contracts. One was to become the manager of the Phoobsering Tea Estate which, like Tukvar, was one of the oldest in Darjeeling, going back to about 1860. So he got the job of a lifetime for himself. The second contract he signed was to marry Claud's daughter.

So that's how that all brings those people together. And Claud had begun in tea around the 1870s. So he was, you could say, the end of the pioneer group and was quite well known around the town. So, that's how they all came together. There are those deep connections, which are fun to have.

Boroon: So tea is like a bridge for you between Australia and India... 

Leon: I guess I've always felt I've got tea in the blood although I'm not a great horticulturist. I enjoy tea and it's fun knowing about that part of history. 

My mother very much enjoyed her Indian ancestry and she and her sister were quite different in that way. And I guess to represent the variety of experiences that kids in that era and with that background had. 

My aunt really regarded herself as an English lady and her Australian cousins saw her in that way. But mum was a bit of a rebel and she saw herself as Indian, partly because it confused people. She had my complexion, blonde hair, blue eyes. So when she told people "I'm an Indian”, people weren't quite sure what to make of that. Anyway, that was her self identity and she liked tigers. So in Melbourne, Australia, you really have to follow Australian Rules Football. So for mum, the obvious football team to follow was Richmond, because their mascot was a tiger. She didn't care about football. She cared about the tiger.

Anyway, tea is definitely a bridge to India and built an interest in India as a country, which is a huge and diverse country, of course. So I feel a link, even though it wasn't until only a few years ago that I had the opportunity to visit Darjeeling. I'd always taken up some of mum's affinity in that way. 

Boroon: So that made you embark on this journey to learn about your family and their story in tea?

Leon: Well, I'm also a family history addict, so that comes into it. A lot of people when they become interested in family history, at least they used to, focus on their father, their father's father, follow the male line… which is a little bit unfair because there's a whole range of other ancestors that we have. But, so mum's Indian past, the Indian past of her family, was very interesting and it's something a little bit different. So, I really enjoyed following up on that.

Boroon: And you did visit India and Phoobsering to go see where she grew up. 

Leon: Yes. I’d almost had the chance to visit before 2014. I used to work in promoting Australian universities and we had two trips to India, and one of those stopped in Calcutta. And I tried to see if I could squeeze a visit up to Darjeeling but you can't do it in an afternoon. So that was a bit frustrating, but we met with the company, which at that stage owned Phoobsering and had a chat with the directors there. This fellow, I think his surname was Missa, asked us, "Would you like to buy some tea?” I thought, "Do you have something from Phoobsering?” He said, “Yes.” 

I said, "Do you have it here?" And he said, "Tell me how many crates you want?” I was thinking in terms of boxes, but he was selling crates! 

Anyway, we had the opportunity to visit in 2014. We first went to Bhutan, which my grandfather had often mentioned, reminded him of what Darjeeling was like when he first went there. So that was a great experience. We had a week in Bhutan, then a week in Darjeeling. This was January. A relatively quiet season, as far as tea is concerned, and tourism. But, we were lucky enough to have a look-in at the Tukvar Tea Estate. The factory was operating because some tea had been returned from Germany. So, although it wasn't full production, you got the smell of the tea being processed as well as a look through the factory. 

And then on another day we spent a whole day at Phoobsering, met the manager, had lunch there, took photographs in places where mama and her father had taken photographs, looked around the tea estate, met with the deputy managers, talked to some of the workers on the garden - one of whom reckoned he’d heard stories of my grandfather. But this fellow was younger than me, so I'm not sure how accurate those stories might've been. Anyway, that was fun to do. And then we finished up with afternoon tea in the front room where my family would have had afternoon tea and scribbled in the guest book.

Coincidentally, I didn't think of it at the time, but the current house of Phoobsering was built in 1934. So we went there coincidentally, on its 80th birthday. The original house built around 1860 had been essentially destroyed in the Bihar earthquake of 1934. And the house was rebuilt. That was a great experience.

And the other interesting feature was the dynamics of how the plantation works. I remembered stories, my grandfather complaining about being responsible to the company, people in Calcutta - and in that case, the company directors were all based in the UK - and the dynamics of that relationship. The dynamics today seemed to be exactly the same. The people are different but the dynamics are the same. And similarly, his very good relations with the assistant managers. In this case he had two, Grand-pop had one. The house is exactly the same house. So I took pictures of the house today and compared it to the old ones. Exactly the same, but now there's two families there and it's got an extra kitchen. So very interesting to see. 

And then the other feature, I guess, the other feeling, in being in that location - it was very peaceful just to sort of sit there and look over the tea valleys and see the end of the Himalayan mountains, Kanchenjunga just hanging on the horizon. Sort of a timeless feel to it. So, it could have been 2014. It could have been 1934.

It would be nice to go back again. There are things I'd like to do that I didn't think of at the time, things that I know now, questions to ask, that sort of thing. The big disappointment, on the way back… I was going to meet with the company people in Calcutta, we had planned very tightly but I would have had a day there. We were going to have lunch in the Cricket Club, but flights were cancelled because of a bad storm and we just had to miss that bit out. So I have to go back again to do that. 

Boroon: I read the story you wrote on the Koi-Hai website and that's how I kind of connected with you. I think it's a great place for people to learn about connections that people from all over the world have with the Indian tea Industry. Can you tell us about this group? What do these interactions mean to you? How is Koi-Hai keeping all of these connections alive today? 

Leon: It's a great resource. I first came across it, I guess, in the eighties or nineties. At that stage, there was a website run by a former tea planter, David Air. And the group was essentially based in England and they got together fairly regularly to share stories of their time in India. And I was unusual in that I wasn't a planter. So I was in the minority. But as time has gone on, obviously that generation, which would have been the generation after my grandfather, are kind of thinning in the ranks. And David retired from managing that and Denys Shortt, who's younger than I am and grew up on a tea plantation as a planter’s son in Assam, took over a few years ago, jazzed up the website and added a Facebook site which has around 2,000 participants at the moment. 

So it includes not only former tea planters but anybody with an interest in the industry. Or descendants of planters or other industries that supported the tea industry. So it's a great way for people to share stories, ask questions. 

We’ve provided help to a lot of people who want to connect with stories of their ancestors. So they might know that they had an ancestor who was in Darjeeling in tea or in Assam in tea, and collectively, we can put our minds together and in most cases, find some solution. I'm thinking in particular of one lady whose family was connected with mine, but I didn't know much about them until recently. She's based in New Zealand. Has a great collection of photographs that her family have left her. But she has a lot of questions about who these people are, how do they connect? So, that's the kind of service that the website and the Facebook page can do - making those connections. So I have a friend at Kurseong, which is near Darjeeling. He feeds me some information and sometimes I might put it up and get reactions and it adds to the picture.

So to restore those or put those stories together before they become completely forgotten. And hopefully, some of those will get written up as well. So, a great resource. Anybody with any connection to tea should have a look at that and I think will enjoy it. 

It's worth highlighting that Denys is very supportive of anything to do with tea. He is an active proponent of the London Tea History Association which was established to celebrate the tea venues around London, which have historical significance before they all disappear. He's doing it through the auspices of his company, the DCS group and includes the tea history collection, which is gathered in the company’s building in Banbury in the UK. And, Denys will be celebrating International Tea Day today this year, by formally launching that collection. So it's a private collection, and that would mean that people would need to make appointments with him, but I'm sure he’s eager to share that information and let people see what's there in it, which, amongst other things, includes a historical collection of tea itself, lots of tea artefacts and some of the items from the old tea auction house in Mincing Lane. There were large, three-foot-wide plaques representing the different countries involved and he’s managed to acquire those. So anybody with interest in tea history and, and in the UK, that will be a marvellous resource. 

Boroon: Are there any former planters in Australia that you might've found through Koi-Hai? 

Leon: There's a few. I don't know how many are in Australia, but there's at least one fellow in Melbourne and one fellow I've spoken to who is based in Queensland, but there's probably more that I don't actually know. They are about and all of them are interested in sharing their stories and contributing to discussions. So it's a great way to connect. And it would be interesting to work out if there was enough in one place, to have a get-together. 

Boroon: Your mom came back from India and settled in Australia. So would you like to tell us any stories from that time of how ex-tea planters from India settled in Australia? 

Leon: I’m sure the stories are as varied as the people. But in my grandfather's case, once India was partitioned, politics in Bengal, as it was, West Bengal, as it became, was pretty tough.

And there had been quite a longstanding anti-British movement. But in addition, there were local political opportunists who, I guess, like all politicians, cared about their own election and that sort of thing. And so there was trouble stirred on the plantation. And a fairly, not violent, but fearful confrontation between some workers and the management. The house where my grandfather and grandmother lived was attacked, all the windows were broken.

So that was quite a shock to my grandfather. And after some time he decided, reluctantly, that they should leave India. I think, in his own mind, he and my grandmother had expected to retire at some stage. Not that early, although he was about 65. And they would have expected to stay on in India. But it just became impossible.

So because Grandpa had family in Australia, he didn't have as much difficulty deciding where to go next, or settling in. Even though he'd been in India, at that stage, for the best part of 40 years. And although he visited his family in Australia, India was his home. So he needed to adjust himself.

But my grandmother, I think, found it more difficult and that would have been a common experience for many in the tea industry who felt they couldn't stay. And so they didn't feel at home in India anymore. And those who had come from England, many of them didn't feel at home in India either. So they went to other places if they stayed in the tea industry. Quite a number went from Darjeeling to Africa and continued as that industry grew. Others retired to New Zealand or Australia, even though they didn't have any connections because it wasn't England and it wasn't India. And some others picked faraway places within Britain, not well-populated areas. So the experience was varied. Mum had been sent with her sister to Australia at the start of the Second World War. There was action up there, in Bengal, and an interesting story for another day. So they had been there already and had kind of settled in. So my grandfather then had to work out what to do because he was fairly fit for his age. So he tried going into businesses, which wasn’t very successful. He then got a job at an insurance company at the age of about 66, 67. But in order to ensure his employment, they all agreed that he was 55. So he retired at 75 when people thought he was 65. And I'm sure that helped him keep his good health as well. But one amusing thing, which I guess was common. When they first settled in, my grandmother met people. She often went to church and that way you get to sort of make friends in Melbourne. One family invited my family - my grandfather, mother and aunt - to join them for tea and they agreed on the day. And that was great. And so of course, Grand-pop turned up at 4:00 PM for tea. Their hosts were surprised because they weren't expecting them until about 6:30 PM. So there were adjustments to be made, which they did. 

Boroon: So you also visited the UK to trace your lineage there. Tell us about that. 

Leon: I was very interested to see what happened to Claud Bald. Claud, in his case, retired in 1919 and stayed on for about two years in Darjeeling. And then, I keep saying returned - he went back to the UK. He was a Scotsman, he was born in Glasgow and very much saw himself as Scottish, but was also, as the theme was at the time, a supporter of British industry and the British empire, that sort of thing. He settled in Worthing, in the south of England, where a number of planters also settled. So there was quite a community there. So in that sense, it was a logical place. And several schools there for the children, children of the Empire, which is where mum and her sister had been sent. And so when they were there, they would just stay with their grandparents on some holidays.

So, Claud retired there and his main retirement activity was to revise his book, Indian Tea, which was quite popular. And had gone through four editions. So the fourth edition was his retirement project. And Claud had altogether five children - a son who, initially, went into the tea business, my grandmother and another daughter who married a Scottish academic and then two daughters who didn't marry anyone. And they were a bit difficult, but they were good for looking after grandchildren. So the royalties from Claud's final edition of Indian Tea, went to look after his unmarried daughters.

When he passed away, the items from his estate were either sold or given to secondhand shops or whatnot. And one of those was a clock that he was awarded when he was a member of the North Bengal Volunteer Rifles in a shooting competition, in1876, I think it was. So this little traveling clock had a plaque on the bottom of it. Now there was a fellow in the town in Worthing who collected old clocks. And when he passed away, his daughters tried to get rid of everything as well. But they kept this clock with this fascinating little note on it. They could work out who Claud Bald was because there were some records in the town, but the initials for Northern Bengal Volunteer rifles were a mystery.

So through different family history networks, this lady put out this information. Did anyone know what the initials meant? So I knew what the initials meant and let her know. And then when we visited England, she said, Well, let's meet. So we met in the Broadwater graveyard and she took me to where she had volunteered. She took me to Claud's grave and we had a look at that and cleaned it up and whatnot. And then she presented me with the clock; she and her sister had agreed to pass me the clock. So that clock now sits on the bookshelf at Warrandyte. It's been all around the world. But that was a nice little thing to come out of that family history adventure.

Boroon: Would you share with us a story of how your mother felt about her time in Darjeeling?

Leon: She really saw herself as Indian and in her later years, the last few months when she was not very well, my brother convinced her to tell her story in a more organized way and he wrote it down. I typed it up nicely, but my brother was able to get her to tell her stories, because a lot of that generation didn't like to tell stories so directly. So we picked up things and there was a bit here and a bit there, but it was interesting to get the story in there completely. And what I didn't quite understand until then was that she was brought up, literally, in the tea garden. So she spent the day with the ladies picking the tea. Her first language was what she called Pahari, the language which the tea planters and the tea pluckers spoke.

She didn't learn English until she was living in the house. She didn't really live with her parents until she was about four. She stayed with the ladies who plucked the tea and spent her days playing in the garden. And the amusing thing that she mentioned with what she had to learn when she moved into the house was that you could only go to the toilet in a certain place, whereas in the garden, wherever you felt like was fine. That kind of illustrated to her what she missed from that freedom, her personal freedom, as it were. Living inside a more strict environment, and then going to a relatively strict English school that was, for its day, quite advanced. It was kind of the best education you could get at the time. But it was still restrictive and she continued to rebel against that.

One of the things she had to learn in school was French. For breakfast, all the girls and boys had to speak French. So she decided she wasn't having breakfast and the justification was that she wanted to play the piano, which was her other joy. I guess those are some of the more illustrative stories of her time.

And then when we visited the tea plantation in 2014, coincidentally, the manager there had two daughters. So hearing them enjoying themselves in the garden, sort of echoed something of what my mother's life would have been like. She definitely enjoyed that there. 

Boroon: Thank you for sharing these stories today. I know it's bringing back a lot of nostalgia to life here in Australia. And it's nice to be able to share this on International Tea Day. It brings out the history of your family and how they were connected back to India.

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