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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Life in the Colaba barracks, Bombay?


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My grandmother lived with her parents and five siblings in the married men's quarters at Colaba, near Malabar Hill. Her father was an x-ray technician in the RAMC. Can anyone point me towards any accounts of what life was like for the wives and children of lower-ranks soldiers living in Bombay c. 1918? Thank you.

Edited by HarryTheHat
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There were definite DISadvantages in being posted to India which included

* the voyage there on a troopship which was not pleasant unless you were an officer, as you were crammed in like sardines in very hot conditions with people vomiting due to seasickness

* the heat in India, and the insects which caused distress

* the medical conditions due to the tropical climate and the insects

* the sanitation which sounds awful  considering the conditions nowadays, but there were servants to deal with this.


The big advantage was that all British soldiers could afford servants, so that life was much easier than in the UK because the servants did all the disagreeable work.  So conditions were much easier for a wife and mother because she had so much help available.  

By 1918 a married couple with children probably would have been allocated reasonable married quarters, so may have been much better off than in the UK. (Conditions in the mid 1800s sound much worse.)


Accounts I have read by children indicate that they considered they had almost a fairy tale childhood growing up in India.  The recreational activities available to the wife of a lower ranked soldier may have been very limited, so I don't know from this aspect whether she would have been worse off, or about the same as the UK


The Fibiwiki page British Army, section External links 



The Army Children Archive (TACA) contains information about children and wives, with themes such as Accommodation and On the MoveHistory Matters (scroll down) gives details of the enlistment of an orphan boy age five,the son of a soldier, as a drummer in 1786. There are references to India in a number of the themes. Accommodation Album: India


The Fibiwik page  Life in India/Marriage and children


includes some accounts by children born in the 1920s and 30s, but probably not so different to the situation c 1918


The wives and children were often sent to a hill cantonment to escape the heat of summer. See one of the comments in this article about Khanspur in th Murree Hills, now in Pakistan

"I think that this is a wonderfully heartfelt review of Khanspur, a place in which I spent some time in my youth. At that time i.e. 1934/1936 it was a hill station for the British Army and the families would stay here whilst their men were serving on the plains in places such as Risalpur, Nowshera and Rawalpindi.
I smell pine trees these days and the memory of khanspur comes flooding back to me, a memory that is evocative of extreme, youthful pleasure pursuits. Today I have relived some memories of 70 years ago, of happy times that cannot be recaptured except by visiting such a place as Khanspur and I thank you for your review.
Leslie Nicholass."





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A significant chunk of Spike Milligan's semi-autobiographical book "It ends with magic" details travelling out as a family aboard a troopship with his fathers unit and then their experiences of living in other ranks married quarters. While this was pre-war, I would expect things hadn't changed that much. Presumably the family didn't go out until after the end of hostilities - German and Austrian submarines were still active in the Mediterranean until the end of the war. I would also think it likely that families would only go out with Regular Army units, not the Garrison Battalions of wartime recruits and conscripts sent out to replace Regular Army Army units and free them up for deployment to the Theatres of War. Therefore probably less not more family accomodation was required during the war years, making what was available the better quality stuff - although that is speculation on my part.


Hope that helps,


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Maureene and Peter, bless you both. You've certainly helped build a picture of life back then.


Even though she was married to a corporal, my great grandmother certainly had an ayah, who the children loved dearly. She used to sing them lullabies in Hindi and my grandmother said she and the other "baba-wallahs" used to fashion bangles out of tin lids to copy those Ayah wore.


They did go somewhere outside Bombay to escape the heat. Nanny used to talk about Poona. Might that have been it?


It does all sound idyllic, but not always. Nanny once had a brute of a teacher who caned her so hard that she couldn't open her hand; the story goes that her father jobbed him so hard that he fell down a ditch. She also recalled seeing trains arriving full of wounded soldiers (perhaps from the Mesopotamian campaign?). They were bound for the hospital in Bombay where my great-grandfather worked as a 


Thanks again. You've given me a lot to go on with.

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Poona was actually the site of a British and Indian Army camp. After nearly a third of the book describing the journey out to India, the arrival at Bombay and the 4 hour train journey to Poona, Spike Milligan goes on to describe the arrival at the camp and the accomodation, which may be of some interest to you. (Pages 78-79)


Poona was built on a plain, in fact it couldn't have been plainer, there were no tall buildings, only bungalows. As they drove along they passed herdsmen driving skinny cows along the side of the road...Here and there were dotted around Tamarind and Bhorum trees. A wooden board informed them, 'THIS IS THE POONA CANTONMENT HQ SOUTHERN COMMAND INDIA.'


Within ten minutes the tonga turned into a narrow causeway off Climo Road; in front ran a terrace of single-storey buildings with red terracotta-tiled roofs - this was Old Sapper Lines. On one gate was the figure 5. (my boyhood home). Standing at the gate was a smiling native wearing Punjabi-style pantaloons, a shirt hanging outside his trousers and a little felt pillbox hat. This was Thumby. With signs, broken English and even more broken Hindustani, they were given to understand he was their 'bearer'. He went with the accomodation. This consisted of a front garden, about thirty feet long by twenty feet wide. Down the middle was a gravel path; then running parrallel to the property was a bamboo partition, behind which was a gravel covered rectangular area jutting out fifteen feet from the face of the house.


The front of the house had a half wall up to three and a half feet high. From there to the roof was a wooden trellis painted a chocolate brown, two half trellis doors opened on to the verandah, which was a step up from the gravelled forecourt, and was flagged with stones much the same shape as London paving stones. The verandah ran left and right, on each side was a door leading left to a reception room and right to a bedroom; off these two rooms were a further two, again a step down, the left one was the dining room, the right another bedroom. Off the latter was another step down to a small bathroom. This had but one cold water tap, on the far wall, to the left was an iron wash-stand, to the right a wooden commode.


At the rear of the house was another gravel-covered area; in one corner was a building on five round wooden pillars witha corrugated tin sloping roof. This, Thumby told them, was where he did the washing up. Directly behind was a sub-divided godown, one half was a workshop, the other was a storage area and another wooden commode. The whole place was furnished with WD furniture, very spartan but enough for comfort, there was no gas or electricity, all the lights were oil lamps, the ceilings were made of some kind of canvas stapled to wooden beams above.


Florence checked the accomodation. There were two iron frame beds in the hall, and two further beds in their separate bedrooms. All the walls were whitewashed with 'chinam'; there was one window from the centre bedroom tp the hall, this had a beaded glass curtain with green and blue glass beads. In the back bedroom was a tallboy, and a mahogany marble-topped dressing table with a swivel mirror on barley-twist supports. One one wall were shelves with bed-linen and in the corner a round laundry basket. In the central bedroom was a wardrobe and another tallboy. Against the wall was a desk and a wicker-seat chair. The dining room had a rectangular, round-cornered table to seat six to eight people. Against the wall was a mahogany sideboard with plates standing upright in a groove. There was a complete Army-issue dining service in plain white, along with serving dishes and a drawer of very plain bone-handled cutlery die-stamped 'Rogersons of Sheffield, Cutlers to QV'.


All in all there was everything one needed but nothing extra. Florence said she might have to put up some curtains here and there. The only floor covering was an Oriental carpet in the lounge and a few dhurries by the beds. In the dining room there were two pottery chatties, these were for drinking water.


What about cooking? Well behind the godown was another godown - this was divided in two. One was a cookhouse, the other was accomodation for Mungerlabhai, an old Hindu woman who was to cook for the Sparrows. Where she came from no one knows, but on Sparrows' agenda she was listed as a cook and the Sparrows were to pay her ten rupees a month, while Thumby got eight.


Hope that helps,


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A recent book which, in part, gives a splendid outline of life for other ranks in India during the Great War is Peter Stanley's Terriers in India. There's not a massive amount about families (Territorial postings being unaccompanied), but as a flavour of cantonment life it is extremely good.

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Another work you may consider: "Tommy Atkins' Children" by Col. NT St John Williams (HMSO London 1971).  It traces the history of the Army's efforts in educating the children of serving soldiers.   This is mainly about the children of NCOs and men as officers' children tended to be educated privately in the UK.



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