My mother, Olga Vallint was born in Mogulsarai in 1920. Her father Alan was a yard supervisor with East India Railway and her mother Ida (Morrison) worked in the ticket office at Howrah station. Alan was regularly moved to different depots around the Calcutta area and decided that the children’s education was suffering as a consequence, so each in turn were sent to Oak Grove school at Jharipani in the foothills of the Himalayas. Frankie the oldest was sent first to the boys school, Una next to the girls school and then Olga to the Juniors. There was 2 years difference in age between them, my mother was nearly nine at the time. Vincent her young brother wasn’t sent to Oak Grove but to St Xaviers in Calcutta.
The first week in March was when the boys boarded the OG Special train for the school. The following week it was the turn of the girls and the week after for the juniors. The train began its long journey in Howrah, stopping at various stations en route to pick up other pupils. It was a long train and each compartment had 4 berths and a small toilet and basin. There was a dining car on board where meals were cooked and brought by bearers. The journey took three days and two nights to reach Dehra Dun, the end of the line. The teachers made everyone stand in line to do a headcount and check no one was missing.
My mother continues –
Now for the second part of the journey. We boarded buses and travelled to “Halfway House“, with our luggage following in a large van. From there we travelled on “dandies” because the road was uphill and narrow (some of the senior boys rode horses). The “dandy” was a frame consisting of two poles screwed together front and back and widened in the middle to hold a seat for one person and was carried by a coolie at each end. Because the road was so narrow, a wall had been built along the steep edge. It was a bout 2 ft wide and 2 ft high, running in lengths of about 5 or 6 yards with small gaps in between to allow monsoon water to flow through. This wall continued all the way up the mountainside to the school. Our luggage was carried from the “Halfway House” by short squat men called “Bhutias” (they looked like Gurkhas) and were very strong. I have seen one of these men carry a piano on his back. He had a strap across his forehead which went all the way around the piano. Every now and again he would stop for a rest and sit on the wall. Well, my heart was in my mouth, for if he misjudged his position, the weight of the piano would have pulled him over the wall and down the steep mountainside. But of course he was experienced and had done this job many times before.
The boys school was situated on a hill with a road going down to their playing fields, tennis & badminton courts, football pitch and cricket field. Just above and facing these was the Junior school. A road from the Boys school led to the large valley. From the other side of the valley a narrow road led uphill to the Girls school. Every Sunday at 5pm, a service was held in the valley. A piano was brought down with chairs for the teachers. All three schools attended the service which was conducted by the resident Chaplin – Mr Weldon. After the service, brothers and sisters were allowed to meet for an hour, whilst the other pupils made their way back to their respective schools. Mr Weldon and his family lived in a bungalow near the boys school. His children, Barbara and Billy were day pupils. They walked in a most peculiar way. Instead of taking a stride on their heel they took it on the ball of their foot, so it looked as if they bounced!
Olga was in the Junior school for two years. There were around 150 pupils in the Junior school which was housed in a two storey building. The ground floor consisted of classrooms, dining room and kitchens whilst the first floor held the dormitories and bathrooms, boys to the left and girls to the right. Each dormitory had it’s own matron. In front of the building there was a playground for the girls with a few small plots of land for the older girls to use for gardening. My mother grew cosmos, sweet-peas and runner beans. From here was the road that led to the valley.
One day whilst everyone was out in the playground, they heard a humming sound in the far distance but quickly coming nearer. Looking up at the sky they saw a large dark cloud fast approaching the school. The teachers ran out and called everyone to come inside quickly. They watched from the windows as the cloud descended. They were astonished to see it was a huge swarm of locusts. They were green/yellow in colour and about 4 inches long. The pupils watched as some settled on nearby trees but the majority landed on the gravel of the playground area. They were moving around desperately searching for grass or plants to eat but there were none. You would have thought they would have flown off when they realised there was no food here, but they continued to scuttle around and remained for quite some time before dying off.
Olga continued –
It’s the end of November and time to go home. My first year in boarding school is over – I can’t believe it’s gone so quickly. My mind is racing with thoughts – I wonder what my mother and father look like? Will I remember them? – of course I will. This time it’s the turn of the Junior school to leave first We walked down the hillside in pairs, with a teacher at intervals to make sure we didn’t go too near the wall. We reached Halfway House where we boarded buses that took us to Dehra Dun. At the train station the teachers put 4 pupils into each compartment, slammed the doors shut and the train pulled out the station. We were going home! The train stopped at various stations where parents met their children. It took three days and two nights to reach Howrah where my father was waiting for me. Over the next two weeks he would collect Una and Frankie as well. Arriving home I found I had a new baby sister- Rita Mary. It felt strange being home – no standing in line or saying grace before meals. It took a while to get to know our parents again after being away for so long and our young brother Vincent
Whilst at home on her first leave back from Oak Grove, my mother remembered a painful incident –
My mother always wanted us to be home for lunch at 12.30. I had been with some friends that morning and was making my way back home when from nowhere a monkey jumped on me and bit me on the arm. I started screaming and some passers by chased it away. One of them took me home and my mother whisked me off to the hospital where I was given a number of painful injections in my stomach in case the monkey was rabid. I heard later that the monkey had bitten a number of people – all female!
Soon our three months “holiday” was over and it was back to school. After another year I joined Una at the Girls school. It was situated on the usual flat piece of ground like the Junior school, but it was a wee bit smaller and no wall surrounding it. Halfway down and towards the edge of the flat were two iron posts around 6ft high and 6ft apart with another bar across the top. Here hung an iron bell which was rung when playtime was over. Tethered to one of these posts from time to time was a beautiful black stallion called Satan, whose coat shone like black satin. His owner was our headmistress Miss Wortham (we called her Polly). She was a small grey haired lady, deformed with a hump and very strict. I never ever saw her ride her beautiful horse. We reckoned she must have got up at dawn to do so and she must have been quite strong to handle such a powerful beast.
A narrow road led from the flat to our playing fields. They were set out across three different levels. At the top was the volleyball court, then lower down the badminton court and finally the tennis and basketball courts. We spent many happy hours there.
On the other side of the school building was the hillside where we were allowed to play. I loved to stand on the hill and look at the beautiful view that stretched for miles. We had to be careful of snakes, for they were a danger during the rainy season. Our teacher for History and Geography was Miss Lubeck, a German, whose brother was also a teacher in the Boys school. He had a lovely little Spaniel dog. Our French teacher was Mademoiselle Matthew who was big and masculine with short grey hair. She was very forgetful, for on a number of occasions she left her false teeth (they must have been a bad fit) on her desk at the end of the lesson and went to teach her next class! Our Music teacher was Miss West who was tall, severe looking with grey hair. She took us for singing lessons. I remember her standing next to me with her head bent low, listening to me singing. She didn’t hear much for I was miming (I didn’t like singing) she walked away with a grin on her face. No doubt I would be the topic of conversation at the teacher’s dinner table tonight!
Dagma Beck, a slim blond girl, was a student music teacher. She gave me two piano lessons a week. On one occasion during a lesson, i stopped playing, so she said “Continue playing Olga”, but I was rigid with fear. She could see I was terrified and asked “What’s wrong girl?” I pointed under the piano – her pet baby squirrel was crawling up my leg!! She bent down, lifted it off, put it down her blouse and buttoned it up! My music lessons took place in the covered flat – a large hall under a corrugated roof. Just outside this was a swimming pool, which we used nearly every day. Once a year we had a sports day. In one of the events we had to sit in a wee zinc bath and paddle like mad with our hands to get it from one end of the pool to the other. I was about halfway across when my bath filled with water and I went under.
During July it never seemed to stop raining. When the sun eventually appeared we downed our books and our teachers would take us for a walk – the whole school going the same direction. There were purple violets growing on the hillside and little white ones and ferns growing from oak trees. Young birds that had fallen from their nest lay dead on the road.
The first time that we were taken on a picnic, we had to walk for quite some distance before we found a suitable place. The bearers (waiters) who were carrying the baskets containing the picnic food were glad of a rest. A table cover was spread on the grass and our meal set out on it. We were hungry and scoffed the lot. Nearby were some large boulders with monkeys sitting on top. Usually we would throw stones to scare them away and could almost swear they threw them back at us, but on this occasion we couldn’t for our teachers were with us.
Miss Adams, our Gym teacher, took the catholics to St George’s school for mass. It was a boy’s school and was run by monks. It was quite a few miles uphill, but we were used to walking everywhere. Maybe twice a year we were taken to the cinema in Mussoorie. This was much further up the mountain and well past St George’s. Mussoorie was a small town with some dress shops, a chemist, some cafes and of course the cinema. This time we saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. We all enjoyed the film and then went to a cafe for a meal. After all that excitement, we made our way down the hill all the way to the school. What a wonderful day!
We had a sports day in September or October and all three schools took part. My brother Frankie was a good all rounder, Una my older sister was fast on her feet and I was quite good over the hurdles. Brothers and sisters were allowed to meet for an hour. When the whistle blew for the end of the day we were reluctant to leave each other and return to school. It’s now November – end of term and time to go home.
On returning home Olga discovered her father Alan had been transferred once again. This time it was to Tundla, a small country town, so the journey was not as long as Howrah. They had a bungalow with a fence surrounding the grounds and was situated out in the fields, some distance from the other houses. It was quite eerie at night as the Jackals howled and the Hyenas laughed.
Olga remembered the Festive season when there was something going on every day.
The local community committee thought that if they hired an elephant and it’s mahout (handler) for a day it would give the children a lot of pleasure. We were a wee bit scared at first but once on it’s back and it began to move we loved it. There was a big dance on at the Institute and the older children were allowed to attend with their parents. At the interval we all bought our raffle tickets. There were lots of of prizes, but the last one was the most interesting – a live duck!!
A young man won it but had to run round the hall for some time to – catch it! When he finally got hold of the duck it quacked so loudly that he dropped it and away it went again. Eventually he caught up with it and this time held on tightly. He was so thirsty after the chase he got himself a whisky and some water for the duck which he poured into a saucer. It must have been as thirsty as it’s new owner for it finished it in quick time. He let the duck down and it began to slide from side to side. It couldn’t stand properly and quacked like mad. Poor duck it didn’t know it was drunk. The wicked owner decided to get his own back and put whisky in it’s saucer instead of water! We fell over laughing at the drunk duck – it was so funny! It eventually fell asleep under a chair. I hope he kept it for a pet or even a drinking companion!
On another day a picnic was arranged for the children. We were told that we were going on bullock carts. We were excited as we hadn’t done this before. But it was a most uncomfortable form of transport – dead slow and stop. We eventually arrived at a desolate piece of ground with no vegetation at all. We played rounders and cricket and ran around all day long. When we tired we gathered together waiting for the picnic baskets to be opened. Everything was delicious and we scoffed the lot. As we relaxed, the ground suddenly shook under us. It was an earthquake, the tremors only lasted for a minute or two, but long enough to make us want to get back home.
Back to Oak Grove once again. Our Head mistress died – I can’t remember going to her funeral. I’m sure she must have been somewhere close to the school she loved so dearly and where she spent many years with her beloved Satan. We never saw that beautiful black stallion again and the flat seemed so empty without him. We got a new Head Mistress – Miss Fowler. She looked like a mild type of person and not too strict, but of course we won’t know till she starts her job.
There was a black leopard roaming the hills around the schools. It must have come into the school grounds at one point for it carried off Mr Lubeck’s lovely wee Spaniel. Mr Lubeck gathered together a few other teachers and some senior pupils and set off to hunt the beast down. They managed to catch up with the leopard and shot it. The hunters returned triumphantly, carrying the big cat which was tied to poles and my brother Frankie had the honour of holding it’s tail as the whole school cheered. A while later Miss Fowler took me and Una to one side to tell us that our wee sister Rita had died of cholera – she was only five. It was a sad time.
Yet another term has come and gone. My father has been transferred once again, this time to Telkul Ghat in Howrah. We were housed in an apartment block, on the top floor. We had a balcony to the front and a small verandah to the back. Here we had a narrow table with a hole in the centre. In this hole we kept a clay goblet constantly filled with boiled water – this was our drinking water. The cook had been with us for many years and was good at his job. I remember one night at dinner he presented us with his latest creation which he called “Es Snow“. It was custard with a blob of meringue floating on top.
After having a bungalow at our last home, it was strange to be in an upstairs apartment. I remember sometimes when I couldn’t get my own way, I would threaten to jump off the balcony! My mother would shout to my father “My pet, she’s going to jump off the balcony!” and he’d say “Well, let her!” and continued to read his paper without even looking up. I have many thoughts of our time during school holidays, but back to school we went once again.
Una eventually left when she was sixteen and stayed at home. Frankie left when he was eighteen and got a good job with Dunlop, the rubber company in Bandel. He bought himself a motor bike and would come home every weekend. The year before I left there was a terrible tragedy at the school. It was the end of November and the senior girls were going home for the holidays. We were making our way down the hill heading for Halfway House. One of the girls was walking backwards waving to the boys on the hill above. Suddenly she slipped through a gap in the wall and fell straight down the precipice! The boys had seen what happened and ran for help. Mr Mahoney the sports Master was first on the scene and scrambled down the mountainside to get to her. Eventually he managed to bring her back up. She was badly injured and sadly eventually died. Her name was Beryl Brewster, a lovely red haired girl who had just finished her last year at school. We were not allowed to watch when she was brought up, as we had to get to our train on time at Dehra Dun.
Another year and my time at Oak Grove School was finished. I had spent the majority of eight years there and loved every minute of it. Most of my happiest memories are of my time there and are as clear now nearly eighty years on as they were then.
– As narrated by Olga Vallint to her son, Paul McGinlay.
A few years ago I got hooked on family research and wanted to know more about my mother’s family ( I knew almost nothing about the Vallints) and I realised that I knew nothing about my mother’s life especially in India. She never spoke about her past, so I asked her to try and remember what she could and put it all down on paper. This story is a direct result of that.
At the end of the Raj, my family came over to the UK. My grandparents Alan & Ida came to Glasgow in Scotland along with my mother, her husband Hugh McGinlay who had been in the British Army in India and after coming back to Scotland to be demobbed, returned to India and joined the Calcutta Police and my sister Heather. Una, her husband Donald Leitch (another Scotsman also in the Calcutta Police) and their children also came. They later moved to England. Frankie and his family came over a few years later and settled in England, while Vincent came to stay with his parents in Glasgow before moving to England.
This content has been reproduced from a Facebook post by Bal Krishan Tanwar on the Oak Grove School, Mussoorie Group on September 04, 2012, presenting the account of his mother’s years at OG, as shared by Paul McGinlay. In August 2014, Paul separately posted excerpts from this story in seven parts on the group.Tags: 1920s 1930s East Indian Railway Halfway House Olga Vallint Paul McGinlay