Railway Food & More that made Cliff Richard

It is true to say that without Indian Railways and the luxury trains and railway accommodations, there would be no Cliff Richard!

The Indian Railway was even criticized for serving all vegetarian meals as a mark of respect to Gandhi Ji on his birth anniversary.  Unfortunately but it’s a fact that the meals served in Indian trains are always a matter of debate.

In the days of the British Raj, the dining cars were an essential part of the experience as they served some very fancy meals, all served on clean and crisp table linen, by well dressed and trained persons. But the only issue was that Indians were forbidden to travel in trains.

In independent India, Lal Bahadur Shastri wished to abolish such discrimination and rather started the Annapoorna dining car for the underprivileged passengers, but the quality of food was not as good as earlier and Shastri Ji was ridiculed for this.

It was later the initiative of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the then Railway Minister, who ushered the idea of serving tea in small claypots (called ‘kulhard’) to showcase the Indian culture.

Later Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu tried to make the food served on railways a bit more impressive. But at large food on trains, has not been as desired.

Annual report of the Railways in 1935 stated that the tourist trains are literally homes on wheels as they have  every desirable comfort, be it the bed rooms, a reading room, kitchens, and lavatories.

The railways had exclusive crockery, cutlery, glassware and of course cooking pots and pans. Many such memoirs of the Raj are also stated by Maharani Gayatri Devi.

On the trains which did not have the facility of a dining car, the passengers travelling by first class had to order their food through telegraph, which was read at the next station, by the time the train reached the station, the staff kept the tiffin boxes ready to deliver and serve the serve the passengers in the railway crockery.  The meals consisted of lentils and rice and some novelty curries along with pickles and chutneys and drinks. All the railway crockery and cutlery had a stamp of Kellner.

There were many caterers who serviced the Railways, Spencer’s served the Madras and Southern Railways, Kellner’s served the East India Railway and Brandon’s served the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, Bombay, Baroda and Central India while the Bengal Nagpur Railway did their own catering.

Kellner does flash some memories now and then, in a short story by Satyajit Ray- ‘First Class Compartment’ which recollects about Kellner’s chicken curry rice, baffling some childhood memories.

G.F. Kellner & Co., started as a partnership between George Ferdinand Kellner and Jonardun Day, an Indian Businessman. Kellner was a German, born in Bohemia, but most of his life was spent in Calcutta, running his food provisions company, which later grew into a railway caterer. Kellner & Co. Started off initially as a wine merchant, agents and the proprietors of Railway Refreshment Rooms in 1855. Before he retired and handed his business to his son George Kellner and A.J. Bridge. Kellner also ran restaurant cars for the East India, Delhi-Ambala-Kalka and the Kalka-Shimla railways.

Along with the railways and the restaurant cars, the Dak Bungalows in railway colonies and at far off locations helped in faming Kellner as caterers.

In Kipling’s tales too, there is a mention of Dak Bungalows where he halted whilst visiting some railway colonies. Especially there is is a mention of a railway colony of Jamalpur.

The steps towards having a Dak Bungalow in a railway colony along with Kellner’s catering services par excellence would be a blessing for all travelers visiting Kharagpur.

Before independence mail trains halted for seven minutes at major stations after every one and a half hours. The bearers would bring tea and refreshments and also take order for lunch. The most common items in railway cuisine were mutton curry, cold meats, chicken cutlets and fish & chips.

Sir Cliff Richard, the famed British pop singer, was born as Harry Rodger Webb in Lucknow in 1940. Many know of his Indian connection but not many are aware of the railway connections. Cliff Richard’s father, Rodger Oscar Webb was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1904. The family stayed in Burma until 1914 and then shifted to railway colonies of Allahabad (now Prayagraj), Howrah and Lucknow. After a brief return to Burma and working in a chocolate factory, Rodger joined the services of G.F. Kellner & Co. in Calcutta in around the year 1920. Initially he worked as a steward on the restaurant cars of trains hauling between Calcutta and Dehradun. In one such journey, he met his future wife Dorothy Marie Dazely.

Webb was managing a railway restaurant in Dehradun when Cliff Richard was born in Lucknow and later baptized in St Thomas Church in Dehradun. Soon Webb was promoted, not only from a husband to a father but also to become a manager at Kellner & Co. It was during this tenure that he introduced jazz music on the railways.

The family lived for a couple of years on Dobson Road, today better known as Maulana Abdul Kalam road near Howrah. Cliff in the year 1945 became a chorister at the St. Thomas School.

If there were no been luxury train travel with G.F. Kellner’s & Co., no railway colonies or Webb as a part of the Indian Railways, then where would have been no Cliff Richard – Do we thank the British for the Railways or do we thank the Railways for the legend ?