When Suraj ud Daula captured Fort William in 1756 the Records of Hooghly and Calcutta, including copies from the subordinate factories of Balasore, Kasimbazar, Decca, Malda and Patna were burnt, and between 1756 and 1770 there are only occasional documents supplied by the Home Government in the Calcutta Record office. Fortunately for those interested in the History of the English in Bengal the Directors of the Honourable East India Company were suspicious of their Agents abroad and in order to keep in close touch with their proceedings insisted on having copies of all their transactions. Had these copies, which are at the India office, been in Calcutta, it is probable that they would have been printed years ago, but as comparatively few people are prepared to spend several months of their leave searching them, the annals of the English in Bengal, except for short periods, have never been published, and the object of this book in to supply that want as far as the River Hooghly is concerned.

Owing to my work which does nit allow one much leisure especially as Branch Pilot, I have had to end this History at about 1823. That year was chosen because, as the following extract from the Calcutta Gazette shows, it marks a new era in the history of the River.

August 14th 1823. “The steam vessel “Diana” may now be daily seen in active operation on the Hughly and groups of wondering Natives crowd both banks of the River to witness its surprising manouvres.”

I am pleased to have this opportunity of thanking those officers of the Government of Bengal who lent me books and Records. Officers of the India Office for their courteous assistance during the time I worked there. My wife and W. D. J. Hughes Esq., Master Pilot who helped me to search the records at the India Office and above all, A. J. Cassels, Esq., C.I. E., whose encouragement and help for many years is responsible for what I have achieved.

Captain Brice has generously given me most of the credit for this History but the fact remains that if it had not been for his ability and enthusiasm and the interest taken in it by Captain W. H. coombs, C. B. E.., R. N. R., it would not have been published, and I am grateful to them both for saving my part of the work from being forgotton.

G. T.. Labey.

St. Clements Farm,




The History of both the Bengal Pilot Service and the Navigation of the Hooghly River has never been published, yet it forms a most important link in the study of this Country’s maritime history, and also that of India.

This book is intended to fill in the gap, for it shows amongst other things, that in the development of British of British India, sea power was the basis on which the whole structure was founded.

Bengal’s enormous net-work of rivers radiating from the Ganges was natural area for the exercise of such power, and the Pilot Service assumed vital importance.

This History has been compiled over forty years for it began as far back as 1922 when Captain Labey spent the whole of one ‘home leave’ at the India Office Library studying all the books and searching the relevant records.

On his return to duty in Calcutta he continued his research in all the available records there and slowly and painstakingly built up his history which he eventually completed up to the year 1823, for reasons explained in his preface.

Captain Labey did not have his book published for, as he said in a letter to me recently “Having completed the book he had achieved what he set out to do, which was to record the early history of the Service, and he was no longer interested except to refer to it from time to time.”

When Captain Labey retired in 1944 he left his note books with W. D. J. Hughes, Esq., then a Master Pilot who intended to write another version and bright it up to date, but retiring prematurely in 1954 he came home to obtain his Master certificate and took up other employment, and was unable to finish it.

I was always interested in such a project and was pleased when early in 1960 J. H. G. Colquhoun, Esq., Branch Pilot (Retired) contacted me after a meeting he had with Captain W. H. Coombs, C. B. E., R. N. R., and Captain G. G. Franklin, Esq., Branch Pilot (Retired) with the request that I would write the History of the Service, as they felt there was an urgent need for it; to assist me in the task he gave me all Captain Labey’s note books.

Other people’s notes are not always easy to understand, so I decided to read as many books as possible from which the notes had been taken to obtain first hand knowledge. AS it would be expensive to stay in London for a long period to study the sources of reference, I contacted the Librarian of the Gloucestershire County Library, Miss E. M. T. Marwick, M. A., F. L. A., who, to my amazement and thanks, was able to produce a large proportion of the books required. They arrived from the Central Library, in London, India Office Library, Bristol University, and from Country and City Libraries all over Southern England. Never heave I met a more efficient service and I am very grateful to them all.

It took me many months taking notes, and adding here and there what I hope are other interesting incidents to Captain Labey’s version, then when all was ready to begin the task of writing, I wrote to Captain Labey explaining what I wished to do and asking his permission to proceed for, after all, he obviously exercised certain prerogative as all my work was based on his careful research.

His reply was typical of his kind and generous nature, for not only did he wish me luck in the venture but actually sent me the bound typescript of his History, with permission to copy from it. He also sent later four Photostat copies of original charts of the River, two of 1690, the others 1720 and 1785.

The result of course, is that this book is based entirely on his, large parts of it being taken verbatim; all have done is to make a few alterations, missing parts out and adding others, write the introductions both Physical and bring it all up to date.

This history is therefore the result of Captain Labey’s industry so all the credit for it must go to him. Posterity owes him a debt of gratitude for recording a part of our nautical heritage that would otherwise have faded into oblivion.

I also wrote to Captain W. D. J. Hughes, Branch Pilot (Retired) to see if he could help with information after 1823. He very generously sent me his work as far as it went, with permission to use it us required; it has been a great help; he also sent with it several excellent photographs for which I am most grateful.

I also wish to thank C. W. H. Ansell, Esq., O. B. E., Branch Pilot, (Retired) for the loan of the official report of the great cyclone of October 16th and 27th, 1942, made by R> P. Ross, Esq., Branch Pilot, (Deceased) and also Peter Collinson, Esq., Branch Pilot (Retired) for information concerning the year after I had left Calcutta which brings the History full cycle from all British English Pilot.

Finally there would have been no hope of publication had it not been for Captain W. H. Coombs, C. B. E.., R. N. R., who needs no introduction to the Seafarers of this land, to whose welfare he has devoted his life. It may not be known to all, that at an early stage in his very distinguished career, he was, for awhile in the “Hooghly River Survey Service”, and has always retained his love for the River. His encouragement and offer of help to see the book published, has made this possible and a great debt is also therefore due to him which I humble acknowledge.

Further I wish to thank Colonel T. M. Cag, C. B. E., one time Deputy River Surveyor, Calcutta, for his kindness and generosity in allowing me to quote from his Report on the Hooghly River and its Headwaters, used in Chapter 12. He is a recognized authority on the rivers of Eastern India. Then I wish to thank Mr. D. K. Deshmukh, Branch Pilot, Hooghly Pilot Service, who has helped me considerably in supplying information which could only be obtained in India, also my thanks are due to Commander C. J. Mohan, I. N. (Retd.) Deputy Conservator, Calcutta Port Commissioner’s for his help in information concerning the Commissioner’s Marine Services, also to Mr. M. J. Pearce, of the India Office Records, Commonwealth Relations Office, who kindly supplied me with information concerning the service records of Branch Pilots from 1800. My grateful thanks are also due to my step-daughter, Sarah Jefferson, who while home on holiday from Montreal, typed a considerable amount of the book, which helped to speed up its completion, as my typing with two fingers is very slow. Then too, there is Mr. Crosland of the Calcutta “Statesman” who has given me invaluable assistance directly and also put a room at the disposal of Mr. D. K. Deshmukh, in “Statesman House while looked old newspaper records for me.

Last but by no means least, I wish to thank my wife Eileen for the very many months she has put up with the disorder I created and my temperamental moods, with a calmness that surprised me.

It can truly be said in the words of Sir Henry Wotton

“I am but a gatherer and

disposer of other men’s stuff.”

R. K. H. Brice.

Framilode House,





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