I have traveled to the Canning town several times when my dad used to go there as a part of his NGO activities. All I knew back then was the sweet meat “Ladycany” (Lady Canning) was named after the wife of the first Viceroy of India, Charles Canning.
It was a tradition to name different places after the names of lords, governors, viceroys, etc. So, it was obvious that the town of Canning was named after him. What was strange was that this place was at the fag end of mainland Bengal after which there was the Sunderbans which back then were mostly inhabitable marshy land.
It was right after the rebellion of 1857 and things moved on from the hands of East India Company to the British Crown and this saw a massive economic expansion of Calcutta. With expansion comes trade and back then Hooghly River and the port of Calcutta were the center point of all activities.
Silting of Hooghly River
The main issue with the Hooghly River was massive silting and this caused the river bed to rise making it difficult for larger ships to enter from the bay and come to Calcutta (Kolkata). This issue was not prevalent when the river was frequented by smaller ships carrying lighter loads but with time and increase in trade, the river traffic was getting difficult to manage.
Also, in some points, the river width is very narrow thus making river traffic in both directions a tricky affair avoiding the low river beds.
Back then there were no dredging activities possible thus the colonial rulers feared that someday the river will get chocked and river trade will come to a standstill. To prepare for this calamity there were talks of having an alternate port for Bengal which would not be on the Hooghly River but should have easy access to the Bay of Bengal.
The next best option was to build a port at Canning which was part of the South 24 Parganas and part of the Sunderbans. This place was situated on the banks of the Mutlah (Matla) River. Canning is around 50 Kilometres from Calcutta making it the best alternate option when it comes to port.
If one navigates south on Matla River then they would meet up with Bidyadhari River which was a much broader waterway with easy and quick access to the Bay.
Since 1853 this was being looked into however things came to a stop during the rebellion of 1857 and again resumed under the direct rule of the British crown.
History of Port Canning
In 1861 an application was given to the Government of Bengal by a group of businessmen to form a Municipal Commission in Canning. This was approved in 1862 and a committee was appointed. By 1863 the government transferred all its properties to the Municipal Commissioner. This included lands in and around Canning as well as parts of the Sunderbans.
The reason was that there were plans for port offices, railway stations, office buildings, government buildings, etc. To build all these resources a loan was requested from the government for the sum of 20 Lack Rupees. The government loaned 4.5 Lakh Rupees and requested the commission to get the rest of the funds from investors willing to invest in this project.
In 1864 the first offer came from Mr. Ferdinand Schiller (Messer Borradaile Schiller and Company) the Vice-Chairman of the Port Canning Municipality who was ready to invest 2.5 Lakh Rupees but with certain conditions. This would include granting newly formed Port Canning Land Investment Reclamation and Dock Company to build ports, tramways, and other administrative buildings in and around Port Canning. It was obvious that this company was formed by Mr. Schiller himself and many terms and conditions were added to enable the newly formed company to have revenue access from the port through taxes and operational rights.
After starting its basic operations for building ports and other auxiliary buildings it became clear that the newly formed company still did not have enough money which it had projected initially thus, they again went back to the government for further loans.
A sum of Rs. 4.5 Lakh was provided in 1866 and work began for the construction of Port Canning.
Mr. Ferdinand Schiller had however other interests and saw the opportunity in reclaiming a major portion of the Sunderbans for cultivation. He proposed the sale of nearly 10 lakh acres of land at a very cheap rate. His ultimate plan was to develop this section of Bengal in parallel to Calcutta having its port, tramway, railways, and cultivated lands. He also had suggested that Sunderbans be made a separate district with Canning being its Sadar (headquarter) Station.
He was so much into the development of Canning that he even named his son born in 1864 as Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller.
Cyclone of 1867
A massive cyclone had formed over the Bay of Bengal and it swept through Southern Bengal in the early hours of the 2nd of November. With no prior warning or predictions, this was a massive disaster that caused over a thousand deaths in Calcutta alone.
Canning being much near towards the bay suffered a much serious blow with severe damages and being completely cut off from Calcutta with no supply of fresh drinking water or food. A lot of infrastructures around Port Canning were destroyed.
Abandonment of Port Canning
The concept of having a parallel port to compete with Calcutta ports was from the very beginning a disastrous idea. The whole concept of having another port in Canning was solely based on the fact the Hooghly River was silting up which might clog the waterway completely. This in reality never happened and on the other hand, it was realized that port Canning being very near to the bay was prone to regular cyclones or heavy winds.
Another factor was that even with a mere 50 Kilometre distance from Calcutta the goods from Port Canning had to be brought to Calcutta via the railways. Calcutta and South-Eastern Railways were assigned to the expansion of the railway line from Calcutta to Canning and had invested nearly 5,00,000 Pounds for which the government was the guarantor paying an interest of 5% annually. With very limited goods flowing in from Port Canning it was not viable for the railways to continue operations and it was almost impossible for them to recover the amount which they had invested in building up the infrastructure initially.
The flow of vessels to Port Canning was extremely low and instead of growing every year was decreasing.
1863 to 1864 – 11 vessels
1864 to 1865 – 14 vessels
1865 to 1866 – 27 vessels
1866 to 1867 – 20 vessels
1867 to 1868 – 9 vessels
Thus, business-wise it did not make any impact as this place was solely built on the assumption that either Hooghly River will become impossible for navigation due to silting or the ports at Calcutta will be unable to handle additional business. The river remained navigable and even after the booming business in Calcutta, the ports of Calcutta could easily handle the additional business.
The government had already bled a lot of money in terms of the loan and it was not ready to loan further amounts for the development of Port Canning.
25th July 1868 the government of Bengal issues a letter to cease operations at Port Canning and thus began a 12-month notice for this closure.
However, in some reports around 1884 of the Chamber of Commerce, we can see that there was still some deliberation of having ports in Budge Budge or at Port Canning. But by then survey reports by Capt. Petley suggests that the town was a ghost town with only three houses, the railway station, the Cutchery (Court House), and rice mills remaining. Rest all were in ruins.
Port Canning Now
All that remains is just one old two-storied building in an extremely dilapidated condition. The upper floor of the building cannot be accessed and on the ground floor, all rooms are locked. The condition of the building is such precarious that any day it might crumble.
The building had a total of 22 rooms with a large veranda in the front. Right at the back of the building, there is a river channel connection to the Mutlah River.
As per a newspaper report, this lone surviving building was sold to Mr. J M Ghosh by J.M. Datiyala – R.C. Cooper. They had got this property from the Port Canning Land Investment, Reclamation, and Dock Co Ltd.
Apart from this building the Ghosh family also had another similar old building in the locality but as per locals, the building was demolished by the family, and the bricks were sold to meet expenses. This very well could have been the rest of the building mentioned by Capt. Petley in his survey report.
With limited or no maintenance slowly, this building completely lost its charm and is now destined to be wiped off from the face of the earth.
West Bengal Heritage Commission took over the building and planning to restore this building to its formal glory.
Lord Canning and Canning House
The reason why I had visited this place is to assert a direct connection between the last standing building of that era and Lord Canning himself.
Now here lies the main confusion if the building is Canning’s House of Canning House. I have searched through all archive’s and there are no direct references to Lord Canning every staying in this very building.
Moreover in 1862 Lord Canning had left India after his tenure and died on the 17th of June 1862 thus could not logically be present when the Canning Port was being built.
People by word of mouth have misinterpreted Canning House as the house where once Lord Canning had stayed. It was simply a building that was built when Port Canning was being developed as an alternate port.
Also as mentioned above the survey report from Capt. Petley only three residential houses were remaining and the rest were all in ruins. So this one last remaining building could have been either one of them.
Location of Canning
How to visit Canning
You can reach Canning easily by taking the local suburban train from Sealdah (South). There are several direct trains to Canning throughout the day. You can also reach Canning by availing bus services from Esplanade terminus.
With a distance of 50 Kilometres, this place is also ideal for a short drive on a bike or car. Private vehicles can be parked right next to Canning House next to the main road.
West Bengal Heritage Commission
Times of India
The Calcutta Review – Volume 47
The Bombay Gazette (Government of Maharashtra Archive)
Bengal Under The Lieutenant Governors Vol 1 by S Buckland
A Statistical Account of Bengal by William Wilson Hunter, Herbert Hope Risley & Hermann Michael Kisch
The Calcutta Port Trust by Thacker Spink & Co.
Constable’s hand atlas of India by John George Bartholomew (Boston Public Library)
I had visited this place before the pandemic lockdown and any travel now is only to be done keeping a note of the current situation and necessary precautions.