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Britain’s Best Gift to India : Samuel Smiles reminds us that until we brought the railways to India, we had little to boast about as an imperial power.
Britain’s Best Gift to India

Abridged from ‘Lives of the Engineers’ by Samuel Smiles (1812-1904).

Samuel Smiles’s biography of George and Robert Stephenson opens with a heartfelt appreciation of the social and economic progress brought by the railways. He describes how this peculiarly British invention had by the 1870s already reached most European countries and beyond, and of course he could not fail to mention the railways of India.

WHEN Edmund Burke, in 1783, arraigned the British Government for their neglect of India, he said: “England has built no bridges, made no high roads, cut no navigations, dug out no reservoirs... Were we to be driven out of India this day, nothing would remain to tell that it had been possessed, during the inglorious period of our dominion, by anything better than the ourang-outang or the tiger.”

But that reproach no longer exists. Some of the greatest bridges erected in modern times — such as those over the Sone near Patna,* and over the Jumna at Allahabad* — have been erected in connection with the Indian railways. More than 5000 miles are now at work, and they have been constructed at an expenditure of about £88,000,000 of British capital,* guaranteed by the British Government, uniting Bombay with Madras on the south, and with Calcutta on the north-east — while a great main line unites the mouths of the Hooghly in the Bay of Bengal with those of the Indus in the Arabian Sea.

* The Koilwar Bridge in Bihar, about 25 miles from Patna in north east India, completed in 1862. It was the longest bridge in India until 1900, when surpassed by the nearby Upper Sone Bridge (Nehru Setu). The Sone is known today as the River Son.

* The Old Naini Bridge at Allahabad (see picture above), some 200 miles west of Patna in north east India, where the Jumna (known today as the Yamuna) flows into the Ganges.

* £88m in 1870 equates to about £8bn today in real terms. However, there are other ways of measuring the equivalence, e.g. in terms of opportunity cost or labour value, which would mean that to do the same again today would cost far more than this. See Measuring Worth.

Abridged from ‘Lives of the Engineers’ by Samuel Smiles (1812-1904).

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Picture: © Rajesh Tripathi, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0. View original
The massive pillars of the Old Naini Bridge across the Yamuna (Jumna) River at Allahabad, built by the British in 1865. The bridge, a double-decker with trains on top and road traffic below, lies just above the confluence with the Ganges, and is 3,300ft long. It is referred to as the ‘old’ bridge because of the magnificent new bridge built in 2004.

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