Thursday, 21 December 2017


Any Bengali starts his tour in general with three tourist spots, namely Darjeeling, Puri and Digha. The history of Darjeeling and Puri is recorded time and again by European and Indian scholars. But though Digha is an equally popular place seldom we got any record about its history.

There is one colonial structure within Digha - the Guest House of State Electricity Board. This is a two storied building with a lush green lawn that holds the key to the history of this coastal tourist spot. Its pre-independence name was Runswick House, property of one English family having title Snaith.

John Frank Snaith.
Picture courtesy : Mr. Surath Maity.

Within this green carpet a small garden is surrounds a milky white epitaph, It states:

In affectionate memory of John Franc Snaith. The First Resident of Digha
Born At Middlesbourough, England
14th August 1882 and died at Digha
On 18th December 1964.

The Colonial British Rulers throughout eighteenth century searched some tourist spots within their Indian domain for refreshment from madding crowd. These spots as well served as sanatoria against a few tropical ailments. With this notion the Himalayan terrain of Shimla and Darjeeling became popular hill resorts.

Similarly, Warren Hasting, the first Viceroy and Governor General of India found a brilliant sea spot at Beercool, near Contai (today’s Kanthi) in the eighties of eighteenth century. The blue sea having a spacious sandy sea-beach attracted Hastings. The nearby mangrove forest was paradise for hunting. As per his note – It is the Brighton of East. This Beercool is today’s Digha. One of the earliest English newspapers published from Calcutta, Hicky’s Gazette on 19th May 1780 wrote:
 “ We are informed that the following persons of figure and consequence arrived in Beercool for the benefit of their health from Calcutta. Henry Great esq, Major Camac, Dr Allen, Captain Kilparick of 31st legion……….. And we have the pleasure to assure the friends of honorable party and the public in general that they have received the most essential benefit from the salubrious air of the admirable spot, which we have no doubt will make the place a fashionable resort.”

Hastings made this beach popular during his service life in Kolkata. It is recorded in history that the entire Midnapore District was gifted to East India Company by Bengal Nawab Mir Kashim as a token of gratitude. British East India Company‘s Calcutta administration was instrumental for changing the nawabship of Bengal in favour of Mir Kashim from Mirjafar in 1760. Hastings became the administrative head of Calcutta zone since 1763. Hence he had repeated exclusive tour of the coastal area adjacent to Bengal Orissa border; may be one of these tours he had found Beercool.  In one of his letters to Mrs. Hastings he had declared (Reference- The Letters of Warren Hastings to his Wife by Sydney C Greyer):
Beercool was the sanitarium, the Brighton of East. ….. and the news paper and council’s records mentioned constantly that so-and-so gone to Beercool for his health……..It  already has advantage of beach which is free from shark and all noxious animals except crabs & there is proposal to erect convenient apartments for the reception of the nobility and the gentry and organize entertainment.

Hastings had erected his own bunglow at Beercool. But after Hastings, for the time being Beercool had not continued its famed status within the European nobility. Firstly the transportation to the place was quite tiresome due to non availability of proper roads & bridges over numerous water bodies of lower Bengal. The other problem was the repeated coastal cyclone, against which the structure erected at shore became flimsy.

In 1796 when Jorge Chapman visited the site it contained some ruins of the structure. Afterwards in 1823 when another party visited Digha, it looked like a deserted site having thick bushes, an ideal ecology for wild dogs and reptiles. Hastings' “Brighton of the East” continued in this pathetic condition for another century.

Old Runswick House
Picture courtesy : Mr. Surath Maity.

Hamilton & Company of Kolkata became an ultimate Jewelry House for all big shots of India during late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The owner of this heritage business was a typical aristocrat British – John Snaith, bachelor, sensible, romantic and keen nature lover. Many of his distinguish clients, the landlords of Bengal, business tycoons and Rajas being well aware of his travelling zeal used to invite him to some forlorn spots.


Gramophone Box

Probably one of the famous “Baro Bhuians” of Bengal, landlord of Balishahi,a client of Hamilton, elaborated the nature lover Snaith about the sea beach of Beercool near Contai. John Snaith was already familiar with the name of Beercool from the age old publications. He wanted to visit Beercool at once. John Snaith reached Contai from Belda and from there to the village Beercool on elephant in 1921. The waves of Blue Sea and golden long beach mesmerized John Snaith. The location of the sea was almost 4km away from today’s modern Digha.

Once back to Calcutta, John Snaith wanted to acquire land in Digha. His tenacity paid a dividend; Government allotted eleven and half acres of land at Digha. Mr. H.A. Cloy was appointed as an architect to construct a mansion at Digha- Runswick House. Building material were mobilized through sea route. Bricks were locally manufactured. Snaith used to visit Digha by his own two-seater plane, the hard sand of sea-beach acted as the runway.

Time was ticking, Snaith was not feeling the same urge for day to day jewelry business, he had decided to keep the business under supervision of his nephew Charles Andrew Flanigan and made Digha his dwelling place.

Within his Digha property Snaith commenced some firming by his people, put up exclusive generator set furnished the house as per his fine test. Flanigan used to bring necessary household goods and essentials during the weekend by air. He used to fly in a two-seater plane every week from Behala Flying Club. Sometimes a few  friends used to visit Snaith. Snaith was always ready with good food and fine wine. His Christmas party at Digha was quite an affair.

Charles Andrew Flanigan
Picture courtesy : Mr. Surath Maity.

At times Flanigan used to bring children from Barisha orphanage. The garden of the Ranswick house became busy with the sports, fancy dress competition and sit and drawing by those children. During his residency at Digha, Snaith was trying his level best to make the spot popular. His close friend the Raja of Narajole made a beautiful mansion along with a school at Digha. Tirelessly Snaith approached Indian Government to promote Digha as a tourist spot. The British Government at that time was bogged down to resist the Indian Independence movement. For this the promotion of a tourist spot never became a Government priority till 1947.

The persistence of Snaith had an impact on the first Chief Minister of West Bengal, Sree Bidhan Chandra Roy. Slowly development took place at Digha. The construction of the cheap canteen, Bay Cafeteria, Sarada Boarding and a Government Tourist Lodge commenced. From sixties it became a tourist spot. With time, Digha become so dear to Snaith he had almost forgotten his birth-place Middilesbrough, England. He had decided a green porch within his property where the first sunlight used to shine every day as his last resting place. On 18th December, 1964, when the sea breeze of Bay of Bengal touched the Runswick House, his owner John Snaith travelled to eternity.

Afterwards, Flanigan continued to supervise his uncle’s property, during his week-end air visits to Digha. Some of the friends used to visit the Ranswick House during Flanigan’s weekly visits. But time was changing. All white Europeans were leaving India. During seventies Flanigan also followed their chore, the ownership of Ranswick House transferred to the State Electrity Board against one lakh rupee.

In today’s Digha we have one of widest, hard plain sea-beachs of the world, a brilliant Science Museum is established at New Digha, Amaravati lake and Snake Garden, as well as a research centre of West Bengal Fisheries at Junput, another marvelous beach Mardarmoni just 12 km away. The State Government had taken lot of initiative to promote Digha as a class tourist spot.

People in Bengal find Digha every year with some new features but seldom have  visited the last resting place of John Snaith, the man whose relentless persuasion established Digha as a tourist spot. British had gone but we have a public amnesia against this gentleman.

Picture courtesy : Mr. Surath Maity.

Only one Bengali is the exception, he remembers the birthday of his former employer Late Mr. John Snaith on every 14th of August inside the WBSEDCL Guest House by lighting a candle. This gentleman is a acting caretaker of WBSEDCL Guest House Shri Surath Maity. He is the only available missing link in between Snaith's Digha and today's most popular sea beach of Bengal. Anyone who had researched on Runswick House got invaluable authentic inputs from this gentleman.

Mr. Surath Maity.
Care-taker of Ranswick House.

Mr. Maity urges wholeheartedly that the property of his former employer which is currently a VVIP's resort under the patronage of State Government further turns into a heritage property; with that wish he light the candle every twenty four hours before our Independence day. We do not know whether Government will treat this property to be classified as a heritage one or not but we are sure that on 15th August Digha beach would be immensely crowded. Can this crowd observe silence for a single minute in the memory of the modern Digha's founder. British have departed seventy years back but the memory of Jhon Snaith should not go in oblivion - we should not have a public amnesia against that remarkable soul.

Sources : 
     1. An article published in "The Stasman" on 19th October,1997.,
         under  the heading " Rediscovering Digha"
         written by Apala Barat.
     2. An article published in "The Hindustan Times" on 1st. June,2014.,
         under the heading "On the waterfront"
         written by Amitava Banerjee.
     3. Bengal District Gazetteers. Midnapore- South Asia Archive. 

Research :  Abhijnan Basu, Sudip Ghosh.

Picture Courtesy : Sudip Ghosh, Santanu Roy.