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A Hundred Years Ago

One of the world's great cities, Mumbai has been the hub of the country's economic and industrial activity. It has other istinctions too. The Indian National Congress, which spearheaded the country's struggle for freedom, was founded in Mumbai. The city has been justly famous for being the most receptive of any in the country to new ideas and trends, particularly to those from the West. The forward-looking and disciplined ways of its people evoke the admiration of everyone from the other parts of the country who is on his first visit to the city.

And yet, about three hundred years ago, Mumbai was no more than an obscure bunch of tiny islands. They were not even proper islands. Only at high tide they were cut off from one another. Sometime at the beginning of the eighteenth century these 'islands' were joined together to form what was to grow into the First City of India. The growth, in area and population, as well as in material prosperity, has been unabated till this day.

It was in the period from 1820 to 1857 that Mumbai took its first strides towards becoming a 'modern' city. The period witnessed many significant changes. The most important of them, probably, was the use of steamships for the voyage to England, and the opening of the 'Overland Route', Mumbai built its first steamer in about 1830. The ship was propelled by the paddle wheels on its sides. You went by steamer to Suez, then travelled by land to the Mediterranean Sea for taking a boat to England. This was the 'Overland Route'. Till then you had to take a voyage round the Cape of Good Hope, and it occupied no less than five months. Now it was a matter of a mere month and a half. With England thus brought closer, the trade between India and England began to expand. Mumbai started wearing a new complexion. The entire water-front from Colaba to Mazgaon was soon lined by wharfs, docks and godowns.


Early nineteenth century Mumbai could not have been proud of its roads. Even the so-called main roads were very narrow. Horse-owners would often use them for stabling the animals. The government woke up to the situation in 1806, and issued orders for the widening of the Parel Road and the Breach Candy Road to sixty feet. The Sheikh Memon Road and the Dongri Road were widened to forty feet. Twenty feet was laid down as the minimum width for the cross-streets. The city, as we know, has not yet done with the widening of its roads.

The city underwent remarkable transformation during the sixties of the last century. Wide modern-looking roads were planned. By 1868 the roads from the Elphinstone Circle to Bazargate, and from there to Foras Road, had been completed. Apollo Street was widened. Bellasis Road, and the road linking Babula Tank with Elphinstone Bridge, were laid during these years.

The population of certain parts of the city, like Dongri, Mazgaon, Girgaon, Byculla and Mahalaxmi, was increasing which necessiated new roads and the widening of the existing ones; the Girgaon Road, for example, was widened; and so were the roads in the Kamathipura area. Charni Road was extended to Falkland Road. Worli and Parel were linked by a road, named Fergusson Road. The Jacob Circle was laid; so was Sankhli Street. All these were macadamised roads. Tarred roads had not yet been heard of, The first steam-roller appeared on the City roads in 1869.

The city had its first gas-light in 1833. The credit for it goes to Shri Ardeshir Cursetjee, who had installed a plant for producing coal-gas at his residence. The Governor of Bombay, we are told, once visited Shri Cursetjee's place when it was lighted up with gas lamps.

It was in the same year that street lighting was proposed; but it was not before the proposal was discussed threadbare for ten years that Mumbai's streets had lights for the first time (1843). These were kerosene lamps. The first gas lamps appeared on Mumbai's roads in October 1865. Bhendi Bazar, Esplanade Road (now Mahatma Gandhi Road) and Churchgate Street were the roads chosen for the honour. It was quite an excitement for the Mumbaite. Crowds of people would follow the lamp-lighter; they would watch him do it with almost a sense of wonder. The idea of gas-lighting caught on so well that several well-to-do citizens donated large ornamental gas-lamps for being put up at some important spots in the city.

It was at about this time that some of the fine public buildings which give the city its imposing look came up, particularly in the Fort area. The road from Museum to Flora Fountain was lined on either side by what were for those days huge buildings. A dignified edifice was put up to house the Secretariat.

The small University area next to it distinguished itself architecturally with the Convocation Hall, and the Rajabai Tower over-topping the Library. The solemn gothic pile of the High Court next to it held you with its stately dimensions. These structures appeared around the year 1870. Soon the stretch between Flora Fountain and the Crawford Market had equally impressive buildings. Mumbai was by then an attractive city, not merely a prosperous one.

The Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company (G.I.P., for short) was established in 1849. Its first train, the first in the country, ran from Mumbai to Thane on 16th April 1853. In 1865, the railway went over the Borghat. By 1870 Calcutta and Madras had been linked with Mumbai by rail. The Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway was started in 1855.Getting off to a start with the opening of a cotton mill in 1850, the textile industry soon made phenomenal progress.


About 1670, the population of Mumbai was around ten thousand. It has been growing since then. When a regular census was taken in 1864, the figure was somewhere near eight lakhs. Now it seems to have crossed a crore ! With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1870, England was only fifteen days away from Mumbai, by sea. This had much to do with the growth of Mumbai.It gave the Mumbai port an important place on the map of the world's sea routes. Mumbai started prospering, and it has not looked back since.


At the beginning of the nineteentheyance in the city had been what were called the shigram (horse-drawn), the rekla (bullock-drawn) and the palkhi (palanquin). Now the gharry, a horse-drawn vehicle, joined them. A modified version of it, called the 'Victoria', was put on the roads in 1882. There were some twenty-five or thirty stands for vehicles in the city - as at Colaba, Apollo bunder, the Municipal Offices, the Portuguese Church at Girgaum, and Lalbaug. The fares were modest : for a mile's road, the horse-drawn vehicle charged one four annas (twenty-five paise, to us) and the 'rekla' three annas. Of course the wedding season or a dislocation caused by heavy rains was then, as now, something of a 'heaven-sent' opportunity for pitching their fares higher. Bullock carts carried all the heavier goods. There were no hand-carts yet. Tram-cars started plying towards the end of the nineteenth century. However, attempts seem to have been made earlier to provide some kind of a stage-transport system. An 1819 issue of the Bombay Courier carried an announcement by a certain firm, named 'Architect and Coach-maker'. It said that if the scheme received adequate support the firm would start a horse-coach service from the Fort to Sion, stopping at suitable places. The residents of the Byculla-Parel area were particularly assured that such a service would be a great convenience to them.

The first motor car appeared on Mumbai roads in 1901. Today the city has over six lakhs vehicles, which include motor cars, buses, trucks, scooters, bicycles Mumbai's roads are well nigh groaning under this wheeled traffic, but the very magnitude of the traffic is an index of the city's stupendous growth. Another year that stands out in the history of the city is 1872 : the year of the establishment of the Municipal Corporation for the city. The citizens were given local self-government; the rate payers could elect their representatives on the body.

With the city growing at such a pace, a well-organised road transport system became a necessity. Soon the Bombay Tramway Company Ltd. Was set up.

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