As a student of past studies, I have read, researched and written both for academic journals and popular mediums on many subjects and timelines. So are the others who deal with past. But in recent time what have intrigued me are ideas from recent past, with which many of us still can relate. One such idea is the railway.
Recently after watching a BBC tri-series ‘Locomotion: Den Snow’s History of Railways’, I realized how it is difficult to deny that Railway is synonym with modern world history. From its beginning as a primitive system of track-ways for coal carts in early 18th century till the dusk of the 20th century and even in the technology driven 21st century, railway has played the shaping of most of modern humankind’s destiny than any other commuting system.
Scores of historians have talked in length on development of railways, revenue generation, and communication linkages to new towns, technology and so on. But what fascinated me are the supplementary ideas that evolved through the railway both in England and India.
One of these ideas were Wheeler, a chain of book stalls that ruled the Indian railway stations for about one and quarter centuries until its monopoly was lost in the beginning of the millennium by then Union Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav who broke it apart with the words: ‘Angrez chale gaye…wheeler reh gaye’.
The genesis of the idea of a book stall in a railway station lies in the mid 19th century in England.
It was 1846, the peak of railway mania in England. William Henry II, a young man saw the potential of a new technology more quickly than anyone else. Railways offered a faster and more reliable way of sending newspapers to the farthest corners of the country, and by holding up good relationships with each of the competing regional companies, Smith soon created a genuinely national business.
From the early 1840s, many stations had vendors selling disreputable publications or soiled newspapers. Smith however moved a step ahead shaping him as a professional business man, selling papers and cheap books to the thronging passengers.
By 1860, Smith’s book stalls had spread throughout England. It was a cultural revolution as well as a commercial one.
Now coming to India, it was 1850s railways were first introduced in India. Around late 1850s, a French man named Mr. Emili Edward Moreau had come to India to try his luck. Moreau loved reading; although a French man in origin, he was educated in England. In India, he had come to Allahabad as a representative of Bird and Company, an English firm.
Moreau’s love for reading had led him to establish contacts with the printing and publishing world in England including Arthur Henry Wheeler. By the time he reached Allahabad he had accumulated a huge collection of books, journals and magazines.
Destiny brought another bright enterprising man, T.K. Banarjee to Allahabad around the same time. Banarjee hailed from a land owning family at Dhaka. In Allahabad he became a book hoarder and came in contact with Moreau. It is said that both of them had together accumulated 45,000 books. Both came up with a plan. They wanted others to enjoy the books as much as they did. So in the early 1870s, both spread a sheet on the station platform at Allahabad and kept books for selling. At the end of the day they sold out. Slowly they opened up a makeshift shop and approached Arthur Henry Wheeler to lend his name and goodwill as he was already a well-established figure in Britain in the realm of the book trade. Eventually it became a regular book company titled ‘A.H. Wheeler and Co Pvt. Ltd’.
After getting the formal permission from the Chief Commissioner of railways, Government of India, they managed the Railway companies and paid taxes to the Government out of the profit earned. Gradually, as the railway network expanded in north and east India, they also expanded business setting of shops across major railway stations.
The head office of A.H. Wheeler was established at Allahabad, where it is still housed, even after 135 years.
In 1913, when Moreau decided to leave India, Banarjee bought him out and became the sole owner. Today, the company has book shops across 14 zones of Indian Railways in 258 railway stations. The network is still managed from Allahabad from a grand porch front colonial building.
Today, however, Wheeler is a decayed brand. People who buy English books have stopped travelling in long distances trains. The internet media, smart phones, laptops and tablets have also replaced book reading. On top of it is the government intervention. Still against all these hurdles, Wheeler has survived and has become a synonym with Indian Railway Stations.