Warehouse and Transport Facilities in the Port of Calcutta, 1870–1950

Kaustubh Mani Sengupta


By the mid-nineteenth century the massive increase of trade in the port of Calcutta demanded more storage space in and around the port complex. Between the 1850s and 1880s the trade in jute, cotton and tea increased significantly. Calcutta was also the main centre for imports of cotton goods. From here they were distributed throughout the hinterland that comprised the provinces of Assam, Bengal, parts of northern India and central India. In the 1870s export trade of tea also increased exponentially. The Calcutta Port Trust was officially established in 1870. It made rapid advances in building additional jetties and in streamlining dock logistics and cargo handling. The Port Commissioners decided to build a tea warehouse on the Strand bank to accommodate this increased volume of trade. However, initially the Bengal Chamber of Commerce criticized this step because it believed that the occupation of land on the Strand would interfere with private enterprises.

Even amongst turmoil about the location of the warehouse, the Commissioners went ahead with planning and development associated with the building of the warehouse. In 1876 they asked all the mercantile firms involved in tea trade to report back to the Commissioners about designs for a suitable building. Twenty-two firms responded positively to the scheme. A sub-committee was formed to look after the construction of the warehouse. The sub-committee met on three occasions to discuss the building-plans, the mode of working and the rate of charges for using the warehouse to store tea. A circular was issued with the proposed scale of charges and Commissioners asked firms whether they would be interested in the trade if those charges were levied in the warehouse. According to the Commissioners’ Report of 1877, the tea-brokers were adverse to the scheme, as they had been from the outset, but the firms were predominantly keen on the project. After various contestations and negotiations the tea warehouse at Armenian Ghat on the Strand Bank was completed and made available from 1887.

Other warehouses were soon proposed. In February 1882 construction of the first block of warehouses at No. 1 jetty commenced. Another block was sanctioned by the government in 1882 at No. 3 jetty, which was entrusted to Messrs. S.C. Mitter and Company. Before giving the go-ahead for these projects, however, the government expressed doubts about them. The British Indian Association and the Municipality feared that the new warehouses would depreciate the value of privately-owned resting sheds for goods in the city. The Commissioners tried to assuage both parties, saying ‘that the new warehouses were intended to supplement and relieve the existing jetty sheds, and that there was no intention to rent them out for business unconnected with the landing or shipment of goods through the jetties’. In a sense, they were talking to the private-owners of the sheds. The Association and the Municipality both had members, or members acquainted with people, with business interests in these sheds at this point of time. In the opinion of the Port Commissioners, regular importers or exporters would find it convenient ‘to rent a certain space in the new warehouses for the storage of their goods pending dispatch or shipment instead of keeping them in the ordinary jetty sheds where examination and assortment of the goods was rendered difficult in consequence of the goods of different firms being mixed together’. The Commissioners contended that this use of warehouses ‘was a legitimate one and was in accordance with the practice in all large ports’.

Kolkata warehouse district, 2016. Photograph by Carolin Philipp.

Kolkata warehouse district, 2016. Photograph by Carolin Philipp.

The Municipal Commissioners of the town objected to the building of an elevated structure on the Strand Bank. They said that in 1852 when the government acquired the land on the Strand for public utility it was decided that no imposing structure would be built on that stretch. The present Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, however, supported the project saying that he thought a warehouse was a necessary structure for the advancement of trade and was not antithetical to the use of that piece of land for the good of the general public. These objections and negotiations reveal the difficulties associated with the initial phases of design and construction of warehouses in the port of Calcutta. Issues regarding private property, proper use of land, trade charges, backing from mercantile firms and the views of the Port Commissioners about modern port facilities jostled with each other during the development of the warehouses.

In subsequent years the trading activities at the port continued to increase, especially during World War 1 and its aftermath. The need for warehouse space was acutely felt in these years. The port commissioners maintained pressure on the government for adequate funds. In 1895 the average daily weight of imported goods was approximately 1000 tonnes, of which 300 tonnes were stored at the warehouses, the rest being transported elsewhere. In particularly busy times almost 600 tonnes were transported. In fact, a decade later, in 1906, the Secretary of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce said that the increase of trade meant there was hardly any space at the jetties for imported goods. He noted that new jetties and a modern crane system were being constructed at the port, but those were not enough; new warehouses were needed. At that time a new tea warehouse was being built at Garden Reach which would open up approximately 15,000 square feet of space at the jetties for import trade. The Secretary wanted port authorities to construct a new warehouse for import trade on the Strand Road frontage. The shortage of space in tea warehouses was a recurrent situation in the first half of the twentieth century as well. After independence the new government also faced this problem. An Ad Hoc Committee was established in 1950 to look into the matter of tea trade. It noted that the Port Commissioners of Calcutta were constructing a four storey permanent tea warehouse, with floor-space of 140,000 square feet, along with a tea transit shed of 20,000 square feet. Issues of storage space and the volume of trade have shaped the development of the port complex in Calcutta throughout history. Exigencies of trade, global warfare, domestic demand and pressure from mercantile firms have combined to mould the space of the port of Calcutta.

Inside the warehouses, a major concern was the proper measurement of the weight of goods. Often disputes arose regarding the method of weighing. For instance, in 1901 the Indian Tea Association sent a letter to the Commissioners of the port urging them to approach the government and ask them to instruct the English Customs Department to accept the weight of tea as being that ascertained by Calcutta port authorities in their warehouses. The Port Commission agreed to this proposal and urged the government to look into the matter. In the letter they provided a detailed description of the weighing process and argued that there was little chance of error and that English revenues would not be negatively affected if they accepted the weight as measured in Calcutta. The process described was as follows:

The tea having being bulked in the patent machine which the Commissioners have erected, passes by gravity into the weigh hopper. From this hopper the required contents of each chest is weighed and discharged by gravity into the chest, the tare of which has been ascertained by separate weightment. The loose tea is then compressed into the chest by hydraulic power and the chest is closed and the gross weight taken, which is checked by the already ascertained tare and the weight of the tea put on to the chest.

The concern with weight and measures was persistent over the decades. In 1950 the Ad Hoc Committee examined the projects associated with the tea trade and noted that in the tea warehouse only 10 per cent of the product, randomly chosen, was inspected. This did not ensure the quality of the tea or the security of the packaging. They suggested the need for 100 per cent inspection but for that additional warehouse space was needed to allow these inspections to occur, as well as the appropriate packaging and handling of tea chests.


The Port Trust initiated a large-scale infrastructural development in the 1870s. One of the major areas of interest was to create adequate transport facilities so goods could be moved to and from the dock area. Railways played a crucial role in connecting Calcutta with other parts of the province and country. Calcutta was served by the East India Railway, the Bengal-Nagpur Railways and the Eastern Bengal Railways. The development of the railways was crucial in facilitating the activities of the port. Major items like rice, coal and jute were transported from the port to other parts of the subcontinent via the railways. In the immediate vicinity of the port, however, proper roads and carriers were not adequate to handle large bulk cargo. To solve this problem the Port Trust started constructing the Strand Road and Bank, as well as a tramway. The tramway work progressed rapidly using materials imported from England.

In their report of 1877 the Port Commissioners mentioned that the Trust had been able to obtain the burning ghat site (cremation ground) and section no. 17 of the new road between Ahiritolla and Ruth Ghats, enabling them to complete the work of tramway as far as the Armenian Ghat – a long stretch along the river. Trains ran daily bringing cargo from the Eastern Railway to the godowns on the inland vessel wharves. The development of the tramways was directly linked to the significant increase in the handling of net cargo at the port. The successive stages of the tramway construction shows the gradual extension of port activities and the way crucial links were established between the docks and the city, and in turn with the hinterland. Various plans were proposed, some were followed while negotiations about others led to changes and alterations. For instance, the Commissioners noted in 1877 that, ‘the traffic passes over the municipal line of railway from Sealdah to Bagh Bazar; but this is only a temporary arrangement, the Commissioners having … undertaken to construct a bridge across the entrance to the Chitpore Canal, and so carry their line of tramway direct into the Eastern Bengal Railway goods terminus at Chitpore’.

To use the municipal line the port authorities had to enter into an agreement with the Town Commissioners. The terms of the agreement included the following:

  1. Port Commissioners pay eight annas per wagon for every wagon that passes over the municipal line, either way, full or empty;
  2. Port Commissioners have free use of the line for six hours daily, from 7am till 10am in the morning and 3pm till 6pm in the afternoon;
  3. Port Commissioners pay the cost of keeping the municipal line over which the trains run in repair.

With this arrangement with the railways and the town authorities in place the port tramway was inaugurated on 22 November, 1876. After its completion, though, crucial works were still left to be done. The original intention of the Trust was to extend the tramway line across the mouth of the Chitpore canal by building a moveable bridge. However, objections were raised against such a bridge because it was feared it would interfere with the traffic on the canal. The Government required:

that any bridge to be constructed in this position should have a clear headway of 16 feet above high water. To obtain the necessary incline for the approaches to such a bridge, an embankment would have to be made at the frontage of the Eastern Bengal Railway Company, which would shut out the Company from access to the river, and to this the Company would not have agreed. Further, an elevated line would cost approximately Rs. 4.5 lakhs, which could not be financially recovered from the goods traffic on that line. The Commissioners decided to abandon that route and deemed that a fixed bridge was the only solution. The new bridge was designed with consideration of all the objections of the canal authorities. It proved that a passage for trains at ground level could be built at a cost of approximately Rs. 90,000.

The tram lines soon became profitable. Between 1880–81 and 1882–83 there was an increase of almost Rs. 15,000 in tramway receipts. The increase in traffic necessitated the need to open up a third line between Nimtollah Ghat and Ruthghat within a year of the tramway’s commenced functioning (that is, a year from the opening of the other two lines in 1881). Thus, the ways in which the roads and tramways were created illuminates the manner in which the port area was extended and integrated with the rest of the city.