Kolkata in the 19th century – Vintage Pictures

By Somali K Chakrabarti

Kolkata, the ‘City of Joy’, is a city with a glorious past!

For those who live there, Kolkata is also about its alluring spirit, emotions, heightened sensibilities and creative energy. It is a city with fabulous heritage architecture where the old merges with the new.

Going back a bit into the history of Kolkata (previously Calcutta), we find that Calcutta was developed by the British by merging three villages – Kalikata, Sutanati and Gobindapur. Calcutta became the headquarters of the East India Company by 1772 and was the capital of British India, from 1858 to 1911, before the British relocated their capital to Delhi.

The 19th century saw a socio-cultural resurgence and intellectual awakening in Kolkata, known as the Bengal Renaissance, which continued up to the early 20th century. During this time prominent literati of the city contributed immensely to the art, architecture, literature, science and philosophy.

Charles D’Oyly, (1781–1845), a public official of the British East India Company, and painter from Dhaka produced numerous images on India. In 1848, Dickinson & Co., London published his drawings of Calcutta in a large folio-size book titled Views of Calcutta and its Environs.

Here are some vintage pictures depicting the landscape of Kolkata from the 19th century.


ON THE RIVER – INDIA , by Sir Charles D’Oyly ca 1815


From ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’


“Town and Port of Calcutta” by Sir Charles D’Oyly ca 1848

From ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’


A Company school painting – Kolkata , 19th century

Kolkata, 19th century

Illustrating a street scene in Kolkata, with a lady in a carriage and a gentleman being borne in a palanquin in the foreground, buildings along the receding road and a billowing smokestack in the background.


Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary; or Portugese Church, Murgihata, Calcutta, ca 1826

Portuguese Church, Kolkata, 1826

Coloured aquatint by James Baillie Fraser, Plate No.17 from ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’

The beautiful church dedicated to Blessed Lady of the Rosary was built by the Portugese, who settled in Calcutta much before the British. The street on was named Portuguese Church Street, in the area of Murgihata adjacent to Lalbazar.


Suspension Bridge at Alipore over Tolly’s Nullah, Sir Charles D’Oyly ca 1835

Suspension Bridge at Alipore , 1835

Coloured lithograph, plate 20 from ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’, lithographed by Dickinson & Co., London, 1848


Serampore Road, by Sir Charles D’Oyly ca 1848

Serampore Road - 1848

From ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’

Serampore town is several centuries old. It was a part of Danish India and was known by the name Frederiksnagore from 1755 to 1845.


View of Calcutta from Esplanade, ca 1855

 Engraved plate from Wilmington Institute Free Library


Dakshineshwar Temple, Between ca 1850s to ca 1870s

Dakshineswar Temple Calcutta - Mid 19th century

Photographer: Francis Frith

The famous Dakshineswar temple, situated on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River, was founded by Rani Rashmoni . The construction of the temple began in 1847 in the village of Dakshineswar, and continued upto 1855. The temple compound has a nine spired Navaratna temple, twelve Shiva temples (twelve jyotirlingam) and a Vishnu temple and a a shrine dedicated to Rani Rashmoni. The picturesque temple still stands at the bank of the river and many pilgrims visit the temple to offer their prayers.


Shipping on the Hoogly, ca. 1890

  By Bourne & Shepherd
Kolkata Port, established in 1870, is oldest operating port in India. It was constructed by the British East India Company and was the premier port in British India.


The Old Pontoon Bridge on the Hooghly River

Sir Leslie Bradford's Pontoon Bridge Hooghly

As Calcutta and Howrah situated on the opposite sides of Hooghly river, became important economic and cultural centres of British India, the need to bridge the Hooghly river was felt. Thus in 1874, the famous floating pontoon bridge was built, using timber on pontoon. It was designed by Sir Bradford Leslie, the chief engineer of the East India Railway Company. The old Pontoon bridgw was later replaced by Howrah bridge in 1943.
By the 1850s, Calcutta had two areas: White Town, which was primarily British and centred around Chiwinghee; and Black Town, mainly Indian and centred around North Calcutta. The city underwent rapid industrial growth starting in the early 1850s, especially in the textile and jute industries; this encouraged British companies to massively invest in infrastructure projects, which included telegraph connections and Howrah Railway Station.


 A zebra cart in Calcutta, ca 1930

Zebra Carriage in Kolkata

This is a unique photograph of a pair of zebras pulling a carriage through the streets of Kolkata. The carriage belonged to the Mullick family, one of the prominent families of Pathuriaghata, in north Kolkata. Manmathanath Mullick, a scion of the Mullick family, bought a pair of zebras from Alipore Zoological Gardens to pull his carriage through the streets of Kolkata.

Unfortunately, the Bengal Renaissance gave way to economic stagnation and lethargic work culture post independence.

I end the post with the hope that the city with a glorious past moves into a fast track growth path to revive its past glory.


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16 thoughts on “Kolkata in the 19th century – Vintage Pictures

  1. Your post on Kolkata in 19th Century – Vintage Pictures provided a graphic view of the City of Joy Kolkata , previously called Calcutta built by the British .I have lived in Kolkata since my childhood and hence I find the vintage pictures of the places which I frequented quite often rather interesting We used horse cart in our child hood but zebra cart was unknown to us .
    My father came to Kolkata from East Bengal in the early part of 1920 to study in College and then in University and therefore saw Kolkata from early 20th Century .
    You have touched on Bengal Renaissance which played a significant role in the social reform . educational advancement and cultural regeneration of Bengal and India and finally the freedom movement of our country .
    An excellent post .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for writing Paul. It seems that the original church constructed in 1599 was burnt in 1632, but the keystone with the date 1599 was preserved and built into the gate of the new church in 1661. This could be the reason why the lithograph does not look like the present day Cathedral.
      Source : Wikipedia : Bandel Church


      1. Thanks for the quick reply! I was wondering if you would know if the Church Cathedral of the Holy Rosary or Murgihatta Church also underwent reconstruction or renovation.

        Great blog! Highly informative and makes me proud of my heritage.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks a lot Paul. From the 17th century till date,the Church Cathedral is likely to have undergone reconstruction, though I must say that I have not been able to trace any concrete information on this.
    Happy to know you like the blog. Hope to see more of your comments in the future posts too.


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