Connections to the 1934 Nepal earthquake

By Jon Bauckham, 29 April 2015 - 2:34pm

After hearing about the tragic earthquake in Nepal, Sarah Williams discovered that her great grandfather had experienced a similar disaster while working in the country during the 1930s

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 30 April 2015
Sarah Williams, editor
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Kenneth Caldwell

Sarah's great grandfather, Kenneth Caldwell (front, centre), was a teacher at Patna College when the 1934 Nepal earthquake struck

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. As a journalist I should know that. As a family historian it can be even harder to keep your eye on the truth when you hear a good story.

News of the devastating earthquake in Nepal reminded my father that his grandfather had been in Patna during the last major earthquake in the region in 1934. Family legend had it that his family in England only got wind that he had survived when they saw a letter from him in The Times describing his experiences.

Wow, I thought, what a great story. Not only did my great grandfather survive a massive earthquake but he was clearly one of those ‘men of Empire’ who thought it was more important to write to The Times than to write to his family.

So out came my library card so that I could log on to The Times Digital Archive, 1785-2009 for free from the comfort of my office (if you haven’t checked out whether your local library offers free remote access to The Times and more, then do it now).

I started searching his name and a few obvious keywords. Nothing. I scrapped some of the keywords. Nothing. I cut it down to his surname and ‘earthquake’. Still nothing.

But one thing I’ve learned from family history is that there is nearly always a nugget of truth in a family story. So I painstakingly went through all of the letters to the editor over the relevant period and I think I hit the jackpot.

A letter sent in by a C. E. A. W. Oldham (with that many names clearly the sort of person who should be writing to The Times) quotes from a letter that he had received from Patna and within that letter his correspondent talks about the damage to Patna College where my great grandfather, Kenneth Caldwell, was head of science. He says “K drove down the city yesterday and says that hundreds of houses are down all along the road, and the lanes are all blocked with fallen houses.”

So, not quite the letter I was looking for, but looking at the context within the letter I think ‘K’ is my Kenneth. My aunt is adamant that Kenneth’s children had no idea whether he had survived until they had seen a letter in The Times. Was this the letter? I suppose it doesn’t matter too much, the description would be similar to what he experienced (although family legend has it that Kenneth was giving a lecture at the time).

“I was in the garden when the first and greatest shock occurred. It was entirely unexpected and lasted such a length of time. It was perfectly fine and sunny when the rumble began, which grew louder and louder while we watched chunks of plaster falling from the house. There was a horrible roar of shouting from the bazar and then clouds of dust from the ruins.”

The death toll from 1934 will never be known. Estimates range from 18,000 to 20,000. Let’s hope this time round it’s nothing like that.


You can donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for people affected by the Nepal earthquake by clicking here.

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