How a Lancaster man followed his dad's journey across India after uncovering an old photograph from the Second World War

Jon Townend speaks to Michael Smith, who, after finding an old photograph of his dad, decided to retrace his steps and follow his journey in India.

Saturday, 11th January 2020, 5:00 pm
Thomas Smith, of Lancaster, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Museum in Mumbai in the 1940s

The old photograph of his father, Thomas Smith, in India had always sparked Michael’s interest when he was a boy. It seemed like a different place, a different time; just so exotic and inaccessible.

It was a charity trek to the Himalayas that prompted the retired engineer to seek out the image again and try getting to the bottom where and when it had been taken.

Michael, 70, says: “The picture was found again in a tin of old family photographs. I remembered having seen it when I was young.

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Jon Smith, of Lancaster, recreating his granddad's photo at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Museum in Mumbai.

“I saw it as a small child and it showed a place you could never dream of visiting at that time in the 1950s.

“Then four years ago my son Jon and I went to do a Himalayan trek, as we were raising money for Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. After the trek we went to visit the Taj Mahal and I remembered the picture that I’d seen as a child. I’d always thought the picture showed my father at the Taj Mahal.”

On returning home, research on Google images quickly established that the building his father had visited and been photographed outside was not the Taj Mahal, but the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Museum in Mumbai.

When his father visited there, some time during the Second World War, the building had been the Prince of Wales Museum and the city was then called Bombay.

Michael Smith, of Lancaster, recreating his dad's photo at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Museum in Mumbai

Michael says: “The old museum building is really unique. It could not be anywhere else when we looked at the images.

“To begin with, I was quite sad that it wasn’t the Taj Mahal because that was what I’d always believed.

“The only other clue was that I know the picture must have been taken after October 12 1940 because my dad has his wedding ring on.”

Why, or exactly when, the young Thomas Smith was in Bombay cannot be ascertained. Michael knows his father served with the King’s Own Royal Regiment aboard the Queen Mary on the North Atlantic convoys as a gunner and cook but beyond that there is little information.

“He had been called up in 1940,” says Michael, “It’s been really interesting to get an insight into his life. He was just an ordinary guy, born and brought up in Skerton in Lancashire. I don’t think he was a happy soldier. From the brief memories I have of him talking about it, he did not enjoy being a soldier.

“It was something he was very, very reluctant to talk about. I do recall my mother saying that he came home on leave after one traumatic Transatlantic crossing, where he’d been a gunner. "At that time neighbours used to knock on your door in the morning to make sure you were up. It happened one morning and my dad shot out of bed because he thought it was gunfire.

“I know the Queen Mary went from Freemantle in Australia to Bombay in 1940 but we know my dad got married in October 1940 in Lancaster so he couldn’t have been on that trip.

“How he came to be there at that time is a mystery, perhaps when I get his war records it will shed some light on that. I have two photos of my dad. One is in St George in Bermuda, and the other is the one in India.”

Having lost his father in 2005, at the age of nearly 92, Michael was keen to travel in the footsteps of the man he’d known all his life but whose life still holds a few mysteries.

The family know all about Thomas’ post-war career as a linoleum fitter with James Williamson and Co at St George’s Quay in Lancaster. The city was a centre for the linoleum business and Lancaster City Museum has the city’s coat of arms portrayed in linoleum as its flooring.

But connecting to Thomas’ time in the Army would be more difficult and would require some travel.

Happily, Michael’s own son, Jon, is a Virgin Airways airline pilot so planning trips abroad is made easier and the pair were able to visit Mumbai and retrace Thomas’ footsteps.

Michael says: “We made contact with the Assistant Curator of the museum, Ninaljana Som, who was very helpful. She’s really been tremendous. When my son and I went back out there we met up with her and had a look around the museum. We were able to take some photographs in the place where my dad had stood. Visiting that place, I felt it connected me to him.

“My son was there as the third generation of our family to stand on that spot. I’ve three grandchildren and maybe one day they will go there.”