The mysterious European businessman who gave India its iconic railway book stalls

Still there.
Still there.
Image: Reuters/Punit Paranjpe
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At a time when booksellers everywhere appear a threatened breed, the life of Emile Edouard Moreau, who set up A H Wheeler and Co, the chain of railway bookstalls that endure to this day, appears as a fascinating example of a man with interests that spanned continents, and yet about whom there remains much that is mysterious. This story tries to piece the gaps in Moreau’s story, locating his life at the most interesting juncture in world history.

In 1877 (though the date is variously given as 1874), when he was a young man of around 20, Moreau set up what would be the first of the A H Wheeler bookstalls at the Allahabad railway station. The East Indian Railways, which had commenced operations from Calcutta northward in 1854, was then expanding its operations from Allahabad to north India. The line from Allahabad to Jabalpur had already been constructed in 1867 and so for the first time Calcutta and Bombay were connected by rail via these two cities.

Moreau was at that time a young employee of the managing agency Bird & Company in Allahabad. His two uncles, Paul and Sam Bird, brothers of Moreau’s mother, were partners in the company. Bird & Company was a leading labour contractor, supplying workmen to the railway company. It would soon have interests in coal, jute and other industrial enterprises.

Moreau had come to India a couple of years before this. His father was a Frenchman named Auguste Moreau, and his mother was Mary Bird. Emile Moreau (not to be confused with a famous French author of the same name) was born in Oise in France, on July 11, 1856. At 15, he enrolled at the boarding school for boys Framlingham in Suffolk, and, when 17, he took a steamship to Calcutta, where his uncles were already established.

The family tradition

Moreau’s grandfather James Bird, who had died in 1839, had also been a bookseller. He was evidently a local poet of some repute in Yoxford, Sussex where he also encouraged other writers such as the Strickland Sisters who later moved to Canada. After the early 1850s, railway bookstalls were no longer a new feature, at least in Europe. As far back as 1852, Louis Hachette (whose name would go on to be used by the famous publishing house) had the idea of a railway library on trains plying from Paris to other regions in France. His railway library used an innovative colour scheme distinguishing books for different clientele and readerships.

Moreau’s familiarity with the railway station in Allahabad, where he lived as an employee of Bird and Co, meant that he soon noticed the demand for reading material, especially from first class passengers. As the story goes, when a friend of his, A H Wheeler, concluded that he had far too many books in his home library, Moreau volunteered to sell them from a wooden almirah at the station.

Encouraged by the results, he set up, with a few others, the A H Wheeler and Co (named after his friend, who had moved to London by then), in Allahabad. According to this report from the London Gazette, the company began as a partnership Moreau set up with Arthur Henry Wheeler and also Arthur Lisle Wheeler, along with two others, W M Rudge and the Armenian Tigran Ratheus David. It had offices in Allahabad and London.

In the late 1880s, A H Wheeler and Co (or Wheeler’s) found fame and controversy in equal measure. Moreau soon developed bigger plans as well, such as publishing. The railways had expanded and Wheeler’s bookstalls were a familiar feature at railway stations across the United Provinces, the North West Provinces and beyond in the very first decade of their existence.

Publishing Rudyard Kipling in India

In 1888, still in Allahabad, Moreau made a business proposal of sorts to Rudyard Kipling, who then wrote for The Pioneer and also the Civil and Military Gazette, or CMG (newspapers published out of the city), contributing stories and narrative sketches for its weekly editions. Kipling’s first novel, a collection of his writings called Plain Tales from The Hills, had already been published by the Calcutta-based Thacker and Sphink & Co, and, as the story goes, it was Moreau who offered to publish his stories in book form.

Over the next couple of years, several of Kipling’s early novels formed part of Wheeler’s Indian Railway Library Series. The other books, beginning with Soldiers Three were Wee Willie WinkieUnder the DeodarsThe Story of the GadsbysIn Black and WhiteThe Phantom Rickshaw and Other Eerie Tales, which has the famous story, The Man who would be King. Later, the Library Series also republished Kipling’s The City of Dreadful Night. These were sold for one rupee each.

In the agreement signed between Wheeler’s and Kipling (March 1889), the books were published by Wheeler’s, with Kipling receiving an “advance” of £200. Other details included the promised royalty of £4 for a thousand copies, accruing after the sale of an initial 1,500 copies. It was with this £200 that Kipling set out on a “world tour” via East Asia and the US.

It was during this time, first in Japan, that he discovered, much to his consternation, some pirated editions of his own work. In New York, he was somewhat distressed to find his early works being published in America (then under the old copyright laws, which would be changed in a few years’ time), which also entailed that an author first published elsewhere (meaning outside the country) received no royalty.

Kipling reached London and found more fame than he had bargained for. As one story goes, Moreau had sent copies of the Indian Railway Library Series publications to the British firm of Sampson Low, whose reader and editor Andrew Lang saw merit in the works. The other version is that Kipling, introduced to publishers through old acquaintances from India such as Stephen Wheeler, former editor of CMG, now had his own ideas regarding the publication of own works.

Soon the agreement between Wheeler’s and Kipling was to be reworked; all publication rights Wheeler’s had on Kipling’s work outside India were sold back to him; Wheeler’s continued to retain the Indian rights. In his memoirs, Kipling apparently mentioned his early encounter with Moreau, describing him as someone who “came of an imaginative race, used to taking chances.”

Kipling’s views on copyright matters also clashed with those of his editors at the CMG and The Pioneer, and their publishers, Sir George Allen and Pioneer Press. A later book from Wheeler’s and Sampson Low, titled Letters from Marque, was suppressed after publication. It included The Smith Administration, a collection of Kipling’s satirical sketches of the government commission’s efforts to find out how “natives” were faring in British India.

The trial of Henry Vizetelly

In 1888, the trial of the publisher Henry Vizetelly in London, according to provisions of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, also had reverberations in British India. As one of the largest book chains in British India, Wheeler’s found themselves in some unlikely spotlight. By this time, the book trade had picked up impressively in India; around the 1880s book imports from Britain made up, as Deana Heath has written, as much as half of what was sold within India. By 1894-95, book and newspaper imports from Britain numbered nearly five million units, filling up 500 mailbags a week.

Vizetelly, a writer himself and a long-time admirer of Emile Zola, had published English versions of three of Zola’s novels (where the translator’s name appears as “unknown”). This came to the notice of the National Vigilance Association (NVA), a pressure group that took upon itself the responsibility to “purge” literature of anything obscene and prurient. Following the NVA’s allegations, Vizetelly was prosecuted for translating Zola’s La Terre, Piping Hot and Nana. Initially he was fined, but in a second trial, Vizetelly, then aged 74, was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment including hard labour. It was a sentence that broke his health, as his son Ernest Vizetelly (who later translated and published bowdlerised versions of Zola’s novels) said afterwards.

At the time Wheeler’s was already selling many of Zola’s works in its stalls, and though police officials and some educational officials such as the Reverend A Neut, the principal of St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, asked for suppression of sales, other officials in the Indian provinces chose to either disregard this, or else realised the futility of such suppression (since literature, as some said, in the local languages was easily available and more pernicious). When Lord Northbrook, the returning viceroy, asked that booksellers be warned, the officials in the central provinces and elsewhere pleaded that contracts between the government and the railway companies forbade such interference.

The debate, however, was interesting at several levels. In England, the NVA found nothing objectionable in the original French versions of Zola’s novels that were in wide circulation. The NVA and several others evidently believed that French was more a language of the elite, who could be trusted, but with the spread of education guaranteed by Britain’s Education Act of 1870, they were worried about what the public at large in England was reading.

At the turn of the century, Wheeler’s became almost indispensable in the expansion of the railways, winning the sole rights for running advertisements in publications on the railways’ behalf. Publishing in regional languages grew apace—for instance, the Naval Kishore Press was set up in 1858 and published works in Hindustani and Urdu, and there were also a growing numbers of texts relating to religion and mythology in this period—and as railway travel became both popular and necessary, Wheeler’s stalls were a necessary conduit to the pastime of reading.

Moreau and British propaganda during World War I

Once World War I began, Moreau found himself greatly sought by British government, especially by the ministry of munitions, under which the propaganda department functioned. Britain’s war propaganda department was set up around September 1914, only after realisation dawned about the efficacy of the German propaganda department; it operated from London’s Wellington House. The department’s functioning remained largely secret, and its activities would only come to light two decades or so later, in the mid-1930s.

Moreau’s knowledge and experience of the east made him indispensable, and it was Edward E Long, the official in charge of eastern propaganda, who looked him up at Fairlie Place, the home he had built for himself in Brighton, England in 1906. Spread over vast acres, it shared its name with the headquarters of East Indian Railways, later Eastern Railway, in Calcutta. Perhaps by now his interest as publisher had waned after the incident with Kipling, but he remained a partner at Wheeler’s in London and also at Allahabad.

The propaganda department had numerous writers working for it, including Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, John Masefield, John Bunyan and others (there seem to have been no women in the list). The department was set up initially to disseminate propaganda to neutral countries and the British Empire, but soon it targeted the enemy too.

By June 1915, the department had distributed 2.5 million books, in at least 17 languages. In particular, the Bryce Report, written around this time, relating to German atrocities on Belgian citizens in late 1914, was translated into at least 30 languages

Though translations into European languages came faster (depending on skills available during the period), the rise of a local bureaucracy in the Indian sub-continent and increased numbers of “natives” in the ICS perhaps helped in multilingual war propaganda in India as well. Propaganda was also effectively done by disseminating newspapers in local languages and making an endeavour to publicise the British war efforts among the more “moderate” newspapers whose editors were invited to London (in an early example of embedded journalism).

Among the first newspapers for the war effort in British India was Al-Hakikat, published in Hindustani, Persian and Arabic. This was chiefly to counteract the powerful German propaganda in west and central Asia, which also targeted India. Later the Al-Hakikat was written in Turkish, too.

Soon after, the Satya Vani began to be published in Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil. In still another improvisation, the Jang-i-Akbar was introduced, and this was written in Hindi, Urdu and also in the Gurmukhi script to address readers in the United Provinces and Punjab. It was the Wheeler’s bookstalls and other local distributors that ensured widespread distribution of these papers. Numbers in the space of one year reached 40,000, and soon provincial governments demanded more. It was for his services, and much of it is really not known, that Moreau was also awarded a CBE by the British government.

A global businessman

Towards the end of the war, in 1917, A H Wheeler split into two distinct branches: with Arthur H Wheeler and Co. operating in London and A H Wheeler and Co. in India. Moreau, however had numerous other interests. He travelled widely, and served as director of companies with interests in rubber, in Java and in the Malay states, and also oil (in the Trinidad Oilfields, where a road in the village of Marac is named after Moreau).

His interest in rubber technology even led Moreau to write a book himself during the time he served as director in a rubber company in Java owned by the Netherlands. It was a book published by Arthur H Wheeler (in London), comparing different ways of rubber tapping.

Despite all his travelling, Moreau lived very much in the style of the “nabobs” of old at Fairlie Place, owning, it is believed, several limousines. He lived here till his death 1937. It remained a private residence till well after World War II, after which it became a school offering secretarial and other vocational training for women.

Little is known of his family life, but he remained devoted to this institute, Framlingham College (a residential school), till his death in 1937. Not only did he serve on the governing board for many years, but he was also its most generous individual benefactor—instrumental in setting up sports facilities for its students and instituting scholarships that carry his name and are provided to this day.

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