2: West Goes East

My grandfather, John Keely was born in the parish of Tuddenham, near Dereham, Norfolk in 1808. We do not know his background, what his father did or how many brothers and sisters he had. I wish I had shown more interest and visited Norfolk earlier on when I lived in Bexley to make enquiries. Perhaps someone younger with a keen interest could fill this gap.

By the time John reached his teens, the Napoleonic war in Europe was over; British traders were making good progress in the East and Far East and the penal settlement in Australia was growing with more and more emigrants from England arriving to settle. A mounting need for more troops to ensure security, law and order became paramount. At the time, recruitment into the army was organised at country fairs in such towns as Dereham, where on the 23rd of September 1825, at the age of 17, a sturdy, tall, likely young fellow enlisted, received the Queen's shilling, and became a recruit with the 63rd Regiment of Foot. Then on the 10th May 1828, now fully trained, he embarked with his Regiment for New South Wales, Australia, where he was to serve for six years. The Regiment moved again on the 21st November 1846, this time to the East Indies where the English traders needed protection from the Dutch allied to some of the local rajahs. How long the Regiment remained there is not known; but it was eventually despatched to India to help the East India Company to expand, to protect its trading posts and pro-English rulers. Finally on the 21st November 1846, after serving 20 years and 70 days with 18 ½ years foreign service, John Keely, became a Queen's pensioner and was permitted to remain on in India.

On leaving the army at the age of 38, he was appointed Overseer of Guindy Park, the estate and official residence of the head of the East India Company in Madras. Soon after taking up his appointment he married Priscilla Harris and in 1846, a baby girl was born to the couple. Their second child, a boy, was born on the 25th May l856 at Guindy Park, Vepary, Madras and christened Thomas Harris.

When the British Government took over the East India Company in 1858, Guindy Park became the Government House and the home of the Governor of the newly created Madras Presidency. John Keely remained Overseer. One of his duties was to look after the rifle range, the butts, targets etc. of the estate. On the 6th April 1858, he was in attendance at the butts while the Governor and his guests were at rifle shooting practice. During a lull in the shooting, John held out the red flag to stop further firing so as to enable him to emerge from his shelter, mark and signal the scores, on the targets; something he had done hundred of times. But this time, just as his hand emerged from the shelter, a rifle went off and a bullet went clean through his wrist. Two days later he was dead of lockjaw at the age of 50, as anti-tetanus serum were unknown in those days. My father Thomas Harris Keely was two years old when his father died. Five years later, when he was but seven, he became an orphan with the death of his mother.

Being the son of a Queen's pensioner, he was eligible for education at an Army institution and since his father had died while serving the Governor of Madras, arrangements were soon made to send him to St. Lawrence's Asylum, Lovedale, Milgiri Hills, Madras Presidency. There he was given a modest education with plenty of games, gymnastics and athletics to promote physical growth and fitness. Thomas did well in his studies also in games; but his best achievement was as a gymnast gaining first place in his final year.

Just about the time when Thomas was in the top form an Official of the Telegraph Department of India visited St. Lawrence's Asylum, with a view to recruiting young men into his Department; the fast expanding telegraph service needing a large number of recruits. All boys of 16 and above were assembled, each given pen and paper and instructed to take down about ten lines of dictation at slow speed. My father and nine others were chosen to become apprentices to the Telegraph Department solely on how legible was their writing and how correct was their spelling. None of them were asked whether they wished to become telegraphists. They were told they were now apprentices and that they would proceed to Bombay for training. Orders had to be obeyed: had that not been hammered into their heads for the past ten or eleven years of their Lives? Anyway, my father said good-bye to St. Lawrence and Lovedale with a glad and expectant heart. He could smell freedom and the prospect was enchantingly sweet.

For 3 years of apprenticeship however, it was not complete freedom: far from it. They were placed in twos and threes in boarding houses chosen by the Department, their leisure as well as work, supervised. In addition to sending and receiving messages, the apprentices had to do fieldwork accompanying parties surveying and constructing new telegraph lines, thus learning the use of the theodolite, making and reading of plans and maps, siting of camps and dealing with local labour etc.

At long last the apprenticeship was over.

My father completed his three years training, had passed all his departmental examinations and been appointed a full time telegraphist in Bombay, where he remained for several years. Thereafter, he was posted as Assistant Telegraph Master in various towns of the Bombay Presidency and later on, as Telegraph Master.

I was never told when and where he married while in India but there was a marriage and a couple of children. It turned out to be a complete disaster, and so unhappy did my father become, that he volunteered for foreign service in Upper Burma, which had been annexed by Britain in 1885, and which Has considered too turbulent and unsettled for wives. He arrived in Mandalay in 1880 at the age of 34 and worked there for several years. During that period his wife died in India. In I900, he was posted to Monywa, the District Headquarters of the Chindwin, to supervise the construction of a telegraph line from Monywa, along the Chindwin valley, then through the Kalay and Kabaw valleys to Imphal in Manipur State. This would link Rangoon with Calcutta, the then headquarters of the Governor-General of India and Burma. By then a regular steamer service along the Chindwin river, between Monywa and Homalin had been established serving such centres as Mingin, Massein, Kalewa and Kindat etc. All engineer stores, camp equipment, provisions, medicines etc. were carried by these flat bottomed, stern-wheeler paddle steamers, with my father changing jungle headquarters as he took the telegraph line further and further north. Then in the autumn of I901, the steamer tied up at the large village of Massein and discharged its passengers, goods and masses of equipment and stores. My father was one of its passengers. He was six foot in height, lean, with a long heavily moustached face, in which his blue eyes contrasted strikingly with his tan.

He was now a Deputy Superintendent of Telegraphs and very much his own man. He walked quickly along the bank and chose the shade of a large Koke-ko tree for his camp and instructed the Overseer and his gang to get on with it. Within a couple of hours, tents had been pitched, equipment and stores put away under cover. Thomas Keely opened two office boxes, took out notes, note-books, plans and maps for next day's work, saw to it that everything was tidy and each thing in its place. He then left to stretch his legs to take out the kinks resulting from three days of idleness in the restricted space of the steamer.

He walked along the riverbank, admiring the brilliant ever changing hues of the setting sun and enjoying the song of birds in the cool of the lovely autumn evening. Then suddenly he halted, all eyes; stunned, struck by the most beautiful being he had ever seen. For him the hues of the sunset and the song of birds had vanished.

Sixteen year old Ma Nyun had just emerged from a swim in the river and was standing erect, arms upraised to gather and knot her waist long black hair. Her tall, slim shapely figure outlined by the wet longyi (sarong) which clung from breast to knee; with droplets of water seemingly loathe to leave the ivory skin of her beautiful face. Becoming aware that she was being stared at, Ma Nyun looked up and viewed the stranger with wide-open near-black eyes under thin finely arched brows for a long moment. Then, in keeping with her innate modesty, she lowered her eyes and moved away to the foot of a large banyan tree. There, she quickly drew on a dry longyi over her head and body, fixed the top across her breast as high as the armpit, slipped down the wet garment and picking it up in one smooth movement, placed a towel over her shoulders and walked away without a second glance. Thomas Keely continued to stare. Her poise, graceful carriage and the lithe, smooth glide of her walk made his breath come faster with added admiration after the shock of suddenly encountering such beauty of face and figure. Middle-aged now, with little or no close contact with the opposite sex since his disastrous misery of a marriage, the dazzling encounter aroused all the love and passion which had lain dormant for so long. 'Love at first sight' is but a pale imagery of the volcanic eruption that had taken place. Even so, natural caution and long practised self-discipline made him watch his step. He must think this over. He was in a strange country, moving in strange waters, knowing but little of the manners and customs utterly alien to him. As he turned over the problem in the quiet, peace and seclusion of his tent that night a glimmer of hope appeared. Dick Chapman the District Superintendent of Police, Monywa, was a close friend; someone who by the nature of his work and length of service in Burma would be able to give him all the advice and information he so badly needed.