Volume: 14, No: 04 ; April-2020
By: Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones. MBE (The Editor of Chowkidar, a publication of BACSA – British Association of Cemeteries in South Asia). This article has been reproduced with special arrangement and by permission of the author and the publisher BACSA. Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones who is a historian and a researcher and has written many best-selling books and has contributed immensely in the field of Indian heritage and conservation of cemeteries in South-Asia through BACSA is the Editor of ‘Chawkidar’ published by BACSA. Tornos proudly handled Percy-Lancaster Family visit to Lucknow and Calcutta recently connecting the dots to trace the roots and footsteps of Sydney Percy-Lancaster in India and this article by Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones is a part of that effort to trace and research the roots.
Among the Britons who ‘stayed on’ in the Indian subcontinent after 1947 was the horticulturalist Sydney Percy-Lancaster. He is mentioned briefly in BACSA member David Gilmour’s recent book, The British in India as someone who ‘returned to Lucknow’ in 1961 ‘and remained there for the rest of his life’. So this should mean that he died there, and although familiar with the cemeteries of Lucknow, I had never come across a memorial to him. It was an intriguing puzzle and over several months, with the help of Indian friends, Sydney’s great grand-daughter in Australia and research at Kew, the story gradually came together. It started in Meerut in 1886 where Sydney was born to English parents. His father, Percy Joseph Lancaster was manager of the Rohilkund & Kumaon Bank in Nainital, before moving to a similar position in Lucknow. Sydney’s mother, Isa Gordon Lancaster was a talented painter of plants and flowers, a hobby that chimed well with her husband, who was a gardener at heart. Already known for cross-breeding the amaryllis lily, Percy Lancaster escaped from the Bank and was appointed by the provincial government to head the Sikanderbagh Gardens in Lucknow (today the National Botanic Gardens). When Sydney was seven years old his father was appointed Secretary to the prestigious Agri-Horticultural Society of India in Calcutta, founded in 1820 by the Baptist missionary, the Revd. William Carey. It may have been at this point that the family name was changed to Percy-Lancaster, which sounded more distinguished. ‘Being an only son’ Sydney wrote ‘I spent my holidays pottering about the Society’s Garden and to keep me out of mischief, father gave me a small plot of land to call all my own. I had seen him pollinating Canna [lilies] so tried my prentice hands and at the age of twelve obtained, among my seedlings, a deep yellow variety which my father took over.’
On his father’s death in 1904 and after a horticultural training in England, Sydney was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Society, and a decade later he was its Secretary as well as Superintendent of the Society. Situated on a 23-acre site at Alipore, the Society was not government-funded, but relied on the annual subscriptions of members. During World War Two, soldiers and heavy trucks were stationed in the Society’s Gardens which caused havoc to the plants and the main lawn. Few varieties were saved and some of the best plants lost forever. When Sydney retired, he was invited to become Senior Technical Advisor to the Lucknow Gardens which meant a return to his childhood home. There he specialised in ornamental cultivars (cultivated varieties of plants), particularly bougainvillea and lilies. Sydney and his wife Mary, whom he had married in 1911, lived simply in the Gardens in a converted potting-shed, known as the Gumla Ghar (meaning,house of flower pots). Two sons were born to the couple, Richard, who became a surgeon in South Africa and Alick, who followed his father’s footsteps and became Director of Horticulture in the Central Public Works Department. It was Alick who was responsible for maintaining the thousands of trees that line New Delhi’s pleasant roads today and for maintaining the government nursery at Sunderbagh, near Humayun’s tomb.
In 1960 Sydney and Mary were persuaded to move to Salisbury, Rhodesia where Alick had settled on his retirement. Sadly both Mary and Alick died within the year and Sydney was left alone in a foreign country. He made the sensible decision to return to Lucknow and his relief was evident when he wrote in verse: ‘For I am home, yes, home again, E’en though I be of other race’.
Sydney remained in Lucknow until his final retirement to Dehradun, It was here that he died on 5 May 1972. His body was cremated, which answers the question of why there is no grave in Lucknow. But this is not the end of the story. Curious to learn more about the Englishman and his wife who lived in a potting shed for five years, I contacted an old friend in Lucknow, Dr. Amrita Dass who almost immediately tracked down Dr. Suresh Chandra Sharma who had actually worked with Sydney in the Lucknow Gardens in the 1960s. Dr. Sharma, now President of the International Society of Environmental Botanists, remembered Sydney as a reserved, but kindly man, a grandfather figure to the then young botanist. Another memory came when Richard Percy-Lancaster visited the Lucknow Gardens and wrote: ‘I wept as one of the malis there recognised the face of my father in me. He cried because my father had treated him as a son’.
Sydney Percy-Lancaster was not only a kind and generous person, and a skilled horticulturalist, he was also a fluent linguist in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu, a photographer, poet, prolific writer and a man who genuinely loved the land of his birth. Manuscripts of his poems were found in the library of the Agri-Horticultural Society some years ago and published as ‘To India with Love’. He was’ say the editors Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha ‘a shining example of secular Indian patriotism’. Sydney’s cremated ashes were placed into two urns. One urn was sent to Dr. Sharma with instructions to scatter the ashes in the Lucknow Gardens. The second went to the Society in Calcutta where a memorial tablet reads: ‘The world more beautiful he made/with loving zeal he plied his trade.’ And recently Annabel Percy-Lancaster visited Lucknow and the now famous potting shed to pay tribute to a remarkable man.
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