Heritage gutted at Dow Hill

Alumni grieve for Alma Mater

By Our Bureau
  • Published 13.02.16

From the ashes of a 135-year-old school rises a heap of memories 

Flames engulf the junior section of Dow Hill School (circled, above) in Kurseong during a fire that raged till early on Friday, leaving the heritage structure gutted. Dow Hill shares its campus with Victoria Boys’ School, both more than a century old and with an alumni list that includes famous faces ranging from politicians to film stars. Pictures by Suman Tamang

The junior section of the 135-year-old Dow Hill School in Kurseong that has nurtured several generations of Calcuttans was gutted in a fire that raged for four hours till early on Friday, barely three weeks before the winter vacation ends.

The two-storey heritage structure made of stone, cement, tin and timber housed classrooms from Lower Kindergarten to Class III, dormitories for junior girls and boys, a dining hall and two quarters for the matrons in charge of the junior section.

Rita Sinha, the school's principal, said: "Since the school is closed for the winter vacation, there were no students on the campus. Around 10 last night, one of the four night guards on the campus called me to inform that a fire had broken out in the junior section. I immediately rushed out and found that the blaze was spreading fast as there was a strong breeze."

An official of the school said 40 out of the 200 boarders at Dow Hill, around 3km from Kurseong town, were from Calcutta.

The school, set up in 1879 by the then Lt. Governor of Bengal, Sir Ashley Eden, counts among its famous alumni Anne Lumsden, a hockey player who became the first woman to win the Arjuna Award in 1961, actress Mahima Chaudhry, Tolly actresses Churni Ganguly and Parno Mittra and bureaucrat-turned-politician Manish Gupta.

Boys study at Dow Hill till Class III, beyond which it is a girls-only institute. Next to Dow Hill is Victoria Boys' School with classes IV to X. Dow Hill and Victoria Boys are the only ICSE schools administered by the Bengal government. Both schools have always had a large presence of students from Calcutta, Bihar, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Churni said she was "in mourning" since hearing about the blaze. "A piece of British architecture that has withstood snow, storm and rain is gutted.... It's like childhood memories going up in flames. I had taken my son Ujaan there a year-and-a-half ago to show him where I had spent the best years of my life," the actress-director recalled.

Parno, who studied at Dow Hill till Class III, was shocked when Metro informed her about the fire. "What?! No! I have very little memory of my first school, but would fondly leaf through pictures of Dow Hill on the Net. I was too young, left Dow Hill in 1994," said the Rajkahini actress.

Eva Dasgupta, a former head of the education department at Loreto College, was just as distraught. "I am utterly devastated to know about the fire at Dow Hill. I was there from 1942 to 1950 and spent the best years of my life in that wonderful school. Our school song, Dowhill, to thee we sing our praise, epitomises my feelings. I just can't believe it," she said.

Schoolteacher Gita Sen, who retired from Don Bosco High School, Park Circus, couldn't believe that her alma mater had been reduced to ashes. "How shocking! Dow Hill was an excellent school with vast playgrounds. We had the best teachers, including principal Ms Hurley, and primarily British students. I left in 1947 and thoroughly enjoyed my schooldays in boarding at Kurseong," she said.

Former bureaucrat Gupta, who is now the state power minister, was at Dow Hill from 1947 to 1951. He shifted to the adjacent Victoria Boys' School in Class I.

Many ex-students of Dow Hill and Victoria Boys' School put up pictures of their school buildings on social media and posted messages expressing solidarity with the institute, which had started from a house called Constantia near Kurseong town with 15 boys and girls in 1879.

Officials in Darjeeling district said fire engines from Siliguri, Matigara, Darjeeling and Bijanbari were sent to Kurseong immediately after the blaze was reported. "The information (about the fire) was received at 10.19pm and blaze was controlled by 2.30am. It took some time to control the flames because large fire engines couldn't enter the area through narrow roads and sharp turns," said Anurag Srivastava, the district magistrate of Darjeeling.

The junior section of Dow Hill School was under renovation. Since the school is scheduled to reopen on March 3, the immediate target is to make alternative arrangements. "We will have to sit down with teachers and officials and look at the possibility of making alternative arrangements. It will be difficult to accommodate the juniors in the seniors' dormitories. Moreover, we also have boys till Class III," principal Sinha said.