Now a bustling tourist hotspot, Nainital seems to have forgotten all about the British woman who took the first steps towards developing it as a tourist destination 130 years ago. Mary Jane Corbett, better known as the mother of hunter-turned environmentalist Jim Corbett, was virtually the mother of tourism activities in the hill town as she set up its first lodging facility for visitors.
This piece of history, however, seems to have been buried under layers of time as the picturesque hill town gets busier each year with the crowd of tourists. Mary Jane was a woman who lived in the hills of Mussoorie and Nainital and died in Nainital. Her final resting place is also located in the lap of this town but stands neglected by locals and tourists alike despite having the potential to become a tourist attraction.
Mary Jane was the first person to provide a lodging facility in the town and, in her own little way, she sowed the seeds of tourism culture, which gradually became one of the main occupations of the people here and now shapes its economy, says Reverend Sundar Lal, who presides over the Church of St John-in-the-wilderness where Mary Jane Corbett’s grave stands.
Despite the town harvesting a fortune out of tourism activities, the mother of tourism lies neglected and forgotten, he rues. People from various countries still come to Nainital to visit the graves of their ancestors who were buried here during the colonial era. “It’s unfortunate that the grave of the person who devoted her life to developing tourism remains deserted,” says Reverend Sundar Lal.
“It also shows the apathy of those responsible for tourism development. If not for emotional reasons, this site should have been well-preserved, propagated and publicised at least for promoting tourism. The remains of this grave are a part of the history of this town. The site is also worth a visit for witnessing the peaceful environment and the natural beauty that encompasses the area,” he says.
Ever since its discovery, Nainital had been a summer retreat to many. Professor Anil Joshi of Kumaun University’s History department says, “The first European-style residential building set up in the town was for the benefit of Lushington, who served as the fourth Commissioner of the Kumaon region. It soon became the summer capital for the governor of the United Province (later known as Uttar Pradesh), and to this day the town is graced by the presence of the Uttarakhand governor during summer.”
The Britons were responsible for the settlement and development of Nainital as well as for the inception of tourism. Vijay Mohan Singh Khati, a tourism expert, says, “This initiative can largely be attributed to Mary Jane, more popularly recognised as the mother of Jim Corbett, the legendary hunter-turned-environmentalist and writer of Kumaon after whom Corbett National Park was renamed.”
“Amid the hot and sultry weather of India, the discovery of Nainital was like a boon to the Britons. Homesick for their motherland’s cool temperatures, they found solace in Nainital’s weather,” says Anup Sah, a noted photographer.
As the town’s population began to grow, its economy, too, began taking shape. In 1862, Christopher William, father of Jim Corbett, who was also a veteran of the First Afghan wars, the Sikh wars of 1840’s and the mutiny, was recruited as postmaster at Nainital. Christopher and Mary Jane had three children each from their first marriages and 9 from the marriage to one another.
Supporting such a big family on the meagre income of a postmaster being difficult, Mary Jane rented out half the house as a lodging facility for visitors to add to the family income. This was the first time a lodging facility was offered to the visitors in Nainital.Snippets from Jim Corbett’s books reveal that when the Corbetts moved to Nainital, they built a double storey house along with a cottage in the area opposite the China hill.
Here, Mary Jane managed her family of 15 children while also running a lodging house for visitors. “With the active participation and management of Eugene Mary Doyle, Mary Jane’s first daughter, she was able to provide the family with much-needed financial support.
However, after a landslide in 1880 and her husband’s death in 1881, Mary Jane sold the house. She then moved to the region of Ayarpata and constructed well-known building of the town, Gurney house. The house was constructed out of the material of the dismantled cottage of the old home, thus gaining its name Gurney, meaning a wheeled cot of stretcher, referring to the house built through the remains of the cottage wheeled over to the new location.
“While Christopher William passed away on April 21, 1881, Mary Jane passed away on May 16, 1924. They were both laid to rest in the cemetery of the Church of St John-in-the-wilderness,” said Prof Joshi.