In the summer of 1863, when [Dr Francis] Day was visiting the Nilgiris, he heard about Thomas’s attempt to bring trout to India. Around the same time, Day received a small booklet titled Fish Hatching, written by his childhood friend Frank Buckland. Like Day, Buckland had joined the military as an assistant surgeon. But he later resigned and started collecting and hatching trout eggs.
After reading about trout hatching, Day started to think seriously about introducing trout in the Nilgiris. He made a survey of the streams and rivers in these hills and decided that its water bodies offered a perfectly hospitable environment for trout.
The biggest problem was a familiar one – the distance from England. Day knew that only eyed ova could be transported. He also knew that ova hatch within 14 days, and that it took a ship at least 40 days to reach India, to which must be added a further three days for a rail and road journey to Ooty. But these constraints did not discourage Day from pursuing the project.
Fortuitously, he was able to meet the governor of Madras, Sir William Denison, who told him to get in touch with James Youl. When this meeting took place, Day was working simultaneously on two projects: attempting to stock trout in the Nilgiri Hills, and consolidating his work on the fishes of Cochin into a book. Both these projects necessitated a visit to England. Since he had the backing of the governor, Day’s application for six months’ leave was granted readily.
In England, Day was first entirely preoccupied with readying his book. Eventually, on 20 April 1864, he visited Youl in London. Here, Day saw ova of that were 93 and 143 days old, treated by ice, and surviving well. With the end of his leave imminent, he prepared a detailed plan for stocking the Nilgiri streams with trout and sent it to the Madras government.
He was granted an extension of sick leave for a further six months. But for Day, this would not suffice. On 14 September, he wrote a letter to Governor Denison. He applied for an extension of one year, ostensibly claiming his recovery from illness was incomplete. But the same letter also made it clear that the extension was necessary for his trout project. The letter even had detailed suggestions on the subject – saying, for example, that the trout ova eggs had to be brought by a competent officer, that the eggs must be collected in winter, that the material can travel to India only in January or February, when the ships were less crowded, and so on.
Governor Denison believed that Day was the right man for the project, and extended his leave by a year. In December, while still on leave, Day was promoted to the post of surgeon. Later in the same month, Day’s book Fishes of Malabar was published by Cumberland House. He was now free to train all his energies on the trout project.
Day’s extension was approved in the early part of 1865 and, by November 1865, he had acknowledged receipt of 60 pounds for the trout project from the Madras government. He then collected trout eggs for the Nilgiris in January 1866, planning to leave Southampton with the ova on 4 February 1866, sailing in a P and O steamer.
He started negotiations over the supply of ice, especially for the difficult overland transfer by rail from the ship at Alexandria to a second ship at Suez (the Canal opened only three years later). Six stout boxes were procured. Three large slate troughs were then sent to Madras to receive the eggs.
Day then contacted his friend Frank Buckland for help and advice. The Hampshire streams around Southampton appeared ideal, being close enough to the port for the eggs to be brought to the ship easily. In early December, a friend of Day’s at the Ordnance Survey Office invited him to view the trout stream. But the proprietors of the stream could not be persuaded to allow them to collect eggs.
Eventually, he was given permission by Melville Portal, owner of the paper mill at Laverstoke Park near Micheldever in Hampshire (the Portals had for generations supplied the paper for Bank of England notes). Melville Portal was married to Lady Charlotte Mary, daughter of the Second Earl of Minto, whose father had been governor-general of India (1807-14). It is possible that Day may have known a member of the family in India, which helped him gain access to their influential and helpful English relatives.
On 18 January 1866, a very cold day, Day and Buckland set out for Laverstoke Park. On arriving, they immediately started to net the river Test in that particular stretch. In the beginning they caught only males or spent females, but Buckland, the expert, ensured that they collected thousands of trout eggs after a few hours.
As mentioned by Whitehead and Talwar, it was a tiring experience for Day, who later wrote, “It was raining incessantly all day (and) at 2.30 it become so cold from wading that I had to stop and to go for Red Lion [beer].” But Buckland enjoyed the experience, writing, “I amazingly enjoy a day’s trout egg collecting... it was a cold day, and I am as fond of cold as a polar bear.”
Buckland took a part of the collection to Windsor Park for his hatching experiment, and Day took the rest. The next morning he loaded his precious cargo onto the train to Southampton. The cans containing the eggs were slung on a stick across the seats. At the port these eggs, 6,000 in number, were packed in six pine boxes specially supplied by James Youl for the purpose. A layer of charcoal lined the bottom of each pine box, and the sides and bottom were perforated. The boxes were then put in the refrigeration room.
When the ship SS Mongolia arrived on 2 February, the boxes were loaded onto the ship. The journey was circuitous; by ship to Alexandria, and then an overland journey by train to Suez. By the time these boxes reached Suez, nine tonnes of ice from the Wenham Lake Ice Company were ready and waiting. The boxes and ice were then loaded onto the SS Bengal.
The ship docked in Madras on 12 March. Day was satisfied, since everything had gone according to plan. Ahead lay a 450-km journey by train to Coimbatore (at the time the terminus of the railway). To protect the boxes from vibration, they were slung carefully from the roof of the carriage. When the boxes reached Coimbatore, Patrick Grant, the collector of the district, was there to receive them.
Clearly, he was aware of the importance of the project and the governor’s interest. The remaining 80 km to Ooty was accomplished on foot by a relay of bearers. In Ooty, a masonry hatching house had been built in the Government Garden according to instructions from Francis Day. The ova had stood the journey fairly well, the percentage of dead ranging only from 10 to 20.
Two months had now elapsed since Buckland and Day had collected the eggs. Day was anxious to see further results. All was going well but, suddenly, on 31 March a violent thunderstorm caused the water of the stream flowing through the hatching house to bring in silt and various insects. These insects began to devour the fish eggs. A long-cherished dream of the British in India and two years of hard work by Day had been undone by a single stray storm.
Excerpted with permission from A Fish in Alien Streams: The Incredible Journey of the Trout in India, Herjinder, Hachette India.