A Street named Manipur in Manchester and Shirui Lily

Dr. Irengbam Mohendra Singh *

 L) Original Manipur Street, Beswick, Manchester. M11. (R)Manipur Street with modern houses and flats
(L) Original Manipur Street, Beswick, Manchester. M11. (R)Manipur Street with modern houses and flats.
Manipur Street with terraced houses has now regenerated since 2001 into a large estate with various Postcodes of M11 in northeast Manchester.

 Shirui Lily or Siroi lily , the State Flower of Manipur blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill ranges in Ukhrul district
Shirui Lily (White & pink Shirui Lily (Lilium macklinlea)) blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill ranges in Ukhrul district :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

On September 7 2019, I saw a UK news item sent by YouTube on my Smart phone, simply as "Manipur Street, Beswick. Manchester M11. England."

I was curious. I looked it up on the internet. It said, 'Manipur Street is only one street, making it unique in Great Britain'. It was named in honour of Francis (Frank) Kingdon-Ward, who, with his second wife Jean Macklin, jointly discovered Sihroi Lily in the Ukhrul district of Manipur in 1949.

This plant, they first called simply, Manipur Lily, and later Sirhoi lily from Sirhoi Kashong or Sirhoi peak at an altitude of 2.855 m (8427 ft.) above sea level (cf. Shillong with 1.650 m). Ukhrul ridge is at 1828 m (6,000 ft) and is connected by a saddle to Sirhoi Kashong.

There is some confusion about the correct spelling of this one and only lily, whether it is Siroi, Sirhoi or Shirui. I will use Sirhoi here, as it was used by Frank Kingdon-Ward in his book, Plant Hunter in Manipur by F. Kingdom–Ward, B.A., F.R.G.S., F.L.S., first Printed in 1952 in Oxford.

 Frank with Jean in Manipur in 1948
Frank with Jean in Manipur in 1948

Ukhrul is really a majestic place. I vaguely remember it. I have been there once, when I was 15 or 16 years old, after WWII. My eldest brother Gokulchandra, a civil engineer in the PWD of Manipur, took me up there in his jeep on one of his professional tours.

Ukhrul is aptly described by Frank in his book: "If Imphal is Clapham Junction of Manipur Valley, Ukhrul is the Piccadilly Circus of the frontier hills."

He meant, if Imphal is a commercial place of Manipur Valley like the Clapham Junction in London, Ukhrul is the world famous tourist attraction place of the frontier hills, like Piccadilly Circus in London.

First, a bit about lily flowers. Lilies are a group of flowering plants that belong to the genus Lilium and species Liliacea. Many flower are called lilies, such a water lily. But they are not related. Water lily belongs to the genus Nymphaea and species Nymphacea that grows from rhizomes in water, whilst lilies grow from bulbs in soil. Examples: the botanical name of Meitei Tharo angouba is Nymphaea alba or Nymphaea odorata. Tharo angangba is Nymphaea rubra.

 Modolei (Modo-lei) Crinum amabile. Sudarshan in Hindi
Modolei (Modo-lei) Crinum amabile. Sudarshan in Hindi

Meiteis are familiar with a larger variety of lily - modolei in Manipuri, as in the classic song: modolei modolei, pumna chinsi chaomalli, tangkhai chinsi pikmalli.

My wife grows various lilies that are as big as modolei in large tubs in our garden. They are perennial and bloom in June/July. They have beautiful fragrance.

Princess Diana's coffin decorated with white lilies and white roses.

Lily flowers are the second most favourable flowers in the world, the first being roses. They are most often associated with funerals, as they symbolise that the soul of the departed has received restored innocence after death. Those who have seen Princess Diana's funeral cortege on television, would have noticed that her coffin was adorned with white lilies in addition to white roses that were her favourite flowers.

A little digression here, might be of some help to non-botanists. As a biological student, I learnt in Botany and Zoology that plant and animal names carry two words, known as "binominal nomenclature". The first is called the 'generic' name and always begins with a capital letter (upper case). The second is the name of the species and begins with a small letter (lower case). For example, Lilium macklinlea, or Homo sapiens. These are meant to avoid ambiguity while communicating with biologists all over the world. Both names may be Italicised or underlined.

According to Frank's grandson, Oliver Tooley, "discovering the Sirhoi lily was his greatest "swansong" plant. Frank Kingdom Ward (not hyphenated) first discovered the flower in 1946 and introduced it to the world by bagging the prestigious merit prize in the Royal Horticulture Society flower show in 1948 in London." Frank published most of his books as Frank Kingdom-Ward (hyphenated). He wrote 25 books, mostly accounts of his expeditions and discoveries.

In 1946, at the Research Institute at Tocklai, about 3 km from Jorhat in Assam, Frank was assigned to find three American military aircrafts with the remains of the pilots that crashed between the steep Manipur hills and Burma. He set off with two GIs in a jeep with a trailer containing provisions to Ukhrul. He found two. He then climbed the Sirhoi peak alone to see if he could see the third plane towards the Burmese side.

During this visit in January 1946, he collected seed of what he thought to be 'Sirhoi Nomocharis'', half a dozen bulbs, and several capsules. Nomocharis is a genus of Liliacea that has shallower flowers. He sent them with relevant field notes to the Royal Horticultural Society in London, where they aroused cautious interest amongst lily growers. Later, he got the news that the seeds he sent, germinated, under glass, and flowered in June 1947 within 16 months of being sown. He was a bit disappointed to know that the colour of the flowers was, as he had found, more or less 'a sort of dirty white'!

 Shirui Lily or Siroi lily , the State Flower of Manipur blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill ranges in Ukhrul district
Shirui Lily (White & pink Shirui Lily (Lilium macklinlea)) blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill ranges in Ukhrul district :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

Frank went on 25 expeditions over a period of 50 years, hunting plants up and down across the mountains of Southeast Asia, such as Tibet, North-western China, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Burma. He survived many serious accidents, such as being impaled once on a bamboo spike. Having completed his mission in Manipur, he went back home to England in 1946, to have a well-earned holiday.

There in England, in 1947, he met a charming 26 year-old Jean Macklin by complete chance. She "fell in love" with the distinguished Plant hunter Frank, who was 68 years old. Rather, she picked the right man, after a boring life in colonial Bombay, for the excitement of adventure and plant hunting.

She was the daughter of a former British Bombay High Court Judge. And against her parents' wishes, she married him the same year on November 12. This was Frank's second marriage, which turned out to be a very happy one, as Jean was a passionate adventurer as well.

Frank gave Jean the adventure she craved for. During the next ten years they undertook five major plant-collecting expeditions, three in Northeast India and two in Burma. Frank had a lot of stamina. It was at the age of 68 that he climbed up the Sirhoi peak with Jean. His last expedition to Burma was in 1953 when he discovered Roscocea australis (cf. his book: Return to Irrawaddy).

Frank was previously married to Florinda Norman-Thompson on April 11 1923, which ended in divorce. He named Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis betonycifolia) that he discovered, as Primula florindae (Giant cowslip) after her. She divorced him in 1936.

Frank had met Florinda during his first trip back to England after 7 years. She was 23 and gorgeous, the only child of landowning parents. They lived in a big house in Maidenhead, England and another in Dublin, Ireland. Frank was 37 and malarial. He was staying with his mother and his sister in a small hotel in Bayswater in London. Frank proposed to her 3 or 4 times, but she could find little reason to love this odd and sickly man.

Then one day, out of the blue, on January 22 1922, she wrote a letter to Frank who was in Asia, asking him to marry her. There was no declaration of love. Frank returned to England in early 1923. They were married in a register office on April 11 1923. They struggled to get by after they set up their first home in London. Then, Frank began his long-planned expedition to the Yarlung Tsangpo River Gorges, returning to England only for brief periods. His long stretches of relationship were purely epistolary; writing letters to and fro.

 Shirui Lily or Siroi lily , the State Flower of Manipur blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill ranges in Ukhrul district
Shirui Lily (White & pink Shirui Lily (Lilium macklinlea)) blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill ranges in Ukhrul district :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

Florinda was lady-like and a woman of high maintenance. A great gulf in economic circumstance had separated these two. She was extravagant and wanted more and more money which frank could ill-afford. He fell early into debt which grew until it reached between £600 -£800 by 1937. He sent her as much money as he could. Florinda started her own business. She would not take money from her rich mother. She hated her as she was Victorian and orthodox.

Florinda and Frank had discussed divorce on and off, but has been put off because their two daughters - Martha and Pleione were too young. Finally in 1936, Florinda filed for divorce. She gave the legal grounds as his admission of adultery with a young woman named Yarwood. Frank called it a "Collusive divorce". The battle for alimony was a tedious one. Frank finally, stopped paying it. Florinda Kingdom-Ward had a brief political career which included standing as a Liberal Party candidate for Parliament at the 1950 UK General Election in Lewes.

Frank Kingdon-Ward was an illustrious man. A legendary botanist, explorer, plant collector, adventurer, writer, painter, spy and military officer. He was born in Manchester on November 6 1885. He died on April 8 1958, aged 72, at Wimbledon, London. He had suffered a stroke and was in a coma from which he never discovered. He had hypertension. He was buried at Grantchester, two miles south of Cambridge.

Frank went to St Paul's Catholic Primary and High School in Manchester, where his father Henry Marshall was a professor of botany at Owen College. According to his grandson Oliver Tooley, Frank as a young boy, wanted to be a cab driver (horse-drawn cab). During their school days, Frank with his best friend Kenneth, went on adventures involving hardships, and got up to many scrapes (rough & tumble fights).

Frank grew up in a comfortable middle class family, but by no means wealthy. When his father was appointed Professor of botany at Cambridge in 1895, they went to live in Cambridge. He was then sent to a prestigious public school of St Paul's by the River Thames in London. He later, entered Christ College in Cambridge in 1904.

Frank's education was cut short when his father died of diabetes, aged 58, leaving him, his older sister Winifred and mother Selena in difficult economic circumstances. Impecunious, Frank sat 'tripos' and got a second BA degree in Botany, one year earlier, promising to come back for the final fourth year. (In Cambridge, all degrees are BA, whether science or arts). He left for Shanghai to teach school and begin his plant exploring career. His mother never remarried and maintained her and daughter by becoming a school teacher, and supported by Frank's small, regular donations.

In 1911, Frank was employed by the seed firm 'Bees Ltd', to travel and teach at Shanghai Public School, as well as, to go to Yunnan province in search of hardy decorative plants that might be marketed to British gardens. But all the time, his ambition was to go to the Himalayas to search for new plants. In this year with his first publication of "On the road to Tibet", he was elected Fellow of the Royal geographical society (FRGS). In one of these very hazardous trips, he survived by sucking nectar from flowers and caught malaria, which never left him for the rest of his life.

In 1917, he came home to Cambridge, after staying some time with his best and lifelong friend Kenneth, who was working in Rangoon. During his short stay, he fell in love (infatuation) with a girl who not only rejected his advances but also eloped with another man.

In addition to his professional activities as a botanist, Frank also served as a spy for the British India Office in the 1930s. He also did a stint as British Indian Army officer during WWII, but saw no active service. Frank spent the next 6 years in the East.

After the War and immediately after their marriage on November 12 1947, Frank and Jean left Liverpool for Bombay en route to Manipur via Calcutta and Tocklai in Assam, two miles from Jorhat. They arrived in semi-independent Manipur in an Army lorry on February 17 1948.

 Shirui Lily or Siroi lily , the State Flower of Manipur blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill ranges in Ukhrul district
Shirui Lily (White & pink Shirui Lily (Lilium macklinlea)) blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill ranges in Ukhrul district :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

In Imphal, they met the Chief Minister Capt MK Priyobrata and Major RC Khathing, the Hills minister, and obtained the permission to go to Ukhrul. On February 27, after 10 days they left Imphal to begin their expedition in Ukhrul, accompanied by Dr Mukherjee and his family in two separate trucks.

During their ten days in Imphal, they went on botanising several times to search for 'delicious white dog roses' (Rosa involucrate) along the Manipur river bank, and for Manipur Iris with purple flowers at Lamphel, where he had seen them years ago, growing in thousands in the rainy season. He could not find any this time. He was struck by its likeness to the Japanese Iris kempferii. In the past he had sent home the seeds, which either did not germinate or died. He wondered what the name of this iris is. Manipur iris is now named as Iris wattii Baker.

Frank had been to Manipur before and stayed many times with his friend C Gimson, a Cambridge graduate and Political Agent at Imphal. He admired how well C Gimson (a plant enthusiast) kept the Residency Garden. This time he met the Dominion Agent Debeswar Sarma (sic). He was amazed to find him living in rather reduced circumstances, as compared with the style formerly considered proper to a Political Agent.

So, in March 1948, they began their plant hunting in Ukhrul. They were helped by a very able Tangkhul cook named Mangalay who spoke good Hindustani with which he communicated with Frank. He was trained by the wife of a British frontier officer. He also acted as the interpreter during their expeditions.

During this first joint expedition to Manipur, Frank and Jean produced 1400 herbarium specimens, of about a thousand species, including over 250 with seeds. The most famous among these was the Sirhoi lily, which they first called simply as "Manipur lily". It blooms in the months of May and June.

About the end of May 1948, in one of the excursions starting from Ukhrul, Dr Mukherjee followed in their footsteps as far as Chammy peak (1.524 km). Frank was not interested in the plants Mukherjee collected, as they were all low-level and sub-tropical.

From early 1940 until their last visit to Sirhoi in 1948, Frank kept sending bulbs and pressed flowers and leaves of this Manipur plant (later, Sirhoi lily) to England, for correct identification. There was an uncertainty as to whether the plant was a Lilium or Nomocharis. Nomocharis is similar to Lilium but it has shallow or flat flowers.

To Frank it looked more like Nomocharis. In the end, the pundits at Kew and Royal Horticultural Society had a consensus that it was a Lilium. The plant was named as Lilium macklinlea by Mr JR Sealy, in honour of Frank's wife Macklin, "who had done so much to bring it into cultivation on a big scale."

Their final expedition to Burma in 1956 was not very exciting. Jean fell ill and Frank felt his age. They came back to London via Ceylon. They were planning another trip to Vietnam before Frank suddenly had a stroke. They were living in a bedsit in a Cromwell Road hotel in London, having never owned a home or garden of their own.

In their 10 years' expeditions together, Jean Kingdon-Ward was first more like an assistant to Frank, but she learnt along the road and became an experienced botanist and plant collector. She was also the 'doctor' for themselves and often held clinic for the villagers on the way. She wrote her only book: My Hill so strong. She typed and corrected spellings for some of Frank's manuscripts. Frank reported his finding in his book Plant Hunter in Manipur as a tribute to Jean's contribution to their success. In their five visits to Sirhoi Kashong, they collected 250 species of flowering plants.

They left Imphal on December 16 1948. It was Frank's 17th and Jean's 1st plant hunting assignment in Asia. Ten days later, Sir Akbar Hydari, the first Indian Governor of Assam, who came to Manipur with his Swedish wife Sigrid Westling, died on December 28 1948 from a stroke, during a visit to Wangoi village. He was buried in Kangla Fort, Imphal, by the Meitei Pangal Community. I was there in Imphal.

In the annual 1950 Chelsea Flower Show in London, Frank's friend Col FC Stern, greatest living expert on lilies, and famous in the botanical and horticultural world, after growing the Sirhoi lily bulbs on for eighteenth months, exhibited a plant in full bloom. That was it. Lilium macklinlea received the coveted Royal Horticultural Society 'Award of Merit'.

After Frank's death in 1958, Jean then only 37, married a Norwegian Albert Rasmussen (75), and spent the next 14 years in Norway as Jean Rasmussen. Jean did like old men. There, she had a large botanical park with many species of Rhododendrons and all kinds of shrubs and trees. She and her husband Ras used to celebrate the 5th of June every year, the day when she and Frank found this lily (Sirhoi).

They had a very good life together, with large social circles and great parties with lots of drinks and singsong, and Jean, charming and intelligent, often with a drop of English upper class. They travelled a lot and spent many years in China.

Rasmussen died in December 1972 aged 89. Sometime after her husband's death, Jean now 51, moved back to England and settled in Eastbourne, a seaside town in the south coast of England. She had astronomy to enjoy and continued to travel. In an interview she said: "I had a very good life in Norway, but 10 years with Frank were quite unique. I think I was very privileged." She died on December 3 2011, aged 90.

My wife Margaret has recently discovered that Sirhoi lily is now cultured and available in the UK as Lilium macklinlea. The bulbs are available for planting in ordinary gardens in March/April. We are looking forward to having the Sirhoi lily in our garden next year.

Photo Gallery related to Shirui Lily :

o Shirui Lily / Siroi lily blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill Range, Ukhrul :: Part 1
o Shirui Lily / Siroi lily blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill Range, Ukhrul :: Part 2
o Shirui Lily / Siroi lily blooming in May 2015 at Siroi hill Range, Ukhrul :: Part 3

* Dr. Irengbam Mohendra Singh wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at irengbammsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com and Website:
This article was webcasted on October 13 2019.

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