I knew there'd be some member from the old days of the Lady Willingdon Ladies' Recreation Club who'd have the answers to several of the questions I raised about the institution last week. And, sure enough there was one who not only said that some of the things I had recorded needed clarification but she also came up with a souvenir of the Club with a history of the institution in it. She went on to narrate a heap of tales out of school, so anonymous she will remain.
The good news is the club still exists, perhaps not in the same building but on the same campus, and should be thinking of celebrating its centenary this year. Secondly, its name is ‘The Ladies Recreation Club' and the only Willingdon connection to it is that its home on this campus was called Willingdon. Thirdly, the Willingdons had nothing to do with its founding, but Lady Willingdon had much to do with giving it vitality.
A spark lit by Mrs. Madeley, the wife of the Chief Engineer, Mrs. Seethamma Tiruvenkatachariar, daughter of Justice Sir V. Bashyam Iyengar and wife of C.R. Tiruvenkatachariar the well-known lawyer, and Mrs. R.S. Subramaniam led to a meeting on August 21, 1911 at Sylvan Lodge, Mylapore, home of Lady Masilmoney Chellammal Devadoss, wife of Justice Sir David M. Devadoss, and it was decided to found a ladies' club. Its objects were “to promote social and friendly intercourse between European and Indian ladies, and between Indian ladies of all classes and creeds; also to provide healthy recreation suitable to members of the club.”
That recreation, the members decided, would be badminton and croquet. Lady Carmichael, wife of the Governor of Madras, was elected the first President, a practice that was to continue for a long time. Lady Atkins was elected the first Chairman and three European and three Indian members were elected to share the duties of Vice-President, Honorary Secretary and Honorary Treasurer.
By the end of the first year, membership had so grown that the club was looking for premises of its own after increasing its once-a-week meetings to twice a week. In 1912, the club moved into Luz House, Oliver Road, Mylapore, and formally named itself ‘The Ladies Recreation Club'.
It also introduced tennis — a word picture of which I painted last week.
In 1920, Lady Willingdon took over the Presidency of the club and breathed life into the institution. A club needs a permanent home, she announced, and set about collecting the Rs. 2,50,000 necessary to buy the building on Marshall's Road that was for decades to remain the club's home. Rs.2 lakh of the donation came from S.Rm.M. Annamalai Chettiar (later to become Rajah Sir) who appended a request that the building be named after the Willingdons. So, Willingdon it became.
A Trust comprising the Governor, the Administrator-General, and the Secretary & Treasurer of the Imperial Bank (now the State Bank of India) was formed and it nominated a Council to manage the property. Recreational activities increased with the spaciousness that became available, and table tennis, indoor badminton, billiards, carrom and auction bridge, all swelled the club's programme. Lady Willingdon herself was one of the most active participants in many of these games.
When the men's clubs began opening their doors to women in the 1960s, many of the activities in Willingdon, the heart of Willingdon Estate, began fading and, before long, all outdoor activities came to a stop. Rummy and ‘at homes' became the chief activities of the club. With the club losing its dynamism, the whole property passed into the hands of the Chettinad family and its Annamalai University. But, in the first and second floor of a ladies' hostel here, the club survives, with rummy its main activity and the occasional ‘Tea'. Many of its members left once outdoor sports facilities were no longer available. Will the few now left celebrate the centenary this year of what was once the premier — and first? — women's club in South India?
FOOTNOTE: Ravi Menon writes that his wife's grandmother (daughter of Maharajah Mulam Thirunal of Travancore) donated Rs.10,000 to the Ladies Recreation Club in 1920 and received a Kaiser-i-Hind medal for her gesture. Lady Willingdon, “a great one for causes”, much appreciated such gestures — and gifts of jewellery even more — all of which she reciprocated in genteel fashion by recommending to her husband the bestowal of various titles and awards to the donors.
A first degree
A good question for quizmasters is: ‘Who was the first Hindu woman to receive a B.A. degree from the University of Madras?' She's been written about in this column in the past, but not in this context. It is the centenary of that context this year that has her featuring in Miscellany again.
She was Sister Subbalakshmi who was awarded her degree in 1911 — and made the news not for that achievement alone but for the fact that she was a child widow who had challenged all the odds of the times to get an education. She went on to do her L.T. at the Presidency Training School, Egmore, passing out in 1912.
This was when there came into her life a Miss Lynch, later to be known as Mrs. C. Drysdale after her marriage. Lynch was the new Inspectress of Girls' Schools in the Southern Region and she was convinced that there was a pressing need for Hindu women to become teachers, “teachers who could understand and harmonise education with Hindu tradition and outlook, and build character and life's pattern on indigenous and Indian lines.”
In Sister (as she was being called after graduation) Subbalakshmi, she not only saw the role model she had in mind but also the person who could show other child-widows the way. It was Lynch who persuaded Government to back the scheme of educating child-widows that Sister Subbalakshmi had started in a small way in her home.
When Sister's family home proved too small for the growing number of child-widows seeking ‘liberation', Sister moved them into a house in Triplicane. But soon, that too was not big enough.
And, that's when Lynch stepped in again and persuaded the Government to buy Ice House on the Marina for the purpose in 1915. When Sister's wards moved in, it became known as the Brahmin Widows' Home.
It was double duty that Sister Subbalakshmi was doing at this time. She was made Headmistress of the Maharaja Vizianagaram Girls' School in Triplicane that the Government had taken over, teaming with (Miss) M.F. Prager who was appointed Superintendent.
As the numbers continued to grow, Sister Subbalakshmi persuaded Government to buy a vacant site next to Ice House and, there came up the Lady Willingdon Training College, with Sister Subbalakshmi its first Principal.
Education was as much of her life as her fight to liberate child-widows for which she is better remembered.
When the postman knocked…
Sriram V., reader and colleague, wrote me a stern letter the other day, implying I should have known better. He was referring to my suggesting last week that Ritherdon, Rundall and Hunter were remembered in road names in Vepery because they had been priests of St. Matthias' Church.
That's not the case at all, though that's become “a common story now,” he admonished. Well, Sriram should know, because it's he and not I who is tracing the origins of road names in the city.
He tells me that Ritherdon was Maj.-Gen. Augustus Ritherdon who was with the Madras Service Corps sometime between 1800 and 1825.
Hunter was the first cashier of the Carnatic Bank and married Dorothea Gericke, the daughter of the Rev. C.W.Gericke, who was a priest at St. Matthias' Church in the Tranquebar Mission's caretaking days. Gericke is buried in St. Matthias' Church grounds.
Rundall was a Col. Charles Rundall of the Madras Army, a contemporary of Ritherdon.
And, Sriram adds for good measure that Breithaupt Road in the area is named after Christopher Breithaupt, a partner in the firm Pugh & Breithaupt, and not after his kinsman the Rev. John Breithaupt of the Tranquebar Mission who officiated at St. Matthias' Church during the caretaker days and is buried there.