With Madras Day that’s become Madras Week round the corner – August 19 to 26 (programmes begin from the middle of August well into the first week of September) – my thoughts have naturally turned to Francis Day, the little-remembered co-founder of the city together with Andrew Cogan. But I was made to think a bit more about Francis Day, or at least, his name when a couple of Madras enthusiasts buttonholed me and told me that they were sure that there were at least a couple of more Francis Days associated with Madras and wondered whether I could shed some light on them.
It is quite possible that there were more than a couple of Days associated with Madras, but I can think of only two on the spur of the moment. One was Francis Day Jr., the son of the founder, who took him along as Writer and Accountant when he voyaged from London in 1642 to explore new markets on the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea coasts, particularly focussing on India, Burma and Persia. Day Jr. continued to serve the East India Company thereafter.
The other Francis Day is a much more significant figure in Indian history. He was Dr. Francis Day of the Madras Medical Service who could well be considered the ‘Father of the Fishing Industry’ in India. The first studies of Indian fish were done by two others connected with Madras and who have found mention in this column before – James Russell and Francis Buchanan-Hamilton. But it was Dr. Francis Day who was deputed by the Government of India in the late 1850s to study the fisheries resources of South India and then, on turning in a comprehensive report, those of the whole of India and Burma. These reports led him to be appointed the first Director General of Fisheries, India, in 1864. His reports, published in 1878, on the Freshwater Fish and Fisheries of India and Burma and on the Sea Fish and Fisheries of India, were pioneering documentations. He also pioneered efforts to conserve fish through legislation. The Indian Fisheries Act (Act IV of 1897) was the result of his efforts and aimed at enabling fishing without endangering the resource. The Act, among other things, banned the dynamiting and poisoning of fish, sought regulation of the dimensions of nets, and wanted prohibition of fishing up to two years in specified waters. Over a 100 years later, the implementation of these regulations continues to be found to be necessary.
A decade later, when, on the urgings from 1905 onwards of Sir Frederick Nicholson I.C.S., a Bureau of Fisheries was established in the Madras Presidency, and another first by Madras was recorded. In 1908, Sir Frederick became its first Director, an additional charge he accepted in an honorary capacity.
United at 75
Getting ready to celebrate its Platinum Jubilee is the United India Insurance Co. Ltd. But the roots of the company are much older, having been sunk in 1906 by the Lingam Brothers and Vijendra Rao. Their United India Life Insurance Company was established in a spirit of Swadeshi-ism: To be “owned, controlled and managed exclusively by Indians.” In 1924, Sir M. Ct. Muthiah Chettiar took over the Company and in 1927-28, reconstituted it to expand its boundaries beyond the Madras Presidency. When he died in 1929, his son, M. Ct. M. Chidambaram Chettyar (M.Ct.) took up the reins and developed it into one of the leaders in the Indian insurance business before nationalisation in 1956. Under his leadership, United India established branches -- from Karachi to Hong Kong. And to befit a company with such a spread, M.Ct. began building impressive offices – in the art deco-style – in many of the major cities.
It was around 1940 that he and his favourite builder, Kaval Lal Mehta, got down to raising the United India Building on Esplanade Road, facing Law College. It was built as the headquarters of United India Life, United India Fire & General, the New Guardian Life and the Indian Overseas Bank, all M.Ct. businesses flourishing at the time. To reflect that success, he wanted a landmark building – and when it was inaugurated it was certainly one of the handsomest buildings of the Madras of the time. A particularly noteworthy feature was the pyramidal echo topping the tall central façade, a design with overtones of a temple gopuram. Then followed several other buildings in similar style in different parts of India, all architecturally noticed in the 1940s and all of whose construction was personally supervised by M.Ct.
But the way his businesses were growing, that success needed to be reflected still more in the buildings they were housed in. In July 1953, M.Ct. told the United India Life shareholders at the 47th AGM, “Plans are getting ready for the construction of our building in Mount Road, Madras, to be jointly owned by the New Guardian of India Life Insurance Company and ourselves. This will be a unique construction in 14 floors… I expect this building will be ready in time for the celebrations of our Golden Jubilee, early in 1956.”
It was planned as Madras’s first tower block, the tallest building in the city. M.Ct. had wanted it to be 18 stories, but officialdom cut it down to 14. It, however, enjoyed its record till the recent building boom. Sadly, M.Ct. did not live to see it finished. He died in 1954. But work continued on the building when his son, M.Ct. Muthiah, took over. Then came nationalisation – and Government dithered over the building before it decided to complete it. In 1959, it became the regional headquarters of the Life Insurance Corporation, but it will ever remain a memorial to M. Ct. M. Chidambaram Chettyar and the United India he developed into the only South-based insurance company that covered not only the nation but also many parts of South and Southeast Asia.
When the postman knocked...
Having been away for a month, I’ve returned to a mailbox rather full with contributions and responses from readers as well as several questions. All this will be grist for this column’s mill over the next few weeks, so, patience, please, those of you who haven’t seen your responses or questions answered in these columns. Meanwhile, to start with …
* Expanding on what I had to say about the Pasteur Institute, Coonoor, on July 1, its Director Dr. B. Sekar narrates how the need for an Institute in South India was ‘brought home forcibly’ to the authorities. In 1902, a young English girl, Lilly Pakenkam-Walsh, died due to Rabies because of the delay resulting from the long journey she had to make to Kasauli for treatment. When Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, heard of this, he placed at the disposal of the Government of Madras. Rs.100,000 from the handsome donation Henry Phipps had made for the promotion of better medicare in India. The Governor of Madras, Lord Ampthill, acted immediately. He instructed Surgeon-General W.R. Browne I.M.S. and the Government Architect G.S.T. Harris (responsible for the Y.M.C.A. building in Madras, also raised with the help of an American donation) to select a site and draw up plans for a building for a vaccine-producing medical institute.
Coonoor was selected because of its central location in the Presidency, its rail and road accessibility, and its equable climate (40°-75°, generally averaging around 60°). In 1905, four acres of land were purchased for Rs.13,722, and work on the building started under the supervision of, first, Harris, and, then, Executive Engineer Keeling of the P.W.D., Coimbatore. Additional land was bought in 1906, 1907, 1918 and 1920, giving the Institute its present 12.5-acre campus. Quarters for a Resident Sub-assistant Surgeon, some patients and some outhouses for use as animal rooms and other purposes were completed in 1906.
The main building, though not functionally complete, was moved into in 1907. The first patient was admitted on April 6, 1907 and, two weeks later, Governor Sir Arthur Lawley officially opened the Institute. When construction of a library as an annexe to the main building was sanctioned in 1908, Henry Irwin designed the addition.
Dr. Sekar, bringing me up-to-date, adds that the Institute resumed vaccine production in February 2010, and that the first batch of DPT vaccines, comprising 1.5 million doses, was released to the Government of India in June 2012.