As the Madras High Court gets ready to celebrate its 150th birthday next year, I discovered it has a link with a building getting ready to celebrate its 100th birthday, Mysore's famed Ambi Vilas Palace. The link is Henry A. Irwin, architect of many a heritage building in Madras and elsewhere in India. While there's no doubt about his role in designing the Mysore Palace and supervising its building between 1897 and 1912, there has always been a bit of a question mark about his role in the High Court building, which was declared open in 1892.

The Rs.13 lakh building, it has been recorded, was designed by J.N. Brassington. The construction was supervised by J.H. Stephen. But Irwin is described as the architect. As he is in the case of another major building, the headquarters of the Bank of Madras and now the State Bank of India's Main Branch, on Rajaji Salai. In this case, the original designer is mentioned as Col. Samuel Jacob who designed St. Stephen's College's main building in Delhi. What was Irwin's role as architect in both these cases? I hope to find the answers before long.

No answers, however, are needed in the case of other Irwin heritage buildings that survive. He certainly designed the Law College to harmonise with the High Court building, the Connemara Library, particularly its magnificent (old) reading room, the King Institute building in Guindy , the Egmore Railway Station, the Victoria Technical Institute's Jaina Jaipuri home in the museum campus — now the Art Gallery that's kept shut — and the Tawker Building (belonging to once-famed jewellers, T.R. Tawker & Sons), which became the South India Cooperative Insurance Building, then home of the newly established Indian Airlines southern headquarters. The Life Insurance Corporation of India which succeeded SICI to the building pulled it down in the 1970s and replaced it with a bit of humdrum construction.

The other Irwin building that no longer survives is the internationally known pavilion of the Madras Cricket Club that was synonymous with Chepauk. When the first MCC Pavilion, built by Robert Chisholm, was badly damaged by a cyclone in 1888, the Club asked Government to permit Irwin, the then Consulting Architect to Government, to design its new pavilion. Permission was granted but when he submitted an estimate for Rs.13,440, it was felt that he should try to keep construction down to a value of no more than Rs.10,000. In the end, however, he persuaded the Club to accept his design and estimate and in 1892 it got the pavilion that served it well till it was pulled down a hundred years later. Shortly after the Irwin Pavilion was declared open, Irwin sought Government permission to accept “an honorarium of Rs. 250 which the Madras Cricket Club have offered me for having designed and supervised the construction of the new Cricket Pavilion.” Permission was granted — and also, a year later, in 1893, for supervising the improvements the Club wished to “carry out in connection with the cricket ground at Chepauk Park.”

Irwin was only too happy to help the Club out whenever it wanted him and whatever else he was doing, for he was one of its most active members. He played all four games the Club offered — cricket, hockey, tennis and squash in which, in the Handicap Singles, he was a scratch player. He played golf, took part in shooting competitions, and in the Hunt. But most visible of all, he was a gentleman rider of distinction. Irwin not only owned horses, he trained them and rode his, as well as those of others, at the Madras Race Club meets, riding in several races every race day and becoming a favourite with the punters. This was a time many of the MCC's members took part in three or four sports, but as one old-timer recorded it, “Irwin was exceptional.” He was exceptional as an architect too, outstanding enough to be invited to design the Viceregal Lodge in Simla.

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Lighting up the hall

Theodore Baskaran points out that trams were plying in Madras from 1895 and they must have been receiving electricity from some source (Miscellany, November 7). And that source, I recall, was a small thermal power station the Madras Electric Tramway Company established at Basin Bridge. The Tramways sold the facility to the Madras Electricity Supply Corporation (Estd. 1906) in 1913.

And it is a Tramways electricity story that I found in another of those papers I have received (and which I had referred to a couple of weeks ago). Stephen P. Hughes, an authority on Madras film history, tells this tale in his contribution, ‘When Film Came to Madras', to Bioscope, published by Sage.

Ada Delroy, an exotic dancer famed for her Cobra Dance, arrived in Madras in December 1897 with her group of English and Australian artists to offer the “most attractive entertainment” for three evenings at the Victoria Public Hall. But the group was stumped when it found the Hall had no electricity and their high power arc lamps were of no use. Lighting, the show needed — and “the smelly and smoky kerosene oil lamps” the hall was equipped with was not the lighting they wanted. That's when the group's manager thought out of the box — and ensured the show went on.

He spotted the electric trams passing in front of the hall (on Poonamallee High Road) and he got in touch with the Chief Engineer of Madras Tramways, R.C. Holmes, and persuaded him to run a line from the electric tramlines to the Hall. To this connection they attached “a great globe” that shed ample light on the proceedings. The Madras Mail was more taken up with this than the show and commented that this ‘spontaneous and novel use of electric lighting was an important example of an improved public amenity that should be actively promoted by the Madras Corporation.'

In the end, it was the Madras Electric Supply Corporation that promoted electricity in Madras. The Company was founded in London in 1906 with an authorised share capital of £1,100,000, almost all of it paid up. Its head office was at 1 Queen Victoria Street, London E.C.4, and its Madras office was at 1 Rundall's Road, Vepery.

Having as it did a contract to supply electricity in perpetuity to the Madras Electric Tramways (1904) Ltd., in 1935 it held all the Ordinary shares of the Tramways company. It also supplied electricity to the South Indian Railways' suburban electric service.

By the 1920s, there were a few electrical contractors and engineers in the city. Namely, English Electric Co. Ltd., Oriental Telephone and Electric Corporation Ltd., Crompton Engineering Works (Madras) Ltd. (1918), and Roche & Sundaram Ltd. (1922). I wonder who Roche and Sundaram were.

Around this time, electricity tariffs were eight annas per unit for lighting, five annas per unit for lighting and fans on the combined circuit, and Rs. 8 per KW of maximum demand plus one anna per unit consumed for industrial power. Rates to envy at a time when electricity charges are rocketing.

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When the postman knocked...

*Tara Murali of INTACH Tamil Nadu (now INTACH Chennai) reminds me that, in 2004, INTACH Tamil Nadu, at the request of the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department, prepared a report on the Governor's Bungalow in Tranquebar (Miscellany, November 28). The report had stated that the restored building should be used to benefit the local community and should not be handed over to any private agency. The National Museum of Denmark, showing interest in the report, held discussions in Chennai with the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department and INTACH Tamil Nadu that were facilitated by the Consulate for Denmark in the city. At these discussions the Museum agreed to fund the restoration and to the formation of an Indo-Danish committee that would ensure proper maintenance after restoration and meaningful use of the building. An Indo-Danish cultural and study centre was suggested. This report, I should add, has not languished as long as another report prepared by INTACH Tamil Nadu for the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department. That was for Pulicat, once the chief Dutch settlement in South and Southeast Asia. It is to be hoped that the Netherlands Consulate in Chennai facilitates a similar discussion with a Dutch government institution, Tamil Nadu Tourism and INTACH Chennai.

*Here's yet another of those inquiries from abroad and for which I have no answers. Richard Davis is writing the biography of William Smith O'Brien, an Irishman who led a rebellion against the British in 1848. O'Brien was arrested, tried and condemned to death, but had his sentence commuted to transportation for life. He was sent to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) where he was pardoned in 1854. On his way back to Ireland, he spent a month in Madras in August–September 1854 with his brother-in-law, Major William Gabbatt. He was introduced by Gabbatt to a fellow officer and friend, Col. Edward Balfour, about whom this column has had much to say in the past, particularly about his connections with the Nawab of the Carnatic's Madrasa and the Madras Government Museum. Davis writes that he recently found O'Brien's journal and in it mention that he was “greatly assisted by Colonel Balfour in his efforts to investigate the institutional, religious and social conditions of the period.” Davis says O'Brien was particularly interested in comparing “the condition of India with that of Ireland during the Irish Famine which had led to his rebellion.” Are there any readers who can help?

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012