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Updated: June 6, 2013 14:33 IST

Madras’ pushy First Lady

Sriram V.
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Lady Willingdon
Special Arrangement
Lady Willingdon

When Lady Willingdon arrived in 1919, the city got a taste of her energy

The proposed demolition of the building of the erstwhile Lady Willingdon Nursing Home to make way for a welcome extension of the Sankara Nethralaya, consigns to history one more of the many institutions, parks, buildings and what-have-you that were once named after a dominating and energetic First Lady of Madras — Marie Adelaide Freeman-Thomas, Marchioness of Willingdon.

In a remarkable career that spanned 23 years of Raj postings from 1913, her husband was successively Governor of Bombay, Governor of Madras, Governor-General of Canada and finally Viceroy of India. This paralleled an unequalled rise in the peerage. From plain Freeman-Thomas, he became Baron Willingdon of Ratton and thereafter Viscount, Earl and finally Marquis of Willingdon. Though he was an able administrator, general opinion was that he would have remained a parliamentary backbencher had it not been for two things — tennis partner to King George V and his pushy spouse, whom he euphemistically termed a constant source of “support and encouragement.”

The Willingdons came to Madras in 1919. Almost at once, the laidback city got its taste of her energy – some for the good, others not. In the good was her befriending Indians with initiative and enterprise – Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer and Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar being two favourites. She got the Ladies Recreation Club to acquire 150 grounds of land in Egmore, to be named as (what else), the Willingdon Estate.

She warmly espoused Sister Subbalakshmi’s championing of widows and thus came up the Lady Willingdon School and the Lady Willingdon Institute of Advanced Study in Education. In 1920 she founded the South Indian Nursing Association, which in 1921 merged with the older Lady Ampthill Nursing Service and became the Lady Willingdon Nursing Home. The hospital functioned first from Mount Road and in 1951 shifted to Pycrofts Garden Road, to the art-deco edifice which Sankara Nethralaya purchased in 1998.

And there was another side. She was obsessed with the colour mauve and everything, from gubernatorial (and later Viceregal) coaches to toilet paper had to be in that colour. Harassing aides-de-camp was routine. It is said that Lord Willingdon pacified an aide stating that if he (Lord Willingdon) had suffered her for so many years, surely the aide could bear up for five! Lady Willingdon terrified Maharajahs and their formidable Maharanis by boldly asking to be gifted anything she liked – from pearl necklaces to mahogany toilet seats. Aides carried around a capacious bag with a yawning mouth wherever she went. Nobody dared refuse. In Baroda, the State jewels were buried when she visited.

When the Willingdons retired to London in 1936, they left behind enough and more memorials in India. Apart from what was in Madras, Cochin had Willingdon Island, Bombay the Willingdon Club and Delhi the Willingdon Crescent and the Willingdon (now Safdarjung) aerodrome. Even the Lodi Gardens was renamed Lady Willingdon Park! Imperious Lady Willingdon, full of energy and ideas, lived on till1960. Her exhausted husband passed away in 1941.

thank god atleast she had left some behind(in modern terms so many).if
any of our politicians are allowed to do similar things they would have
left nothing.

from:  sharan
Posted on: Oct 24, 2012 at 17:36 IST

Perhaps, as the wife of the Viceroy, the 'Pushy lady'of the by-gone
Madras kept the 'Capacious bag with a yawning mouth' for milking a
share out of the loots, each Maharaja made from their 'dear'
subjects. How our past Maharajas garnered so much wealth is another
story. Just to give an instance, the late Nizam of Hyderabad, the
Seventh Asaf Jah, practised one peculiar way of collecting wealth from
the public. If His Exalted Highness summoned any of his subject for
audience at his Court, it would not be a happy news for the subject
because not with an empty hand he could go and stand before his King
at his court. He should go with a present for his dear King with
anything made of gold; only gold, not any other metal!

from:  T.Sathyamurthi
Posted on: Oct 24, 2012 at 02:58 IST

As an institution with a sense of history, a rich tradition and a strong affinity to its roots, Sankara Nethralaya has always made it a point to keep its date with the past; it has done so in many ways: like acknowledging those who had stood by it during its early days and honouring those who had contributed to its growth and played a role in its success. This time round, it has decided to honour the memory of an old edifice whose history was interwoven with its own, a building which had a special place in the hearts of early members of the Sankara Nethralaya family.

from:  Arthanari Mahalingam
Posted on: Oct 23, 2012 at 10:43 IST

There is a story that Jaipur tried to make a stand against this freebooter during her last visit. No gifts were offered. As she left she turned to the Maharaja and said:'I admire your emerald ear-rings, Your Highness.' Without a word, he took them off and handed them over!

from:  Vithal Rajan
Posted on: Oct 23, 2012 at 07:17 IST
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