In the historic past of our city, North Chennai holds a significant position as one of the earliest settlements and business hubs of the then Madras. While many reminders of the past have diminished, some lanes, streets, roads and some buildings here still beam a touch from the past.
One such reminder from the past that still survives is the Old Jail Road which now address to the historic places like the Government Stanley Medical College, Monegar Choultry, Seven Wells pumping station and more.
The Old Jail Road that stretches from Bharati Women's College till the Mint Street Clock tower in George Town now, got its name from the Civil Debtors prison established in 1692 by the British. According to Chennai city historian, a protective wall was constructed at the northern end of Black Town (later named George Town) in the 1760's and the prison was initially housed under a section of the wall. In the early 1800s the prison was moved to the location where the woman's college stands now.
Interestingly, the inmates of the facility who were primarily money defaulters were supported by their respective complainants. By order of the British Government, expense of the imprisoned person was ironically taken care of by the victim who lost money to the accused. Later, the Civil debtors prison came to be known as Old Jail after the advent of the Central prison next to the General Hospital in the 19th century. Post Independence, the Old Jail was cleared after its inmates were shifted to the Central Prison.
From 1916, various education institutions including the Central Polytechnic and School of Technology functioned in the jail structure. Finally, the structure became home to the Bharati Women's College and remains so to this very day.
Some streets such as the Portuguese Church Street (named after a Portuguese church that was constructed in the area), Old Jail Lane, Anna Pillai Street, Peddu Naicken Street that branch out of Old Jail Road has evolved into areas packed with houses and shops.
A well-known timber market that was functioning along the North Wall Road near the Old Jail Road for more than 50 years is now on the verge of being shifted to an alternative area due to upcoming road projects of the government. Wood to some of the shops was known to be brought from Andamans for a very long time.
Seven Wells pumping station
The famous Seven Wells (Yezhu Kinaru) pumping station that supplied water to Madras including Fort St. George was located on what is now the workshop and stores of the Public Works Department on Old Jail Road. One of the old wells is still supplying water to the Fort.
The history of Seven Wells dates back to 1767 when Nawab Haider Ali of Mysore fought the British in Madras. History reads John Nicolas, an Anglo Indian, played a key role in preventing the Nawab's forces from poisoning the wells. As a sign of gratitude, the British government appointed Nicolas as the Superintendent of Seven Wells Water Works when it started pumping water from 1772. He was given a house, horse and a palanquin apart from the authority to head the works of pumping station.
The authority was passed on to the descendents of the Nicholas family till the end of 1925.
Government Stanley Hospital
Stanley Hospital on Old Jail Road is one of the oldest hospitals in the country which dates back to the days of the East India Company rule in India.
When famine struck Madras in 1781 porridge (kanji) was provided to the affected people in the spot where the hospital stands now. Within a year, the spot turned into a choultry for people, mainly senior citizens, seeking asylum during the famine that lasted till 1784. Named the Monegar Choultry after a village headman known as Maniakkaran, the facility moved to another location nearby after the medical infirmary was established in 1799. The hospital was known among the locals as Kanji Thotti Hospital.
In 1933, the hospital was christened Stanley Hospital after George Frederick Stanley, the then Governor of Madras.
Now the Government Stanley Medical College and Hospital is one of the best State-owned medical facilities and educational institutes in the country boasting a Centre of Excellence for Hand and Reconstructive Microsurgery, separate Cadaver maintenance unit (the first in India) and more.
The Monegar Choultry still functions as an asylum for senior citizens with one of its rule being that in case of the death of an inmate, the body won't be handed over to the relatives but will be sent to the Anatomy Department of the Stanley Medical College for study.
With inputs from historian V. Sriram, landscape architect Zhayynn James, (who is the descendant of John Nicolas) and a few senior residents near Old Jail Road and adjoining streets.
Keywords: North Chennai history