Heritage postal buildings

Updated - November 10, 2021 12:26 pm IST

Published - January 09, 2011 01:32 pm IST

The General Post Office building, Madras with its ‘Kerala caps’, seen before a cyclone damaged them and they had to be removed

The General Post Office building, Madras with its ‘Kerala caps’, seen before a cyclone damaged them and they had to be removed

Shortly to be released is a book I welcome, for it is yet another of those books that I see as ‘Biography as History', this time the biography being the story of an institution, the postal system with special reference to Tamil Nadu. Indian Postal History: Focus on TamilNadu is by K. Ramachandirann, Postmaster-General (Mail & Marketing), Tamil Nadu Circle, and is an expansion of his doctoral thesis.

Madras postal history has found mention in this column several times in the past, but Dr. Ramachandirann takes it further in his well-researched narration of the past. To this he has added much detail of the present. And, a host of illustrations.

Eight of those illustrations are what caught my eye. They are photographs of what he lists as postal heritage buildings. The eight include the Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay General Post Offices, the Nagapattinam, Udhagamandalam and Agra Head Post Offices, the Chief PMG's Office, Thiruvananthapuram, and the Mount Road Post Office that is now the Philatelic Bureau. The first three date to 1868, 1884 and 1913, respectively, while Nagapattinam dates to 1857, Ooty to 1884 and Mount Road (initially Narasingapuram Post Office) to 1915. All of them could do with restoration — including Madras, where some kind of restoration was done after the fire of 2000. Will this story of a nearly 300-year-old service lead to restoration of these eight buildings and the scores more of postal buildings that could well be considered of heritage significance?

When the postman knocked…

There's been a heap of letters and responses by other means to some of the recent items in this column, so this week's column is greatly devoted to these postscripts.

Into banking too

P. Orr's (Miscellany, January 3) would appear to have been in banking too, it would seem from a copy of an advertisement Bhaskarendra Rao of Madanapalle has sent me. According to the December 31, 1887 notice, the Commercial and Land Mortgage Bank Ltd. was chaired by R.G. Orr of P. Orr and Sons and had on its Board Samuel T. Wood, also from P. Orr's.

The other Directors were W.J. Eales, the Austro-Hungarian Consul and head of Eales & Co., Willie Grant, a Barrister-at-Law, W.H. Oakes, head of Oakes & Co., Sathrasal Vencatakistnamah Chettyar, a merchant, and James Brown, Officiating Managing Brewer of Murree Breweries (now in Pakistan). The notice would appear to indicate that the Bank was a public limited entity promoted by Robert Orr and friends.

The Bank was established in 1885 with its headquarters on Armenian Street and a capital of Rs.1 million, 10,000 shares being subscribed at Rs.100 each. The bank offered current accounts, accepted deposits, provided loans, represented the Queen's Insurance Company,U.K., and had safe deposit facilities amongst its numerous services. With a director from the old Punjab (Murree was its major hill station), the Bank naturally served North India too — but through agents. Its only branch was in Bangalore.

Robert Orr, the son of the founder, was the person responsible for getting Chisholm to design the P. Orr & Sons head office that still stands, and for moving into it in 1873.

Bhaskarendra Rao also sends me another notice., this one on the formation of Orrs Columbia & Talkies Ltd. (note that the apostrophe is missing this time!). The Directors were J.M. Smith M.L.C, H.I. Cormack, Dewan Bahadur V Shanmuga Mudaliar, Khan Bahadur Adam Hajee Mahomed Sait, P. Natesan, and Nawab Salar Jung Bahadur who each subscribed Rs. 10,000 to the Rs.1 million capital. What is significant about that Board is Indians serving on it, and in the majority too, when the Raj was at its height; obviously P. Orr's thought differently about the widening, post-l857 racial divide. P. Orr & Sons were the Managing Agents of the firm founded to take over the Columbia Agency business of P. Orr & Sons and “to produce films etc.”

The Oakshott connection

Oakshott Cottage (House) of Laidlaw School in Ketti (Miscellany, December 27, 2010) does indeed have, as I suspected, a connection with the Oakshotts of Spencer's. The Old Georgians who have been researching the history of their school in preparation for its centenary in 2014 have quoted something I had written on this many years ago and which I had forgotten. In TheSpencer Legend , the story of the company I wrote in 1997, I had said, John Oakshott Robinson “was also keenly interested in various charities, including the St. George's Homes. He had much to do with the founding of the latter, and in addition to his own liberal donations was responsible for having one of the cottages built”.

I have narrated in these columns in the past how Charles Durrant, who worked with Oakes & Co, struck out on his own and was later joined by another from Oakes, J.W. Spencer. When Spencer took over Durrant's, Spencer's was born. Eugene P. Oakshott joined the firm in 1871.

When Spencer retired, he sold the firm to Oakshott in 1882 and there began the Oakshott connection that drove the company into becoming the biggest department store in Asia (when it moved into its famous old landmark building in 1895) and the biggest conglomerate in the hospitality and domestic requirements sectors in the East. The former development was thanks to Eugene P. Oakshott, the latter to his older sister's son, John Oakshott Robinson, the original takeover king in India.

With the dynamic Robinson running the show, Oakshott Senior's sons, Eugene Fitzroy (Roy) and Percy Gordon, didn't have much of a look-in, but they were also not interested overly in business in India. Judging by my reference in the book, it might not be too wrong to say that the Rs. 18,000 the brothers donated towards a cottage to accommodate students was on the urging of Robinson who ensured its construction.

That cottage, named after their father, was built in 1922 and now houses around 50 upper school students every year. Robinson's name was remembered in Robinson's Green, the football field, which has now been re-named the Golden Jubilee Field, rather unfair to someone who had done so much for St. George's Homes.

Hindi in the Caribbean

Serendipity plays a great part in this column. The latest instance of it was a filmmaker, Dinesh Lakhanpal of Bombay, contacting me. He has been working on some documentaries for the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation and was on a visit to it when he saw my piece on the girmitiyas (Miscellany, January 3). He rang me to commiserate with me over the lack of a memorial to the South Indian workers who went overseas, as well as to tell me his interest in my piece was because he had done a documentary featuring the descendants of the girmitiyas in the Caribbean, particularly in Trinidad and Suriname (once Dutch), and Mauritius.

The film, “Hindi Hain Hum…” ( Hindi…. We Are ), was made by him for the 7th World Hindi Conference held in June 2003 in Suriname, and focussed on how Hindi (and Bhojpuri) have helped keep Indian culture alive wherever the descendants of the girmitiyas lived in the Caribbean and Mauritius — and even in the U.S. and Europe where many have settled in recent years. I am not all that convinced that culture will continue to survive on language alone, but unfortunately Lakhanpal and I couldn't meet to discuss the point.

But, he's promised me a viewing of the film when he is next at the Swaminathan Foundation … and then we'll see what we'll see. The films he's working on for the Swaminathan Foundation focus on Millet, Biodiversity, and the Green Revolution.

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