Madras miscellany: The drain that became Broadway

September 26, 2010 04:47 pm | Updated 04:47 pm IST - Chennai

It's been some time since I've visited George Town, but not only did I find myself there recently, I also travelled on a road that to all is Broadway, even though it's anything but that. Few today call it by its present name, Prakasam Salai, and even if they did, I'm not sure they'd in a quiz identify Prakasam in one. Even fewer will remember that it was once Popham's Broadway, Stephen Popham's name forgotten even long before Independence.

A little stirring of memory might conjure up visions of the Andhra Kesari, T. Prakasam, the last Premier of Madras but not to be the first Chief Minister. But it is unlikely to recall that in 1922, Tanguturi Prakasam launched an English daily, Swarajya , to differ with Annie Besant's New India , which opposed the non-cooperation movement The Hindu .

Prakasam, an able High Court barrister, gradually gave up a lucrative practice to preach non-cooperation in the columns of Swarajya . First, he sank his earnings into the paper, then his savings to the tune of around Rs. 3 lakh, then the proceeds from the sale of ancestral houses and lands, and, finally, the dwindling contributions he received from the public.

In the end, even a staff willing to forego much of its wages was not enough to keep the evening daily afloat. Bad management killed the paper by 1935.

A much shorter life was enjoyed by the Tamil Swarajya, which was launched as a daily in March 1925, but shut down in less than two years. Published by Prakasam's ‘Swarajya Press', 40 Broadway, Gandhinagar (George Town), it too started with a bang, but could not sustain itself with the even less that the management doled out to it than to the English title. And so, Prakasam moved into a more active political role and emerged a Congress leader.

Prakasam is today remembered in the name given to the road on which his printing press and newspaper office was situated, but even in his day, it was known only as Broadway, the Popham part forgotten. But, it was to Steven Popham that the new Black Town, later to be called George Town, owes most of its amenities, not the least of them Broadway, which links Peddanaickenpet and Muthialpet. Once the two pettais were separated by a drainage channel which, with its banks, was called Attapallam (Aallapallam meaning deep ditch) . When he filled the drainage channel, Popham's Broadway had its beginnings as the main North-South thoroughfare in Black Town.

Attapallam was created with the fill he obtained when he levelled Hog Hill in 1781 to create what is now the southernmost reaches of Park Town, and which, in his day, he developed as prime residential property.

Popham, who had once been a Member of Parliament for County Mayo in Ireland, decided to come to India in the 1770s to make his fortune as a lawyer. In 1778, he resigned his job in the Advocate-General's Office in Calcutta and arrived in Madras, where, besides getting into land development, he threw himself into improving civic conditions.

To him the city owes the beginning of a police force, improved sanitation through a network of criss-crossing drains, the naming and lighting of streets, the policy of licensing liquor shops, registration of births and deaths, “the extirpation of Dubashism ”, the development of a bound hedge to protect the northern boundary of the town, and the construction of a navigable canal from Ennore to the Island which Basil Cochrane further developed into what became a part of the Buckingham Canal.

Besides civic do-gooding, Popham contributed to textile production by demonstrating the rearing of silkworms and cultivation of cotton. Described as a “perpetual projectour”, only death it seemed would be able to stop his being in perpetual motion in trying to improve the city. And, death came calling in 1795 when he fell from his two-wheeled, two-horsed curricle. He was only 53. And, gradually his name faded from memory even on the road he had developed out of a drain.

The founders of the MSE

Several readers have pointed out that while referring to the founding of the Madras Stock Exchange in 1937 (Miscellany, September 13) I had referred only to Kothari & Sons and Paterson's. Who were the other three, they've been asking.

Mea culpa. I should have mentioned Dalal & Co., headed by T.N. Krishnaswamy and G.A. Krishnamoorthy at the time, India Brokers, headed by K.L.V.Sarma, and Maconochie, steered by W.L. Knopp.

Maconochie's roots were in a Bombay stock broking firm, Croft, Forbes and Chard, which set up a branch in Madras in 1926. The firm became Croft & Forbes in 1930 and was joined by Capt. A.E.F. Machonochie, an ADC to the then Governor of Madras. In 1931, Maconochie decided to establish his own business, though it's not clear whether he did it by taking over the Forbes branch or founding his own firm, Maconochie & Co. Whatever the answer to that poser, the new company was set up with W.L. Knopp, an English produce broker from Ceylon, as a partner. When Capt. Maconochie died young, Knopp became the senior partner.

Knopp was later joined by two Indian partners, Noronha and Sivasubramaniam. The latter's sons continue the business to this day, still in the same premises where the firm started, the Mercantile Bank building (now Hong Kong Bank building) on Rajaji Salai. I am told that the firm has, over the years, produced several of Madras's leading stockbrokers of later years, such as T.N. Krishnaswamy of Dalal & Co., S. Narayanaswami of Chitra & Co., H. Subramanian of Subramanian & Co., and B.N. Viswanathan, who helped promote many plantation companies.

C.M. Kothari was the first President of the MSE and had a long tenure, from 1937 to 1941. He was followed by Krishnaswamy of Dalal's (1941-42 and 1946-47), Knopp in 1942-43, S. Narayanswamy in 1943-45 and 1949-50, S.Rm.Ct.A. Annamalai Chettiar of Trojan & Co. in 1946-47, and S. Ramaswamy Naidu of Ramlal & Co. in 1947-48. In a nice touch of irony, the first President of the Exchange to be elected after Independence was Britisher R.C. Paterson — which says much for the times.

When the postman knocked…

“How could you?”, wrote SriramV, quite aghast that I had credited Hadow of Paterson's (Miscellany, September 13) with having been remembered in the naming of Haddow's Road. It dates to long before the stockbroker Hadow arrived on the Madras scene, he tells me while reminding me of references to the road name I had made elsewhere. Those references stated that the road owed its name to George John Hadow, a civilian in Madras from 1805 and occupant in 1827 of a house called Blenheim that was on the road.

R.K. Balasubramaniam, an expert on Parliamentary Law, referring to Rajaji and Freemasonry, (Miscellany, September 20) writes that when Rajaji became the first Indian Governor General of India, R.V. Krishna Ayyar, an eminent lawyer and member of the St. Thomas' Mount Lodge, wrote to the Master of the Salem Lodge that its distinguished member who had been forced to resign many years earlier should be reinstated. And, it was done, states Balasubramaniam.

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