Madras miscellany Metroplus

‘Beehive’ going strong

Oakes & Co Exchange Hall on Popham's Broadway in 1903.  



A hundred years ago, Madras contributed to the Great War effort a hospital ship that was named, in thanks for that contribution, H.S. Madras. It was built in Britain as a passenger-cum-cargo ship for service in the Bay of Bengal but was converted into a hospital ship at the request of Lord Pentland, then the Governor of Madras. All the iron, steel and brass work used in that refitting in Madras came from the Beehive Foundry, then at 93 Broadway.

I was pleased to learn the other day that the name of the foundry still survives on the road that is now called Prakasam Salai. That bit of information came to me from Ramesh Kumar who wanted to know when the foundry came into the fold of the family-owned Indian Commerce & Industries Co. P. Ltd (ICI) of which he is now a director. ICI was founded in 1907 by Kowtha Suryanarayana Row. Later, Row partnered C. Authikesavalu Chettiar, the grandfather of my correspondent, and C.V. Subbarao, and, together, they incorporated the firm as a Limited company in 1937. Suryanarayana Row and Authikesavalu Chettiar were both dedicated freedom fighters.

The link with the hospital ship got me interested in finding the roots of the foundry and that trail led to what had been the biggest department store in South India — possibly India — till Spencer’s claimed the title in the early 20th Century: Oakes & Co (only the vaguest of connections with George Oakes & Co.)

George Town in the early 19th Century was known as New Black Town, but in its southern reaches lived several European clerks and artisans as well as Eurasian and Portuguese families. To serve this population as well as the Fort and European business establishments being established on North Beach Road and the ships that anchored in the Roads, a few British retail stores were founded in what was known as Popham’s Broadway as well as in its neighbourhood. At No. 17, Oakes, Dalgairns & Co put down roots in 1843 as an importer of what we would now call consumer goods. In 1848 it became known as Oakes, Patridge & Co., 7 Broadway, to which address the original firm had moved in 1845. By 1857, it had become Oakes & Co., a department store, the biggest in South India, if not the country, with a large display and sales room called Exchange Hall, at 93 Broadway. With many of its customers residents of the Great Choultry Plain post-1857, Oakes decided to move its retailing operations, including motor car sales and service, to Mount Road (to buildings it raised on what today is the site between The Hindu’s home and Simpson’s). Exchange Hall became Oakes’ auction hall and hardware store, with a foundry it called Beehive established behind the Hall. The foundry, founded in 1893, specialised in making ships’ castings. Which is why it got the orders for the refitting that resulted in the hospital ship Madras.

By this time, Spencer’s had not only begun to catch up with it but also overtake it and spread itself throughout India. Leading Spencer’s growth in the early 20th Century was John Oakshott Robinson, a man I consider the first takeover king in British India. In 1923 he personally acquired all Oakes’ retail operations, and its cigar factory in Guindy, later selling all this to Spencer’s. Only the Beehive Foundry and the Broadway property were not taken over by Robinson. From descriptions of what happened at the time of Robinson’s takeover, it would appear that the foundry passed into other hands sometime in 1924-25. That must have been when Suryanarayana Row bought it as well as Oakes’ premises at 93-95 Broadway which, even though it was a thoroughfare in what was then called George Town, was in what had become virtually an Indian town. Its European and Anglo-Indian population had moved to Kilpauk, Vepery, Royapuram, the Great Choultry Plain etc.

The foundry is today called the Beehive Foundry Engineering Works and proclaims its specialties as steel buildings, steel structures, towers, process equipment, and fabricated products and it still operates from Beehive Buildings, Broadway, that is now Prakasam Salai.

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A hundred years and still thriving

It’s a nondescript street house on South Mada Street in Mylapore. And there the great-grandson of the founder of a hundred-year-old journal sits and continues to bring out The Law Weekly and its younger sister publications, The Law Weekly (Criminal) and Writ Law Reporter, both monthlies.

V.C. Janardhan’s great grandfather was V.C. Seshachariar, the nephew of Vembakkam Sadagopacharlu (Miscellany, November 5 and 26, 2012), who in 1862 was the first Indian to be nominated to the Indian Legislative Council. Seshachariar, a lawyer from Vembakkam near Chingleput, started the journal in 1914 in his home on South Mada Street because he felt the law journals started earlier, the Madras Law Journal, the Madras Weekly News, and the Government-run Indian Law Reporter, were not paying enough attention to proceedings in the mofussil courts. But though he started with a mofussil focus, the journal gradually began to spread its wings, first looking at Madras Presidency cases and, later, the national scene.

The Law Weekly, still run from Seshachariar’s house, remains a family-owned publication. Seshachariar was Editor and Publisher when the journal was started. He was succeeded as Publisher by his son Vasudevan, who in turn was followed by his son V.C. Ramachandran. Seshachariar was succeeded as Editor by Ramachandran’s brother V.C. Srikumar who in turn was succeeded by his nephew, Ramachandran’s son Janardhan.

The journal has come a long way from hand setting and letterpress printing to digitisation and e-versions. But the printed version still survives, particularly in demand in the districts.

The Vembakkam family from which the publishers of The Law Weekly have descended is a distinguished one, perhaps the best known member of which was V. Bashyam Iyyangar who was once described as “the greatest jurist ever perhaps in the history of India.” Sadagopacharlu, on his part, was an expert on Muhammadan Law and wrote a book on it which was considered for a long time one of the most authoritative ones on the subject.

Another leader in the field of Law was V.C. Desikachariar, the elder brother of Seshachariar. Together they founded the Native Middle School in Mylapore and in 1905 handed it over to be merged with the P.S. High School. The brothers may have been successful lawyers but they still found the time to teach in the School they founded and ran for 25 years. Both of them were also involved with the founding of the Mylapore Club and the Mylapore Central Urban Bank. Desikachariar gradually moved away from the Bar and began to take a greater interest in civic affairs. He served as Commissioner of the Municipal Council for 12 years and later represented the Municipality in the Madras Legislative Council. Seshachariar, on the other hand, retired from the Bar in 1929 and began to concentrate on The Law Weekly full time till be handed it over to his youngest son Vasudevan in 1936.

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What’s in a degree?

As students in Madras get ready to enter medical colleges in Tamil Nadu, they look forward to one day receiving their M.B.B.S degrees and, perhaps, even, one day, a M.D. Whether or not they had done their preparation for studies well, they are almost certain to know that those initials stand for Bachelor of Medicine & Bachelor of Surgery and Doctor of Medicine.

Before that degree was introduced, the University of Madras granted the degree M.B., C.M. Now I wonder how many of today’s would-be entrants to medical colleges know what those initials stood for. I eventually found out they stood for Medicinae Baccalaureus et Chirurgiae Magister. But then one day my Australian correspondent, A. Raman, bowled me a googly and asked me what the letters of the degree that had preceded M.B., C.M. in Madras till the 1850’s, G.M.M.C., stood for.

When I didn’t come up with an answer, he provided me one: Graduate in Medicine, Midwifery and Chirugery. And with that I remained satisfied till the other day when he wrote that he had found out that they really stood for “Graduate of the Madras Medical College, (Med.& Surg.),” just as G.M.V.C had stood for, till the 1950s, “Graduate of the Madras Veterinary College”.

There, then, are several bits of trivia for quizmasters. Speaking of quizmasters, with Madras getting ready to celebrate its 375th birthday in August, I wonder whether that grand Madras Open Quiz with which the 350th birthday was celebrated will be organised again by the same sponsors to mark Madras 375.


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