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Where the past lives on

Lt.Crump's tombstone  



This is my third visit to the garrison church at St. Thomas Mount, and I'm in luck. The yard, which once saw only British soldiers stationed at Mount and Pallavaram, is alive with the sound of kids getting ready for a concert. I run into Katie Paice, grand-daughter of Sathianadhan Clarke, the first Indian chaplain/presbyter of the church and Rev. Giridharan, the present one, and they show me around. Florence Mohan, an active member, takes me to Mrs. Bennett, wife of late Dr. JJ Bennett who painstakingly pieced together the church's history. Mrs. Bennett very kindly hands me the booklet. I am so excited I can only stammer my thanks. I have the story!

“Agitation for building a church for soldiers stationed at Mount began in 1805 when Rev. Atwood was chaplain,” writes Dr. Bennett. The government asked the Military Board for a plan and estimate, but authorised the O-C to rent a house at 35 pagodas a month to accommodate the church and chaplain. The Board's plan, costing 7472 pagodas/3000 pound-sterling, was found exorbitant and shelved. Rev. Atwood died in 1810. His successor, Rev. Bell suggested the hired building be altered to fit the growing congregation. The Board agreed. At a cost of 754 pagodas, the dividing walls of the lower rooms were demolished to create a prayer area.

The building needed repairs; the congregation, more space. A Major-General Bell offered to sell his land for a building to seat 460 persons. The “yes” came in 1820, but as they awaited the East India Company Directors' approval, the government discovered a block of land south of the parade ground. This is our own, they said, and made fresh plans for a 600-seater at a small additional cost. “It will cater to both Pallavaram and Mount,” they wrote persuasively. The directors agreed, and the work started. The blueprint (cost: Rs. 43,773) included a bomb-proof roof, rust-proof iron railings, and imported-from-England cast-iron chairs. The building was ready in 1827 with Rev. Blenkinsop as chaplain, but had to wait till October 31, 1830 for Bishop Turner to come down from Calcutta to consecrate it.

When you visit the 188-year-old church, don't be put off by its plain exterior. The church followed the standard MB plan of that period — St. George's Cathedral has similar architecture. Measuring 133x66x33', the garrison church was built with lime, mortar and local bricks. Run your hands over the compound railings made from muskets, barrels, pikes and discarded weapons of Tipu Sultan's arsenal. Look at the trees — many are 150-plus years old. The church then was at the centre of St. Thomas Mount and the first survey of Madras Presidency (1852) by the Director-General of Surveys was started here. Find the stone with letters BM (book-mark) and a cross on the steps at the entrance marking the work. The Grand Southern Trunk Road begins here. The church's address: 1, GST Road, Chennai – 600016.

Enter. Read the boards for chaplain history. To the left is a room where church records are preserved in a large ship trunk. The room has a wooden staircase leading to the top. The original bell, cast by GL Steers-England in 1830 was big and heavy, and developed a crack. After repairs at a Pallavaram foundry, it was left with St. Stephen's church. A smaller bell from Rangoon was donated by member Aasirvatham.

Walk in. Twenty windows and five doors afford enough light. Six Roman Ionic pillars give the interior a grand appearance. The false ceiling is pure teak, the members tell me. Hand-pulled punkahs once helped ward off the Madras heat. The Bishop's chair, Bible and pipe organ with hand-driven bellows too came from England. The Chalice has the seal of Queen Victoria. The handsome baptismal font was made with granite quarried at Pallavaram. The large candlesticks at the altar were donated in 1936 in memory of Arthur Olley and Enid Hapworth.

British civil and military officers of Mount Cantonment furnished the church. The large painting above the altar is attributed to a Major J. B. Richardson, though some say it was done by one Taylor in 1826. In 1900, the church had 13 tablets (243 now) for soldiers of the old Madras Artillery. Names like Lt. Colonel John Noble are familiar to us. One is in memory of Lt. Charles Crump (32), who died fighting under General Havelock at the 'Relief of Lucknow' in 1857 (First-war-of-Independence). Stroll to the backyard to find Major-General William Sydenham's monument.

Originally, the church steeple had three tiers. In 1972, one (12 feet) was removed for the safety of jets flying above.

As I left, the members made a couple of appeals. “Can something be done about the maintenance? Will the government please remove the unsightly billboards around this heritage structure?”


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Printable version | Sep 19, 2021 3:01:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/history-of-garrison-church-at-st-thomas-mount/article7247779.ece

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