Madras miscellany Metroplus

‘Hold fire’ held him up

Whiteaway Laidlaw   | Photo Credit: GRJGM

Pandalay was a name I had always associated with medicine in Madras but recently, skimming through N.L. Rajah’s commemoration of 150 years of the Madras High Court, I came across a Pandalay who not only was with the Judiciary but who also captured the headlines with his courageous actions. Justice K.K. Pandalay was also a doctor, but, unlike his brother Col. K.G. Pandalay I.M.S., it was an LL.D. that this Inns of Court barrister earned. His erudition, strangely, did not speed him on his way to the High Court Bench; it would appear his Indianness stood in the way.

Intrigued by what was repeatedly described as his courageous attitude, I got on the trail of Justice Pandalay and discovered that, after a successful career as a lawyer, he became a judge of the Small Causes Court in Madras and then was appointed Chief Presidency Magistrate (CPM). He was CPM when the Simon Commission visited Madras in 1927 and it befell him to protect life and property when a large mob bent on violence gathered near Parry’s Corner. Some of the unruly gathering had even stormed the High Court buildings whereupon Justices Beasley and Waller walked berobed into the crowd, no doubt under the impression that their office as well as pigmentation would subdue it. It only incited the mob to further stone-throwing into which Dr. Pandalay walked, protected only by a pith helmet.

When he caught up with Beasley and Waller they kept insisting that he order the police to fire. He told them that as the CPM, he was the person in charge of the situation and saw “absolutely no justification to order the police to open fire.” These people, he went on to tell them, “are my countrymen, not yours…I take the full responsibility.” He continued to adopt this stand even after a large stone slammed into his topee. Eventually it was when the mob seemed to be getting totally out of hand that he ordered one round of firing below the knees. Sadly, this resulted in one fatality, but it did help to disperse the mob.

His refusal to order firing led to the two British High Court justices who were with him expressing rather unfavourable views about his decision-making capabilities. This postponed his being made a Judge of the High Court for two years. Once on the Bench from 1929, he and Justice Waller often sat together, but in almost every case they disagreed with each other and a third judge had to pronounce the decision! Pandalay, however, remained one of the most popular judges of the Madras High Court till his retirement in 1934. His frequent use of Tamil during hearings and his not being averse to borrowing a pinch of snuff from time to time from the bench clerk contributed much to his popularity.

Laidlaw generosity

Driving past the VGP showrooms on Mount Road the other day, I couldn’t help but think how much the building had changed over the years. I wonder how many remember what its beginnings were and how it looked like (see pictures). It was built in the Indo-Saracenic style in the 1890s by Robert Laidlaw of Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co., as a branch of the main department store established by him in Calcutta in 1882. Though no one knows very much about Whiteaway, the ‘Selfridge’s of the East’ was always called ‘Whiteaway’s’, though it was Laidlaw who developed it as an empire. The store had branches in 20 cities in India as well as branches in Colombo, Singapore, Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai and specialised in furnishings, haberdashery and tailoring as well as imported household items.

It was shortly after Independence, if memory serves me right, that Whiteaway’s closed shop in India and sold off the wealth of property it had in the country. The Madras branch was sold to the Swadesamitran and the building was renamed Victory House by C.R. Srinivasan who owned the paper. As the paper faded from the Madras scene, Victory House was sold to V.G. Panneerdas, who introduced hire purchase to Madras. As a VGP showroom the premises were given a makeover in the 1990s and then again a couple of years ago.

Robert Laidlaw from the Scottish border country arrived as a 21-year-old in Calcutta in 1877 and started life there as an importer and exporter, dealing in everything from textiles to diamonds. After starting Whiteaway’s and growing it he began to build a bigger fortune by buying and developing tea estates in India and rubber estates in Malaya and investing in a wide range of businesses in South and Southeast Asia.

But here was an investor from Britain whose profits did not all return there. He contributed hugely to charities in India, particularly in the field of education. He gifted well over £100,000 to developing in l9l4 the St. George’s Homes’(Miscellany, December 21, 2010) buildings in Ketti (Ooty) and to the building a few years later of a school on the same campus which is today called the Laidlaw Memorial School. Laidlaw, who was knighted in 1909, began contributing to St. George’s long before his death in 1915 and bequests in his will enabled these contributions to continue until recent years. When the Governors of the Homes met shortly after his death, they recorded, “The Chairman referred to the serious loss the Homes have suffered by the unexpected death of Sir Robert Laidlaw to whose gift the inception of the Homes was so largely due and who by his princely gifts had rendered conspicuous service to the domiciled community throughout India.” In fact, his munificence enabled the Homes to give a War Loan of £45,000 to the British Government during World War II at 3.75 per cent interest. This was redeemed only in the early 1990s through a Managing Director of Parry’s who was a Trustee of the School.

It wasn’t only Ketti that benefitted from Laidlaw’s largesse. One of the oldest schools in Calcutta, the Calcutta Boys’ School (1877) owes its present grounds and main building to him — he gifted the land and raised the main block in 1893. In 1902 he donated one of its residential blocks.

Back in England he was a Liberal MP from 1906 to 1910. His home, Warren House, he offered to the British Red Cross Society as a war hospital during the Great War (1914-1918) and donated £25 a week towards its maintenance. He also offered five of his staff as well as his large vegetable garden in the property to help the hospital.

As much as he enjoyed developing a business empire, Robert Laidlaw enjoyed giving generously to good causes.

When the postman knocked…

My reference to the Schmidt Memorial stirred K.V.S. Krishna’s memory and took him back to his school days in the 1940s. Recalling his 11 years at the Besant Theosophical School in Damodar Gardens, where ‘The School’ now is, he recounts how physical training started for hostellers like him at five in the morning! Under the watchful eyes of PT instructors and the wardens they had to run barefooted from the school, through the playing field of the Olcott Memorial School, then on the sand to the Schmidt Memorial, go around it and get back to the school sharp for their morning routines and breakfast. This was a regular exercise twice a week. And, he says, seeing the Schmidt Memorial as it loomed before them in pristine condition was a stirring sight to tired runners.

Beyond the Memorial and close to the sea was white expatriate territory. Here was a ‘camp’ of sorts, comprising tents, a few permanent sheds and a couple of small but more solid buildings. These were for the expatriate staff of various British and other European/American offices in the city. By these buildings was “a stand like what you see in Bay Watch” for the lifeguards. There would every morning be several white expats emerging from the restricted ‘camp’ to take a dip in the sea. On weekdays and holidays “they’d be quite a crowd” and many would spend the day picnicking on this stretch. The beach is no longer restricted, but how sad it is now being so much the worse for wear, comments Krishna.

*Also indulging in a bit of nostalgia is Dr. D.B. James who recalls several Dutch connections which I didn’t mention in Miscellany, December 5, 2011, but which he had visited during his career as a marine scientist. In Tuticorin on the Fisheries Coast, worship still goes in the Holy Trinity Church by the old harbour on Beach Road. This was built by the Dutch in 1750 and is now a Church of South India property. There are several marble and granite tablets within, commemorating Hollanders who had lived and died in and around Tuticorin. Above the entrance to the church is still to be seen the Dutch East India Company’s VOC monogram. Many locals used to think there was some connection between the Church and V.O. Chidamabaram Pillai, recalls James. He also remembers seeing several Dutch houses and gravestones in Bheemunipatnam and Machilipatnam in Andhra during visits there. Indeed, the Dutch presence in India has not been explored as much as that of the other major powers who put down roots here in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

* Douglas Ritherdon from the U.K. offers some clarification on Gen. Ritherdon who figured in this column on April 4, 2011. Apparently there were two Ritherdons with almost the same names serving in the Madras Army at the same time. General Augustus Ritherdon was born in 1823 and joined the Madras Army in 1840. His first cousin (their fathers were brothers), Major General Augustus William Ritherdon was born in 1825 and joined the Madras Army in 1843. The former was in Madras till at least 1891, the latter till at least 1880. And there was a house in the Purasawalkam-Vepery area called Ritherdon House, where they both may have lived and to which Ritherdon Road may well have led. Bharath Yeshwanth adds that Dewan Bahadur T. Rangachariar, a leading High Court lawyer, was one of its later owners.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 2:36:29 AM |

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