Madras miscellany Society

When the postman knocked

Not only is the postman bringing mail to this column being kept on his toes, but the backlog has continued to build up, so once again this week it is answers to questions, comments on material received, and providing additional information. Thank you, readers, for keeping me busy, particularly with searches based on your leads.

The Trichinopoly cheroot

Several readers have pointed out that the true Trichinopoly cheroot ( suruttu, deriving from the Tamil for ‘roll’), (Miscellany, June 16) was the hand-rolled cigar from Uraiyur, once a Chola citadel that was a centre of the textile trade. The “nasty, big, black Trichinopoly cheroots,” as Governor Lord Wenlock once called them, suruttus that accompanied the “brandy-pawnees” after dinner in the smoking rooms of the sahibs’ clubs, were, however, by the end of the 19th Century, being replaced by the factory-produced cigars of Spencer’s that became world-famous. It was Spencer’s cigars for which Sir Winston Churchill, after forsaking the Trichinopoly suruttu, had once placed a permanent order with the Government of Madras to ensure a regular supply — even during World War II. The order remained on the books till Spencer’s stopped making cigars.

Spencer’s started its cigar production in 1887 with contractors in Trichinopoly, but two years later established its own factory there. Sensing the growing demand for its cigars, Eugene Oakshott of Spencer’s bought 60 acres of land in 1890 in Dindigul, the heart of the Madura District’s tobacco-growing country, and built a factory into which the Trichy operation was moved. Using Java (imported) and Dindigul tobacco, the Dindigul factory developed into the country’s biggest and best cigar factory by 1910. It was growth and quality nurtured by such comments as Wenlock’s after a visit in 1892 — “I smoke the modern South Indian cigar and will continue to do so in the face of all the world with the greatest satisfaction” — and Richard Pereira’s doggerel in the Visitors’ Book:


How sweetly falls that word upon a smoker’s ear!

But sweeter far it is to see

Its Dindy cigar factory

Where cleanliness is so delightful and so clear.

Spencer’s added another factory in Pondicherry in 1912 as a consequence of the Government of India increasing customs duties on imported tobacco and causing problems over the bonding of cigars for export. Spencer’s was thereafter to have a good run, particularly with its most popular brands, ‘Little Randolph’, ‘Gold Mohur’, ‘Flor de Spencer’ and ‘Torpedo’, and win prizes all over the world. But once cigarettes began taking over from cigars, Spencer’s cigar business declined and it closed its factories in 1970, and in 1990, the last bit of the by-then fragmented Dindigul property was sold.

Ship aground

No doubt many a reader will remember the Greek ship Stamatis remaining beached off the Marina for years after it ran aground in 1966. But how many remember a ship running aground on Royapuram Beach? Yes, Royapuram had a beach in 1937 when this happened, writes V. Viswanathan, who sent me today’s picture from his father’s collection; M.S. Venkataraman was Assistant Manager, Madras Port Trust, at the time and received an award for supervising the refloating of s.s.Clan Morrison which ran aground after a cyclonic storm.

On the reverse of the picture in Venkataraman’s handwriting is this note: “Strenuous efforts were made by s.s.Clan Alpine assisted by a tug, launch and a fleet of catamarans to re-float her sister vessel s.s.Clan Morrison (in the foreground) which ran aground on the Royapuram Beach last Sunday night. Picture shows Clan Alpine (in the background) engaged in the rescue work.” Clan Morrison ran aground on November 29th and was re-floated on December 10. Both ships were sunk by German U-boats in the early 1940s, during World War II.

It’s a picture for today — when Madras doesn’t seem to get any kind of storm, leave alone a cyclonic storm.

Madras-born knighted

In the latest Queen’s Birthday Honours List was a person who was born in Madras and who spent several years of his childhood here in the Madras Christian College campuses, writes Joshua Kalapati, the chronicler of MCC. Thomas Walter Bannerman Kibble was the recipient of a knighthood. One of the U.K.’s leading scientists, the 81-year-old Tom Kibble is one of those who, in the 1960s, suggested that a fundamental particle, later popularly called the God particle, existed. He was in the running for the Nobel Prize but Peter Higgs with whom he had collaborated received it.

Tom Kibble’s Madras connection was through his parents, Walter Frederick Kibble, and Helen Kibble, who spent 37 years with Madras Christian College, till the Professor’s retirement in 1961. Walter Kibble, who joined the College’s Department of Mathematics, was instrumental in establishing Statistics as a specialisation in the College. Outside the classroom, he was interested in astronomy and was a keen naturalist. In the latter role, he contributed much to the greenery of the Tambaram campus and created a beautiful sun dial that still keeps time there. He and his wife Helen also spent much time helping out at the Pammal Leprosy Centre.

Helen Kibble, who spent many years as Warden of the women’s hostel — in Guindy during her time — was the daughter of William Bannerman, the Surgeon-General of Madras, who was well-known for his work on bacteriology and the plague. Beginning with illustrated letters to her children studying in England, she moved on to becoming a well-known writer of children’s stories, most of the stories being in South Indian settings. But her best known children’s work, The Story of Little Black Sambo, published in 1899 was also the subject of much controversy, being considered racist. As were many of her 15 other books, particularly in America. The stories were all set in India, but the names of the characters and the illustrations appeared to conform to Negro stereotypes of the times. Eventually, in 1996, Fred Marcellino changed the names and The Story of Little Babaje became acceptable to all.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 12:37:18 AM |

Next Story