Hidden histories Society

The Baker Street of Madras

On seeing this signboard, I was reminded at once of the Spot The Six Differences puzzles. Of course, in this case there is just one — Barracks Street in English and Baker Street in Tamil. How and why that change happened, I leave to Sherlock Holmes to sort out. But the correct name is Baker Street. The closest barracks were near the Government Printing Press on Mint Street and have two streets commemorating them there.

Baker Street is a short thoroughfare that branches North from NSC Bose (China Bazaar) Road, just opposite the High Court. It most likely takes its name from George Baker, who was Mayor of the city in 1773. A naval captain, he was in charge of the sloop Cuddalore, and rendered service to the British at Fort St. George when the French laid siege to Madras in 1758. He also had a fairly lucrative business on the side, one that he had to wind up when he was sent to England to convey the news of the fall of Pondicherry in 1761. A pleased Board of Directors granted him 300 pounds and sent him back to Madras with instructions to George Pigot, the Governor here, that Baker be gainfully employed. He was appointed Master Attendant of the Port.

Baker, however, is worthy of commemoration for another service of his, albeit one that he did with a commercial motive — piped water supply, perhaps the first in the city. Having returned to England in 1771, he addressed the Board of Directors of the East India Company with a proposal for piped water to Fort St. George, to be drawn by gravitational force from seven wells, commemorated in Seven Wells Street in Peddanaikenpettah. This was agreed to, and Baker came once again to Madras, where he began the work. The lead pipes arrived a year later and were laid within a span of two months. Then came the task of building cisterns to hold water inside Fort St. George and these were ready by 1776. Thereafter, Baker proposed a more ambitious scheme — laying pipes under the sea(!!) to ensure fresh water reaches the ships that, in the absence of a proper harbour, then anchored two miles from the shore. This was, however, never implemented.

By 1780, Baker wanted to return to England. His offer to sell his waterworks to the Company includes a note of warning about the civic sense of people in Madras, that shows that nothing much has changed over the years. Then, as now, people cared very little about public spaces — they dug cess pits on the roads so that foul water from their houses flooded streets, heaps of bricks and construction debris were stored outside homes, thereby reducing space for movement, filth was thrown out of houses on to the streets, and there were structures that encroached!

The Company bought the waterworks for a sum of 35,000 pagodas on April 5, 1780, and Baker returned home, a rich man.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 3:10:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/The-Baker-Street-of-Madras/article16742491.ece

Next Story