Madras miscellany | History & Culture

A city losing its heritage

Gone, gone, gone. Binny’s building a few months ago. D’Angelis a few weeks ago. Gordon Woodroffe’s in the 150th year of its founding, the most recent. The merchant princes and others who made Madras the Queen of the Coromandel, those who laid the foundations for the thriving metropolis of today, how are they ever to be remembered? Will we ever teach their history in our schools of tomorrow? I lament because buildings even more important than these are being allowed to crumble despite court orders and promises of restoration, including sanctioning of funds. But more of that anon.

A word about Woodroffe’s. Founded in 1868 on the same premises fronting the harbour that it was located in till its last years, it used to be big in palmyrah fibre. Gradually, it got into leather, established one of the country’s largest leather factories in Pallavaram and became a major leather exporter. Then it got into shipping, insurance and managing agencies.

A city losing its heritage

Its leather facility was spread over 100 acres and at its peak had 1500 workers. The Company claimed to produce the best leather in India. In fact, Gordon Woodroffe’s leather was used for Indira Gandhi’s chair in Parliament, recounts former Test cricketer CD Gopinath, one of its first Indian recruits and who in 1966 became one of its first Indian Directors. He adds, apart from industrial leather, the Company’s picking bands and belts were in great demand in Western India’s textile mills. In 1971, after 25 years with the firm, Gopinath became the first Indian Chairman of the 87% London-owned firm.

Another aspect of the leather business, Gopinath recalls, is attending the International Leather Fair in Paris every year he was with leather. Woodroffe’s glace kid leather, or goat’s leather, was the finest of its kind, considered perfect for good quality shoes and handbags. Speaking of the trade, he says, “Leather is a tricky business and is unlike any other commodity, where results are predictable. Even factors like what a goat had been eating or if it had got scratched by barbed wire could alter the ultimate product and cost.” Gopinath left the firm in 1977 after differences with the new London owners and the Woodroffe story began to slowly unwind. In its last days, it may not have been a major player, but once it was a Madras Leather Legend.

My visitor who brought me the story of the destruction of the Woodroffe building wondered how long it would be for its fate to overtake such buildings as the National Art Gallery, Victoria Public Hall and the LIC building, despite money already sanctioned to save the first two and with a Government undertaking studiously ignoring the majesty of the courts in the third case. The most magnificent of them is the National Art Gallery in the Museum complex built between 1906 and 1909 as a memorial to Queen Victoria and as the grand exhibition hall of the Victoria Technical Institute established in 1887.

A city losing its heritage

One of Madras’s finest examples of heritage architecture, it was designed by Henry Irwin and built in ornate Jaipuri-Mughal style, with characteristic pink sandstone cladding and sculpture. Inside, Madras polished plaster and marble dominated. It’s as fine an example as you will get anywhere of a building influenced by Akbar’s dream palace at Fatehpur Sikri. My pictures today, however, offer a ray of hope.

Now, despite, all this inaction of the last quarter of a century, we are told more money has been sanctioned for heritage – to restore Queen Mary’s College and Presidency’s Victoria Hostel. The latter is near collapse; in the case of the former, the real heritage building, Capper’s House, went under the wreckers’ hammers a long time ago (2002-2003). What survives – and certainly warranting restoration – are Pentland House (1915), Stone House (1918) and Jeypore House (1921). It may be bolting the stable after the horse has been stolen, but we hope that at least these collegiate ‘stables’ will be saved.

Three 19th Century doctors

My piece on Dr. Bob Cochrane (Miscellany, March 19th) drew an expected response from Dr A Raman in Australia. He thinks that the first Madras doctor to try and treat leprosy was James Dalton who, between 1807 and 1815, redeveloped Valentine Connolly’s 1794 mental hospital into the ‘Lunatic Asylum’. Dalton of the Madras Native Infirmary (MNI/ Monegar Choultry) established in ‘Dalton’s, Mad Hospital’ a separate Leprosy Asylum. He is said to have trialed a treatment here that was later thought to include Mercury Chloride as the main ingredient.

A city losing its heritage

Between the late 1830s and the early 1840s, what was in time to be called the Madras Leper Hospital (MLH), was headed by a succession of MNI doctors, led by James Lawder of Lawder’s Gate, Purasawalkam, bus stop fame. The MLH opened on July 1, 1840, announcing, “For the reception of patients (of both sexes) – whether Indo-Britons or Natives – suffering from Leprosy… its interior economy wholly unconnected with the Native Infirmary.”

Lawder believed isolating patients would prevent the spread of leprosy and got Government to grant him ₹2000 to construct a 10-feet tall wall right around the compound. He also isolated the 11 wards, creating a prison more than anything else. Writing to Government in 1841, Lawder said he had tried almost all the remedies recommended by different medical authors and regretted that he had “no doubt of leprosy being incurable”.

Lawder was followed in this recounting by William Judson van Someren whose parents had been born in Nagapattinam and Vellore respectively, possibly medical missionaries. William van Someren worked in the MLH in the 1840s and wrote “a brief historical sketch about it” in 1861. In it, he stated significantly that leprosy was neither hereditary nor contagious, categorically countering Lawder’s views.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 2:10:41 PM |

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