The Madras post office that lost its caps

February 05, 2018 12:08 pm | Updated 12:13 pm IST

Today’s column is thanks to my recently spotting a picture taken around a century ago of a building looking rather different today. I offer you two views of the General Post Office (GPO), Rajaji Salai. Spot the difference; no prizes for pointing out that today’s GPO has lost the ‘caps’ it had on its tallest towers, 125 feet tall with them.

Such caps were a feature of Robert Chisholm buildings after he saw architecture in what is Kerala today. Work started on this building in 1874 and it opened for business on April 26, 1884. The bigger ‘caps’ were badly damaged in a mid-20th Century storm and never replaced for safety reasons.

The 55,000 sq ft building, on the site of an earlier military fortification, the Abercrombie Battery, cost ₹6,80,000, mainly collected by the Madras Chamber of Commerce. Another lakh was spent on furbishing it. Built in what might be called a Gothic Indo-Saracenic style, it provided accommodation on the second floor, including an apartment for the Postmaster-General.

It was nearly 165 years before this that Madras established a postal service with Governor Harrison inaugurating the first service to Calcutta, using dak-runners, in 1712. Additional dak-runner services followed. The name General Post Office was given to the local service’s headquarters only in 1774 when Madras introduced a postage charge on private letters. All this was very haphazard till 1785-86 when John Burlton and Thomas Lewin drew up plans for postal rules, a postal network and a postal authority. A consequence was fixed postal rates being charged by the General Post Office, Madras, inaugurated on June 1, 1786. Located just outside the Sea Gate, it hosted AM Campbell as Postmaster-General till London ruled his appointment a bit of gubernatorial nepotism. He was replaced by Oliver Colt as Madras’s first PMG.


The GPO moved into the Fort, near the Exchange (now Fort Museum), in 1837, then into Garden House , Broadway in 1856. Before it moved into the Chisholm building, it had established branches in 1834 in Vepery and Royapettah and five more before 1874. Moubray’s (TTK) Road, in 1855, got the first letter box. The year before that, Madras got a Post Office Act and its first stamps. Jutkas (horse-carts) transported the mail in the city till 1918, though a beginning with motorised transport was made in 1915.

Despite computer correspondence’s arrival, the post office survives, with new services added. The one service out of the past I miss is the telegraph, which first came to Madras in 1853 and the public could use from February 1, 1855, a 163rd anniversary forgotten last week. What fun ‘twas to message so: ‘excolcorr postlunchscores promailsport exmuthiah’! Just four words!

Once exclusively for Telugu

As Madras grew from 1640, the earliest Telugu settlements were in North Madras. The first Telugu school came up in George Town. But by the early 20th Century, a Telugu-speaking population began putting down roots in Mylapore, Royapettah and T Nagar. To meet its educational needs, an elementary Telugu medium school was founded in 1940 in Royapettah, near the police station, by leading members of the community in the area. Monthly subscriptions by the founders kept it going but were not enough to allow it to grow.

Seventy-five years ago this year, eminent Telugu Ayurvedic doctor KN Kesari decided to take the school over. It thus got its name, Kesari Elementary School. Soon, it became a middle school, then a high school. In 1948, its students sat for the SSLC exam for the first time, taking it in Telugu. Around then, Dr Kesari bought for ₹70,000 a spacious building nearby and there it stands, a handsome one just off Royapettah High Road. With advisers like Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar and Justice P Satyanarayana suggesting he expand educational activities, and responding to appeals from Telugus in T Nagar, Dr. Kesari founded an elementary school by the Teynampet junction in 1950 as a branch of the main school. He started the Kesari Education Society the next year, with a governing body to manage these activities.

When the State Government offered 34 grounds to expand the school in T Nagar, and with donations from well-wishers, a high school was developed, its first students taking the SSLC in 1959-60. Kesari Mylapore became a Higher Secondary School in 1978; T Nagar followed in 1981.

Both schools, I am told, have had distinguished alumni, like Justice Jagannadha Rao of the Supreme Court, Justice Eswara Prasad of the Andhra High Court, YV Reddy, former RBI Governor, Dr R Ramamurthy, former Vice Chancellor, Sri Venkateswara University, Mohan Kanda, former Chief Secretary, Andhra, Gayathri, Vice Chancellor, Tamil Nadu Music and Fine Arts University, and film artistes Sowcar Janaki, Rajasree and Sai Kumar among others. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that almost all those in management and administration in the schools are old students.

The schools now offer Telugu and English mediums. But student strength is dipping with many families moving to Andhra and Telangana, as opportunities open up in both States. Also, the number of schools and options in the areas have increased and Telugu exclusivity is no longer sought. But with help from the Andhra Social and Cultural Association, the schools are looking ahead positively – even to a Kesari College.

The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places, and events from the years gone by, and sometimes from today

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