A 150-year-old park


Catching up on Governor Sir Charles Trevelyan the other day, I suddenly discovered that this year is the 150th anniversary of the turning of the first sod of his brainchild, People’s Park. I’ve not heard the name used in recent years for what was once the largest green lung in the city, but I wonder whether the area where the Jawaharlal Nehru and Indoor Stadiums, My Ladye’s Garden and the Lily Pond, the new market complex popularly called by the same name, and the Ashley Biggs Institute and its Moore’s Pavilion all are, still has the official designation of People’s Park.

If it doesn’t, with its neighbours Ripon Building and Victoria Public Hall scheduled for restoration it would be appropriate if the Park’s name was not only restored but that the spacious park itself BE revived and brought back to its green past.

Catching up with that past of People’s Park I discovered that though Trevelyan started it all — approving the plan, staking out the ground and turning the first sod — his recall to Britain, for “palpapble and plain insubordination” following his bluntly telling the Government of India that Madras would not follow its taxation policies, left the work in limbo. Fortunately, his successor Sir William Denison showed “a hearty approval of an undertaking so intimately connected with the health and pleasure of the middle-class population” and the Park was completed by 1861 and managed by a Committee of Management. The earliest record of the Park I’ve been able to trace, dated 1863, lists Col. W.P. Macdonald as the President of the Committee, Surgeon Major J.W. Mudge as Secretary, and, amongst its six other members, the Hon’ble Alexander J Arbuthnot who has appeared in these columns many a time for his numerous contributions to Madras ranging from Education to Sport to Governance. The Superintendent of the Park was D. Riordan and his house was in the Park.

The 116 acres of the Park hosted 12 lakes, in one of which, Victoria Lake, two boats plied for pleasure boating, five-and-a-half miles of road including a metalled one on the eastern verge of the Park called ‘The Equestrians’ Ride’, two masonry basins with fountains, a bandstand that was the centre of the Park, an aviary, and the nucleus of a zoo with tigers, a cheetah, bears and various deer and monkey species. Lions from South Africa and elephants were awaited at the time of the report I caught up with. Hundreds of trees were planted along the sides of some stretches of road, creating avenues, and, elsewhere, trees were planted to create small groves.

To make the Park self-supporting in some measure, hay was successfully cultivated and fetched Rs.41 a ton! Whether hay is again grown or not, can’t the rest of it be re-created to supplement the handsomeness of Ripon Building and Victoria Public Hall that will re-appear once their restoration is complete in the next couple of years?

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