“Presidency” Church compounds – A walk through history

“We owe to future generations a preserved and unmutilated heritage of Calcutta’s eccentric but exciting old buildings,” – Amartya Sen

Having covered most of the Tank Square, as it was called in its heydays, the distant steeple of the St. John’s Church calls…like an appropriate next stop, particularly having mentioned the Black Hole tragedy in my last post. Walking down Council House Street with the century-old Hong Kong House on the northern side and the enormous Imperial Department of Commerce & Industry covering most of the riverside of the road, is a journey back in time in every aspect. It is here that the man, disputed to be the founder of Calcutta lies in his grand mausoleum.

This church, or much rather the church compound is a treasure-trove of historical relics dating back to the time the British were taking baby steps as rulers of our land! Yes, I am talking about the National Monument that is St. John’s Church – a compound that houses not just a church dating back to 1787 but three memorials and many a grave.

St. John’s Church was built in 1787 on a piece of land donated by Maharaja Nobo Krishna Deb, the famed Bengali patriarch and founder of Sovabazar Rajbari, known for his loyalty towards the British as a return to the enormous amount of wealth he amassed helping them in establishing themselves as the masters of the land. The original land used to be a burial ground that was no longer used since 1767. However, few graves have been retained for their sheer historical value.

An old painting of the St. John’s Church by Daniell Thomas

It was Warren Hastings who laid the foundation of this first-ever public building, meant to be the new “Presidency Church”, erected by East India Company in their capital city. Lieutenant James Agg’s architectural plan was almost similar in design to the St Martin-in-the-Fields, an Anglican church in London. This neoclassical architecture was built with a strange combination of red brick and stones, giving it the colloquial name of “Pathuriya Girja”, with a light-yellow (now white) paint to the building except for a distinct spire constructed with red Chunar stones.

Built with money raised through a public lottery, the main intention of creating this first Cathedral in Kolkata was providing not just a place for Sunday church service for the growing European population but also a strategic opportunity for the officers and the ladies of the society to socialize. It remained the main Presidency Church till 1814 when a bishop was constituted, and a diocese was formed making it an Anglican Cathedral. It continued to be one till 1847 when St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was built to accommodate the ever-growing European population, took over.

A rare sight, still retained, in the compound is a parking garage for palanquins, now defunct as the small size cannot accommodate cars. The church even has a special inclined approach built for ease of bringing the palanquins to the very door of the church.

Tomb of Lord Brabourne

Straight down the entrance, we see the first significant tombstone – that of Michael Herbert Rudolf Knatchbull, better known in history as the Lord Brabourne (5th) who was the Governor of Bengal from 1937 till his death in 1939. His illustrious wife, Doreen Knatchbull, known more popularly as Lady Brabourne was the main patron behind the establishment of the Lady Brabourne College set up to accommodate Muslim girls who were discriminated against by the only other girl’s college in Kolkata – Bethune College, which was apparently a Hindu establishment.

Tomb of the 5th Lord Brabourne. Photo courtesy Susheel Markus

Second Rohilla War Memorial

Further north stands a memorial with twelve much smaller Doric columns with a round top. This was constructed to mark the victory of the British forces in 1794, under the command of General Sir Robert Abercomby in the Second Rohilla War. The British were backing the Nawab of Oudh against the Rohillas, who were Pashtun tribes conflicting with the Nawab in the region of Rohilkhand in the north-western Uttar Pradesh. Why this War Memorial stands here is Calcutta is beyond reason, except maybe because it was then the seat of British power in India.

The Second Rohilla War Memorial. Photo courtesy Soham Chandra

Tombstones without the tombs

While Job Charnock’s mausoleum is the oldest piece of masonry in what can be labelled as the city of Calcutta, just before Charnock’s tomb, there are three other tombstones or epitaphs whose graves were shifted to the South Park Street cemetery once the land was sanctioned for the church. The tombstones however were retained for some strange reason and the names read the William “Billy” Speke – an eighteen-year-old surgeon who lost his legs during the siege of Fort Orleans at Chandannagore and died soon after in 1757; Eleanor Winwood who died in September 1768 and Elizabeth Reed who died in September 1767 along with her infant son who died a month and a half later.

The remains of tombs that had been moved to the South Park Street Cemetery, when the land was given to make the church. Photo courtesy Soham Chandra

Mausoleum of Vice Admiral Charles Watson

The other significant structure here is the grave of Vice-Admiral Charles Watson who accompanied Lord Clive from the Presidency of Fort St. George at Madras, where he was posted to avenge the Black Hole massacre and retain British hold on the city and its surrounding areas. He fought in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and following the defeat of Nawab Sirajuddaula, he was promoted to Vice-Admiral of the White. He died of broken health the same year in August and was buried in the old graveyard.

Memorial of Vice Admiral Charles Watson. Photo courtesy Soham Chandra

Mausoleum of Job Charnock

But the single most important grave in the compound belongs to the man who is credited, disputedly, with creating the city – Job Charnock, along with a few of his family members. In fact, what Charnock significantly achieved on the hallowed date of 24th August 1690 was to set up a headquarter for the East India Company on the land spreading across the three villages of Sutanuti, Govindopur & Kolikata. This new centre was named Calcutta and it was this headquarter that was later developed to be the capital of the British Raj till 1911.

The white octagonal Moorish style mausoleum was commissioned in 1693 by Charnock’s son in law Charles Ayre who succeeded him as the Agent of the Company in Bengal. The epitaph written in Latin is inscribed on a special quality rock exported from the then Madras Presidency and later named Charnockite, due to this connection.

Mausoleum of Job Charnock. Photo courtesy Soham Chandra

With entrances on all three sides, this mausoleum also contains graves of other members of his family including his Hindu wife, often referred to as Mary or Maria. His daughters Mary Ayre and Catherine White are also buried along with him. That apart there is another tombstone belonging to Surgeon William Hamilton, famed for curing Emperor Farrukhsiyar, earning the zamindari rights of a large part of Bengal. The last tablet on the extreme left is that of Martha Witiewrong Eyles.

Grave of Francis (Begum) Johnson

To the left of Job Charnock’s mausoleum lies the grave of the Grand Dame of 18th century Calcutta – Frances Johnson, also known as Begum Johnson. Born and brought up in India, even the ever-increasing noise and dust and scorching summers could not drive her away from what she believed to be her motherland – Bengal. A lady of considerable reputation, she lived in style with nine slave girls at her bidding! Intriguing, isn’t it? But that did not give her the title Begum. It was the close association with Amina Begum, the mother of the Nawab of Bengal that gave her the title. But Begum Johnson has a long story to her credit that is suspected to have been the inspiration for Ruskin Bond’s much talked about novella, Susanna’s Seven Husbands.

Born to a Portuguese mother and British father in Fort David in Southern India, Frances first married when she was 13 years old. Perry Peupler Templar lived in Calcutta and after five years of married life, she was left widowed with both her children dying in infancy. Her second marriage lasted 10 days when her husband James Altham died of smallpox within 10 days of the wedding.

The grave of Begum Johnson. Photo courtesy Rangan Dutta and Soham Chandra

Her third marriage to William Watts was a long and happy one with four children but after they returned to England and once Watts died, Frances chose to come back to Calcutta and live on 12 Clive Street. In 1774 she married Reverend William Johnson, Chaplain of St. John’s Church, 16 years her junior who was very unkind to her. Finally, unable to stand him anymore she annulled the marriage and sent him back to England but herself chose to live at the same address and breathe her last in Calcutta in 1812, at the ripe old age of 87 – then the oldest British resident in Bengal. Her epitaph beautifully sums up her eventful life. 

Calcutta Black Hole Monument

The Black Hole Monument is perhaps the one infamous structure depicting the horror of a rather unfortunate incident, albeit questionable in terms of its magnitude, during Nawab Sirajuddaula’s Siege of Calcutta in 1756, described in an earlier post. Erected by John Holwell, one of the 23 survivors and later the Governor of Bengal, the memorial was first erected at the site of the tragedy, right next to GPO. It was then moved to an unknown location in 1822 but was later brought back by Lord Curzon in 1901 in a spot between Writer’s Building and GPO. Due to some issues, it was again shifted, and this time inside the compounds of the St. John’s Church. In the various faces of the monument are names of victims of the massacre.

The replaced Black Hole Monument. Photo courtesy easternswargblog

if you turn left from the Black Hole of Monument, you will see five graves or tombs (4 in a cluster and one a little distance away). These belong to wardens, their families and some other people, who are quite often found buried in church compounds. However, since the 4 cemeteries in Park Street came up, they have thereafter been buried in Park Street. These 5 tombs however had not been removed, unlike many others in the compound.

Clockwise from top left – Tomb of Sir Benjamin Heath Mailkin, Tomb of Sir Christopher Puller, Tomb of Sir Robert Henry Blosse; Bottom left: Tomb of Rt. Rev John. Mathias Turner and Tomb of William Ravenswood Cowpar Jew. Photo courtesy Subhadip Mukherjee

Lady Canning Memorial:

On the northern corridor of the church is an ornate memorial for Charlotte Canning, the wife of Charles Canning the Governor-General and Viceroy of India. Lady Canning died of malaria in 1861 and was buried in Barrackpore but Lord Canning commissioned a marble cenotaph similar to her tomb in Barrackpore. This baroque sculpture made of delicate mosaic, marble patterns and the ornate cross on the headstone was created by George Gilbert Scott and John Birnie Philip and retains its intricate details to this day.

Memorial for Lady Charlotte Canning. Photo courtesy Tarun Samanta

Yes, she is the same Lady Canning in whose honour, the renowned confectioner Bhim Chandra Nag created what we know even today as Ladikeni. She was known to have a sweet tooth with a particular fondness for this special creation.

So much for the vast compound of the St. John’s Church! I will be back with a whole host of interesting anecdotes and stories from the interiors of this heritage structure, now painted white with a fresh coat of paint.

References:

  1. http://double-dolphin.blogspot.com/2014/02/st-johns-church.html
  2. http://sohamchandra.blogspot.com/2016/07/st-johns-church-where-history-lies-in.html
  3. https://www.carpediemtales.com/post/job-charnock-mausoleum-grave-st-john-s-church-kolkata
  4. https://rangandatta.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/st-johns-church-calcutta-kolkata/
  5. https://indianvagabond.com/2017/06/05/st-johns-church-kolkata-a-complete-guide/
  6. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/black-hole-calcutta
  7. http://muddyloafers.blogspot.com/2010/04/begum-frances-johnson-grand-dame-of.html
  8. https://puronokolkata.com/tag/lady-cannings-memorial/
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Canning,_Countess_Canning
  10. https://easternswargblog.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/5/

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