“Seven generations of my family were born in Calcutta, there are three Dalrymples sitting inside St John’s graveyard. And a great-great-grandfather’s plaque is on the St John’s Church wall.” – William Dalrymple
While the graves might have been shifted to a different location with St. John’s Church compound no longer being a graveyard, the plaques, memorials and cenotaphs are all that remain of people long gone. And what better way to introduce a famous forefather than using the words of his own illustrious historian descendant from an interview with the Telegraph.
The Wicked Man on the wall
Lets us read the story in Dalrymple’s own words… “James Pattle was known as the greatest liar in India. A man supposed to be so wicked that the Devil wouldn’t let him leave India after he died. Pattle left instructions that when he died, his body should be shipped back to Britain. So, after his demise (in 1845) they pickled the body in rum, as was the way of transporting bodies back then. The coffin was placed in the cabin of Pattle’s wife and the ship set sail from Garden Reach. In the middle of the night, the corpse broke through the coffin and sat up. The wife had a heart attack and died.
Now both bodies had to be preserved in rum. But the casks reeked of alcohol and the sailors bored holes through the sides of the coffins and drank the rum… and, of course, got drunk and the ship hit a sandbank and the whole thing exploded, cremating Pattle and his wife in the middle of the Hooghly! That’s why you see a plaque on the wall and not a grave in the graveyard of my great-great-grandfather”. Although descendants from families in charge of the transport claim that Pattle’s remains were conveyed back to England and deposited in the family vault of Camberwell.”
The Pattles had seven beautiful daughters, known widely in society circles as the ‘beautiful Miss Pattles’, and these beauties spread their families all over the country. Infact during one of his researches, Dalrymple discovered that his maternal great-great-grandmother Sophia Pattle was actually born to a Hindu Bengali woman who later became Catholic and married a French officer. Well, this actually makes Dalrymple partly, Bengali!? If we are to trace the lineages appropriately, Virginia Woolf is also found to be descending from the same set of seven sisters and therefore also part Indian by blood! Some information, those!!!!
Memorial of the “White Mughal”
The rather humble looking plaque in the memory of the Pattle couple stands near another memorial made famous in history by the same historian descendant of James Pattle.
On the south wall, stands the memorial of Col. James Achilled Kirkpatrick, immortalized by William Dalrymple in his historical novel – The White Mughal. A Scottish by descent and a Hyderabadi Muslim elite by choice, Kirkpatricks’s love affair with Khair-Un-Nissa, the granddaughter of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s paymaster is stuff of legends. Even Khair-Un-Nissa’s father’s insistence on a marriage following Islamic customs could not deter the love of this efficient Scottish Ambassador.
Such was his obsession with the oriental Muslim culture that he used to live the life of a Hyderabadi Muslim elite in a happy union with his wife and two children even while performing his duties on behalf of the Company and successfully executed six treaties during 1798-1804 between the Nizam and the British. Kirkpatrick was believed to have been summoned by Lord Cornwallis for some consultation to Calcutta where he breathed his last in 1805. Unfortunately, he was buried in the North Park Street cemetery in Calcutta far away from his city of love.
Commissioned by his father Colonel James Kirkpatrick, often referred to as the ‘Handsome Colonel’ and his brothers, this memorial features an urn bearing the family coat of arms of the family – dripping daggers and the motto “I mak sikker” (Scottish for I’ll make sure”). So, what do they make sure after all? There is a rather interesting story behind this rather violent coat of arms.
Remember Robert Bruce of the spider web story during the Scottish War of Independence in 1306? Well, Robert Bruce had a very close associate who helped him murder John Comyn, an influential opponent during the war. Once Bruce became the King, he granted Kirkpatrick his own family coat of arms featuring the above words, signifying the utterance by Kirkpatrick while murdering Comyn. Robert Kirkpatrick was the illustrious forefather of James.
With the Park Street Cemetery now no longer in use, this memorial created by sculptor James Bacon Jr. perhaps stands today as the only memory of the ‘White Mughal’.
Tomb of the First Bishop of Calcutta
Another unique thing that St. John’s Church can claim is to be the only one in the city with a grave under the altar. Thomas Fanshaw Middleton – the Fist Bishop of Calcutta had been interred here with full state honour and a gun salute from Fort William with special permission from the Government on his death in July 1822. Bishop Middleton was consecrated as the Bishop of Calcutta in 1814 and arrived in Calcutta with his family in November of the same year. He delivered his first sermon as the first bishop of Calcutta at the Calcutta Presidency Church – St. John’s Church on 25th December 1814. He had a very hectic next 8 years after which he died of a heat attack that he refused to get properly treated.
So, if you stand next to the communion rail, you will be able to see the spot where his coffin was lowered into the vault created below in a leaden coffin right in front of the altar. And if you are wondering what “D.D.” implies – it means “Doctorate of Divinity”.
In memory of Lieutenant Peter Lawtie
At the very end of the South wall just before the Lady Chapel, can be found, a monument erected by Sir David Ochterlony and the officers under his command in memory of Lieutenant Peter Lawtie. This rather unique memorial features a coffin held open by an angel with an Indian sepoy in a uniform coatee (short coat), bandolier (shoulder belt with pockets for cartridges), necklace, drawers exposing the legs and a pair of slippers depicting a Gurkha. Lieutenant Lawtie laid down his life in the Anglo-Nepalese war in 1815 as a member of the Corps of Engineers in the Bengal Army.
The World War Memorials
Apart from these significant memorial plaques, the church has a whole host of World War Memorial plaques in the form of stone and brass tablets and cenotaphs. These had been dedicated to the memory of the Calcutta based British and Anglo-Indian soldiers who fought to glorify the King and the Country and lost their lives in the said war between 1914 and 1918. When it was first inaugurated in 1921 by the Prince of Wales, these memorial plaques had been a part of the Glorious Dead Cenotaph at the Maidan. They were then shifted to the Bengal United Service Club. But once the club officially shut down in 1949, security reasons led to the final shift to this glorious old church.
The two wooden tablets on the right are placed slightly higher than the remaining memorials and are dedicated to the Calcutta Light Horse, a cavalry regiment of the British Army fighting in the World War II. Shifted here from Saturday Club, this regiment also boasts of Colonel Louis Mountbatten being a part of it.
A special Remembrance Day memorial Service is held here every year on the Sunday closest to November 11th, where members from all the three branches of armed forces are in attendance in memory of the soldiers of World War I and II.
Other memorials and cenotaphs
As we come out of the church, on our way out, on the left stands – the official residence of the present Bishop of Calcutta Diocese. This building is out of bounds for general tourists, of course, though I did have the great fortune of visiting once during the time of Rt. Rev Samuel Raju, with special permission. Though I have no pictures, the humble living conditions depict how the ministers continue to live the simplest of lives.
As we step out of this magnificent compound, our eyes travel straight towards the huge residential complex standing diagonally across the road and covering the whole stretch of the right side of the Government Place. The Governor’s house and other structures around will be covered in subsequent posts.
Till then keep reading and keep waiting for more.