In the largely peaceful history of Madras that is Chennai, we have had two coups. The better-known episode is the arrest in 1776 and subsequent mysterious death in 1777 of George Pigot, Governor of Madras. The earlier and less well known is the deposition of Governor Foxcroft by Sir Edward Winter in 1665.
Winter was Agent in Madras from 1661 to 1665. A rough and ready character, he is chiefly remembered for his getting the British their permanent rights over Madras. His tenure was however marked by repeated clashes with his members-in-council and the Directors back home. By 1664, the charges against Winter were mounting. He was accused of siphoning of 30,000 pagodas in cash, taking several relatives into company service, threatening to hang the dubash Thimmanna. The Company responded by sending George Foxcroft to supersede Winter. The moral tenor of the Fort was fairly lax with even the chaplain, Simon Smythe being a hard drinker. He was besides married to Winter’s niece. Together, the two hatched a plot and on the pretext of an argument at the Common Table in the Fort, Winter sought the impeachment of Foxcroft. Nothing came of this immediately beyond Winter storming into Foxcroft’s rooms early one morning. Convinced that a coup was at hand, Foxcroft ordered the arrest of Winter. But within 48 hours, Winter had won over the Captain of the Guard and more importantly, the latter’s wife. He was released and bided his time during which interval, the Captain, Lt. Chuseman, burst into Foxcroft’s rooms and in the ensuing duel, at least one Councillor was killed while Foxcroft, his son and another Councillor were wounded. Foxcroft and three others were arrested and Winter took possession of the Fort. That was in September 1665.
The news reached England and in 1668, a Royal Commission headed by William Langhorne arrived. Winter drove a hard bargain but was ultimately coerced into giving up the Fort. Foxcroft was reinstated and today holds the record of being the first holder of the title of Governor of Madras. Winter stayed on in Madras continuing to trade privately and four years later retired to England, a Nabob in every sense. His wife stayed on in India, collecting money owed to him and joined him a year later. Winter and his good lady settled at York House, formerly Bridge Court, on the banks of the Thames at Battersea, just outside London proper. On the death of the first Lady Winter, he married in 1682, an Emma Wyeth. Winter died in 1686.
It was only recently that I discovered that Winter was buried at St Mary’s Church, Battersea. And on reading Sir Charles Lawson’s Memories of Madras, I also got to know that there exists a handsome monument to Winter in that church. Battersea being on a route that I routinely travel by whenever I am in England, I decided to visit the church.
An email to the church got me an encouraging response. Ms Sunny Walker-Kier, Parish Administrator, replied stating that she would be happy to meet me on the date I had suggested and allow me to see the church.
And so on a very pleasant day with just a hint of rain about it, I set off from Victoria Station by bus. The church comes upon you suddenly as the bus negotiates a curve and is in such a scenic location that your heart almost aches to see such beauty. It is just by the river and on the opposite bank is the famed Battersea Power Station, now closed but a heritage building considering its art-deco style.
St Mary’s Church is by itself a grade -1 listed heritage building. A church has been in existence on this site at least from 800 AD. The present structure however was completed in 1777 by which time Battersea had become home to several well-to-do merchants of London. So the church that I was seeing was not the one in which Winter worshipped. I walked through the churchyard as instructed in the email and came to the rear of the church and knocked on a round portcullis. It swung open to reveal the basement of the church which now serves as classroom for young children. Ms Walker-Kier came and opened the church building for me.
“I have not yet located your Winter as yet, “ she said. “But you are welcome to look around.” The church is exceedingly well-maintained and apart from the school in the rear, also has weekly services besides being used for weddings, funerals and baptisms. It has a fine set of stained glass windows and its interior remains substantially unchanged since its construction.
Winter’s monument, a vast structure in marble, is on the upper gallery on one of the walls. It was probably relocated here when the old church was pulled down and the new one built. The monument is topped by a bust of Winter, and he looks every inch the fierce personality he was. My first impression is of an eagle looking down from the heights.
The monument has a long inscription in praise of Winter. The chief point of interest is its mentioning that he “alone and unarmed” grappled with a tiger and crushed it to death. That looks like just the kind of story that Winter floated about after his return home. And sure enough, the bottom panel of the monument has a frieze depicting him fighting the tiger. The struggle appears to have happened on the sea coast for in the distance is a ship while closer at hand are a couple of houses. What is evident of course is that the carver had never seen a tiger before and so it looks more like a dog. And from a distance both Winter and the tiger look almost like twins. The other side of the panel has another incident from Winter’s life – his overthrowing singly three and twenty mounted Moores.
Given my experience in India I ask with some trepidation if I can take pictures. “Take any number,” comes the reassuring answer and I click away. As I prepare to leave, I ask Ms Walker-Kier as to where Price’s Candle Factory was. I am directed to its location, which is just a short distance from the church and accessed by a pleasant walk along the Thames.
Price’s Candle Factory was built in 1830 on the site where Winter’s York House once stood. The company became a world-famous one in candles and dominated the trade for over a century before filing for administration in 2001. It still remains in the business though its manufacturing facilities have shifted elsewhere. The land on which it stood has given way to Price Court, a set of multi-storeyed buildings. The actual factory has been retained in façade while the interiors have become flats, going by the name of Candle-Makers Apartments. The practical-minded Winter would have approved.