Conservative Madras and modern Chennai may look down on street-side bars of the TASMAC variety but such places appear to have been dime a dozen in the old parts of the city in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most had an eatery cum bar in the lower floor and lodgings on the first storey.
Henry Davison Love, in his Vestiges of Old Madras, lists at least twenty-four of these from a permit document dating to 1796, most of them run by Portuguese. Some of the owners have roads named after them even now in the city — Lynn Pereira Street in San Thome and D’Silva Road in Mylapore being two. But the one that shot to fame and notoriety was the Crown and the Anchor, located on Errabalu Chetty Street, George Town. The place was owned and run by a Mrs. Bennett, an Englishwoman.
The landlady was found murdered in her bed on the morning of April 1, 1827. It was a most violent killing, going by the reports that appeared in the Madras Courier, the leading newspaper of the time. Mrs. Bennett had evidently put up a powerful resistance. The muscles of her arms and hands were found torn and mangled and the body distorted to a great extent. She had been gagged with a napkin and strangled with the rope that was used to draw water from the well. Her attacker was never traced, though it was known that it had been a native judging by a footprint that he had left beside her head. The killing of Mrs. Bennett also appears to have ended the life of the tavern and certainly there is no trace of such an establishment in Errabalu Chetty Street today.
The Crown and Anchor is a common name for British hotels, pubs and taverns, a historic one having stood at the corner of the Strand in London. But of greater interest is a hostelry of the same name that existed in Greater Yarmouth, Norfolk. On September 23, 1900, the body of a young woman, evidently murdered by strangulation after a great struggle, was found on the beach at that town. Initially identified as that of a Mrs. Hood, it was quietly given a burial owing to lack to evidence. Then came a string of clues leading to a detailed investigation and the first murder trial of the 20 century in the world.
The woman was actually a Mrs. Bennett and the murderer was her husband. The couple had separated and she had come to Yarmouth on a holiday. He had followed with his girlfriend in tow and stayed at the Crown and Anchor! The trial ended with Bennett being hanged. Two taverns of the same name separated by continents and oceans and linked by murders where the victim had the same name makes for a strange coincidence. Moral of the story — if you are a Mrs. Bennett, stay clear of taverns named The Crown and The Anchor.
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column dated May 31, 2014