In just five days from now, St. George’s Cathedral, on Cathedral Road, will complete 200, for it first opened its doors to worshippers on April 30, 1815.
By 1800, Madras had become a haven of peace. And with that, the British began leaving the secure confines of the Fort and George Town to take up residence in vast bungalows further afield, a number of them being in and around Mount Road. That meant the principal church, St. Mary’s in the Fort, was a good distance away, which became a convenient excuse for not attending Sunday prayers. The upper-class profile of those who stayed away meant a church had to be built close to where they lived and thus came about St. George’s.
The edifice was designed by Col. James Caldwell and built by Maj. Thomas Fiott de Havilland, a controversial but brilliant military engineer. Even before work began, a clear directive had arrived from Bishop Middleton in Calcutta. In his letter to the Governor of Madras, he expressed his distress at the “plainness or even the ugliness, of buildings being erected as churches”. St. George’s, he implied, had better be impressive.
The most popular ecclesiastical architect of that time was James Gibbs of London and Caldwell and de Havilland faithfully copied his designs — a rectangular structure like a Roman temple with a spire running to 139 feet. Its pillared portico, white chunam finish, stained glass and spacious interior made an enormous impression on the parish that comprised the most important people of the city. Middleton, arriving in 1816, was pleased by what he saw and approved.
With the completion of this church, de Havilland’s reputation was made and he was entrusted with the next ambitious project — the construction of St. Andrew’s Kirk, Egmore. He was thereafter a consultant of sorts for any church in the city and used his powers to good effect when he was asked to approve the designs for St. Mathias in Vepery. He had lost the contract for that shrine to John Law, a rival. On discovering that its steeple could be higher than that of St. George’s, he declared it could be a security threat to the Fort and had it shortened!
Sadly for de Havilland, his wife Elizabeth was the first to be buried in St. George’s. The yard lies at the rear and many an important personality of this city rests within its enclosure. The railings were once made of musket barrels, pikes and other arms abandoned in the last battle against Tipu Sultan in 1799. But that interesting relic has since been replaced.
St. George’s became a Cathedral in October 1835 when the Diocese of Madras was created. It is a building that is full of history and worth a visit. Before you go in, pause at the gates — this was from where Edward Francis Elliot, then Chief Magistrate and Superintendent of Police, Madras, eloped with Mrs. Isabella Napier, a mother of three, on January 22, 1838.
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column dated April 25, 2015