When you are done with exploring St. Thomas’ Street, walk west, on the road that flanks the southern wall of the Fort. You will cross St. Thomas’ Gate on your left. Walk further and you will notice that the road now turns at a sharp angle towards northwest. Cradled in this bend is a long two-storied building This is the arsenal of Fort St George.
Walk along the perimeter of the arsenal till you find yourself facing Parade Square once more. The arsenal now extends to your right and that is where you will see a long tunnel like archway leading you inside the arsenal. The front façade has some interesting plaster work on the pediment, below which is a rectangular recess on which there is a medallion bearing the insignia of King George V. Walk through the archway till you come to the triangular courtyard. You will see two long flights of stairs flanking the arch through which you entered. Turn back and look at the wall above the arch. A plaque there bears the legend ‘Madras Arsenal, 1772- 1931’.
The arsenal forms the southwestern end of the Fort. Its appearance is deceptive for it is in reality three huge blocks. The double storied structure through which you entered is but the tail. The main building, two storied and rectangular, is to your left as you face the courtyard. This comprises a series of double square bays that enclose a rectangular courtyard within. At the other of this block is the eastern entrance to the arsenal. This has set of helical stairways – a theme that repeats in the Secretariat, St Mary’s and King’s Barracks. Connecting the northern and eastern blocks is the angular southern block. All three have semicircular arches holding up the ground floor roof. The lower level was meant for storage of ammunition while the first floor was chiefly residential. It is fitted with tall windows that have sloping sunshades. The first floor also has a Madras Terrace roof. It is one of the largest precincts inside the Fort, spanning an area of 55,762 square feet.
Before the arsenal was built on this site in 1772, the area was known as the Artillery Park of the Fort. The latter was part of the protective defences that were built after the French left Madras in 1749. The design and execution were by John Call, Engineer of the East India Company. As part of the new developments, Call envisaged a long street that ran parallel to Parade Square on the western side and which would house new barracks, the hospital, mint and artillery park. The last named was ready by 1762, the year the British Government sent a naval and military force to subjugate the Spanish settlement at Manila, in the Philippines. Madras played a key role in the assault. Following the capitulation of Manila on October 6th, it was decided that a Manila Trophy be erected at the Artillery Park. This was duly done, though no description of it survives. The trophy was dismantled and, according to H.D. Love, fragments of it survived in the Government Museum.
By 1771, the Government had decided to build an arsenal on the site of the Artillery Park. Call’s successor Patrick Ross was asked to prepare an estimate and he came up with a figure of 9,327 pagodas. Ross’ plan was for bomb-proof arches wide enough to contain “abreast two of the largest Field Carriages, so that between each Row of Pillars there may at least be put four Guns…It is proposed to have the Space between the Arches of the Front that is towards the Artillery Park open, and the Windows on the other side to be in the Recesses, in form of the Arch, which will admit Abundance of Air.” This is the plan that was executed and even today the arsenal remains one of the best ventilated buildings in the Fort.
Ross was soon to discover that his initial budget was woefully inadequate. The park stood on what was once the dry bed of the Elambore River and this necessitated laying deep foundations. His estimate soon trebled to 28,000 pagodas. The tender when floated was bid for by two contractors – the notorious Paul Benfield and John Sullivan, then a young writer in the company. Ross was widely perceived to be Benfield’s crony and so it was no surprise that he favoured awarding the contract to the latter even though his bid was higher than that of Sullivan. The Government was not amused. It also found fault with Ross for having introduced various ornamentations on the façade of the building even though the mandate was for plain elevations. Ross was suspended for a year, but on the order being rescinded, he made his peace with Sullivan and the two went on to complete the arsenal. The building, constructed chiefly with brick, mud and lime mortar, was thrown open on November 9, 1772.
Interestingly, the building was the subject of much debate while the construction was first thought of. It was the first view of Ross and probably Benfield that native artisans were incapable of designing and building the arsenal, especially its specific requirement of inverted arches. The Company and Sullivan strongly disagreed. It was therefore with much satisfaction that they reported progress to England in February 1772, stating that the work had been “conducted by Black Maistrys without any assistance and We are persuaded that they are equal to the execution of any Works that may be undertaken. The Arsenal is built on inverted Arches which your Chief Engineer was of opinion Mr. Benfield only could Construct, and yet all of the lower story, which consists of Bomb Proof built upon those arches have been certified to be finished in a workmanlike manner. We therefore leave you to Judge how far such European Artificers may be Necessary.” Going by this, it would appear that the arsenal was among the first buildings to be executed by Indians for the British. This tradition would continue through the construction of Chepauk Palace and many of the other edifices of the city. Interestingly, Benfield would be one of the first people to adopt this practice, for it was he who built Chepauk Palace. Benfield also appears to have owned considerable property in the vicinity of the arsenal. The area on its northern side was once known as Hanover Square and much of it is recorded to be Benfield’s.
The East India Company’s Arsenals and Manufactories by Brigadier General HA Young in 1920 has some interesting facts about the building. It was under the control of a Commissary of Stores who had under him two deputy commissaries, four conductors, four sergeants and a ‘matross’. By the 1820s, this had expanded to seven commissaries, each with staff reporting to him, lorded over by a Principal Commissary of Ordnance. Around 150 ‘Chickledars’ were employed to keep the arms clean. But in 1832, the arsenal was fitted with glass windows to keep out the dust and so this team was greatly reduced in size. But ten years later we find that quite an army worked here – a Principal Commissary, a Commissary, a Deputy Assistant Commissary, 10 conductors, 14 sub-conductors, 13 store sergeants, 1 labora-tory sergeant, 1 laboratory corporal, 422 lascars and 142 workmen.
As can be interpreted from the plaque, the arsenal ceased to be one in 1931. It has since been made over to offices of the military. It is not clear as to when the pile of cannon balls and shells that stands at the entrance was first put up to indicate that this structure was indeed an arsenal. But in his book The Story of Fort St George written in 1948, D.M. Reid makes mention of it.
The arsenal remains in an excellent state of preservation, being tended to with care.
This article is part of a series on Fort St George to commemorate its 375th year. You can read the other parts below:
1. The Fort, its topography
2. The Flagstaff
3. The Sea Gates
4. The Moat
5. The Cornwallis Cupola
6. The Assembly and Secretariat
7. The Parade Square
8. The King’s Barracks
9. The Great House on Charles Street
10. Arthur Wellesley’s House
11. Charles (and James) Street
12. The Church of St Mary’s
13. The Yard of St Mary’s
14. The Interior of St Mary’s
15. Some funerary and other monuments in St Mary’s
16. The romance of Church Street
17. St Thomas Street
18. The Wallajah Gate and Palace Street