Naval Hospital Road is a thoroughfare that connects Vepery with Poonamallee High Road, terminating just opposite the Government College of Fine Arts. There is however no such institution in its vicinity. What extends to one side is a long, low-slung building with a sloping roof. This now houses the Government Medical Supplies Depot. And it holds within it the history of the long-vanished Naval Hospital.
We first read of such an institution in HD Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras. In 1744, with England and France declaring war on each other, it became clear to Madras that an attack of some kind could be expected from Pondicherry. Governor Nicholas Morse felt that he was not authorised to agree to a suggestion from M Dupleix that peace could be observed at all locations east of the Cape of Good Hope. London was appealed to for sending a squadron for the protection of Madras and action was prompt. Four ships sailed out under the command of Commodore Curtis Barnett. In Madras, work began for receiving the sailors and one of the tasks was the kitting out of a Naval Hospital. This was a disused granary on the Island.
The next we hear of this hospital is in 1756, when we find it is keeping company with the Company’s Hospital, both being located “on rising ground on the north bank of the old course of the river.” The water body so described was the Elambore River and its old course ran along what is today NSC Bose Road and from there along the western wall of the Fort. That places the Naval and Company Hospitals where the Fort Station is at present. All these buildings were however demolished in 1757, as part of the protracted project of enhancing the security of the Fort. With that, the Company’s Hospital, soon to become the General Hospital, moved to its present location.
The Naval Hospital appears to have shifted next to the Fort, facing the sea. A description of the hospital in that location survives in a work of Charles Curtis, surgeon of the frigate Medea. Titled An Account of the Diseases in India as they appeared in The English Fleet and the Naval Hospital at Madras in 1782 and 1783, it was published in Edinburgh and London in 1807. The book describes a large square building, a few hundred yards from the sea beach. All the rooms opened onto a central courtyard and such was the excellent ventilation that there was no foul smell anywhere, except near a few patients who suffered very extreme diseases. There were plenty of servants to clean the place by way of sweeping and washing. The hospital was evidently run by a group that had taken it on contract. Could this be the first instance of private healthcare in India? According to Curtis, the Naval Hospital was far bigger than the Company’s/Garrison Hospital and had twice the number of patients, with the most common afflictions being venereal disease, scurvy, rickets and unspecified sores.
In 1784, the Government decided to build a Naval Hospital and even identified a site for it but took no action for several years thereafter. From 1790 onwards we find the sick and ill from the squadron being referred once again to the Company’s/Garrison Hospital and so we must assume that the Naval Hospital by the beach had closed.
In 1797 Admiral Rainier decided that a separate Naval Hospital was a must. The site selected in 1784 was allotted for this. It had belonged to Dr Colley Lyon Lucas, the Chief Surgeon of Madras. He owned a vast swathe encompassing all of what is today the St Andrew’s Kirk, a part of the Egmore Station and on the opposite side of Poonamallee High Road the offices of the Dina Thanthi and next to it the area now occupied by the Government Medical Supplies Depot. It was the last named that was earmarked for the Naval Hospital. Captain John Halstead of the Royal Navy was appointed the Governor of the hospital and he was assisted by Lieut. TC Thompson.
Work began on constructing a proper hospital here and it appears to have been completed by 1810. The Naval Chronicle, Volume 25, January – July 1811 carried a detailed description of the buildings, along with a sketch of it “made on the spot” by J Inman, nephew of Captain Henry Inman, Admiralty Commissioner, Madras. An aquatint by James Baily, based on the Inman sketch is shown alongside. The hospital appears to have comprised four independent structures:
“The Hospital, which is airy and commodious, capable of accommodating 500 patients, and in every respect calculated to promote their health and comfort, was built under the joint auspices of Sir Edward Pellew and Admiral Drury, the present commander-in-chief of the India station. To the liberal mind of the latter officer, we understand, it is particularly indebted for its verandah and several other important advantages.
The larger hospital to the right, is appropriated to the use of the petty officers, seamen and marines. The ground floor of the building next to it is the dispensary; the upper floor consisting of a dining room, and two bedrooms for the accommodation of the lieutenant governor and the dispenser. The under part of the third is allotted to sick officers and the upper part to the residence of the captain or governor. The fourth building on the left is for the surgeon.”
Sir Edward Pellew, later first Viscount Exmouth, was the Admiral in charge of the Eastern Indian Ocean.
The hospital functioned from this location till 1831. By then, with peace prevailing since 1799 and the number of ships stopping at Madras having markedly reduced owing to the lack of a proper harbour, there was a steady decline in the number of patients. It was therefore decided in 1831 to transfer the remaining to the Company’s/Garrison Hospital and make over the Naval Hospital premises to the gun carriage factory. This too was closed in the 1930s and the place was made over to the Government Medical Supplies Depot.
It would appear that the old Naval Hospital buildings were brought down when the place became a gun carriage factory. There however appears to be one survivor – the bungalow on the extreme left of the premises, which as per the old Naval Hospital sketch was the residence of the surgeon. Now abandoned, it is still a handsome building and served for long as the residence of the Superintendent of the Government Medical Depot. It is not clear as to what plan the Government has in mind for this sole remnant of a bygone age.
What is interesting is the continued medical connection of the property – from the residence of the Chief Surgeon of Madras it became the Naval Hospital and after a brief tenure as gun carriage factory became the Medical Supplies Depot!
This article is part of a series on lost and barely surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier stories here