His was an unparalleled rise in the British aristocracy, matched only by an unmatched tenure of Government Houses all over the British Empire and its dominions. In the history of colonialism, no other person had a career akin to that of Freeman Freeman-Thomas, 1st Marquis of Willingdon. It was not as though he was a spectacularly brilliant administrator. It was just that he was tenacious enough to hang on, and was aided and abetted by a pushy spouse who knew when and where to apply pressure to make things happen.
Born in 1866 as plain Freeman Thomas, he was from a relatively middle-class background. His mother made it possible for him to study at Eton and Cambridge where his sporting talents came to the fore. He then enlisted in the army and was given the rank of Captain, later rising to Major. The turning point came when he married Marie, the daughter of Baron (later Earl) Brassey, a colonial administrator. Freeman Thomas became Freeman Freeman-Thomas by deed poll, the first step in upward mobility. He became ADC to his father-in-law in 1897, when the latter was appointed Governor of Victoria, Australia. Returning in 1900 he joined the Liberal Party and served as a middling MP for ten years. In 1910, he was made Baron Willingdon of Ratton and the next year, appointed Lord-in-Waiting to King George V. The monarch it was said, found Willingdon to be the best tennis partner he ever had.
There was no looking back thereafter. In 1913, Willingdon became Governor of Bombay and at the end of that tenure, Governor of Madras. On returning to England in 1924, he was elevated as Viscount Willingdon. His rule in India had seen him try and contain the freedom movement with an iron hand. Two years after his return home, Willingdon was made an Earl and appointed Governor General of Canada. In 1931, he became Viceroy of India and on retirement, was made a Marquis. He died in 1941. Some said he was exhausted by his wife, who lived well into the 1960s.
The Willingdons were very open in showering favours on prominent Indians who took their fancy. Lawyers who played tennis with His Excellency became Judges. His interference in matters concerning cricket was well known. There were rumours of some financial deals with Indian businessmen as well. The country may not have liked this man but to British administrators he and his wife were all that was ideal. India was liberally dotted with several places, parks and institutions named after the Willingdons by the time they left. In Madras and Delhi the adulation took the form of a statue. The latter, after Willingdon had retired as Viceroy, was done by Sir W Reid Dick, while the former, executed in 1930, was a bronze entrusted to MS Nagappa, by then fast emerging as a talented sculptor.
It was a remarkable likeness. The statue depicted a standing Willingdon, one arm on his hip while the other carried an Earl’s coronet. On him were his various decorations, including the Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India. One foot was extended, almost as though he was just going to walk off the pedestal. In terms of animation, this was a far better statue than the one that New Delhi got. That was in marble and the Viceroy appeared to have caught some of the Raj’s coming gloom. It was described as “all right” by one critic while others felt it was “over lifelike”, “overdressed and heavily be-tassled.”
The Madras statue was placed on a baroque pedestal at the entrance to the Gymkhana Club. It was unveiled there by the then Governor, Sir George Stanley in 1930. The Hindu felt that Willingdon did not deserve a statue and critcised the idea. In keeping with the Viceroy’s fondness for perpetuating his memory with place names, the Government House Bridge, also known as St George’s, and which connected his statue to the Government Estate across the Cooum, came to be known as Willingdon Bridge. It is today named after Periyar.
Willingdon remained safely on his perch outside the Gymkhana well after Independence. There were however rumblings about a colonial administrator being allowed to remain in the open. In August 1957, there surfaced a plot to use electric bombs to blast the Willingdon and Munro statues, both on the Island. The Chief Minister, K Kamaraj was informed by a letter of this plan, which also said that it was unthinkable that statues of Englishmen should remain standing when the centenary of the First War of Independence was being observed. Members of the Forward Bloc were arrested and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. Willingdon’s statue was immediately removed and sent for safekeeping to the Fort Museum, where it still remains, in close proximity to the giant one of Lord Cornwallis. The pedestal stayed behind on the Island. Also spared was the statue of Sir Thomas Munro, chiefly because he was an enlightened administrator who sympathised with Indians.
In 1961, the Congress Party decided to honour K Kamaraj, with a bronze statue. It was unthinkable till then that a living Indian could be so honoured. The statue, also by Nagappa, was placed on Willingdon’s erstwhile pedestal. Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, overcoming his dislike of honouring the living with statues, came to Madras to unveil it. The ceremony took place on October 9, 1961. Like Willingdon, Kamaraj too has one hand on his hip, but he is of course far simply dressed. Kamaraj lived on till 1975, belying the superstition that anyone who had a statue erected in his honour would soon die. Not so lucky was Kamaraj’s successor CN Annadurai who passed away within a year of his statue being unveiled at the Round Tana, Mount Road. People attributed his death to the statue. Forgotten was the fact that Kamaraj was alive and well, with a statue for him having come up much earlier.
This article is part of a series on lost and barely surviving landmarks of Chennai. The earlier instalments can be read here