Tucked away under the massive MA Chidambaram Stadium is the historic Madras Cricket Club which turned 175 this year. The Club is now resident in the building featured in our PRESENT and this is soon slated to make way for a new structure to promises to reflect heritage as well. This is the picture marked PROPOSED. But what of the earlier club buildings?
Though the Madras Cricket Club was established in 1846, it was only in April 1866 that it moved to Chepauk, the location with which it remains associated ever since. Within a month there was talk of building a pavilion for the Club. The design and execution were entrusted to the then top-ranked architect of Madras – Robert Fellowes Chisholm, Consulting Engineer to the Government. Funded through donations, work began, at an estimate of Rs 2,000. In true Chisholm tradition, and it must be admitted as is the case in most architectural estimates, the actual far overshot what was budgeted, coming to Rs 3,700. But donations had gone up too, to Rs 3,100. The balance was quickly made up and a pavilion described as “a little red-brick wood verandahed” was soon ready at the northwest corner – which in today’s terms means the intersection of Wallajah and Bells Roads.
By 1875 a great famine was raging across Madras Presidency. Millions perished and those in the hinterland began migrating to the city where they imagined life was a lot better. The Governor, the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos felt something had to be done. He initiated a food for work programme, wherein a canal would be dug across the city, thereby linking the existing North Canal (Pulicat to Basin Bridge) and South Canal (Adyar to Cuddalore). This new waterway, then known as the Junction Canal and later to be named after the Duke, would cut across the city and in the process also go through the cricket ground.
The Committee was most incensed and met on December 19, 1876 to protest the plan to bisect the cricket ground with a canal. A letter was sent to the Government pointing out that the land had been given to the Club and it was the expectation that “their tenure of the Chepauk Ground would not be disturbed,” on which understanding the Committee had not only erected some years ago “ a costly and substantial masonry pavilion,” but also expended “from time to time considerable sums in fencing, turfing and otherwise improving the ground.” In the light of this, it was expected that the Government of his Grace the Duke would consider altering the alignment of the proposed Junction Canal.
The Government was not willing to consider any changes to its canal plan – when thousands were starving and needed worthwhile occupation, a few Englishmen complaining about their cricket ground was hardly to merit any attention. But a part of the Island was temporarily made over to the Club, till such a time that work on the canal was completed. However, Our Chronicle, the monthly publication of the 67th (South Hants) Regiment noted that in its edition of January 1877 that “cricket became an impossibility by reason of the destruction of the cricket ground in the interests of canal navigation.”
That the MCC itself was more or less written off is clear from a report in Allen’s Indian Mail and Register of Intelligencewhich in turn quotes from an article in the Pioneer dated 1878 – “Madras was formerly a great place, considering the climate, for cricket,” it ran. “But the game has languished sadly.” And yet the very same tract also records the fact that there was plenty of space left in Chepauk even after the canal excavations- “The now melancholy chalet which marks the spot where the Madras Cricket Club once flourished has still sufficient ground in front of it for two or three excellent lawn tennis courts; there is plenty of room to the south of it for a new cricket ground, round which a running path for athletic sports may be carried, and the Spartan band of golf players may there find an ampler and more diversified field for their game than the island round which they now practise. If taken in hand at once the coming NE monsoon ought to be favourable to the undertaking and by January next Madras would possess a charming rendezvous for at least two or three days in a week.” As though in answer to this prayer, work began on staging a return, to Chepauk, from where happily, there has been no dislodging ever since.
The homecoming was effected in 1879, to a changed ground and a larger one at that. Now, the east and western boundaries were the longer sides, as opposed to the earlier north-south axis and that necessitated a new pitch. There was a pond at exactly this location and it was filled in, one of the hundreds of waterbodies that have vanished in the name of development in our city. Its site is still the square for all the pitches that are laid out on the Chepauk Grounds. The Government, probably in a fit of contrition over displacing the Club, now undertook all restoration work on the ground, including planting “hundreds of young croton and foliage plants, in various plots about the place.”
But there were still issues – the Chisholm pavilion remained where it was and it posed challenges in the new east-west alignment of the pitch. As it faced the south, the pavilion now caught the morning and evening sun, the glare being quite unbearable. And then in 1888 came a huge cyclone that battered the structure, making it unusable. A debate began immediately thereafter on what was to be done and eventually, it was decided that a new pavilion had to be built, with proper alignment to the new pitch. The old Chisholm pavilion was “sold for Rs 600” and work on the new structure began. This was designed by Henry Irwin. Like its predecessor, the Irwin pavilion too would one day vanish, though it had a very long tenure of almost ninety years. Unlike the Irwin pavilion however, no photographs of Chisholm’s pavilion at Chepauk were thought to have survived.
During much of 2020, Karthik Bhatt, Ranjitha Ashok and I worked on a 175th year commemorative volume for the MCC. The hunt for any pictures of the Chisholm pavilion was resumed and it was then that Karthik suggested that given that Lt Col J Pennycuick, he of the Mullaiperiyar dam, had much to do with the club in its first 50 years, there would be some find or the other, tucked away among his papers. There followed a search for Pennycuick’s descendants, in which we were greatly helped by Santhana Beer Oli, who runs the John Pennycuick Charitable Trust in Theni. Eventually contact was made with Mark McConnell, a descendant of Col Pennycuick and he sent us the MCC’s golden jubilee brochure, dated 1896. We could not believe our eyes for there in it was a photo of the hitherto unseen Chisholm pavilion. The document also set right the record as regards the past Presidents and Secretaries of the Club.
It would be safe to say that till the discovery of the Golden Jubilee brochure of the MCC, none in living memory had any idea of how the first pavilion of the club, designed by Robert Fellowes Chisholm looked. Now we know, and we can see that it has several design elements that this master architect delighted in. The tower at the rear, which almost certainly enclosed the staircase, is a shortened version of the one at Victoria Public Hall. The arches on the ground floor, each capped with a brow of exposed brick, is an element that features in practically every building that Chisholm built. The hipped roof, which can be seen in the first floor and also over the shorter wing on the side, is also quite reminiscent of Victoria Public Hall. Evidently, when Chisholm hit upon a good design, he made use of it in more than one building. The photo also lays to rest another mystery – the repeated accounts that we read of ladies assembling on the first floor of the Club to witness matches. In the absence of two levels in the second pavilion designed by Irwin, we always wondered. Now we know.
This article is part of a series I write on lost and surviving landmarks of the city. You can read the earlier parts here