While it is true that the Empire was built on a foundation of commerce, most of the books on it deal with the lives of civilians and army officers. The boxwallah or the businessman who continued focusing on private enterprise long after the East India Company was wound up received short shrift from biographers and historians, with Parry, Binny and a few others being exceptions. And yet, men of commerce left behind their impress on various aspects of life in India. In Madras itself, some were pillars of the various clubs that are still going strong, several were sheriffs, there was a mayor or two, quite a few made it to the Madras Legislative Council and the Madras Corporation. One such personality is Douglas Muir Reid, or DM Reid for short.
It is not clear as to when Reid arrived in Madras. But he was definitely here at least from 1925 onwards for that year he became the Secretary of the Madras Boat Club. Rowing appears to have been his passion and while he was part of winning teams at the club, he was also much in demand as a commentator during the regattas that took place along the Adyar. Reid was Secretary of the Boat Club till 1928.
What was Reid’s exact nature of business in Madras is also not clear. But when he chose to enter politics in the 1950s in England, a single line reference to him states that he had been the Director of a Madras firm for 20 years. Whatever be the firm and the nature of its business, he was important enough to become a member of the Madras Chamber of Commerce in the early 1930s. In 1936, he was a committee member and therefore oversaw the centenary celebrations of the Chamber. In 1938 he was decorated with an OBE and he also became the Chairman of the Madras Chamber of Commerce in which capacity he also became a member of the Madras Legislative Council. Throughout the 1930s he was also a member of a committee comprising several prominent citizens of Madras that worked to control strikes and labour issues, especially at Binny’s and the M&SM Railways.
When the Second World War broke out, Reid joined the army – becoming a Lt. Col. in the Madras Guards, one of the oldest regiments in India and formed by Lord Harris for the protection of the city in 1857. Reid appears to have seen active service, for he became a full Colonel and also received the Military Cross in 1945. He also served as honorary ADC to the Governor, Sir Arthur Hope and when the war ended was Officer in Charge of the Madras Guards garrison stationed in Fort St George.
Reid was a man who took keen interest in history and the fine arts. In 1944, it was he who suggested that the old Fort Exchange be converted into a museum “for the exhibition of antiquities illustrating the historical evolution of the Province since the days of the East India Company”. In 1946, he, according to a reference in the ASI’s Ancient India (1953), also sponsored the setting up of the museum, which was completed in 1948. By then Reid was probably back in England, having joined the vast contingent of European army officers, civilians and businessmen who opted to not stay on after independence.
In 1950, Reid unsuccessfully contested the British parliamentary elections as the Conservative and Nationa Liberal candidate for North Norfolk. What happened to him after that is not known.
In his last years in Madras, Reid authored a book titled The Story of Fort St George, a slim and highly readable volume. Printed at the Diocesan Press, it had a foreword by Sir Arthur Hope and was released in 1945. There are two unique aspects to the book. The first is that the entire volume in embellished with a series of black and white sketches of the fort, all done by Ismena R Warren, a woman about whom very little is known beyond the facts that she had graduated from the School of Art, Dublin in 1938 and was from 1940 at least an ardent member of the Methodist Church in Madras. Reid was an accomplished painter himself and in 1945 he founded the South Indian Society of Painters, becoming the first President. DP Roy Chowdhury of the Madras School of Arts was a co-founder and succeeded Reid as President.
The second interesting aspect is the way the second half of the book is structured – as a heritage walk around Fort St George. In his foreword, Sir Arthur Hope had commended Reid for “making the streets, the walls and the buildings of the Fort themselves tell their enthralling tale” and he was not wrong. The author writes that his book “may be taken for reference at each point of the tour, but as the enthusiasm of the writer may have caused him to expand unduly at times, it might be as well to read this through before setting out, instead of standing with the hot sun glaring on to the pages. And also, you may not wish your fancies to be disturbed as you go round”.
The fort walk as per the book, starts at the Guard-Room on the South side of the Barrack Square and goes on to St Mary’s, within which are a series of instructions on what needs to be done to see everything (Enter the church – please sign your name in the visitors book- go up the central aisle- stand on the chancel steps etc, with a paragraph on what to see below each of those instructions). In Reid’s time the fort was obviously far easy to access than it is now for he manages to take you to various spots that you cannot even dream of seeing today, thanks to security. He also states that “the Regiment in residence will doubtless be glad to show the visitor the regimental portraits and pictures on the walls”. He evidently lived in simpler times.
What is most fascinating is that through the pages of a book, Reid manages to extract as much drama as possible (“Where you stand, on these steps, Margaret Maskelyne and Robert Clive knelt to be married, for these were the original altar steps” is just one instance). This kind of passion for story-telling is something that most guides of today do not appear to have.