Searching for Kelly’s Scent-Bottle

I first came across the term Kelly’s Drain while researching the history of the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Hilton Brown in his wonderful book Parrys of Madras (Parry’s, 1954), writes of a director of the company in the 1850s, Henry Nelson (and also Chairman of the Madras Chamber of Commerce for several terms) who kept badgering Sir Charles Trevelyan, Governor of Madras in 1859/60, to do something about Kelly’s Drain. And such was Nelson’s personality that the Government actually got around to doing something about it.

Now where exactly was Kelly’s Drain? Given its name, I assumed that it was somewhere near the area known as Kelly’s, and therefore surmised that it was probably Otteri Nullah. But if so, why was Nelson so perturbed about it considering that at his time, the area was very thinly populated and hardly likely to have had drainage problems? The answer lay in researching it out some more.

Nowadays, with the Tamil Nadu Archives being out of bound for anyone who is not a scholar registered with a University, the only option was to search the web. That august body, if the internet can be assigned corporeal identity, has improved vastly in the past few years as a source of authentic information. This is partly due to Universities in America which are doing a great job of uploading rare and out-of-print books which are out-of-copyright. These as opposed to the policy of our very own Archives, are available free of cost and are accessible to one and all. And it was there that I found enough information on Kelly’s Drain.

According to Reginald Henry Phillimore (Historical Records of the Survey of India, Published by the Survey of India, 1952), Kelly’s Drain, also known as Kelly’s Scent Bottle, commemorates Robert Kelly and was “a channel running through the heart of George Town”. Kelly can in some ways be considered the father of the Survey of India. Henry Davison Love in his Vestiges of Old Madras notes that Kelly joined the army as an Ensign in 1760. Love notes that on 22nd December 1778, Kelly, by then a Major, wrote to Governor Thomas Rumbold that he had in 1770, “determined to put together the few Observations” he had “already made and to Continue Surveying every Road I should have occasion to march in future”. He proposed a “General Map of the Decan and Carnatick, chiefly laid down from actual surveys, corrected by Astronomical Observations, and divided into Squares, or rather Parallelograms, each containing One Degree of Latitude and Longitude…” The matter was referred to the East India Company by the Governor of Madras. The Rev. Philip Mulley, who is a regular contributor to Madras Musings had sent information when we were collating information on streets named after foreigners, that Kelly fell at the battle of Arnee in 1790. Presumably, by the time a decision was taken to go ahead with the survey, he was dead. The rest of the story, concerning William Lambton and the Great Trigonometric Survey of India is well-known. At the time of his death, Kelly was a Colonel and in charge of HM’s 74th regiment, the 4th Madras European Infantry and the 21st and 27th Madras NI according to The History of the Organisation, Equipment and War Service of the Regiment of Bengal Artillery by Francis William Stubbs, published in 1877 by Henry S King & Co, London.

It is still a mystery as to why such as well-decorated officer had to suffer the ignominy of a drain being named after him. Also the exact location of the drain is also unclear though it must have most probably been a successor to the infamous Atta Pallam which had earlier officiated as the drain for the city before undergoing a makeover and emerging as Popham’s Broadway. But wherever it was, it had become notorious, suffering the fate of almost all waterbodies that have had the misfortune to exist in and around the city. Our Chronicle, which was the monthly publication of the 67th (South Hants) Regiment stationed in Madras, in its issue of 1st November 1876, carried a humorous story of a conversation between an army officer and a rat that infested Kelly’s Drain. It claimed that the sewer was “one of the oldest, most time-honoured and most cherished institutions of the city and materially aids in giving to Madras that pre-eminence it holds over the most odorous of cities”. Submitting a proposal for a comprehensive drainage scheme for Madras, Captain Henry Tulloch in 1867, without mentioning the name of the drain states it was a “mere cesspool, from which sewage cannot possibly escape” and that laments of “the abominable stench from the mouth of the sewer at the north-east angle of the Fort, which drains a portion of Black Town only”. No description can convey to the minds of those who have never lived within the influence of the smell of this sewer, its overpowering offensiveness while the outlet is open. The fort would hardly be habitable from October to February, or while the north-east winds prevail, if this outlet were kept open the whole day. Fortunately, the sewer is large enough to hold all the sewage which flows into it, for a day or two, so that it is unnecessary to open the mouth except for about a couple of hours during the night. This is done too, at a time when the wind is blowing from the city in order that the smell may be driven out to sea”.

Topping the mouth of the drain, at the point where it met the sea was apparently a curious structure. This according to Our Chronicle was a Kelly’s Scent Bottle and was “short stoutly built chimney-looking structure, situated on the Esplanade close to the north-east angle of Fort St George, and not so far distant from the beach”. Which probably locates the spot as being close to the present location of Evening Bazaar Road and Annamalai Manram. According to the publication, the structure was the idea of a Dr Kelly (which indicates that it may have been the idea of Robert Kelly who over time may have over time metamorphosed into a Dr much like our present day politicians) who planned it as a ventilating shaft “to carry off the foul atmosphere of the drains of the Town. Unfortunately through want of confidence in the Doctor’s theory or from other causes, the shaft was not carried to the original height it was intended it should, but remains curtailed to one-fourth of its intended dimensions. The consequence of which is that the atmosphere under certain circumstances, in its vicinity, is tainted with the vilest odours in the most concentrated form, it is possible to imagine. Various efforts have been made to remove this nuisance but all have been unavailing. It seems sacrilege to meddle with it or disparage it in anyway”. The article goes on to state that it was the regiment that was in the Fort that suffered the most and one gallant officer decided to bring it to the notice of the Governor in a rather dynamic fashion. He bribed the officer in charge of the scent bottle to open it when the Governor and “his council were transacting business in the Council Chamber in the Fort, whereupon such a stench arose that the Governor broke up the Council with all haste and betook himself away as far as he could”.

Another account, that of Isaac Tyrrell (From England to the Antipodes and India – 1846 to 1902, the ALV Press, Madras 1904), has it that Kelly’s Drain was the main sewer north of the Fort and was also known as Kelly’s Folly. According to him, everyone took good care to remain on the windward side when the drain was opened, except Bishop Fennelly who said “chaffingly that he did not think there was any harm in the smell, but that on the whole he rather enjoyed it”!!

In 1906, Kelly’s Drain appears to have covered itself in glory for it overflowed its banks. The stink figuratively speaking reached Westminster for The House of Commons Report for that year records that “owing to the nuisance caused by the overflow of sewage into the Kelly Drain the matter was given preference to all other drainage proposals and a satisfactory scheme was under active preparation”. It appears that this scheme went the way of several of its predecessors and successors for in 1927, GA Natesan’s Indian Review, Volume 28 was still lamenting that Kelly’s Drain, “familialrly known as Kelly’s Scent-Bottle” was not connecting with the drainage through the Cooum “rightly styled the Cloaca Maxima of Madras”. Evidently by then, using rivers for discharging effluents and sewage was an accepted practice.

What happened subsequently to the structure known as the Scent Bottle is a mystery. Was it demolished or is it still there, hidden behind some structure or covered with posters? And does Kelly’s Drain exist in some form even now? Where does the drain of George Town now go? I for one would not like to know.