The de Havilland family of England was one that could trace its ancestry to the times of William the Conqueror, a Sieur de Havilland having accompanied him in his conquest of England. Since then, de Havillands had distinguished themselves in the service of the Crown and made their home on the island of Guernsey, off the English coast. From this family came Thomas Fiott de Havilland who, according to Henry Davison Love in his Vestiges of Old Madras, joined the Madras Engineers in 1793 and became a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1824. In 1808 he married Elizabeth de Saumarez in Madras.

A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland by Sir Alec W Skempton (ICE and Thomas Telford Limited, London, 2002), gives further details of his life. Born on 10th April 1775 to Sir Peter and Lady Cartarette de Havilland, he joined the Madras Engineers in 1792 (and not 1793 as Love has it). In 1793 he was involved in the siege of Pondicherry and between 1795 and 1796 he was serving in Colombo. Having seen active service at the siege of Seringapatam in 1799, de Havilland sufficiently impressed Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) to be invited to become the Field Engineer during the Egyptian campaign of 1801/02. Survey had always been a passion for him, he having been an understudy to Colin Mackenzie between 1798 and 1800 with the latter regarding him as “an active enterprising man.” Under Mackenzie, de Havilland ‘amused himself’ (according to Skelton) by preparing maps of Coimbatore, Dindigul and the surrounding areas. In Egypt he undertook survey work too, identifying sources of water in the Cairo-Suez area.

After his return from Egypt, on which journey he was captured by the French and later released, he was assigned to the Nizam’s Subsidiary Force to survey the Deccan. He appears to have been called increasingly for civilian work from then on. Involved as he was in the engineering side of the army, de Havilland made a name for himself in scientific observations and constructions, the latter being both military and civil in nature. This was, according to Shanti Jayawardene Pillai (Imperial Conversations, Indo_Britons and the Architecture of South India, Yoda Press, 2007), probably due to the patronage extended by Sir John Malcolm, the Resident of Mysore, who in 1807 gave him his first architectural contract – the task of building a magnificent banqueting hall in the Mysore Residency, a unique structure that would have a roof entirely free of column support. When this was done, de Havilland submitted a proposal to build a bridge across the Cauvery in Mysore with just five arches. To demonstrate his skill in building it, de Havilland erected a great arch in his garden, with a hundred-foot span. The structure became a local landmark and stood till 1937 when it collapsed. The remains of the de Havilland arch are a tourist attraction in Seringapatam even now. The brick bridge over the Cauvery was completed in 1810 in which year de Havilland joined a group of officers who mutinied, protesting against the appalling conditions of the army in Mysore. He was dismissed and returned to Guersney where he was commissioned to construct a barracks. Reinstated in service in 1812, he returned to Madras and became civil engineer and architect of the Presidency in 1814.

It would be no exaggeration to say that he is one of the earliest engineers of the city whose works can be identified with any certainty. According to Skelton, he ‘built Mount Road’ which probably means he gave the northern half of the road its present contours. Among his earliest commissions in the city was the construction of a protecting bulwark all along the sea front to prevent the notorious Madras surf from causing any damage to the Town and Fort. This he did after a detailed study of the tides by means of installing a tide gauge at the northeastern angle of the Fort’s glacis. In 1821 he published a memorandum on Madras tides, perhaps the first serious study on the subject, and this was later reproduced in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science in 1834. A stone, later named de Havilland’s benchmark, was let into the bulwark of the Fort and all tide levels were subsequently measured against it, till the construction of the harbour in the 1890s caused the sea to recede.

The Madras Bulwark, when completed in 1820, extended for two and a half miles from the Fort to Black Town and was completed “well within its estimate and to the complete satisfaction of the local government and the Court of Directors at home and having answered its stated purpose these thirty years past, without addition or repair” (A Visitation of the seats and arms of the Noblemen and Gentlemen by Sir Bernard Burke, 1853, Hurst and Blackett, London). Sir Thomas Munro, Governor of Madras, thought highly of de Havilland and wrote as follows: “I have a high opinion of his talents and of his public services, and have expressed my sense of them on several occasions. In the case of the bulwark in particular, I recommended his claims to the Honourable Court, because I was convinced that he had shown great skill in the plan of tile work, and that he had by his extraordinary exertions completed it at a much smaller expense than it could, perhaps, have been done by any other person.” (The Military History of Madras Engineers and Pioneers from 1743 up to the present time, by Major HM Vibart, WH Allen and Company, London, 1883). In 1823, an iron railing was put up on top of the bulwark (A Popular History of British India, WC Taylor, 1851), overseen by de Havilland.

The Madras Bulwark was clearly something of a wonder for it was taken up as a subject of study when the Great North Holland Canal was being contemplated in Europe in 1849 to prevent the sea from entering the Low Countries. It was noted that prior to the bulwark, inroads “of up to 100 yards in extent had been made in the beach” by the sea. “A protecting bulwark was constructed of about a mile and three quarters in length along the ordinary line of the beach, just beyond the point where the surf waves broke and in hurricanes it was subject to the full action of the waves. It was composed simply of rough stones, resting against a retaining wall of brick and chunam. The stones have been allowed to take their natural slope… and although the bulwark was not carried above the ordinary level of the coast which was 18 feet above high water, it might be said that scarcely a stone had been displaced since it was first erected in 1821.” (Description of the Great North Holland Canal and of the works at Niewediep by George Briant Wheeler Jackson, Institution of Civil Engineers, W Clowes & Sons, London,1849).

And yet, when it was first taken up, the bulwark was scoffed at. We have details of this from the writings of another formidable engineer of the Madras Presidency – Sir Arthur Cotton. “So much doubt existed as to the success of any work on the protection of the beach and so strongly was every proposition on the subject opposed that probably nothing less than the immediate certain destruction of Black Town, if nothing was done, would have proved a sufficiently powerful incentive, to the execution of such a work, on any plan. Nothing could exceed the confidence with which certainly the majority of persons at Madras predicted that every stone would disappear into the sands or be thrown into the middle of Black Town by the surf and the hurricanes.” But it is evident from Cotton’s writings that a few stones did get displaced. These were evidently the lighter ones. “So perfectly insignificant have been the effect of hurricanes upon it, that not a stone above two or three cwt have been thrown upon the bank by them.” (Letter from Capt. Cotton to the Secretary of the Breakwater Committee, Madras, 11th Nov. 1837 taken from Reports, Correspondence and Original Papers on various professional subjects connected with the duties of the Corps of Engineers, Madras Presidency, Capt. JT Smith, Vepery Mission Press, Madras, 1839). Cotton was writing all this to drum up support for building a breakwater off Madras, the first of many steps that would be taken in a project that culminated with the construction of the Madras Harbour in the 1890s. In this he was to find a warm supporter in de Havilland, who had retired by then to England. Cotton’s ideas were however not implemented.

Where was the Madras Bulwark? It clearly extended from the Fort and ran parallel to the Esplanade, ending somewhere on First Line Beach. What happened to it later? According to the Madras Terecentenary Volume, the structure, known to all as de Havilland’s Bulwark, formed the foundation on which the Beach Road, fronting the Fort runs. So, obviously, with the building of the harbour, the sea receded and the road was built on the bulwark.In 1967, when a subway was built to connect North Beach and South Beach Roads, excavations revealed the Madras Bulwark. More of it surfaced in 1978 when the area near the Beach Station was dug up. No doubt, the ongoing Metro Rail work will throw up some more bits of the Bulwark.

There is more to de Havilland than just the Bulwark. And his residence is one more missing landmark of Madras. More on all that in a later issue…