Trevelyan Memorial fountain at Victoria Public Hall

Trevelyan’s fountain has vanished,” said my informant, “gone to make way for Metro Rail.” It was late at night but I drove down to Victoria Public Hall to see for myself. I found that it had been thankfully not been demolished but merely shifted to one side; now facing a lane instead of Poonamallee High Road. In the shift, one of its ornaments had been broken but at least the structure had been saved. Central to it is a medallion, commemorating Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Governor of Madras Presidency who opposed income tax.

On Friday, the Union Minister for Finance presented the Budget and Chennai absorbed its impact along with the rest of the country. That was not the case when the first-ever budget was presented on February 18, 1860 in the imperial capital of Calcutta. Fighting the Mutiny of 1857 had caused a deficit, which needed controlling. Among the various proposals that James Wilson, the Finance Member in Viceroy’s Executive Council, made was “the temporary imposition of an income-tax on all incomes above Rs. 200 a year, but with a reduction for those not exceeding Rs. 500 per annum.”

Thanks to the telegraph, the budget proposals reached the rest of the country almost within 24 hours. In Madras the imposition of income tax met with spirited protest. Henry Nelson, chairman of Parry & Co and chairman of the Madras Chamber of Commerce, led this. Public meetings were held, most of them at the Pachaiyappa’s Hall in China Bazar (now NSC Bose Road). The protestors had the enthusiastic support of The Madras Mail and Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was something of a finance man himself. Trevelyan was of the view that Madras need not be dominated upon by Calcutta. He also felt that the tax was unfair on Madras as it had not faced the Mutiny. Lastly, he questioned as to how people who had no representation in the Legislative Council could be taxed. This was dangerously close to the logic on which the American War of Independence was fought — no taxation without representation. When Trevelyan chose to express his feelings in an open telegram to Calcutta, he was at first censured and later recalled. That ended his tenure as Governor.

Matters then took a curious turn. Wilson died of dysentery, his last words to his successor Samuel Laing being — “Take care of my income tax.” In 1862, the Government requested London to send a man of known financial ability who could effectively impose income tax. Ironically, that job fell on Trevelyan! He made a success out of the tax.

While Governor of Madras, Trevelyan gave the city People’s Park, a vast green lung, which we unfortunately did not care to retain beyond a small fraction. Among the various buildings constructed on it was Victoria Public Hall. Fronting (or rather now beside) it is the fountain that was built to commemorate Trevelyan, the spirited Governor who fought income tax and later implemented it!

This article appeared in The Hindu  –