The Fort Museum, Fort St George

Fort Museum is one of the most charming places in our city. On this site originally stood the house of Peter Massey Cassin, a free merchant — a term which meant that he was not in the employment of the East India Company but was actively running a probably illegal trade from which he and the Company employees benefited. Sometime in the 1780s, it appears to have become a haven for free merchants. A lottery was floated to fund the development of the building into a full-fledged commercial office and by 1790 it was partially open for use in its new avatar as The Exchange.

On the ground floor were warehouses, offices and a bank. On the first floor was the Long Room or Exchange Hall where merchants, brokers, bankers and ships’ commanders could meet. The Exchange Coffee Tavern came up on the same floor, with Madeira being the preferred drink. In 1796, the roof sported a lighthouse. Twelve lamps, fuelled by coconut oil, lit the sea for 25 miles. Commerce flourished here until 1800, when the Fort became exclusively administrative and military, a function it still fulfills. The merchants moved into the city to establish their business houses.

Some 150 years later, the Exchange became the Fort Museum and this was thanks to a businessman — Lt. Col. Douglas Muir Reid. Born in 1894 in Morocco, Reid was educated in England and saw active service during the First World War. By the early 1920s, he was in Madras, working his way up to becoming a director at the leading firm – WA Beardsells. In 1925, he was married in Madras to Olive, the niece of a powerful agent of the M&SM Railway, Sir Alfred Ashley Biggs.

In 1936, Reid became a committee member of the exclusive Madras Chamber of Commerce and in 1938, its chairman. In that capacity he became a member of the Madras Legislative Council too.

Reid was a keen rower and secretary of the Madras Boat Club. He was a talented painter too, specialising in watercolours. In 1945, he along with D.P. Roy Chowdhury, principal of the College of Arts and Crafts, founded the South Indian Society of Painters.

In 1944, Reid mooted the idea of the Exchange becoming the Fort Museum, “for the exhibition of antiquities illustrating the historical evolution of the Province since the days of the East India Company.” He also funded the museum, which was completed in 1948. In between, he authored The Story of Fort St George, which was released in 1945. The slim volume is constructed like a guided tour of the Fort, perhaps Chennai’s first heritage walk! The book is profusely illustrated with black and white sketches by Ismaena R Warren, an Irish artist.

Reid returned to England in 1947. He unsuccessfully contested for a House of Commons seat in 1950. What happened to him after that is not known. But we do owe him a debt of gratitude for the museum.

This article appeared in The Hindu today –