Sir Francis Spring

The Harbour had been completed with an eastern entrance in 1895. Almost immediately a discussion began on whether the entrance ought to have been at the northern side. This was because the eastern opening was parallel to the surf and was therefore silting up rapidly at the rate of one foot a year. The problem of providing a smooth-water enclosure was referred to a committee in 1902. It was decided that the eastern entrance would have to be closed and a north-eastern one opened up instead. The work was initially entrusted to FJ Wilson, Chief Engineer of the Madras Harbour Trust Board but it really received its fillip when Francis JE Spring, formerly Secretary of the Madras Government’s Railway Department, was appointed Chairman of the Port Trust in 1904. In 1906, he took on the post of Chief Engineer also, following the retirement of Wilson.

Spring put through the remodelling scheme – projecting the eastern breakwater northwards to form a sheltering arm, opening up a new north-eastern entrance by removing a 400ft section of the northern breakwater and finally closing the eastern entrance. The estimate was Rs 45 lakhs. Spring made the Madras Chamber of Commerce his ally. The members endorsed his proposal for sanction by the Government. This was approved, with Rs 20 lakhs coming by way of a grant and the balance, up to a maximum of Rs 40 lakhs as loan at 4% repayable in 60 years. In years when the revenue of the Trust fell short, the local Government would lend up to half the amount. Spring, who combined a capacity for hard work with enormous optimism, was soon back in 1906 with a proposal for additional sheds and wharfs, jetties, road weighbridge and crane equipments totalling Rs 9.5 lakhs and again in 1910, this time proposing ship quays at a whopping Rs 56 lakhs. The Chamber was again inclined to be cautious but Spring won everyone over. He envisaged a deeper harbour as inevitable in the long run and the Chamber agreed to it. This meant sacrificing the land opposite the Fort and therefore the beautiful seafront. This was reluctantly agreed to. The Chamber was keen that the Harbour Trust Board retained its autonomy and insisted on the formation of a Port Trust in 1905, “subject to the general and complete power of control which Government would always retain”.

Under Francis Spring, the Port was radically altered. There was a rearrangement of the twist and swings in the Harbour Trust yard, improvements for the handling of coal, better cranes, an export pier, a pier for dutiable imports and another for the non-dutiable goods. A shed of 1 ¾ acres was built for dutiable imports, a seven acre basin for lighters and smaller craft, a slipway for hauling vessels of 500 tonnes burden, jetties and sidings for the timber trade, space and sidings for minerals and rough cargo, improved passenger amenities, better wharfs for landing iron and sheds for non-dutiable goods. With the formation of the Port Trust, land on which the harbour and its appurtenances lay was transferred by the Government to it. A municipal property tax not exceeding 4% of gross receipts was an added burden that the harbour now had to bear but Spring felt that this was well worth it considering the water-supply and amenities that the Madras Municipal Corporation now had to extend to the Port.

There was nothing that Spring overlooked and by 1911, the harbour traffic had begun to rise. Spring was awarded a much-deserved knighthood that year. In 1913/14 the cargo handled by the port rose to 798,000 tonnes. A cyclone in 1916 did considerable damage to the north-eastern arm but Spring was at hand to take on the repairs which were completed in 1919. That year he retired and the Chamber placed on record its high appreciation of the great work done by him. Spring’s parting gift was characteristic of the man – a scheme for the development of the port over the next ten years.

In 1926, J Chartres Molony, then President of the Madras Corporation, recorded the changes in his book, A Book of South India. “Today the opening towards the east has been closed and a long sheltering wall runs north. The ships rounding this wall enter from the north; the old pier has vanished and the vessels moor by the quayside. Giant cranes that travel on rails swing out freight from the holds; there are rows and rows of warehouses waiting to receive it. The harbour has been described by its creator, Sir Francis Spring, as ” a challenge flaunted in the face of Nature.” Assuredly to few men has it been granted to change so greatly the sea-front of a city.” The port reaped the harvest of Spring’s vision. The traffic reached 1 million tonnes by 1919 and by 1939 it was 2.5 million tonnes. The Second World War was to see the Port being used to its fullest. Madras was one of the few port cities on the eastern front to be left untouched by the Axis powers and was vital for Allied troop and supply movements. It was to transform Madras forever into a vibrant industrial centre.

A couple of asides – Spring’s schemes spelt the end of a Chennai landmark – the High Court Beach which as its name suggests was just behind the High Court and was a second Marina. Secondly, the arrival of coal, facilitated by the Port, meant that the High Court and the beautiful Port Trust bungalows would be permanently shrouded in coal dust, a menace that is only now abating thanks to coal consignments moving to Ennore. The extension of the Port also caused the erosion of Tiruvottriyur, a problem that is yet to be overcome.

Spring was a multi-faceted man. He was among the first to own a car in Madras. Spring was also founder of the Royal Madras Yacht Club, which he did in 1911. It operates even now from Springhaven’s Wharf inside the Port, the location commemorating Francis Spring by name.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog –