Sir Charles Lawson

Madras has had a long journalistic tradition, the first publication dating back to the 1780s. In the 1830s, two new papers made their appearance – The Spectator and The Madras Times. The latter took over the former and was in turn acquired in 1859 by Justinian Gantz, who ran Gantz & Son, booksellers and printers with their offices in Broadway. 1859 was the year when Madras fought the income tax and in this it found an able ally in The Madras Times. The content of the paper was in the hands of Charles Lawson and Henry Cornish, two able journalists. When Lawson and Cornish broke with The Madras Times and set up The Madras Mail, the city got a powerful newspaper.

The Madras Mail, founded in 1868, was the true representative of commercial interests. Lawson was close to most of the top-ranking business houses of First Line Beach and after a brief stint in rented offices on Second Line Beach, The Madras Mail moved to the first floor of A D’ Rozario, Auctioneers at 6, First Line Beach. This building, no longer in existence was the southern neighbour of the State Bank building. Lawson took an active interest in the affairs of the Madras Chamber of Commerce of which he was elected Secretary on 24th November 1862. The Chamber had till then not been lucky in the matter of Secretaries with the incumbents leaving to take up Government and other assignments. Lawson was to be Secretary for 30 long years. A room was specially built for the Chamber in the Madras Mail’s new address. In 1869 therefore, the Chamber shifted from the Arbuthnot building to the offices of The Madras Mail.

In 1886, when the golden jubilee of the Madras Chamber came about, the Chairman, George G Arbuthnot, on behalf of the members, placed on record “the very valuable services rendered to the Chamber by Mr Lawson who had filled the office of the Secretary for twenty-four years. He was sure that all members of the Chamber and especially all office-bearers, would be in full accord with himself on the opinion that the Chamber had received the greatest possible assistance from Mr Lawson, who indeed might be regarded the right hand of the Chamber and to whom, in a great measure, the Chamber was indebted for the success and influence which it has obtained. He therefore begged to propose:-
“That on this, the fiftieth anniversary of its foundation, the Chamber desires to put on record its high appreciation of the very valuable services rendered to it by its Secretary, Mr Lawson who has now held that office for twenty-four years”.”
The proposition was carried unanimously.

Lawson travelled to England in 1887 and on 30th June, presented to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, the Madras Presidential Address of Congratulation on the completion of the Jubilee Year of her reign. The Queen was pleased to confer on him the honour of a knighthood. Sir Charles as he now became, continued his work with The Madras Mail and the Chamber till 1892, when he resigned the office of Secretary much to the Chamber’s regret. The Chamber continued occupying its room in The Madras Mail building till 1920 and the newspaper continued being its voice. AE Lawson, Sir Charles’ son, had taken over as editor from his father in 1892 and he also became Secretary to the Chamber. It is noteworthy to point out that he was also Sheriff of Madras that year. AE Lawson was Secretary of the Chamber till 1917. When he returned to England that year, TE Welby became editor of The Madras Mail and also Secretary to the Chamber.

During these years, there was a strong rivalry between The Madras Times which was more sympathetic to the native and The Madras Mail which was pukka sahib. But by 1921 all that was a matter of the past, with the Madras Mail and the Madras Times being both merged under the leadership of John Oakshott Robinson, a takeover tycoon of his times and then the Chairman of Spencers. The merged entity, under the ownership of Associated Publishers, changed its name in 1928 to The Mail. But with the ownership now in the hands of one closely connected with the Madras Trades Association, the link with the Chamber was somewhat weakened. Editors of The Mail ceased being Secretaries of the Chamber.

Following the merger, The Madras Mail moved from First Line Beach. Its new offices were on Mount Road, in magnificent premises built specially to house a newspaper. It was to have a long an illustrious life on that busy thoroughfare, having a second golden period from 1928 to 1955 when it was under the editorship of AA Hayles. In 1945, it changed hands once again, this time being acquired by Amalgamations Limited and its visionary founder – S Anantharamakrishnan.
An eveninger right through its life, The Mail was to find competition and political interference tough to endure. The latter in particular was to sound its death knell. Any editorial criticising the Government was to see repercussions by way of strikes in the group company and neighbour, Simpsons. The Mail lived on to celebrate its centenary and finally closed shop in 1981. It is yet to fade from collective memory.
Its erstwhile friend and ally, the Madras Chamber of Commerce, had a longer career on First Line Beach. After the Mail left, it moved in 1924, post a brief stay at Best & Co, to the Mercantile Bank building (now the HSBC). It remained there till 1940 when it moved into the new art deco styled Dare House. It had a long stay there till 1984. Then it moved briefly into a bungalow on Kasturi Ranga Iyengar Road before finally coming home to roost at the Karumuthu Centre on Mount Road in 1990.

This article was published in XS Real’s blog –