Sir George Moore

In its early years the Madras Gymkhana Club had military men presiding over its fate. Not surprising perhaps considering that it exists on land belonging to the army. One among these soldiering men was Col. Sir George Montgomerie John Moore, who was president for two terms – 1890 and 1893. Madras that is Chennai has reason to remember this personality.

Not much is known of Moore’s origins but from his name we can infer that he was Irish. His career in the army is also not documented and it is likely that he chose to become an administrator at an early stage in his life. In 1886, he became President of the Madras Corporation, a post from which he retired in 1902. In 1887, following Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, he was knighted and became Sir George Moore, Kt, CIE.

Sir George appears to have taken his role as Corporation President very seriously. A tribute to this was paid by the Madras High Court in a case in the 1890s, when the owner of a bungalow in Tondiarpet sued the Corporation for operating a burial ground and crematorium close by. The Bench relied heavily on Sir George’s testimony and noted his extensive knowledge of the city. Sir George was also very sensitive to criticism about the Corporation’s functioning. In 1902, when the Madras Mail wrote disparagingly about the role of the Sanitary Inspector in quarantining households afflicted with cholera, Moore sued the newspaper for defamation. He won his case in the High Court but this was set aside in an appeal.

His tenure as President is best remembered for the building of Moore Market. Till its construction, the principal market for Madras was the Popham’s Market on Broadway. Long condemned as unsanitary it was allowed to remain till the 1880s when thanks to Sir George, a site for the new market was identified at a corner of People’s Park, close to the Central Station of today. The old Popham’s Market was demolished and on its site came up Loane’s Park, named after Samuel Joshua Loane who was Chief Engineer of the Madras Corporation. It is now Sriramulu Park, named after a Mayor of Madras.

Sir George laid the foundation stone for Moore Market in 1898. Designed by RE Ellis in the Indo-Saracenic style in a series of quadrangles enclosing shops, it was constructed by A Subramania Iyer. Praised as the most modern market of its times, it had separate sections for vegetables, flowers and meat. Later it became well known for gramophone records, books, toys, clothes and antiques. The market was gutted in 1985 and demolished later. The Suburban Railway terminal stands on its site and fronting it, in a small park is an exquisite but badly maintained replica of Moore Market.

That memorial to Moore may have vanished but several others survive. One is Moore Pavilion, standing forlorn next to the railway tracks just off Central Station. Access to it is now cut off but in its heyday it was the head office of the South Indian Athletic Association (SIAA), which did much to promote athletics n Madras. Founded in 1901, the SIAA had Sir George as its first President. For years the SIAA held an annual Park Town Fair during Christmas week at People’s Park. In 1903, it introduced boxing to Madras. The Moore Pavilion, handsome with two stories, tiled roof and pillared verandah, was from where VIPs saw the races and the boxing events. In 1978, when the SIAA’s lease of the land expired, the Pavilion was handed over to the Railways which made it the home for its Sir Ashley Biggs Institute. Now the building is abandoned.

Another barely surviving memorial to Sir George surfaced recently. This was the foundation stone to the Chetpet Dhobhikana, which records that it was placed in position on 8th December 1902, by Sir George and that it was the first formal facility for washermen in the city. A third memorial to Sir George is his full-length portrait in the Madras Corporation. Raja Ravi Varma executed this in 1902. Commissioned at a cost of Rs 3000 it bears the signature of the painter and his younger brother Raja Raja Varma. Ravi Varma documented the progress of this portrait on a day-to-day basis in his diary.

Sir George evidently liked the performing arts. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar notes in his memoirs that Sir George attended a benefit performance of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha at the VP Hall in 1897.The proceeds went to the Indian Famine Relief Fund. Noted film historian Stephen Hughes writes that the first film screening in Madras, which was held at VP Hall on 10th and 11th January 1902 by the Cinematograph Exhibition Company, was under the patronage of Sir George Moore.

Moore appears to have been the ultimate clubman. He played a key role in the revival of the Madras Race Club. This was in 1887 when the club had nearly died out. He became a steward and helped it to get on its feet. In 1890, he was founder Vice-President of the Adyar Club. He was President of the Madras Club in 1897/98 and in that capacity welcomed Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence and grandson of Queen Victoria to a reception at the clubhouse on Mount Road. It must have given Moore great satisfaction, though he was by then long dead, that the Madras and Adyar Clubs merged in 1962 to form The Madras Club. Moore was also a Freemason and in 1891 he was District Grand Master of the District Grand Lodge of Madras.

He was clearly a man of many parts.

This article appeared in the in-house magazine of the Gymkhana Club