Lady Willingdon, from A Pictorial History of South India, 1931

The proposed demolition of the building of the erstwhile Lady Willingdon Nursing Home to make way for a welcome extension of the Sankara Nethralaya, consigns to history one more of the many institutions, parks, buildings and what have you that were once named after a dominating and energetic First Lady of Madras – Marie Adelaide Freeman-Thomas, Marchioness of Willingdon.

In a remarkable career that spanned 23 years of Raj postings from 1913, her husband was successively Governor of Bombay, Governor of Madras, Governor-General of Canada and finally Viceroy of India. This paralleled an unequalled rise in the peerage. From plain Freeman Freeman-Thomas he became Baron Willingdon of Ratton and thereafter Viscount, Earl and finally Marquis of Willingdon. Though he was an able administrator, general opinion was that he would have remained a parliamentary backbencher had it not been for two things. Being tennis partner to King George V helped. Second was his pushy spouse who he euphemistically termed a constant source of “support and encouragement.”

The Willingdons came to Madras in 1919. Almost at once the laidback city got its taste of her energy – some for the good, others not so. In the good was her befriending Indians with initiative and enterprise – Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer and Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar being two favourites. She got the Ladies Recreation Club to acquire 150 grounds of land in Egmore, to be named as (what else), the Willingdon Estate. She warmly espoused Sister Subbalakshmi’s championing of widows and thus came up the Lady Willingdon School and the Lady Willingdon Institute of Advanced Study in Education. In 1920 she founded the South Indian Nursing Association, which in 1921 merged with the older Lady Ampthill Nursing Service and became the Lady Willingdon Nursing Home. The hospital functioned first from Mount Road and in 1951 shifted to Pycrofts Garden Road to the art-deco edifice which Sankara Nethralaya purchased in 1998.

And there was another side. She was obsessed with the colour mauve and everything, from gubernatorial (and later Viceregal) coaches to toilet paper had to be in that colour. Harassing aides-de-camp was routine. It is said that Lord Willingdon pacified an aide stating that if he (Lord Willingdon) had suffered her for so many years, surely the aide could bear up for five! Lady Willingdon terrified Maharajahs and their formidable Maharanis by boldly asking to be gifted anything she liked – from pearl necklaces to mahogany toilet seats. Aides carried around a capacious bag with a yawning mouth wherever she went. Nobody dared refuse. In Baroda, the state jewels were buried when she visited.

When the Willingdons retired to London in 1936, they left behind enough and more memorials in India. Apart from what was in Madras, Cochin had Willingdon Island, Bombay the Willingdon Club and Delhi the Willingdon Crescent and the Willingdon (now Safdarjung) aerodrome. Even the Lodi Gardens was renamed Lady Willingdon Park! Imperious Lady Willingdon, full of energy and ideas, lived on till 1960. Her exhausted husband passed away in 1941.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column