I saw this street sign where Kilpauk gives way to Purasawalkam. On consulting my usual references, I came to know that the place was known as Lock Cheri at least till 1968 or thereabouts. That was when the Corporation decided to do away with slums, in thought, if not in deed, and renamed all cheris as nagars, a couple of them becoming ma nagars (big colony). And that is how Lock Cheri became Lock Managar, which later transformed into Lockma Nagar. A street directory of 1933 revealed that this was Lock Street at least till then, the slum coming up later. By 1943, when this area was among the worst affected during the great flood of Madras, it was known as Lock Cheri. I speculated momentarily on whether it was where one of the many locks on the Buckingham Canal once stood, till I realised the waterway is miles away. The Otteri Nullah is closeby, but that never had locks.

Heritage enthusiast Karthik Bhatt speculated whether the name had anything to do with the Lock Hospital. And sure enough, that was it. Corporation reports of the 1800s reveal considerable outlay of funds on the maintenance of the Lock Hospital at Kilpauk, set up in 1810. This institution was part of a chain, a colonial phenomenon. London got one in 1747, and thereafter, Lock Hospitals were opened wherever the British Empire spread. It was a necessity, for it specialised in treating venereal diseases. The reason for the name is lost in time.

The East India Company was largely an all-male establishment till at least the 1840s. That meant that prostitution was fairly rampant wherever the British set up base. In the 1600s, houses of pleasure in Portuguese San Thome catered to the new conquerors. By the 19th century, Mount Road alone had nine brothels. Chengam Bazar in George Town was another flourishing centre. The now lost Vodacaul Street, that connected First Line Beach to George Town, catered to the sailors. It was no wonder that the city desperately needed a Lock Hospital and got not one but two — one exclusively for the military and the other, civil. It is the latter that stood at Lockma Nagar. Overall, Madras Presidency had nine Lock Hospitals.

Some interesting statistics emerged over the years. It was noticed that admission of women surged during famines when they were left destitute and took to immoral trafficking to earn money, thereby contracting the disease. Aged prostitutes admitted themselves to the place, considering it a good retirement home. A more intriguing find was that army men came in larger numbers when there was a war. A report dated 1879 noted that soldiers on the move were “always prone to fall into mischief”.

The administration was forever in doubt about the efficacy of these hospitals. The one in Kilpauk was closed in 1835, only to reopen again a few years later. It survived till the 1880s. The name, however, has lived on.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 26, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column.