The Parade Square has barracks fronting it on three sides – the south, west and north. In the initial years of the Fort, and Madras, the soldiers camped outside the Fort and there were several complaints about their many “notorious Actions (and villainous crimes)”. In 1684, it was decided that the garrison ought to move into White Town, or the Fort. Temporary barracks in Tuscan style were constructed on the western side, opposite the inner gate of the then Fort and the building was named New House. It was a terraced building with a tiled roof and at each end had a prison for “Souldiers that offend”. This ‘temporary’ accommodation was given permanent status by 1687.
Soon other buildings were put up alongside the barracks. At the northern end was a house, followed by the fort hospital. Then came the barracks, after which was the Mint and then the company’s import warehouse. All these buildings were in a precarious state by 1715. It was decided that the entire area would be rebuilt, with the Mint, the warehouse and the residences moving elsewhere in the Fort, leaving the space for an extended barracks and hospital. John Payne, writing in 1717, noted that “opposite to the west gate of the Fort is the barrack, or rather a long room, in which all the Company’s soldiers are obliged to lodge when off the guard, and adjoining on the north is a commodious hospital.” It can be concluded from this that the reconstruction was complete in two years.
By 1750, both the hospital and the military had expanded considerably and each was jockeying for space at the expense of the other. This resulted in moving the hospital out of the Fort to Peddenaickenpettah in the city in 1752. It was decided at the same time that the erstwhile hospital buildings would be handed over to the military. However, the north-east monsoon of that year proved to be so severe that the barracks suffered extensive damage.
Work then began on the construction of the King’s Barracks adjacent to the old buildings and with its alignment being north-south. The principal entrance was located on the west. Executed between 1756 and 1762, it acquired its name from the fact that it housed a royal regiment from the inception. A simple double-storied structure, it is rectangular in shape, with each floor having two sets of rooms, one behind the other on all fronts barring the western face, which has just one set of rooms. The northern part houses the army canteen and can be accessed from Parade Square. The whole building encloses a massive central courtyard that lets in much needed light and air to the inner rooms. The western face of the King’s Barracks also has a very interesting feature, one that repeats in several other buildings of the Fort – two helical stairways leading to the upper floor. The King’s Barracks is also known for its variety of roofing – Bengal terrace, Madras terrace and Mangalore tiles. The lower floor was meant for ancillary facilities and the upper floor for the men, who were all quartered in eight sections, each with a sergeant’s room.
In recent years, K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer, as part of their work for the book Madras, the Architectural Heritage funded by the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage, undertook a complete study of this building. Published in 2003, it noted even then that the Kings Barracks was in a terrible condition, its roof having caved in at places owing to ingress of moisture. There is nothing to show that matters have improved since, though the Army did announce in 2013 that it intended to shift from here to Pallavaram so that the Archaeological Survey could undertake some much-needed restoration work.
The barracks on the southern side, facing King’s Barracks were constructed as part of the Fort’s restoration; post the French siege of the 1750s. John Call, then in charge of much of the work, proposed that Officers’ Lodgings be built on each side of the “New Square which is to be formed before the West Side of the Inner Fort” and the Company agreed that this was a very “usefull and convenient Distribution.” That these buildings were constructed to be bomb-proof is evident from a detailed note on their extension in 1771 proposed by Colonel Ross, the Chief Engineer. He suggested among other things that “18 rooms over the Bomb Proof Barracks, North Side of the Parade, which can conveniently lodge nine Gentlemen” be built at a cost of 25,950 pagodas. It would appear that by 1781, most of these buildings were completed, for a minute that year recorded that the “Quarters South and North of the Parade” were to have accommodation for six captains and twelve subalterns. A noteworthy feature is that this spate of reconstruction saw both King’s Barracks and its smaller counterpart on the southern side being given identical facades on the sides facing Parade Square. These are in the Classical style – double storied with pillars supporting a pediment that sports a rather complicated coat of arms. This gives a harmonious frontage to Parade Square.
George Robert Gleig, arriving as a soldier in 1817, wrote in The Subaltern’s Log Book (1829) that the “barracks at Fort St George are the most commodious and magnificent I ever was in. The rooms in our apartments were lofty and the windows extended almost to the ceiling from within two or three feet of the ground, they have Venetian blinds in them instead of glass which keep the rooms cool and admit sufficient air.” A Parliamentary Committee reporting in 1871 was not so impressed. While it commended the design for aligning the buildings from north to south, thereby allowing for sea breeze from the east, it noted that the effect “is a good deal influenced by high buildings on the east”. It also noted that the first floor of the barracks had good ventilation but the lower floor was not so blessed as it was surrounded by other structures. Evidently, married quarters were also part of the same block, for the report notes that these were very good, each family having two rooms of good size. The most unfortunate among the lot was the Battery of Artillery, which was quartered in a series of casemates close to the western end of the Fort. They were completely cut off from the sea breeze and had no ventilation of any kind.
The western side of the Parade Square has a set of three or four independent barracks. Writing in the early 1900s, Mrs. Frank Penny has it that these were “built in recent years; they replaced some low wretched buildings utterly inadequate to the requirements of the troops, if they were to be kept healthy and free from disease. The basement of the old barracks was below the level of the ground and were small and airless.” The old ones that Mrs. Penny speaks of probably traced their roots to the original barracks that stood on the western side of the Fort. Alas, today most of even the later construction, once termed handsome by Mrs. Penny, is in a bad way.
Much of Fort St George is owned by the military but no garrison is housed in it today. The army’s departments occupy its various buildings and offices and these are all in a reasonable shape of repair. Not so lucky are the barracks which, devoid of occupation and maintenance, are collapsing. King’s Barracks is part canteen and part stores. The barracks to the west are largely abandoned. As you walk around them you will notice additional floors were added later with cement concrete and architecturally unrelated grille work. Most of these buildings are filled with rubble to prevent them from collapsing.