Robert Staunton Ellis, of Madras

The last of the entries concerning men of Madras in the Indian Charivari album.

Who is Ellis Road off Mount Road named after? The competition is between two individuals – Francis Whyte Ellis of the Madras School of Orientalism fame and Robert Staunton Ellis who had a long and distinguished career in the Madras Civil Services. Given his love for Tamil, I sincerely hope it is the former but then RS Ellis could well be the man.

The last entry in the Indian Charivari concerning someone from Madras is on RS Ellis. His father, Sir Henry Ellis was an illegitimate son of the fourth Earl of Buckinghamshire and rose to become a diplomat, serving in Persia, China, Brazil, Africa and Brussels. His career however began with the East India Company (EIC) where he served in Bengal as the Private Secretary to the President of the Board of Control. Perhaps following in his father’s footsteps, Robert Ellis too joined the EIC, becoming a part of the Madras Civil Services in 1844. He worked initially in Coimbatore and Thanjavur and then went on home leave in 1848, much to the distress of the Madras Literary Society from where he had borrowed a couple of books and forgotten to return them. The money was duly extracted from him when he returned and took charge as Assistant Collector of Customs, Madras.

In 1854, Ellis was posted to the Central Provinces and while there played an important role in keeping the area free of any trouble during the Sepoy Mutiny aka First War of Indian Independence. Much of this was due to the excellent relations that Ellis had developed with the widowed Ranis of Nagpur. These women had every right to resent the British chiefly owing to Dalhousie’s doctrine of lapse, which had prevented them from adopting an heir to the throne following the death of the last ruler Raghuji Bhonsle. But Ellis ensured that there was no trouble and was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB).

Ellis was of a delicate constitution and we see his career punctuated by several bouts of home leave. In 1858 he sailed for England and when he returned to Madras in 1860 he was made Special Income Tax Commissioner, a hugely unpopular post. He had to face protests from everyone from the Madras Chamber of Commerce downward. But the tax was implemented. A year later he became Deputy Secretary and was appointed Special Sanitary Commissioner a post he held till 1862 when he became the Madras Member on the Viceroy’s Executive Council.

In 1865, he again went on home leave. This is when Florence Nightingale got to know of him. That redoubtable lady had by then put together the Indian Sanitary Report and among its chief findings was that Madras was particularly susceptible to cholera chiefly because it lacked proper drains. She summoned Ellis to her home and then being charmed by his manners invited him to stay as a houseguest. He was sent to barracks, hospitals and other institutions in London to see how drains were laid in that city. Guided by Miss Nightingale, Ellis drafted several proposals on sanitary arrangements and other improvements for Madras. The Home Government too was lobbied with for release of funds. But matters moved slowly (“At present the progress of sanitary works in Madras is nil,” noted Miss Nightingale, which statement could well be emblazoned in every Corporation office even now) and it was not until the 1870s when cholera swallowed the then Governor Lord Hobart that drains finally came to Madras. Miss Nightingale lived to rejoice at the commencement of the work but not so Ellis, who passed away in 1877. In any case, his was unlike hers, a very mild personality and he was more used to getting his way through diplomacy and not by aggression. Sanitation however remained Ellis’ passion and he filed many reports on the situation in Madras, several of which still survive in the Corporation archives.

The years left to him saw him rise to the top. On his return from home leave in 1867, he was made Chief Secretary to the Government of Madras. The Governor, Lord Napier and he formed a tight team, pushing many reforms and ambitious building projects. He became a short-term member of the Governor’s Executive Council in 1870 and was made a permanent one in 1872. While there he came into conflict with the dynamic Sir William Rose Robinson, profiled earlier in this Charivari series. He was back in England in 1873 owing to ill-health and was persuaded to return to Madras in 1875. In 1877, he was made a member of the Indian Council in England and so went back, only to die a year later. He was just fifty-two.

While in Madras, Ellis took an abiding interest in the Madras Literary Society, whose books he had once forgotten to return. He was a member of the editorial committee of the Madras Journal of Literature and Science that the MLS brought out. The poor in the city also knew of his charitable disposition and it was said of him that he enjoyed nothing more than the spending of his money on those in need.


D’Acres Lane, Calcutta, now James Hickey Sarani, where the Indian Charivari was published

When I began this series I had written that the Indian Charivari was brought from D’Acres Lane, Calcutta and wondered as to where that was. I had an email from S Ganesh that it was a dead end off Waterloo Street in that city. In September this year, I had the opportunity to do a heritage tour of Kolkata in which Ganesh too participated, and I did get to see the street. It is just opposite the Great Eastern Hotel’s main entrance. Waterloo Street is now Nawab Siraj ud Dowlah Sarani. And guess what D’Acres Lane is? It is James Hickey Sarani! Yes, the same Hickey who brought out the Bengal Gazette, India’s first printed newspaper. Clearly someone in Kolkata has a sense of history.