Who would believe that Alwarpet was once home to a vast court complex? And yet this is where the highest institution of the law functioned from, for almost 60 years. What is even more puzzling is that hardly any descriptions survive of the buildings that once housed these courts of justice. What is sadder is that at least two of the principal structures survived for long, one till late in the 20th century and the other till two years ago.
The Mayor’s Court was the first to dispense justice under the British. In 1796, this was superseded by the Cutcherry Court, which in turn was replaced by the Recorder’s Court in 1798. Sir Thomas Strange was the first Recorder and he arrived in 1798. All the Courts of Justice mentioned above functioned from Fort St George. There were frequent complaints about the premises provided and lengthy minutes were written about the state of the buildings.
In 1801, the Recorder’s Court was merged into a Supreme Court of Judicature. Sir Thomas Strange became the Chief Justice with two Puisne Judges to assist him – Henry Gwillim and Benjamin Sullivan. This Supreme Court initially functioned from the premises of the Recorder’s Court, which was in Choultry Gate Street of the Fort. In 1817 it moved to what was later known as Bentinck’s Building (another lost landmark!), constructed on the site of Marine Yard on First Line Beach/North Beach Road (now Rajaji Salai). The Singaravelar Maligai, the collectorate of Madras, now stands on this site.
In 1802, additional courts were established. These were the Zillah Courts for civil suits in the districts, the Provincial Courts of Appeal for cases judged by the Zillah Courts, and the Sudder Adawlut or Chief Court of Civil Judicature for appeals from the Provincial Courts of Appeal. The criminal cases were tried in Courts of Circuit and the judgements went on appeal at the Foujdary Adawlut or Chief Criminal Court.
The Sudder and Foujdary Adawluts were set up at the western end of Luz Church Road, namely present day Alwarpet. In area it would appear that the buildings occupied much of what is today Bashyam Basheer Ahmed Street, Ambujammal Street and Sriman Srinivasa Iyengar Road. I am basing this assumption on the fact that a stately bungalow set in a vast compound stood till the 1990s on the western side of TTK (Mowbrays) Road very close to where the Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer Road flyover runs today. This bore the name of Sudder Gate on one of its gateposts. For long rented by a Coimbatore-based company, it had a rejuvenation of sorts when a Frenchman with interest in textiles ran his office from there. It was demolished in the late 1990s and a residential block of flats stands in its place today.
The principal Sudder Adawlut was housed in a huge garden house that stood at the end of Ambujammal Street and extended all the way to neighbouring Bashyam Basheer Ahmed Road. Known as Sadr Gardens, this became in the mid 20th century the residence of Basheer Ahmed Sayeed, the legal luminary who later became a Judge of the High Court of Madras and is remembered today for the educational institution he helped found – SIET College. The Sadr Gardens property, together with its huge bungalow complete with giant granite pillars, remained with the family till a couple of years ago. It has since been demolished and a high rise is being constructed on the site.
There was yet another, and more grisly reminder of the Sudder Courts. According to VC Gopalratnam, writing in his book A Century Completed, a History of the Madras High Court, 1862-1962, “in the vacant land opposite, across the Mowbrays Road, there existed until about 50 years ago a dismal and dark corner overgrown with shrubbery with a gallows tree standing in solitary impressiveness, on which capital sentences passed by the Sudder Courts were executed one hundred years or more ago.” This site, together with its tree had become history even by 1962 and so there is no scope of locating it today.
In 1862, the Sudder Courts were abolished for the Supreme Court itself was replaced by the High Court of Madras. The new institution continued to occupy Bentinck’s Buildings until 1892 when the present High Court buildings were completed. As for the erstwhile Sudder Court properties it is not clear as to who or what occupied them until they were eventually auctioned off. Ambujammal, freedom fighter and daughter of Sriman Srinivasa Iyengar had clear memories of Sudder Gate when she wrote her memoirs in 1973. She bought land here piecemeal, out of her savings and one of her properties housed the Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam. She lived close to it. The streets that came up on the Sudder Court land soon had several residences and the houses on these thoroughfares had Mowbrays Road addresses as the original property holder, namely the Sudder Courts, was on that road.
To think that this quiet set of streets once housed a busy Courts of Justice with all the hustle and bustle of plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, lawyers and the full complement of the Court staff – Judges, clerks, translators, writers and the rest.
This article is part of a series that I write on lost and barely surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier instalments here