Police Commissioners Office Road is a well-known thoroughfare in the Egmore area of the city. What is interesting however is that the Police Commissioner’s Office was on this road for a very brief while. On the other hand, it had a long tenure on Pantheon Road before it shifted a few years ago to a custom-built eight-storey structure on Poonamallee High (Periyar EVR) Road. This article looks at the two buildings, one on Police Commissioner’s Office Road and the other on Pantheon Road, which between them, served as a nerve centre for police operations in the city for over 150 years.
There had been some kind of policing in Madras city almost from 1639. Names such as Thalayari Street, Peddanaicken Pettah and Kotwal Chavadi are all reminders of an early age when security for the residents was provided in oriental fashion. The history of policing in the city is a long one and is quite confusing when it comes to the 17th and 18th centuries. But we do read of a Police Committee from the 1780s which appears to have dithered quite a bit until the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 when all of a sudden it came to a decision and recommended among many other things the formation of an office of the Superintendent of Police. The first incumbent was Walter Grant. Under him, the city was divided into Thanas (police districts), a term that still denotes a police station in much of North India. Ten European constables assisted by 450 Indian peons, maintained law and order in the city.
A report of 1815 states that the city was administered as eight divisions, the names of which make for interesting reading. But what is of relevance is the way the police hierarchy had developed by then. Each of the divisions had a regular force attached to it, headed by a Jemadar, followed by a Constable who in turn was assisted by Daffadars and Peons. There were besides in the general establishment, Talliaries and Hircarrahs. The former were a carryover from the older police systems and were employed chiefly for their historic knowledge of old offenders. The latter were for carrying out orders.
The headquarters of the police appears to have been in Vepery at this time and by the 1820s it moved to Langs Garden from where it once again moved into Vepery. Finally, in 1839, it was shifted to Pantheon Road, from where, as we shall see, it never moved, except for a short while in the 1880s, before it shifted to Poonamallee High Road early in the present century. The place was a paddy field till 1840. The premises that the police came to take on rent belonged to C. Arunagiri Mudaliar, who as per records had erected a bungalow at a cost of Rs 36,000 on the site. Not much is known of who this owner of the premises was, but a reading of the Pachayappa’s College history reveals that when the Trust was formed in 1846, Chitteri Arunagiri Mudaliar was one those appointed to it. As it is unlikely that two prominent men of the same name could have existed at the same time in sparsely populated Madras, we can assume that this was the same person. It is also to be noted here that Egmore in the 19th Century was divided into vast parcels of land, mostly owned by prominent members of the Mudaliar community. Many of them ran hotels catering to European clientele and names such as the Connemara, the Victoria Crescent and the Elphinstone, which survive in public memory, were all establishments run by Mudaliars in the area. Many had the initial C and so it is likely that we are dealing with someone of the same clan. The police records state that the bungalow in the middle of the property was completed on May 1, 1842 and that the rent paid was Rs 165 per month.
The police system was overhauled thoroughly by the City Police Act of XIII of 1856, as per which the post of a Commissioner was created. Lt. Col. John Carne Boulderson became the first incumbent and one of his first acts was to negotiate the purchase of the property. The premises changed hands, the police becoming absolute owners as on July 22, 1856. It is to be noted here that the value paid, Rs 21,000 was far less than the expense Arunagiri Mudaliar incurred on constructing the bungalow. The land obviously was valued at almost nothing! The bungalow, of two storeys and topped with a Madras terrace roof, is a brick and lime mortar structure. The Justice E. Padmanabhan Committee rated it Grade 2a in terms of heritage importance – a building possessing architectural, aesthetic and cultural merit and of local value.
The structure is approached through a pillared portico behind which is a long verandah that goes all around the building. This leads to lobby from where a curved wooden stairway leads to the first floor. All around this lobby on the two levels are rooms that are pierced throughout by a series of doors opening on to the verandah. There is therefore plenty of breeze assured throughout the day. The Madras terrace roof has skylights through which the sunlight pours in all day long and so no artificial lighting is required at all. The building is a delight.
As to why Lt. Col. W.S. Drever, Commissioner of Police in the 19th century, was disappointed with the building we shall never know. But he was largely instrumental in getting his close friend and Consulting Architect to the Government, R.F. Chisholm to design a new office, located on what would become Police Commissioner’s Office Road. A remarkably drab structure, again of two storeys, it was completed in 1882 a roundel let into the wall recording the date and the names of Drever and Chisholm. As to how long this was the Commissioner’s Office we do not know but Arunagiri Mudaliar’s bungalow, with its better ventilation and space was clearly the winner and it once again reverted to its former status. For some reason, the Chisholm structure became known as the Old Commissioner’s Office and later became the Photography Studio of the Police. It is also accorded a Grade 2a heritage status.
The Police Commissioner’s Office on Pantheon Road remained in use as was said earlier, till well into the present century. It would appear that in the days of the Raj, when hunting was a hobby and sport, many of the Commissioners contributed heads of animals to the building. Several remain on the walls, with the names of the hunters being recorded on them. Continued demand for space led to several new constructions on the campus, leading to the old bungalow being practically lost to sight. Within the building itself numerous structural changes were made. Partitions were let in to accommodate more offices and doors and windows were sealed off, leading to ventilation, one of the prized features of the structure, becoming a casualty.
When work began on a multistorey structure on EVR Periyar Road to house the Police Commissioner’s office, a debate arose on what would be the fate of the old bungalow. There were fears that it would be demolished. But those concerns proved baseless with the police deciding to convert the space into a museum. What was even more heartening was the decision to remove all the latter-day modifications in the bungalow, leading to it shining once again in all its glory. The partitions are all gone, the doors and windows opened up and the skylights cleaned so that the interiors are all bright. Painstaking restoration with brick and chunam mortar is ongoing. The Madras terrace roof gleams as though it was built yesterday. “You cannot demolish it even if you wish to,” says the constable who is my guide. He is full of joy at what is being done to the space. A colonial-style arch opening on to Adithanar Salai will serve as the main entrance.
Having done all of this, the police are now working on artefacts that can be put up on display. On the walls are several arms that the force has used over the years. A series of dressmaker mannequins is now housed in what was once the Commissioner’s office, all of them donning samples of uniforms used by the police. There is a hunt for photographs and portraits of former Commissioners, in particular that of J.C. Boulderson. Those of Commissioners since Independence are fortunately available and already up on the walls. If readers of Madras Musings wish to share/donate/loan artefacts to the museum, they are most welcome to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org