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Travel: St Mary’s Church, Fort George, Madras (now Chennai)

October 11, 2015 1 comment

This is the first English Church built in India. It is the oldest English Church east of Suez.

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Clive of India was married in the church, as was Elihu Yale, an early founder of Yale University.

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The barracks were built in 1687 but St Mary’s was begun in 1678. It was consecrated (controversially) by Richard Portman in October 1680. The organ was installed in 1687. The spire was added in 1710.

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The walls are 4ft thick, it was built to withstand siege and cyclone and had a blast-proof roof of solid masonry. The brickwork is 2ft thick.

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The building could accommodate 500 people. The distinctive black granite baptismal font dates from 1680.

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My journal entry (October 2014):

St Mary’s – the oldest English church east of the Suez. So many similarities with St Andrew’s cathedral in Singapore, just not as big. So many brass memorial plaques to those who died, often of sickness and disease, many very young. We strolled in the heat of the beautiful sunlit church garden. A peaceful place. Butterflies. Odd how a mercantile and mercenary Raj took the Church with it as part and parcel of Empire. It was obvious you would think, wasn’t it? Well, as the years have unfolded, no – it was a bad idea!  Felt a little strange that Grandad would have known this church. Presumably as a bandsman, he may even have set foot inside. At the back of the building, I saw an old fading photo of George Town at the time (1905) he would have been there, so very different to today’s Chennai’.

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The great Lutheran Pietist missionary, exemplar and intermediary, Christian Friedrich Schwartz (born 1726) arrived in India in 1750. He is remembered in India fondly and in the stirring epitaph at the base of the large white marble sculpture in St Mary’s (by John Bacon Jr, 1807).

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Schwartz was truly the first Protestant missionary to India, not William Carey as often supposed. Carey arrived in India two years after Schwartz’s death at Tanjore in 1798. Schwartz died a rich man but he left all his wealth to the SPCK for its work in India.

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Social History: George Olliffe at Fort St George, Madras, India

July 27, 2015 1 comment

In 1905 (100 years ago) my grandfather George Olliffe was serving with the British army in Madras (now Chennai) at Fort St George in India. I have blogged his story here. He was a bandsman in the Leicestershire Regiment (1Bn) and was posted to British India in 1903 at a time when the Raj was at the height of its powers on the sub-continent. He left India in 1906.

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Lt-Colonel Webb’s 1912 ‘ A History of the Services of the 17th (The Leicestershire) Regiment’ records, ‘The regiment sailed from Durban on the 7th November 1902 for Madras (from fighting in the South African Boer war), and arriving on the 30th, disembarked on the 1st December and proceeded to Fort George‘. Bandsman Olliffe arrived in Fort St George from Britain four months later on 6th March 1903.

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In October 2014, I went to Chennai. One of the highlights of the trip to southern India was to visit the Fort St George military compound, some of which still houses units of the Indian military.

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It was thrilling for me to walk through part of the Fort where Grandfather must have drilled, to view his old parade ground and perhaps even to look at one of his old barrack blocks.

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This is a photo record of my visit to this evocative place within our own family history:

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The Parade Ground and Drill Square at Fort St George

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Some of the vast walls and ditches surrounding the Fort.

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Another part of the compound adjacent to St Mary’s Anglican Church, the first English church built in India (1678-80).

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The thought that Grandfather may have set foot, perhaps for a parade service, in this very same church was very moving.

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