Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Turner Morrison & Co., Lyon's Range

The whole reason Calcutta developed into what she is today, was shipping. There are those who deny the role of the British in the formation of the city, or those who say that Charnock’s landing here could not possibly mark the birth of the city. But even such people agree, and the historic evidence is difficult to refute, that this part of the world was fairly active in trading, especially in textiles. The village of Sutanuti, some say got its name from the yarn, or suta, that was spun and sold from here, to European and other ships, which would venture up the Hooghly. During the British era, the imperial capital was the largest and most important port in the East of India, and many of the shipping companies that operated then, are still active today. Among them is Turner Morrison.

Turner Morrison was the Calcutta arm of the Liverpool based Turner & Co., whose founder, A. Turner, was also the chairman of the Fleetwood based British Shipowners Co. Turner Morrison & Co. was established in Calcutta in 1864, and by 1877 ranked third among the Calcutta agencies, behind the formidable Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co., and Nicol Fleming & Co., with 118 vessels, totaling 146,326 tonnes. In March 1878, Turner floated the Asiatic Steam Navigation Company Limited, which was a subsidiary of Turner Morrison & Co. Asiatic was officially registered in the U.K., and because of the patronage of Messrs Thomas H. Ismay and William Imrie, managers of the White Star Line (who operated the Titanic), had its vessels built by Harland & Wolff of Belfast. But its ships rarely, if ever, returned to England, and Asiatic’s primary theatre of operations was the Bay of Bengal.

Prison cells on Asiatic's ships. ©D. Beedle
Inspite of bitter competition with Mackinnon Mackenzie’s British-India Steam Navigation Company, Asiatic continued to do well, until 1890. That year Asiatic lost two of its ships within a space of five months. Seeking to recover from this disaster, and to increase its area of operations, Asiatic sought and obtained a contract from the Imperial Indian government to carry mails to and from the Andaman Islands. However, this had a sinister downside. In order to win the contract, Asiatic had to agree to transport convicts to the penal settlement of Port Blair; the infamous Cellular Jail. Known to Indians as Kaala Paani (literally Black Water), Cellular Jail housed Indians involved in the freedom struggle and is representative of the some of the worst repressive excesses of British rule in India.

Coming back to Calcutta, the Turner Morrison building on Lyon’s Range, behind Writers’ Building, originally housed Graham's Trading Co. (India) Ltd., Place, Siddons &. Gough, and the Norwich Union Life Assurance Society besides their own offices. It is symmetrical building, with a recessed central bay, with four plain columns that have composite capitals. Cast iron plaques with the company’s monogram may be seen on the gates, and a plaque near the entrance confirms that the foundation stone was laid by Sir Robert Watson Smyth on the 18th of March, 1924. When I photographed the building, it was green and white, with the capitals painted gold, but it seems it is repainted regularly. Security staff on the ground floor would not let me in, but confirmed that the building was in good shape and maintenance work was carried out regularly.

Post 1947, like many British businesses in the region, things changed for Asiatic. The sugar and rice trades which were its backbone were lost, and Asiatic was eventually absorbed by P&O. Turner Morrison however, continues to exist and prosper under Indian management, and has a wide variety of commercial interests.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


Maritime Enterprise and Empire: Sir William Mackinnon and His Business - J. Forbes Munro
European Calcutta - Dhrubajyoti Banerjea
Calcutta Illustrated – John Barry


Saturday, 25 October 2014

Neveh Shalome Synagogue, Brabourne Road

…Velvet curtains in rich dark hues and embroidered in gold and silver, some with Hebrew lettering, hung down in rows from the ladies’ gallery. Glittering chandeliers shone down on a sea of heads wearing different coloured skull caps and swathed in prayer shawls, chanting and responding in unison to the Hazzan, a venerable king on the central dias…after hearing the Kol Nidre, I went home happy to be a Jew…

Sally Solomon, Hooghly Tales

Monday, 20 October 2014

Hastings Chapel, Clyde Road

Me and my friend Amartya were on one of our Sunday morning rounds of the city when we stumbled upon Hastings Chapel. We do this almost every Sunday, walking the streets of Calcutta, with our cameras, photographing heritage buildings, and often discovering things that we never knew about. This was one of those things.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Jewish Cemetery, Narkeldanga Main Road

“…Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long: and there shall be no might in thine hand.

The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed…”

Deuteronomy 28:32-33

Such were the terrible curses that would befall the Jews if they ever strayed from the path of the Almighty. In reality, first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians and finally the Romans forced the Jews from their lands, and they wandered the earth, for many years a stateless people. With their pragmatic and business oriented approach to life, they prospered wherever they went, but I wonder how many of the Jews who came to India from Aleppo in Syria, Isfahan in Iran and of course, Baghdad in Iraq, ever imagined that their mortal remains would be interred in a place called Narkeldanga.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Martin & Co., Clive Street

There is a red building that stands sandwiched between Gillander House and Coal Bhavan on Clive Street (now Netaji Subhash Road). One look at the building and you’ll know that the top two floors were added on much later. While the bottom three floors are ornamented the top two are bland and uninspiring. Get closer to it and you will find a door with a most striking design. I am no architect so I can only guess that the correct word to describe the projection all around the door would be a canopy; an arched canopy to be exact. It is painted in the red and yellow shade of the building and has quite a bit of ornamentation inside. The door itself is fancy looking, made of wood with glass panes with cast iron grilles on top. The old, dirty, cracked wooden boards on its right side contain the names of the many offices which occupy the building, but there is nothing to identify what the building once was. This was the original office of one of Calcutta’s most important and powerful engineering firms; Martin & Co.

Martin & Co. building today

Friday, 10 October 2014

Maghen David Synagogue, Canning Street

“Are you sure that’s a Synagogue”? Jewish Israeli tourist Or Tovi sounded skeptical as we crossed the road. “It has a clock tower; I think it’s a Church. I have never seen a Synagogue which looks like this”. But once he set foot inside, his skepticism changed to open-mouthed awe. “I have never seen a Synagogue so beautiful. There is nothing like this in Israel”. Such is the magic of Calcutta’s Maghen David, the grandest Synagogue in the East.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Murshidabad House, Park Street

For three years of my life, six days a week, I travelled from my home in the Ballygunge area in the South of Calcutta, to Park Street (now Mother Teresa Sarani), in the heart of the city, to attend college. And yet, for those three years, it never occurred to me to peep inside the high walls that stood just opposite the college, on the corner of Park Street and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road (previously Karbala Road). Some time in the last few years, one of the two wooden gates of that compound collapsed, revealing a vast unkempt lawn, and a grand building in a truly deplorable state. This ruined building is Murshidabad House, once home to the family of Mir Jafar Ali Khan Bahadur, known to Bengalis simply as Mir Jafar, the archetypal traitor.

Murshidabad House today