Monday, 7 July 2014

North Park Street Cemetery and The Robertson Monument

Although the Government has renamed Park Street to Mother Teresa Sarani, the people of Calcutta are not too keen to use this name. Somehow, “having a drink on Mother Teresa Sarani” just does not seem to have the same ring to it. Park Street of course was not the original name of the stretch of road that connects Lower Circular Road (now AJC Bose Road) with Chowringhee (now Jawaharlal Nehru Road). The original name, writes P. Thankappan Nair, was Badamtalla, from the large number of Almond trees growing in the area. Upjohn’s Map of Calcutta, from 1792, identifies it however, as Burial Ground Road. This name comes from not one, but four cemeteries located near the Lower Circular Road end of the causeway. The decision to locate cemeteries so far away from the centre of the city, indeed, right on it’s edge, was a deliberate one. Mortality rates among the Europeans in Calcutta in the early days were stupendously high, and the sight of a new funeral parade every few hours simply would not do. Of the four, the one that survives is the historic South Park Street Cemetery. But if there is a South Park Street Cemetery, was there ever a North Park Street Cemetery? As it turns out, there was.

Old photograph of North Park Street Cemetery. Robertson Monument visible bottom right

Once known as “The Great Cemetery”, the South Park Street Cemetery is a vast necropolis, housing the mortal remains of some 1600 inhabitants of the city, from the bureaucratic elite to men from the armed service, the so-called boxwallahs, to the wives and, regrettably, many many children of the rulers of British India. The marble plaque on it’s gates say it was closed in 1790. It’s younger brother, the North Park Street Cemetery sprung up on the opposite side of the street around 1785. But like many relics of the British Raj, Indian Independence sealed it’s fate.

Soon after Independence, the British Government withdrew all funding for the maintenance of civilian cemeteries outside Britain. Military cemeteries, such as the one in Bhowanipore, remained under the aegis of the War Graves Commission. The costs of maintaining vast cemeteries in the heart of the city being impractically high, the initial plan was to level both North and South Park Street Cemeteries and have in their place a “Garden of Remembrance”. Surprisingly, this disastrous proposal was wholeheartedly endorsed by the Bishop of Calcutta himself. Stiff resistance was posed however, by the citizens of Calcutta, and questions were raised in England. But how was the funding for maintaining the cemeteries to be secured? Collections were begun, but these were rudimentary in nature, and the sums gathered, paltry. Pressure was now mounting from the Chief Minister, Bidhan Chandra Ray, who was concerned that the cemeteries were being used as public latrines, and had become the favourite haunt of ruffians. Finally the decision was taken in 1953 to raze the North Park Street Cemetery, housing 450 tombs, and use the money from leasing out the land, to preserve the much more historic, South Park Street Cemetery. The younger brother would have to be sacrificed to save the elder brother.

North Park Street tombstones on South Park Street Cemetery walls
Among the tombs lost, were those of Richmond Thackeray, father of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, and James Achilles Kirkpatrick, Resident to the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the principal subject of William Dalrymple’s brilliant book, White Mughals. Many of the plaques and tombstones from the North Park Street Cemetery may today be found on the walls of the South Park Street Cemetery. A large and exquisitely carved marble memorial toJames Achilles Kirkpatrick may today be seen on the Southern wall of St. John’sChurch in the Dalhousie area. The land where the North Park Street Cemetery once stood, is today occupied by the Assembly of God Church and the Mercy Hospital, founded by the tenacious Mark Buntain. But a few vestiges of the past still linger.


Robertson family tombstones
Robertson Monument, from Park Street
Tucked away in the Southeastern corner of the compound that houses Assembly of God Church and the Mercy Hospital is a curious structure. With a dome supported by Ionic columns, the structure is used as a storage space and even for drying clothes. This is infact, the last surviving tomb from the North Park Street Cemetery, as is known, by the few who know of it, as The Robertson Monument. Under this monument lie to mortal remains of eight members of the Robertson family: Francis Edmund Robertson, his wife Eleanora Katherine Robertson (11 Aug 1813 - 31 Aug 1834), Edmund Robertson (26 Jun 1850 - 29 Jul 1905), Nathaniel and Helen Robertson, their second son, Edwin Robertson, his son, Bertram Gerald Robertson (10 Jan 1884 - 25 Feb 1935), and baby Mary Ellen Robertson, who lived only for a day, 13th January, 1890. Edwin Robertson was a Senior Superintendent in the Calcutta Police. In the Lower Circular Road Cemetery there lies a William Cecil Robertson (9th Mar, 1855 – 22nd Nov, 1895), Inspector, Calcutta Police, who may be connected to this family.

View from inside compound
It is said that it was the police connection which saved this grave from being leveled, but it’s location must also have had some part to play. Positioned as it is, in one convenient corner, there would have been no need to demolish it for construction to proceed smoothly on the rest of the plot. The monument today is in fairly decent shape, though the writing on the tombstones have become obscured. Millions pass by it every day without realizing what it is, or was. Perhaps some day, the Assembly of God Church can do something to make the people of Calcutta a little more aware about this curious relic from their colonial past.


Tombstone of Anne Kiernander
The second artefact to have survived the levelling of the North Park Street Cemetery is much more difficult to find. The Swede Johann Zachariah Kiernander, was the first protestant missionary to Bengal, and arrived in Calcutta on the 29th of September, 1758. His first wife having died in the early part of 1761, Kiernander re-married in February 1762. His second wife was Mrs Anne Wolley, a rich widow. Unfortunately she too was to die in June, 1773. She left her considerable property to her husband, and through the sale of her jewels, Kiernander was able to start a school behind the Mission Church that he also founded, and which may still be found standing on Mission Row. Mrs. Anne Kiernander’s tombstone is to be found on the wall of the basement of what is now The Assembly of God Church. It is perhaps her association with the Rev. Kiernander which has saved her memory from obliteration.

Blogger Rangan Dutta says that he has heard rumors that the tombstone of Richmond Thackeray, father of William Makepeace Thackeray may also be found, somewhere in the grounds of the Mercy Hospital, which occupies part of the same plot that was once the North Park Street Cemetery, but this may be just a rumour. The Kiernander bloodline is alive and well, and I have recently been contacted by Aidan Kjernander (perhaps a Swedish variation of the spelling?) who points me to his website, which has details of the many accomplished member of this family. 

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


I am grateful to Bijoy John, a congregant of The Assembly of God Church, and Pastor Daya Bari for helping me locate Mrs. Kiernander's tombstone. 


AMBIVALENT HERITAGE: Between Affect and Ideology in a Colonial Cemetery - Ashish Chadha
European Calcutta – Dhrubajyoti Banerjea
Calcutta: The Living City. Vol 1 – The Past – Sukanta Chaudhuri (Editor)


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