Monday, 17 February 2014

St. John’s Church

Entrance to Church

At the North-Western corner of Government House (Raj Bhavan) may be found Kolkata’s oldest surviving Anglican Church, St. John’s Church. The oldest Anglican Church of Calcutta was St. Anne’s, which was located roughly where the principal rotunda of the Writers’ Building stands today. This was completely destroyed in the Seige of Calcutta, in 1756. St. John’s was built 1787, and with the advent of Bishop Middleton, Bishop of Calcutta, became the principal Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta. It remained so till the consecration of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1847. The land on which St. John's is built was originally a burial ground, known as the "old burial ground", in use ever since Charnock's party set up base in Calcutta. The old burial ground had been closed since 1767. The land was the property of Maharaja Nabo Krishna Deb, founder of the Shovabazaar Raj family. It was "presented" by him to Warren Hastings, in 1783. All the graves were dug up and the remains removed. The only graves to have been left undisturbed were those of Job Charnock and Admiral Watson. Some of the gravestones were laid around Charnock’s mausoleum.  More than Rs. 70,000.00 was raised for the Church’s construction through donations and lottery. The Church was designed by Lieutenant Agg of the Bengal Engineers, on the lines of St. Martin in Fields in London, but with design modifications to accommodate for the soft ground. Sandstone from Chunar was used for the steeple, while blue marble from the ruins of Gaur was used for the flooring. The use of stone is what gave St. John’s it’s native nickname, “Pathure Girja” or Stone Church.  The Church was consecrated on the 24th of June, 1787, the date being that of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The church was used for baptisms and weddings of the who’s who of Bengal’s British folk at one time. In 1798, merchant and Calcutta Sheriff William Fairlie, from whom Fairlie Place got its name, married Miss Margaret Ogilvie here.

Foundation stones of the Church



The Holwell Monument
The story of the Holwell Monument is connected to the story of The Black Hole of Calcutta. When the Nawaab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, invaded Calcutta in 1756, the ill-prepared British were roundly beaten. The British were holed up in the old Fort William, which stood in the area where the GPO, The Collectorate, The RBI and the Fairlie Place Eastern Railway offices stand today. The cowardly Governor of Fort William, Roger Drake having fled the fort, the defenders elected a surgeon, John Zephaniah Holwell to lead the defence. Holwell eventually capitulated on the 20th of June, 1756. According to him, Siraj's army took 143 prisoners, and that night, confined them to a military prison, called The Black Hole, a room that was some 18 feet by 14 feet. Holwell claims that in the course of the night, from thirst and fatigue, 123 perished. This story is contested by many historians. Some claim the whole thing is a figment of Holwell's imagination, while others say that the number of casualties was vastly inflated by him. Whatever be the case, Holwell erected, at the North West corner of Dalhousie Square, an obelisk with marble tablets containing the names of the victims of that fateful, or atleast such names as he could remember. The monument fell into disrepair over time, was taken over by barbers, loafers and the like, and was finally dismantled under orders of The Marquess of Hastings in 1821. In 1899, on his way to Calcutta, Lord Curzon, it is said, was reading H.M. Busteed's book Echoes From Old Calcutta, and he became deeply interested in the 1756 war, and the legend of the Black Hole. Upon arrival in Calcutta, he had the exact location of the original Fort William traced. Brass lines were placed in pavements and marble plaques were placed on walls to mark the bastions and curtain walls of the fort, and a replica of the Holwell Monument was constructed and placed in the same position as the old one, in 1902. This monument too faced it's fair share of problems. This time, the resistance was led by nationalist; at their helm, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Their energetic campaign to have the monument removed was successful. The monument was relocated to the yard of St. John's, where it stands to this day.


Michael Herbert Rudolf Knatchbull, GCSI, GCIE, MC was born on 8th May 1895, and in 1933, upon his father's death, he succeeded as 5th Baron Brabourne following which he was made Governor of Bombay. While Governor of Bombay he laid the foundation stone at the historic Brabourne Stadium cricket ground in 1936. In 1937 he also became a Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India and served as Governor of Bengal until 1939, the year he died. Brabourne Road in Calcutta is named after him.


The Rohillas were Afghan Highlanders, settled in the Rohilkhand region of Northern India. The First Rohilla War, fought from 1773-74, was a punitive campaign, where troops of the East India Company supported Shuja-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Oudh. The 2nd Rohilla War, of 1794, fought in Rampur, was a conflict between the East India Company and the Rohillas. This memorial commemorates the fallen from both wars. It’s design is based on the Temple of Aeolus, built by Sir William Chambers, which may still be seen in the Royal Botanic Gardens, in Kew, London.


Charlotte Canning, Countess Canning, was one of the most prolific women artists in India. The wife of Charles Canning, 1st Earl Canning, she painted some three hundred and fifty watercolours, in four major tours in India. She is known to Bengalis for her fondness for the Bengali sweet “Pantua”. The sweet is today known as “Ledikeni”, a colloquial version of Lady Canning. There is some confusion about her grave. Lady Canning died and should have been buried in Barrackpore. It is unclear to me if her mausoleum was relocated here, or if this is merely a duplicate.


Vice Admiral Charles Watson of the Royal Navy served briefly as the Governor of Newfoundland, before becoming, in 1754, the Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies Station. When Calcutta asked for help in 1756, Clive and Watson set out from Madras, and Watson was involved in taking the city back from Siraj-ud-Daulah. He died shortly afterwards, and is buried near Job Charnock’s mausoleum. 


Probably the most famous person by far, to be buried here is the man known to many as the founder of Calcutta, Job Charnock. Charnock first landed in Sutanuti is 1686, fleeing from the Nawaab’s troops with whom the company had got into a legal dispute. Moving further down river to Hijli in February, 1687, he finally came back to Calcutta and settled here in June 1687. Then already 50 years old, Charnock died only 5 years later. The octagonal mausoleum, constructed in the Moorish style, was erected by Charnock’s son in law, Charles Ayer. The stones used for construction, were brought all the way from South India, and are now known as Chranockite. Surviving headstones from the old burial ground are arranged around the mausoleum. The mausoleum also houses the remains of Charnock’s wife, who was an Indian, and probably a Hindu. She did not convert to Christianity, though Charnock buried her in the Christian manner, and by some accounts sacrificed a cock on her tomb every year, on the day of her death. Dr. Wise in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume LXIII, Part III, No. 1, 1894 tells us that the sacrifice of a cock is part of the worship of the Panch Pir, or Five Saints, in Bihar, a cult, which though primarily confined to low-class Muslims, was also there adopted by Hindus. Since Charnock was posted to Patna before he came to Calcutta, it would seem possible that he picked up this peculiar practice there.

Also to be found within are the remains of East India Company surgeon, William Hamilton. He is said to have cured the Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar, of a “malignant distemper”, which was probably a swelling in his groin. 


The “much married” Frances Johnson, often referred to as “Begum” Frances Johnson, was born and brought up in India, and chose to live her entire life here, rather than returning to England. She was born in April, 1725 and was the second daughter of Edward Crook, the Governor of Fort St. David. A popular socialite in Calcutta, Frances was said to acquire the sobriquet Begum, due to her friendship with Amina Begum, mother of Siraj-ud-Daulah, Nawaab of Bengal. But she is remembered today, most of all, for her series of marriages.

Husband No. 1 was Perry Peupler Templar. She was only 13 when they got married, and the marriage ended with his death 5 years later. She bore him two children who died in infancy.

Husband No. 2 was the merchant James Altham, and this marriage ended in only 10 days, when he succumbed to smallpox. Frances waited another 2 years, before entering into marriage yet again.

Husband No. 3 was William Watts, senior member of the Supreme Council of Bengal. This, thankfully, was a happy and long-lasting marriage. They had 3 children together, and Frances was pregnant with the 4th, when disagreements between Roger Drake, Governor of Calcutta and Nawaab Siraj-ud-Daulah exploded into open war. The British were beaten, but Frances and her family was spared thanks to their close association with the Nawaab’s mother. Reunited with her husband when Clive retook Calcutta, she was sent as the company’s emissary to the Nawaab after his defeat in Plassey. Watts took his family back to England in 1759, but when he died 5 years later, Frances returned to her beloved Calcutta and settled in 12, Clive Street, an address she was to occupy till her death. Having outlived three husbands, Frances was now a rich woman, but she stumbled into yet another marriage in 1774, at the ripe old age of 49.

Husband No. 4 was Reverend William “Tally-Ho” Johnson, Chaplain of St. John’s Church. He was some 16 years her junior and is said to have treated her rather shoddily. Perhaps this union was the result of the Begum’s midlife crisis. The marriage was ultimately annulled in 1787, Johnson returning to England, while Frances stayed back in Calcutta. She was now a happy woman. Out of her five grandchildren, four had returned to serve in India. One of them was the Earl of Liverpool.

Frances died in 1812, at the unbelievable age of 87. Her epitaph says she was the “oldest British resident in Bengal, universally beloved, respected and revered”. 


The altar

The organ
Inside may be found the church’s ancient, but still fully functioning pipe organ, which is played by Mr. Johnny Purty for the Sunday Mass. The magnificent instrument can make the whole church vibrate when low notes are played. Check out a video of a performance, here.

Warren Hastings' chair
The church contains, among other things, a chair used by Warren Hastings, which may be seen with the help of the caretakers living on the premises.



Memorial plaque for James Achilles Kirkpatrick

Inside, on the walls, may also be found memorial plaques, erected by grieving relatives for the many Brits who died in Calcutta, in the service of the company. The most famous among them, thanks to Mr. William Dalrymple’s book “The White Mughals”, is Lt. Col. James Achilles Kirkpatrick, resident of Hyderabad, and the man behind the beautiful “Koti Residency”. Kirkpatrick caused a small scandal in Hyderabad when he managed to get the teenage daughter of a Hyderabad noble, pregnant. Her name was Khair-Un-Nissa. However, he refused to leave her side, inspite of the problems caused by the unorthodox nature of their union. They were married and had two children. Their happiness, unfortunately, did not last long. In 1798, Lord Wellesley became the Governor General of India. This heralded a change in the attitude of Calcutta towards the Nizam. Kirkpatrick was summoned to Calcutta, reprimanded and, some by some accounts, dismissed from the service. Kirkpatrick fell ill in Calcutta, and died on 15th October, 1805. He was buried in the North Park Street Cemetery, which was leveled. The Assembly of God Church School stands in it's place today. The marble plaque on the wall of St. John's was erected by his father, known as "The Handsome Colonel", and his brothers.

Detail of inscription on plaque


Near the Kirkpatrick memorial is a rather more humble marble plaque, to the memory of James Pattle and his wife Adeline. A member the Bengal Civil Service, James Pattle was an ancestor of historian William Dalrymple. About him, Dalrymple tells the following tale to the Indian newspaper The Telegraph, “Seven generations of my family were born in Calcutta, there are three Dalrymples sitting inside St John’s graveyard. And a great-great-grandfather’s plaque is on the St John’s Church wall, James Pattle. James Pattle was known as the greatest liar in India. A man supposed to be so wicked that the Devil wouldn’t let him leave India after he died. Pattle left instructions that when he died, his body should be shipped back to Britain. So, after his demise (in 1845) they pickled the body in rum, as was the way of transporting bodies back then. The coffin was placed in the cabin of Pattle’s wife and the ship set sail from Garden Reach. In the middle of the night, the corpse broke through the coffin and sat up. The wife had a heart attack and died. Now both bodies had to be preserved in rum. But the casks reeked of alcohol and the sailors bored holes through the sides of the coffins and drank the rum… and, of course, got drunk and the ship hit a sandbank and the whole thing exploded, cremating Pattle and his wife in the middle of the Hooghly! That’s why you see a plaque on the wall and not a grave in the graveyard of my great-great-grandfather.”

The Pattles had 7 beautiful daughters, and Frederick Leveson-Gower, a visitor to Calcutta, writes in 1850, “you must know that wherever you go in India, you meet with some member of the Pattle family. Every other man has married, and every other woman has been a Miss Pattle”. What is even more curious is that during research for his book White Mughals, Dalrymple discovered that he was part Bengali. His maternal great-great-grandmother Sophia Pattle was the daughter of "a Hindu Bengali woman . . . who converted to Catholicism and married a French officer in Pondicherry in the 1780s”. The author Virginia Woolf, who is descended from Pattle's sister, is also part Indian by blood.


The other attraction is a painting of the last supper, by Johann Zoffany, which is interesting because instead of being an exact copy of Leonardo’s masterpiece, Zoffany adds Indian touches to various aspects of the scene. A spittoon, for instance, may be seen in the picture. Zoffany based the characters in the painting on real people of Calcutta. John, in Leonardo's original, was an effeminate figure. Here, he is based on the police magistrate, William Coats Blacquiere. The effeminate Blacquiere was a master of disguise, and was particularly adept at passing himself off as a woman. William Tulloch, the auctioneer, was under the impression that he was posing for St. John. He was incensed when the painting was unveiled and he found himself portrayed as Judas. The big man, Jesus himself, is based on the Greek priest Father Parthenio. This is one of three Zoffany originals known to be in Calcutta. Of the other two, one is a painting of Elijah Impey, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Juridicature at Fort William. The Supreme Court made way for what is the High Court today, and the painting may still be seen in room No. 1. The third painting is entitled "The Embassy of Hyder Beck". Hyder Beck, or Haider Baig, was the Wazir of Oudh, who had come to Calcutta, to meet Lord Cornwallis. The area where he laid camp, is today known as Beckbagan. This painting may be seen hanging on the walls of the Victoria Memorial.

The Glorious Dead Cenotaph, designed by Herbert William Palliser, may still be found at the Northern end of the Maidan. It was designed to commemorate the British and Anglo-Indian soldiers who lost their lives in WWI. The brass plaques with their names were removed to St. John’s in 1959 for fear that they may be stolen. They are located in North-West corner of the Church today.


Special permission may be obtained to climb the Church’s stone spire, and that gives you a good view of the Church’s ancient clock, which is, amazingly, still functioning. A primitive looking system of weights and pulleys keeps it going. It is wound up regularly and still keeps accurate time. If you do manage to climb up the wooden steps to the top, you will be rewarded with a close up look at the Church’s bell. The inscription on the bell says, “C. Hutchinson. Major. Eng. Foundery Fort William. AD 1834. Daniel Lord, Bishop of Calcutta. D Corrie Archdeacon”.

In 1903, Lord Curzon placed St. John’s under the direct supervision of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, and a fixed sum was set aside every year for it’s maintenance. The Church today is a protected monument and an entrance fee of Rs. 10/- is charged. There is no restriction on photography.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh



European Calcutta                                                     – Banerjea, Dhrubajyoti
Echoes from Old Calcutta                                           - Busteed, Henry Elmsley
Calcutta Old and New                                                  - Cotton, Sir Harry Evan Auguste
Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century         - Massey, Montague

1 comment:

justrippingg said...

Deepanjan, your posts are a repository of amazing facts about Kolkata that I finally managed to explore in the few days of running around in the oppressive heat. I just managed to scratch the surface and hope to come back to discover more.

It seems i missed a lot here in the grounds of St Johns Church and will have to come back to peep into Charnock's tomb to look at the gravestone.

Keep Writing!