The first time I heard the name Bathgate & Co. was when I asked my mother about the dilapidated building that once housed my Kindergarten school. That was the name originally associated with building, she said. Thus, my digging began. I present to you here, information that I have gathered through countless hours of internet trawling. Because, in spite of the fact that Bathgate & Co. were Calcutta’s very first chemists, there is no book or website dedicated to their history.
|The root encrusted walls of Bathgate & Co's Ballygunge Dispensary|
|1904 Bathgate & Co advertisement|
Bathgate & Co. were the first British chemists in the city of Calcutta, and the Scottish-owned firm started business in 1811. Just to put things in perspective, that was the year Inventor John Stevens' boat, the Juliana, began operation as the first steam-powered ferry service, between New York City and Hoboken, New Jersey. Napoleon was planning his invasion of Russia. It was 46 years before the Sepoy Mutiny. The Communist Manifesto would not be published for another 37 years, and the Mughal Emperor of India was Akbar Shah II, the predecessor of Bahadur Shah Zafar. When it opened, Bathgate’s premises were called “the prettiest pharmacy in India”. They began their business dispensing prescription medicines and toiletries, but when photography became the rage, they added a department dedicated to selling film, developing negatives, and photographic printing.
Bathgate & Co.’s first office in Calcutta occupied premises at 17-19 Old Court House Street in the city centre. That particular building has since been demolished, but they opened two branch offices, the structures of which survive.
|A peep inside Trivia Hall, Bathgate & Co's Ballygunge Dispensary|
Let us begin with the more recent office, which, paradoxically, seems to be in much worse shape. It occupies a triangular plot on the corner of Ballygunge Circular Road and Ballygunge Store Road (now Gurusaday Dutt Road), slightly southeast of the core city. This was the Ballygunge Dispensary of Bathgate & Co., probably opened sometime in early 1900s. The building is called “Trivia Hall” and today, there is more tree root than brick on its walls. An atrociously ugly traffic control booth hides a fine marbled portico with slender cast iron pillars, which hold up the roof above it. Further up, only the letter “M” has survived from what was once Bathgate’s sign. Inside, part of the premises have since been turned into a marble-tiled shanty town by local pot-smokers and flower-sellers, who ply their trade from there, have laid down beds there, and even park their motorcycles inside. The official address is 62/11 Ballygunge Circular Road. A courtyard, watched over by an alert darwan, may be seen through the rather helpful holes in the metal gate. In the 1980s, this portion of the building housed Mr. Pyer’s Private School, where I myself studied between the age of 4 and 6. Thus, my personal association with the premises. Mr. Sitangshu Mohan Bose, a long-time Ballygunge resident, can recall visiting Bathgate’s dispensary as a child in the 70’s. Curious vessels and jars filled with coloured water, representing syrups, adorned the shelves, along with many other pharmaceutical fascinations. By sometime the 1970s though, the shop was wound up and vanished from the scene.
What was once Bathgate & Co. at 62/11 Ballygunge Circular Road is now a frightening picture of urban decay. But the question is, why has such prime real estate not been “developed” yet? The answer may be found on the Ballygunge Store Road (now Gurusaday Dutt Road) side of the premises. In the middle of all the rust and weeds, there is a neon Christian cross. Court records confirm that a case is indeed being fought between Bathgate & Co. (now under Indian management, and no longer a drugstore) and one Reverend Hanok Ghose. In the meantime, the building remains stuck in a limbo of litigation, slowly decaying, the remnant of a past no one cares about. That is, until the day part of the roof collapses and kills some unfortunate soul.
|Morning scenes at Trivia Hall, Bathgate's Ballygunge Dispensary|
It is indeed a pity that while one of Bathgate’s competitors, Frank Ross & Co., who started up more than a hundred years later, are still in business, Calcutta’s first chemist has faded into oblivion. Even more so, when you consider the impressive list of firsts and achievements their firm can boast of. From their premises on Old Court House Street, in March 1823, Bathgate & Co. demonstrated Calcutta’s first gas-powered street lamps. In 1830, Bathgate & Co., along with F. & C. Osier and Co. (glassware and lamp dealers), Hamilton and Co. (jewellers), Rankin and Co. (tailors and outfitters), and Thacker and Co. (publishers) founded the highly respected Calcutta Trades Association. Bathgate was the company that supplied the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital (established 1835) with their first pair of human skeletons, for the princely sum of 1500 rupees! The Asiatic Journal of June, 1838, notes that Bathgate & Co. started up a factory for the production of sulphuric acid, and would be “prepared to supply this article most intimately connected with the arts, the sciences and commerce”. Apart from noting that the spelling of Ghushuri, the little village in the Howrah district, where the factory was located, is hilariously anglicised to Gussorie (rhymes with Mussoorie), I also wonder exactly what “art” requires the use of sulphuric acid?! When Upendranath Bramhachari (known as U.N. Bramhachari today) discovered the cure for Kala Azar in the chemical compound Urea Stibamine, Bathgate & Co. was granted sole distribution rights. They must have made a fortune! A U.S. Army familiarisation pamphlet, for personnel visiting Calcutta in the wake of the outbreak of WWII, mentions Bathgate & Co. as “a thoroughly reputable store. Don't expect to get that ice cream soda here”. And yet, a look at inventories from the late 1800s shows that Bathgate were in fact selling soda water. This they dispensed in stone bottles, many of which remain in existence around the world, and are highly sought-after items today. Apart from that, the firm’s principal money came from sales of medicines for stomach ailments.
|Bathgate & Co's Camac Street Branch Office|
Sometime in the 1870s, Bathgate & Co. opened their first “Branch Office” on the corner of Camac Street and Park Street. It is a building that is, against all odds, in good shape today. The address in the advertisement placed in Thacker’s Indian Directory of 1904 seems to read: 1A Camac Street. The address today is 1/1 Camac Street. Surprisingly no one seems to notice the place, or even care about it. Wouldn’t you be a little curious about why the Union Bank of India operates out of a single storey building on Camac Street that has a coat of arms on the façade? This utter lack of curiosity, this placid acceptance of whatever they are presented with, is something I have come to believe is a quality shared by most of my countrymen. What I have also been forced to come to terms with is government apathy. The Camac Street Bathgate office is well over a hundred years old and as such, worthy of being declared a heritage building and thus, protected. Has anything happened on that front? Take a guess! All I can hope is that this blog will raise a few eyebrows.
|The British Coat of Arms on the Camac Street branch|
- by Deepanjan Ghosh (Edited by Brian Paul Bach)
- My mother, Mrs. Snigdha Ghosh, for having started me on this quest.
- Mr. Sitangshu Mohan Bose for having shared his personal experiences.
- Author, filmmaker and scholar Brian Paul Bach, for sharing the advertisement of Bathgate & Co., from the 1904 edition of the Thacker’s Indian Directory. Check out Brian’s book on the Grand Trunk Road here.
- My friends, Amartya Saha and Krishanu Dutta, for accompanying me on my photowalks in gruelling Calcutta summers.
- Bathgate & Co Coat of Arms photograph courtesy Amartya Saha.
- The Asiatic Journal, Volume 26, June, 1838
- Barry, John – Calcutta Illustrated [1940 ed]
- Furedy, Christine – British Tradesmen of Calcutta 1830-1900
- – Development of Modern Elite Retailing in Calcutta, 1880-1920
- – Retail Trade in Calcutta
- Singh, Rajinder – U.N. Bramhachari’s Scientific Achievements
- Thacker’s Indian Guide, 1904 Ed.
- Calcutta: The Living City