The de Havilland family of England was one that could trace its ancestry to the times of William the Conqueror, a Sieur de Havilland having accompanied him in his conquest of England. Since then, de Havillands had distinguished themselves in the service of the Crown and made their home on the island of Guernsey, off the English coast.
Thomas Fiott de Havilland was born on 10th April 1775 to Sir Peter and Lady Cartarette de Havilland. He joined the Madras Engineers in 1792. He was appointed a Field Engineer during the Egyptian campaign of 1801/02. Survey had always been a passion for him and de Havilland ‘amused himself’ by preparing maps of Coimbatore, Dindigul and the surrounding areas. In Egypt he undertook survey work too, identifying sources of water in the Cairo-Suez area.
After his return from Egypt, on which journey he was captured by the French and later released, he was assigned to the Nizam’s Subsidiary Force to survey the Deccan. He appears to have been called increasingly for civilian work from then on. Involved as he was in the engineering side of the army, de Havilland made a name for himself in scientific observations and constructions, the latter being both military and civil in nature. In 1807 Sir John Malcolm, the Resident of Mysore, gave him his first architectural contract – the task of building a magnificent banqueting hall in the Mysore Residency, a unique structure that would have a roof entirely free of column support. When this was done, de Havilland submitted a proposal to build a bridge across the Cauvery in Mysore with just five arches. To demonstrate his skill in building it, de Havilland erected a great arch in his garden, with a hundred-foot span. The structure became a local landmark and stood till 1937 when it collapsed. The remains of the de Havilland arch are a tourist attraction in Seringapatam even now. The brick bridge over the Cauvery was completed in 1810 in which year de Havilland joined a group of officers who mutinied, protesting against the appalling conditions of the army in Mysore. He was dismissed and returned to Guersney where he was commissioned to construct a barracks. Reinstated in service in 1812, he returned to Madras and became civil engineer and architect of the Presidency in 1814.
It would be no exaggeration to say that he is one of the earliest engineers of the city whose works can be identified with any certainty. It is said he ‘built Mount Road’ which probably means he gave the northern half of the road its present contours. Among his earliest commissions in the city was the construction of a protecting bulwark all along the sea front to prevent the notorious Madras surf from causing any damage to the Town and Fort. This he did after a detailed study of the tides by means of installing a tide gauge at the northeastern angle of the Fort’s glacis. A stone, later named de Havilland’s benchmark, was let into the bulwark of the Fort and all tide levels were subsequently measured against it, till the construction of the harbour in the 1890s caused the sea to recede.
The Madras Bulwark, when completed in 1820, extended for two and a half miles from the Fort to Black Town In 1823, an iron railing was put up on top of the bulwark, overseen by de Havilland. He was entrusted with the task of widening the Wallajah Bridge, one of the many that cross the river Cooum. But it was church building that brought him immortality. During the years that the Bulwark was being constructed, the English had begun moving out of the Fort and the need arose for a church close to the Great Choultry Plain. Designed by Chief Engineer Col. James Caldwell and supervised by de Havilland, St George’s Cathedral was completed in 1816. Sadly, among the first burials at the new cathedral was that of his wife Elizabeth, whom he had married in Madras in 1808.
No doubt, in order to be close to this great project, he purchased land in Poodoopauk (present day Pudupet abutting Mount Road) and built his residence. This was an unusual construction for it comprised two castellated circular towers, standing on the opposite ends of a vast garden. These became the Eastern and Western Castlets. The intervening garden would be put to good use by de Havilland when he was entrusted with his next project – the building of St Andrew’s Kirk in 1816.
de Havilland decided that the new structure would be circular in plan and topped with a dome. In order to closely study the native technique of dome building, he had a team build one in the garden of his house, just as the arch had been built in Mysore. Having observed them closely, he gained confidence and went ahead with the construction of the kirk. The soft soil in the Egmore area was a deterrent and de Havilland, once again observing native methods, decided to build on a foundation of terracotta wells! The church when completed was to prove a masterpiece and still remains one the most beautiful heritage buildings of the city. de Havilland was then asked to take a look at the possibility of restoring the St Mathias’ Church in Vepery. He reported it to be beyond repair and bids were invited for a new building. The quote of John Law, a rival, was the lowest. Work began and de Havilland, greatly offended at losing the bid, waited till the church was completed in 1825, complete with a magnificent steeple. Then, in his capacity as Chief Engineer of the Presidency, he inspected the building and declared that the steeple was a security risk for guns could be trained on the Fort from its pinnacle! Fully aware that the kirk’s steeple was just as high he declared that unlike the St Mathias steeple, the former “yielded no facility for the mounting of mortars and howitzers.” His word was taken and the St Mathias steeple was demolished at great expense and replaced with a diminutive tower.
He appears to have retired to his native Guernsey in 1825. His father had died in 1821 and it was necessary for him to return and manage the estates. In Guernsey, he built/rebuilt Havilland Hall in the classical style. He entered public life and was elected Justice of the Royal Court. He died at the age of 90 in 1866. He clearly did not lose touch with Madras for in 1836, he warmly supported Col Arthur Cotton in his scheme for building a breakwater off Madras, the first of the many projects that ultimately culminated in the Madras Harbour in the early 1900s.
Of de Havilland’s buildings in the city, some have survived – St George’s Cathedral, St Andrews Kirk and the Wallajah Bridge (now much modified). The two castlets have vanished. But it is surmised that they stood where the Addison offices are on Mount Road today. What about the Madras Bulwark? It clearly extended from the Fort and ran parallel to the Esplanade, ending somewhere on First Line Beach. It later formed the foundation on which the Beach Road, fronting the Fort runs. In 1967, when a subway was built to connect North Beach and South Beach Roads, excavations revealed the Madras Bulwark. More of it surfaced in 1978 when the area near the Beach Station was dug up. No doubt, the ongoing Metro Rail work will throw up some more bits of it.
The writer is a well known historian of the city