First Line Beach, or Rajaji Salai, is the road that starts off from Fort St George and carries on to Royapuram. It is a long stretch, with a series of impressive buildings on the left and the port on its right. In its time, it was THE most important road of the city, for its commercial strength and therefore clout was immense. The business establishments on the left were responsible for the port on the right and when the port became established it further strengthened the businesses on the left. It was a symbiotic relationship that lasted a good 150 years at least and several historic buildings have survived to tell that tale.
The story of First Line Beach really begins with Customs House and Bentinck’s Building (present Singaravelar Maligai). Prior to 1798, goods from ships were offloaded opposite Fort St George and the Customs Office was located within the Fort. It was in that year that Edward, Second Lord Clive, in his capacity as Governor decided that the Customs needed a building of their own, outside the Fort.
First Line Beach was then just a beach, it was then the equivalent of the Marina for Black (now George) Town and people used to flock there in the evenings. The merchants of Fort St George, under increasing pressure to leave its protective walls and set up business outside, had already seen the commercial possibilities of this stretch and work had begun in 1793 on what was to be the new Business Exchange – Bentinck’s Buildings. It was next to it therefore that Customs House was built, from 1798 onwards. With that there was no looking back for First Line Beach. The beach vanished and in its place came up a fine commercial district.
Bentinck’s Buildings was home to the first merchants, all British. Next to it came up certain appurtenances such a stationery store, which still survives as the Government Stationery Depot. All the godowns were close by and these, going by their character, gave their names to streets such as Godown Street and Bunder Street. But by 1817, the merchants were becoming bigger than the facilities that Bentinck’s Buildings could provide. They began building headquarters for themselves on the same stretch and moved out. From 1817 to 1862, Bentinck’s Building housed the Supreme Court of Madras and then till 1892 it housed the High Court. From then on it became the Collectorate of Madras (and now Chennai). The old building was demolished in the 1990s and replaced by the Singaravelar Maligai. Outside it stands a small remnant – a cupola that once housed a statue of Lord Cornwallis, which is now inside the Fort Museum.
The big names in Madras business by 1817 were three – Parry, Binny and Arbuthnot. Each built its offices in the vicinity. Parry, established in 1798, identified its space as early as 1801. It became Parry’s Corner for this was land’s end. At that time there was no First Line Beach and during high tide, the water practically lapped Parry’s walls. The property was purchased in 1803 and over the years an Indo-Saracenic edifice came up, known as Dare House, named after Thomas Parry’s successor – JW Dare. Dare House was completely demolished and rebuilt in the then prevalent art-deco style between 1938 and 1940. It remains a handsome landmark even now.
Binny built their offices a few blocks away on Armenian Street and so we will not focus on them, beyond mentioning that it was in that office in 1836 that a few merchants got together to found the Madras Chamber of Commerce, now the second-oldest such body in the whole of India.
Arbuthnot came on the scene in the early 1800s and by the 1850s had built its handsome classical edifice on First Line Beach, separated by a street, named Arbuthnot Street, from Bentincks Building. In its time it appeared that nothing could stop Arbuthnot. The firm grew and grew until a sensational crash in 1906 which left thousands insolvent. Out of its ashes emerged the Indian Bank, founded and run by Indians, as opposed to Arbuthnot which was British. Indian Bank in turn purchased Arbuthnots’ headquarters and functioned from there till 1970 when it had the structure demolished and put up its present multi-storey building.
By the 1850s, work on a kind of port for Madras had begun, opposite First Line Beach. That is a long and involved story that needs to be told in full later. But the location of the port and so many successful businesses soon meant that railways, post and telegraph and banking had to soon come to First Line Beach. And they did in full measure.
On 1st July 1856, India’s second oldest and South India’s first railway station opened for business. This was at Royapuram, at the northern end of First Line Beach. The railway line, run by the Madras Railway Company (MRC), connected Royapuram to Arcot. It expanded over time, with its headquarters being a beautiful classical building that now lies derelict next to the Royapuram Station. In 1907, the MRC was merged with the Southern Mahratta Railway, becoming the M&SM Railway. It shifted its office to near Central Station and Royapuram waned in importance. The station is now restored and there is talk of reviving it as an important junction.
Postal services may have begun in Madras in 1786, but the head post office remained within Fort St George till 1870. Then in moved to the Mercantile Bank Building on First Line Beach. In 1874, land was identified for a GPO on the same road. To a magnificent design by Robert Fellowes Chisholm, work began and was completed in 1884. This was also the Central Telegraph Office and functions as GPO even now.
Surprising though it may seem now, India did not have one central bank till 1920. Each of the Presidencies had their own banks which could print and issue currencies. The Bank of Madras fulfilled that role and had its own handsome premises on First Line Beach, designed by Henry Irwin and built by Thatikonda Namberumal Chetty in 1895. The Bank of Madras merged into the Imperial Bank of India when it was formed as the central bank in 1921. This in 1955 became the State Bank of India. The SBI continues to function from the Bank of Madras Building.
Another building that reminds us of old banking history is the office of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, earlier known as the Mercantile Bank building. The Chartered Mercantile Bank of India began business in Madras in 1854 and became the Mercantile Bank of India in 1893. It moved into the present building in 1923 and later merged into the HSBC which still retains the old façade.
There is much more to tell about First Line Beach and so let us look at it in subsequent updates…
The writer is a well known historian of the city