Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 9, August 16-31, 2018

Eardley Norton, Congressman

by Suresh Balakrishnan

(Continued from last fortnight)

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Eardley Norton

The scope of this article forbids a closer look at his services as a Congressman, but it is relevant here to mention that at the Bombay Congress of 1889 he introduced the Madras scheme for the reform of the Indian Legislative Councils, which metamorphosed into the Indian Councils Act, 1892. The Madras scheme was prepared under his leadership, and this was one of his deeds as a Congressman which is hardly mentioned in hitherto published books on the history of the Indian National Congress or the Indian national struggle.

The next Congress at Madras was in 1894, in which he held the audience spellbound with a stirring speech demanding the abolition of the India Council. But this Congress became notorious for another, unhappy reason. He had got involved in an adulterous affair with the wife of Sullivan, a coffee planter in Coorg, and his wide popularity had the unfortunate effect of giving the affair a great amount of publicity. Eventually Sullivan and Marie Gerrard, his wife and who Norton later married, were divorced. But the scandal had a devastating impact on Norton’s political career. He was compelled to resign his newly won seat in the Imperial Council in Calcutta, to which he was elected by the non-official members of the Madras Legislative Council. Later the same year, 1894, there was strong opposition from various quarters to his attendance at the Madras Congress to be held in December. Despite the opposition, he was elected as a delegate. The objections to his speaking when the Congress was in progress created such a furore that the Madras Congress of 1894 is remembered as much for the ‘Norton incident’ as for any other reason.

He became so distraught by the lamentable series of events, and fearing that his political enemies were trying to use him as an excuse to injure the movement, that he resigned from the Congress a few months after the conclusion of the Madras Congress of 1894. Thus ended sadly and prematurely his career as a Congressman. In later times, he lent freelance support to the movement from outside.

After a brief period in political wilderness, he re-entered politics, though only local politics, through his election to the Madras Municipality – he was a member for more than one term of the Madras Municipality. It was one of the bodies from which non-official members were elected to the Madras Legislative Council. He was re-elected thereto two years later and retired in 1903. The period when he was a member of the Council did not record any significant contribution of his as a Councillor. But during that period he was actively engaged in certain public causes, noteworthy among which were the efforts taken by many Madras citizens to save the Victoria Public Hall from a financial crisis. He also took part in a few commercial ventures.

In 1906, he wound up his Madras practice and residence and moved to Calcutta. Twenty-eight years ago, he had loathed the prospect of having to leave England for Madras, but now Madras occupied a special place in his heart. He had always wanted to practise in Calcutta where he felt the Bar was stronger than Madras and he preferred to compete with equal or better talent. Calcutta witnessed his appearance in many sensational cases, including a historic trial against revolutionaries known as the Alipore Bomb Case (1908-9), in which he led the prosecution, and the trial of Nirmal Kanta Roy (1914) in which he successfully defended Roy. His emigration to Calcutta in 1906 limited his subsequent appearances in courts in the Madras Presidency to rare occasions. The last of all the sensational cases he fought in the Madras Presidency was the Photographer Murder Case (1920) in Coimbatore. He also appeared for the convicts in the appeal before the Madras High Court and succeeded in getting their acquittal. It testifies to the respect and adoration that the residents of Madras had for him that in 1920, he was elected by the non-official Europeans of Madras as their representative to the newly created Central Legislative Assembly, even though he had been living in Calcutta since fourteen years earlier.

Having worked for nearly fifty years at the Indian Bar, he retired in the early 1920s. His last professional engagement was in 1923 for Nabha in the Nabha-Patiala dispute in the Punjab. He then spent a couple of years in retirement in Kodaikanal, where he had a garden house named Merton Lodge. He left India for good in May 1926 and returned to England. In 1927, owing mainly to the efforts of V. V. Srinivasa Aiyangar, at that time a Judge of the Madras High Court, an oil portrait of Norton was placed in the precincts of the High Court. The Chief Justice Victor Murray Coutts-Trotter presided.

Eardley Norton, who had left India in 1926, spent the last five years of his life peacefully in Kent and breathed his last on July 13, 1931. For his services as a Congressman he is remembered as one of India’s truest friends, and, at the Bar, as an undisputed leader in his time in jury trial advocacy. As V.V. Srinivasa Aiyangar said in his speech at the time of the unveiling of his portrait in the Madras High Court in 1927, the residents of Madras were – I hope still are – proud to own him as a Madrasee.

Copies of the book Eardley Norton: A Biography are available at: C. Sitaraman & Co., Royapettah..

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