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

Vol. XXX No. 23, April 1-15, 2021

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

- Sriram V

From Water Works to the Wayside

The Glenfield valve on Cathedral Road.

It has remained by the wayside for years and passers-by hardly glance at it. I too have driven down Cathedral Road so many times and yet never noticed it earlier. It was only when the lockdown was imposed and walking for exercise became a part of daily routine that I first took the time to investigate as to what it was. For the record, this a solid casting that is firmly grouted to the footpath outside Karunai Kudil, the commercial complex built by the church just next to the Bishop’s House and St. George’s Cathedral. The top portions of this object had clearly been taken away at some time but what is left of it is big enough.

In the dark you may be excused for assuming it to be a crouching hound or pig.

I guessed it had something to do with our water supply for it resembled fluid valves I had seen in industrial establishments. Closer inspection revealed some letters inscribed around the gland of the valve but try as I might, I could not read any of it – no matter whether I went to decipher them in the morning or the evening. Clearly, I had reached that age when stooping low and trying to make out rusted lettering was beyond me. I needed help from younger people. This was when three young lawyers – Kavita Vijay, Ashtawadh Balan and Nidhi Bhaiyya came to my rescue. They promised to get back soon and sure enough, they did. The letters read Glenfield British Patent 405385. We had got somewhere though it was clearly not enough.

A casual search for Glenfield on the internet did not reveal much. This was a company based in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland and in its time an engineering major. It is no longer in operation, at least not in the business of manufacturing water valves. Founded in 1865 as Glenfield Iron Co, it was initially running a foundry and making castings, the owner being a Thomas Kennedy. A sister concern, the Kennedys Patent Water Meter Co, operated from the same site. This was even older, founded as it was in 1852. The two plants were situated on a site spanning eleven acres and employed around 80 or 90 people. In 1899, the two merged and became Glenfield and Kennedy Limited. Business then was booming with Thomas Kennedy Jr, nephew of the founder taking the company to great heights.

One of the reasons for the success was the opening of branches at several parts of the British empire. This was when most cities in the colonies, and even those in Great Britain were investing in water works for piped supply. Glenfield and Kennedy began receiving a number of export orders for their valves. It was evident that one of those pertained to the supply of valves to Madras, and one out of the lot supplied had made its way to Cathedral Road where it still remained, though defunct. I thought I had reached a dead end with that.

Above: The Glenfied-Burn Valve. Picture courtesy: Kilpauk Water Works souvenir 1964. Below: The Recoil Valve. Picture courtesy: gracesguide.co.uk

But there is a God who watches over researchers and sure enough that divine personage had not been idle. Tucked away in a cupboard at home was the Golden Jubilee Souvenir of the Kilpauk Water Works (1964) and I happened to be reading it for my forthcoming book on Madras. Suddenly an advertisement for Glenfield-Burn sluice valves for water works purposes jumped out. The page adjoining it had an article by K.K. Bhattacharyya of Glenfield & Kennedy Limited, Calcutta (oh and how many fond memories that brought back, especially the address – Fairlie House, 4 Fairlie Place). The heading of the article – Our Association with Madras Water Works Since 1885 – told me that I had struck gold (at least what people like me think of as gold).

The company was no stranger to Madras. As early as in 1885, it had supplied a 42” worm gear-operated sluice valve that controlled the water supply from the shaft (a masonry bowl in Kilpauk that stored water from Red Hills) to the city. This was its first order from the city. “With the completion of the water works, the pumping mains and the distribution system, a series of valves has gone in,” continues the article. It lists a bewildering variety – 1-24” spur gear-operated sluice valve controlling main no 1 to North Madras, 1-36” rising spindle type headstock-operated sluice valve on an old pumping main now controlling city mains no 1 and 3, 1-24” ordinary cap type sluice valve controlling main no 3 from the shaft … and so on. I was entering some unknown territory here. Much of what was listed in 1964 may have now been discarded or may be not. Chennai, and especially its municipal departments have a tendency to cling on to old stuff for long and then dump them just when they need to publicise their heritage.

Though I was thrilled that Glenfield and Kennedy had been associated with Chennai’s water supply for 80 years in 1964, I was none the wiser about ‘my’ valve, the one on Cathedral Road. What variety was it? Could it be one of the “several other 14”, 30” and 36” size valves of different operation” that were used “in the city’s water supply system up to 1914, costing Rs 45,516?” There were besides others – electrically and hydraulically operated valves, control valves and venturi meters as well that the company listed in its supply to Madras.

It was back to the internet but now with more information. This time I chanced upon Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, one of those depressing sites that tell you all about how glorious British industry was till the Americans, the Germans, the Japanese, the Taiwanese and the Koreans came along, with of course the Chinese. One of the photographs featured was of the Glenfield Recoil Valve, for difficult reflux conditions (clearly reflux was not something exclusive to digestion, water works also had them).

From a visual point of view, the valve on Cathedral Road seems closest to the recoil variety. But the patent number, namely 405385 seemed to be of an earlier vintage for a GB Patent No 405385A, awarded to the same company for a valve that eliminated air locks in water mains, dated to 1932. Which means 405385 must have been older. It was Meenakshisundaram Natarajan, who is a walking encyclopaedia on Madras water works history that filled me in – it is an air release valve, in keeping with the patent number. The Cathedral waterline he informs was main no 5.

The valve on Cathedral Road must be nearing 90 years and more if it predates 1932. I hope the CMWSSB takes care of it and shifts it to the proposed museum of water in the Kilpauk Water Works premises. Leaving it around on Cathedral Road where it can be knocked by any rogue vehicle or, worse, be uprooted and sold for scrap is certainly not advisable. There were other pieces of control equipment at Kelly’s Junction and near the Perambur Underpass, located within their masonry structures, all of which have vanished. Similarly, a huge cast iron pipe used to emerge as and when the tar on the road to Mandaveli Market weakened. This too has gone. I sincerely hope ‘my’ valve, or to be fair, the Kavita-Ashtawadh-Nidhi valve is cared for. It deserves to be.

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