Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXIII No. 14, November 1-15, 2023
Over the years one of the abiding wonders of Chennai that was Madras concerns the story of what was once known as Narimedu aka Hogghill. This is a fact that is repeatedly trotted out – the space being a high mound near or exactly where the Central Station stood, it being cited as a security threat to Fort St George, Stephen Popham asking for it to be flattened and then when it happened cleverly making sure the debris was used to raise the level of the ditch he owned in New Black Town which became Broadway, with the mud foundations of the area giving rise to the name Mannady. All of that is well recorded and is an indisputable fact. But what exactly do we known of Narimedu itself? Hardly anything. And was Popham so central to the story? This article tries to piece together what records we have of the place over the centuries.
As is usual, we turn to HD Love and his Vestiges of Old Madras for enlightenment. And we come up with some interesting facts. Firstly, the place was known as Naarimedu and not Narimedu. This is made clear from the land grant that the Raya gave the East India Company to enable it to begin operations here. Love says that the translator of the document points out that this means jackals’ mound, and that in Telugu naari means jackal. That may not be true as the word is Nakka in Telugu and in Tamil and Kannada it is not naari but nari. If that by itself is not intriguing enough, Love’s next observation makes it even more mysterious. He says that exact location of Narimedu (for the purposes of this article we will refer to it as that) has never been conclusively established! If it was so even in the 19th century when Love was making his researches, it will be impossible now.
Love merely states that the highest point on the northern bank of the Elambore River was later known as Hogghill and that there “is reason for surmising that Narimedu occupied a position near the present General Hospital.” He however does not elaborate on why he considers the two places to be the same. What however is truly a revelation from Love’s researches is that Narimedu was considered important enough to deserve mention independent of Madras in the Raya’s land grant. This additional privilege was later confirmed by Nawab Neknam Khan in 1672 and the extract is relevant – “The English shall enjoy from this day forward the same ancient privileges as well as of the Ground belonging to the place called Madrassapatam as Narimedo.” It is amazing that such an important place should have vanished without trace within a space of 200 years, assuming Love began his researches in the 1880s.
Thereafter there is no mention of Narimedu but plenty about Hogghill, which name and place we now assume to be synonymous with the former. The area came back into the limelight in the 1750s, post the French occupation of Madras and its consequent return to the British. By this time, we can see from records that the high ground on the northern bank of the Elambore (now the Ordnance Lines, Evening Bazaar Road and the Park Town Post Office) was occupied by the Company’s hospital, precursor to the present GH, and apart from it “hospitals for the squadrons, the King’s Regiment, and houses belonging to the Capuchins, Mrs Madeiros and Captain Eckman”. Love notes with some amazement that even in his time, this space, was as level as a bowling green with not a trace of any high ground. At the same time, he says that in the 18th century this was considered high enough to be a potential site for a new Fort St George(FSG) should the existing one be washed away by the sea.
But by 1757, with the security of FSG becoming paramount, Captain Brohier identified that the hospital and houses on the north bank were disadvantageous to the security of the fort and had to be demolished. Orders were given at once and this was carried out, the hospital now shifting across the river (the space of this waterway is now occupied by the beginning of Poonamallee High Road) to its present location. MMC would come up by its side later. Love also records that a part of the high ground was cut away immediately thereafter. This in effect shows that the levelling of Hogghill had commenced even in the 1750s and that Popham was only bringing it to a conclusion a few decades later. It also makes it clear that the Central Station does not stand on Hog Hill land as is often claimed.
Ten years later, the remaining part of Hogghill rather ironically came into use as a security measure – Hyder Ali invaded the Carnatic and came dangerously close to FSG. The EIC posted a picket at Hogghill, it’s elevation being found useful to monitor enemy movement.
In 1781, Hogghill was back in the news. It evidently still had some houses on it and fresh notice was taken of their being a security threat. Majors Steven and Maule represented about this and from the correspondence we learn that even two years prior, that is in 1779, the President, Sir Thomas Rumbold, acting on the recommendation of the Chief Engineer, ordered a survey of the area. Major Maule estimated that some 214,000 cubic yards of sand would have to be removed, and dumped into the sea at a cost of 41,000 pagodas. The houses, it was estimated, were worth 186,940 pagodas and compensation of that value would have to be paid to the owners. But as is common in our city even now, not even half the possessors of the land could furnish clear title deeds and so the Government saved itself some money!
It is at this time that Stephen Popham enters the story. He had by this time interesting himself in matters concerning the security of the city and been corresponding with the Government on it. Now in 1780, with the area once again being threatened by Hyder Ali, he wrote to the Government a letter, with a request that it be included in the minutes of consultation of the Council. In it he entreated that the levelling of Hog Hill (the spelling had changed by then to this) ought to be considered an urgency and ought not to wait for niceties such as approval from England and compensation for owners. In an earthy idiom he said that the “Colour of the Law ought not to put the son of some Modern Chitty in legal possession of some important Outwork,” and that the Government as in the case of martial law when it came to security threats, ought to just takeover all the land. This was still being considered when Sir Thomas Rumbold resigned and Hyder Ali, in what was to be labelled as the second Anglo-Mysore war, once again threatened Madras. Sir Eyre Coote was summoned for the defence and he declared that no one can be answerable for the protection of Madras unless the houses on Hog Hill be levelled and the high ground removed.
A battery of interested parties immediately sent in proposals and each of these pressed for theirs to be considered. What is significant is that Popham is not in the list of tendering parties. The names are Hall Plumer, successor to Paul Benfield as contractor, William Turing, Deputy Military Paymaster and Philip Stowey, architect. There was considerable squabbling among the bidders and eventually it was Hall Plumer’s offer that was accepted. The residents of the area opposed their eviction but as is usual in such instances, they stood no chance. Rumours were now rife about the arrival of a French fleet from Pondicherry in support of Hyder Ali and Sir Eyre Coote was pressing hard for the demolition. Legal opinion was sought from Benjamin Sullivan, Attorney General, and he was clear – given the circumstances, the President had the powers to evict the occupants. This was done, and by January 1781, the Council was informing the Company in England that work was underway to flatten the high ground. In May, 4,000 coolies were still at work and by October 1781, Plumer was reporting that the work was done. A small portion was left from where soil was to be transported to Mr Popham’s ground, the rest being filled in at Mannady Street (we got one fact right from all of this) and the remaining on land that the Company acquired from Mrs Casamaijor for this purpose. It is clear that the soil from Hog Hill did not all make its way to Popham’s land and that the Government was an active party in identifying sites for the disposal of the soil. From the fact that Popham’s portion is referred to as ‘small’ it is clear he was at best a peripheral player to the story. How he emerged as the hero in later years is something of a mystery. But that it was his land that became Broadway which acquired the highest profile among the areas benefiting from the Hog Hill soil is also indisputable.
The threatened invasion of Hyder Ali did not have its feared consequences and he himself died soon thereafter. The histories of the third and fourth Anglo Mysore wars are well known. The French fleet never came. But Hog Hill was flattened. Popham made his money selling Broadway. Plumer made money on his contract. The erstwhile residents of Hog Hill got land elsewhere. The eventually affected parties had nothing to do with all this as we shall see.
For compensating those evicted from Hog Hill the Government began scouting for land. There were many offers from owners of real estate in Black Town. These were commercial in nature. The Government neatly sidestepped the issue by targeting those who were powerless and voiceless. Around four hundred lots of land in the Great Parcheri around the Portuguese Church were acquired and 600 lots in other parts of Black Town. These were spaces occupied by the so-called Outcastes. According to Love, the Chief Engineer considered that the Pariahs so affected may be “relegated to Kistnama’s Ground,” whose whereabouts we do not know. They were clearly dispossessed of what they had probably on grounds of no title. This speculation however is mine but if we read this in the context of what happens at present in the name of slum clearance we realise hardly anything changes when it comes to the marginalised.