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

Vol. XXXIII No. 4, June 1-15, 2023

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

-- by Sriram V

From Traffic Commissioner to Police Commissioner’s Office

The Police Commissioner’s Office Road may be in Egmore but the official himself now sits in a custom-made multi-storey building located in Vepery. While the story of old Commissioner’s Office is well documented (for the latest read MM, Vol XXXI, No 4, June 1 to 16, 2021), what is not is the history of the Vepery premises, which is equally interesting. This article traces that past.

While the history of the Madras (now Tamil Nadu) Police is traced from 1856, the institution of Volunteer Guards began in 1857. That was mainly a body of Englishmen and Anglo Indians put together for the defence of the community in case a situation like the Sepoy Mutiny were to happen in the City. The Madras Volunteer Guards had a long history – this in 1917 became the 2nd Madras Group Garrison Artillery. In 1920 it transformed into the II (Madras) Field Brigade and was known as the Duke’s Own, after the Duke of Connaught’s visit that year. In 1933 it became the No 3, Madras Field Battery, the Duke’s Own. In 1941 this became the Madras Coast Battery (RA) and is today Coastal Battery under the Navy, in Royapuram. While the functional aspect of the body still remains, gone is the ceremonial, which was chiefly its function late in the 19th century when all threat to British rule seemed over. The MVG turned out for drills, ceremonial parades and also to form guards of honour when dignitaries arrived in the city.

The MVG, in keeping with all institutions with a British origin, soon required a club or centre for its members. This initially drifted from place to place – it was in a place called Rutter’s Hall in Broadway shortly after the MVG was formed. Then it moved to Dobbin’s Hall, Vepery, on which site now stands the Tamil Nadu University for Veterinary Sciences. It shifted to a place called Drill Hall in Chepauk and then in 1904, it moved back to Vepery, to a stately building known as Stowe Hall. HD Love in his Vestiges of Old Madras notes that in a survey of the 1790s, this house was marked as the property of a Cotton Bowerbank Dent, an East India Company servant. Love also gives us the location to a T – next to the Gun Carriage Works (old Naval Hospital premises) and facing the St. Andrew’s Kirk. A note on the history of the MVG exulted on the suitability of the premises – “its central position, its accessibility to trams and two Railways, its extensive compound for drill purposes, increases its utility, and renders it an institution any corps, ­British or Volunteer, may indeed be proud of.”

The house, with the land on which it stood, was acquired for Rs 45,000 by the MVG. The regiment was delighted with its new premises. It gives us an idea of the city in the late 1890s that the members of the unit celebrated the return of their club to the ‘city centre’ which by implication means that Chepauk then was considered an outlying district.

Sir Charles B. Cunningham with police personnel at the inauguration of the Central Traffic Station (later Office of the Assistant Commissioner Traffic), 1929 (courtesy: TN Police Archives).

It was Police Commissioner and later Inspector General Charles Banks Cunningham who in 1928 first mooted the idea of a separate police department to monitor traffic in the city. With the formation of the office of the Assistant Commissioner of Police (Traffic), the search for a suitable premises for that office began.

A Traffic Constable watches children learning road rules at the Traffic Park (courtesy TN Police Archives).

The Madras Voluntary Guards Institute building, at the intersection of Poonamallee High and Atkinsons Roads in Vepery was acquired by the police in 1934 for a sum of Rs 1.17 lakhs to house its traffic department. That remained the office of the Assistant (later Deputy) Commissioner Traffic and known as the Traffic Office, for years. Fronting it was a beautiful traffic park which came up in 1964, courtesy Burmah Shell, which helped children learn traffic rules. It was also here that several generations of Madras went, to obtain car and two-wheeler licences.

Historic Stowe Hall, photographed just before demolition in the early 2000s (courtesy: TN Police Archives).

Stowe Hall turned Traffic Commissioner’s Office remained a stately building for decades though it suffered greatly from want of maintenance. Such buildings however do not crumble and it stayed on for long. With the continued demand for space and the need for a modern Commissionerate for the city police becoming urgent in the early 2000s, it became clear that the Vepery premises would soon have to give way to high rise. On October 12, 2013, a new 10-storey building with all modern facilities housing the office of the Greater Chennai Police Commissioner at Vepery was inaugurated. The high-rise had come up in an area of 1,73,000 sqft on the 5.49 acre site at Vepery, which had once housed the Deputy Commissioner (Traffic) Office. The building had been constructed at a cost of `Rs 25.46 crore.

The Traffic Park

Beginning with the 1960s, the TN police began calling for traffic safety becoming a part of school curriculum. To aid in this, Madras City was gifted a traffic park on Poonamallee High Road by the multinational Burmah Shell. It was part of a campaign that the oil-based company was spearheading across the whole of India and the city’s traffic park came up just outside the Traffic Commissioner’s Office in Vepery. It was inaugurated on January 18, 1965 by the acting Governor of Tamil Nadu, P. Chandra Reddy, Chief Justice of Madras. The park had miniature roads, light signals, service stations, miniature pedal cars, tricycles and smaller bicycles to inculcate road sense in children. Competitions were held each year at the site and prizes were also given. A similar park was also planned in Madurai though it is not clear if that ever became reality.

The Madras Traffic Park became greatly neglected in the 1980s and then, when the new Commissionerate of Police for the city was built on the Vepery campus, was swallowed up in the development. But the idea persisted and made a comeback.

In 1999, Trichy got its version of it, funded by the State Transport Corporation, spread over 1.25 acres. This suffered from neglect and the police took a hand in its management, roping in CSR funds from well-known vehicle manufacturers. In 2018, the refurbished park was launched once again.

Chennai city now has two traffic parks, the first run by the Tamil Nadu Science and Technology Centre and located in Guindy. The second, developed by the Greater Chennai Corporation came up in 2019 behind the Anna Memorial on the beach at a cost of Rs 2.06 crores. It was made mandatory for Safety Clubs in all schools to visit the place. In recent years, Coimbatore has one too.

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