Popham the Improver

Peter Popham's 18th-century ancestor had a dream: to transform the squalid 'Black Town' of old Madras into a model Georgian suburb. Today he is virtually forgotten, but some traces of his grand works remain

Peter Popham
Friday 05 June 1998 23:02

In old Madras, the earliest British settlement in India, there is a street called Popham's Broadway. It is not so named merely for euphony, nor was the title drawn out of a municipal hat. It's called Popham's Broadway because Popham - my distant relative, Great (x 6) Uncle Stephen - built it. So when I found myself in Madras recently, I decided to take a look.

Popham's Broadway is no longer a very nice street: once it was broad; now it is only a way. It is choked with vans and lorries and bicycle rickshaws and bullock carts, with all of which you must share the road, and the pavements have reverted to their rustic role as lavatories. With all the grime, it is busy and prosperous - more prosperous than it appears. According to the city's historian, S Muthiah, the Gujarati traders, with their tiny shops selling bicycles and spectacles and builders' materials and office furniture, go upstairs after hours to surprisingly luxurious homes.

Far worse for my purposes than the grime and excrement, it is no longer Popham's Broadway. Like many streets in modern Madras, officially known as Chennai, it's not sure what it should be called. The one thing that's clear is that Popham is out of the picture. The signs on the shopfronts agree on "Broadway". A sign at the north end, by the dignified 18th-century former prison, suggests "Broadway Road". Opposite, a sign stencilled in yellow on a large lump of concrete says, au contraire, "Prakasam Road" - Mr Prakasam having been a lawyer and radical journalist in the city in the 1920s. There is a trend all over India to replace imperialists' names with those of freedom fighters. Now Popham doesn't get a look in except on city maps, and even there he is confined between brackets.

Elsewhere in the city, too, I find that the name Popham rings no bells at all. At Congress Party headquarters, applying for a press pass, I become Popjam. A hotel receipt re-creates me as Popman. At Giggles' wonderful and chaotic bookshop I metamorphose into Poplin. Stay here too long and I will end up a Poojam, a Poompahar, a Poppat, a Poppadum.

But Popham was here. He died here in 1795 at the early age of 53, killed not by plague or cholera or influenza but by falling from his curricle. I picture him, groaning in mortal agony, rushed by his servants through the lanes of Black Town, the formerly noxious slum that he rebuilt into a model Georgian suburb, to his handsome villa to die; a villa designed (and here I'm guessing) by John Goldingham, his prospective son-in-law, the East India Company's astronomer and engineer, who several years later built a fabulous banqueting hall here (it's still standing) for the second Lord Clive.

Popham had arrived in the city nearly 20 years before, in 1778. Today, of course, you arrive by plane: palm trees, a great sprawl of houses interspersed with green panes of water, a segment of the Bay of Bengal - then the airport, the black-and-yellow Ambassador taxis, the cows shambling in the streets, billboards depicting the city's gangsterish politicians like Bollywood stars in wraparound sunglasses or draped in jewels.

Arriving in Madras in the 18th century was alarming and extraordinary. The city, although utterly dependent on trade, had no harbour, only a sandy beach. Prints in the Fort George Museum capture the experience: as the waves smash on the sand and a black mother suckling her baby looks on, pink creatures in crinoline: huddling under parasols are carted in chairs from ship to shore by bare-chested peons. Months of boredom, fear and confinement on board end with dramatic simplicity - and a sensation of homecoming. "By the late 18th century, Madras was a fine sight," Jan Morris writes in Stones of Empire. "... Fort St George, its original nucleus, had developed into a handsome group of classical structures, moated and ramparted, with the tall colonnaded front of the administrative building proud above its walls, and the church and barracks all around."

What lay beyond that fine composition, of course, she doesn't mention; but then neither would the newly arrived Englishman's eyes have lingered on what must have been an enormous, formless sprawl of native thatched huts outside little England. The fort might have housed a few hundred administrators, soldiers and merchants; but by 1790, the city's total population was already around 300,000.

Stephen Popham made his way through the spume to the city it was his destiny to transform. His family, my family, finding themselves on the wrong side at the Restoration, had fled to Ireland; Stephen's great uncle was born during the sea crossing and was christened with the gloomy name of Ichabod - "the glory has departed". Born and raised in Cork, Stephen was one of a generation of brothers who succeeded in clawing their way back to fame and fortune via the colonies. His elder brother, William, became a general in the Bengal Army and captured Gwalior with the support of Warren Hastings. A much younger brother ended up as Sir Home, a rear- admiral, celebrated for sailing across the Atlantic and seizing Buenos Aires on his own initiative (he was court-martialled).

Stephen, however, was merely a lawyer. He had been MP for County Mayo at Westminster, but seems to have decided that if he was going to make serious money he would have to go elsewhere. He went first to Calcutta and worked in the advocate-general's office there. Then almost exactly 220 years ago he arrived in Madras on board the Bessborough as secretary to Sir John Day, advocate-general of Bengal, to assist in an official inquiry.

He got off to a bad start when he had a violent argument with Day, his patron. As a result, perhaps, he decided to remain in Madras and try his luck there. Within six months, he had come up with the scheme that was to occupy him for the rest of his life.

Madras in those days was divided, with 18th-century frankness, into White Town, consisting of the fort and the English buildings within it, and Black Town to the north, the native quarter where also lived the merchants of various races, including Jews and Armenians, who had come to Madras to trade. White Town, unless the old lithographs lie, was clean, classical, orderly and English, a fragment of Bath or Cheltenham set down in the subcontinent. Black Town, by contrast, was a mess: although dotted with the villas of merchants and company people who could not get quarters in White Town, it was marshy, squalid, and without proper drainage or streets.

The house Popham moved into overlooked a typical patch of Black Town wasteground, "which has continued," Popham wrote, "time out of mind an unwholesome Nuisance to the Neighbourhood". Company policy was not to sell land to Englishmen but to yield it only to natives, in compensation for earlier confiscations. Popham now persuaded an Indian, to whom the company owed a large parcel of land, to sell him his claim; and after several tries, persuaded the company to let him have the land opposite his house for a price of 3,000 pagodas (about pounds 1,000), on condition that he raised its level and dug a drainage canal. When another patch of land to the south became available, Popham snapped that up, too (price, Pags 7,550). By August 1780, he found himself the master of a strip of evil-smelling coastal bog more than a mile long.

He set about reclaiming it with stupendous energy. He must have cut a figure of comical desperation, flogging himself on through the terrible heat and humidity of the monsoon. A Mrs Feay wrote to a friend in England in 1780: "We are at present with Mr and Mrs Popham from whom we have received every possible civility... Mr Popham is one of the most eccentric beings I have ever met with. Poor man! He is a perpetual projector, a race whose exertions have frequently benefited society, but seldom, I believe, been productive of much advantage to themselves or their families. He is at present laying plans for building what is called Black Town to a great extent, and confidently expects to realise an immense fortune."

Having purchased the land that was to become Popham's Broadway and started developing it, Stephen now turned his sights towards transforming the entire city. On January 12, 1782, he submitted "Popham's Plan" to the authorities. His first target was the subject that even today bothers Westerners in India more than anything else. "There are no regular Drains to carry off Water, or any well, Sewer, or other provision made to carry off the Ordure, &c, of each House," he pointed out. "The Consequence is that ... the Digestion of the day is thrown on the first Rubbish Spot where the Menial Servants can empty it with Impunity."

Yet such a disgusting state of affairs could easily be remedied. "I was no sooner settled in my former House than I had one Well sunk for the reception of all waste water," he wrote smugly. "The consequence is that there is no Puddle to be seen in the Street near that House, and the Votaries of Cloacina make their offerings in a Temple of wholesome sweetness."

So delighted was Popham by his own example that he now proposed that the whole of Madras should likewise instal drains "at their private Expence". But that was only the beginning. Now a vision of the whole sprawling, disorderly, insanitary metropolis transformed into something sweet and rational quickened under his pen. The roads with their "holes of Considerable depth" would be repaired and broadened; a police force would be created, sales of Arrack and Spirituous Liquors licensed, street lights - a staggeringly advanced notion for the time - provided every 10 houses. Everything would be listed, regulated, checked up on: "Every street should be named, its name marked in English and the Country Languages; its Inhabitants registered with their Trades, &c ... Every Birth and Burial to be noticed in a Book ... with an Account of the arrival and departure of Strangers..."

It must have seemed startlingly modern, this scheme to drag the native town up to the latest European levels of civilisation; but the beauty of it for its author was that, thanks to his foresight in acquiring such a strategically located strip of land, its development would also be immensely profitable. At the heart of the Plan was a central market, which would enable the authorities to regulate prices and tax the merchants. And the best location for the market was obvious - to Popham at least. The scheme, he insisted, was neither better nor worse for himself being "the Proprietor of that Central Spot of Ground which must be the Scite of the Public Market..."

There were loud grumblings from his more cynical compatriots, but Popham was well connected, having been private secretary to the Governor as well as the company's solicitor. Finally, in November 1786, the plan was approved. Popham himself was appointed secretary to the Committee of Regulation, and all the would-be stallholders were instructed to bring him the details of "such Shops, Sheds, Stalls or Godowns [warehouses] as they shall have occasion to occupy". He also had a say in fixing their rents. One can picture him, bustling about, lecturing the traders on sanitation and redesigning their godowns, all the time keeping a beady eye on the bottom line.

After this triumph, Popham rather disappears from view. By early 1789, he is reporting that the market is on the verge of completion. But by now he is already absorbed by other worthy projects. In 1790, we find him raising silkworms, a new fad in the colony. In the same year, the government banned the trade in slaves: and when a cargo of children bound for slavery was found anchored off Madras, and they were freed and brought ashore, Popham, pagoda signs gleaming in his kindly eyes, leapt into the breech: he offered to clothe and feed the children from his own resources - then put them to work in his cotton plantation south of the city.

Stephen Popham died only five years later, but his initiatives prospered: his Broadway, its 18th-century origins evident only in the handsome former jail, now a girls' college, at the top end, remained Madras's main shopping street throughout the 19th century, gradually getting narrower. The market stayed where it was until 1865, when more space was found for it elsewhere.

Now what used to be the market is a public park, called Loane Square. More accurately, it is a public lavatory masquerading as a park, and a startling testimonial to the failure of Stephen Popham's most basic idea - sanitation - to take root. "A Step Towards Beautiful Madras" reads the sign in the park, erected by the city's Environmental Society, but the sign itself is so smeared with filth as to be almost illegible, and the park is so disgusting that one hesitates to set foot in it. The Hindu pantheon has many deities, but an equivalent of Stephen Popham's Cloacina - goddess of shit - worshipped "in temples of wholesome sweetness" is not among them

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