THE British founded the modern city of Madras within Fort St. George in 1639. Shortly later, they needed local workers— clerks, accountants, interpreters or translators, watchmen, merchants, weavers and dyers-- to sustain their new and growing settlement within the Fort. In order to provide housing for these workers, George Town, originally called ‘Black Town’, was established immediately to the north of the Fort and included the area now occupied by the High Court. In the mid-1700s, the French attacked the city and destroyed this ‘Black Town’. When the British regained control of the area, they shifted the ‘Black Town’ further north, to ensure the safety of the Fort in case the area was again attacked by the French or some other power.
The English laid out the broad Esplanade, now called the NSC Bose Road, and the new ‘Black Town’ evolved north of it. This settlement consisted of two broad divisions— Muthialpet in the east, occupied by artisans, cobblers and other small traders and Peddanaickenpet in the west, inhabited by landowners and other affluent persons, many of them working within Fort St. George. From around 1912, the area came to be called George Town after George V, the then Emperor of India.
Hailed as the first planned native settlement of British Madras, George Town now occupies an area of around 5.5 sq km. It is bound by the Old Jail Road in the north, the Wall Tax Road (now VOC Road) in the west, the General Hospital Road in the south and the Bay of Bengal in the east.
One of the most densely packed localities of the city, George Town is a unique amalgam of residential and commercial spaces, the two often seamlessly merging with each other, with the business units in the ground floor and the residences in the upper floors of the buildings.
The interesting names of some of the streets of George Town reflect the cosmopolitan character of the area and the varied businesses that thrive here.
The Jews and Armenians are remembered in Coral Merchant Street and Armenian Street. The Saurashtrian business families from Gujarat in western India settled west of the Mint Street in the area now called Sowcarpet. Moor Street is named after the area’s Muslim residents who were also called Moors. Many of the streets are famous for their bustling wholesale markets and restaurants and sweet shops.
Some of modern India’s earliest commercial establishments like the Binny, the Parry and the Arbuthnot were founded in George Town. Again, some of the country’s modern banks began their operations in this area. The place is also known for its educational institutions including the Law College next to the High Court. The Chenna Kesava and Chenna Malleswarar temples, the Anderson Church and the Armenian Church are among the most popular places of worship in George Town.
The major problems confronting George Town are the unmanageable crowds and traffic congestion. The narrow streets of the area simply cannot cope up with the ever-increasing pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Hence, in recent decades, some of these streets have been made ‘one-way’.
Ideally, vehicular traffic should be totally banned in at ,least some of the very small streets. Simultaneously, the owners of the old buildings here should be encouraged to conserve their properties that have immense historical and architectural value.
This will help in George Town emerging as an attractive tourist destination like the more well-known and cleaner George Town in Washington D.C.
—The author is a well-known archaeologist and Tamil Nadu state Convener, INTACH.