Sunday, November 11, 2012
INCIDENTS THAT SHOOK MADRAS - 1: THE PEOPLE'S PARK FIRE
The People's Park, thrown open to the public in 1859 was the brain child of Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was the Governor of Madras between 1858/59 and 1860. The park was 116 acres in size and its splendid garden space, with ornamental palms and ponds, well laid-out walks and flower beds, created in its entirety the largest green lung in the city. It had 11 ponds, 5 ½ miles of road and walkways, a bandstand, a public path and two tennis courts. The Madras zoo, founded in 1855 in the Museum premises moved to the People's Park in 1863 and remained there for more than century, before shifting to Vandalur in 1985. Other landmarks that later came up on the grounds of the People's Park were the Victoria Public Hall in 1887, the Moore Market in 1898 and the South Indian Athletic Association in 1902.
The Park held its first Fair in December 1878.It was managed by a committee of Municipal Commissioners and commenced on 30th December 1878. The Administration Report of the Madras Municipality for 1878 states that the Park was decorated with flags and arches ornamented with transparencies were erected at the entrances. Several booths were erected for shows and performances of various kinds and for the sale of refreshments and fancy articles. Bands from various parts of the Presidency participated in the fair, making it a gala affair. On the evening of 1st January 1879, an estimated audience of 20,000 people turned up to watch a fine display of fireworks sponsored by Cunniah Chetty. The success of the event meant that the Fair became an annual affair, being held in the last week of December and first week of January every year.
The year 1887 marked the Golden Jubilee of the reign of Queen Victoria. A series of celebrations were planned across the country to commemorate the occasion. Madras Presidency was no different and plans were afoot to celebrate the occasion in a grand manner. Keeping in view the significance of the year and the wishes of the donor who funded its construction, the Town Hall for Madras, which was inaugurated later that year, was named Victoria Public Hall. It was therefore only natural that leading up to the celebrations, the 1886 Fair of the People's Park was dedicated to Queen Victoria and was to be celebrated on a large scale, extending to six days. But what transpired instead was a nightmare.
The fair, which commenced in the last week of December 1886, took place in the band stand enclosure of the park which was filled with booths made of wood and cadjan roofs. There were four entrances to the enclosure and entrance regulated by admission fees. On New Year's Eve, there were around 6000 people inside the band stand. In attendance were the Commander In Chief, Lady Arbuthnot and the Prince of Travancore besides other dignitaries. At around 6 PM, a booth on one side of the enclosure caught fire and simultaneously, a booth directly opposite was also up in flames. Needless to say, panic set in and the people rushed to the four entrances, where they were met by the crowd coming in, caught unawares by the fire. Two entrances were completely jammed and there was a stampede. The fire darted from point to point and soon the casualties began to mount. An estimate early next morning was to reveal a figure of around 250 dead bodies. Around fifteen of them whose clothes were engulfed by the fire plunged into the tank close by and drowned. The fire engines kept in readiness were pressed into action in less than half an hour from the outbreak of the fire, but water was scarce, even for the purpose of alleviating the thirst of the injured.
The public jumped into action to rescue as many people as possible and succeeded in saving many lives. They were aided in the rescue operation by the police, soldiers and the many European visitors. The bodies were sorted quickly and those who had life left were carried to the General Hospital across the road where the apothecaries, C.Trustwin, Hellein, Judge, Guruswami, Kenny, Pope and Harris aided by a large body of medical students worked through the night to alleviate the sufferings of the victims. The cotton mattresses in the hospital were ripped open to supply dressing for the wounds and the chemists across the city sent in all the oil they had in store, which was promptly converted by the gallon into carron oil. Many doctors of the city rushed to the General Hospital to help in the operations. The large crowd that had gathered at the hospital also chipped in with their mite. In all, it was a tremendous show of humanity and public spirit that helped deal with the crisis.
Messages of condolence and grief were received from the Queen and the Viceroy. An appeal was put up by Rajah Sir Savalai Ramaswamy Mudaliar, who was then the Sherriff of Madras to collect funds and form a committee to provide assistance to the affected. There were some like Dr.William Muller, the Principal of the Madras Christian College who was present on the scene, that the fire seemed to be the handiwork of miscreants.
The New Year thus opened on a sombre note, with affected families grieving the the loss of their loved ones. The bodies of those burnt beyond recognition were buried at midday after a formal inquiry by Mr.Norton, the coroner. The only evidence taken was that of a police inspector, Abdul Salam, who was present at the scene of the fire. The jury returned a verdict of death by suffocation and burning and suggested that the coroner send the government a list of people who had volunteered their services in the rescue work. At the St.George’s Cathedral, the Archbishop delivered a solemn sermon where he referred to the fire and its results as an example of the uncertainty of life. Mendelssohn’s funeral march was played at the end of the service as the entire city mourned its dead.
The Commander In Chief, who was in the enclosure when the fire broke out, visited the scene of fire in the morning. Later in the day, the Governor of Madras, Sir Robert Fowler and several members of the Council also visited the fire. They also visited those being treated at the General Hospital and offered their sympathy.
The Prince of Travancore had a narrow escape, as he was carried away by his Jamedar on his shoulders and pushed out of the booth. The Jamedar in the process was thrown to the ground as his sword hilt was caught in the scaffolding near the gateway. He suffered burns on his head and face and was amongst those who were admitted to the General Hospital.
A thorough investigation was undertaken by the police to ascertain the origin of the fire. They concluded that it was a pure accident and that no handiwork of miscreants could be detected. The fire had lasted for less than 15 minutes but by which time twenty six booths were burnt. Most of the casualties were the result of sheer panic. It was also found that most of the grass plot in the enclosure had been untouched and the ornamental flowers and shrubs had not even singed, which meant that a lot of room was available for the people to avoid the fire as it darted from point to point, and that a bit of control would have saved a lot of lives. The total casualty was reported to be 402 dead.
The resilience of the city was on full display as the celebrations of the Golden Jubilee were held on a grand scale in February, just a month after the great disaster. The incident also did not seem to have deterred the orgnaisers from continuing to hold the Fair, as it was an event that was continued to be held right up to the 1970s.