Sunday, November 25, 2012



This article is about the contiguous areas of Perambur and Choolai, where the industrialisation of the city began and to which North Madras owes its development to a great extent.

Choolai is synonymous with the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills, popularly known as the B&C Mills. The Buckingham Mill Co. was floated in 1876 and went on stream as a spinning unit in 1878 with 300 employees. With the demand for textiles increasing, more weaving capacity was added in 1893. The Carnatic Mills was floated in 1881 and went on stream as a spinning and weaving unit in 1884. Together, they made khaki drill and soon khaki became synonymous with the Company’s name. The mills also had the distinction of running the largest khaki dyeing plant in the world. The companies were amalgamated in 1920 with Binny’s managing the group and its entire workforce of about 14000 workers. The company fell in troubled times by the 1970s, which were compounded by the heavy floods of 1986. It was however kept running under pressure from the government, before being finally closed in 1996. A few bungalows built for the executives of the company still survive.

The oldest mill however built in South India was the Madras United Spinning and Weaving Company Mills or the Choolai Mills as they were popularly known, setup by the famous Bombay financier Seth Mooljee Jetha. Fully Indian owned and managed, the mills manufactured coarse varieties of cloth, being permitted to manufacture only that. A major strike in 1939 and the collapse of a tall chimney after heavy rain around the same time led to the closure of the mills. They were then bought by Sarder Inderjit & Sons of Delhi, who then sold it to M/s Edward Textiles, a Marwari firm based in Mumbai. They thus came to be known as the Edward Mills. The mills however could not be restarted as the government seized the mills in lieu of huge tax arrears by the company and sold the machinery. Today, the Food Corporation of India godowns stand in the place where the mills stood.

It was thanks to the B&C Mills that India’s first organised Labour Union was formed. In 1918, the Madras Labour Union was formed comprising mainly of the workers of the company. At the forefront of the movement were G.Selvapathi Chettiar, T.V.Kalyanasundaram Mudaliar and B.P.Wadia, the famous labour activist. The building in which the labour union was started still stands in a dilapidated state on Strahans road. Selvapathi Chettiar and B.P.Wadia are commemorated in the area by parks named after them.

Sidhalu road is an important thoroughfare in the area. This road commemorates G. Sidloo Chetty, a prominent and affluent businessman who dealt in indigo under the name Sidloo Chetty and Co. He was one of the founding members of the Madras Chamber of Commerce in 1836. His son, Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty was an early Madras activist and was involved in a number of public causes. He was the founder of the Madras Native Association, a body to take up the grievances of the public with the Government and also was the first Indian to own an English newspaper.

The railway connections of Perambur go back to 1856, when the Carriage and Wagon workshops of the Madras and South Mahratta Railway were set up, dealing with BG coaches, wagons and steam locomotives. The locomotive maintenance work was transferred to the Perambur Loco Works which was set up in 1932. Stephenson was responsible for the establishment of the Loco Works and a road named after him exists even today in the area. The Integral Coach Factory (ICF) was established in 1953 with Swiss collaboration. Production started in 1955 and the first indigenous coach was rolled out in 1956. Today, it is the main supplier of coaches to the Indian Railways. The Perambur Railway Museum was founded in 2002 on the premises of ICF and has a rich collection of steam engines and coaches showcasing the heritage of the railways.

Avadhanam Paupiah road in Choolai is named after the colourful dubash, Avadhanam Paupiah. A Brahmin from Nellore, Paupiah began his career as a Sea Customs clerk and was entrusted with the collection of the customs duties. He made optimum use of his employment and amassed a lot of wealth, not always being straight in his dealings. He was greatly aided by the fact that he was a very close confidant of the Holland brothers, Jon and Edward (Jon being Governor of Madras and Edward being the Third Member of the Governor in Council). But his luck ran out with the removal of the Holland brothers from their posts on charges of misappropriation and financial impropriety and he was imprisoned for three years and imposed a fine of 2000 pounds for his misdemeanours by a commission that was constituted to investigate into his activities. He was also charged with forgery in the case of forged bonds of the Nawab of Carnatic. A character in a novel titled “The Soldier’s Daughter” by Sir Walter Scott was modelled on Avadhanam Paupiah.

Amongst the famous education institutions in Perambur are the Jamalia Arabic College and the Railway Mixed Higher Secondary School. The Jamalia Arabic College was started in 1900 by Jamal Mohideen Rowther as a Madrasa and was developed by his son Jamal Mohammad into a college affiliated to the Madras University. This is the only institution in India teaching Arabic and Islamic sciences in Arabic. The Railway Mixed Higher Secondary School was formed in 1891 exclusively for railway employees and had European, Anglo Indian and Indian students.

This article was published in the latest issue of Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly dedicated to the city.

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