Remembering Madras

WE PARKED OUR CAR next to Petyt Place close to Chelsea Old Church and the Chelsea Embankment on the River Thames. Our aim was to cross the river to take a stroll in Battersea Park, but before we had gone a few yards, we came across a granite Victorian drinking fountain, which turns out to have connections with India.

BLOG Sparkes

The structure was designed by the architect Charles Barrie (Junior) who lived from 1823 until 1900. He is responsible for many buildings in London and the south-east of England. His father Charles (Senior) was the architect of the Houses of Parliament, which were rebuilt between 1840 and 1876.

The drinking fountain was erected by the widow of George Sparkes of Bromley (Kent), who died in 1878 during his 68th year. Sparkes had been in Madras (now Chennai) in southern India. Seeing this sparked my interest and inspired me to find out more about the man in whose memory it had been constructed.

George Sparkes (1811-1878) was the oldest of the six children of George Sparkes and his wife Ann Alice Wiple.  He was educated at Eton. His great grandfather was John Cator (Senior). George spent his younger years in the Madras Civil Service possibly in association with his relative Peter Cator. The latter, who served as a barrister and Registrar to the Supreme Court in Madras, was involved in education in India and published a book, “Christian Education in India: Why Should English be Excluded?”, in 1858. According to an issue of “Asian Intelligence” dated 1835, Peter donated 10,000 rupees to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in Asia.

Like his relative Peter, George was part of the legal system of the East India Company. He had been a judge.  A book, “The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and Its Dependencies, Volume 16”, records that in April 1835, George was appointed ‘assistant judge and joint criminal judge of Malabar’. Malabar, being on the west coast of southern India. Earlier that year he had been appointed ‘registrar of zillah court of Malabar’, a zillah being a subdivision of a British Indian province. The same volume states that George landed in India on the 17th September 1834 having sailed from London on a vessel named ‘Arab’. Just in case you are wondering what the Malabar coast had to do with Madras on the other side of India, let me explain that during the existence of the East India Company, part of the Malabar was under the jurisdiction of Madras.

By 1846, George had returned to his native place, Bromley in Kent. That year, he published “An Easy Introduction to Chemistry”. Its publication was noted in the ‘Books Received’ column of the ‘Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal’ dated 14th of October 1946. Clearly, Sparkes had versatile mind.  Sadly, a review published in “The Chemical Gazette, Or, Journal of Practical Chemistry, in All Its Applications to Pharmacy, Arts and Manufactures” was critical of it, stating that it contained a number of mistakes and had failed to keep up to date with the latest developments in the subject.

By 1851, George, living in Bromley where today stand Bromley’s Central Library and Churchill Theatre, had become Director of the ‘Reversionary Society’. This might have been The Reversionary Interest Society Ltd, which dealt with reversionary interest connected with trust funds.

In the 1850s, George bought number 16 High Street in Bromley. He renamed it ‘Neelgherrries’, his spelling of the Nilgiris, hills in Tamil Nadu to which he would have retreated to escape the heat of Madras in the hot seasons. The author of a website, londongardenstrust.org, wrote:

“Contemporary photographs of Nilgiris in the 19th century show an Indian landscape very similar to the uninterrupted views that Sparkes enjoyed from his house in Bromley.”

Sparkes was a keen gardener and in 1872 he wrote to Charles Darwin, who lived nearby, to discuss the results of his experiments in crossing primula plants. By then, he had been married to his second wife Emily Carpenter (1819-1900), his housekeeper, for seven years. On his death, he left Emily the considerable sum of £140,000 and his house, Neelgherries. She remarried a Mr Dowling, but the union was not a great success. It was Emily who was responsible for commissioning the drinking fountain on Chelsea Embankment. When Emily died in 1900, she:

“… left Neelgherries and grounds to the town of Bromley for ‘education and learning’, in accordance   with George Sparkes’s wishes. In 1906 the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated £7,500 for a new library in Bromley and this was erected on the site of Neelgherries. The gardens became the pleasure grounds, these were the first Bromley Library Gardens…”

Had it not been for Emily’s decision to provide Chelsea with a public drinking fountain, George Sparkes would most likely have been completely forgotten outside Bromley. I suspect that most people walk past this memorial to an erstwhile Civil Servant of India and textbook writer without giving it a thought. I have done so several times in the past but am glad that I stopped to examine it today.

 

SOURCES INCLUDE:

http://www.beckenhamplaceparkfriends.org.uk/catorsbyPManning.pdf

https://londongardenstrust.org/features/bromleylib.htm

https://www.bblhs.org.uk/east-india-company

Behind closed doors

avometer

 

What sparks off an enduring interest in something? I do not know the answer, but let me describe how just one of my interests became ignited.

When I entered Highgate School in north London at the age of 13 years, we were obliged to study both physics and chemistry. The classes for these subjects were held in large laboratories whose walls were lined with locked glass-fronted cupboards filled with a wide variety of scientific equipment and, in the case of the chemistry labs, jars of chemicals in a variety of colours.

At the age of about 15, that was in the late 1960s, we had to make decisions about the nature of our future studies. If you wanted to study science, you kept on classes in chemistry and physics and dropped geography and history. For a course in the arts, you kept on classes in geography and history and dropped the two science subjects. I decided on science. You may wonder why.

It was only the desire to find out more about the stuff locked in the glass-fronted cupboards that made me choose the science course. It was as simple as that! I enjoyed studying scientific subjects and continued to do so until I had completed a doctorate in one of them (mammalian physiology).

Many decades later, I revisited Highgate School and was taken on a tour of its buildings including the Science Block. I noticed that the cupboards in the chemistry and physics laboratories had been replaced. Gone were the glass-fronted cabinets. They had been replaced by cupboards with opaque doors. The contents of these wall mounted cabinets could not be seen without opening their locked doors.

I wondered whether I would have chosen to study the science subjects had I been taught in the newer laboratories where everything was hidden from view.  

 

Image source: ebay

A lady in Budapest

My PhD supervisor’s wife was fondly known as ‘Wink’. When she learnt that I was about to visit Budapest in the early 1980s, she told me the story of her friend Dora, who lived in that city.

Sometime during the war, Wink got her first job. She became a supervising chemist at High Duty Alloys, a company that had its premises on the huge Slough Trading Estate, which had been established near Slough in 1920. It was the middle of the war, and there was a great need for metal for aircraft and armaments. Everything was being melted down in order to extract vitally needed metals. Wink was involved in developing ways of improving the extraction of the highly reactive metals magnesium and aluminium from seawater. Everyone was donating whatever metal items that they could spare to help the war effort. A great number of metal cooking pots reached High Duty Alloys. Sadly, Wink related, many of these were so full of unwanted metals that separating the desirable ingredients was uneconomical; the cooking utensils had been donated in vain.

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Dora Sos in 1985 in Budapest

Soon after joining High Duty Alloys, Wink was assigned a technician. She was a Hungarian called Dora, who had been visiting the UK as the representative of a Hungarian chemical company when WW2 broke out. She was briefly interned as an ‘enemy alien’ until the authorities decided that she did not pose a security risk. When she was released, she took up the job at High Duty. Wink and Dora, who was a little older than her, became close friends. After WW2 was over, Dora was given British citizenship. However, she was getting homesick and decided to return to her home in central Budapest.

Every now and then during the late 1940s, the British embassy in Budapest held parties and receptions for British subjects living in Hungary. One evening when Dora was on her way to attend one of these, she was prevented from entering the embassy by Hungarian police officers waiting near to its entrance. She was taken in for questioning, warned never to try to enter the embassy again, and her British passport was confiscated. Dora continued her life working in a scientific laboratory in Budapest, but under appalling conditions. Each night at the end of a day’s work, all of the laboratory notebooks had to be locked up in drawers for which she had no keys. The Stalinist authorities who ran the country at that time were terrified of espionage and sabotage. Conditions became so bad in the laboratory that Dora, who was fluent in German and English, gave up being a scientist, and became a language interpreter.

Wink told me that after a few years when Hungary’s Communist regime became a little less strict, Dora was issued with a Hungarian passport and was given permission to travel to the West for a holiday. She went to The Hague in Holland and visited the British Embassy there. She related her story to the ambassador and his staff, and after they had checked up that she had once been issued with a British passport, they issued her with a replacement for the one that had been taken from her in Budapest. She was told that she could use the British passport whenever she was out of Hungary. All that she needed to do was to enter whichever British Embassy was near her, and then arrangements would be made to issue her with another British passport. And, before returning to Hungary, she could return her British passport to the nearest embassy for safe-keeping. Thus, she was able to visit Wink in Britain on a number of occasions.

When I began making regular visits to Hungary in the early 1980s, Wink gave me Dora’s address, and I met her. We became good friends. Whenever I was in Budapest, I used to visit her in her first floor flat in a late 19th century apartment building near to Moskva Ter in Buda. She always asked me for news of Wink and her family. A chain smoker, she was also a good cook. Whenever I visited her, she would serve me generous helpings of her home-made chicken paprika. This was always accompanied by noodles that she had just prepared with freshly made dough that she extruded through a mesh straight into boiling water.

Dora told me that under Communism very few young people learnt English in Hungary. Learning Russian was compulsory. Therefore, there was a shortage of English interpreters in the country. Often, she was asked to interpret at scientific conferences. She was able to perform simultaneous translations from German into English and vice-versa. This is no mean feat for someone whose mother tongue was Hungarian. Before my visits to Budapest, I used to write to Dora and my other friends there, announcing my travel plans. On more than one occasion, Dora commissioned me to bring the latest editions of particular technical dictionaries from London to her in Budapest, where these volumes were not available. She told me that whenever she was able to travel to the West, she would buy copies of Solzhenitsyn’s works. These were strictly forbidden in Hungary. She told me that whenever she returned to Hungary from the West, she would be asked by the Hungarian customs officials whether she was carrying any of these so-called ‘solzhis’.

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In the house where Bela Bartok lived in Budapest

When I visited Budapest with my wife in about 1999, we visited the apartment house where Dora lived as I had been unable to get through to her by telephone. When we reached the door of her flat, which opened onto one of the galleries surrounding the building’s courtyard, I looked at the name on the doorbell.

It was no longer Dora’s.