Parry in Madras - Chennai days – Part 3

Some days ago I wrote about Triplicane, Hamilton Bridge and Amir Mahal. I uncovered in other articles stories around the Icehouse and Burma bazaar as well, and talked at length about Muthuswamy Dikshitar and how Western music influenced him to create Nottuswaras, but Chennai would not be complete without Parry.

Parry – the very name evokes nostalgia of two kinds. One being the Parry muttai or Parry sweet, the éclair wrapped in its characteristic green wrapper. As children it was an intimate part of our lives, some liked it some hated it. Parents loved it for that was the cheapest, I never liked it. But that green wrapper which made a crackling sound when opened will always be in ones memory. The second is the fact that almost all the bathrooms of our time had Parryware installed at one time. It was the first thing you saw in the morning.

But well, for those who lived in Madras at one time, and for some who worked there for a while like me, you would always remember the bus terminus and the Parry’s corner. As you got off the bus, 13 or 5 of whatever, you saw the towering white building in the corner. It was the Parry’s building otherwise titled the Dare house. Strange isn’t it? Why was it called Dare house?  Everybody would say, it is near Parry’s building, but you would go there to see the building with the name Dare house. Well, get to that later.

The stretch from Pookada to Burma bazaar had all the offices of that time. The streets in between, the Thambu Chetty, Lingy Chetty and so on housed the various traders and their small offices, and Burma bazaar showcased all the smuggled goods. Here was where we had the great Hari Nivas and so many nice hotels. At lunch everybody would spill out into the NSC Bose road and wander around in the hot sun for a while. I myself worked at the Bombay mutual building and well, at lunch we took a short walk round the corner, past the Dare house. All the foreign sounding offices stood there, Gammon and Gammon, Shaw Wallace where my friend Krishyna Iyer worked, Crompton Greaves, Best & Crompton, Binny & Co, Standard Chartered bank and so on…

But then we did not know that this was the corner where Comte Lalle (Hyder’s man- who was in Madras after his exploits in Malabar) planted his cannons and aimed them at Fort St George, and let loose a few salvos to the very place where our friend Dikshitar used to go (or so it seems) to listen to the army bands.

Some avid readers of Hindu would remember an article ‘The house that Parry built’ written by Muthaiah. Well, he really knew a thing or two about Madras, I can tell you and simply loves carrying out that research on his beloved town. But then, today the name Parry and Co is slowly starting to ‘bite the dust’ as Queen would say and soon we will be more familiar with the Korean Lotte India Corp, I suppose. That was the story of a company which lasted through 1792-2010.

Thomas Parry and many others from England, Wales, Ireland & Scotland who came to India were from families who tarried in search of fame and fortune, to strange heathen and faraway lands as they thought at that time. They became families who left their name imprinted in the minds and soil of those lands, even after they left this abode.

His arrival in Madras in 1788 was not exactly accorded a guns and roses reception, in fact the man with the exceptionally long chin named Thomas Parry either waded or was carried across the notorious Madras surf after a difficult 5 month voyage as supercargo(!!). Little was he to know that across the Ft St George where he arrived would stand an edifice that would remain to this day bearing testimony to his efforts and toil. And would create a place that bore his name, Parry’s corner.

Parry was a free merchant of that day, one licensed to enter and trade by the East India Company. It was a time when Madras had 11 writers, 87 cadets, 11 surgeons and 110 mariners (BTW this is the white count). He was here to meet a friend of his brother in law Gilbert Ross named Thomas Chase an agent of the EIC and start a business. They did just that and ventured out into general trade, agents but mainly banking, but after he had worked as an accountant & secretary for Gen Meadows.. Money was lent out at 12.5% plus 1% commission. The main borrowers were the princes and the EIC. To those who think this percentage high, one must point out that the security was virtually none, so the risk of loss or write off was pretty high. After a profitable start, Parry started his own company in 1792. The company made a lot of money mainly owing to the wars with Tipu and the large needs of the British.

Now if I were to name the items that Parry exported in the beginning, you may not quite figure them out. They were textile types called Punjums, izalies, natchnatches, booramboor chintz and rajabahadar cloth - all various varieties of cloth I suppose. This industry was soon to be destroyed by the mills of Manchester (strange isn’t it, today there are no mills in Birmingham and Manchester, all consuming towns in Britain,  whereas the Madras textile industry is booming again some 200 years later).

Well, in 1794 Parry undertook another risky venture, marrying a widow Mary Pearce. Peaceful matrimony existed until 1807 after which Parry lost his children and his wife returned to England. But the streets of Madras provided him much amusement and entertainment, for it was a ‘city full of houris, from the Mesdames of the Choultry plain to the dancing girls with the ‘eminently beautiful counters’ and Madras was no place for celibates’. But his business was a disaster and by 1796, he gave it all up and became an employee of the Nawab of Carnatic, to look after his treasury.

Well, in 1800, Lord Clive came and changed all that; he stopped private trading and evicted people from the area near Ft St George. That was when Parry had to move his offices and thus he ventured out by 1803 to the locality we now know as Parry’s corner. It was a not a popular place, with rough sea on one side and black town behind it, whites stayed far away from that place, except for Parry. His acquisition of the site (some mention at a half price of 10000 star pagodas) was also very interesting, and is a story by itself. The corner belonged originally to Begum Malikunissa, the daughter of the Wallajah Nawab. The story centers around a deed of gift called the “Persian writing’ and held dear by the owners of Dare house, but more of that some other day. This piece of Arabic or Farsi parchment provides an interesting name to the area – The royal dwelling on the sea shores in the town of Chinapash (my history readers might remember the story of how the Chinese left Calicut and perhaps ended up here!!) was how the location of dare house was named originally in poetic Persian.

Muthiah however explains thus - After the French siege was lifted and the Esplanade created - Parry's still tend a boundary-marker of that open space - John Company's Chief Engineer, John Call, built a garden house on the site. He sold the house to Nawab Muhammed Ali, whose daughter Begum Malikunisa occupied it for several years. It then appears to have been sold by the Nawab's successor to Lautour & Co who, in turn, sold it to Thomas Parry. Here Parry re-built the house in Palladian style, with godowns on the ground floor and offices on the third floor.

By 1817 it was a multi storied building with godowns. But during all this time, his association with the Nawab had put him at loggerheads with the EIC who nearly banished and deported him. They did not enforce it provided he behaved himself, and that he did. In the meantime he had acquired interests in the Coromandel areas. Soon he entered into the manufacturing field, working with stinking leather in Santhome, or Adayar. During this time, his house or Parry’s castle was located in Santhome. Later he got into indigo business after losing money supporting the Wellesley’s and their sailing ventures. Interestingly Parry fought the Bengal establishment of EIC again and by 1809, he was formally banished from Madras using the old document which had been filed away. Parry fled to Ceylon, and around this time another interesting person entered the Madras scene, John William Dare.

Parry returned in 1813, a year when his fortunes looked up again and the EIC monopoly was rescinded. Life was OK until 1818 and after a break up of partnerships, Parry joined up with Dare who decided that shipping was an avenue to look at, interestingly at a time when it was still not possible to fill a ship up with trading goods, either way, but they made a fortune ferrying people.

Parry had in the meantime settled with another lady Mary Ann Carr and was of course happily ‘relating’ with many others (Muthiah adds - Parry's will was a remarkable document. Apart from a bequest to his sickly wife in England, he was most generous to sundry ladies, who seemed to be of all nationalities and hues, and several children.), but his health was declining and so finally in 1823, he decided to return to England. The Hindu inhabitants (landlords and businessmen) of Madras had even made a gold cup as a farewell gift but at the appointed hour, he decided not to leave. But since the cup was made, it was presented to Parry in Feb 1824, testifying his support to the poor and his friendly behavior to the natives of Madras. 

The following was the inscription on the vase.

"From the several respectable Hindoo inhabitants of Madras to Thomas Parry, Esq., of the same place, merchant, as a mark of their great esteem and respect for the support and patronage at all times received by them during his several years' residence in India, through his natural humanity and benevolence to assist as much as lies in his power the poor, distressed, and helpless persons among the community.  "Madras, 1st February 1824."

It was a time when there was but one English woman to 10 English men, not a very satisfactory ratio. Nevertheless Madras of the 1830’s was a gay place, with dances, balls, concerts and so on and Choultry plains were resplendent with those activities. By 1838 a shipload of new (female) entrants were received with gusto.

Life is certainly strange, for later that year, Parry and 10 year old George Parry Gibson (his son?)  went to South Arcot to visit his indigo factory in Porto Novo and was smitten by Cholera and died soon after.

Parry's enterprise was from then on run by JW Dare.  Parry was a gentleman, Dare a businessman, who soon shook up and turned around a limping company. But he was to die a few later in 1838, a bachelor. All these years it was Parry’s, Dare and co.

So how did the building we started with get the name Dare house? Muthaiah states thus-  His contribution is recognized in the name of the art deco building that opened its doors on the Parry site in 1940 as Dare House, when its other tenants felt that putting Parry House on their letterheads would be tantamount to supportive advertising. But that would not be right as Dare was a partner himself. Finally a Parry’s building was indeed built, but that was during the early 1950s, when more space and became essential, so Parry's not only ended the tenancies, but also built Parry's Building behind Dare House as well as Parry Annexe across from it in Moor Street. But the aspect of supportive advertising is no longer valid today as we all know; try telling that to people like Trump today who has buildings and towers named after him. In any case, this is a little mysterious as there were a couple of Dare houses around Madras at that time.

However, the reason attributed by Hilton Brown was the large impact made by Dare on the Blacktown native population. While Parry was more associated with the EIC and the Nawabs, Dare was the one who made a larger impact. In fact it appears that years after Dare’s and Parry’s death people would say to the jutka driver, that they wanted to go to Dare house, not Parry house. Dare also had his gardens in Kilpuak named after him.

Strange isn’t it, the business survives with Parry’s name, the building survives with Dares name and the whole locality is named after Parry. Incidentally the company became EID Parry after it took over as the managing agents of Eastern India distilleries and sugar factory as well as the Arcot sugar works around the turn of the 20th century. Another interesting story is the rivalry and later association of Binny & Co with the Parry’s owners. Also in these annals rest another story of how Parry tried to take over the ice business of Madras (failing though) after the American deliveries proved fickle and the Whites of Madras had become addicted to ice from Tudor.

But then those were the days – as Bruce Norton (don’t ask me who this fellow is) wrote about the ‘hum drum madrassers’ – Small talk moves in an endless cycle of tittle-tattle, scandal, mount road dust, punkhas and mosquitoes. One does not require with the thermometer ranging from 84 degrees to 90 degrees, to be informed twenty times a day that the land wind is very hot, or that the sea breeze is comparatively cool, the mosquitoes are very capable of advocating their own cause and Mount road dust would redden whiskers and spoil bonnets even were the fact not nightly chronicled at every tea table in Madras… Bruce Norton was classified a superior fellow among the gentry of that time, or so it seems, but his description of Madras still possibly stands the test of time. Though they may talk of Rajnikant and Amma in addition, the above basic constituents of Madras conversation remain omnipresent.

We cannot leave the story of Parry without mentioning a beneficiary in his will named Chillie. Who could that be? Hilton Brown concludes that it could be (chella - little pet) a native woman who was probably in Mary Anns service. She was to get Rs 5 per month and she was in fact the very last to draw from Parry’s legacy, outliving every single one of Parry’s offspring. Chellie even outlived Marry Ann who herself continued to live for 20 years after Parrys death!.

Parry’s will said - I request that my executors will pay to the following persons, monthly, the sum set opposite to their names, during their natural lives :—Mary, a poor blind woman brought up in my house, eleven rupees; Chillie, a native woman, five rupees; Beer, a CafFre, five rupees; Mary Anne, a native woman, five rupees. To all my household servants, excepting gardeners, I direct that three months' wages be paid.

W Dare however seems to have died May 18, 1838, after falling from a horse – his Obituary reads thus - At Madras suddenly John William Dare Esq senior partner of the firm of Messrs Parry Dare and Co Injuries produced by a fall from his horse and terminating in apoplexy were the causes which led to this unexpected event.

Parrys of Madras – Hilton Brown
Collections historical & archaeological relating to Montgomeryshire, Volume 19 - By Powys-land Club – See page 248 for Parry’s will

Pics - All pictures sourced from the book

Additional Notes

I found out who Bruce Norton was – He was a lawyer, the advocate general of Madras in those times. He was appointed Government Pleader in 1845 and served from 1845 to 1862. In 1863, he was appointed Advocate-General of Madras and served from 1863 till his retirement in 1871. John Bruce Norton was appointed Sheriff of Madras in 1843 and served from 1843 to 1845. His son Eardley Norton was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress; Eardley wrote for the Hindu and was very pro Indian!

The Choultry Plains of Madras - From an old census text - After the siege of Madras, the region which was known as the Choultry Plain was regarded as an eligible locality; but one or two pioneers discovered its advantages before the French attack was delivered. The Choultry plain commences about a mile and a quarter SW of Fort St. George, from which it is separated by two small rivers.To the south of the Fort, where now are the arsenal and bandstand, was a large fishing village, from which came the masula boats employed for the Company's shipping. Beyond that was the open space now known as the island. Southward still was a great sandy plain extending from the sea on the east to the Cooum on the west and from the Government House Bridge on the north to St. Thome on the south. This great plain, of which the four angles are now represented by the bridge over the Bar, Law's Bridge, Munro Bridge, and Capper House Hotel, was called Choultry Plain, from a choultry which then existed, and is probably that which now stands near the native village of Nungumbaukum. This Choultry Plain is now occupied by the districts of Chepauk, Triplicane, Chintadrepettali, Royapettah, Nungumbaukum, and Teynampett. Some of these districts were then represented by the villages from which they take their name, but in Chepauk, Teynampett, and Chintadrepettah there does not appear to have been a house. This Choultry plain has become historical from a curious accident. At a very early period the Madras troops not required to garrison the fort were usually encamped on this plain, and the Commander-in-Chiefs garden-house was consequently erected there. Thus the Choultry Plain became his head-quarters, and all general orders were issued from thence. The plain has long since been covered with houses, and at the present time upwards of 70,000 people dwell upon it. The Chepauk grounds alone represent its former greatness, yet, by a verbal figment, head-quarters are still supposed to be in the Choultry Plain, and general orders are still issued under that address, although it is probable that neither generals nor soldiers have the slightest idea of the whereabouts of the place. It must not, however, be supposed that at any period of the English occupation the Choultry Plain was absolutely open, for Nungumbaukum, Triplicane, and perhaps Royapettah are named after villages that had existed there for hundreds of years. The present native village of Nungumbaukum is an excellent example of them, for it has remained almost unchanged from that day to this.

Choultry Plain was also the old designation of the Hd. Quarters of the Madras Army; equivalent to "Horse Guards" in Westminster


harimohan said...

great research
parrys corner parrys sweets are all under my skin too
you tickled them

P.N. Subramanian said...

Whenever I go to Chennai my favourite destimation used to be Parry's corner. I loved to read about it in detail. Incidentally there used to be a Choultry (Satram) just opposite to the Central Station.

Maddy said...

thanks Hari

soon you will eat lotte sweets i guess.....

Maddy said...

Thanks PNS..

there were plenty of choultries in all these places, so when i read choultry hill, i thought of a building in that sense only to find out that it covered a whole area!!!

Jag said...

thanks for the memories...well done..worked for EID-Parry for 10 years ( workedd in the Sugar factory intially and did enjoy the Parrys sweets manufactured in Nellikuppam while on my rounds!!)and I was the third generation to work there... my grandfather was the first Indian Manager in the British company and my father was there for 40 years...well, have not been to chennai in 25 years..perhaps should pay a visit to Parrys

Ankur sharma said...

Thanks Maddy for this lovely article.
My curiosity with the Dare house started when I saw it for the first time in 2009-10, all the while initially thinking that it was a place where people performed dares for a living (things we think !!), but never looking for the actual meaning. I later got to know that it was the corporate headquarters for a behemoth organisation but still did not know the reason for such a name. Finally the curiosity came back to undesired levels today and I had to look it up.
Thanks once again to you and Mr Muthiah for the entire research done. ( I though cannot seem to locate the original article in the HIndu archives).

Maddy said...

Thanks Ankur..
It took me some intereting study work to get the details. Glad you enjoyed it
I see what the problem is with the Hindu archives, so suggest you type 'the House that parry built' on google and look for the cached page. you can read the text.
You could also look for the Madras books written by Muthiah

Martin said...

George Parry Gibson was actually Thomas Parry's grandson. Parry's (illegitimate?) daughter married Major George Milsom Gibson of the Madras Native Infantry in 1813.See this article:

raja vasanta said...

Nice reading.