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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 24, April 1-15, 2011

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New lives through education

Masters of 20th Century Madras science

A tale of two brothers

New lives through education
(By (Miss) M.F. Prager)

It was at a social function at the Presidency Training School, Egmore, in 1912 where the guest of honour was Sister R.S. Subbalakshmi Ammal, that I met her for the first time: a slight figure, simple, calm, dignified; the mauve-purple saree she wore accentuated by the ash-white caste-mark on her forehead. To me she seemed a page of Vedic history come to life, a moment of fascination when ‘Sister’ (as we always called her) told us how she had planned to “give and not count the cost” in the cause of the child-widows of the Presidency. For me that evening meant an association for which, through the years, I have been indeed grateful.

It was in 1912 that Sister, after qualifying professionally (L.T. Degree – Madras), accepted an appointment (indifferently paid) on the staff of the Egmore Training School, and launched an appeal to public charity in order to open a hostel for child-widows (Brahmin).

A new Inspectress of Girls’ Schools, Southern Circle, had been appointed in 1905 – Miss Lynch* whose assessment of women’s education and educational methods as they existed clearly indicated the dire and pressing need of educated Hindu women in the profession of teaching, and teachers who could understand and harmonise education with Hindu tradition and outlook, and build up character and life’s pattern on indigenous and Indian lines. The obvious solution was to tap and secure from the colossal reserves of child-widows in the Presidency the required personnel. So challenging a programme, so revolutionary an outlock, it brought both criticism and censure. The period 1907-1912 was one of strain and stress, demanding an overpowering determination to overcome all obstacles, friction and prejudice. Miss Lynch provided this and succeeded in getting the Government to officially recognise and support the personal initiative of Sister. It was in September 1912 that Sister’s small family of four widows became absorbed into a Government institution. Seven new admissions, secured with the help of sympathetic Brahmin elders and Sister’s ardent persuasion, joined the home.

To procure a more orthodox environment and to encourage the young widows to take pride in their own Hindu setting, the hostel was moved to Triplicane and attached to the Vijayanagaram Maharaja’s Girls’ School, which had been taken over by Government and raised to the status of a Secondary and Training School. It was my privilege to work (as Superintendent) with Sister in that institution where she was Headmistress and follow the work and activity of the new hostel experiment.

The little home grew in strength and established itself in Triplicane during the years 1913-1915. The widows were encouraged to follow such religious observances as would satisfy the most orthodox of parents. The chant of Sanskrit slokas found a place in the quiet of evening time. There were also fun and games and folk dancing – and the arts and crafts and drama – and what a delightful producer Sister was! The girls loved their home and Sister and her kind aunt who ruled the kitchen.

Wider contacts were made and the work grew apace, the number going up to over 40 admissions.

The winter of 1914 brought change and anxiety. Influenza in epidemic form swept Triplicane. Sister nursed night and day. With quiet calm and resolute courage she said, “Something must be done. They must be removed from the stricken area.”

“Where to?” I asked.

Her answer startled me: “The Ice House!” Government made speedy efforts to acquire the mansion and, on a cold January 15, 1915, she moved into the mansion on the Marina, and a marble slab on the gate announced: ‘Brahmana Widows’ Hostel.’

Now, Sister thought it was time to improve and encourage women to interest themselves in public affairs and education. I was present at the first meeting. It was held in the dark dismal hall of the Triplicane School, petrol lights were in evidence, and Sister added yet another activity to her work by forming a ‘union’ of those present: the ‘Sarada Ladies’ Union’.

The Ice House continued to work effectively and Sister rejoiced in 1917 to see the very first students (of 1912) successfully enter college. We planted an avenue of palm trees on that occasion.

The Training School continued in Triplicane, but accommodation was proving a grave problem, for the strength of both institutions was growing apace. Something had to be done. Again, with resolute calm, Sister observed, “There is a vacant piece of land next to the Ice House, with three palmyra trees and a derelict villa.”

“What of it?” I asked.

“The site of the school of the future,” she said. And so, in course of time, the Lady Willingdon Training College came into existence on the site and the marble slab on the Ice House gate came down. And Sister remained to direct its activities as Headmistress till her retirement. Her mission was fulfilled, the child-widow came into her own, and Sister saw the early students and leadership go forth into the professions.

Foot Note: * To become Mrs. C. Drysdale after marriage.

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Masters of 20th Century Madras science
An occasional article in a series
(By Dr. A. Raman)

A world leader in the study of algae

Tamarapu Vedanta Desikachãry was born in Tirupati on September 18, 1919. After schooling there, he did his basic degree in Presidency College, Madras, and got his research Master’s and Doctorate degrees from the University of Madras, in 1944 and 1951, respectively, working with Mandayam Osuri Parthasarathi Iyengar. After brief teaching stints in Pachayappah’s College, Madras, and Andhra University, Waltair, he joined the University of Madras in 1957 and became a full professor in 1963. He studied microscopic algae and made great strides in both Indian and world plant science.

T. V. Desikachary

Desikachary nurtured and built up the rich botanical legacy left by Iyengar. His devotion and commitment to his master can be seen in the names of algae he discovered: Iyengariella,Iyengariomonas. Desikachãry voluntarily took on the responsibility of editing and publishing volumes of unpublished notes of Iyengar; he published them from 1967 under the serial title Contributions to our knowledge of South Indian Algae. In the preface, he wrote: “It has been an embarrassing duty for me to edit these for the press. Aware of my limitations, I have endeavoured to present his (sic Dr. Iyengar’s) observations to the best of my abilities,” which speaks highly of his humility. After his retirement from the University of Madras, he published several volumes on different algae, with support from the Department of Science & Technology. He bequeathed the royalty earned from the sale of these volumes to the Madras Science Foundation, a brainchild of Desikachãry and Professor T.S. Sadasivan.

While working at the University of Madras, Desikachary established massive algal-culture collections, which are used extensively even today. He was honoured by the Indian scientific community which invited him to deliver the Birbal Sahni Memorial Lecture in Lucknow in 2001 and the Y. Bharadwaja endowment lecture at Banaras Hindu University in 2002. He received the Sir C.V. Raman Medal of the University of Madras and the V. Puri Gold Medal of the Indian Botanical Society. He was honoured in August 2005 by the American Psychological Association for his lifetime contribution. His students thought highly of his knowledge and standing as a world leader in the study of algae.

He was a world authority on a group of minute algae (now known as the Cyanobacteria), which are highly useful to humans because of their special capacity to fix atmospheric nitrogen.

This Madras botanist died in Melbourne (Australia) on November 5, 2005.

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A tale of two brothers
(A bit of industrial heritage recalled by K. Raman)

A tale of two brothers from the United Kingdom who, in the late 19th Century, were rather different from those who came to India as conquerors, rulers, and traders, in the sense that they gave India much more than they took out of it. The ­brothers bequeathed to India a huge and prosperous organisation and, in that process, helped ensure the well-being of a large community in Southern India.

In the 1870s, two young men from Scotland arrived in India with not much more than a good measure of common sense, self-reliance and vision.

Madura, Ramnad and Tinne­velly in Madras Presidency were hot and arid districts that maintained a measure of fertility by constant struggle with nature. Renfrew­shire in Scotland, cold, wet and windswept, had little in common with the three Indian districts except the harshness of soil and climate that made their men used to struggle to succeed.

New Madura Mills around 1914.

The three Madras districts produced men and women who made possible the plantation industries in Southern India, in Ceylon, in Malaysia and elsewhere. Renfrewshire produced the disease-free seed potatoes and tuberculin-tested cattle which were so much in demand in the kinder climate in England. Men here struggled to produce their crops and nurture their herds. Above all, men learned to stand on their feet, morally, physically and mentally.

In Renfrewshire, however, they also saved and sacrificed to educate their children. Most children so educated appreciated the sacrifices made for their sake and made full use of the opportunities afforded to them. Such were the conditions which produced the brothers Andrew Harvey and Frank Harvey.

They were born in 1850 and 1854 respectively to a moderately successful farmer whose large family made observance of economy a necessity. To reduce the burden on the family, the brothers sailed for India and, on landing in Madras, lost no time in exploring the whole Presidency for manufacturing opportunities. At that time there were no organised industries in the south of the Presidency, the chief activity being the export of cotton to London. Most of this activity was handled at the port of Tuticorin where there were cotton presses. Raw cotton was transported from considerable distances for pressing here prior to shipment.

Andrew and Frank Harvey got into the business of baling cotton when they discovered in Virudupatti, a place inland from Tuticorin, a disused cotton press in a derelict compound in the middle of the area producing the best quality cotton. They acquired the press despite the predictions by competitors that only disaster would face their venture. The Harvey brothers ignored the gloomy forebodings and the A & F Harvey Cotton Press came into operation at Virudupatti. It started doing so well that by the second year of its working, it was pressing more than half the year’s shipment from Tuticorin.

By 1880, when they formed A&F Harvey (A&F), Andrew was already his own master, buying and selling Indian and other cottons in London, while Frank had put in five years in the service in Harvey & Sabapathy, a cotton firm in Bombay and Bellary, headed by another brother, Alexander Harvey. The capital available to A&F was small, even for those days, just Rs. 20,000. Nevertheless, within a year of the founding of the firm, the brothers had built an export business in cotton that soon outstripped Dymes & Co. and other Tuticorin exporters. A London office was then opened to handle the proceeds; the press too continued to prosper. They then began thinking of the possibility of consuming southern cotton on the spot rather than merely exporting it. They decided on a spinning mill, but there were no abandoned mills to be reconditioned like the ginning press. No local support was forthcoming, so there was lack of sufficient capital. But there was a population in the area needing textiles, an abundance of cotton, and plentiful labour.

One of the brothers left for England to find finance. The other remained in India to approach the Government of Madras for permission to utilise a waterfall of 300 feet direct head to generate and provide power for the mill. When they met again, one had the concession sought from the Madras Government, the other the necessary credits.

The waterfall was in the middle of virgin jungle about 30 miles from Tinnevelley. There was at that time no railway beyond Tinnevelly. To reach the waterfall, unbridged rivers had to be crossed and of roads there were none. The tracks were often muddy and bullock carts were the only means of transport. Apart from the isolation of the projected mill site, it was a highly malaria-infected place.

The original turbine was shipped from England and unloaded on the beach of Tuticorin, which had no harbour or port facilities in those days. It was then railed to Tinnevelly. It was then brought by bullock ‘bandy’ from
Tinnevelly, as was every piece of machinery for the first mill, which came to be known as the Water Mill. Frank Harvey walked much of the distance from Tinnevelly to the mill site accompanying the bullock bandies and there still is a mandapam (a rock constructed resting place) five miles from the mill site, which was his home while their dream was being translated into reality. The brothers decided to install spindles, as yet an untried invention in those days when Mule Frames reigned supreme. After heartbreaking preliminaries in 1883 and 1884, 10,000 spindles were working in c. 1885, vindicating their courage and pioneering spirit.

Andrew, having a steadying influence on his more volatile younger brother, had a remarkable gift of seeing the shape of things to come. Water power gave way to electric power from the Papanasam Hydro Electric Project around the 1940s, but foreshadowing that project were these words of Andrew in a letter to Frank dated April 27, 1883:

I have an idea that as electric service becomes more developed, water power will become more valuable for the purpose of charging accumulators and generally for generating electric power, either on the spot or for conveyance to a distance, and for this, if for no other reason, I want to get control of the whole water power if possible.”

This at a time when hydro-electric projects were not thought of!

The original mill was enlarged and others were built, but for some years the profits went mainly to the financing of interest payments. So years were to elapse before the brothers began to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

From the first, A&F Harvey had Indian representation on the Board of Management – a characteristic of the Harvey organisation ever since. The first Directors of the Tinnevelly Co. Ltd. in 1883 were:

William Strang: of Messrs. Gilmore, Rankin, Strang and Co., London, and Messrs. Rankin, Gilmore and Co., Liverpool.

Thomas D. Skelly: Manager, Agra Bank Ltd., Madras.

C. Singaraveloo Moodalliar: Merchant and Agent, Madras.

T.Veeravagoo Pillay: Tinnevelly.

Robert Fishcer: Barrister-at-law, Madura.

S. Subramania Iyer: Pleader, District Court, Madura.

Ar.Al. Ramaswamy Chettiar: Merchant, Madura.

Andrew Harvey: London.

The Tinnevelly Mills Ltd. began spinning on August 29, 1885 and the company paid its first dividend on June 15, 1886, thus initiating a prosperous and growing industry which has been of great economic importance to Southern India ever since.

From the earliest days, quality was ‘top priority’. Within a fortnight of the start of the mill, Andrew Harvey sent samples of 20s count twist, saying, “Show the samples to the merchants and let us know what they say as to colour, strength, twist, softness and/or hardness, price, etc. Generally give us a full report, and please tell us most carefully what faults or objections the merchants may have to the yarn so that we may remedy them.”

Little wonder that within five or six years of the completion of the Tinnevelly Mills, there followed in quick succession the Coral Mills in Tuticorin and Madura Mills in Madura. Where the brothers came to press, they remained to spin. The total cotton handled by the 1940s annually was around 80,000 bales. The mills in Madura had 220,000 spindles, the largest number in one compound in India, possibly the world.

The completion of the large mill at Ambasamudram, built and equipped notwithstanding the then prevailing decline in the world trade in the 1930s and low prices in the cotton market, was standing testimony to the belief of the owners that the demand would increase as well as revive and that the anticipated prosperity in India and the East generally would keep busy the 100,000 spindles installed in Amba­samu­dram. Soon 500,000 spindles were humming in the entire group.

At the time Frank died at the early age of 51 in 1905, the organisation was firmly established with pressing factories and mills in Ambasamudram, Tuticorin and Madura. Andrew Harvey lived to see the completion of the essential framework of the new mill in Madura, a gigantic enterprise for the days before the Great War. When he died in 1915, he had laid the foundations on which his descendents and successors built and operated. The last years of their lives also saw the creation of opportunities of employment in healthy, employee-friendly working conditions for many thousands of families, revitali­sing entire districts in southern Madras.

Inaugurating the memorial for Andrew and Frank Harvey at Ambasamudram in 1949, Sir James Doak, the then Managing Director, said:

“May this memorial stand for many years; may the likeness of Andrew and Frank Harvey here depicted give inspiration and courage to this and future generations; may this grand old turbine, typifying their struggles and achievements, carry the message of endurance. With mind and heart glowing with admiration, I declare this Memorial to Andrew and Frank Harvey hereby inaugurated.”

Coming to more recent times, the decades from the 1940s to the 1960s witnessed a period of expansion and diversification – into manufacturing of special tyre cord fabric for tyre companies, fabric for conveyor belting and other raw ­materials for various industrial applications, into weaving with the installing of a thousand and more modern looms and a complementary dye house – as well as into banking, insurance, paper manufacture and allied products.

The third generation of Harveys – Hugh and Andrew, the grandsons of the founders – preferred to live their lives in the United Kingdom, thus ­ending the hierarchical link with the Madura Mills management, so zealously preserved by their forefathers. In the 1970s this vast industrial complex got merged with Coats.

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In this issue

Freebies do not create better cities – or citizens
Do we need white elephants for Metro stations?
Snake worship
100 years of a 'ladies only' club
Madras's first Hindu woman graduate
Other stories

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