Ever taken a walk down Marshalls Road aka Rukmini Lakshmipathi Salai in Egmore, and taken some time off to stop and observe the number of historic buildings this road is home to? We often tend to ignore the big things that add so much value to the city! One such road is Marshalls Road in Egmore, one of the busiest roads in Chennai that connects Egmore to Nungambakkam – the heart of the city.
Let’s start off with the Egmore Eye Hospital, earlier known as the Madras Eye Infirmary, which is now the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology and Government Ophthalmic Hospital. It was established in 1819.
“The hospital houses Lady Lawley Ward – declared a heritage building by the Archaeological Survey of India. The Elliot’s Ophthalmic museum on the premises has many rare specimens, case registers and medical instruments, and sketches of tropical eye diseases. The hospital has done pioneering work since its founding. The virus causing ‘Madras Eye’ was discovered here and RH Elliot, superintendent, is credited with the Elliot’s Trephine – an instrument used in glaucoma surgeries. The hospital was started to cater to the British East India Company’s soldiers who suffered from tropical eye diseases and is today a Centre of Excellence,” shares city-based Sudha Umashanker, who is a heritage buff and social activist.
Marshalls Road was renamed after Rukmini Lakshmipathi – a freedom fighter who participated in the Salt Satyagraha at Vedaranyam in 1930. She also has the distinction of being the first woman to be elected to the Madras Legislature and the first to serve as minister of public health. The road also houses a small bust of Rukmini Lakshmipathi.
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It was a general assumption that women wouldn’t step out of Indian homes many years ago, but the Ladies Recreation Club founded in 1911 on Marshalls Road proves this wrong.
During the pre-Independence period, Indian women visited this club to spend time with their friends, have a chat, and play a game of cards or badminton. There were many, who traveled to the clubhouse by horse-drawn carriages. The club was named after Lady Willingdon, one of its presidents and the wife of the governor. “The club also known as the Willingdon Ladies Club had facilities for sports, such as badminton, table tennis, and tennis and its Christmas parties were hugely popular. There is picture evidence from history books showing Indian women playing a sport in their sarees,” says Sudha.
The property is now owned by a Chettiar family. However, a shopping complex named The Willingdon Estate still stands in the same spot.
“Lastly, St Anthony’s church, a Roman Catholic Church, with its Greco-Roman architecture, Italian mosaic, and stained glass is another iconic site on this road. The foundation stone was laid in 1921 but the area was declared a parish much before that. A Parish school run by the Presentation Sisters from Ireland, who run many schools in Madras, started to cater to the poor Anglo-Indian children. It has now grown sizeably and continues to provide education,” she adds.
Sudha, who is also a journalist and an author, suggests a few books to know more about the history of places in Madras. She recommends books by the late S Muthiah, Chronicler of Madras, Madras Discovered and A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India, The Founding of Madras by NS Ramaswami; Vestiges of Old Madras by Henry Davidson Lowe and The Madras Tercentenary Commemoration volume.