St Mary’s in the Fort

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From its founding to the present day, Madras has been governed from the Fort. There was attempt a few years ago to build a brand new Secretariat building on a large site close by, but that fell foul of political wrangling and the building is now to be a hospital instead. So the Chief Minister’s office is still inside Fort St George, built by the British East India Company and opened on St George’s Day, 1644.

Along with offices from which the Madras Presidency was originally governed, and accommodation for the British officers and men, the Company built a church dedicated to St Mary. As was usual at the time, the engineer/architect was a military man, and the church has very thick walls so it can be used to store ammunition in times of crisis.

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St Mary’s describes itself as “the oldest church east of the Suez”. It was consecrated in 1680 and has been in continuous use since then by the Anglican community of the Church of South India. Inside is cool and surprisingly light; the floor is of large flagstones and the pews are dark wood.

Many famous people are buried at St Mary’s, though as the site is cramped it is only the earliest tombs which are actually at the church. There is a large graveyard on the way to Egmore station which contains many more, including the Commonwealth War Grave. And the church register records names from history.

In fact the first marriage to be recorded was that of Elihu Yale in 1680 itself. Yale went on to become the second Governor of Madras from 1687 to 1692 at which time he was relieved of his post due to excessive profiteering. Some of the profits later went to assist the new Collegiate School of Connecticut in the Colony of New Haven – Yale’s grandmother’s second husband was an early governor of New Haven – and that in due time became Yale College.

Another famous name linked to St Mary’s is that of Robert Clive – “Clive of India” – who was married there in 1753 at the end of his first trip to India. He had just become renowned through his defence of the fort of Arcot with a few hundred men against several thousand troops of Chanda Sahib.

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Visiting St Mary’s is an atmospheric step back in time and can be combined with a visit to the Fort Museum. Photos are problematic at the moment since it is covered in scaffolding.

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