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Calcutta High Court Town Hall
Writers Building - Heritage Buildings
1853    Dibyendu Banerjee    08/09/2019

During the later part of the 18th century, the British East India Company was in urgent need of a spacious building in Calcutta, to solve the housing problem of its band of writers alias clerks, who carry out various administrative paperwork and also a necessary storage space to keep the records safely. In view of the circumstances, the idea of constructing a big building was conceived by Warren Hastings, the first de facto Governor-General of India. Consequently, it was decided to construct the proposed building on the plot of land, which was once occupied by the building of St Anne’s Church.

View from southeast
View from southeast

Accordingly, the site containing the ruins of St Anne’s church, along with the adjoining plot, was granted to Thomas Lyon, to construct a big building primarily to accommodate the junior servants of the East India Company, known as the writers. During that time, when Warren Hastings was the Governor-General of India, Thomas Lyon was acting on behalf of Richard Barwell, member of the Council and subsequently, Lyons Range was named after this Thomas Lyon. At the time of its completion in 1780, the Writers’ Building, located on the north side of the Tank Square, was the first three-storey building in Calcutta equipped with residential quarters, each with three sets of windows.

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However, it looked like a shabby hospital or a house for the destitute and was undoubtedly a bit of an eyesore. For the rent-free accommodation of its writers, Barwell leased out the range of buildings to the Company for five years by his own rate of 31,700 current rupees per annum to be paid half-yearly in advance.

View from GPO
View from GPO

The Fort William College, founded in 1800 within the Fort campus to train writers in Indian languages, was shifted to this building soon after its opening and functioned from the premises for long 20 years. During that period a hostel for 32 students, exam hall, 4 libraries and teaching rooms for Hindi and Persian, were added to the structure. In 1821, the building earned a new look, as the facade was dressed up with a 128 feet long portico in the central bay, supported by beautiful 32 feet high iconic columns on the first and the second floor. Gradually, two new blocks were also added to the building, accessible by impressive iron staircases

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As the College moved out of Writers’ in 1830, the building fell into the hands of private individuals who turned it into living quarters, shops and godowns. The Government College of Engineering also functioned from here for some time. Meanwhile, after the Sepoy revolt, also known as the First War of Independence against the British rule in India in 1857, Queen Victoria took over the power to rule India, replacing the British East India Company. During that time, as a new secretariat was urgently needed in Calcutta and Writers’ was picked to meet the need.

Writers Building 1878
Writers' Building 1878

Slowly but steadily, the Writers’ Building acquired its Greco-Roman look, complete with the portico in the central bay and the red surface of exposed brick. The majestic pediment, in the centre of the building, was crowned with the statue of Minerva. While the parapet was also properly put in place, the statues sculpted by William Fredric Woodington, were installed on the terrace in 1883, in four clusters, namely Justice, Commerce, Science, and Agriculture symbolized with the Greek gods and goddesses of those four streams Zeus, Hermes, Athena and Demeter respectively. In addition to that, it is adorned with the beautiful statues of Heba, the goddess of youth; Diana, the goddess of hunting; Psyche, the goddess of the soul and others.

The statue of Minerva on the top of the pediment
The statue of Minerva on the top of the pediment
The statue of Justice
The statue of Justice

During its long life spanning nearly 240 years, the gigantic building has seen many political picks and valleys. Many important political decisions were taken under its roof. During the early stage of its life, it housed the clerks of the East India Company and when the city of Calcutta became the Capital of British India, it served as the secretariat of Bengal state, the administrative nerve centre of the city.

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It also experienced flashes of the Indian independence movement, when on the wintry morning of 8 December 1930, three unsuspected young men, dressed in European attire, entered the Writers' Building. That day, those three brave freedom fighters, Benoy Krishna Basu, Dinesh Gupta and Badal Gupta, created panic in the heart of the British officials, as they shot dead the notorious Colonel N.S. Simpson of the Indian Imperial Police and the then Inspector General of Police (Prisons), who was infamous for the brutal oppression of political prisoners.

The statue of Commerce
The statue of Commerce

Before the independence of India, the Writers’ had a large courtyard with seven blocks. By 1970, the number of blocks increased to 13, out of which the main block, including the rotunda and five main blocks, was declared as heritage structures. However, the unplanned extensions of the huge building over the years ended up creating a confusing network of thirteen interconnected blocks. Apart from that, years of negligence and lack of proper maintenance took its toll and the situation became precarious. In fact, it became a tinderbox and unsafe for some 6,000 government employees who have to work in tiny offices where it is difficult to fit in a table or a computer. Even, the electrical wiring was a dangerous mess.

The statue of Agriculture
The statue of Agriculture
The statue of Science
The statue of Science

Finally, the building went under renovation in late 2013, in a project costing two billion Rupees, before which most of the departments of the Government of West Bengal shifted to ‘Nabanna’, an unused 13 storey building in Howrah, which was once meant to be a garment business park.

Work in progress at writers building
Work in progress
Calcutta High Court Town Hall
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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