Born on 26 April 1806, Rev. Alexander Duff was the first overseas missionary of the Church of Scotland to India. In his mission to spread western system of education among the children of the affluent class, he founded the General Assembly's Institution in Calcutta on 13 July 1830, with the sincere support of the Governor General of India, Lord William Bentinck. However, at the Disruption of 1843, when 450 evangelical ministers of the Church broke away from the established Church of Scotland over the issue of the Church's relationship with the State and formed the Free Church of Scotland, Duff sided with the Free Church and established a new educational institution in Calcutta on the 4th of March 1844, named ‘Free Church Institution’.
For the regular functioning of his new school, Duff rented a huge building on Nimtala Street (now known as Nimtala Ghat Street), owned by one Baboo Mothur Mohun Sen, alias Mathur Sen, who used the place as his garden house to entertain his friends. The massive building was popularly known to the locals as ‘Jorabagan Rajbari’. The meaning of the Bengali word ’Jorabagan’ is, a pair of gardens. In fact, there was another garden house in the same locality, owned by Omichund and in all probability, the existence of the two garden houses in the same area resulted to name the locality as Jorabagan. However, Duff was not very much happy with the arrangement, as he was to pay a hefty sum of money towards the monthly rent for the building and in addition to that, a lot of money was also needed for the repairing and necessary renovation of the building. Duff wanted to stop the unnecessary wastage of money and he wanted to solve the problem permanently. He felt that, to stop the recurring expenditure on monthly rent, the school should have a building of its own. Though money matters, his reputation came in handy. His good name attached to an educational institution created a magic and donation from abroad made a sufficient fund to enable the institution to purchase the adjacent landed property to build a new premises of its own.
After the completion of the construction of the new building, the Free Church Institution shifted from Mathur Sen’s garden house to the new address in the month of March 1857. It is said that the new building, consisting of 28 rooms and three halls, two of which had galleries, was sufficient to provide accommodation for about 1200 students. The college was also equipped with a good library of selected books and a laboratory for the Science department. From its inception in 1857, the College got affiliation of the University of Calcutta. In view of the changed circumstances, the flow of incoming students also started to increase significantly. Meanwhile, the Governor General, Viscount Hardinge announced in1844 that, the government jobs would be open to all those who had studied in Duff’s College or any other similar institutions. This decision on the part of the government also increased the inflow of students substantially. Rashtraguru Surendranath Banerjee, popularly known as SN Banerjee, was one among the most eminent students of the School.
Alexander Duff finally left India in 1863 and sailed to work in Africa and the Middle East. Ultimately, he returned to his country Scotland, where he died in 1878 on the 12th of February.
In 1908, the Free Church Institution and the General Assembly’s Institution were merged together to form the Scottish Churches College. After that, when the established Church of Scotland and the Free Church were formally united in 1929, the college was renamed as the Scottish Church College. There ended the story of Duff College and the new institution became the owner of all its assets, including the huge building. But, as they were burdened with more than enough assets in their possession, they decided to sell the building of Duff College in terms of cash. Ridiculously, as the outcome of the decision, the building of an educational institution became the Jorabagan Police Station.
During the early decades of the last century, India’s struggle for independence was gradually gathering momentum, spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi with his non-cooperation and non-violence movement. However, a section of the brave Bengali blood thought otherwise and opted for the path of armed revolution at the risk of their lives. During those days of terror and uncertainties, the notorious British police officer Charles Tegart was the head of the Jorabagan Police Station. He used a portion of the building to cruelly torture those brave souls, the so called ‘terrorists’, to find out their plans and programmes, as well as, the names and hideouts of their friends and collaborators. Unfortunately, in independent India, the Calcutta police also followed the same inhuman procedure, in the name of so called ‘interrogation’, to crush the Naxalite movement of the 1970s.
During those uncertain and eerie wintry days of 1971-1972, the Jorabagan police was intimated by one of their reliable sources about the probable participation of some of the local ruffians with arms in the forthcoming immersion procession of Kali Puja. Based on the information, the police intercepted the immersion procession of a local Kali Puja and discovered around two concealed cartons of explosives. Immediately they arrested some of the suspects from the spot, confiscated the cartons containing the explosives and stored them in a room of the police station under their custody, with the intention to produce them later in a court of law as evidence. However, probably due to callousness or ignorance, they did not properly follow the procedure of defusing the bombs and the result was disastrous. On a later day, when the policemen were taking out the confiscated cartoons from the store room, the two cartons full of bombs were exploded all of a sudden, without any slightest indication. The impact of the explosion was simply horrible and awesome. A part of the roof of the building along with the policemen in the room was just blown off and almost all the window panes of the locality were shattered.
Despite the unbelievable mishap, the battered building continued to be the Jorabagan Police Station for more than a decade and finally it was abandoned in 1988, when declared unsafe by the authority. The building, which once housed a centre of learning, is now used as a dumping place of the confiscated vehicles.
Today, the Southern wall of the former Duff College, facing Nimtala Ghat Street, bears a misleading plaque, which indicates that, from 1830 to 1844 the building housed the General Assembly Institution, which is at present known as the Scottish Church Collegiate School. It is also inscribed that, the plaque was unveiled by the Honorable Minister for Public Works, Sri Jatin Chakraborty on the 6th of July, 1980, as a part of the celebration of the 150th foundation day of Scottish Church Collegiate School. However, the information mentioned in the plaque is somewhat confusing and misleading, since there is no documentary evidence in support of the view that the Scottish Church Collegiate School ever operated from the building.
Even in her dilapidated state, the massive building of the former Duff College is a grand old beloved lady of Calcutta, a symbol of our old heritage. Even today, she looks quite graceful and dignified with her Tuscan columns. However, it is reported that the authorities have decided to restore and renovate the shattered building and use it to promote tourism.