St. John’s Church Calcutta

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Like all great cities of the World, Calcutta has a history of its own, which can date back to time unknown, but for the sake of the topic we shall focus on the Company era when this city gained new momentum and became one of the greatest cities outside Europe. It is exciting to think how, a bunch of explorers and adventurers hailing from a distant island thousands of miles away made this new city their new home. Home I call it, since with the spread of English supremacy in the Indian subcontinent series of constructions across the city shaped it like New England. Constructions included Trade centers, office buildings, residential buildings, clubs, and forts and of course Churches. Today the English buildings   stand more than a relic; they are now occupied by Indians who use English Language in day to day official correspondence.  They still stand tall, although every nook and corner of these buildings has a story to tell, but most of it is left forgotten and suppressed in the daily rush. If it is people’s job to forget the heritage of these magnificent structures, it is my sacred duty to remind them of its formers glory.

                Beside Kiran Shankar Roy Road, opposite to what is now office of Standard Chartered Bank and to the North Western side of the Raj Bhavan (previously Residence of Governor General) is located St. John’s Church of Calcutta.  The foundation stone for this Church was laid on the morning of  6th April 1784, it was the third attempt to build a permanent and sustainable Church in Calcutta. Why? To answer this question I must talk about the first Church in Calcutta. It is unknown as and when this first Church was constructed, but the first intimation about a Church in Calcutta is in a letter from 1703. This Church as is known was about 50 yards from Fort William, and was erected totally out of donations from the merchants and English residents of Calcutta. In the night of 11th October 1737 a terrible hurricane swept Calcutta causing huge destruction and calamity. It was in this storm that the famous “steeple of this magnificent Church sunk into the ground without breaking”. In this disaster about three lacs souls perished, tons of goods and merchandise went deep down to the Ganges, about 20,000 ships, barks, canoes were sunk and most importantly the Church was damaged beyond repair.

                The destruction gave way to construction, and a second Church was built few hundred yards away from the Fort. All was going well, until the assault of Siraj-ud-Dowla to fort William in 1756, the Church being vulnerable suffered heavy damages. Thereafter the necessity of a third Church was felt and this Church is our point of discussion. All sorts of arrangements were made to materialize the desire of erecting of the Church. Maharajah Nobokissen of Shobhabazar donated six bighaland for the Church, valuing about 30,000 Rupees. The East India Company contributed about Rs. 30,000, also Omichund one of the principal conspirator of the coup against Siraj-ud-Dowla donated the same amount by his will. Mr Grant who was in Gour offered Rs. 500, also undertook took the charge of transfering the marble from the ruins of Gour to Calcutta. So most of the marble work that we see in this Church was brought from Gour in Malda, by boats and used according to need. In addition to this some sort of peculiar contributions were accepted to meet the expenses, for example a portion of the restitution money extracted from Meer Jaffer was used along with the amount collected from the acquisition of enemy property. Proceeds from Church lottery amounting to 10,764, was also included, the Company provided some furniture, communion plates, velvet cloth for the pulpit, and bells etc.

                1,550,000 bricks were used to build the entire structure; the foundation consists of 27,260 feet of solid masonry. Before the construction began a plan was drawn closely resembling the Church of St. Stephen in Walbrook, by Col Polier and Col Fortman subsequently it was approved. Lieutenant James Agg of the Engineer corps offered his services to superintend the construction which was happily accepted. Sir John Zoffany who was then in India contributed his splendid painting of the Last Supper to the Church.  Sir John before his arrival in Calcutta was in Lucknow where he was the court painter of the Nawab of Oudh. There he had made quite a name for himself; he had painted the famous French military adventurer Claude Martine who was serving in the Nawab’s court. On his arrival to Calcutta he was asked to paint an altar piece and he of course choose the Last Supper. The Calcutta Gazette of 12th April 1787 proclaimed, “We hear that Mr. Zoffany is employed in painting a large historical picture. The last Supper, he was already made considerable progress in the work, which promises to equal any production which has yet arrived from this able artist, and, with that spirit of liberality for which he has ever been distinguished, we understand he means to present to the public as an altar piece for the new Church.”
The Last Supper-John Zoffany


                Sir John did present to the Church this wonderful masterpiece, but when the veil of the painting was removed entire Calcutta was left embezzled. Like Leonardo’s last supper this painting also proved to be controversial. The three main figures in the painting Jesus, St. John, and Judas Iscariot were easily recognizable. Jesus was painted after a well known Greek Priest, Father Porthenio, who had good name in Calcutta for his works. St. John was represented by Mr. Blaquiere a well known magistrate and doing favor to his reputation Sir John gave a feminine touch to the figure. It is yet unknown what sort of relationship John shared with Mr. William Tulloh the auctioneer, but he painted him as Judas Iscariot. Clearly Sir John was a different sort of painter, as a painter he cherished his liberty above anything else, and thus his painting of last supper has some Indian elements in it. According to a critic-“Peter’s sword (on the top left of the painting) hung upon a nail is a common peon’s talwar, the water ewer standing near the table is copied from a pigdannyand there is a beesty bag full of water near it.” His sense of humor however was not put to the sword, instead the Church committee who had earlier planned to present him a precious ring now retracted, being almost penniless, instead offered him a letter of thanks. A paragraph from that letter read-

“We should do a violence to your delicacy, were we to express, or Endeavour to express, in such terms as the occasion calls for, our sense of the favor you have conferred upon the settlement by presenting to their place of worship, so capital a painting that it would adorn the first Church of Europe, and should excite in the breasts of its spectators those sentiments of virtue and piety so happily portrayed in the figures.” On his way to England he was shipwrecked off the Coast of Andaman Island where due to hunger the survivors cast lots among themselves and a young soldier was eaten. Therefore at one instance this great painter turned cannibal.

                On Sunday, 24th of June 1787, the Church was consecrated on which occasion number of dignitaries of Calcutta were present including the Governor General, Gen Carnac, Sir Robert Chambers (then Chief Justice of Bengal), Mr. Justice Hyde.    On this day two children were baptized and the ground where the Church stood was also consecrated.

Some Notable People buried in the Cemetery:


                It is worth mentioning some prominent people who are buried in this graveyard. Perhaps the most interesting and the oldest structure in the entire compound is that of Job Charnock’s mausoleum. Job Charnock, regarded as the founder of Calcutta, was the first Englishman who left an indelible mark in the political arena of India.      After much struggle and constant strife with the Nawab he was able to form an English settlement in Calcutta in 1689-90. One century later this settlement had taken the shape of busy metropolis ornamented with English structures at all important points. So Charnock can be considered in that light the pioneer of English settlement in Calcutta, if not the founder of this city. Whatever it may be, but there is no doubt about the fact that Mr. Charnock had a very eventful life. He saved a young Hindu widow from the funeral pyres of Sati who eventually became his most cherished companion, she bore to him several children, and even after her death Mr. Charnock on her every death anniversary visited the tomb and sacrificed a fowl. Today his mausoleum is an interesting piece of structure, having Islamic touch at some places Mughal inspiration can be observed.  He died on 10th January 1692 and his mausoleum is the oldest English monument in Calcutta. Around 1802 most of graves in this compound were in a dilapidated condition, some had already gone beyond repairs, and covered with dense vegetation. So reformation had to be done, old graves were pulled down, those with still legible gravestones were  fixed near the base of the Charnock mausoleum, in this condition they still remain till now.

                Inside the Charnock mausoleum there is a gravestone of Dr. William Hamilton, to whom the East India Company is hugely indebted for his extraordinary services. Hamilton was basically a surgeon who had saved the life of Mughal Emperor Faruk Shiyar, and as an act of indebtedness the Moghul Emperor granted the Company free trading license.  After his illustrious career Dr. Hamilton died in Calcutta on 4th Dec 1717, and was interred in the Church compound.

                Then there is of course the tomb of Admiral Charles Watson who also had a very illustrious career. When the news of assault on Fort William reached Madras, Admiral Watson along with Robert Clive set sail for Calcutta, and on reaching the city recaptured it, eventually they fought with the Nawab’s forces and the outcome of which was the Treaty of Alinagar, between Nawab Siraj-ud-dowla and the English. He died on 16th August 1757, at the height of his success, no wonder he must have been given a heroes farewell.

                Just beside the Charnock mausoleum there is the monument of the oldest English resident in Calcutta who died at the age of 87, on 3rd February 1812. She was the queen mother of the English residents in Calcutta; almost everyone knew her for her exceptional qualities. She was born to Edward Crook the Governor of Fort St. David, and was married at an early age of 13 to Parry Purple Templer. Their marriage proved to be short as Mr. Templer died five years after. Next she married Mr. Altham who died in just 12 days after marriage of small pox; thereafter she was married to Mr. William Watts. Mr. Watts was the chief of the Cossimbazar factory in Murshidabad, and when  Nawab Siraj-ud-dowla attacked the Cossimbazar factory Mr. Watts and family were arrested and brought to the capital. However the Nawab had to leave the capital shortly for yet another expedition, and during this period the Nawab’s mother displayed outstanding act of generosity and kindness, she warmly received Mrs. Watts and placed her with the other dignified ladies of the harem. Without informing the Nawab she later transported her to the safe custody of the French at Chandan Nagore from Murshidabad by a boat. When the Nawab returned, she pleaded for the release of Mr. Watts so that he could reunite with his wife, after much deliberation the hot headed Nawab gave off, and reluctantly agreed to release his lucky prisoner. Few years after this when Nawab Meer  was installed in the throne of Murshidabad, the Watts family travelled to England, and unfortunately Mr. Watts died in England during his stay. In 1769 Mrs. Watts came back to Calcutta where she had gave her hand to Rev. William Johnson principal Chaplain of the Fort William, however her new husband travelled back to England, to never return while she choose to stay in Calcutta. From that time to her death she always was a high profile lady in Calcutta, loved for her manners and excellent skill of communication, she enthralled people of all age by her wit and deep understanding of character. She outlived all her contemporaries and when she died on 3rd February 1812 she had seen nine Governor Generals in Bengal, from Warren Hastings to Lord Minto!,_Viscountess_Canning_1849.jpg
Lady Canning

In the nineteenth century English women were making remarkable progress and actively taking part in social activities like men. Charlotte Canning was surely one such lady, wife to the first Viceroy of India, lady in waiting to the Queen, and an wonderful painter by her own accomplishment. She was born in 1817 and was married in 1835 to Lord Canning; eventually Lord Canning would become the first Viceroy of India after the Indian Mutiny of 1857. She would accompany him to many different parts of India, in her leisure she would record in her paintings the exciting features of Indian life. She was active in the Crimean war and recruited nurses to serve in hospitals, she recommended the lady with the lamp, Ms. Florence Nightingale as the superintendent of hospital. Finally when her husband was deputed to Barrackpore, she found real solace; however that didn’t last long as she died of a fever in November 1861 and was buried there. After her death Lord Canning resigned from his post and went back to England where he died very shortly, in 1862. A memorial of her is in St. John’s Church, the only thing which covers the grave of this charismatic lady of her time is not flowers, but bird droppings.

                Michael Herbert Rudolph Knatchbull, 5th Baron Brabourne, his grave is in the western side of the Church. He served with the Royal Horse and Field Artillery in the First World War, later he became the Member of Parliament for the Ashford Division of Kent. Thereafter he was appointed as the Governor General of Bombay (1933-37) and then of Bengal (1937-39). In 1938 he served a brief period as the Viceroy of India, he was awarded many awards the GCSI, GCIE, MC etc.

                The Rohilla War Memorial:


                The Afghan tribesmen had formed a new home for themselves in the northwest of Oudh near Kumaon Hills. In the turbulent times of 1770’s they were afraid by the powers of the Marathas, in fact the Rohilla chief worried that they would be crushed by the Marathas. Hence the Rohilla chief Hafiz Rahamat Khan sought help from Shuja-ud-Dowla , the Nawab of Oudh.  A treaty was signed and the Rohillas were pay to 40 lacsRupees as protection money to the Nawab. In 1773 Marathas did come to Rohilkhand but did not attack the Rohillas, although no shots were fired, Nawab Shuja-ud-Dowla demanded the protection money from Rohillas which they refused. The Nawab was so furious and enraged over this refusal that he intended to destroy the Rohillas and sought help of Warren Hastings and his troops. The English were promised a sum of 40 lacs for all their help, and of course Hastings agreed, finally in the ensuing battle the Rohillas were defeated but the red suffered some casualty too. The English soldiers who fell in this proxy have been immortalized through this impressive monument called, “Rohilla War Memorial”.

The Black Hole Monument: 

                In the night of June 20, 1756 something extraordinary and tragic event had occurred. It was the night when according to English Historian Holwell, 146 English prisoners were stuffed into a small prison already known as “Black Hole” inside Fort William, in the next morning it was found that there were only 23 survivors. In June 1756 the Nawab of Murshidabad Siraj-ud-Dowla had arrived all way from his capital and attacked Fort William. The English were heavily outnumbered compared to the Nawab’s army and eventually some of the insiders fled while a few over 100 surrendered. These prisoners were cast into the Black Hole as Holwell mentions; he himself was a victim but luckily escaped death. However later Historians both English and Indians do not share the same opinion of Holwell, today many think that the matter was highly exaggerated. Whatever the truth was but when this news of this massacre reached Madras it infuriated the English, and Admiral Watson along with Robert Clive was dispatched to conduct a proper vengeance. The couple succeeded in winning back Calcutta and eventually Clive defeated the hapless Nawab at the Plassey and officially kicked off the ball of English supremacy in Bengal.
Holwell’s Monument in 1814, 1905 and 2013.

                As of Holwell the Black Hole had a lasting impression on him and as a memory to those who perished in this incident a memorial was commissioned by him which was built on the site of Black Hole. It was removed in 1821 to facilitate further construction and the idea to construct  a new one was turned down by Hastings on the ground that it would create rift between natives and English. He was really a very interesting man, Warren Hasting. Lord Curzon in his time in 1902 commissioned the construction of this monument in the North Western corner of the Dalhousie Square. However Hastings’s apprehension proved to be justified as massive student protest demanded the pull down of the monument. The Government gave into the demand and removed the monument from that place, instead constructed a new one at St. John’s Church in all likeliness of the first monument.


1. Bengal Obituary

2. Gentlemen’s Magazine Volume 135

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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