Perambur – an Anglo-Indian bastion

(by Geoffrey K. Francis)

 Situated about 7 km from Chennai Central is Peram­bur with its massive Carriage Works and Loco Works Factory and theinternationally known Integral Coach Factory, one of the largest coach factories in Asia, Perambur, still with a large number of Anglo-Indians owning property and living in fairly well-to-do conditions, is the centre of a huge crescent of the Anglo-Indian community in Chennai.   It has, to its north, Madhavaram where a large number of Anglo-Indians live, owning their houses and property.  To the west of Perambur is another Anglo-Indian area,  Ayana­va­ram, which leads into Vepery and Purasawalkam, which were once highly populated Anglo-Indian centres.   Leading further north from Perambur is Jawahar Nagar, Thiru-Vi-Ka Nagar, and Periyar Nagar, where there are quite a lot of Anglo-Indians.   This Anglo-Indian crescent comprises Vepery, Purasawalkam, Ayana­varam, Perambur and Madha­varam.   The other Anglo-Indian concentration is in south-west Chennai, in St. Thomas’ Mount and Palla­varam near the Airport.

 By any yardstick, Perambur is the very heart and soul of the Anglo-Indian community. No other place in the world, or in India, has so many Anglo-Indian families in one cluster.   Having been all over the country meeting groups of Anglo-Indians in their homes and residential colonies, I have never found any other place in India that can match Perambur for the Anglo-Indian mix it has. In Perambur you have the upper-middle class, the middle class, the low-income groups as well as the poorest of poor who live in huts and one-room tenements, all living together. The Anglo-Indian stamp can be gauged from the fact that as you enter Perambur,  you will find many Anglo-Indian homes on the Main Road andIwomen still wearing frocks, which cannot be found anywhere else in India.

The rise of Perambur as a premier Anglo-Indian centre was mainly because of the Carriage Works and Loco
 Works and the huge Perambur Railway Colony popularly known as the Panan­thope Railway Colony.  The growth of the community in Perambur can also be attributed to the Railway School that was once packed with Anglo-­Indians and which was the largest Railway School in the country, as well as the well-known Anglo-Indian school run by the Presentation Convent, St. Joseph’s Anglo-Indian High School.   It has more Anglo-Indians than any other Anglo-Indian school in Chennai. The presence of Lourdes Shrine and the Holy Cross Church has also been ­responsible for the growth of the community in Perambur.

The high point for Anglo-Indian culture is the Railway Institute with its huge hall and excellent dance floor that
 throbs with life during the Christmas and New Year Balls and the many Anglo-Indian weddings.   For nearly a century, the Institute has been the heart of the Anglo-Indian community and at the Christmas and New Year dances gathers together the community in Chennai as well as Anglo-Indians who come from Australia, Canada, U.K. and other parts of the world.

With so many Anglo-Indians concentrated in Perambur, it is now drawing more and more Anglo-Indians from the other parts of the State and many families from the once well-known Anglo-Indian centres of Roya­pu­ram, George Town, Purasa­walkam and Vepery have merged there.

Perambur cannot be considered as a highly developed centre in Chennai and cannot be compared with the best residential areas in the city.   But it is a fairly well-developed centre linked by train and bus to all parts of the city.   Besides a well-developed transport system, Perambur has various shops and hotels and, best of all, Ajantha Bakers that operates on Paper Mills Road, specialising in cakes, puffs and various other pastries favoured by the Anglo-Indian community.  Full credit has to be given to the Anglo-Indian community who, through their patronage, have made the bakery one of the best in the city. It also caters to 70-80 per cent of Anglo-Indian weddings.
Another factor that can be considered important for the growth of the Anglo-Indian community in Perambur is that and cost as well as the price of flats is relatively cheap when compared to other parts of the city.

The key areas in Perambur where there is a concentration of Anglo-Indians are Main Road, also known as Siruvallur
 Road, Foxen Street, Paper Mills Road, Ballard Street, and Jaganathan Street.   You will find about 2000 Anglo-Indian families in these areas.   A noteworthy feature is that Foxen Street has a large number of flats known as Palm Grove Apartments where 90 per cent of the families are Anglo-Indians.   This is a typical Anglo-Indian colony where you find pets and plants and children running in and out of homes, some of them on little cycles or in little cars.   Every flat is kept spic and span with traditional curtains, sofa sets, dining tables, music ­system, flowers, vases and centre table.   This is a common sight in Perambur where Anglo-Indians maintain their traditional culture.

Sadly, in Perambur, there are also a large number of Anglo-Indians at the lower end of the economic scale who live in
 huts and small rooms.   They eke out a living, barely making ends meet.   This state of affairs is mainly due to lack of employment because of a lack of education.

St. Joseph’s Anglo-Indian High School, in the very heart of Perambur, and the Railway Mixed Higher Secondary Schools
 next door are two great institutions that have played a very big role in the growth and development of Perambur.   St. Joseph’s Anglo-Indian High School’s student strength is predominantly Anglo-Indian.   It also employs a large number of Anglo-Indian teachers.   It is run by the Presentation Convent nuns. St. Joseph’s has been giving excellent education for over a century and the large number of Anglo-Indian girls who have studied in it, have successfully gone on to higher levels of education and professional training.   The school also takes in boys up to the 6th Standard.

The school next door, namely the Railway Mixed Higher Secondary School, at one time had a large number of
 Anglo-Indian students.   In fact, I was told that in the 1950s and 1960s, 80-90 per cent were Anglo-Indian students in the Railway School. With a large number of Anglo-Indians no longer employed in the Railways, the number of Anglo-Indians in this school has come down.

Like several parts of Chennai, Perambur is now growing into a bustling economic and commercial centre.   For the
 Anglo-Indian community, Perambur is a bustling cenre of integration for the whole community.   It is the last bastion where you will find so many of the community doing extremely well and showing to the community all over the country that together we can achieve a lot and by working together we can achieve and succeed in a country that is becoming competitive, growth-oriented and making its mark in the world.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes 

 (Courtesy: The Hindu).

A Perambur landmark

One of the landmarks of Permabur is the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, a church replicating in form the ­famous church in Lourdes, France, situated there.

While the plans for building the Shrine date to the 1940s, the Perambur Church’s history goes back a long way before that.   It was in 1879 that Fr. H.E. Hennessey from Vepery built a chapel in Perambur near where the Presentation Convent was later established.   The next year he dedicated the chapel to ‘Our Lady of Lourdes.’   It was to be 1935 when the sixth parish priest, Fr. Michael Murray, began to think of developing the chapel into something like the Basilica at Lourdes.   He laun­ched a collection drive whose activities and fundraising visits – including collecting the cost of a brick or that of a bag of cement – got a tremendous response that continued thrugh the early 1940s.   That’s when the Archibishop of Madras, the Most Rev. Dr. Louis Mathias, invited J.R. Davis of the then leading firm of Madras architects, Prynne, Abbott & Davis, to design the shrine to resemble the one in France.

It was to be in January 1951, however, before Dr. Mathias laid the foundation stone and February 22, 1953 when he
 consecrated the lower church of the Shrine.   In March 1958, the foundation stone was laid for the upper church and, after another fundraising drive, the work was completed in 1960 and Archbishop Mathias, who had seen the work from conception to completion, was there to consecrate the upper church on February 11, 1960.   Today, services are held in Tamil in one church and in English in the other.   But in the early years, the congregation was mainly Anglo-­Indian, drawn from two institutions which helped the chapel to grow:   The B&C Mills, which were established between 1877 and 1882 and the Railway Workshops established in 1895.