There was a time, when Strand Road was under the water of Hooghly River and sailors used to frequent the neighbouring area, where the Calcutta Police Headquarters stands now. Today the locality is better known as Lalbazar. During those early days the area next to the Tank Square or the Dalhousie Square was also known as Flag Street, since this thoroughfare was frequented by the sailors. It was lined with eating houses, pubs, indigenous liquor shops and houses of ill repute, which include whore houses. All these arrangements were meant for the entertainment of the sailors. Naturally, it was a rowdy and notorious area, hassle, hooliganism, stabbing and killings were a regular affair. However, as the river receded toward the west and the Kidderpore Docks were opened, commutation of the seamen in the locality decreased substantially and finally almost stopped.
The situation of the locality changed with time, yet it was different from today. In those days the road named Lalbazar Street, was nonexistent. The road leading from the northeast corner of BBD. Bag to Bowbazar was known as Avenue to the Eastward, where horse-drawn carriages or palanquins were available, if needed. Edward Tiretta, who was a friend of the legendary Casanova, built a bazaar (market place) in the vicinity, which still goes by his name.
There is much speculation about the origin of the name Lalbazar.It is said that the Tank Square became popularly known as “Laldighi” due to the reflected image of the brick red writers’ building on the crystal clear water of the Square, and hence the locality was also named after it. Some also say that, the family of Sabarna Roychoudhury had a cutcherry (office for the legal cell) in Lalbazar, and during the Holi Festival, Aabir (red powder) and Kumkum were sold and the festival was celebrated here with much enthusiasm. As a result, the locality used to become red with the littered red Aabir and hence the entire locality got its name.
In 1792 the headquarters of Calcutta Police moved to Lalbazar area and was accommodated in the Ambassador’s House, erected by the East India Company. A temporary jail was also set up and was commonly known as Harinbari, not far from Lalbazar. However, the jail shifted to the Maidan on the spot where subsequently Victoria Memorial Hall was constructed. From the Ambassador’s House the police headquarters shifted to the Palmer’s House at 18 Lalbazar Street. It is necessary to mention here that, John Palmer, once a reputed and rich merchant of Calcutta, constructed the said magnificent three-storeyed edifice for his own use. In his heydays he was one of the richest merchants of Calcutta, but finally became a pauper due to his habit of charity. The building next to it was the Harmonic Tavern, the most gorgeous building in its day. It was famous for its concerts, balls and suppers during winter days in Calcutta. It certainly added to the colour of the area during its days. In fact, before the emergence of Chowrighee-Park Street area, Harmonic Tavern was the grand amusement and entertainment centre for the European communities in Calcutta. However, the legend of Harmonic Tavern is now lost forever, as this magnificent building was partially pulled down to give rise to a building to house the Presidency magistrate court.
Palmer’s House was also demolished in 1914 for the construction of the present Lalbazar building complex. According to the records, the new four-storied stone-and-brick block was designed by Henry Crouch, architect of the government of Bengal, and it was raised by JC Banerjee, who had built the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation building, situated in the south-west corner of Tank Square.
The present Lalbazar building complex is associated with the name of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the great Bengali poet. He joined here as an upper division clerk in the court of the Presidency Magistrate and left the job after a few months. He used to draw Rs 125 per month, a document revealed. A bronze bust of the poet has been placed in a corner inside the building.
On the third floor of the building, next to the office of the deputy commissioner (traffic), a beautiful lounge has come up, which is decorated with historical documents, old photographs of the city, a model of a traffic sergeant mounted on a real bike, some sketches of great men of Bengal, and a full-length sketch of the road and the buildings that date from the early 18th century.