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Metcalfe Hall, Calcutta

Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe succeeded Lord William Bentinck as the Governor General of India and served for a relatively brief period of one year, during 1835-1836. But despite his brief tenure, his name deserve to be remembered in the history of journalism in India, as he repealed all the prevailing restrictions imposed by the British rulers on Indian press. Naturally, it was felt by many that something should be done to mark his great contribution towards the freedom of Press in India. The idea of constructing a hall was originally conceived by Longueville Clarke, a distinguished Advocate of the old Supreme Court. It was at his initiative that the Agri-Horticultural Society and Calcutta Public Library joined hands with him in erecting the Metcalfe Memorial. Accordingly a committee was formed in 1838 and a spot was selected for the construction of the proposed hall. The spot was earlier owned by Harinarayan Seth, an aristocratic Bengali who earned most of his fortune with the support of the East India Company. His residence was used as the ‘Sailors’ Home’, a destitute seamen’s asylum which was later shifted to the Ralli Brothers building, to provide space for the construction of a new building.

Metcalfe Hall Calcutta - Mid 19th Century
Metcalfe Hall Calcutta – Mid 19th Century

The foundation stone of the Hall was laid with Masonic Initiation rites on 19th December 1840 by Dr. James Grant, Grand Master of Bengal, assisted by Dr. James Burnes, Grand master of Western India and 350 other Master masons. Along with other honored guests, the ceremony was also witnessed by Lord Auckland and his sisters, Emily and Fanny Eden. Designed by C K Robinson, the then city magistrate and built Martin & Co.(Martin Burn Ltd.), the construction of the building was completed in four years and opened to the public in June 1844.

Old picture of Metcalfe Hall
Old picture of Metcalfe Hall

Facing the river Hooghly in the West and located near the St John’s Church, at the junction of the Strand Road and the Hare Street, the majestic building was dedicated to the memory of Sir Metcalfe for his notable contribution in the free press movement in India. It is said that the design of the splendid Metcalfe Hall is apparently inspired by the Temple of Winds of Athens. It is raised on a solid ten feet high ornamented basement with thirty huge 36 feet high Corinthian pillars, supporting the upper part of the massive classical structure. The columns and colonnade surround almost the whole building. The main entrance from the west over a giant flight of stairs is now closed. Today, the public entrance is allowed through the large portico on the East.

Imperial Library in Metcalfe Hall
Imperial Library in Metcalfe Hall

At the initial stage, Metcalfe Hall accommodated the Calcutta Public Library collection, formed by Lord Metcalfe, who transferred more than 4500 books from the library of the Fort William College. The library was managed by a private management committee with Prince Dwarkanath Tagore as the first proprietor of the Calcutta Public Library. After that, it housed the Imperial Library, which was opened to the public by Lord Curzon, on the 30th of January 1903. However, during 1923 the Imperial Library was shifted from this building to another premises situated at 6, Esplanade East.

Metcalfe Hall is a two storey building with five halls. There is a wooden staircase, which leads to the first floor. The ground floor serves as the annex of the Asiatic Society, while a museum of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is on the upper floor. However, the museum is rather a small one with only some photographs of the Archaeological Survey of India’s conservation project in the Eastern India.

Metcalfe Hall

Portico - Metcalfe Hall
Portico – Metcalfe Hall
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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