Bentinck Street: A Nostalgic Affair

Joydip Sur

Few people in the city can say they aren’t familiar with Bentinck Street. In this edition of Calcutta Chronicle, we explore the stretch that has found a place in Indian history for more reasons than one.

Origin of Bentinck Street
 Bentinck Street stretches from Chowringhee Square in the south to Rabindra Sarani in the north. It was formerly known as Cossitala Street as mentioned in Page 490 of the ‘Bengal and Agra Directory (1850)’. The name ‘Cossitala’ was derived from the word ‘kasai’ which literally means a butcher. The entire stretch of Bentinck Street was inhabited by butchers locally referred to as ‘kasais’ whose occupation was butchering goats and cows for meat.

It is believed that in those days, Hindus travelling from Chitpur Road (now renamed Rabindra Sarani) to Kalighat Temple detested walking past the area. The foul smell of mutton and beef posed a big deterrent to their roads to spirituality. In fact, in those days a Hindu wouldn’t sell his cow or ox if he knew it was destined to be slaughtered.

In 1757, Cossitala was a jungle and even as late as 1780 it was almost inaccessible during monsoons. In 1788, a man called Mackinnon proposed to open a school in Cossitala with 140 students. This is stated in Page 291 of the ‘Calcutta Review, Volume 18, No. 36’. Charles Grant, who served as chairman of the East India Company, also resided in Cossitala Street before moving to Grant Street.

Cossitala Street was renamed Bentinck Street in 1876. The ‘Corporation’s Street Directory’ says only one building in the northwest corner appears to have existed before 1757. Thereafter, a number of residential and business establishments came up along the stretch. Mr. J Trenholm’s Tavern, Mr. Meredith’s stable, Mr. John Palmer’s office, Mr. Oliphant’s coach making workshop, Union Tavern, Mr. Mackinnon’s School and other popular enterprises such as Llewellyn & Company, J H Christensen, E Jackson, J Reid and F E Roberts also existed on Bentinck Street.

The house occupied by Messrs Llewellyn and Company is asserted to have been used as a Government House during the time of the first Earl of Minto who served as the Governor General of India from 1807-13.

Lord William Bentinck
Bentinck Street is named after Lieutenant-General Lord William Henry Cavendish Bentinck more popularly known as Lord William Bentinck. Lord Bentinck was born on September 14, 1774. He was a British soldier and statesman. In 1927, he was appointed the Governor-General of Bengal and also served as the Governor-General of India from 1828-35.

As the Governor-General of India, his principal concern was to turn the East India Company into a money turner. He wanted to ensure that the company’s charter be renewed by the British government.

Lord Bentinck engaged in an extensive range of cost-cutting measures, earned him the lasting enmity of several military men whose wages were cut. Although his financial management of India was quite impressive, his modernizing projects which included a policy of westernization influenced by the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill attracted a lot of controversy.

He reformed the court system and replaced Persian with English as the official language of the higher courts. Lord Bentinck also encouraged western-style of education for Indians in order to make educated Indians eligible for service in the British bureaucracy.

Lord Bentinck also took steps to stop the practice of sati and other Indian customs which he thought were barbaric. Although his reforms met little resistance among native Indians at that time yet, it has been argued that they brought on dissatisfaction which ultimately led to the Great Mutiny of 1857.

His reputation for ruthless financial efficiency and disregard for Indian culture led to the much repeated story that he had once planned to demolish the Taj Mahal and sell off the marble. According to Bentinck’s biographer John Rosselli, the story arose from Bentinck’s fund-raising sale of discarded marble from Agra Fort and of the metal from a famous but obsolete Agra cannon.

Bentinck was asked to return to the UK in 1835 and again entered the House of Commons as a Member for Glasgow. He died in Paris on June 17, 1839.

Popular landmarks on Bentinck Street
Victoria House
Income Tax Building
Paradise Cinema Hall
Orient Cinema Hall
Aliyah Restaurant
The Calcutta Motor and Cycle Company
Calcutta Traders
Lal Bazar