Court House Street Courting The Old Era

Joydip Sur

A cursory glance and it’s just another stretch of concrete and cobbled stone road laced with the shiny tram-tracks. But a second look reveals it as the direct connect to Dalhousie Square East.

But in reality, the Old Court House Street encompasses much more than what meets the eye. This tiny little stretch is a treasure trove of stories and incidents from the era of colonial Calcutta.

By the end of the 18th century the British community, administrators, military men, traders and their employees had swelled to the extent that it had become lucrative for the British born silversmiths to set up establishments in the major cities of the colony. Some failed, while the others thrived to the point where they remained in business years after India became independent.

A lot of them came to Calcutta. And Old Court House Street became the nerve centre of British silversmiths in India. The likes of Pittar and Co., John Mair, Cooke and Kelvey, Hamilton and Co., Cropley and Co., Charles, Nephew and Co. and several others had set up their shops on the Old Court House Street and while most of them did brisk business, few wound up their operations in a couple of years. Till this very day, the Cooke and Kelvey building stand as silent evidence to the once flourishing English business.

The Old Court House Street was laid down in 1781 by Colonel Henry Watson to whom Calcutta owes numerous improvements. The street got it name from the Old Court House which stood at the site where the St. Andrew’s Church presently stands. It might fascinate you to know that the Old Court House was originally constructed to run a charity school. But later, the Mayor’s Court occupied a part of this building while the remaining portion was used for various other purposes.

The Old Court House also served as the Town Hall of Calcutta till the time of it demolition. In 1762, the Court House was greatly enlarged by the addition of verandahs on both the floors on the southern side. An additional saloon with a room at each end, arches opening all around and a dancing saloon for the use of the place as an exchange, post-office, quarter-sessions office, public entertainments and assembly rooms were made. About three decades later, the floors of the Old Court House became unsafe and the historical edifice was pulled down in 1792.

The name, however, stuck on to the street which led to it. At the corner of the Old Court House Street, upon the site of the premises which is now known as Ezra Mansion was occupied by Messrs. Guthbertson and Harper, the popular saddlers. A British lady by the name of Mrs. Leach had also temporarily opened a theatre here in June, 1839, upon the destruction of the Chowringhee Theatre. It was known at that time as St. Andrew’s Library and was owned by Messrs. W. Thacker & Co. The theatre was capable of accommodating a crowd of 400 people.

But beyond any reasonable doubt, The Great Eastern Hotel was and still remains the most prominent edifice on the Old Court House Street. Commissioned in 1840, The Great Eastern Hotel was one of the oldest hotels in India and has had its share of fame and stardom. It has played host to numerous lords, barons and foreign dignitaries, as also to rajahs, nawabs and zaminders during the British Raj.

In the close vicinity to Old Court House Street (at 11, Government Place East) was the famous Federico Peliti. Peliti’s used to be a huge name in Calcutta and had a great tradition of bakery and confectionery products. The place was famous for their three course lunch which was available at a price of Rs 1.50. The price remained static from 1917 till about 1924. A great masterpiece of Peliti’s was a 12-inch high replica of the Eiffel Tower in sugar, crafted by Chevalier Federico Peliti himself in December 1889. Peliti Restaurant closed down shortly after Independence and Calcutta was orphaned of a classy eatery.

The West Bengal Telecom Circle which stands at the Old Court House Street and R. N. Mukherjee Road crossing is another popular landmark on this stretch. This magnificent edifice looks stunning and has a stupendous presence with architectural features worthy of a second glance.

The Corporation has renamed the stretch of Old Court House Street, along with Dalhousie Square East and Government Place East as Hemanta Basu Sarani after the political luminary of Bengal.

Presently, numerous banks have their offices on the Old Court House Street. Hollering hawkers can be seen occupying the sidewalks selling a wide variety of items. The street wears a busy look from dawn to dusk.

I had an awesome time rediscovering Old Court House Street and urge you to walk down this charming little stretch. Who knows, you could just chance upon some interesting anecdote from the era of the British Raj.