Saturday, August 8, 2015

METCALFE HALL ... An Architecture to Celebrate Press Freedom !!

"D.E.M O'Cracy beloved husband of T.Ruth, father of L.I.Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice expired on 26 June" 
On 26th June, 1975, the day after the censorship of press was imposed by the Indira Gandhi Government during emergency, the Bombay edition of the Times of India carried this entry in their obituary column !!!

Freedom of Press was always been a headache for the different State machineries throughout the world from time to time. History vouch for those instances. Colonial India, too was not an exception. But few wise men were also there who, in spite of being a part of the bureaucracy, ensured the liberty of press. One of them was Governor General Charles Metcalfe. This week, WANDERLUST explores Metcalfe, his actions towards freedom of press and specially the architecture, METCALFE HALL, which was built to commemorate his landmark initiative.

(at the crossing of Hare Street and Strand Road)


Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe was the acting Governor General of India during the period 1835-36. He succeeded Lord William Bentinck and served for a relatively brief period of one year. But Sir Charles Metcalfe's name is deserved to be remembered in the history of journalism in India as it was he who even in those authoritarian days, had the foresight to realize the need and importance of reasonably unrestricted press fulfilling the functions of providing information as also subjecting the government to healthy criticism.

Sir Charles Metcalfe 
(Image Courtesy: wikimedia)
The early 19th century saw Indian press struggling against the regulations meant to restrict its freedom. The first such threat emanated on 13th May, 1799 when Marquess Wellesley issued guidelines for the papers published in Calcutta which required every printer to print his name at the bottom of the paper and pre-censorship of the papers. The penalty for infringement of the law was to be immediate deportation. Comprehensive regulations were issued in 1823 by John Adam, the acting Governor General of Bengal, which made the restrictions on the press more stringent. These regulations provided for obtaining a licence before printing or publishing anything. Adam looked upon the freedom of the press as threat to country's rule.

When Metcalfe succeeded Bentinck for a short period, leaders of the Indian and European press in Calcutta submitted to him a petition in 1835 seeking the repeal of the restrictions on the press and he assured them a system of reformative measures. The most significant aspect of Metcalfe's revision was a repeal of the most criticised provision of the Adam's regulations regarding pre-publication licensing and its substitution by registration under which an Individual was free to print without permission but was liable for punishment if he printed seditious and calumny. So, Metcalfe was the first Britisher who as Governor General repealed all the press restrictions in existence i.e. of 1823, 1825 and 1827 and has been bestowed with the title of Liberator of Indian Press.

But by promulgating the law relaxing the restrictions of the press, Metcalfe complicated his relations with the directors at home and was demoted as Governor of north-west provinces.


From H. Seth's Residence to Construction of Metcalfe Hall: To mark Charles Metcalfe's effort towards Press Freedom, Indians along with Europeans decided to set up a Public Library. A committee was formed in 1838 to manage the work. The spot selected for the construction of Metcalfe Hall was earlier owned by Harinarayan Seth, an aristrocratic Bengali who earned most of his fortune with the support of East India Company. His residence was used as the 'Sailors' Home', a destitute seamen's asylum which was later shifted to the place where Ralli Brothers building stands today, due to the construction of Metcalfe Hall. 

(Image Courtesy & Copyright - Heritage Structure of West Bengal)
The construction work began in 1840. Design was prepared by the then City Magistrate C K Robinson and its a reflection of British Imperial Architecture of nineteenth century. Facing the Hooghly river on the west, the building follows the notable Greek order from the Tower of the Winds, Athens. After the completion in 1844, Calcutta Public Library, formed by Lord Metcalfe himself was shifted here from Esplanade.

TOWER OF THE WINDS, ATHENS: Tower of the Winds is an octagonal clock tower in Athens, built in around 50 BC. But the confusion is if Metcalfe Hall was built after the order of the Tower of the Winds, as mentioned in every source, then What is the similarity between the architecture of the two structures? For the readers' convenience I am uploading here a photo of the Tower of the Winds.

(Image Courtesy & Copyright - Marc's Blog)
The whole structure is in no way similar to the Metcalfe Hall. Therefore to understand the similarity between the two, we first have to decipher some architectural jargon. There are three distinct styles under the classical Greek architecture - Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Each distinguished by its characteristic profiles and most readily recognizable by the ornamentation of Column employed.

CAPITAL: It forms the topmost member of a column in an architecture. In simple words it is the design of the upper end of a column.

ENTABLATURE: It refers to the superstructure of moldings which lie horizontally above columns, resting on their capitals.

Hence, each order of the Greek architecture has distinctive capitals and entablatures.

Here lies the specialty of Tower of the Winds. The design of the capital used in the Tower's porticoes were first encountered in this 2000 year old clock tower though such styles were later found to be frequent as well at Athens as in other parts of Greece. Being the simplified version of the Greek Corinthian order it became commonly known as the TOWER OF THE WINDS ORDER. Metcalfe Hall was constructed following this order only.


The METCALFE HALL stands on a 10 feet high solid ornamental basement, with 30 Corinthian columns of 36 feet height rising from it, supporting the massive entablature. A close look in to the Capitals of the columns will reveal that the design is a single row of acanthus leaves surrounding a single row of palm leaves being the specialty of TOWER OF THE WINDS ORDER. This particular order became popular for domestic works in the 19th century. A full Greek Corinthian capital was costly and difficult to produce and was overly monumental for most houses. The Tower of the Winds capital, however, had the elegance of the Corinthian order but was more restrained and delicate.  

Here, is a comparison of notable Corinthian Capital designs (some are composite Ionic-Corinthian capitals) from prominent architectures of BBD Bag-Esplanade area.  

Various Corinthian Capitals from BBD Bag-Esplanade Area
Another small but interesting feature of Metcalfe Hall is the series of small Lion's heads arranged at equal intervals throughout the upper-most Cornice of the Hall. It is actually meant for the water outflow from the Cornice or the Roof.

The main entrance of the Hall is from the west, comprising a giant flight of stairs which is now closed. The building is now accessed through the portico on the east.


Initially the building housed the Calcutta Public Library (CPL) collection, formed by Lord Metcalfe himself who transferred 4,675 volumes from the Library of College of Fort William. Dwarkanath Tagore was the first proprietor of Calcutta Public Library. Established at the residence of Dr. Strong in Esplanade, CPL was transferred to the College of Fort William in July, 1841 and finally got a new home when Metcalfe Hall founded in 1844. 

The Imperial Library was formed in 1891 by combining several secretariat libraries of Calcutta. In 1903 Lord Curzon, Governor General of India conceived the idea of opening a library for the use of general public. He decided to amalgamate the rich collection of CPL and Imperial Library and the new amalgamated library, called IMPERIAL LIBRARY, was formally opened to the public on 30th January, 1903 at Metcalfe Hall.

After the independence, Government changed its name to NATIONAL LIBRARY and the collection was shifted to the present Belvedere Estate which was opened on 1st February, 1953.


Presently the ground floor consists of the Asiatic Society's rare foreign journals and manuscripts section, while the first floor houses the offices, exhibition galleries and sales counter of the Sub-Circle of Archaeological Survey of India.

For photography inside Metcalfe Hall, you will require the permission from the Circle office of ASI at Salt Lake.


  • Kolikata - Sekaler O Ekaler by Harisadhan Mukhopadhyay.
  • Handbook of Journalism & Mass Communication by Vir Bala Agarwal & V S Gupta
  • The Classicist Blog 
  • Wikipedia

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