Saturday, July 16, 2016

ST. JOHN'S CHURCH ... where History lies in every corner !!

The objective of my blog is to 'know the unknown' but is it always necessarily be an unknown structure or a place, couldn't it be a well-known monument with little-known or unknown history? That sounds a bit contradictory, right? If it's well-known then how come the history is unknown? Well, it could be ...

These days the heritage structures of the City are used to get a lot of attention due to variety of reasons. The Raj era edifices are regularly featured in print and visual media through the works of bloggers, photographers, journalists, film makers and tour operators. One such popular destination is St. John's Church, situated in the office-para, BBD Bag. Though much have already been written about the Church, a lot are yet to be covered.

WANDERLUST presents before you the St. John's Church, with many never-before-read detail, through its most elaborate post till date ...

P.S. St. John's Church also holds a secret for a long time. A hidden tomb of a significant person, which you will encounter, for the first time, through this post. Read till the end to unearth the secret ... 


St. John's Church is the oldest surviving Anglican Church of Kolkata and the third oldest Church of the City, next to the Armenian Church and the Old Mission Church. Constructed in 1787, the Church served as the Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta till the consecration of St. Paul's Cathedral in 1847. Designed by Architect Lt. James Agg along the lines of St. Martin-in-the-fields of London, the Church was built by the funds procured through donations and lottery.


A part of the premise on which the Church now stands was originally a cemetery but varied opinions are there about how and when exactly the land was started to be used as a sepulture. Writers like Cotton or some earlier East India Co. records state that just beside the river (the present Strand Road was the course of Hooghly river then) the piece of land was an elevated one than the rest of the area. The company officials who travel back and forth between the factories at Hooghly and Baleswar, used the ground to bury their comrades who breathe their last during the voyage. It was a practice since the late 17th century, much before Job Charnock arrived here. According to another argument I found in a 1824 Journal (which quotes Capt. Hamilton), the first person interred here was the Hindu wife of Charnock. The place, originally appropriated as the family grave of Charnock, became a receptacle of the last remains of Calcutta's English population after the death of Charnock himself in 1693. But whatever the truth is, the ground was certainly used for burials until the South Park Street cemetery or the Great cemetery came up in 1767.

To the east of this burial ground, there was an 'Old Powder Magazine Yard' or simply a storage tank for gun powder during the invasion of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah in 1756. The tank was a massive circular brick erection of sixty feet diameter, remaining unused since the invasion. Together with an approximate hundred square feet tank nearby, the magazine yard was privately auctioned by the Company on 11th January, 1774 and purchased by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sobhabazar Deb family. Raja Nabakrishna 'presented' this same property to Warren Hastings (against a consideration of 10000 rupees as per Cotton) in December, 1783, for the construction of the Church, who in turn offered it to the building committee or the Church committee. The construction started in 1784.


An Anglican Church, in simple term, means a church relating to the Church of England or the Anglican denomination. At the time of Charnock, there was no place of Christian worship in this new settlement. The first Anglican church of Calcutta was St. Anne's, set up in 1703 and was located roughly where the principal rotunda of Writers' building stands today. Built by the contributions from the Company and Company officials and furnished with the iron-works from the Fort St. George of Madras, St. Anne's lost her spire in the infamous cyclone of 1737. Later, after the siege of Calcutta by Siraj in 1756, only the ruins of the Church remained. Next year, as the British recovered the town after the battle of Plassey, a Chapel was built on the south of the eastern gateway of the Old fort and it served as the Presidency church for the next twenty-seven years. For three years, post battle of Plassey, the Protestant population of Calcutta also performed their divine services at the Portuguese Church at present day Brabourne Road, a Catholic place of worship all throughout !!

In the meantime, various proposals were made in favour of a Church, either by converting an existing place within the then white town or to construct a new one in the vicinity. In 1770, Rev. William Johnson arrived in Calcutta (the fourth and last husband of Begum Johnson, whose tomb we will discuss here soon) as the Chaplain. Six years after his arrival, in 1776, he petitioned the Council to provide a permanent building as the place of worship and the plan finally took shape in 1782.

The Church committee comprised of Governor General Warren Hastings, Edward Wheeler, John Stable, Chaplain William Johnson and several others of high rank. With the sanction of the plan, initiatives were taken to accumulate the funds. A public lottery was held in 1784 and more than Rs.10000 was collected. Among the other contributions, major ones were, Rs.30000 from Umichand's earmarked money towards the Company, another sum of 30000 by Company itself, a portion of the restitution money paid by Mir Jaffar and other amounts realised from confiscated properties. Altogether more than Rs.70000 was collected to fund the shrine.

In the meantime, the foundation stone was ready to be laid. In the absence of Governor General Hastings, acting president of the Committee Mr. Edward Wheeler laid the first stone on 6th April, 1784 with full masonic ceremonial after a public breakfast at Old Court House (now the place occupied by St. Andrew's Church). The engraved brass tablet testifying the occasion was later removed and replaced with a marble one.


Lt. James Agg of Engineer Corps (later came to be known as Bengal Engineers) offered to serve as the Architect in January, 1784 and was accepted. Being the son of a stonemason, Lt. Agg came to India in 1777. The model for St. John's was the St. Martin-in-the-fields of London, designed by James Gibbs in 1726, which was a prototype for building English churches then. But Lt. Agg had to make some modifications in the design to accommodate for the soft ground.

The construction and the arrangement for it was a collective effort. Sandstone from Chunar was used for the Steeple and the Spire. Capt. Caldwell dispatched the stones from the quarries at Chunar while Mr. Wilkins supervised the moulding of the stones at Benaras. Blue Marbles from the ruins of Gour (the stones were finely polished as per the records), which were already removed from the Gour's tombs in 1768-69 by Major Adams during survey work, were used for Church pavements. Mr. Grant superintended the supply of marbles from Malda to Calcutta. The extensive use of stones earned the Church its native nickname 'Pathure Girja' or Stone Church.

Another benefactor was Lord Cornwallis who enriched the Church fund in 1786 with a private subscription of Rs.3000. Mr. Phineas Hall, a barrister, looked after the legal contracts while Mr. Arthur Davis took care of the Church hall decoration.

View of the Church from the East end, 1794

The original design of the Church didn't have the wide porticoes on either side, the carriage porch on the west or present front and the Apse or the curved back of the present Altar. The shape was typically rectangle. The eastern staircase was made of Chunar stones. The chief entrance was through the middle of the eastern wall through a vestibule which opened up at the back of the curved recess enclosed with the Altar.

The North and South Portico respectively

The vestibule on the eastern wall was abolished in 1811 when major renovation work was undertaken at the initiative of Governor General Minto. The wide porticoes on north and south, supported by eight massive Doric columns on each side, was added during this time, probably with the idea of converting it into a Cathedral.

The Carriage Porch on West, the present entrance

Much after, the carriage porch was added on the west and the Altar was converted into an Apse. Both the porch and the east facade feature six Doric columns each. 

East face or the back side (L), the old entrance of the Church (R), note the granite pavement before the door

The extended portion on the east can still be identified by the distinct granite pavement between the Chunar stone staircase and the wall. The inclined access drives known as palanquin slopes, on each of the Church's west and east face were used by the horse-drawn carriages and were built by Douglas Ross & Co.. The ferolith patent stone marking their work can be seen on the pavements.

During the construction, all the graves of the adjacent burial ground were dug up and the remains removed. The only graves to have been left undisturbed were those of Job Charnock and Admiral Watson. Few surviving headstones were arranged in the ground around Charnock's mausoleum. Though later, few judges of Supreme Court, Chaplains and Lord Brabourne were interred in the premise. 

After full three years, the ceremony of consecration took place on Sunday, 24th June, 1787, being the nativity or the birthday of St. John the Baptist, the apostle of the Jesus, As Warren Hastings had already retired, Lord Cornwallis was present as the Governor General apart from Justice John Hyde, Justice Sir Robert Chambers and other dignitaries. The Church as well as the ground surrounding it were consecrated on that day. The ceremony was carried out with the necessary legal instruments under the seal of Archbishop of Canterbury. The two children of Mr. R C Plowden and Mr. John Burgh were baptized on the occasion.


In 1813, the Charter of the East India Company was extended for another twenty years which empowered the King to establish a Bishop's seat in Calcutta and an Archdeaconry in each of the three presidencies, namely. Bengal, Bombay and Madras. Thus, in May, 1814 Thomas Middleton was consecrated as the first Bishop of Calcutta in London's Lambeth Palace Chapel and arrived here in November that year along with Henry Loring, the first Archdeacon of Bengal Presidency. Under Middleton's Bishopric, in December, 1814 St. John's Church was converted into a Cathedral (the Central Church of the diocese) and remained so till the consecration of St. Paul's Cathedral in 1847 by Bishop Wilson. St. Paul's Cathedral was constructed to provide for more space to the growing European population of Calcutta.


The Hall of the St. John's went through two major set of renovation after the original construction, one in 1811 and the other in 1901. As I have said earlier, the main entrance to the hall was originally through the eastern wall. A vestibule was there which opened up at the back of the curved recess enclosed with the Altar. On the both sides of the Altar there were staircases leading up to the north and south galleries. The galleries were used by the Governor General, his council, Judges of the Supreme Court and women. The columns supporting the roof and the galleries were formerly of Doric order which were later converted to Corinthians in 1811. During the quadrennial repairs of 1901, both the galleries were removed leaving only a small portion with the timber spiral staircase on south-west. In the entire hall, the pavement of blue-grey marbles from the ruins of Gour is a special attraction. 

Pulpit and Lecturn

Most of the artefacts and memorial tablets inside deserve a separate blogpost of its own and have intriguing unknown (hi)stories. Let's check it out ...  


The original Altar of the Church was later renovated and the Apse was added. Adorned with a semi-circular mural and two Ionic columns, the Apse also houses the Table of the Lord designed with marble artworks and topped by a polished brass Cross. The pavement of the Apse is made of chinese marble. In the Chancel (front portion of Altar before the Apse), there are pews on both sides meant for the Choir.

During my coverage of St. John's, I get to know that Bishop Middleton was buried in the Altar and a tombstone was there marking the spot. An extensive search explored the inscription which till date, has not been covered by any recent literary works on the Church, possibly unknown to the Calcuttologists.

Tombstone of Bishop Middleton - In the Chancel aisle, before the chinese marble steps to the Apse, there is a square black diamond-shaped stone in the ground with the inscription -
Ob. VIII Julii
This marks the final resting place of Thomas Fanshaw Middleton, the first Bishop of Calcutta. The rest of the inscription means 'Doctor Divinitatis, obit 8th July, 1822' (Obit from latin Obitus, meaning death). Suffered from a sun-stroke, Bishop Middleton passed away on 8th July and was interred in the Altar on 12th July with the special permission from the Government as he was the first person to be buried within the Church. Though his wish was to be buried in the vault beneath the Bishop's College Chapel but it was not consecrated by then so St. John's was chosen.

Tombstone of Bishop Middleton

The present article on St. Paul's Cathedral in Wikipedia states that Middleton was buried there but it's an apparent mistake since the Middleton died in 1822 and the construction of St. Paul's started in 1839 and hence, the mistake should be rectified soon. To see and photograph the tombstone of Middleton, one should not climb up the Altar as it's prohibited. I took the photo using a selfie-stick.

There are three more plaques on the Altar wall in memory of 1) John Mathias Turner, the third Bishop of Calcutta, 2) Rev. Daniel Corrie, once Bishop of Madras and former Archdeacon of Calcutta and 3) Henry Llyod Loring, the first Archdeacon of Bengal

The Altar once had the beautiful kneeling statue of Bishop Heber sculpted by Francis L. Chantrey, later moved to the St. Paul's Cathedral along with the Episcopal throne.


On the right side of the main Altar, separated by a wooden partition, there is a Demi-Altar housing the Table of the Lord, a wooden Cross, a Jesus Portrait and a memorial tablet. It is called the Lady Chapel. On the wall above the three-fold stained glass window, depicting the life of Jesus, is surely an eye-catcher. The glass window is the memorial of Henry Inglis of Cherrapunjee who was an Industrial pioneer of Assam and whose company once controlled most of the limestone quarries of North-east.


Within the Altar, on the left, there is the old but still smoothly functioning Pipe Organ. The Organ predates the Church. It was originally inside the St. Mary's Church of Fort St. George, Madras, the oldest Anglican Church of India. When French occupied Madras during 1746-49, they took away the Organ to Pondicherry. It was retrieved in 1761 by the British, by capturing the French base of South India. But by then, a new instrument was already in the place at St. Mary's so it was kept in storage and later sent to Calcutta when St. John's was constructed.

The magnificent instrument is played by Mr. Johnny Purty for the Sunday mass or at special occasions. Check out the videos here

Johnny Purty in action

The Organ was reconstructed in 1923, jointly by Wm. Hill & Son and Norman & Beard Ltd. Recently being renovated, the instrument is serviced at regular intervals by an expert from Jharkhand.     

The Church Piano


Inside the Church, the most celebrated of the artefacts is the painting ‘Last Supper’ by German Painter Johann Zoffany drawn after the famous masterpiece of Leonardo da Vinci. Though the painting isn’t the exact copy of Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’, Zoffany had added some colonial touches to it. Earlier being an Altar-piece, now hanging on the left wooden wall of the Organ, the painting was presented to the Church by the Artist on 9th April, 1787, almost 3 months prior to the consecration of the Church.

All the figures in the picture are said to have been inspired from real life, specifically from the persons of the then Calcutta. Jesus himself was based on the Father Parthenio, the well-known Greek priest of that time. Apostle John, in Leonardo's original, was an effeminate figure. Here, leaning upon the Jesus’s shoulder, John is based on the police magistrate, William Coats Blacquiere. The effeminate Blacquiere was a master of disguise, and was particularly adept at passing himself off as a woman. Though in the opinion of many, the choice was inappropriate as Blacquire was described as ‘Brahmanized European’, notorious for his hostility towards Christianity. 

Regarding the portrayal of Judas Iscariot, the infamous betrayer, a mini controversy is there. Some say, the figure was after a certain English resident of Lucknow who betrayed both the Nawab and the Zoffany and earned his portrayal as Judas in many works of the Painter. In opinion of others, the inspiration was either Mr. Paul, a Resident at Court of Oudh who severely criticized the policies of Lord Wellesley or Mr. Tulloh, a Calcutta auctioneeer, who upon his portrayal as Judas, filed lawsuit against the painter. The other apostles are said to be drawn after the leading merchants of the City. 

About the colonial touches in Zoffany’s ‘Last Supper’, there are three. First, the sword on the left wall, similar to that of a common peon’s sword; second, the metal water ewer, in front of the table, copied from the Indian spittoons and the third, the water filled ‘Bhisti’ bag besides the ewer. The camel skin or goat skin bags used for storing water were used by the Bhistiwallahs, now a vanishing profession.

It is said that Zoffany used to charge Rs.1000 per figure for his pictures. But this painting, supposed to be originally estimated at Rs.13000, was a gift by him. Zoffany’s another ‘Last Supper’ is now at the St. Paul’s Church in Brentford, London.  Two other Zoffany originals are also in Calcutta. One, a painting of Elijah Impey, first Chief Justice of Supreme Court, is now in room no. 1 of Calcutta High Court and the other, ‘The Embassy of Hyder Beck’ or Haider Beg, the Wazir of Oudh after whom Beckbagan is named, may be seen hanging on Victoria Memorial Wall. The ‘Last Supper’ of St. John’s was recently restored in 2010 by INTACH in collaboration with the Goethe Institute of Kolkata.

The 'Last Supper' was earlier on the wall above the main entrance. Now, from the main entrance, facing the Altar, let's take a tour of the hall in the counter-clockwise fashion.


John Adam was the acting Governor general of India during January-August, 1823. The cenotaph, a splendid piece of sculpture, features apart from the inscription, two female figures. The one on the right holding a 'fasces' and the other on the left holding a 'plumb-rule', signifying the civil authority and justice respectively. 

It was under Adam's authority that the regulations restricting the freedom of press were enacted which were later withdrawn by another acting Governor General Charles Metcalfe.


The north-west corner of the hall has been dedicated, since 1960, to the fallen British soldiers of the World war I & II and consists of several brass and wooden plaques featuring the names.

The three larger plaques below commemorate the Calcutta members of the British army who lost their lives in WWI. The plaques were transferred to the Church in 1959 from the Glorious Dead Cenotaph of Maidan. 

The small wooden tablet in the centre high above, was placed here in 1957 from the Bengal United Service Club of Chowringhee (present Geological survey of India) after it closed down in 1949. It's in the memory of soldiers died in WWI. Check out Concrete Paparazzi Deepanjan Ghosh's article on Bengal United Service Club here.  

Light Horse Memorial

The two wooden tablets on left and right, high above on the wall are the Calcutta Light Horse Memorial. Calcutta Light Horse was a cavalry regiment of British Army, involved in the WWII. Earlier, the memorials were at the Saturday club, Wood Street. The Light Horse Bar of the Saturday Club is also named after the regiment, in which Colonel Louis Mountbatten was also a member.

On the second Sunday of November every year, Remembrance Day memorial services were performed in St. John's in memory of the soldiers of WWI & II. Check out Rangan Datta's blog on the same.


On the north wall may be found a marble monument, another fine work of art, depicting a soldier in uniform and a woman in the posture of grief on either side of a funeral casket surmounted by arms and trophies. 

The monument is in the memory of Lt. Col. John Ludlow, a British Army officer remembered for his courage in Anglo-Nepalese war of 1814-16. He died while posted at Baroda in 1821 and the memorial was built by the Neemuch Field force (Neemuch, a town in MP) under his command. The monument was designed by W. Pistell.


Among the plaques and memorials of St. John's, few memorials are there commemorating the soldiers died in the Sepoy Mutiny or Great Mutiny of 1857. One of them is in the memory of James Erskine, a young trooper in Capt. Barrow's Volunteer Horse (a regiment comprised of 20 civilian volunteers who fought Sepoy Mutiny). Erskine died at an early age of 21 in the combat of Lucknow.


This is another monument from Anglo-Nepalese war in memory of Lt. Peter Lawtie, a member of the Corps of Engineers in the Bengal Army who died in Nepal in 1815. On the south wall, just before the Lady Chapel, the sculpture features an Indian sepoy gazing at a coffin held open by an angel. Here the dress of the sepoy is noteworthy. Comprising of an uniform coatee (short coat), bandolier (shoulder belt with pockets for cartridges), necklace, drawers exposing the legs and a pair of slippers, the outfit gives a clear desi touch. 

The monument was erected by Sir David Ochterlony and the officers under his command.


In the south wall, may be found one of the most famous memorials of St. John's, the memorial of Lt. Col. James Achilles Kirkpatrick. His love-affair with the granddaughter of the Hyderabad Nizam's paymaster, Khair-Un-Nissa, was sketched by Scottish historian William Dalrymple in his famous book 'The White Mughals'.

It is said that Khair-Un-Nissa's father was in favour of a marriage following the Islamic customs and was pretty adamant. Refusing to leave his love, Kirkpatrick agreed. After some initial tension, British high command accepted the union as Kirkpatrick was an efficient British resident at Hyderabad and the Company was in favour of maintaining a good relation with the Nizam. Kirkpatrick was so obsessed with the oriental Muslim culture that he used to live the life of a Hyderabadi Muslim elite. The marriage union was a happy one and they had two children. Though some say that under the Governor-generalship of Wellesley, he was reprimanded and dismissed as Wellesley was dead set against the British-India liaison but the truth is Kirkpatrick did well by executing six treaties during 1798-1804 between the Nizam and the British. According to both Cotton and Dalrymple, Kirkpatrick was summoned to Calcutta, in 1805, by Lord Cornwallis who wanted to consult him. But suffering from a fatal illness, Kirkpatrick died in Calcutta on 15th October, 1805 and was buried in North Park St. cemetery where Assembly of God Church school stands today.

Designed by sculptor James Bacon Jr. and erected by his father and brothers, the Kirkpatrick memorial holds some significance linked to his ancestral legacy. Two woman figures, one with the pendulum signifying Justice and the other with the telescope denoting Science, are seen seated upon a plinth upholding a funeral urn. The urn bears the family coat of arms of the Kirkpatricks. Between the masks of Vulcan and Mercury, two Roman Gods, the coat of arms features dripping daggers and the motto 'I mak sikker' (meaning 'I'll make sure') referring to the role of Robert Kirkpatrick in the Scottish War of Independence during 1306. We all have heard about Robert Bruce (that spider web story, remember?), the hero of Scottish War of Independence. Robert Kirkpatrick was his associate. With the help of Kirkpatrick, Bruce murdered John Comyn, an influential Scottish man during the war. After becoming the King, Bruce granted Kirkpatrick his own family coat of arms featuring 'I mak sikker' as an insignia which was uttered by Kirkpatrick while committing the murder.


Next to the Kirkpatrick memorial is Cruttenden monument in memory of George Cruttenden, a major of Bengal Army. The family residence of Cruttendens was at the north of Old Fort when Siraj invaded Calcutta in 1756. Surviving the seize, George's father Edward, a council member, flew to Falta.

The marble sculpture holds a medallion portrait at the centre, an Indian male figure on the left and a seated Hindu woman with an infant to the right. The circular panels on either side of the inscription illustrate the benevolence of George Cruttenden.


Adjacent to Cruttenden's memorial is a monument erected by public contribution to the memory of Michael Cheese, a Surgeon of fort William who passed away in 1816 and was buried in the North Park St. cemetery. The bas-relief, a ditto of his tomb, represents the story of the Good Samaritan from the Parables of Jesus.

Both the Cruttenden monument and the Cheese memorial were sculpted by Richard Westmacott.


Near the Kirkpatrick memorial, is a rather more humble marble plaque in the memory of James Pattle and his wife Adeline. A member of Bengal Civil Service, Pattle was an ancestor of William Dalrymple

Once Dalrymple told the following story to the Indian newspaper The Telegraph, in an interview: "Seven generations of my family were born in Calcutta, there are three Dalrymples sitting inside St John’s graveyard. And a great-great-grandfather’s plaque is on the St John’s Church wall, James Pattle. James Pattle was known as the greatest liar in India. A man supposed to be so wicked that the Devil wouldn’t let him leave India after he died. Pattle left instructions that when he died, his body should be shipped back to Britain. So, after his demise (in 1845) they pickled the body in rum, as was the way of transporting bodies back then. The coffin was placed in the cabin of Pattle’s wife and the ship set sail from Garden Reach. In the middle of the night, the corpse broke through the coffin and sat up. The wife had a heart attack and died. Now both bodies had to be preserved in rum. But the casks reeked of alcohol and the sailors bored holes through the sides of the coffins and drank the rum… and, of course, got drunk and the ship hit a sandbank and the whole thing exploded, cremating Pattle and his wife in the middle of the Hooghly! That’s why you see a plaque on the wall and not a grave in the graveyard of my great-great-grandfather". Although Cotton claims that Pattle's remains were conveyed back to England and deposited in the family vault of Camberwell.

Pattle and Adeline had seven beautiful daughters popularly known to the then Calcutta as 'beautiful Miss Pattles'. Frederick Leveson-Gower, a visitor to Calcutta in 1850 writes "you must know that wherever you go in India, you meet with some member of the Pattle family. Every other man has married, and every other woman has been a Miss Pattle".


Before leaving the hall, this is our last point. The superbly crafted marble monument by Richard Westmacott is dedicated to the memory of Alexander Colvin, an eminent merchant based on Calcutta who died in 1818. The founder of Colvin, Ainslie & Cowie, operated his agency firm from the Hastings st. residence. In the memorial sculpture, two female figures may be seen upon the either side of a beehive, a symbol of the industry and the other figure, a Hindu woman below, seated on a Indian bamboo-stick mat is an excellent example of Westmacott's craftsmanship. The memorial was erected by the merchants of Calcutta.

On the north-west and south-west corner of the hall, high on the wall, may be found the memorials of Lord Cornwallis and Lord Minto, under whose regime the Church was consecrated and renovated in 1787 and in 1811 respectively. In fact, after the bust of the Lord Minto on the south-west corner got damaged in 1897 earthquake, a new bust was erected on the north-west wall in 1910.


On the passage, leading to the hall from the chief entrance, a third memorial of Anglo-Nepalese war may be found on the right. Adorned with a war scene between Gurkha and British armies, the monument is in the memory of Capt. Charles Lionel Showers, Lt. Humphry Bagot and Lt. Edward Wilson Broughton, all of whom were a part of Bengal Infantry regiment and fell during the capture of Malaun in 1815.


On the left of the passage there is the Church's office room while on your right, hidden behind a wooden partition, the Vestry room of the Church is located. The Vestry room was simply meant for the Church committee meetings but it was also the witness of the gatherings of the Council members as well. Simply put, once the Colonial India was ruled from this room only.

With the permission of the Church officer, one can visit the room, full of antiquities such as the Chair of Warren Hastings, the octagonal teak table and chairs, several portraits of the former Bishops, Chaplains and other officials, old photographs of the Church, an old time-piece and various other furniture from British era.

The Church was used to be a Freemasons' place as well. On 27th December, 1787, a general meeting of the Freemasons of Calcutta was held here. Rev. Johnson, a member of the fraternity, delivered a historical sermon on how the Society has originated from the Ancient Egyptians.   

There are several other memorial plaques and tablets in the hall telling you the curious stories of British India but finishing the tour of the hall here we would now proceed outside.


The Churchyard, most of which was formerly the Calcutta's first Christian burial ground, is nearly eighty years older than the Church. Once full of beautiful obelisks, pyramids and finely chiseled tombs, the ground was leveled during the Church construction and most of the graves were brought down. Mrs. Emma Roberts wrote in 1830, "This act of desecration ... gave great umbrage to the Christian Population of Calcutta ..." but the reason that was shown was "... in a condition of irreparable decay ... it was deemed necessary to pull down most of them in order to prevent any dangerous accidents which the tottering ruins threatened to such as approached them". The remaining tombs were done away with in 1802, leaving only the Charnock Mausoleum and the grave of Admiral Watson intact. 

From the main entrance at the crossing of Kiran Shankar Roy Road and Council House Street, the red murram pathways will take you to the Churchyard keeping the St. John's in the middle. Apart from the Lady Canning's memorial on the north portico, all other monuments are in the ground. 


On the north portico, situated the massive cenotaph of Elizabeth Charlotte Canning or the Lady Canning. She came to Calcutta in 1856 with her husband Lord Charles Canning, the Governor General of India. Being an enviable painter herself, she chose art to overcome her loneliness caused by the busy schedule of her husband's Gov. Generalship. Some three hundred and fifty watercolours by Lady Canning, from her tours in India, are displayed at the Museums of London. Her letters to the Queen Victoria are still a valuable source of information about the life in India. 

The garden of the viceregal resort of Barrackpore was her favourite spot. After a tedious journey through North Bengal in 1861 she was diagnosed with malaria and passed away on 18th November, 1861. She was buried in her favourite garden at Barrackpore. Later, Lord Canning commissioned a similar marble cenotaph like her tomb, in the courtyard of St. John's Church and the same was executed by George Gilbert Scott and John Birnie Philip. The beautiful sculpture on the portico can be reached through a small flight of stairs. The delicate mosaic, marble patterns and the ornate cross on the headstone leave an indelible impression to the visitors.

Legend has it that Lady Canning was fond of the Bengali sweet 'Pantua', a preparation of deep-fried chenna. Her fondness prompted the confectioner Bhim Nag Sweets to rechristen the item as 'Ledikeni', a colloquial version of 'Lady Canning'.


In a landmark verdict in 2003, Calcutta High Court ruled in favour of a Public Information Litigation (PIL), filed by Sabarna Roychowdhuri family and dismissed Job Charnock as the so called 'founder of Calcutta'. The panel of eminent historians opined that Charnock was merely the first among the British to have developed the City.  But his impression as the 'founding father' does not seem to fade away yet.

First arrived in India as a 'factor' of the East India Company in 1656, Charnock progressed to become the head of the Company's Patna factory in 1664. In 1681 he took the charge of the Cossimbazar factory and settled in Bengal. After being promoted as the Chief Agent of Bengal in 1686, Charnock first landed in Sutanuti in the very same year, fleeing from the Mughal Governor Shaista Khan's troops. The reason was that British had a dispute with Mughals over the payment of custom duties. Later, after the settlement of dispute at Aurangzeb's intervention, Charnock once again appeared at Sutanuti on 24th August, 1690. Then already fifty years old, he died only 3 years later. 

The white octagonal chamber, standing at the north-west corner of the churchyard, within a walled enclosure, is the mausoleum of Job Charnock. The oldest piece of masonry in the City, was erected by Charnock's son-in-law Charles Eyre, husband of his eldest daughter Mary.  Some early accounts of Calcutta, specially that of Capt. Alexander Hamilton, a sea captain turned merchant and a contemporary of Charnock, record that before Eyre erected the mausoleum, there was the grave of Charnock's Hindu wife. Though not much is known about her but it is said that during his Patna days, Charnock rescued a beautiful Hindu woman from the funeral pyre (the custom of Sati) and got married. After her demise, she was buried here and Charnock used to sacrifice a cock every year on her death anniversary! Now, there are some obvious questions. First, why would a Hindu woman, who had never converted to Christianity, was buried and secondly, what was the significance of sacrificing a cock at her tomb? While the first answer could be left on the personal choice of Charnock, the second doubt has a justified theory. The peculiar practice of sacrificing a cock is part of the worship of 'Panch Pir' or Five Saints in Bihar and not a Hindu custom. It was originally a ritual, primarily confined to low-class muslims. Hindus, probably adopted it and while posted in Patna, Charnock possibly picked it up. But being the children of an inter-religious marriage, Charnock's daughters might have never faced any barrier and that is evident from their dignified British husbands.

Inside, there are four memorial stones. The two in the middle commemorate Charnock (the obituary year 1692 as in the epitaph was later rectifed in the official records as 1693)  and his daughters Mary Eyre and Catherine White. Both the epitaphs are written in Latin. The right one belongs to Surgeon William Hamilton who cured Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar and earned precious gifts for himself and the Zamindari rights of 38 Parganas for the Company. The persian inscription in the epitaph was probably inscribed by the Mughal messengers, sent by the Emperor to confirm the death. The tablet on extreme left, of Martha Eyles, was shifted to this Mausoleum in 1982 along with that of Hamilton.  

There are also 30 tombstones on the ground, encircling the mausoleum, ranging from 1693 to 1767. These were preserved here after the excavation and removal of graves from the burial ground. The interesting point to note is that all these gravestones are made of a special form of rock similar to those of the Charnock and others, inside the chamber. The rock is the black granite stone, once known as Pallavarm Gneiss, bought from the Pallavaram area near Madras (Chennai). Geologist T. H. Holland analysed the stone in 1893 and named it 'Charnockite'. The black stones were used to be sent by the East India Company agents for the use in the tombs. Many articles now-a-days refer the construction material of the Mausoleum as the 'Charnockite' but no, it is actually the black granite tombstones.

During the repair work of the monument by Public Works Dept. in November, 1893, Rev. H. B. Hyde dug up the Mausoleum base to check whether there are any remains of the Charnock. At about six feet below he found some bones and stopped digging. He reported the same in a meeting of Asiatic Society and the note may be found in the 'Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1893'. Although my senior fellow bloggers, Rangan Datta and Deepanjan Ghosh choose to differ. In their opinion, it is highly unlikely that after two centuries of burial, remains could be found, specially in the humid tropical climate of India. 


Near the Charnock Mausoleum, at the Church lane entrance, stands a Greek temple style memorial. The grave of Begum Frances Johnson, an eighteenth century woman of remarkable longevity. Born on 10th April, 1725, she was the daughter of Edward Crook, Governor of Fort St. David. Living in style, Frances played a perfect host to the dignitaries like Warren Hastings, Lord Cornwallis, Arthur Wellesley who were her regular invitees. Being a popular socialite she had a wide circle of influential friends. One of them was Amina Begum, mother of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-Ud-Daulah who used to treat her with great respect. It is said that Frances acquired the sobriquet 'Begum' due to her friendship with Amina.

But she is remembered today, mostly because of her series of marriages. 

Husband 1) Parry Purple Templer - Epitaph says Frances' first marriage was in 1738, at the age of thirteen though H. E. A. Cotton claims it was in 1744. Templer, the nephew of Governor of Calcutta, with whom Frances had two children, died in January, 1748. The children too 'died infants'.

Husband 2) James Altham - In November same year, she married Altham, a merchant. But unfortunately he succumbed to small-pox within a fortnight.

Husband 3) William Watts - At the time of the marriage, in November, 1749, William Watts was a member of the Supreme Council and later transferred to the Cossimbazar factory as its chief. He had four children with Frances of which three survived. When, in 1756, the dispute between the Nawab Siraj and the British exploded into an open war, Watts alongwith Frances and the children were imprisoned. Here, Siraj's mother Amina befriended Frances and took her and the children to her Zenana. Later, after Siraj's defeat in Plassey, William took them to England in 1760 where after his death Frances returned to Calcutta in 1769 to administer her husband's estate.

Husband 4) Rev. William Johnson - A rich woman by then, Begum Johnson, probably suffering from a midlife crisis, married again in 1774. This time Rev. William Johnson who later became the Chaplain of St. John's Church. Being sixteen years junior to her, the Chaplain was used to treat her rather shoddily. The union was an unsuccessful one and ultimately annulled in 1787. 

Begum Frances Johnson died on 3rd February, 1812, completing nearly eighty seven years which was unbelievable then. It was in her honour, the Church's burial ground was opened again. Her epitaph concludes "The oldest British resident in Bengal, universally beloved, respected and revered".


Other than Charnock's tomb, Admiral Watson's memorial was the only one to have survived during the construction of St. John's. Admiral Charles Watson was the Commander-in-Chief of the British Naval forces and played a crucial role in Robert Clive's retaking of Calcutta. The concluding line of his epitaph "Exegit monumentum aere perennius" is a Latin phrase from Roman poet Horace's works meaning "I have raised a monument more permanent than bronze".

Besides the Watson's monument, there are three adjoined memorials which were built to house the tombstones or the epitaphs removed from the now demolished graves. The first one, from left, belongs to William Speke or 'Billy' Speke, an eighteen year old surgeon on the ship Kent commissioned by his father Capt. Henry Speke and under the Commander-in-Chief Admiral Watson. The ship with seventy guns was heavily bombarded during the siege of Fort Orleans at Chandannagar. In the war, Billy lost his leg and eventually died.  The second memorial speaks about Mrs. Eleanor Winwood. The interesting point is the last Latin phrase in the epitaph i.e. "Requiescat in pace" which simply means "Rest in peace". There is a little confusion regarding the third epitaph. It commemorates Mrs. Elizabeth Reed who passed away on 16th September, 1767 and her infant son who died soon after on November 17th at the age of one month and twenty-seven days. A quick back calculation puts the date of birth of the child on 20th or 21st September, 1767 i.e. atleast 4/5 days after his mother died !!! How's that possible??


The history of Holwell Monument is associated with the infamous 'story' of Black Hole Tragedy, a turning point in the history of Colonial India. Earlier the old fort or the Original Fort William of Calcutta stood where the GPO, the Collectorate, the RBI, the Failie Place office of Eastern Railway and the Customs House stand today. In June, 1756, Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah invaded Calcutta after a major dispute with the British. The then Governor of the Fort, Roger Drake fled away. John Zephaniah Holwell was elected as the new Governor. Siraj massacred the settlement and the defenders at the fort ultimately surrendered. Nawab ordered his sub-ordinates to confine the prisoners, 146 in numbers, for the night. 146 prisoners were forced into a dungeon of 14 ft. by 18 ft. with a single tiny window, on the night of 20th June, 1756. Due to the heat and suffocation, 123 of them died but Holwell somehow survived. This horrific act was later reported by Holwell and became infamous as the 'Black Hole Tragedy'.

J. Z. Holwell's account is the single source of the Black Hole confinement. Some eminent historians had later argued that the event didn't occur at all while others say the figure of the death toll was exaggerated to a large extent. However, after the battle of Plassey, Holwell erected a brick and plaster monument at the north-west corner of the Dalhousie square (the spot in front of the principal rotunda of Writers' building) in memory of the victims of the Black Hole Tragedy. The octagonal monument had six marble tablets inscribed with the name of the victims.

But with the passage of time, the condition of the monument deteriorated and finally under the orders of the Governor General Francis Rawdon Hastings, the memorial was dismantled in 1821. Much later, Lord Curzon took the initiative to build a marble replica of the Holwell Monument and placed it in the same position as the old one. The replica was erected on 19th December, 1902. It is said that while reading H. M. Busteed's Echoes from Old Calcutta, Curzon became deeply interested in the War of 1756 and the legend of Black Hole. He had not only built the replica but also placed brass lines and marble plaques, marking the site of the original or old Fort William. Many of his markings can still be found in the area. Check out Concrete Paparazzi's brilliant coverage of the Black Hole Memorials here

Faces of Holwell Monument, in the counter clockwise manner

But Curzon incorporated some alterations in his version of the memorial which were not there in the original. In the Curzon's structure i.e. the present obelisk, may be found the additional names of the victims who didn't perish in the Black Hole but died during the siege of Calcutta by Siraj. Lord Curzon had prepared the list personally with the help of Mr. S. C. Hill of the Indian Record Department. 

A marble plaque in memory of Mary Carey, a woman survivor of Black Hole may be found behind the Altar of the Portugese Church of Brabourne Road, marking the spot where she was interred after her death in 1801.

At the height of Indian Independence movement, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose launched the Anti-Imperialist campaign in 1940 against the British. He announced a march on 3rd July, 1940 to demolish the Holwell Obelisk, a symbol of Colonialism. Though Netaji was arrested on 2nd July on the eve of the march but British Government took no chance and shifted the monument to the yard of St. John's where it stands till date.   


The Rohillas were the Afghan highlanders, settled in the Katehr region of Northern India during seventeenth and eighteenth century. The word 'Rohilla' came from 'Roh' which is a pashtu word meaning mountain. The Yousufzai tribe from the mountainous region of Afghanistan formed the Rohillas though it includes several other tribes and sub-tribes. The area in Northern India where they settled, eventually became known as Rohilkhand

In the third battle of Panipath, 1761, the Nawab of Oudh Shuja-ud-Daulah was an ally of the Rohillas who fought against the Marathas. Marathas were defeated and in consequence, Rohillas increased in power. Ten years after that the scenario got reversed. Regaining their power, Marathas attacked the Rohillas again. This time Rohilla chief Hafiz Rahamat Khan had no option but to sign an agreement with the Nawab of Oudh that Nawab, assisted by the East India Company armies, would provide them protection against a hefty consideration of four million rupees. But the Afghan tribe, having almost no fund, couldn't pay the debt. As an obvious outcome, Shuja-ud-Daulah allied with British forces, attacked the Rohillas and dispersed them. That was the First Rohilla War of 1774. The British established a small protected state of Rampur and Faizullah Khan became the first Nawab under the British umbrella. After Faizullah Khan passed away in 1793, his son Ghulam Muhammad Bahadur ascended the throne, deposing elder brother Muhammad Ali Khan. But East India company decided to intervene again, possibly due to a dispute with the Rohilla Nawab. The Second Rohilla War, 1794 was fought and twenty five thousand Rohilla soldiers were massacred. Some British soldiers too lost their lives and it was decided to build a memorial in their memories.      

The cenotaph designed with twelve Grecian pillars is based on the Temple of Aeolus, designed by Sir William Chambers in 1760s, now standing in the Royal Botanic Garden of Kew, London. The memorial was erected shortly after the war at the joint expense of Mr. William Cooper of Council and Mr. George Hatch of Board of Revenue.  


Michael Herbert Rudolf Knatchbull or the 5th Baron Brabourne had a rather short period of service in India. Being a graduate of Royal Military Academy, he served in the First World War as a Captain. He became the Governor of Bombay in 1933. During his tenure, in 1936, he laid the foundation stone of the Brabourne Cricket Stadium of Bombay, the first permanent sporting venue of India. While serving as the Governor of Bengal he died in February, 1939. Brabourne Road of Kolkata was named after him. 

The phrase "IN CRUCIFIXA GLORIA MEA" at the end of the epitaph refers to his family motto of Knatchbull lineage meaning "My Glory is in the Cross".


On the western end of the Churchyard, before the wall, there are five graves in a line. Starting from the left, let's have a look.

  • The Grave of Rev. John Mathias Turner, the third Bishop of Calcutta whose memorial tablet is in the Church Altar.
  • The Grave of Sir Robert Henry Blosset, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the successor of Sir Edward Hyde East. Blosset was a master linguist like Sir William Jones. He was proficient at French, Italian, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Spanish apart from the few Indian languages. 
  • The Grave of Sir Chistopher Puller who was the immediate successor of Blosset. But unfortunately, within six weeks of swearing in as Chief Justice, Puller passed away.
  • The Grave of Sir Benjamin Heath Malkin, a Supreme Court Judge. His memorial tablet may be found in the Church wall.
  • The Grave of William Ravenswood Cowpar Jewell, a warden of St. John's Church. He was the commander of Calcutta Port Defense Volunteers.


On the north-east of the premise may be found the Vicarage, the residence of the Vicar or the Priest of the Church. Present Vicar of St. John's, Pradeep Kumar Nanda stays here.

The bungalow style building appears to be a early-twentieth century structure I guess.


On the Carriage Porch, before the main stairs, there is a marble slab fixed in the wall and used as a bench. A closer look would reveal that it is actually a tombstone of some Peter Pan (not the fictional character!) died in 1954. Curious enough, right?

Well, it is not a grave or a memorial of St. John's. It has an interesting story. Church officer Rangan Datta reveals that some years ago, on one night, the Officer on duty of Park St. Police station called up the Vicar of St. John's that they have caught a thief with a marble gravestone. But what to do with the stone slab? Possibly, the then Vicar had advised to bring it here and from then on the slab is in the premise. From the inscription, it seems that once it belonged to the Lower Circular Road Cemetery, as it was the only active graveyard in the area in 1954.


During my entire journey of St. John's, I haven't found a suitable answer to two of my doubts. Let me put those in the open forum. Let's see if we have a Robert Langdon or an Indiana Jones here? 

1. An old painting of St. John's of 1794 by Thomas Daniell (available in the internet as well as displayed in the Vestry room) shows a dilapidated temple like structure in the west end of the Church. What was that? It seemed to be large enough, at least similar to the Charnock Mausoleum. Was it a temple or a grave? I haven't found any reference of it anywhere yet.

2) There is a framed document in the Church passage wall before the hall. It looks like an agreement written in Latin having royal seals above. Church officials have no clue. Do you?

Now, for the conspiracy theory lovers. Freemasonry has always been a subject of conspiracy theories. The secret society, secret rituals, all seeing eye etc etc. If you closely observe the memorials inside St. John's you will find many symbols used in the sculpture that are said to be Freemasonic symbols (like the beehive in Colvin Monument, a freemasonic symbol of industry). Any idea why?

Notes for the Visitors:
  • The Church is open all day from 10 am to 5 pm. Please maintain the calm and quiet ambience inside the hall. Don't try to climb up the Altar as it's prohibited.
  • There is no restriction on Photography. You can shoot inside as well as outside freely. But as the site is maintained by ASI, use of any camera stand or tripod is prohibited.
  • Entry charge is Rs. 10 per head. Car Parking Charge is extra.
  • If you have any queries feel free to ask Church officer Rangan Datta or Johnny Purty. 
  • St. John's Church is situated at the crossing of Council House Street and Kiran Shankar Roy Road. Here is the location in Google map.    

Reflection of St. John's

The photographs featured in this post were mostly shot with mobile camera of my Lenovo S580. This is kind of an experiment with mobile photography. Comments, criticisms and suggestions are most welcome.

Special Thanks:
  • Church Officer Rangan Datta (not to be confused with veteran blogger Rangan Datta) and Conservation Supervisor Ravi Kotak for helping me about the intricate details of the Church.
  • Fellow blogger Deepanjan Ghosh (aka Concrete Paparazzi), for the photography and the editing tips and whose blogposts on St. John's Church and other edifices I followed. Check out his wonderful blog here.
  • I have visited the Church multiple times before this article. On one occasion I met fellow blogger Rangan Datta, to whom I'm thankful because of showing me the Organ room and the surviving church records from eighteenth century. Thanks to my friends Abhijit Das & Subhabrata Pramanick for accompanying me to the Church and helping me to find out the Bishop Middleton's Tomb.

  • Calcutta Old and New by H. E. A. Cotton
  • Kolikata Sekaler O Ekaler by Harisadhan Mukhopadhyay
  • The Life of the Right Reverend Thomas Fanshaw Middleton by Rev. Charles Webb Le Bas
  • The Historic Anglican Churches of Kolkata by Manish Chakraborti
  • Note on the Mausoleum of Job Charnock by H. B. Hyde in the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1893.
  • Cathedral Church of St. John at Calcutta, an article by T. Fisher in The Gentleman's Magazine; March, 1824
  • Article by V. Sriram in The Hindu; November, 2015
  • Wicked Man on the Wall by Samhita Chakraborty Lahiri in The Telegraph; January, 2010
  • BlogPost by Sahil Ahuja @; September, 2012
  • Article by Jacqueline Banerjee @
  • Article on Job Charnock @
  • The Petrology of Job Charnock's Tombstone by Thomas H. Holland in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1893
  • BlogPost by Muddy Loafers @; April, 2010
  • Netaji: Living Dangerously by Kingshuk Nag

- by Soham Chandra (with inputs from Abhijit Das)


  1. Nice piece of writing. Enjoyed a lot.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting ... please keep visiting

  2. Wonderful piece of writing.. Loved the mystery part the most.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting ... glad to know that you loved the mysteries ... Those are actually 'History' which, with the passage of time. became 'Mystery' ... Please keep visiting

  3. Well Researched and Well Written.Photo quality has improved a lot.Best article till date.

  4. hi soham...very nice and informative...i think u remember me... this is yogesh...we met at st john's church....grt job.....

    1. Thank you Yogesh ... I do remember you ... glad you liked my post ... please keep visiting

  5. Superb tour of one of Calcutta's great treasures, Soham!

    1. Thank you Sir for the read. Glad to know that you liked it. Please keep visiting.

  6. Heather, AustraliaAugust 2, 2016 at 7:22 PM

    Thank you for your wonderful tour of St. Johns, Soham. As a descendent of Johan Zoffany, I was even more intrigued !

    1. Thank you Sir for reading and commenting. The painting by your ancestor is one of the real treasures that Calcutta have. May I know your contact details like e-mail id so that I can get in touch with you?

  7. I am extraordinarily affected beside your writing talents, Thanks for this nice share.

  8. Amazing blog and very interesting stuff you got here! I definitely learned a lot from reading through some of your earlier posts as well and decided to drop a comment on this one!

  9. I literally stumbled on this gem of a post. I really wonder what makes bloggers like you to put in so much labour to churn out article after well researched article. I think it is very laudable trait of Calcuttalogists.

  10. It's amazing. -From Lalmohan Ganguly (Demoted)

  11. Thank you for the informative post. Unfortunately, Johnny Purty passed away some months ago.
    Is there any one else who can help me find out about Susana Anna Maria'marriage details? She married Pieter Bruyes in this church.

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  15. Hi, I came to your blog looking for answers to a few queries. I know you visited the vestry but you don't mention the paintings on the walls there - which leads to my question - if you had seen the paintings could you tell me of which Governor/Governor Generals they are? And did you get a chance to read the documents which are actual letters written by many important British officials? They would make for a very fascinating read!