Saturday, May 9, 2015

The story of a lost landmark

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, 2015-05-09 (Insight)

Chalmers Granaries

Chalmers Granaries were once a well-known landmark in Colombo, or precisely in Pettah. These were a complex of grain stores, situated in the square shaped land surrounded by Olcott Mawatha, Front Street (Malwatta Road), Main Street-Baron Jayathilake Mawatha and the canal between Fort and Pettah. These buildings once served as a granary or a store of imported grain before the distribution within the country.

The granaries functioned for decades, ensuring food security and sanitary food supplies until it was closed down. Chalmers Granaries are now no more as those were demolished few years ago (in 2012, as the Google Earth images show) to make way for modern buildings, yet to be built upon the site.The granary will be forgotten with time, although its name still being mentioned as the name of a place.

The history of this granary complex is not much discussed. Some writers have mentioned that this was built as a precaution against possible rice shortages at the commencement of the World War I. Some have dated its opening to 1916. However, the real facts are different from these, as it was built in respond to a plague and was opened on May 11, 1915, exactly a century ago.

Plague of 1914

The story of the granary begins with a serious plague that affected the country, predominately Colombo, in early 1914. An outbreak of the septeceamic plague, an infectious disease caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis, that took place from the end of January 1914. Introduced from India, this outbreak caused 401 deaths during that year in the country and went on to cause further deaths in next year. It was prevalent in present Colombo and parts of present Gampaha District and the majority of these deaths were from Colombo Municipality limits. It was mostly confined to the poorer classes of the area, but the commercial sector of the city was also affected. The impact on the harbor was crucial with labourers leaving the harbor, causing delays in shipping.

The British rulers of the country took steps to halt the spread of the disease to other parts of the country. Scientific investigations revealed that a flea was spreading the bacteria that were causing the disease and the host of the flea was rats. An anti-rat campaign was organized by the government and rats were killed by poisoning and trapping. Authorities also considered of unhygienic situation in Colombo rice stores. Sanitary rice stores were prepared instead of private stores, as a temporary measure. The unfinished customs warehouse and the newly built Fort Railway Station were among these temporary sanitary stores. A proper rat-free rice stores was an urgent need under these circumstances. It seems the Racquet Court site in the western end of Pettah was proposed for such a rice store, a granary.

Idea of a granary

The Racquet Court site was discussed at the Legislative Council on July, 27 1914. It seems that it was opposed by some as it was the only recreational ground available for the people living in the area. In addition the traders were of the fear that the government was aiming towards a monopoly in rice storage. Finally the Council passed a motion approving provision to be made for the erection of rice stores in Colombo. The Colonial Secretary also pledged that a committee will be appointed to report on the sites and ancillary measures that can be taken.
Accordingly, a committee was appointed by the Governor Sir Robert Chalmers to consider and report upon the sites and plans for a rice stores in Colombo. It was chaired by Frederick Bowes, the Principal Collector of Customs, and its members included key state officials and Legislative Council members. It had three meetings and in July and August 1914 and examined rice merchants, Health Officer of Colombo Municipality and submitted a report dated August 24th. The Committee recommended the government to erect a central warehouse in the Racquet Court and the adjoining grounds. It also recommended that all rice imported into Colombo should be stored in these buildings, and that no importers or other rice merchants should be allowed to store rice in their own private stores.

The Racquet Court site was the ideal site, as it facilitated easy transport as it was in close proximity to the harbor, railway and Pettah. The Public Works Department was ordered to proceed with its construction by Sir Robert Chalmers, who was the then Governor in Sri Lanka. ( then Ceylon)

This was the beginning of the granary complex, which became to known as ‘Chalmers Granaries’, named after the Governor who ordered its construction.

Rat proof

The construction of the granary complex was commenced in September 1914. The plan was to construct 10 granaries, with a storage capacity to store 500,000 bags of rice. The records say that the granaries were to be constructed with reinforced concrete walls, granite sett paved floors on cement concrete and rubble foundations with the aim of making those as rat proof as possible. Roofs were to be made of poilite iron trusses, and sliding doors were to be finished in corrugated iron. There were wide verandahs around the building and offices too. Railway sidings were to be made to facilitate direct loading of grain. The estimated cost of the scheme was Rs. 1,700,000.

The two sheds to be completed first were opened in the afternoon of May 11, 1915, with an illustrated function. Governor Chalmers was welcomed with honor by the rice merchants of Colombo. After a welcome speech by a Legislative Council Member, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam invited the Governor to open the granary. Chalmers unlocked a silver padlock with a silver key to open a sliding door of a granary shed. After inspecting the shed, he put a quarter bushel of samba rice to auction, measured with a silver quarter bushel measure. A beautiful silver casket was presented to the Governor by the rice merchants, which contained an inscription mentioning of the event. Since the sheds were the ultimate result of the deadly plague, Times of Ceylon reported this event under the headline ‘Seed of sanitary salvation sown by the plague’.

However the entire granary complex was completed only in 1918. The shortage of certain building materials such as cement and cast iron caused a delay in the construction, as the World War I caused problems in shipping. Finding poilite tiles for roofing, expected from Italy, was also a problem caused by the war. Sometimes, alternative materials were used as a substitute until the authorities received expected materials. The prices of the imported materials were higher than usual due to the war, but the Department was able to set off that additional expenditure by obtaining rubble and metal free from the quarry at Ragama, operated under prison labor.

The cost of the construction of Chalmers Granaries is stated at Rs. 1,697,198.67, a little less than the original estimate. The total value of the 9.89 acre land on which it stood was estimated at Rs. 2.967 millions.

A railway line was built to the granary complex, as railway was the principal mode of goods transport in the country at that time.

The name ‘Chalmers Granaries’ was in use as soon as the complex was opened, newspapers mentioning that name within a month of its opening. These granaries provided services for the country for several decades. As per the records it was in use in early 1980s. Finally the unused granary complex was demolished to pave way for a modern land use recently.
Courtesy: Google Earth

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