Painting Of Watson’s Esplanade Hotel
Why Is This Painting Of Watson’s Esplanade Hotel, In Mumbai (Bombay), Hanging In The Watson Institute?
This magnificent painting of a sumptuous building in foreign lands hangs on one end wall of the Watson Institute, now the village hall, in Castle Carrock. It’s approximately 200cm by 100cm in size. And it bears testimony to a remarkable story connecting the man who built the Institute with the building it portrays. Long a decaying, crumbling mass of iron and brick, and now known as “Esplanade Mansions”, the remains that are still left to see barely evoke the grandeur they once enjoyed as Bombay’s premier nineteenth century hotel.
So what’s so special about the building ?
Its design is unique because of its prefabricated and blatantly outward facing iron skeleton and its accompanying brick non load bearing insertions. It eschewed a traditional style for a direct expression of structure. For this reason, it can even be said to take its rightful place in the story of the evolution of the skyscraper. And it was unquestionably the first multi-storey habitable building in the world in which all loads, including those of the brick curtain walls, are carried on an iron frame. Like the Crystal Palace of 1851, it’s a landmark in the development of this type of design construction. Prior to similar buildings being constructed in Chicago in the 1880s, all other fully framed multi-storey buildings were built to serve the needs of exhibitions, industry or storage. Watson’s was built for habitation, and as such provided for bathing and ventilation, as well as internal transportation, including reputably housing India’s first power operated elevator.
And what of the connection with Castle Carrock ?
John Hudson Watson was born in 1818 in Castle Carrock. He was the first son of John Watson (1790-1880), a yeoman farmer, and his wife Jane Hudson (c1783-1826). John spent his childhood in the village along with his siblings Margaret (b.1817), Peggy (1820), William (1822) and Joseph (1826). John Hudson Watson may have continued the family farming tradition in his early working life but in the 1840s after getting married to Hannah Proctor, he moved with his brother William to London to set up a drapery business. In 1853, the two Watson brothers emigrated to Bombay and in 1856, two of John and Hannah’s children, James Proctor (1843-1923) and John jnr joined the firm as assistants. The business flourished. And ambition grew.
The first auction of plots on the Esplanade in Bombay took place in August 1864 and was attended by John Hudson Watson. He had some competition for his plans for lot Nos 11 and 12 but won through. He already had a shop close by – he was a silk mercer, draper and hosier and had already amassed a large fortune. Over the next few years, the development of public and private buildings in Bombay took place on a massive scale. John Hudson Watson’s original plan was not for a hotel but for additional office and showroom facilities for his thriving drapery and tailoring businesses down the road.
Why did it become a hotel ?
Original designs involving some kind of “iron house” dating from 1865 seem to stem from a little known architect called John Gascoigne who was to die two years later. It was late in that year that the evolution of the building into some kind of hotel first emerged as the city’s authorities realised that a new, 200 bedroom first class hotel would serve the city well as the cotton trade boomed. Visiting Europeans griped about mosquitoes, tropical diseases and the lack of good hotels in the city – and an opportunity presented itself.
But arguments over design, usage and construction between Watson and the city ensued.
We know that Watson started to begin to ship materials from England as early as October 1865. By January 1867, the Bombay Gazette was reporting that many of the materials had arrived – much of it having been organised by Watson’s brother in law from Wetheral, Thomas Thompson. According to the inscription beneath the painting, the red sandstone plinth and column bases came from Penrith. And it was in 1867 that on site assembly of the iron framework began.
The hotel was built between 1867 and 1869. Its final design was by the civil engineer Rowland Mason Ordish, who was also connected to the design of the roof of St Pancras Station in London (now the magnificently restored terminus of the Eurostar train), as well as the Crystal Palace in London. Ordish was based in Derby and worked alongside the Phoenix Foundry.
What was the hotel like ?
As the following quotes illustrate, the building split opinion.
“A traveller familiar with Bombay passed through it in 1867, and, on a morning walk, observed that opposite Forbes Street, something like a huge birdcage had risen like an exhalation from the earth. This was the skeleton of the Esplanade Hotel”.
“…why is it that the ugliest of all ugly and ill-conceived buildings should be allowed to push its misbegotten meaningless front (in which the only thought displayed is in the construction and connection of cast iron work) far in advance of all its neighbours…looking like an iron construction always does, as temporary makeshift, without the one advantage of its being so ?”
“Messrs Watson and Co’s gigantic iron structure cannot fail to impress one as an excessively unsightly building – at present it is an absolute eye-sore; as to what it may be eventually when its skeleton form is draped, I know not, but it looks now as if corrugated iron would well suit it.”
An image of the building under construction appeared in “The Architect” in December 1869. Watson came under pressure to complete the building within a government imposed two year deadline. He successfully applied for an extension and he himself had taken up residence by the autumn of 1870 as the interior was being fitted out around him. The hotel was finally opened on 4th February 1871.
The original design, as displayed on the painting in the Institute, included plans for a more showy mansard roof – it was never built. Plans were altered by Ordish in 1867. And photographs of the day show a much flatter roof was installed.
The Bombay Gazette proclaimed it as “without doubt the finest hotel in the city…built at enormous cost….on perhaps the best site in Bombay”.
It boasted a sumptuous, top lit ground floor restaurant with attached billiard room, a first floor dining saloon (with another attached billiards room), and three upper storeys given over to 131 bedrooms and apartments, the uppermost of which were reserved for “bachelors and quasi single gentlemen”. With over 120 baths fitted, it outdid European levels of luxury. It was thoroughly ventilated throughout with a punkah wallah (type of fan) serving every room and it commanded breathtaking views across the harbours, bays and distant hills – and it boasted India’s first steam powered lift.
The whole accent was on showy shops, dining halls and the drawing and billiard rooms. By contrast, the private, upper part of the building was a maze of small rooms served by narrow corridors, with room heights decreasing as you went further up – 20ft on the ground floor to 14ft on the third and fourth. Clearly, Watson wanted to extract as much profit as he could from the building, cramming in as many guests as possible, yet appeasing them with fine European cuisine and sumptuous social spaces where they could mix with Bombay’s resident British elite.
Yet John Hudson Watson may never have witnessed his hotel’s formal opening in February 1871. He had had built Gelt Hall, the grandest house in Castle Carrock, in 1863. And some time in 1869 or 1870 he returned to England and took up residence back in London. The move back may have been prompted by failing health. He died in May 1871. His wife died 4 years later. Both lie buried at St Peters church in Castle Carrock.
The hotel was an enormous success in its early years.
An advertisement, five months after its opening, lists foods, wines and other exotic items like French percolators for making coffee, bottled fruits like gooseberries and rhubarbs, and even “Figured Moguls” playing cards for sale. In today’s parlance, it was the first five star hotel of Bombay and soon became the place to hang out if you were European. “The ball at Watson’s hotel on Monday was, we are informed, a great success… an excellent band was engaged for the occasion, and dancing was kept up until an early hour,” recorded the Times of India on August 7, 1871.
John Hudson Watson’s brother, left the drapery business in 1867 to become a shipping agent in Bombay. It thrived for many years until liquidation in 1904. It was thus James Proctor Watson and John Watson jnr who oversaw the drapery and hotel business on the death of their father. Watson’s Esplanade Hotel enjoyed a period of unrivalled splendour. It was patronised by notable and distinguished guests, even being fictionalised in two of Rudyard Kipling’s stories. Mumbai continued to grow as a trading centre through the second half of the 19th century. Trams came in 1874 and electricity in 1882. Like all successful businesses, Watson’s kept apace with the times. In 1882, it went for a major facelift, adding a hydraulic lift “such as one finds in the large buildings in England” and a bar that “reminds one strongly of the bars in London restaurants” as well as electric lights and bells. The restaurant and bar employed only English waitresses; European stewards and stewardesses kept rooms in a “state of thorough cleanliness”. Soon after, it made film history. On July 7th 1896, the hotel offered screenings, to Europeans at the cost of one rupee each, of some of the Lumiere Brothers first films, including the Entry of Cinematographe, Arrival Of A Train, The Sea Bath, A Demolition, Leaving The Factory and Ladies And Soldiers On Wheels. This was India’s first taste of the moving image, just 6 months after their Paris debut.
1896 was a good year for Watson’s and a bad year for India. A famine which began in the early months of that year killed millions. Bombay was hit by a bubonic plague epidemic in September, which also killed thousands of people. But within the cool confines of the Watson’s, things couldn’t be better. In February that year, American novelist Mark Twain visited India and stayed at Watson’s. In a chapter in his book Following the Equator, Twain describes the scene at Watson’s. “The lobbies and halls were full of turbaned, and fez’d and embroidered, cap”d, and barefooted, and cotton-clad dark natives … in the dining room every man’s own private native servant standing behind his chair, and dressed for a part in Arabian Nights.”
But just a few years later, things began to look less certain for the hotel.
The turn of the century saw the appearance of a new breed of larger, grander establishments, reflecting civic improvement. The Taj Mahal hotel opened with 400 rooms in 1903 with attractions like electric lifts, lights, bars, smoking rooms and a hotel orchestra. A popular myth is that J N Tata built the Taj after he was denied entry to Watson’s. Whatever the stories, this sort of competition spelled the death-knell for the Watsons’ hotel venture. By 1911, Watson’s with its garishly painted exterior was savaged by the Times of India: “Their majesties (King George V) will have to pass what we can only suppose is an experiment in garishness, Watson’s Hotel, and that building is a good illustration of the dangers to which a sensitive public is exposed.”
The hotel’s decline was gradual, but stark. And by 1920, Watson’s had ceased to be a hotel. It had been renamed Mahendra Mansion and then in 1944, it was renamed Esplanade Mansion.
In 1960 it was converted into housing and offices accommodating, in 2005, 53 families and 97 commercial premises.
Eleven years ago, after 132 years of use and abuse, this designedly permanent prefabricated wonder still stood wholly on the frame action of its rigid column beam connections. Ample testimony to the Phoenix Foundry Company’s fabrication and assembly skills and Rowland Mason Ordish’s adroit structural design. The first person to draw real attention to its structural interest was Christopher London. He was certainly the first modern commentator to ascribe correctly the design to Ordish (and not John Watson), noting the engineer’s links to the Crystal Palace. Subsequently, many other architectural historians took time to record their admiration for the historical significance and innovation of the design.
Part of the building collapsed in 2005, killing one person. Today, all that is left of Watson’s heydays is its magnificent iron pillars, frame and wooden staircase. Everything else has been broken up into small rooms, which have been rented out to tailors, photocopy shops and lawyers. Why not tear it down ? Conservation architects say it is India’s oldest cast iron building and is a crucial part of Mumbai’s architectural heritage. Just a few years ago, it was placed on the list of the “100 World Endangered Monuments”.
And so, back to the painting.
James Proctor Watson – the son of John Hudson Watson who had built the hotel – and his wife Clara had returned to Castle Carrock from Bombay in 1896, taking up residence at Garth Marr. The following year, he built the Watson Institute, described in Bulmer’s History & Directory of Cumberland published in 1901, as being a “fine block of red sandstone buildings consisting of a public hall, free library and reading room, erected at a cost of £1,500”. He donated 700 volumes to the library, with papers and periodicals coming from Lady Carlisle. The hall was soon busy with dances, billiards and concerts – as well as no doubt, some reading.
And so we come full circle. In honour of his father, James commissioned the painting to mark the existence of his family’s glamorous hotel, dreamt up by his father John, to be hung in the Watson Institute. And it was he who wrote the inscription at the image’s base, which reads:
“This building was designed in London for John Watson of Gelt Hall by Messrs Ordish and Le Febre. The materials for this were wholly English; the iron frame from Derby, the bricks and cement from the bank of the Thames, the tiles from Staffordshire, and finally the red stone plinth and column bases from Penrith.”
The building in September 2014
Thanks to Nergish Sunavala of the Times of India newspaper for the new photos.
Tom Speight, Chair of the Watson Institute, September 2013