Memories of The Mail
The Mail building on Mount Road, still sporting the paper's name and heraldry, is truly a memorial to the beginnings of journalism in South India. Indeed, it might take a worthy museum of Madras Journalism.
GOING FORWARD again on the road to the Mount after going back for a week, we find ourselves right next to The Hindu's art deco building of the 1930s at what might be considered a memorial to what was once Madras's leading newspaper. I wonder how many today remember The Mail, with whom The Hindu fought many an epic battle as it challenged the Establishment-oriented newspaper's supremacy. It, however, took The Hindu over 70 years to nose ahead before, year after year, thereafter, widening the gap. The Mail's building, still sporting the paper's name and heraldry, is less than 20 years older than The Hindu's, but if the portents foretell the same fate as has, with the help of the wreckers, befallen the buildings to the rear of it, it would be a shame. For, The Mail's last home is truly a memorial to the beginnings of journalism in South India. Indeed, it might take a worthy museum of Madras Journalism.
The Mail's beginnings go back to newspapers it succeeded. Madras's earliest newspaper was the Madras Courier, its first copy dated October 12, 1785, and brought out by Richard Johnston, the East India Company's Printer who had earlier that year launched The Daily Universal Register that was to grow into The Times, London. A 4-6 page tabloid-sized weekly, the Courier survived 36 years, offering readers, at a rupee an issue, a diet of `news' taken from papers from `Home', some local news, more Letters to the Editor and still more local contributions, particularly poetry and essays.
Before the Courier closed in 1827, it faced challenges from the short-lived Hircarrah (1793), the Madras Gazette and that man-for-all-seasons again, John Goldingham's Government Gazette (both 1795). But none of them challenged the Courier, even though it was soon to go under. Improving on its image, there emerged The Spectator in 1836, founded by D. Ouchterlony, but soon taken over by C. Sooboo Moodelly and C.M. Pereira. A weekly to begin with, it became a tri-weekly, then, in 1850, Madras's first daily.
To take on The Spectator, there appeared in 1859 the Madras Times, owned by Justinian Gantz, the Austrian proprietor of Gantz & Sons, Popham's Broadway, who owned a printing press at that address and was a bookselling rival to Higginbotham's. Giving his Editors, Charles Lawson and Henry Cornish, a free hand to take on the Establishment - especially on such issues as income tax - while at the same time encouraging them to bring the British and the Indian closer, Gantz found that not only was he producing what might be described truly as a newspaper but that it was also thriving. Unfortunately, one of those perennial plagues of journalism the proprietor-editor dispute, cropped up between Lawson and Cornish and Gantz's successors after his death. The result was the best editorial team of the time quit - and on December 15, 1868, began bringing out The Madras Mail.
Lawson and Cornish established The Madras Mail's offices on Second Line Beach (later Moor Street and now Dr. Burhanudeen Street) and were off to a flying start. A few years later, they moved to First Line Beach, into a first floor built for the paper over A.D'Rozario & Co., Auctioneers, and there it stayed till it moved to its new home on Mount Road in 1921, selling those premises to the Mercantile Bank to develop its new home that is now the Hongkong & Shanghai's. With First Line beach abutting beach and surf, the road was often awash and the sea, on occasion, even lapped the building in those early days of The Madras Mail here. No wonder among its early campaigns was one for a proper harbour with the necessary facilities for ships and passengers!
If Lawson and Cornish thought that The Madras Times would languish without them, they were mistaken. They found themselves with a battle on their hands, the challenge posed by their successor at the Times, William Digby, who in the 1870s and 1880s was to become a great editor. With both papers also taking opposing views on many a subject of public concern, there certainly was room in Madras for two successful papers. The Madras Mail spoke for the British Merchant Princes and, when it didn't affect those interests, for the Government. The Madras Times espoused the cause of the humbler European trader, planter and employee - and even some Indian interests.
This slight tilt towards Indian aspirations enabled the perpetually money-short Madras Times to, early in the 20th Century, invite some Indian investment and move to a better location. The move in 1910 was into the premises where Associated Printers now stand, behind Higginbotham's. The following year, the Times began appointing Indian staff and, two years later, it was fully Indian-owned by The Madras Times Printing and Publishing Co. The Madras Times, never quite certain whether it was fish or fowl, white or brown, found that being centrist was no way to make ends meet. On January 1, 1921, it was taken over by a person I've often described as "the first takeover king of India", John Oakshott Robinson, the power behind Spencer's growth.
A few months later, The Madras Mail moved into its new home on Mount Road, next to The Hindu. Then, almost before it could settle down and start paying for the handsome buildings it had put up, but which had left Lawson cash-short, Robinson acted again. Before you could say `Associated Publishers', he had formed the new company, comprising The Madras Mail, with The Spectator and The Madras Times merged in it, Higginbotham's, and Associated Printers occupying The Madras Times' premises and using its machines to become the leading job-printer in the city.
From The Madras Times there came to The Madras Mail Arthur Hayles who was to become a legend in Madras journalism. He joined The Madras Times in 1912, came to The Madras Mail with the merger and in 1928 became its Editor. His first act was to drop the `Madras' from the masthead and proceed to make everyone aware that The Mail was not just the City's own evening paper but was, in fact, the voice of South India and a major voice in India. In the 1930s, 1940s and till he retired in 1955, he made sure everyone knew how powerful the voice of The Mail was. He was to amplify that power with technology, from 1931 modernising its press with linotype, the latest blockmaking machinery - even today the pictures the paper printed look so rich! - and rotary printing. There were now a few who in that period thought it was the leading paper in India, nay, even British Asia. Heretics like me thought Curly Wee, that beloved cartoon strip of our youth, had a lot to do with that reputation.
The Mail, it must be noted, was not owned by Spencer's; it was Robinson's - and of a few friends of his who chipped in. And so, when Robinson died only a year after he had refitted The Mail, the paper, it would seem, passed into the hands of the family, Stanley W. Edwards, a chartered accountant and Robinson's son-in-law, no doubt overseeing the business. Edwards, persuaded by Robinson to move from Colombo to Madras as a Director of Spencer's, was to later head the company brilliantly.
It was a snatch of conversation heard in 1945 while lunching at the Connemara that led to The Mail changing hands. And Anantharamakrishnan of Amalgamations grabbed the opportunity to acquire Associated Publishers, thus bringing into the Amalgamations fold The Mail, Higginbotham's and Associated Printers. Hayles continued with the paper until retirement and The Mail then became truly Indianised. Its refusal to take on the now fast-growing The Hindu as a morning paper, preferring to catch the evening trains and be a morning paper in the mofussil, Indian editors not quite sure of their role, a management, in the circumstances of the times, showing diminishing interest in a newspaper, but, above all, its production staff becoming more difficult by the day, led to the paper being closed in 1981. The name survives on the masthead of Higginbotham's monthly newsletter and on the 1921 building on Mount Road which cries to being developed as a museum of journalism or of the histories of some of the oldest business houses in Madras that are now part of Amalgamations.
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