Illuminated initial D

um Dum is known nowadays for only two reasons. It is the site of Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) international airport, and it is where a particularly nasty form of bullet was invented in the local ordinance factory. (This expanding bullet was banned from warfare by a convention signed at The Hague in 1899.)

But, according to the British civil servant Lewis O’Malley, writing in 1911, “the name Dum Dum is a corruption of Damdama, meaning a raised mound or battery. It appears to have first applied to an old house standing on a raised mound”. He quotes R. C. Sterndale, writing in 1891, that “Dum Dum House is a building of some historic interest. It is probably one of the oldest existing buildings in Bengal as it was in existence, though not in its present form, before 1756. But the first mention of the house occurs in Robert Orme’s ‘History of the War in Bengal’ (first published in 1798). Orme states that when Clive marched through the Nawab’s camp at Sealdah on the morning of 8th February 1757, in a dense fog, he crossed the Dum Dum road. “The road leads to Dum Dum, an old building stationed on a mound”.

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Left: The western façade of Clive's house from acress the playing fields. Right: A section of the ceiling still intact.

This was the building which Robert Clive, ‘Clive of India’, seems to have bought as part of his treaty terms after the Battle of Plassey that same February. O’Malley continues “The building appears to have been originally a one storied block house, so constructed as to secure a flank fire along each face with underground chambers or cellars. The walls were of great thickness from four to eight feet thick.... No authentic account of the origin of this building can be found but it was probably a Dutch or Portuguese factory.... Sometime after the battle of Plassey, Lord Clive made the building his country house altering the lower storey so as to destroy its character as a defence position and building a fine upper storey; the grounds were also laid out with great expense and taste in the prevailing formal Dutch style.... From its elevated position and the massiveness of its structure, the old house would still be capable of a stout defence against anything but artillery”.

This building became the centre of some rather unlikely attention in 1997 when the suggestion was made that it should be restored as part of the 50th anniversary of Indian independence from Britain. This sparked an understandably contrary view from many Indians who thought India had more pressing priorities than to restore the house of the man who did more than anyone else to establish colonial rule in the first place. Nonetheless the house enjoyed a few years of celebrity, a highlight of which was a programme shown on BBC television in 2002 called ‘The House Detectives at large’. Their investigation concluded that the house, far from being a Dutch or Portuguese factory, had been the hunting lodge of an Indian Prince dating back to the 16th or 17th Centuries. Having placed this evidence before the Bengali authorities there was some optimism that restoration work would begin.

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Left: The pillars at the southern side of Clive's house and the missing roof. Right: The portico at the northern end of the house.

And some work did begin. Soumitra Das, the Calcutta journalist, wrote in 2006 that “The deep-rooted trees were removed and the huge mass of debris on the southern side was cleared. After removing the debris blocking the northern side, a semi-circular stairway leading to the arched opening was discovered. The pillared verandah in a precarious state was consolidated. Some stairways were restored but the main staircase on the north-western side remains untouched”. Eight years later there has been little further progress, except that the Bangladeshi families which lived inside the house have moved out following the collapse of a roof.

In 1824 Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta from 1823 to 1826, remarked that "The Commandant, General Hardwicke, with whom we spent the day, resides in a large house, built on an artificial mound of considerable height above the neighbouring country, and surrounded by very pretty walks and shrubberies. The house has a venerable appearance, and its lower storey, as well as the mound on which it stands, is said to be of some antiquity, at least for Bengal, where so many powerful agents of destruction are always at work, that no architecture can be durable, and through ruins and buildings of apparently remote date are extremely common, it would perhaps be difficult to find a single edifice 150 years old. This building is of brick, with small windows and enormous buttresses. The upper story, which is of the style usual in Calcutta, was added by Lord Clive, who also laid out the gardens and made this his country-house".

Why did Clive choose to live 4 miles outside Calcutta in what was a pretty featureless area of countryside (so uninhabited that the Bengal Artillery used it as a shooting range; and would eventually choose it as their main depot in India)? It was due to the unhealthiness of Calcutta. Cotton records that “In 1762 another epidemic ravaged Calcutta and is said to have swept away 50,000 [people]. There was yet another grievous famine and pestilence in Bengal in 1770 which carried off, according to Hickey’s Gazette, no less than 76,000 souls in the town of Calcutta, between the 15th July and the 10th September. It was of this terrible year that Macaulay wrote that “the very streets of Calcutta were blocked by the dying and the dead” (83).

Cotton continues “The result was that, of course, every Englishman who was able avoided the plague-stricken air of Calcutta by residing in garden-houses outside its boundaries. Clive lived at Dum-Dum, Sir William Jones at Garden Reach, Sir Robert Chambers had a house at Cossipore and another at Bhowanipore ‘far out of the town’ in those days, but well within sight of the present Cathedral. In 1763 Warren Hastings obtained permission to build a suspension bridge over the Kalighat Nullah, on the way to his garden-house at Alipore. Here also, in the modern Collector’s Residence, Philip Francis had his country seat, and close by was Barwell’s mansion at Kidderpore” (85).

Clive’s biographer, Mark Bence-Jones, drawing on letters between Margaret Clive and Robert Clive’s Private Secretary Henry Strachey, records that (175) “Margaret managed to keep her high spirits, despite the worry of Clive’s expeditions up country, the loss of her daughter Jenny who died in the Autumn of 1757, and the unhealthy and unpleasant climate of Bengal. Throughout these two and a half years [1757-1760] she stayed in Calcutta, with visits to Clive’s country house at Dum Dum a short distance to the north of the settlement.”

Later, Clive returned to India for his last spell from 1765 to 1767, leaving Margaret back in England, Strachey describes quiet bachelor weekends at Dum Dum, with himself, Clive, Edmund Maskelyne and Clive’s physician Samuel Ingham living together in perfect harmony, “Maskelyne spending most of his time potting at the crows and jackals”. Bence-Jones imagines Clive thumbing his way through the vast supply of reading matter which he had sent from England. “Such was his affection for the place with its memories of weekends with Margaret six years before, that he and his three companions took to living here most of the time. Riding into Calcutta each morning and returning in the evening by chaise” (231).

The Reverend W. K. Firminger, writing about Dum Dum in 1906 suggests that health problems were not confined to Calcutta. “Not so many years ago Dum Dum enjoyed an evil reputation on account of cholera as one house in particular being known as "Cholera Hall." Improvements in sanitation and above all a reliable water-supply have removed the reproach, and when the electric tram service has been extended to Dum Dum there can be no doubt that Lord Clive's country-retreat will become a popular and perhaps fashionable suburb of Calcutta.”

Sadly the truth is very different. Few people in Dum Dum have heard of Clive’s house and it took ages to find. The first sight of it across a football field is most impressive but, upon inspection, the signs of decay and collapse are everywhere. A photograph by Captain Richard Barton Hill (1835-1873) shows the house probably in the 1850s or early 1860s, the only surviving indication to guide any future restoration project. But will it ever happen?

Related material

Further reading.

Bence-Jones, Mark. Clive of India. London; Constable, 1974.

Cotton, H E A. Calcutta Old and New. Calcutta: Newman, 1907.

Das, Soumitra. The two faces of Clive house in Dum Dum. The Telegraph Calcutta, 24th January 2006.

Firminger, Rev W K. Thacker’s Guide to Calcutta 1906. Calcutta; Thacker, Spink, 1906.

Laird, M A. Bishop Heber in Northern India. Cambridge: CUP, 2010.

O'Malley, Lewis Sydney Steward, I.C.S. 24- Parganas: Bengal District Gazetteers. Calcutta; Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1914.

Orme, Robert. A History of the military transactions of the British nation in Indostan. London 1778.

East India Stations No IX. Dum Dum. The Saturday Magazine Volume 8 (1836).

Vivat Heritage. Case book. Clive of India’s house at Dum Dum, Calcutta. .2012.

Last modified 28 December 2014