Alexander John Arbuthnot, Madras Cricket Club
Sir Alexander John Arbuthnot (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

“This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.”
— Macbeth
.

Although Shakespeare, noted for his uncanny sense of dramatic irony, had placed the above lyrical lines in the mouth of Duncan, King of Scotland,in appreciation of the sublime beauty of Macbeth’s castle at Cawdor, the description may well have been applicable to several other well-known castles in and around the British Isles of the times.

County Mayo of Ireland boasts of one such stately structure, the Rockfleet Castle, five miles away from Newport, and situated at the inlet of Crew Bay. Magnificent in the simplicity of its style and architecture, and in the ruggedness of its structure, the stone castle is forever associated with the legend of Grace O’Malley, “Pirate Queen” of the 16th century.

O’Malley’s loyalty to the Crown had once inspired her to capture several dispersed ships of the vanquished Spanish Armada in 1588, killing all the crew members mercilessly. Queen Elizabeth I had received O’Malley with great pomp and ceremony for the above-mentioned feat of “patriotism.”

Well, a rather more prosaic event was recorded in the castle on May 7, 1768, when the family of John Arbuthnot was blessed with a son, the child being later named Alexander. This Alexander was to become a Doctor of Divinity, being elevated to an episcopal position as the Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1823, a very appropriate vocation for one whose family motto was Laus Deo – Praise be to God.

The Reverend was married twice, first to Susanna Bingham, daughter of a Mr Bingham of Antigua, the wedding being solemnised on March 31, 1798. His second walk down the aisle had been in the company of Margaret Phoebe née Bingham, daughter of General George Bingham (uncle of the Reverend’s first wife), with the Archbishop of Tuam performing the ceremony at St Peter’s Church, Dublin, on May 5, 1819. The second nuptial alliance was to produce a daughter, Susan, born in 1821, and two sons.

The elder son was born October 11, 1822 at Farmhill, County Mayo, Ireland, and was named Alexander John, ‘Alick’ to his close friends. The Reverend passed away rather suddenly towards the end of 1828, leaving his widow under straitened circumstances. Being a person with a positive attitude towards life, Margaret Phoebe decided to relocate to Rugby so that her two sons could have the benefit of schooling under Dr Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of the institution from 1828 to 1842.

Admitted in 1832, as a classmate of Matthew Arnold, among other worthy men, Alexander was to spend eight years under the gentle guidance of Dr Arnold. A spontaneous testimonial from the great educator was to have a profound effect on young Alexander’s later life. The Dictionary of National Biography takes up the tale of the remarkable life and times of the son of the Irish man of God.

On the strength of Dr Arnold’s recommendation, Alick was nominated for the job of ‘writer’ in the Honourable East India Company (HEIC). Accordingly, Arbuthnot was enrolled at the East India Company College at Hailey, Hertfordshire, on January 23, 1840. The institution, established in 1805 by Charles Grant, Chairman of British East India Company and Member of Parliament, was used as a training centre for ‘writers’, as the junior level of administrators of HEIC were called.

The college provided necessary vocational and general training of 16- to 18-year old male aspirants nominated by Company’s Directors for Civil Service appointments overseas. During this time, the young Alexander had come under the tutelage of Francis Johnson, designated teacher for Sanskrit, Bengali, and Telugu, and developed a keen interest in native Indian languages.

Arbuthnot left the College around Christmas time of 1841, with distinctions in the Classics and in Telugu. Indeed, in The Classics and Colonial India, Phiroze Vasunia mentions an incident when AJ Arbuthnot, writing under a Greek pseudonym, had written a description of a cricket match in Homeric Greek for the College magazine.

The 20-year-old Alick Arbuthnot entered the Civil Service of British India at Madras in September 1842. In June 1843, the “Company Bahadur”, as the HEIC was referred to in India, was pleased to grant Arbuthnot an honorary award of a thousand pagodas (a pagoda being a gold or half-gold coin used in British colonial India, and worth about 350 rupees at the time) for his exemplary proficiency in Telugu and Hindustani.

Initially posted as an Assistant Collector at Chingleput, and later at Nellore, Arbuthnot was appointed Head Assistant to the Registrar of the Sadr Court and FoujdariAdalat, the forerunners of the later High Court, in 1845.

While in Madras, Arbuthnot was married to Frederica Eliza, née Fearon, daughter of the late Major-General Robert Fearon, in 1844. Frederica passed away childless in England in 1898. His second marriage was later to be solemnised with Constance Angelina, on June 6, 1899. Unfortunately, the second marital alliance was not to give rise to any progeny either.

A man of diverse talents, Arbuthnot set about compiling a history of selected criminal cases examined by the Sadr Court from 1826 to 1850, a treatise that was to have an historical importance in later years. At the same time, he penned a report of the state of Public Education in Madras Province, going back to 1822, a report that was to have a decisive effect on his later career.

During this phase of his career, Arbuthnot was attached not only to the Courts of Justice, but was also Secretary to the University Board, which was to be later expanded to form the Presidency College.

On the basis of his report on Public Education in Madras, Arbuthnot was appointed Director of Public Instruction for Madras in March 1855, at the age of only 33, the first incumbent to the august post. In this capacity, he worked out many schemes that proved to be very beneficial to the Public Instruction department, including one that led to the incorporation of Madras University in 1857, becoming one of the pioneering Fellows, and later Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1871-72. He was to later adorn the post of Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University from 1878 to 1880.

It is a documented fact that the Engineering College founded under the auspices of Madras University had been established according to his detailed recommendations in 1855. By now an educationist of renown in British India, he became a champion for the inclusion of worthy Indian personnel in positions of responsibility and trust in Public Service, defending very strongly their rights to parity of emoluments.

Another facet of the remarkable career of Arbuthnot was initiated in October 1862 with his foray into civil administration, when he was appointed Chief Secretary to the Madras Government and ex-officio member of the Local Legislature. He was Governor of the Madras Presidency temporarily from February 19 to May 15, 1872 consequent upon the assassination of Lord Mayo in February 1872.

Arbuthnot came back to England on furlough at the end of 1872. Being a man with a very independent character, he resigned from his Colonial Service two years later upon the termination of his leave.

There was, however, a magnetic attraction for India still lurking within the heart of the career educationist and administrator. Accepting an invitation from Lord Salisbury, the then Secretary of State, Arbuthnot went back to India in 1874, joining the Governor-General’s council as a member from May 6, 1874. He was to enjoy an extended and fruitful diplomatic career in India till his final farewell to Indian shores in 1880, a long 38 years from the time he had set foot in Madras as a new ‘writer’ in 1842.

The British government heaped many honours on him, beginning with the Companion of the Star of India (CSI) in 1872. Always an independent and outspoken person, Arbuthnot refused the honour on the grounds that the recognition was not commensurate with the status of his office or of his service.

In 1873, he was created Knight Commander of the Star of India (KCSI), with the honorific title of Sir. In 1878, when Queen Victoria instituted the honour of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire, AJ Arbuthnot was one of the first to be gazetted as a Companion to the Order.

While all that had been said of the great educationist and administrator in the narrative so far does him great credit, and is easily verifiable from History, one may be left wondering what the honourable gentleman’s may be doing on the pages of a forum dedicated to cricket history and statistics.

Going back somewhat in time, it may be interesting to examine the history of cricket at Madras. An article in the bilingual monthly journal Namma Chennai dated July 2013 provides a short glimpse of the story. It is a universally acknowledged fact that the oldest organised cricket club in India was the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club, said to be already in existence in 1792, as evident form a report appearing in the Madras Courier of that year describing a match being played between Calcutta and Barrackpore and Dum Dum.The recorded history of cricket in Bombay probably goes back to 1797.

An oil painting by the uncle-nephew duo of Thomas and William Daniell, dated 1792, entitled Cricket in India, is presumably a representation of a cricket match in progress in Madras, as the artists had been based in the city at the time, and provides some idea of the provenance of the game in the city. The match in question was thought to have been played at The Island, a popular local venue for cricket for a long time.

Organised cricket in Madras, however, owes a debt of gratitude to a career Civil Servant from Ireland working at Madras, not only for the setting up of the preeminent cricket hub of the city, but also for ensuring that they had the proper premises.

As surprising as it may seem, and although there is hardly any documented evidence of the young Arbuthnot ever having played any organised cricket, it is a historical fact that the prestigious Madras Cricket Club was founded by him in 1846, at the surprisingly young age of 24 years. Records of club transactions are available from 1848.

It was said that “cricket was his religion and the Madras Cricket Club was his Church.” It was a club founded for the exclusive use of the expatriate Englishmen in Madras at the time, who would see it as a home away from home. Sir Henry Pottinger, the then Governor of Madras, was unanimously elected as the first President of the Club.

Being a Victorian men’s club in the true sense of the term, the club had strict rules pertaining to dress and accoutrements, and did not allow native Indians on the premises till 1935, when Kumararaja MA Muthiah Chettiar was admitted as the first Indian member. The distinction for being elected the first Indian President of Madras CC belongs to AMM Arunachalam, who was elected the President in 1959.

By the 1860s, regular weekend cricket was being played on makeshift wickets laid out on The Island close to River Cooum. In early 1865, the Madras CC Committee had sent in a request to the local government to be allowed to use “a moveable fence” to enclose a portion of The Island, and to construct a more permanent cricket ground. The proposal was rejected by the then Chief Secretary to the Madras Government, AJ Arbuthnot.

On April 3, 1865, the newly elected Secretary of the club, Lt J Pennycuick, wrote another letter to Arbuthnot, this time requesting permission to enclose a parcel of land at Chepauk for the same purpose. S Muthiah, in The Spirit of Chepauk, says that in a letter to the club authorities dated April 20, 1865, Arbuthnot had written that the “Governor in Council” had authorised the club “to enclose a piece of ground on the Chepauk premises as a cricket ground”.

Partab Ramchand, in Chepauk — One of the Great Cricketing Venues, makes the following observation on the issue: “Ten years earlier in 1855, the Madras Government had abolished the title of the Nawab of Arcot on the death of the last titular Nawab Ghulam Muhammad Ghouse. It sold the palace and the grounds by public auction. So now land was available for cricket in Chepauk in its whole area quite as big as the Island itself. The MCC’s second request was granted. It was permitted to enclose a piece of ground on the Chepauk premises as a cricket ground. This was the beginning of Chepauk as a cricket ground.”

The first pavilion was built according to the design created by the celebrated architect Robert Fellowes Chisholm at an expenditure of about Rs 3,700 and was inaugurated in 1866.

Resuming the story Arbuthnot and his permanent return to England in 1880, history records his settling down at the age of 58 at Newton House, on the Isle of Wight, and being a model citizen and generous benefactor to local charities.

Even in his complete retirement, however, India was never very far from his thoughts. In the spring of 1883, he was prevailed upon to accept the Chairmanship of the London Committee to refute the Ilbert Bill of Lord Ripon by speech and pen.

He was later nominated to the India Council by Lord Cross and joined the august body on November 1, 1887. He was to serve on the Council for 10 years, and when he retired from his post on October 31, 1897, he had been in the service of the Crown for a matter of 55 years.

A noted polyglot and extremely erudite person, another aspect of this remarkable man was manifested in his literary output. He wrote Malayalam Selections with Translations, Grammatical Analysis and Vocabulary in 1864, while his Lord Clive – The Foundation of British Rule in India was first published in 1898. He added several annotations and notes and edited the memoirs of Major-General Sir Thomas Munro, the Governor of Madras.

As a tribute to his erudition, Chinnaya Suri translated the text of Elements of Hindu Law, written by TL Strenge in 1854, into classical Telugu and dedicated the volume to Arbuthnot, the then Secretary to Madras University and the College of Fort St George. At the time of his demise, he had been in the process of collating his memories of Rugby. The volume was completed by his widow and published in 1910 under the title Memories of Rugby and India.

In England, the elderly Arbuthnot couple lived at the Rose Garden, Newtown House, Newbury, currently valued at about £947,000. Alexander John Arbuthnot passed away on June 10,

1910, and was laid to rest at the churchyard at Newtown. He was survived by his widow, Constance.