Thursday, August 14, 2014

Finding Watson's Hotel in a sleepy Cumbrian village

- By Deepa Krishnan

Anyone who has been to Kala Ghoda knows the decrepit Esplanade Mansions, popularly called Watsons Hotel.

But not many know what the architects originally envisaged, or how the hotel looked in its heyday. Fewer still know the story of how the hotel was built - a story that begins in a small village in the north-west of England.

Here's the building today: you can easily spot the famous cast iron frame structure, still standing strong. But the building itself is in ruins. This is the side-view of the building:
Here is what this building was originally meant to be. See how gorgeous it looks in this painting! (If you click on the picture, you'll get a bigger view). 
Photo credit: Castle Carrock
If you want to see this painting for real, you have to travel to Cumbria, to a little green village called Castle Carrock. The painting of Esplanade Mansions is hanging in their town hall. Here's what the village of Castle Carrock looks like; it has less than 500 people living in it.
Photo credit: Castle Carrock
The story of Esplanade Mansions actually begins in this little village. Like many good stories, this one also begins with a farmer :) His name was Watson.

The farmer had three sons, but two of them, John and William Watson, left Castle Carrock in the 1840's to start a drapery business in London, dealing in silks and other textiles.

From London, the two brothers migrated to Bombay in 1853. Bombay had developed into a major trading centre by that time; shipping was thriving, land had been reclaimed to expand the city, and links to the Deccan hinterland had been opened to facilitate trade. Perhaps the Watsons thought it made excellent business sense to relocate. I also have another pet theory about this migration to Bombay. Perhaps the Watson brothers attended the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, at the Crystal Palace? Perhaps they were enchanted with the Indian textiles they saw? Surely the Indian Pavillion was a vision to delight any silk mercer and draper!
Whatever the reason for migration - the two brothers arrived in Bombay in 1853, and set up shop here. They must have struck gold in Bombay - because they soon had three shops here, at Churchgate Street, Hamam Street and Meadow Street. Apparently it still wasn't enough. Within just ten years of arriving in Bombay, the Watson brothers made a grand bid for yet another building site. The original plans submitted for the building included a shop front on the ground floor, offices on the first and second floors, and residences (for themselves, I presume) on the third floor. 

The plans the Watsons submitted conceived of a bold new design - a cast iron frame that was modelled on the Crystal Palace, where the London exhibion was held. Nothing like it had been seen in India before. By 1865, the initial plans for a shop changed; and the Watsons decided to build a grand new hotel instead. But the cast iron girders remained in the plan. Although there were problems with having the designs approved, the Watsons persevered, and pushed through with their plan.

The design involved the import of hundreds of cast iron girders. Arranged from top to bottom, these girders formed a sort of grand metal bird-cage. This sort of design actually exposed bare metal. It was in fact, the first multi-storey habitable building in the world in which all loads, including those of the brick walls, were carried on an iron frame. In that sense, it is the earliest pre-cursor to the modern-day skyscraper.
The crowning glory of the building design was a mansard - a type of roof that actually doubles up as a floor. The architects apparently wanted to cover the top with glass. It would have made a fantastic salon, eh? Or a really fancy penthouse suite for the who's who of Bombay's visitors.
The Watson brothers began to ship materials for the new building into Mumbai. By 1867, many of the materials had arrived; and assembly of the iron framework began on site. By 1869, the hotel was complete - BUT - that beautiful (and impractical) mansard was abandoned along the way. Maybe they ran out of money - or time.

Still, just look at this hotel below! What views of Bombay harbour! This photo is from the 1880s; the only other building at that time in the area was the Sailors' Home in the distance. The wide road you see is the Esplanade; and hence the name of the hotel.
The patch of land on the right of the photo, by the sea, is where the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers eventually came up - but that was not until 1903. Before that, for more than 30 years, Watsons Hotel was the numero uno establishment in the city. Mark Twain stayed here; Kipling wrote about it, and the earliest screening of the Cinematographe in India by the Lumiere Brothers was in this hotel (just one week after it was first screened in Paris).
Of the two brothers, John and William Watson, we know this: William quit the drapery business to become a shipping agent. John Watson remained in the drapery and hotel business; but he returned to the village of Castle Carrock in 1869, just after Watsons Hotel was built. His sons, James Proctor and John Jr, inherited and ran the hotel successfully, until they too returned to Cumbria in 1896 (at the time of Bombay's bubonic plague).

With the owners gone, and with competition from new hotels such as Green's, Majestic, and the Taj, the birdcage hotel went into decline. In 2006, the World Monument Fund placed the hotel under the list of World Endangered Monuments.

Here's a recent photo I clicked; can you see the beautiful Minton floor tiling? The iron girders are still standing strong. The inside of the hotel has been divided up and sub-let to lots of small businesses. Next time you're in the area, pop into the building and take a quick look. And if you want a little challenge, then try to spot the Watsons logo on the outside of the building!


Sarah Wilson said...

That was an interesting read.
I saw that building and thought it must have been grand in its day.

Anuradha Shankar said...

What a story, deepa! From Cumbria to Bombay and back! So sad that the building is in in such a bad shape. Wish it could be restored.

Udit Mavinkurve said...

Lovely read! Especially so because we have walked through it so frequently (and wondered what kind of a strange person put the now-decrepit-and-ugly iron frame there).

By the way, is this the same Watson's Hotel that features in the story of the Taj? The story goes that Sir Jamsetji Tata was refused entry to a whites-only Watson's Hotel and that this instigated his vision for an Indian-owned hotel on the Bombay shores.

Ash said...

Great research. I had been there many times in the 1960s with my dad who loved to mention that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) stayed there.

Was the building repaired after 2009?

Lynda Andrews said...

Beautifully researched and written Deepa...I will revisit your blog for certain ...

Hemal S said...

Great write! I am from S Bombay and always get excited to read/know about the city's old and new stories. Thank you!

Abdaal said...

A small correction

The American Civil War started in 1861 and not 1851. There was also no such thing as a shipping agent for the East India Company-which was anyway wound up in 1858. Must have been one of the passenger liners.

Great read otherwise :)

Deepa Krishnan said...

Thank you Abdaal, I have made changes!

Urmila Rajadhyaksha said...

Nice! Seems to have paralleled the rise of the skyscraper at Chicago. The fact that the painting found its way back to Cumbria goes to show that the Watson brothers must have seen the Crystal Palace etc.etc.

Deepa Krishnan said...

Urmila the painting was commissioned by one of the sons of John Watson.

Vijay Menezes said...

Hi Deepa,

You have brought back memories as i was one of the fortunate ones to have been born & brought up in this very building.
Feel very sad to see its state now

Urmila Rajadhyaksha said...

So that dates the painting to somewhere before the 1890s I guess. Still parallels the Chicago skyscrapers.

Josh said...

My aunt's husband's family lived there and I've spent a few days in their house a long,long time ago, The staircases and wooden floors were beautiful. It's sad to see this building in it's current state.

Soumya Rao said...

Hello Deepa,

My name is Soumya. I stumbled upon your blog while looking up travel ideas :) I loved getting to know the history of the Watson's hotel. Great job of doing the research and getting the story of the Watson's hotel to us. :) Thanks! and look forward to following your blogs.

Haddock said...

What a coincidence, I just started reading the book "The Seige, The Attack on the Taj" by Adrian & Cathy, in which a brief history is also given about the beginning of the Taj Hotel. This is something similar.
Lot of history covered here in this blog post.

Mark Watson said...

The building was apparently listed on the Global Watch List of "100 World Endangered Monuments" by the New York-based World Monuments Fund (WMF).[ ] by Renzo Piano. I have visited the building on a number of trips and have had the Australian Commissioner look at it, the Local authority MHADA have allocated funds for restoration but trouble with the tenants (mostly lawyers servicing the nearby courts - some on 1000 year leases) and with local conservation groups and architects concerned that the restoration will be substandard. We should do something about this significant building.

Anonymous said...

That's Cool stuff though I wish they restore it or just have some one who will restore it buy it such as say The Taj they're there down the lane I lived in their suite when I was in India and that how I got to know about Watson's

Rosie86 said...

Hi Deepa,

Thanks for this interesting article. As part of my PhD project I am trying to find out more about James Proctor Watson, as I believe he recruited Indian performers for the 1895 Empire of India exhibition in London. I wondered what your sources are for the information in your article? The family's possible interest in/connection with London's exhibitions is intriguing. Did you know that the Watson's used the same engineer who helped design the Crystal Palace for their hotel?


Urmila Rajadhyaksha said...

So thats the story behind the painting and the beautiful and powerful steel columns!

Urmila Rajadhyaksha said...

So that's the story behind those beautiful and powerful steel columns.

pranali chiplunkar said...

It gave me goosebumps after reading actual story and scenario. It helped me a lot for my history artefact report write up as my project.

Ram Iyer said...

I used to attend classes at Bombay university bldg. just across the side street in the early seventies. I always wondered about this building, because of its unique structure, and if I recall correctly, there used to be a tea shop at the street level. I didn't remember the name of this building or the name of the street. Couple of years ago I was skimming through an article that mentioned about a Watson's Hotel in Bombay where Mark Twain has stayed, and I was interested in knowing about this hotel since I grew up in Bombay. On googling I got the information and was a pleasant surprise. It's a pity the structure is crumbling especially since it has such a history.

Ramya said...

Wow so beautifully written... loads of thanks to the 3 musketeers for doing this wonderful job..... definitely in my must visit list. ..