Chennai in the 19th century – Vintage Pictures

By Somali K Chakrabarti

A city with a curious blend of tradition and modernity, Chennai has a rich historical legacy.

Formerly known as Madras, Chennai was a leading urban location and naval base, at the time of the British rule. Madras derives its name from Madrasapattnam, a fishing village located on the Coromandel Coast, where the British East India Company had first built a trading post in 1639, and followed it up with the construction of Fort St. George.

At that time, the weaving of Cotton fabrics was a local industry and the English invited
the weavers and native merchants to settle near the Fort. Businesses flourished on the crowded streets of the province known as George Town.

Here are a few pictures from the yore.

Outskirts of Madras, ca 1851

Outskirts of Madras, 1851


Prior to the British, the Portugese had arrived in Tamil Nadu in 1522, followed by the Dutch in 1612. In  the 17th and 18th centuries, the Coromandel Coast was the scene of rivalries among European powers for control of the India trade. The British eventually won out and established a settlement at Fort St George to serve the British headquarters.

Madras developed rapidly into a flourishing port and the centre of a major British administrative zone. The Madras Presidency was established in the late 18th century.

Coromandel Coast, ca 1861

Coromandel Coast, 1861


Customs and Port authority buildings on Beach of Madras, ca 1867

Beach of Madras, 1867

Plate 49 of William Simpson’s ‘India: Ancient and Modern’


Shrines of different faiths existed in Chennai. The Parthasarathy temple at Triplicane is an 8th century Hindu Vaishnavite temple dedicated to Lord Krishna. Lord Krishna is worshipped in the name ‘Parthasarathy‘ in this temple, which in Sanskrit, means ‘charioteer of Arjuna’.

 Parthasarathy Temple, ca 1851Parthasarthi Temple, 1851


The first church built by the British, St.Mary’s church is the oldest Protestant Church in Asia.

St Mary Church, ca 1851

St Mary's Church, 1851


The Wallajah Mosque, or the Big Mosque was built in 1795, in remembrance of Nawab Wallajah. Constructed with grey granite, without the use of wood and steel the mosque is one of the famous historical mosques in the city.

Big Mosque, ca 1851

Mosque, 1851


With the construction of the railways in late 19th century in Tamil Nadu, the city got connected to many important states and their capitals. Royapuram Railway Station, the first railway station of south India and the oldest surviving railway station of the India  was declared open by Governor Lord Harris on June 28, 1856. The first section of the railway line from Royapuram to Arcot (now called Wallajah Road), was opened on 1st July, 1856. The iconic pillared railway station is said to have looked like a Regency Mansion.

Captain Barnett Fort, whose drawing appeared in The Illustrated London News, described the rooms in the Royapuram station as being “very elegant and most superbly furnished with handsome punkahs & c. ~ The South’s first station, The Hindu

 Chennai Railway Station, ca 1868

Royapuram Railway Station, Chennai, 1861

 Rare photograph of Royapuram Railway Station by Nicholas & Co, ca 1880


The Adyar Club is a gentleman’s (and woman’s) club that was founded in 1890. Originally started as a Europeans-only club, the Adyar Club started admitting Indians as members in 1960.

A Gentleman in Madras, ca 1870

Gentleman in Madras, 1870


Adyar Club, ca 1902

Adyar Club, 1902

Thus, in the 19th century, the city became the seat of the Madras presidency, one of the four divisions of British India. A conservative but relaxed lifestyle marked the city. Madras was also the only Indian city which was attacked during the World War I (1914 – 1918) by the German light cruiser SMS Emden.

Post independence, Madras became the capital city of the State of Tamil Nadu and was rechristened as Chennai in 1998.


  Pictures shared by : Mr Abdul Ghaffar (twitter handle: @ghaffar12)


  1. History Update, Department of History, Stella Maris College

  2. Madras Plate 49, The British Library, Online Gallery

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Readers Comments (24)

  1. Rare and vintage photos and no traffic anywhere. vast, wide and open avenues. Nice post.

  2. Congratulations for completing the series of the four Indian Super metros with this view of 19th century Chennai. Must compliment Mr Abdul Ghaffar for the rare pictures supporting the write up.

  3. Nice:) could we have some more on food, culture etc of the place.

  4. Great history .. absolutely wonderful …….

  5. what a great and informative comilation.very attractive and unique pictures

  6. Wonderful Pictures. Great article..)

  7. bhudeb chakrabarti December 31, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    A great Blog . I lived in Madras which later came to be rechristened as Chennai . I did not know many things which you have now told us .We some time tend to overlook the history part . A proper understanding of the history will let us know about the earlier contributions and factors in the shaping of a City .
    From Bhudeb Chakrabarti Kolkata 31 December 2014

  8. Beautiful photographs Somali.

  9. Thanks Somali k Chakrabarti and Abdul Ghaffar.

  10. It took me exact one year to read this podt Somali ..thanks to IB !!
    Great post with vintage pictures and precious and info !..The oldest church in Asia ,the mosque constructed without steel or wood !! Great !

  11. Wow, amazing facts about Madras Presidency times! Thanks a lot for sharing.. I was researching about Madras Presidency coins on websites like Mintage World when I happened to read this article!


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