If you talk about book and libraries in Kolkata people always think about the National Library. It is indeed one of the biggest libraries in the country with a collection, which cannot be measured in money. I have myself got many information verified for my blogs through the large collection of old newspapers that it has in stock. What many including me did not know that the National Library that we see now was not the actual building that housed nations books but a completely different building, which almost all had forgotten.
It was the Metcalfe Hall, which was the nation’s first National Library and was once considered a landmark when it came to list of books that it had in its catalogue.
Location of Metcalfe Hall
Tucked in a small corner of Hare Street and Strand Road this grand building had a history, which was lost in time. You must have visited Millennium Park located at the banks of River Hooghly and if you had seen a grand Greek styled building right opposite side of the main gate that would be Metcalfe Hall.
Timeline of events
1835 – Citizens of Calcutta assembled at Town Hall on 31st of August and had a consensus to build a public library.
1836 – Calcutta Public Library opened on 21st of March at 13 Esplanade Row (Sido Kanho Road).
1840 – Foundation stone laid of Metcalfe Hall
1841 – Library shifted to Fort William in the month of June.
1844 – Opening of Metcalfe Hall.
1848 – John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune joined the library as the curator.
1867 – Bengal Social Science Association established at Metcalfe Hall.
1890 – Municipality of Calcutta agreed to bear the expense for the maintenance of the Calcutta Public Library.
1891 – Imperial Library formed by merging various government department libraries.
1902 – Imperial Library Act passed.
1903 – Imperial Library opened to public on 30th of January by Lord Curzon.
1903 – Asiatic Society allowed some of it collection to be shifted here for the circulation in the library.
1923 – Library shifted out from Metcalfe Hall to Esplanade.
1941 – Library shifted to Jobakusum House.
1948 – Library shifted back to Esplanade.
1953 – National Library innaugrated at Belvedre House in Alipore on 1st of February.
Calcutta Public Library
In the year, 1835 citizens of Calcutta of all classes wanted to have a library, which they can access for information and knowledge. Purchasing of books was not feasible due to cost constrains thus there was a consensus demand for a common public library.
The first library was however, a subscription based wherein a member paid a certain amount of money to become a member and then would have lifelong access to the library. A huge princely sum of Rs. 300, which was to be paid in three instalments. Initially at the beginning one needs to pay Rs. 100 and then after six month another instalment followed by the final instalment after twelve months. By paying this fee, the person also became a proprietor of the library more like that of a shareholder.
Apart from the shareholders, one can also be a subscriber by paying Rs. 2 per month for just accessing the library.
Noted Indians who became shareholders were Dwarkanath Tagore, Debendranath Tagore, Prasanna Kumar Tagore, Ram Gopal Ghose, Rustomjee Cowasjee, Raja Satya Charan Ghosal, Radhanath Sikdar, Peary Chand Mitra, Sambhunath Pandit, Kishori Chand Mitra etc.
Peary Chand Mitra was appointed as the sub librarian of this library while Rasik Krishna Mallik and Rasamay Dutt were part of the committee overseeing the formation of the library.
The main contribution to this library came from Governor General (acting) Lord Charles Theophilus Metcalfe who agreed to transfer around 4675 volumes of book from the college of Fort Williams.
With these the first Calcutta Public Library was set up in the private residence of Dr. F P Strong at 13 Esplanade Row (Sido Kanho Road) to be used as the library. The library was thrown open to the public on 21st of March 1836. The library remain here for around five years after which it was transferred briefly to Fort William in June 1841.
Shifting of Library to Metcalfe Hall
Initially during the public meeting of 1835, there was also a discussion to build a new hall honouring Governor General Lord Charles Theophilus Metcalfe for his support of free press in India. This was considered as one of the pioneer of press freedom in the country at a time when it was still under foreign rule.
A subscription was raised for building this hall and with an amount of Rs. 68,000 the building was constructed by M/s Burn & Co.
With Calcutta Public Library already active, the Metcalfe Hall Committee decided to drop the idea of an additional library and instead let Calcutta Public Library move into the newly constructed Metcalfe Hall. An agreement was reached wherein Calcutta Public Library will have to pay Rs. 16,398 to Metcalfe Hall to allow them to use the first floor of the hall.
The ground floor was taken over by Royal Agri-Horticultural Society after they agreed to pay a certain sum of Rupees.
Architectural Style of Metcalfe Hall
This grand building was built around 1840 to 1844 when India was still under the East India Company and Calcutta (Kolkata) was slowly emerging as the defacto capital of this region. The Building that were designed then always wanted to show the opulence and grandness of the company rule thus much emphasis was given to the exterior of the building to make it stand out. The architect of this building was Charles Knowles Robison who was then the police magistrate of Calcutta. Apart from Metcalfe Hall he had designed many other prominent building in the city also. As a matter of trivia, Robinson Street is actually named after him though there is a mistake in the spelling but that is something which has carried on till date.
Another important fact that you must know to relate would be the fact that Charles Knowles Robison was also the Vice-President of Royal Agri-Horticultural Society thus it can be traced as to why the ground floor of this building was allotted to them.
The land which the building was built upon was once a Sailor’s Home however this was not the original spot on which this building was proposed. A plot on the southeast corner of Tank Square was proposed but was rejected sighting that open space was very much required for a city’s development.
The foundation stone was laid as per Masonic traditions on 19th of December 1840 by Dr. James Grant (Grand Master of Bengal) and Dr. James Burnes (Grand Master of Western India).
The building has two entrances one covered colonnade entrance from the Hare Street side and the other from the Strand Road side. Personally, I like the entrance from the Hare Street side. As said earlier this building resembles an ancient Greek building with massive Corinthian Pillars.
Inspiration or the order of reference to the design was taken from the Temple of Winds building in Athens. To away with the confusion, there are no Temple of Winds building in Athens but there is something, which is called the Tower of Wind. If you Google “Tower Of Wind” then you will find a single column like structure located in Athens. What was actually being referred here was the “Order” or the basic principles which is commonly referred to as the Greek Corinthian Order and the Tower of Wind was considered as its prime example.
If we look at some of the popular building built with Corinthian Order in Athens then we can see a striking similarity. For example is that of Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens.
There are 30 Corinthian Pillars with six on the Strand Road side and two right behind them. There are a six of these pillars each to the north and south and on the back you have, ten pillars arranged six in front and four to the back. Each of these pillars are thirty-six feet in height.
The building has a raised platform so in both the entrances you have huge staircases in order to access the main building. This solid platform raises to the height of 10 feet from the ground. The building has two floors and the stairs to access the first floor is from the east side entrance.
Bethune & Metcalfe Hall
In the year 1848 John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune joined the library as the curator. On his suggestion, the entire process of book lending and shelfing was changed. Earlier any member could just walk in and pick up a book but he introduced the system of requisition slips. Shelves were marked and placement of books were numbered according to the rack and section that they were stored which made tracking and replacing a book easy.
Converting it to Municipal Library
With the increasing in cost, it was becoming difficult for the library to sustain itself. Procurement of books and salary of staff were not met by subscriptions alone thus, it was decided to convert this library into a municipal library and making it accessible to all. This way the government will be able to pitch in with the necessary finances.
On 20th of April 1890, this was formalized and the library was transferred to the government. In the same year on August Bipin Chandra Pal was appointed as the Librarian.
Things however did not improve much and the government failed to raise money in the future for the development of the library at Metcalfe Hall.
Converting it to Imperial Library
Lord Curzon (George Nathaniel Curzon) wanted to have a grand Imperial Library in India and wanted it to be situated in the then capital city of Calcutta. Initially he surveyed several government departments, which had their own independent libraries but were only accessible to its division and not to public. Some of these libraries had very good collection of books and records. A smaller Imperial Library which was formed as a merger (1891) of secretariat libraries consisted books of Home Department, East India College, Fort William Library and East India Board of London.
Curzon during one of his visit to Metcalfe Hall was shocked to see rare and important books being stored without much care and mostly being eaten away by termites. To make his grand plan success he decided to merge the then smaller Imperial Library and the existing library at Metcalfe Hall.
Existing shareholders of the Calcutta Public Library based at Metcalfe Hall were offered a buy back option of their share. Royal Agri Horticultural Society which was based in the ground floor of Metcalfe Hall was also asked to vacate the space by paying them Rs. 28,500 up front and then an annual grant of Rs. 6000 every year. This would mean that additional space in the ground floor for the library to expand.
On 30th of January 1903 the grand Imperial Library was opened at Metcalfe Hall after the amalgamation of the two libraries. John Macfarlane was the first librarian of this Imperial Library.
Shifting Out Of Metcalfe Hall
Curzon however was not satisfied by the library at Metcalfe Hall considering a limited space for storing books for something like that of an Imperial Library. He initially wanted to shift the library to Town Hall but after inspection found that not feasible due to security concerns. As Town Hall was located near major government building and with the rise of freedom movement in the country it was not possible to have some many common citizens walking across those buildings.
In the year, 1923 the library was finally shifted out of Metcalfe Hall to 5 Esplanade East which housed the Foreign & Military Secretariat building. This marked and end of an era for Metcalfe Hall, which slowly was occupied by various other departments of the government.
World War II
During this time of emergency, the offices of Foreign & Military Secretariat had high intensity activities thus it was no more feasible to house the library out these and as a temporary arrangement the library was shifted to Jabakusum House in February 1942. After the war, the library was shifted back in the year 1948.
In the year 1953, the official inauguration of the National Library took place at Belvedere House, which from then on became one of the pioneer institution of book library, restoration and old book binding activity. It has now become one of the largest library in the world with a vast collection of books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers etc.
Restoration of Metcalfe Hall
In 2018, ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) decided to restore the Metcalfe Hall to its former glory. Since it cannot be used back as a library, it was decided to convert into a permanent exhibition place displaying the spirit of Kolkata.
The ground floor of the hall was occupied by The Asiatic Society Library and the first floor was once used as an exhibition hall and was under the ASI.
An exhibition was conceived with the theme of “Ami Kolkata” displaying the different cultures of the city in the past and at present. The wonderful use of technology along with tradition is something you must appreciate. Interactive screen, video projections and last but not the least beautiful photographs of the city. The proudest moment for me personally is that two of my photographs are displayed here and this is something, which makes all these years of hard work worth every penny.
In my city of Kolkata there are many heritage structures and building while most of these have been restored or renovated we still have a lot left. We should take the example of Metcalfe Hall and try to revive these places of their past glory.
India’s National Library by B S Kesavan
A Short History Of Bengal Club by H R Ranckridge
Calcutta, Old and New: A Historical & Descriptive Handbook to the City by Evan Cotton
The Prisoner of Robinson Street
List of Members of the Agricultural & Horticultural Society of India
Exhibition space at iconic buildings in Calcutta
Visitors to National Library & Metcalfe Hall can now learn about lives of Bengal’s icons