Railways, steamships, the telegraph and above all the Suez Canal shifted the axis of British India from east to west, from Calcutta to Bombay. Bombay grew exponentially after 1850, perhaps the first example of an “Asian tiger” metropolis, the largest city of Britain’s overseas territories. Bombay’s commercial development coincided with the transfer of power from Company to Crown. The city famously became the site for an ambitious rebuilding of its civic centre in Victorian Gothic style, then in vogue back in Britain, especially in church design. No other city in India proved such an attractive playground for English architects and civil engineers of the Gothic revival. The story of the distinctive architecture of nineteenth-century Bombay is well documented, especially from the British side: the dirigisme of Henry Bartle Frere, the governor, the elastic budgeting of Arthur Crawford, the municipal commissioner, and the pattern books of English designers such as Henry Conybeare and George Gilbert Scott. Invariably, however, accounts of Bombay’s Victorian Gothic leave out the eponymous queen. Closer inspection reveals how Queen Victoria herself shaped from afar the style that bore her name.

The physical redevelopment of Bombay owed much to the loyalty to the British Crown of the predominantly Parsi, Jewish and Brahmin mercantile community of the city. They owned or bought up land in Colaba, in Back Bay and around the old harbour and fort and donated it to the city for public purposes. Two generations of the Parsi merchant house of the Jejeebhoys – Jamsetjee (1783-1859) and Cursetjee (1811-77) – along with other Parsi businessmen such as the Framji Cowasji (1761-1851), Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney (1812-78) and Dinshaw Petit (1823-1901), poured money into the city. They funded schools, hospitals, housing for the poor, drinking fountains, waterworks, veterinary care and the new University of Bombay.

This was classic philanthropy, turning private gain into public virtue, opium into opulence. It was also conspicuous patriotism.

Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy was an attentive admirer of the British royal family. With the Brahmin magnate, Jaganath Shunkerseth, he put up the capital for the Victoria Museum and Gardens, which opened in 1862, a monument to the new Crown government. One of the museum’s supporters was Bhau Daji Lad, a local doctor and educationist, who stated that there was “no fitter monument, no better nuzzar” than the museum; it was a “permanent monument of the devotion of the people” to the queen. Jejeebhoy’s patriotism was rewarded. He was made a baronet a year before he died, having been the first Indian to be knighted in 1841. His son, Cursetjee, along with Shunkerseth, led the city’s celebrations of the transfer of power in 1858. Framji Cowasji’s loyalty was more entrepreneurial. A keen horticulturist, in 1838 he sent the first mangoes to Britain via steamship, as a gift to the queen. In Bombay, Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney, living up to his name, invested in the Back Bay reclamation, Elphinstone College and the Crawford Market, whilst back in Britain he funded a drinking fountain in Regent’s Park and contributed to the Albert Orphan Asylum in Bagshot, near Windsor. And Dinshaw Petit endowed the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute in 1887.

Elphinstone College, built through an investment by Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney | Wikimedia Commons (CC by SA 4.0)
Elphinstone College, built through an investment by Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney | Wikimedia Commons (CC by SA 4.0)

Another loyal Victorian and Bombay philanthropist was David Sassoon, a Jewish merchant from Baghdad, who came to Bombay in the early 1830s, fleeing persecution. Like his Parsi neighbours he gave over land to the city’s development, especially around the docks that to this day bear his name. He also founded various institutions, most notably the Mechanics Institute and the Industrial and Reformatory Institution. He paid for the clock tower in the Victoria Gardens. When Prince Albert died, and the new museum became the Victoria and Albert Museum, it was David Sassoon who in 1864 dedicated the pedestal for a statue of the Prince Consort in the museum. His son Albert Sassoon then commissioned the full statue of Prince Albert for the Museum (unveiled in 1869) and gave two further lump sums to the Reformatory Institution. One donation commemorated the visit by the Duke of Edinburgh to the city; the other marked the recovery of the Prince of Wales from illness. Albert Sassoon also commissioned an equestrian statue of the Prince of Wales, after his visit to the city, even- tually erected in 1879.

With the statue of Queen Victoria (unveiled in 1872) at one end of the Esplanade Road and the Prince of Wales at the other, the royal family framed the new city centre.

Perhaps this imperial loyalty of the Parsis and Jews of Bombay was sui generis. It might be wrong to extrapolate from it a more widespread enthusiasm for the British monarchy. As religious minorities and ethnic outsiders under the nominal protection of the Crown, families like the Jejeebhoys and Sassoons had more reason than most to be faithful. At the same time, there were plenty of other philanthropists in Bombay, such as the Brahmins Shunkherseth and Bhau Daji Lad, whose patriotism was just as enthusiastic. However their allegiance is interpreted, the magnitude of their gratitude in the built environment of Bombay is striking, and was made known to the queen, not least through a volume presented to her in 1886.

This statue of Queen Victoria was the first in India and paid for by an Indian prince, the Gaekwar of Baroda. It was moved in 1965 to the Bhau Daji Lad museum
This statue of Queen Victoria was the first in India and paid for by an Indian prince, the Gaekwar of Baroda. It was moved in 1965 to the Bhau Daji Lad museum

Gothic may not have looked very modern, but it was emphatically monarchical. In an age of industry and republican democracy the Gothic style was a romantic return to the late middle ages when kings and clerics ran the show. For the first industrial city of the empire, Gothic was an entirely appropriate form for Bombay. Ornate steeples and campanili softened the effect of factory chimneys, church-like public buildings imposed solemnity on municipal gatherings. So, once the loyal businessmen of Bombay had sown the seeds for the redevelopment of the city, incurring risk where other capitalists were reluctant to go, the government took over. Steered by Bartle Frere and benefiting from one of the largest public share issues ever known outside Britain, the rest of the new city centre took shape in the 1860s and 1870s. The old ramparts around the Fort were cleared and, in the space created across from the Esplanade, a series of government buildings went up: the High Court, the Mint, the Secretariat, the Telegraph Office and the University. The Port Trust took over further reclamation schemes, and new docks were added in the 1870s and 1880s: the “Prince’s Dock” and “Victoria Dock”. The queen featured prominently in the new buildings. The letters “VR” were inlaid in the entrance to the High Court and the University’s clock tower chimed out “God save the Queen” on weekdays.

Then in 1878 work began on perhaps the most grandiose building to be named after Queen Victoria during her lifetime – the Victoria Central Terminus, the new home of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway.

Designed by Frederick William Stevens and opened ten years later, the “VCT” symbolised both the predominance of Bombay as a railway hub and the modernity of the monarch. With its stained glass, glazed tiles, multiple spires, arched window openings and doorways, and central dome, the “VCT” might have been mistaken for an overgrown basilica. Yet it was state of the art in its own way. The vaulted dome was a marvel of modern engineering, the train platforms and sheds amongst the longest in the world at that time. Electric light ran throughout the building. There was a restaurant too, although the owner stuck to his temperance principles for the first two years of business. The “VCT” was, according to the newspapers, one of the “best modern buildings in India”. The queen was there too. The dome was topped with a female colossus symbolising “progress”. Beneath the dome was a smaller statue of the queen. Starting with the tour of Prince Albert Victor in 1889 and through until the opening of the Gateway to India in 1924, the “VCT” now became the ceremonial starting point for all royal and viceregal arrivals. Thus, Bombay modern, in its late nineteenth-century version, “belonged unmistakably to Queen Victoria’s world”, as Asa Briggs observed in his classic Victorian Cities. Likewise Queen Victoria belonged to Bombay, not simply as a required feature of the city’s colonial iconography, but as a celebration of its social and economic progress.

Except that she had a rival: her own son. To boast of its rapid success and transformation, the city Corporation planned a major international exhibition for 1885. Jules Joubert, a French Australian who had masterminded the Calcutta Exhibition of 1883, offered to manage the spectacle, and the governor of Bombay, Sir James Fergusson, gave his approval. Then fate, or rather, the Prince of Wales, stepped in, announcing his own plans to emulate his father and act as patron of an “Imperial and Colonial Exhibition” to be held in London in 1886. Bombay might seek to trump Calcutta, but there was no way the city could rival a royal project in London, especially when it was rumoured that the prince was “put out” by the prospect of a similar event in Bombay. Plans for the city’s own extravaganza were shelved, and many of the exhibits intended for showcasing Bombay in India were appropriated instead for an English audience at home. It was a snub, and a right royal one too.

Excerpted with permission from The English Maharani: Queen Victoria and India, Miles Taylor, Penguin Random House India.