The nomenclature of Middleton Street, running from Chowringhee Road and ending on Camac Street, has left historians and chroniclers of Kolkata puzzled.
The city’s bare footed historian, P T Nair claimed that the street (the natives called it Poorana bukshee khana ka rastah) was named after Samuel Middleton. He was President of the Board of Trade, Fort William, and died in 1775 in considerable disgrace after facing litigation on multiple charges. Nair says Middleton was the owner of a property, measuring 79 bighas and located at south of Park Street (then Burial Ground Road) by the side of the plot owned by Mr Short.
Samuel Middleton stayed in a house on Middleton Row which was taken over by the Government as officers like Frankland, Vansittart and other seniors resided there. The house was also occupied by Sir Elijah Impey, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and by Bishop Heber for a few months. It was demolished or reconstructed from the ground up – the site now houses the Loreto Convent.
Nair opposes the belief that Middleton Street and Middleton Row were named after Bishop Thomas Fanshaw Middleton, the celebrated first Bishop of Kolkata (1814–1822). The city’s chronicler, HEA Cotton however, in Calcutta Old and New mentioned both the Bishop and the company’s servant, observing: “but it is a question whether they do not commemorate a local celebrity of much lesser rank,” indicating his preference for Samuel Middleton who flourished in the time of Cornwallis and Wellesley.
Historical evidence suggests the British would never name a street after a disgraced public servant sued on various grounds, and whose house was sold off as a run-down structure. Moreover, the 1784-85 map of the city by Lt. Col. Mark Wood does not indicate Middleton Street though along with Harrington Street it is marked on the 1792-93 map of the city by A Upjohn but neither is distinguished by any name.
Thomas Fanshawe Middleton (born in Kedleston in Derbyshire, England) joined the Church of England and in 1814, he became the first Bishop of Calcutta. His
diocese included not just India, but the entire territory of the East India Company. He founded the Bishop’s College in Calcutta and on May 1814 became Fellow of the Royal Society for his classical works and contribution to the natural sciences. Bishop Middleton died in Calcutta of sunstroke on July 8, 1822 and was buried in the Calcutta Cathedral. Middleton’s Bishopric met strong opposition in the House of Commons but was passed thanks to Wilberforce. As Bishop of Calcutta, he supervised the Archdeacons for Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras.
The street is today a short but busy stretch that provides access to the shopping areas of Camac Street as well as the celebrated schools and colleges in the area dominated by St Xaviers College. It is served by its dedicated Metro station (Maidan) and bus stop (Jeevan Deep).
The skyline at the Chowringhee end is dominated by the Jeevan Deep building, named after the logo of its owner, the Life Insurance Corporation of India, and the red
brick neo-classical building named Kanak Building, a commercial block.
Jeevan Deep was built after demolishing a magnificent palace that stood on the site belonging to the Maharaja of Darbhanga while Kanak Building was formerly owned by the ruling family of Nepal. The ownership of these edifices gives an idea about the original character of the street and its ambience. The Darbhanga palace in particular was considered to be one of the greatest palaces in any Indian city, a worthy rival to Nizam’s Palace on A J C Bose Road. The palace grounds are now occupied by Jeeven Deep and Jeevan Sudha buildings and some other structures.
Till the 1960’s, the street was lined with grand old buildings owned by royalty or major business families except for the celebrated Loreto Convent. Tucked away amidst these was a residential complex comprising twin structures, Fountain Court, which housed the top management of what were the two most powerful companies in India – Indian Tobacco Co (now ITC) and Imperial Chemical Co (now ICI India). Both these corporate giants had their headquarters just round the corner from Middleton Street, on Chowringhee.
Between the royalty and the corporate directors, the street had a unique ambience. It was a zone dominated by British residents and the cream of Indian social heirarchy, the movers and shakers of those days. The sole surviving memories of the era are the large number of listed heritage buildings on what is only a 100 metre-long-street, beginning with the former Gooptu palace at No.5 to building No.7 as well as many other mansions. The street has houses numbered serially so that the south side pavement had properties numbering from 1 to 7, while the north side pavement started off from number 8 to 12. This is in contrast with usual practice of having houses with odd numbers on one side of a street and even numbers on the opposite side. At one point the Gooptu family owned houses numbering from 3 to 7 but as the family dwindled, these too were sold off; today only parts of houses numbered 4, 6 and 7 are with the family.
Initially, from the 1960’s, new laws related to the urban land ceiling rules
and rising municipal taxes saw the empty land in and around these grand old mansions on Middleton Street being developed into residential blocks. At the same time, the office complex called Jeevan Deep and the headquarters of the National Insurance Corporation came up. In the second phase, Middleton Street evolved into a popular location for offices. Such is the demand for office space that even multi storied buildings that were formerly residential or guest houses for company officials are being converted into offices. These offices today co-exist with residential apartments and buildings.
The second phase also saw in parallel modern retailing being born in the Middleton Street-Camac Street area thanks to outlets like Westside, Pantaloons, Bata, Reebok and the Vardaan Market. This, combined with high footfalls from the educational institutions in the area like St Xaviers and Loreto Convent School and College, make it a vibrant area round the year.
As a result of this two phase evolution Middleton Street has a dual personality— a bustling office and educational hub during the day and a peaceful residential area at late evenings and night.
Middleton Street more than anything today is a street that never rests. Because of the 24×7, 365 day format of modern retailing industry, the shops in the area stay open even on public holidays giving Middleton Street area a unique character compared to other commercial areas like BBD Bag which are deserted on weekends or holidays.