Many friends and relatives keep asking me about the history and origin of the Noronhas of Kanpur. I had initially recorded this piece in 1996, and have now updated it.
THE PIONEER: This saga begins circa 1854, from the prosperous village of Aldona, Goa. It was famous for its chillies and business acumen. A 26-year-old intrepid entrepreneur set out on a journey to nowhere. He had learnt photography from the Portuguese in Goa, and set out with a caravan of 300 bullock carts to take photographs of the high and mighty, mostly in the princely states of Rajputana (Rajasthan today). They alone could afford the princely charges of Rs 200/- per photograph then. In those days there was neither camera nor film. The camera was one’s own fabrication, and gold or silver nitrate solutions were used for making the pictures on glass. Celluloid had not yet been invented. A far cry from the effortless ease of digital photography today.
There were times when this intrepid adventurer was beaten up and his equipment smashed. He was accused of extracting the “souls” of his subjects. This is because the negative images looked like ghosts, which was not always pleasing to the rajas and Nawabs! In the course of his meanderings he turned up in Cawnpore (now Kanpur) circa 1856. It was then a boomtown, with a vast agricultural hinterland, prosperous mills, and the Ganges River still navigable for small sea going vessels. This young man was Manuel Xavier de Noronha (30/10/1828 to 18/9/1888), better known as MX.
Two important events influenced his staying on in Kanpur. One was the First War of Independence in 1857, and the other was the coming of the railways from Calcutta in 1858.
During the 1857 conflict there were hardly any ethnic Christians. They were probably caught in the crossfire. MX was given shelter in the Fort (now the Ordnance Equipment Factory). During the ensuing battle a British officer was lying wounded on the battlefield, crying for succour. MX, being a non-combatant, walked out of the fort unarmed, slung the Officer over his broad shoulders and headed back for the Fort. He almost got to safety when a canon ball knocked off the head of the man he was carrying. He then dropped the body and ran back inside. The deceased was later identified as one Col Wilson of the 64th Foot Regiment, and the firing was from the Gwalior Contingent. A souvenir published in 1943 by the Aldona Association of Bombay states that MX saved 80 lives during the 1857 war, for which his name was inscribed on the village’s Roll of Honour. It is not clear whose lives he saved, or how credible the claim is.
MX stayed on in Kanpur, establishing his business in 1858 under the name and style of M/s M.X. de Noronha & Son. From photography he branched out into auctioneering (which continued right up to 1987) and printing. The press was known as Aldona Press. MX also finds mention in one of Rudyard Kipling’s books; as a Goan businessman in whose house an elephant ran amok.
THE PHILANTHROPIC RAIS OF KANPUR: This is how MX’s only son, William Constantine de Noronha (Sr) came to be known in later life. WC (31/8/1862 to 24/11/1932) expanded and diversified his father’s business. He established a tannery, hide and skin business, dal and rice milling, electricity generation for the Cantonments, ran the Post & Telegraph services (Noronha’s Exchange Post Office still functions), manufactured coaches, carriages and furniture, had brick kilns, and dealt in arms and ammunitions. His forte was real estate. He reportedly owned 99 bungalows in the Cantonments, so much so that old timers would say that the Noronhas owned half of Kanpur.
While on the one hand he prospered in business, on the other he was exceedingly generous. Some obituary references will suffice. “He was well known for his charities. Gold medals endowed by him are awarded annually in almost all local institutions. The gift of an X-Ray block to the local Prince of Wales Hospital, a donation of Rs 20,000/- for the U.P. Chamber of Commerce buildings, Rs 25,000/- for the YMCA’s Birdwood Hall in Simla, fans and lights in the Dufferin Hospital, Rs 2000/- for the Indian Medical Association Hall are some of his well known charities” . The Vivekananda Institute passed this resolution. “This meeting places on record its sense of profound sorrow at the sad death of its venerable President, Mr W.C. de Noronha, in whom Cawnpore has lost not only a premier citizen, but one of those rare men who inspite of their high position, continue to be friends of the poor and helpless” . “His charities were given indiscriminately to all deserving institutions of all classes and creeds; many Christian, Mohammedan and Hindu institutions are the recipients of his liberal doles, and the Catholic Mission of whose church he was a faithful servant owes much to his boundless benevolence” .
An interesting endowment made by him on 1/9/1930 was the Birdwood Sword of Honour. It was to be awarded annually in perpetuity to the best cadet of the Indian Army at the Kitchener College, Nowgong. It was named after his friend Field Marshall Sir William Birdwood, the then Chief of Army Staff. It is believed that during Partition this sword went to Pakistan.
Another interesting bit of information about WC was found in a souvenir published by the Arya Samaj in 2008. It states that he got made a cremation place at Bhairon Ghat in memory of his major domo, Ranjit Singh’s, daughter, and also built a two storey building in Ranjit Singh’s wife’s memory at the Arya Samaj Mandir on Thandi Sarak. So obviously WC was a very secular and broad-minded person, way ahead of his time.
Besides business and philanthropy, WC was a great leader, espousing various causes. In 1927 he was elected President of the United Provinces Chamber of Commerce, and represented it before the controversial Simon Commission in 1928. His stellar role was as the Life President of the All India Cantonment Residents’ Association, through which he championed the rights of Indian residents in the Cantonments, which were the hegemony of the British. A glimpse of his thoughts can be found in his Presidential address at the 6th conference of the Association, held at Ambala on 13/3/1926. Referring to the new Cantonments Act of 1924 he says, “ The reform it professes to introduce in the Cantonment Administration is more illusory than real. The act itself was not conceived in a liberal spirit. It represented a merely grudging attempt to apply to the Cantonment Administration in form, rather than in spirit, some of the rudimentary principles of local self-government. It was defective from the very beginning, and where it smacks of liberalism, the executive instructions subsequently issued in the form of circulars from the Army Department, have made it as illiberal as ever”.
Ninety years later his message seems as strident and topical as it was then. Not just the Cantonments, but also the entire system of governance smacks of pseudo-liberalism and executive preponderance. Incidentally, this writer is himself hotly pursuing the implementation of the 74th Amendment to the Indian Constitution in U.P., through which power devolves on the local self-government, through peoples’ participation and decision-making! It must be somewhere in the genes.
Because of his unique contribution to the welfare of the Cantonments, Canning Road (named after Viceroy Lord Canning) was renamed as Noronha Road, post independence. This is the arterial road that connects Phoolbagh to Circuit House. Mistaking the name for that of a foreigner, some army officials recently changed the name to Nehru Road. On my representation, the name of Noronha was restored.
Another point of interest is that WC owned the city’s first automobile . I remember an old Ford Model T that Ford Motors from America wanted to buy back from us, but my father refused. There was also an old Daimler Benz, with wooden wheels, steam engine and chain driven. Unfortunately our forefathers did not quite appreciate the value of these unique vintage cars. The Raja of Tirwa, a neighbouring principality, offered to renovate these gems and 4 others. That was about 40 years ago. We haven’t seen them since!
THE ANCESTRAL HOUSE: An aesthetic legacy of WC was the family house that he built. It was initially called “The Exchange”, perhaps because of the auction business, which may have had both cash and barter transactions. He rebuilt it 1904, renaming it “Manuel House”, after his father MX. It was perhaps the first double storeyed building on The Mall. Its architecture was unique, with intricate arches and chiselled brickwork. Ranjit Singh designed it, and the artisans reportedly came from Calcutta. Since WC had his own brick kilns, special bricks with the family name, were made for this construction. During the Quetta earthquake, sometime in the 1920’s, the building cracked through and through. But it withstood the test of time until it was demolished in 2002, to make way for the Mega Mall.
THE THREE BROTHERS: WC had four sons and three daughters, one of whom he disowned for marrying a non-Brahmin. Regretfully, he still prided himself on his Saraswat Brahmin lineage. His eldest son was a doctor, also called MX. But Kanpurites especially remembered the three brothers – Peter, Willie and Stanley, famed for their unity. That unity, unfortunately, often exacted a heavy price from the wives and children, who felt somewhat left out in the cold!
The threesome started their own auction business of M/s P. Stanwill & Co, popularly known as Stanwills. The household goods auctions held on Sunday mornings were a major source of entertainment and interest. Auctioneering always has hoary anecdotes, and Stanwills had its fair share. Hilarious situations arose because those were the days when Indian manufacturing was measly, and anything “Made in England” was considered precious. There is the story of one Dr Tamba, a regular auction buff. Stanley, with his legendary gift of the gab, sold him a car’s petrol tank cover. The story goes that for several years thereafter, the good Dr Tamba kept coming back to the auctions looking for a car to match the cover!
An eyewitness has another naughty story. An Englishman, who was going home, was selling everything. That included the pisspot. It was a beautiful porcelain one with handles and floral motifs. Stanley passed it off as a serving bowl to a Marwari lady desperate for the “Made in England” tag. The eyewitness recalls that raita was served in the bowl at a dinner party that she was subsequently invited too. For obvious reasons, she didn’t eat, saying that she was fasting that day. A real fast one that!
Stanley (1903 to 1970) was the youngest, and also the most dashing; by far the best orator in Kanpur. If glamour and flair was required for any social event, Stan had to be there; be it a Vintage Car Rally, a Golf Tourney or a Cricket Test. As Secretary of the U.P. Olympic Association it was always his privilege to introduce the cricket teams to the Governor of U.P. at any Test Match at the Greenpark Stadium. Stanley is best remembered for his contribution to Rotary. As Rotary Governor for two consecutive terms (1952-54) he galvanised Rotarians from Peshawar to Patna, his Rotary District.
Willie (1898-1975) inherited WC’s flair for business. He was remembered as the gentleman with the hearing aid, and a crack shikari. Very often district and police officials would contact him to hunt down marauding or man-eating tigers and leopards. His house was adorned with trophies including two beautifully mounted tigers, crocodile snouts, elephant’s feet etc. Be it big game hunting or duck shooting, his wife Mae was always by his side. Since he was hearing impaired she would nudge him to indicate what was coming. Bang.
Willie had a flamboyant lifestyle. He was one of those rare entities to possess a Diner’s Club Card. At his wedding aircraft from the Cawnpore Flying Club showered confetti on the newly weds and the guests at the Queen’s Park, now Phoolbagh .
The British adventurer Eric Newby was sailing down the Ganga from Haridwar to Calcutta in the 1960’s. His experiences are recorded in his book “Slowly Down the Ganges”, which was subsequently made into a documentary film by the BBC TV in the 1980’s. Newby writes about the legendary hospitality and Christmas dinner at Willie’s home.
Peter (1897 – 1970), the eldest of the threesome, was different. He was the wise, quiet and religious one. He was a Civil Engineer by profession, having graduated from Roorkee University (then Thomason College) in 1919. He was instrumental in building the first bridge across the Ganga at Haridwar’s Har-ki-Pauri Ghat, where the river enters the plains. During the First World War he was called up to serve in the King George’s Own Royal Sappers & Miners (now called the Bombay Sappers).
He later joined his brothers in business. But his first love was books. Standing instructions in the Cawnpore Club library were that all new arrivals were first to be sent to Mr Noronha. What he read, he shared through his writings. Several articles were published in secular and Catholic journals. His thoughts were collated in his book “The Pageant of Life”. He was particularly active in Catholic organisations. He was the first Indian, in 1946, to be appointed an Envoy of the Legion of Mary. For several years he ran the Catholic Information Centre from his own home. For his exemplary life and services he was in 1965 knighted by the Pope with the Order of St Gregory. An indication of the respect with which he was held in the city was that at his death the district courts and all Christian institutions closed for the day.
In 2008 the Indian Medical Association (IMA) suddenly remembered their former president, Dr M.X., and erected a bust in his honour at the entrance of the IMA Hall at Parade. This is actually “Mrs Noronha Hall”, as it was built by W.C. (Sr) in memory of his wife Claudine Rachel.
FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE: Peter’s second wife, Florence (1924-1983) was popularly known as the Florence Nightingale and Joan of Arc of Kanpur; because of her services to disadvantaged sections of society. She showed her mettle when she hoisted the Indian tricolour on the night of 14th August 1947 on the British Consulate in Goa, where she was then working. Florence came into her own during the Chinese Aggression of 1962. The District Magistrate put her in the vanguard of the war effort, through the Sena Sewa Samiti. She organised 1220 blood donors and arranged for truckloads of linen, warm clothing etc. She was the founder Chairperson of the U.P. Hospital’s Welfare Society, founder of the Indian branch of the Order of St Martha, National Vice President of the Indian Red Cross, National President of the All India Indian Christian Association, and a host of other organisations. Due to her efforts Mother Teresa came to Kanpur to establish a Home for the Destitute. Because of her commitment the U.P. Govt appointed her as an Honorary Magistrate . Here too she proved herself in judging cases with firmness and fairness.
A typical instance of her tenacity was when the President of India, Dr Radhakrishnan, was to visit Kanpur in 1965. She requested Chief Minister Sucheeta Kripalani and Governor Bishwanath Das to adjust the President’s programme so that he could address the U.P. Hospital’s Welfare Society. They refused. So she broke protocol and went directly to the President, who gladly acceded to her request, much to the chagrin of the Chief Minister and the Governor.
From social work Florence joined politics, as an active Congresswoman. She was appointed to the Minorities cell of the UPCC and AICC. For her services the Pope honoured her with the “Pro Ecclesiae et Pontifice” medal in 1965, at the same time that her husband was knighted.
THE LANDMARKS: There are four landmarks in the city, named after the family. The first is Noronha Crossing, where the family’s ancestral residence was located on The Mall. The second is Noronha’s Exchange Post Office, across the road. The third is Noronha Road in the Cantonments, and the fourth is the Mrs Noronha Hall at Parade. It cannot be called the Hall of Fame. For the fame has receded into history, though the name and the flame remain. Sri S.P. Mehra, the nonagenarian President of the Kanpur History Society says that the Noronhas were the biggest fools of Kanpur, to have lost such a vast inheritance! That would depend on what one considers wise or foolish. The Noronhas apparently chose peace and happiness over worldly fame and name. How foolish of them?
THE RISE & FALL: When MX came to Kanpur circa 1856, it was at its zenith. It was then called the “Manchester of the East”. After Independence Nehru called it the “Dustbin of the North”, and India Today labelled it as an “Industrial Graveyard”. Several other epithets have been hurled at the city. The decline in the city is mirrored in the fortunes of the Noronhas. Some moved back to their roots in Goa. Others sought greener pastures abroad. The harsh reality is that after Independence there was a steady decline in ethics in business and public life, and the Noronhas who had evolved in a different ethos, felt growingly uncomfortable in the changed scenario.
A small remnant made a fresh beginning in 1982, to keep the Noronha flag and flame going in both business and commitment to society. Like the “Last of the Mohicans” there is also the last of the Noronhas in Kanpur. But the city is again on the upswing, especially in the realm of education and industrial growth. Will it impact the last of the Noronhas? How long will it last? 154 years is a long stretch for any family. Would MX like his journey to Kanpur to disappear in the sands of time?
* The writer, born in 1951, known as chhotebhai in public life and literary circles, is the son of Peter and Florence de Noronha.
* See also “Where was Great Grand Dad?” by the same writer