Gift of a Bombay Parsi to London

The Parsis are believed to have arrived in India from Persia, landing on the coast of what is now Gujarat. Some members of this religious community did very well during the rule of the British in India. One of these, the subject of this piece, was a great philanthropist and gave a fine gift to London …

MY MOTHER-IN-LAW STUDIED medicine at the Grant Medical School in Bombay. One of her fellow students, Perin, was her good friend. Perin, a member of Bombay’s Parsi religious community, was related to the Readymoney family, Parsis, who were prominent and successful in Bombay. You might be wondering why I am telling you this and what it has to do with anything of greater interest. Well, bear with me and join me in Regents Park.

Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney

The Broad Walk is a long straight promenade that stretches from the Outer Circle near Marylebone Road at the south of Regents Park northwards through the park to Outer Circle next to the London Zoo. Near the south eastern corner of the Zoo, there is a gothic revival style Victorian water fountain on the Broad Walk. Well-restored recently, it is no longer working. The structure, which is made of pink granite and white stone, looks like a typical flamboyant 19thy century public drinking fountain that can be found in towns all over England, but closer examination reveals that this is not so typical. Amongst its many decorative features there is a cow standing in front of a palm tree; a lion walking past a palm tree; the head of Queen Victoria looking young; and the head of a moustachioed man wearing a cap of oriental design.

The man portrayed on the drinking fountain was its donor, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney (1812-1878), who was related to my mother-in-law’s friend from medical school. Readymoney was born into a wealthy family that had moved to Bombay from the Parsi town of Navsari (in present-day Gujarat), close to where the first Parsis might have landed in India many centuries earlier. Cowasji began working as a warehouse clerk at the age of 15. Ten years later, he had become a ‘guarantee broker’ in two leading British-owned firms in Bombay, a lucrative position. By the age of 34, he was trading on his own account. In 1866, he was appointed a Commissioner for Income Tax. This form of taxation was new and unpopular in Bombay, but Cowasji made a success of its collection.

In recognition for his services to the British rulers of India, Cowasji became a Justice of the Peace for Bombay and, soon after, was made a Companion of The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India. He was a great philanthropist, providing money for building in Bombay: hospitals; educational establishments; a refuge for the destitute; insane asylums; and decorative public drinking fountains. In addition to these good causes in Bombay, he made donations to the Indian Institute in London. In recognition of his philanthropic works, he was made a Knight Bachelor of the United Kingdom in 1872.

Three years before being knighted, Readymoney financed the construction of the drinking fountain in Regents Park. It is his face that appears on it.  It was, as a noticed affixed to it reveals, his:

“… token of gratitude to the people of England for the protection enjoyed by him and his Parsee fellow countrymen under British rule in India.”

The Parsi community in India, like the Jewish people in that country, was and still is a tiny proportion of the Indian population as a whole. It felt that its survival would be ensured by showing allegiance to whomever was ruling India, the British in Readymoney’s lifetime. The fountain was inaugurated by Princess Mary of Teck (1833-1897), a granddaughter of King George III, under whose watch the USA was detached from the British Empire.

The fountain, which makes for an eye-catching garden feature, was designed by Robert Keirle (1837-1914; https://borthcat.york.ac.uk/index.php/keirle-robert-1837-1914-architect?sf_culture=en), architect of The Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. Keirle also designed a drinking fountain for another Indian, The Maharajah of Vizianagram. This was erected in 1867 at the northern edge of Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch, but it was removed in 1964 (https://theindiantrip.com/uk/vizianagaram-city/info). All that remains of it today is a small stone memorial, which I have walked past several times.

Usually, we spend several months in India, the country where my wife was born, but because of the current pandemic we will have to delay our next trip, for goodness knows how long. Seeing things in London with Indian association, like the Readymoney Fountain in Regents Parks helps us, in a strange way, to maintain out ties with a country for which both of us have great affection.

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