Casebook: Clive of India’s house at Dum Dum, Calcutta

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One of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on was Clive of India’s house at Dum Dum, about four miles from the centre of Calcutta, for the BBC series House Detectives At Large which aired in 2002. Instead of featuring domestic properties within the UK, as House Detectives had done, the scope of the new show was far grander – also investigating the history of Harewood House, Wigmore Abbey and Ditherington Flax Mill. One of the presenters, Dan Cruickshank, had previously filmed a sequence at Dum Dum for One Foot in the Past several years previously, and when he returned was shocked by the amount of dilapidated that had occurred since then. The mission was to provide a compelling case to present to the Bengali authorities so that necessary funds could be made available to protect and conserve the crumbling structure.

The house at Dum Dum was thought to have been acquired by Clive either shortly before the battle of Plessey in 1757 as an operational base, or after his success during negotiations; Dum Dum House, ‘an old property on a mound’, is mentioned several times by contemporary historian Robert Orme (including a sketch diagram from 1756). However, we do know that Clive took over the bungalow and combined the existing Indian architecture with European designs, interior fixtures and fittings including an upper level and various luxurious items including a grand billiard table, an expensive carpet (said to have been taken back to England when Clive finally left India) and a range of other furnishings. His wife wrote many letters from the property, describing what life was like in the tranquil grounds.

As a result of Clive’s alterations, Dum Dum represents one of the very earliest Anglo-Indian architectural fusions and this was the main platform on which the appeal for conservation was made. My role was to re-appraise the documentary evidence surrounding Dum Dum based on records primarily at the British Library, whose extensive collections included the India Office Library manuscripts; and the National Library of Wales, where many of Clive’s personal papers had been deposited. Having sifted through piles of correspondence during Clive’s tenancy, an inventory of his possessions at Dum Dum was uncovered for the first time, and was used paint a picture of life at Dum Dum. It was also possible to start assessing its earlier history. Instead of a converted Dutch of Portuguese factory, which was one theory put forward in the Victorian period, we were able to establish that it was more likely to have been an Indian Prince’s hunting lodge – probably dating back to at least the sixteenth or early seventeenth century. However, the most stunning revelation came from a brief period of archaeological investigation at the site itself.

As with many Indian houses, the creation of a water tank was a key part of ensuring its viability in the hot climate. The tank at Dum Dum was unusually large, helping to explain the size of the mound on which the house stood. On digging a bit deeper into the mound, our team was astonished to find bricks and materials consistent with a medieval palace pre-dating the 16th century Murghal empire, alongside shards of pottery that were considered to around 2,000 years old. As a result of these discoveries the Archaeological Survey of India agreed in 2003 to take over the site, and work to preserve this ancient monument of supreme historical interest.