A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE OOTACAMUND CLUB
beautiful English rain & English mud….Imagine Hertfordshire lanes,
Devonshire downs, Westmoreland lakes, Scotch trout streams &
Lusitanian views.” – Lord Lytton describing the idyllic beauty of
Ootacamund & the Nilgiri Hills, in a letter to his wife.
Ootacamund (Ooty) was discovered by the British around 1819, and they flocked there, and as their numbers grew, so did the need for a common meeting ground, & thus the Ootacamund Club came into being in October 1841. The founder of the Club was a Captain Douglas who, together with the 7 other officers of the Madras & Bombay Armies, formed the first committee, Lt. Col. C. D. Dun being the first President. Captain Douglas at first undertook the office of Secretary until the establishment was firmly opened & then handed over this office to Dr. R. Baikie, MD MMS who, in default of other qualifications, devoted most of his time & attention to it.
Extracts of a circular dated January 1st , 1842, address to the European residents in India , by Dr. Baikie reads “To the Zeal, energy & perseverance of Capt. Douglas – the founder – the Club is indebted for having overcome these difficulties, & having succeeded in founding & opening the Ootacamund Club, now for 3 months in full operation.” The concluding paragraph of his circular reads “Much of it will be seen, has already been done, & with, but, limited means. It depends on an enlightened 7 liberal public to assist in carrying out what yet remains to be done, & the committee of management is now appealing to the whole Indian Community for their assistance & support, do so with the more confidence that their object is not only the limited one of adding to the comfort & convenience of a few, but the far higher one of smoothing the pillows & raising the languishing head of sickness & sorrow – of affording so far as may be, to the numerous sufferers from the effects of a tropical climate, a substitute for those comforts & conveniences otherwise only procurable in their native land, which they are forbidden by distance, want of time, & means, to partake of at their source.” This circular, without doubt, is a clear insight as to the how & why Clubs in India came into being.
The Club, at this time, had 360 members, membership being open to “All members of H. M. & the Honorable Company’s Civil and Military Service gentlemen of the mercantile or other professions, moving in the ordinary circle of Indian society.” Entrance donation was Rs.42/-, besides “Such free donations as their means or inclination will admit.” The average monthly cost for board 7 lodging in 1842 was Rs.150/-, room rent being an average of Rs.30/- & board Rs.120/-.
As membership increased over the years & with it the necessity of additional facilities, additions & alterations included a line of bedrooms being added in 1863, new chambers in 1898, & in 1904 a ladies annex was constructed. In 1890, His Highness, the Maharaja of Vizianagaram presented a squash racquet court. The Club was incorporated in 1889 as a Company under the Indian Companies Act.
Stepping into the Club today, one is transported back into time & is enveloped in paneled walls, parquet flooring, highly polished rosewood furniture & gleaming brass fittings. Circling the walls of the Mixed Bar are lists of past master of the Ootacamund Hunt from 1845 onwards, as also lists of winners of the Ladies Point to Point races, & of the Peter Pan Cup – presented to the Ootacamund Hunt by the planters of South India.
The large Ballroom is adorned with well preserved hunting trophies – obviously donated by members - & include tiger, leopard, bear skins, bison, sambhar deer heads. To the right of the Mixed Bar is a second bar dedicated to the memory of Col. Jago who, as a Captain in the Army, introduced jackal hunting in Ooty in 1872. An imposing painting of him, with his original riding crop encased below adorns one of the walls in this room. Behind the Mixed bar is the Gentleman’s Bar, the only public room in which the strict dress code is relaxed – gentlemen being permitted in shirt-sleeves after 2000 hours. Dress code is strictly observed, in all other public rooms. The other imposing rooms are the Library & Dinning room – described by Trevor Fishlock in his “India File” & Molly Panter-Downs in “Ooty Preserved”. Fishlock writers “Another fine room is the reading room, a colonial treasure with a tiger skin, a carpet of character & the smell of old throne like dark leather chairs split and honed by a century’s trousers.” Panter-Down very aptly describes the feel of the Dinning hall “When I go to eat the club’s excellent food in the cozy dinning-room, there is no getting away from the horse. I am surrounded on all sides by enlarged photographs of past masters and huntsmen of the Ooty hunt sitting big and blue eyed and walrus-mustached…they look like portraits in rock that no tidal wave of history would be able to shift.”
The history of the Ootacamund Club would be incomplete without the history of the building in which the Club is housed. On June 13th 1831, Sir William Rumbold, wealthy businessman from Hyderabad, purchased a small bungalow & the land thereon from a Capt. C. D. Dun who later to become the first President of the Club. Towards the end of 1831, construction of a hotel was commenced. It is reported that work on the building was carried out without the slightest regard for expense, & involved an outlay of between 12,000-15,000 sterling. Sir William’s erstwhile butler, Felix Joachim, reportedly an unmitigated scamp, was entrusted to oversee the constriction. It appears his mater’s trust was misplaced & he made sufficient amounts to build his own house. The beautifully finished & excellently built house that Sir Rumbold left behind him remains, to this day, “a standing proof that he had princely ideas, & was the reverse of economical, as regards his building operations.”
The building functioned as a hotel from 1833 to 1834, when it was rented for a short period by Lord William Bentick, Governor General of Fort William at this time & later the first Governor General of India. It reverted to a hotel till December 1835, when it was rented to the Governor Sir Frederick Adam till September 1836.
The home of the Ootacamund club has more than the one claim to fame. Apart from being the residence of the first Governor General of India, & home to several governors, it was deprived of the honour of housing His Majesty King Edward VII, when, as Prince of Wales in 1875, his visit to Ooty was abandoned due to an out break of Cholera in the plains.
The game Snooker, though first thought up in an officer’s Mess in Jubbalpore in Madhya Pradesh, around 1875, took serious root in the Ooty club, where Sir Neville Chamberlain, first posted its rules. History was created, & is preserved with reverence, in the Billiards room.
Today, the Club has over 700 members, with a membership base, from all major cities in India. The Ooty club is fondly referred to as the “Snooty Ooty Club” as also “The Morgue” – thanks to its many hunting trophies. Heritage & tradition are firmly entrenched within its walls, & have been zealously guarded & upheld by generations of members. The Club has, therefore, grown from strength to strength over the years & can proudly & without doubt, ranks as one of the finest Clubs in the country, by the rules regulating personal conduct, dress & discipline within its surrounds, which is its strength. Rules are not sustainable without culture, & tradition propagates culture.
The highlights of the annual social calendar included, until recently, the opening and closing breakfast of the Ooty Hunt. The Planter’s Ball is still held planter’s week – in days gone by; dinner at the Ball was a formal sit-down affair with wine accompanying each course. Food was served in silver dishes, the cutlery being Mapin & Webb. Dinner Jackets were de rigueur. With increased patronage over the years, however, logistics dictated that an elaborate buffet be served instead. Monthly lunches, with featured cuisine, are very well attended, the Pub lunch and Christmas lunch being the most popular.
The Club has 15 well furnished residential chambers, all of which have been recently renovated, retaining the old world charm with modern amenities. Sitting on the lawns adjoining the rooms and sipping high-grown Nilgiri tea is a therapeutic experience few other places can offer.
The Club has reciprocal arrangements with the Bengal Club, Madras Club, Royal Bombay Yacht Club, The Royal Overseas League, London,The Royal Ipoh Club, Malaysia, The Muthaiga Club in Nairobi, Kenya and the Princeton Club in New York. The management committee has a President, and under its guidance, a Secretary administers the running of the Club.
The writer has relied heavily on various article & books written from time to time prominent amongst which is “Ootacamund – a History” by Sir Frederick Price – an autographed copy of which is in the Club’s library. The other writers have been acknowledged earlier. In closing, it would be appropriate to quote Simon Courtauld from t he Sunday Telegraph – “The Ooty Club is unquestionably the jewel in the crown of clubs in the Sub-Continent. It is one of a handful of such places, founded in the 19th Century, on which the sun is showing the greatest reluctance to set…”