Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Visiting Foreign & Commonwealth Office- Kings Charles Street- Bahar, Cawnpour & more...

An Indian Parliamentary delegation consisting of six senior Members of Parliament who are in London visited the office of Foreign and Commonwealth Office today (October 11, 2010) at Kings Charles Street. We too were invited along with the group and it turned out to be a very interesting and educative tour especially to the then “India Office”.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office ‘the FCO’ or ‘the Foreign Office’ for short – is the government department responsible for promoting British interests overseas and supporting our citizens and businesses around the globe.
The FCO is located in a very impressive builidng in Kings Charles Street, next to Downing Street. There is an interesting history as to how this building came into being. There were several plans to build a new Foreign Office on the Downing Street site, but nothing came of them until the 1850s. In 1856 a government competition for plans for new Foreign and War Offices on the Downing Street site was announced, and in 1858 George Gilbert Scott was appointed as architect. Scott had envisaged a Gothic Foreign Office, but Lord Palmerston wanted a building in the classical style, and Scott finally succumbed and produced drawings for the building we know today. The interior was designed by Matthew Digby Wyatt, Surveyor of the former East India Company and subsequently Architect to the Council of India. Wyatt could draw upon the revenues of India, as well as the proceeds from the sale of East India House, in Leadenhall Street in the City, and he could thus afford to decorate the interior courtyard of the India Office with marble, tiled friezes and a wealth of elaborate carving; and the Council Chamber and the Secretary of State for India's Oval Room with mahogany, oak and gold leaf. The courtyard was used for a great reception for the Sultan of Turkey in the summer of 1867, and the new India Office opened with an official breakfast on 29 November 1867.
After the India Office ceased to exist as a separate ministry in 1947, the Foreign Office took over the rest of its building, mainly for use by the now greatly enlarged German Department. The merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices in 1968 and the removal of the Home Office to Queen Anne's Gate in 1978, led in time to the occupation of the whole of Scott's building by the FCO. This allowed the formulation of plans to transform what had been four separate ministries into one interconnected and modernised block, while at the same time restoring historically significant areas to their original glory. A rolling programme of restoration and refurbishment was completed in January 1997.

We spent lot of time in the India Office Counsel Chamber . The Chamber was designed by Matthew Digby Wyatt. The Secretary of State for India and his Council met in this Chamber to discuss policy affecting the subcontinent, and many important decisions were taken here between 1868 and 1947. The significance of this room is emphasised by its height, size and the lavish use of gilding, and Wyatt linked old with new by transferring to it the great doors and door cases, the furniture and the great marble chimneypiece from the former Director’s Court Room in East India House at Leadenhall Street in the City. The centre panel represents Britannia, seated by the sea, receiving the riches of the East Indies. Behind stand two female figures symbolising Asia and Africa, the former leading a camel, the latter a lion. On the right, a river god represents the Thames, while in the background ships are going off to sea. I felt in awe standing in a hall which has so much relevance to India and Indian history.

Another majestic and magnificent marvel of architecture is the Locarna Suite . The Locarno Suite consists of three rooms originally designed by Scott for diplomatic dinners, conferences and receptions. The largest room, looking out on to the Main Quadrangle, was originally designated the Cabinet Room, but seems never to have been used as such in the nineteenth century. The adjacent Dining Room was also used for meetings but is best remembered as the room used by Lord Salisbury in preference to the Secretary of State’s room. Beyond is the Conference Room with its gilded ceiling supported by metal beams covered by majolica decorations.
Towards the end of our guided tour, we were shown the Durbar Court . Durbar Court, at the heart of the India Office, is the masterpiece of Matthew Digby Wyatt. Originally open to the sky, the four sides of the court are surrounded by three storeys of columns and piers supporting arches. The ground floor Doric and first floor Ionic columns are of polished red Peterhead granite, while the top floor Corinthian columns are of grey Aberdeen granite. The pavement is of Greek, Sicilian and Belgian marble.
The court was first used in 1867 for a reception for the Sultan of Turkey. The name ‘Durbar Court’ dates only from 1902 when some of the coronation celebrations of King Edward VII were held there. The names of the princely States from India are engraved and with interesting spellings such as Bahar (for Bihar), Cawnpour (Kanpur) and States such as Bombay, Puna, Madras and Hyderabad among others.
A high tea was hosted during which Rt Hon Lord Howell of Guildford, Minister of State responsible for all of FCO Business in the House of Lords, the Commonwealth, and International Energy Policy welcomed all of us. Mr Hooda, the Member of Parliament from Haryana State while thanking the Minister on behalf of Indian delegation, introduced all the MPs and also extended an invitation on behalf of Indian Government to visit India.
It was a visit with a sense of purpose and historical pride and I enjoyed.

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