The railways and Mumbai go back a long way. Both fed off each other — the once-sleepy cluster of islands, gifted to the British as dowry, emerged as a vital cog in the grand wheel of the Raj. A large part of this growth was possible thanks to the construction of railway lines, which the British went about with gusto, primarily for their benefit. Mumbai (then Bombay) was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this expansion.
To put their colonial dreams to reality, they envisioned grand, utilitarian railway terminuses across the Empire that would applaud the might of steam locomotion. For Mumbai, Frederick Williams Stevens was the chosen one — a visionary architect who went on to design not just the stunning Victoria Terminus (renamed after Chhatrapati Shivaji), and play a key role with his son, Charles, to design Churchgate, but also left his imprint on many buildings in the city. These include the BMC headquarters, Royal Alfred Sailors’ Home (now Maharashtra State Police Head Quarters) and Army & Navy building, among others. He wanted to make Mumbai the foremost city of the British Empire, according to historians and researchers.
As the demand by a few city politicians to install a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji inside CST gathers momentum, it’s time to ask, ‘What about men like Stevens, who steered the historic development of the railways in the city?’ His blueprint for the terminus was applause-worthy. Meticulous, hand-drawn plans, from the main dome to the first and second floor offices, the waiting halls, the principal staircase, the tower, the washrooms and furniture, arches, and signage, reveals his 360-degree vision for the terminus, the city, and its people.
Over decades, the powers that be seem to have glossed over his mammoth contribution towards one of the first public utility buildings in the city. A look into our school history books is ample proof. Today, 3 million commuters pass under its Gothic corridors, unaware of Stevens’ gift. His unheralded grave at Sewri cemetery is a telling reminder of this neglect. Mumbai can do better to salute one of its forgotten founding fathers.