The Suvarnadurg of London
It’s the proverbial castle on the hill.
Weaving your way up the wooded trail on Shooter’s Hill in Greenwich, South London, Severndroog Castle shrouds itself in mystery, even as it slowly reveals itself. Its stony disposition does not betray its purpose to the tourist who has slightly veered off the trail.
But did you know that this castle nestled in suburban London was built as a tribute to a legendary Maratha island fortress?
Upon further inspection is when the castle reveals its true identity. The decor with gilded ceilings, carved figurines and swinging chandeliers befits a palace and not a forgotten castle. Surrounded by its wooded moat, Severndroog Castle is a folly fort, named after the Suvarnadurg Fort, off the coast of Maharashtra.
Suvarnadurg Fort (christened Severndroog by the British) is located on a small island in the Arabian Sea, near Harnai in the Konkan region of Maharashtra. Named ‘The Golden Fort,’ it was considered the pride or the ‘feather in the golden cap of Marathas’.
– Did you know that this castle nestled in suburban London was built as a tribute to a legendary Maratha island fortress?
Apart from being an island fortress, it also served as a shipbuilding facility. The building of the fort is credited to the Adilshahs of Bijapur, but it came to prominence in the hands of the Marathas under Chhatrapati Shivaji. The complex comprises of the sea fort garrisoned by a network of 3 land forts on the coast, making it highly secure. It formed an impregnable fortress to protect the Maratha Empire from attacks by the sea.
The Marathas were among the few powers in India, after the Cholas, to have a powerful navy, as Chhatrapati Shivaji realized the importance of having a military presence on the seas. But the Maratha navy really reached the pinnacle of its power under the Maratha lord Kanhoji Angre (1667–1729), appointed Grand Admiral of the Maratha Navy. Suvarnadurg fort served as an important stronghold in the Maratha’s naval ambitions.
– Kanhoji Angre established complete power over the west coast of Maharashtra, stretching from Mumbai in the north to Vengurla in the south.
In 1713, Suvarnadurg was formally handed over to the Angres by Chhatrapati Shahu of Satara. Kanhoji Angre established complete power over the west coast of Maharashtra, stretching from Mumbai in the north to Vengurla in the south. His power was a great impediment to the British expansion in the Konkan region, as the British dubbed him ‘Angria, the pirate’ and Suvarnadurg his ‘Pirate stronghold’.
After the demise of Kanhoji Angre in 1729, the fort of Suvarnadurg passed onto the hands of his son Tulaji Angre, who fell afoul of the Peshwas. The Peshwas then conspired with the British to defeat the Angres, launching a joint attack on Suvarnadurg. The joint siege of the fort lasted from March 25 to 2 April 1755.
The British commander leading this operation was Sir William James. On 12 April 1755, Commodore James captured the fort and formally handed it over to the Peshwas. It would return to British control in 1818, after the fall of the Maratha empire.
William James was born in Pembrokeshire in the summer of 1720 to a poor Welsh miller. He took to the seas in 1732 and by the age of 18, was commanding a ship in the West Indies, as a junior officer under Captain Edward Hawke of the Royal Navy.
In 1747 he joined the East India Company and was appointed Commander of its Marine Forces fleet, protecting its trading ships. He participated in the siege and capture of Suvarnadurg during this time.
In 1759, he returned to England a wealthy man and had two children with Anne Goddard, settling in Soho, London. He went on to become a director of the East India Company and was also elected as a Member of Parliament for West Looe, Cornwall. He was also awarded a baronetcy in 1778.
James suffered a stroke and died during the festivities of his daughter’s wedding in December 1783. He was buried in Eltham, where he had his estate.
– In 1848, the Royal Engineers used the Severndroog Castle for the Survey of London
After the death of Sir William James, Lady James built a memorial to him and his exploits at Suvarnadurg on Shooters Hill and called it ‘Severndroog Castle’. It was owned by Sir James’s descendants before being purchased by the London Council in 1922.
Over centuries, the Severndroog Castle, or the ‘Suvarnadurg of London’ has stood tall over the Hill. As the highest point between London and Paris, it was used as an observation point during the Trigonometric survey of 1784-1790 to survey the distance and alignment between the nearby Royal Greenwich Observatory and the Paris Observatory. In 1848, the Royal Engineers used it for the Survey of London. During WWII, it served as a strategic lookout post and is still used today as a navigation point for pilots flying into Biggin Hill Airport in Greater London.
It suffered a period of neglect until 2003 when plans to lease the disused building to corporations alarmed a group of residents in the locality. Not wanting the surrounding wood chopped down, they formed the Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust, restored the building and opened it to the public.
Today, you can even head to the castle’s quaint tea room for scones and clotted cream, for an admission fee, and marvel at its Indian connection.
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