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Sunday, 20 December 2015



In late November, early December 2015, I visited the southern Indian coastal city of Pondicherry (‘Pondi’). Until 1954, this small place on the coast of the Bay of Bengal was a French colony. Now, it is an Indian Union Territory. When the French left in 1954, the ethnically Indian (mainly Tamil) inhabitants of Pondy were offered the opportunity of becoming French citizens. Many accepted. So, at present many of the inhabitants of Pondi are still French subjects, and enjoy the benefits associated with this status. Apart from architecture, there are many left-overs from Pondi’s days as a French colony. For example, policemen wear red képis on their heads and street signs are bilingual: Tamil and French.

There is a church close to Pondy’s railway station, Basilique Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart Basilica). This is an airy Gothic revival edifice, which was built between 1902 and 1907, when the first mass was held in its eastern wing. The church was completed by 1908[1]. While walking around the church, I noticed some particularly fine stained glass windows in the south wall of the nave. Each one of the windows depicted a saint, and below each saint was his or her name. To the right of each name was an inscription: “Strassburg 1908”, and to the left: “OTT Fres”.

My interest was immediately heightened. Strassburg was the German name for the now French city of Strasbourg. However in 1908, the city was under German administration. It had been since France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and was to remain so until the end of the First World War (‘WW1). “OTT Fres” was, I assumed, an abbreviated form of OTT Frères, which I guessed (correctly) was the manufacturer of the stained glass.

On my return to the UK, I looked up ‘OTT Frères’ on the Internet, and was gratified to discover that such a company existed. OTT Frères (OTT brothers) was a company of stained glass painters based in in  Strasbourg/Strassburg. They furnished windows for a variety of buildings (churches and other public buildings) in Alsace, especially in the city of Strasbourg/Strassburg during the first two decades of the 20th century[2]. A set of postcards issued in about 1920 (see below) illustrates the interior of the OTT workshops[3]. The company was founded in the 1850s[4], and by 1900 its workshops opened onto the Cour du Corbeau. The company remained in existence until 1975[5]. Clearly, as I discovered, some of its creations travelled a long way from Alsace.

It is of interest to note that the (French) builder of the church in Pondy chose to commission windows from a company in enemy (German) occupied Alsace, but he did. However, not all of the windows in the church were made by Ott Brothers. Some, which seemed newer in design than those made by Ott and not nearly as finely executed, were manufactured by a company in Grenoble.

Strasbourg/Strassburg, like Pondicherry, changed hands. The city remained under German control for about 47 years, whereas Pondy remained under French control for far longer: from 1674 until 1954.

I have some French relatives living in present day Strasbourg. They have been there for several generations, having moved there from southern Germany at the end of the 19th century. When Alsace-Lorraine was occupied by the Prussians in 1870-71, another of my many ancestral relatives, quite unrelated to those of my family who live in Strasbourg today, was a soldier in the Prussian Army. This man was Leo Ginsberg (1845-1895), who was born in Prussia (Breslau) and was the half-brother of my great-grandfather the South African Senator Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936). Leo settled in the occupied Alsatian city. One of his grandchildren told me that when Leo married, he and his wife were required by law to purchase a set of china dishes from the royal Prussian porcelain factories.  Leo had 4 children, all of whom migrated to South Africa, where they lived in King Williams Town in which their uncle Franz had settled in 1880.

We would never have visited Sacre Coeur had I not wanted to see Pondy’s railway station, which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment visually. Since the church is across the road from the station, we felt that we should take a look at it, and I am glad that we did, as doing so revealed a tiny aspect of colonial history.





[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_of_the_Sacred_Heart_of_Jesus,_Pondicherry
[2] http://www.archi-wiki.org/personnalite-ott_fr%E3%A8res-494.html
[3] http://www.hoogeduinpostcards.com/webshop/lots/59239--lot_of_9_postcards_france,_strasbourg,_vitraux_d-art,_ott_freres_(67).html
[4] http://www.cc-porte-alsace.fr/tourisme/livret-jep-2011-nfb-v4.pdf & http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/merimee_fr?ACTION=RETROUVER&FIELD_1=cmer1&VALUE_1=&FIELD_2=cmer4&VALUE_2=&FIELD_3=cmer5&VALUE_3=&FIELD_4=AUTR&VALUE_4=&FIELD_5=TOUT&VALUE_5=ott%20fr%e8res&FIELD_6=titre%20courant&VALUE_6=&FIELD_7=date%20protection&VALUE_7=&FIELD_8=DOSURLP&VALUE_8=%20&NUMBER=2&GRP=0&REQ=%28%28ott%20fr%e8res%29%20%3aTOUT%20%29&USRNAME=nobody&USRPWD=4%24%2534P&SPEC=9&SYN=1&IMLY=&MAX1=1&MAX2=100&MAX3=100&DOM=Tous
[5] https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.433426656788034.1073741843.366016053529095&type=3