The Spencer Saga

The Spencer’s of the Raj

This is yet another name that in theory belongs to previous generations.  There was a time when the name was synonymous to quality thus justifying the high prices quality sometimes commanded. It also signified association to a wealthier elite in the India between the late 19th century and the mid-20th. The company or its skeletons still exist, owned by others, operated with a new ethos, but the Spencer’s I will write about is the Spencer’s from the times of the Raj. It was different really, perhaps a period when luxury was defined differently, when everything was relaxed and more attention paid to detail. One thing always kept Spencer’s apart, its higher prices, so much so that people used the term ‘Spencer prices’ to describe a well-marked up figure.

The story starts with two assistants in a general merchandise shop called Oaks and Co in Madras. The year, 1857. The young fellas were named Charles Durrant and John William Spencer. Durrant left Oaks in 1863 and started a new company named Durrant & Co at Mount Road Madras. Soon to join him was his previous colleague John Spencer. By 1864, the company was renamed Durrant & Spencer and for a couple of years, they were auction agents for a variety of ‘fresh and new’ imported goods. Things looked up and around 1867, Durrant vanished from the scene, to leave behind a new company JW Spencer & Co. At this juncture, Spencer was joined by a hotshot salesman named Eugene Oakshott and their business morphed into a regular shop selling wares. Eugene Phillip Oakshott incidentally was born in Cork, Ireland in 1839 and later worked around Liverpool in the linen and woolen trades. By 1871 he had moved to India and joined Charles Durrant at Spencer & Co. as noted above.

As business expanded, the offices and shop moved to various locations and the most talked about was the original unit near the D’Angeli’s hotel on Mount road. Spencer however, and most people may not know this, decided to leave India for by 1882, he was soon back in Britain. It was Oakshott who carried on the company’s business as sole proprietor and it was he who decided out of great regard, never to change the Company name. Whatever we now know as Spencer’s achievements should therefore be attributed to the energetic Oakshott, his manager Alfred Oakes and his partner HG Conner. By 1884 it was Spencer’s and Co and traded in teas, many fine goods and they were agents for many English firms. They had opened a branch in Bangalore and in quick succession another in Ooty.

Within no time, it had become a retail department store with multiple sections, had started bottling whiskey and started a Dindigul Trichinopoly cigar unit under the name Shah and Hous. That unit would become famous some decades later, and we will soon get to it. By 1887, Spencers had hit sales close to Rs 10 lakhs and they now planned a new building befitting its stature in the market, and went on to build one which survived well past the 20th century. It was in 1891 that Oakshott purchased the land titled under 153 Mount road from one Ruthnavelu Mudaliar of Triplicane. With WN Pogson as architect he built an imposing building, though a bit scaled back from original plans, to house the ‘finest shop of the east’ which housed everything one could possibly want.

Oakshott moved back to Britain by 1892, while other partners and the company continued to thrive. He held the chairmanship until 1910. In 1897, the company went public having doubled the turnover again. JO Oakshott, his nephew who had first apprenticed in the Madras unit during 1886, returned with British experience to take over the reins of the new firm. Oaks and Co was another big name which did well, though competing with Spencer’s. Soon they ventured into hitherto new areas such as railway catering, cigar manufacturing, bottling of aerated waters and finally the prestigious hotel business. JO proved to be an adept manager soon rising up to the chairman position until he too left in 1913, to look after the affairs of the London Branch.

Quoting S Muthiah, ‘J O,’ as he was known, gradually not only took over the management of Spencer’s but, through a series of takeovers, made it an all-India retailing, hoteliering and catering empire, the biggest in Asia in the early 20th Century. ‘JO’, working his way up, step by step, became Director in 1905 and de facto in- charge of the Company when Eugene Oakshott died in 1911 – his successor Alfred Oakes happy to live a quiet life. In 1913, ‘J.O’ became Chairman, a seat he was to adorn till his death in 1932. Between 1923 and 1928, ‘J.O’ spearheaded the takeover of Oakes & Co., Madras (Spencer’s nearest rivals), H.S. Smith & Co in Bombay, Jamasjee & Sons in Rawalpindi, G.F. Kellner’s in Calcutta, and W.E. Smith’s in Madras besides several other smaller companies.

On a side note, JO was also involved with the press, presenting through his paper, a European mindset in Madras. The Madras Times was started by the Gantz brothers in the year 1858, was followed by the Hindu newspaper started by Subramania Aiyar and M. Veeraghavachariar, together with four law students. In 1905, the Indian patriot was started by C. Karunakara Menon, who had experience from his Hindu days.  The Madras Times  was acquired by JO Robinson in 1921 who merged with The Mail to bring out the first morning paper of Madras, The Daily Express (In fact he also brought up the Higginbotham’s paper and published it under the banner of Associated Publishers). The Indian Express came in later, started in 1932 by an Ayurvedic doctor Varadarajulu Naidu. All in all, JO was a well-regarded citizen of Madras, serving in many positions, including the war office, the Bank of Madras, Madras traders association, the Madras port trust, the Madras Corporation, the SPCA, The Pasteur institute at Coonoor and so on…

Between 1920 and 1932 when he died, John is shown to be living at Bramley Croft, Tower Road, Hindhead and that was when he built the house Grayshott in Madras. John O Robinson’s eldest daughter Esther married Stanley Wilson. Esther and husband Stanley moved into the property in 1930 when Stanley, a Chartered Accountant, became a director of Spencer & Co. Later, Stanley was to become Chairman of the company and see it through the period of changes in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s resulting from India’s independence.

During this period and later, Eugene Oakshott’s sons Roy & Percy also served for the company, but mainly from the London offices. Roy’s son Philip or PG served as an MD for a while, until 1936. Many years passed by and eventually another Oakshott, John sailed to India in 1952, but his involvement though appreciated was in an environment which was rapidly changing after India had become independent.

From the Oakshott archives - Stanley Edwards was a racing man and ‘Grayshott’ was the center of many extravagant parties and Sunday ‘open’ houses for the racing fraternity and personalities of the Madras society. The couple continued to live there until 1957 and later the property was taken over by Spencer & Co. However, the fortunes of the company were in decline throughout the 1970/80s and what was left of a once great empire was the subject of a takeover, although the name Spencer remained. ‘Grayshott’ was put up for sale in 1994 and was then ‘purchased’ by the Tax Department in 1995.

So much about the key British individuals. While there were a number of Indians in the hierarchy, the company was strictly British, with a decent amount of segregation within its environs, such as the bathrooms. The management was British, the sales and customer support were handled by Anglo Indians and the clerical and labor pool handled by Indians. It projected somewhat of an uppity behavior, with the stores handling customers purely based on their looks and perceived status. Branch managers were usually locals, for example we had C Narayana Menon at the Calicut beach Spencer’s. Personnel were mostly loyal to the company and considered part of the extended Spencer’s family. Honesty was paramount and any kind of theft meant dismissal. Pensions were paid to key staff and branches were taken to task enmasse if something wrong happened at any outpost.

Spencer’s association with the railways in providing railway refreshments was an affair which resulted in a virtual monopoly. There are so many stories mentioning the white uniformed railway waiter with his turban and the green and gold cummerbund and the legendary passing of trays on a running train without any running boards (this was before the vestibule came about). The picture below shows you roughly how it was done.

Catering started quite early, somewhere around 1898 or a little later under its own name to the M&SM (Madras & Southern Maratha Railway) co. and the S.I.R. (Southern Indian Railway), under the name Brandon & co, to the G.I.T.R. (Great Indian Peninsula Railways) headquartered in Bombay and under the name GF Kellner’s for the BNR (Bengal Nagpur Rail), the Nizam’s railway and finally also the N.W.F.R. (North West Frontier railway) running between Delhi, Amritsar & Lahore.

The stories are abundant, of the omelets and toast, bacon and eggs, imported cheese’s, the ever famous roast chicken, the oft remembered railway mutton, crisp and thin fried fish and what not. Cutlery, ceramic plates and so on were a norm for the upper class dining experience. They were the first to start the concept of taking an order at the previous stations for delivery down the line after telegraphing the orders.  M&SM refreshment rooms started as early as 1903 and it is believed that this fine five decade relationship with the railways was perhaps due to the personal friendship between Edward Waller Stoney, the SIR Chief Engineer (his daughter Ethel was the mother of Alan Turing, the person involved in making one of the earliest computers and the breaking of the enigma cipher) one of Spencer’s first shareholders and who became later, a director of Spencer’s.

The refreshment rooms by contract were to be staffed by men of good character, fit, well behaved, in good health, well dressed and skillful! While furniture and space was provided by SIR, the cutlery, and upkeep was Spencer’s responsibility. They also ran restaurant cars on important trains such as the Ceylon boat mail and the link ships at Dhanushkodi. Spencer’s provided a canteen facility for the Tamil labor transit camp at Mandapam. Interestingly they also served at wedding parties, POW camps (2nd world war) and army canteens!

As the WWII progressed the food business was severely affected and quality dropped due to lack of supplies and after India became independent, austerity rules and lack of foreign visitors affected the business drastically with occasional visitors finding their food terrible and unpalatable. In the late 50’s western style catering was out of place and the business eventually ground to a halt.

The area of business which rose its profile much higher was the hotel business. Connemara in Madras, the Savoy in Ooty, the Sylks in Coonoor, The Metropole in Mysore, The Blue Mountain in Kothagiri, the Malabar hotel in Cochin and The State hotel in Jaipur were all once managed or set up by Spencers. They then branched into aerated waters and as they say, Spencer’s Soda but naturally helped many an alcohol consumer drift to the clouds. Don’t be surprised, they also branched out into stocking premium wines and spirits.

But what I did not really know about at all was their connections with manufacture of cigars. Their brand was the Gold Mohur Havana shaped cigars made from the finest sun dried Dindigul tobacco. A number of versions were made with different tobaccos, imported and local, from plants at Trichy and Dindigul. And yes, cigars in those days were rolled on one’s thigh! The little Randolph proved to be very popular. The Dindigul factory chugged on until the late sixties.

We did have a Spencer’s at Calicut beach and I recollect many visits to this shop.  It is said that KB Menon a freedom fighter, used Spencer’s as his hideout for a while when he was sent to Calicut in 1942 to organize the Quit India movement. In 1942, Dr. K.B. Menon and a few other patriots had planned to destroy the Feroke Bridge, as a token protest against the British rule. However, the conspiracy was discovered and defused, and the "culprits" were punished in the so called Keezhariyur Bomb Conspiracy Case which CHF has written about,earlier.

S Muthiah explains - After independence came the gradual decline of the company, the first signs seen during the stewardship of Robinson's son-in-law, S.W. Edwards, who became Chairman in 1950. He was faced with a ban on imports, an exodus of the firm's best customers, most of whom had ensured occupancy in its hotels, the nationalization of the railways with the resultant loss of railway business, and a tight money situation in a strangled marketplace. He saw Indianisation - and a different outlook that might result - as the way out. And Cooverji Hormasji Bhabha, a wealthy Bombay businessman who'd been a minister in Nehru's first cabinet, got the nod over Anantha Ramakrishnan of Amalgamations, mainly because of Zal Rustom Irani who had joined the company in 1937 as its first senior Indian executive. Irani became a Director in 1943 - and his were thewords that mattered with Edwards.

During the late 50’s after the first Indian director Irani joined its ranks, the Spencer’s group tried to diversify into pharmaceuticals and consumer durables. This never worked out but the fortunes were stabilized with their decision to lease the Connemara, West End and Savoy to the Taj Group in the 1970s. But the scene slipped into a disaster when a major fire in 1981 destroyed the main showroom. 

Eventually the new owners sold the Company in 1989 to the R.P. Goenka Group of Calcutta who were involved with many other chains such as the Food World, Health & Glow and Music World. Spencer’s as an institution still remains - and so do a few stores. As Muthiah put it - In fact, the main store in Madras has a liquor counter no second to the one in Spencer's heyday. But no Spencer's store today, is what it was; the ambience has gone, together with the building. The Spencers Plaza mall has taken its place, housing over 700 shops.

At one time, the Spencer's Empire according to their website stretched from Peshawar to Cochin, from Karachi to Chittagong, spanning the length and breadth of undivided India. Today it has passed hands, changed in culture and outlook though still remaining in name. Anybody who wants to study the group in more detail has only to lay their hands on Muthiah’s wonderful retelling of that story.

The Spencer legend – S Muthiah
The many articles in ‘The Hindu’ by S Muthiah

Pics –
Waiter passing trays –Steve McCurry Pakistan 
Spencers – PB Mani
Others - google pics - owners acknowledged with thanks


Alexander’s ventures underwater

When Alexander dived into the depths

Alexander or Iskandar the great warrior from Macedonia was a very interesting person to say the least, mainly for having stoked the imaginations of so many over centuries. So many books have been written about him, about his wars, about his loves and about his death. Mystery continues to linger around him, and the search for his tomb continues to this very day. Alexander as you would all know,  spent most of his life on various military campaigns far across his borders, through Asia and northeast Africa, going on to create one of the largest empires of the ancient world by the age of thirty, stretching from Greece to northwestern India between 334 BC and 324 BC.

I still recall that he was known as Iskandar in Turkey, they have a city there called Iskenderun and a famous and tasty kakab dish with yogurt splashed over it is called the Iskandar Kebab (I found out later that it had nothing to do with the king, and that its real inventor was from the İskenderoğlu restaurant family belonging to the 19th century!).

The long campaigns made his troops weary and homesick, so much so they rebelled and Alexander had to return from India. It is said that fearing the prospect of facing larger Indian armies and exhausted by years of campaigning, Alexander's army finally mutinied at Beas, and refused to march farther east. Their huge army had almost been defeated by Porus and his army comprising just 20,000 and a number of war elephants. Now faced with a prospect of crossing the dreaded Ganges River and facing an enemy with over 80,000 soldiers, they decided wisely to disobey their young master. I wrote about the earlypart of that retreat and the person who accompanied him, the Indian gymnosophist Guru Calanus. 

The rest of the young kings days were filled with treachery, rebellion, mutiny and finally perhaps mysterious death in 323 BC by poisoning or disease. This story however, goes back to the beginning years of his campaigns, and to the tiring and testing time he had in the siege of Tyre during 331BC. It was particularly difficult as the island of New Tyre was well fortified with strong 150’ high walls and unapproachable to a land army. For the Phoenicians an ancient civilization later controlled by the Persians, and which included the coastal areas of today's Lebanon, northern Israel and southern Syria reaching as far north as Arwad, it was an important harbor base. Alexander had requested that he wished to make a sacrifice at the temple of Heracles in New Tyre. The Tyreians seeing through the ploy replied that he could do the same at the temple in Old Tyre on the mainland.

Alexander was aware of Tyre's fortifications and impregnability and convened his council, explaining to his generals the strategic importance of securing all Phoenician cities before moving on to Egypt. Tyre was considered a stronghold for the Persian fleet and he could not afford to have it threaten from the rear. The story of the 7 month long siege is interesting reading for those interested in such matters, but not something we will retell. Alexander did not have his navy initially to support him in this campaign and so it was proving to be very difficult to make a breakthrough. Suffice to note that Alexander had to work on unconventional methods (you can read more details here) o figure out how to breach the Tyrian defenses and eventually blockaded the island completely (I have also to add a cautionary note that there are conflicting opinions about this long battle). Anyway much of the time was spent how to get through some of the underwater defenses built by the Tyreans. He also managed to rebuild a mile long causeway over the ancient sand bridge a few feet underwater, in this process.

It was during this siege that Alexander used demolition divers to remove underwater obstacles from the harbor. He also observed that Tyrean divers remaining underwater for long durations and cut anchor ropes on his ships resulting in them crashing on the rocks. As time went by, he supposedly made several dives in a crude bell to observe all this, first hand. This was stated to have been reconfirmed by Aristotle when he mentioned of such diving devices in his Problematum ( but more connected to sponge divers where the diving bell actually has an open bottom like an inverted bell or a kettle and is lowered upright) and popular with sponge divers in the Aegean.

Numerous books and accounts appeared connecting Alexander to the siege of Tyre, and underwater explorations during the siege. In fact Alexander some even consider Alexander to be a submarine inventor, following this incident! All this is regrettably not seemingly correct and the whole story of Alexander going underwater appears elsewhere, in different fashion, though one could of course claim links to Tyre as the location where it happened.

The exploits of Alexander underwater comes from an anonymous work with came out in the 3rd century AD. This then got translated into so many versions, second only to the Bible and is titled the Alexander Romance, initially attributed to Aristotle’s nephew (Pseudo because it was wrongly attributed) Pseudo Callisthenes. Now many people dealing with the Macedonian king’s exploits have written about Alexander’s legends with 2-16 griffin power flying machines, but his ventures underwater are less talked about. In the Alexander romance, the king writing to his mother Queen Olympias talks about his adventures. In the story where the submarine or bathysphere comes up, he had been chasing a giant crab, which was finally killed off, and in it they come across six magnificent pearls. This according to the story was the reason for his foray underwater, in order to find more pearls (not for any attack or study of the Tyrean defenses).

And that was why the great king Iskandar decided to go underwater to check things himself, in the fable. The version of the bathysphere used by Alexander was named the Colimpha and he did this under guidance from his astrologer Ethicus.  The design remained as such for another 21 centuries. Let us now take a look at the design of the bell used by him. It was a very fine barrel made entirely of white glass, which kept its occupants dry and admitted light. That proved the bottom was closed but according to the story, it also had a hatch which could be opened through which Alexander could insert his hand and draw pearls from the ocean floor (that water would gush up through the opening is not considered, but then again a story is a story!). It had to be towed out into the sea and was then lowered with a long chain.

Let’s take a look at some differing versions of the fable. In the first dealing with the crab, Alexander asks his men (350 of them up above in 4 ships) to lower his bell into the ocean holding on to a long chain with the order that is he twitched the chain, they should haul him up. Twice this signal was generated when fishes brushed against the chain resulting in his men prematurely drawing the bell up, in alarm. In the third attempt he goes all the way down 308 cubits. Once he hit the bottom, a giant fish, perhaps a whale comes by. This fish swallows the bell and drags it (and the 4 ships up above) on with his chain for a mile or so, after which I guess it got tired of the caper and spat the barrel out on the shores. Alexander is left thanking his gods and providence for a lucky escape.

As time went by, succeeding authors brought about subtle or for that matter even large changes to the story.

In the so called French prose version, he had the barrel bound with chains and with burning lamps inside. He saw various types of fishes underwater, whales and fish (which looked like men and women) which walked about like humans on the ocean floor, plucking fruits of trees which grew underwater. The whales it appears, were frightened of the bright light inside the bell. Alexander also saw more wonders which he never mentioned for fear that they would sound incredible to humans. Upon reaching ashore, his men castigated him for having taken such a huge risk, but Alexander brushed it off saying that he had learnt a lot of tactics watching fish battles.

Other versions mention of his men abandoning him by letting go of the chain. Floundering on the ocean floor, Alexander hit upon the idea of letting some blood into the ocean, for there is a saying that water does not like blood pollution and thus it quickly returned the clever king ashore with a mighty wave. This version was also altered over time, with Alexander carrying a dog, a cat and a fowl with him and in some versions, the fowl is killed for the blood, by the stricken Alexander. The lantern is replaced by a bright light emitting stone in some books, the abandoning part is changed to the men getting into trouble during a huge storm. In versions which came out closer to the 15th century, Roxanne, his wife and a lover are seen on illustrations of the boat over water. Stories of deceit now creep in the Enikel version, with Roxanne (or another mistress) letting go of the chain so that she could go and live with her lover. Authors who felt this was stretching fact too far (Ulrich) made the mistress let go of the chain as she was too weak to hold on to it.

Some curious persons would ask about the significance of the cat, dog and cock. Well, like the tale which itself was fantastic, the cat was meant to be an air purifier (how, nobody knew), the cock told Alexander when it was day by crowing and the dog (until then acting as a scavenger) to be sacrificed in order to spill blood so that the sea would cast them back ashore.

In yet another version, two companions accompanied Alexander and all were stunned by what they saw by the bright lights emanating from the diving machine. Alexander is quoted as observing, from what he had seen underwater, that "...the world is damned and lost. The large and powerful fish devour the small fry."

A number of illustrations appeared showing differing types of bells, lowered vertically or horizontally, men holding its chain or in later versions the queen Roxanne and her lover.

And well, it also appeared in the Moghul collection based on the texts of the Alexander Romance, replete with an exquisitely illustrated Khamsa, authored by none other than the great Amir Khusru Dilhavi (this sixteenth-century manuscript of the Khamsa of Amir Khusraw Dihlavi containing eight paintings). The Khamsa of the poet Amir Khusrau includes a section Aina I Sikandari on Alexander the Great, who in Khusrau’s telling of his life, led expeditions to China, Russia, and the Western Isles. In this copy of the Khamsa, Alexander is shown being lowered into the sea in a glass diving bell. While underwater, he receives a visit from an angel who foretells his death.

Khusrau’s poem was a response to the great poet Nizami’s similar work on Alexander in his Khamza, where the final poem called the Sikandar-nama, which again covers many events in the life of Alexander the Great. The illustrations show Alexander with headgear very much like those worn by the Mughal emperor Humayun, whom he also resembles. Alexander is seen wearing a vermilion robe over a somber green jama as he receives the devotion of violently saluting courtiers, who have brought him golden vessels, a hunting cheetah, and a hawk.

According to Khusraw, Alexander embarks on a long sea voyage toward the Western Isles with Khizr, Elias, and Aristotle, pausing once to send his son Iskandar a letter bequeathing him the empire. So many other events are retold. Meanwhile, a curious Alexander presses on with his study of the world and its mysteries, and as we now know, he also decides to descend into the sea in a glass diving bell to examine submarine mysteries. In Khusrau’s version, once beneath the waters he meets an angel who reveals the infinite scope of all experience and informs him of the little time remaining to him. Alexander is relieved by this revelation and brings his journey to a close. Soon the aged (but he was just 32!) king dies, and his death is kept secret for a time….

The painting is by the Mughal period artist Mukunda. As expected, this minor pictorial tradition is occasioned by the position of the illustration in the text, which provides a description of the crew fastening ropes to the pearly glass vessel and setting it onto the water like a bubble.

If one were to wonder if others had tried these types of diving bells before Alexander, there are but brief mentions in History. Herodotus writes of a Persian diver Sycillias in 500BC who traveled eighty furlongs in his contraption and there are mentions of a sphere developed later in China during 200BC. Many centuries later, bells were reinvented in 1240 and 1535 after which came the instance of a submersible vessel which was built around 1620 by the Dutchman Cornelius Van Drebbel. A wooden watertight boat carrying 12 rowers and a total of 20 men made successful dives in the Thames River to a depth of some 20 meters. Tin this invention, oarsmen rowed one oar each, each oar protruding from the side of the boat through waterproofed leather seals.

Air was supplied through snorkel-like tubes that were held above the water's surface by flotation devices, and this allowed the submarine to remain underwater for long periods. Some reports of the time suggest that King James I actually rode in the third submarine for a trip under the Thames in 1626. He must have been the first monarch to have gone underwater, after Alexander’s feat, many thousands of years earlier.

And that brings up a question. We talked of Alexander and diving bells. What connection could it have to the inventor Alexander Graham Bell? Well, none whatsoever….

The Alexander Romance in the east and west – John Andrew Boyle
Studies in the Alexander Romance – DJA Ross
Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Walters Art Museum "Khamsa" of Amīr Khusraw of Delhi - John Seyller

Pics - Internet sources, wiki etc acknowledged with thanks