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