The James Finlay Collection: International Tea Day

Happy International Tea Day!

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Those of our readers residing in the United Kingdom may have recently participated in an incredibly historic yet simple tradition. On a daily basis it is estimated that the UK population drinks 165 million cups of tea per day. It can be easy to forget, though, that the tea leaf left brewing within the tea pot is only the final product of an enormous industry. International Tea Day is not an officially recognised holiday, though it has been observed by tea growing nations such as Uganda and India since 2005. It is an opportunity to promote the global impact upon industry and the millions of workers respectfully employed by them.

International Tea Day seems an appropriate time to update our audiences on the James Finlay cataloguing project. This blog will be focusing on the project, a brief history of James Finlay along with focusing on the spine of the collection. Later we shall be releasing two additional James Finlay blogs, as well as releasing numerous tea themed tweets @UofGArchives (searchable with hashtag #infinalytea).
James Finlay & Co was established in 1750 as a cotton merchant, however the company is better known today as an historic and highly reputable tea merchant. The University of Glasgow Archive Services already holds a rich and diverse collection of Finlay records. In 1881 the company started to manage the Assam, Sylhet, Cachar, Dooars, Darjeeling and Travancore estate, which covered over 270,000 acres, 77,000 acres of which were planted with tea.

Already held within the James Finlay archive is official board room papers from the Glasgow head office, records from James Finlay’s five main subsidiary companies: Amalagamated Tea Estates Co Ltd; Anglo-Amercian Direct Tea Trading Co; Chubwa Tea Co Ltd; Consolidated Tea and Lands Co; Kanan Devan Hills Produce Co Ltd, and a vast collection of records from the Deanston and Catrine cotton mills.

Working in partnership with Swire Group over the past five months, I have been tasked with cataloguing an accession of 70 full bankers boxes. Working in collaboration with the preservation manager and assistant, we have been repackaging the documents to ensure their longevity. The project’s overall priority is to ensure readers can easily access the catalogue and the records, and to highlight parts of the accession that could be research worthy. Where possible I have attempted to integrate these new records into the existing catalogue or create new sections altogether. We have added over 2000 new documents, and over 1500 additional photographs to the collection.
Trying to describe the contents of this entire accession within one blog post is rather difficult, especially since James Finlay did not confine itself to just being a tea or cotton merchant. This new accession reflects how the company took advantage of new business opportunities which have reshaped the company significantly in the post-colonial world. With associations, partnerships and stake holdings held internationally with diverse interests ranging from oil and gas to agriculture.

Initially my first priority was focused on cataloguing the spine of the new collection. Our existing catalogue showed that the James Finlay collection contains business records including shares, minutes, ledgers and legal documents, such as agreements. The majority of these records were from the head office in Glasgow. Generally they are stored neatly in labelled volumes or documents. However the impact of new technologies and different approaches to record keeping have meant that board papers are no longer neatly divided. Instead it is common to find minute papers mixed within business and financial reports. As a consequence readers may have to significantly cross reference between differing records.

Within the accession there is an extraordinary large amount of legal documentation. The decline of the British Empire found James Finlay in an opportune position as having an established infrastructure within emerging economies. As a result the company was hired as an agent by several British industries and suppliers to trade their services in India and Pakistan. British Northrop Sales Limited appointed James Finlay & Co Ltd as an agent in East Pakistan in 1962. This was part of the Jute Mills project and trade in Broad Loom spares. Based in Blackburn, Northrop was a major exporter of automatic looms for weaving cotton cloth. The company had a huge impact upon the Third World while also contributing to the decline of Lancashire’s own cotton industry.

The next complication encountered on the cataloguing project was identifying the sheer scale of James Finlay partnerships, associated or subsidiary companies. An example being Tata-Finlay (GB 248 UGD 091/58), which shares much of the spine of the collection, minute papers, shares, agreements, correspondence and business reports. In the wake of increasing nationalistic policies by the India Government, Tata bought out the Finlay partnership in 1983. Already James Finlay was heavily investing in other industries; however the profits earned allowed the company to further increase the company portfolio.

This is partly why, thus far, I have identified over forty associated or subsidiary companies with varied interests. Another example is that of James Finlay investing in the Scottish North Sea Oil Industry. Seaforth Maritime Limited (GB 248 UGD 091/50) was purchased by Finlays in 1979, in partnership with an Aberdeen based oil services company Taylor Woodrow Construction Ltd. Seaforth specialised in providing technological manufacturing support and services to the offshore oil industry. Again many of these associated companies share the same spine of records.

The new accession contains diverse records right up to present day. Extensive documentation exists showing the companies preparation for The Swire Group takeover in 2000 (GB 248 UGD 091/1/2/4/1), with documents showing how the business attempted preparation and adaption for such a huge takeover. Today Finlays continues to be a wholly owned subsidiary of John Swire and Sons Limited UK. It has continued to retain extensive tea and horticultural interests in Sri Lanka, Kenya and South Africa.

Two more blogs will be following on this website showcasing the James Finlay collection. We are working hard to try and publish the new catalogue for early next year. There is, though, already a huge quantity of records that have been previously catalogued. If you would like to view this material, or have any enquires regarding the collection or the cataloguing project please contact Archive Services on

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  1. The James Finlay Employees: International Tea Day | University of Glasgow Library

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