The James Finlay Employees: International Tea Day

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The two earlier blogs today showcased the cataloguing project, history, and James Finlay’s business operations. For our third and last blog post I have decided to showcase stories from the companies’ tea estate workers and office employees. Unsurprisingly the majority of the collection is business related, whether shares, board papers or tea estate visit reports. Whilst the collection of staff papers is small, the personal accounts can help us visualise or contextualise the tea estates’ social environment rather than just numerical financial figures.

Croly Boyd (a Finlay’s employee in the twenties,) shares his account of the 1924 floods (GB 248 UGD 91/1/9/3/5) that caused major loss of life and damage to the high range tea estates. The devastating aftermath has been documented in a photo album (GB 248 UGD 091/1/12/15/21) which shows the impact of 3.8 metres of rain over ten days. At first the storm was mistaken for normal monsoon weather. Boyd and his family were trying to reach Rajamallay Estate for an extended visit to friends; however they found the main roads blocked by a flooding Munnar River. Upon returning to their bungalow they were fortunate to miss one of many landslides that destroyed numerous properties.

Returning to Munnar on foot, Boyd found the estates factory flooded under several feet of water. Estate workers were trapped in the factory structures having an anxious wait on the roof, in the hopes it could survive the strong currents engulfing it. Boyd would find the main bridges were down and the estates light railway completely destroyed. All contact had been lost with the opposite side of the Munnar River. In the aftermath it was a priority to establish communication and get a rope over the river. This was achieved by Chief Engineer Grant, who attached a string to a golf ball and with difficulty drove it across the raging river.

It took around a year to fully repair the estate and bring it back into full operation. However this account gives us an insight into the dangers faced by natural disasters. The huge international expanse of James Finlay’s business interests would lead to several encounters with earthquakes, storms and flooding, some are documented within the photographic collections (GB 248 UGD 91/1/12/15) and mentions of the impact to the business can be found in the companies’ minute papers.

Despite the dangers of storms and the long voyage from Scotland to India, this did not deter adventurous individuals such as an engineer Josh Walker. An article: ‘Pioneers of the planting exercise in Ceylon’ (GB 248 UGD 91/1/9/3/5) tracks his nine month voyage to, and employment experiences within, Ceylon. Later Walker accepted an offer of to become partner to Mr William Turner of Kardy’s business which supplied machinery for planters. Walker is named among the many other employees who were predominantly engaged for work in estates in India and Ceylon. The staff index has been transcribed from 1903-1937 and available via this link. These staff members exported European culture on a grand scale. Staff and their families formed social clubs the same as you would expect to find within Europe. Possibly the most unexpected documents I discovered whilst cataloguing is the Trout of Travancore by W.S.S. MacKay (GB 248 UGD 91/16/8), an account of the establishment of trout in the rivers of Travancore, India. The book is intended to teach the lessons of the many mistakes made during the process and it contains a marvellous variety of photographs. The evidence of their success can be found within the minutes of the Annual General Meetings of the High Range Association.

W.C.M Tring, an employee of James Finlay & Co London offices, opens his personal notes “Forty Years After,” (GB 248 UGD 91/1/9/3/6) almost apologetically, dismissing any interest contained within for the reader. ’Reminiscences, unless penned by the mighty, are often frowned upon as the drivel of the elderly or as the product of those who, quite mistakenly, think that they recall is of some importance’. Yet his notes offer a quiet insight into the changing office technologies and environment at James Finlay’s London offices. While not as dramatic as the account of the high range floods, it reflects how the company had a diversity of peoples employed in numerous positions.

Tring had served with the 3rd Battalion Queen’s Westminster Rifles, but was subsequently discharged in February 1917 after being wounded at Gommecourt on 1st July 1916. He would later apply successfully to an anonymous job advert posted by Finlay’s partner Webster Steel for a position left vacant following the death of Captain Swainson, who had fought in the same battalion and lost his life the same day Tring was injured.

Later, in 1918, he would become an assist to the accountant Mr Kerr Thompson at James Finlay’s London office, spending a further 40 years working for the company. Despite Finlay’s being a huge international company, it is hard to imagine, by present day standards, how they could function with two “general business” telephones installed within telephone boxes in the office space. Office letters were written by hand in copying ink, with further copies made by wet sheets and pressed into ledgers. Within the James Finlay collection we have many examples of handwritten business papers.

Finlay’s was described as “going modern” with the replacement of illuminated electric lanterns with white bowls suspended over desks. Intriguingly Tring noted the Provident Fund 1938 was designed to increase Finlay’s productivity. This changed the tradition of retaining elder staff for life in favour of funding their retirement. The James Finlay collection has a complex collection of pension records (GB 248 UGD 91/1/6/5): most notably the staff superannuation fund and the TEMS fund. The pension schemes were available for tea estate workers, UK based staff and their respective widows. The introduction of these schemes was quite radical for major businesses at that time. It is easy to neglect how much impact these schemes have had on transforming our personal expectations of our later years.

These personal accounts and photographs are likely to have been published in the Finlay’s house magazine (GB 248 UGD 91/1/9/1) along with many other relevant personal accounts and business development throughout the 19th and 20th century. Two more blogs showcasing the James Finlay collection are available on this website and we are working hard to try and publish the new catalogue for early next year. There is already a huge quantity of records that have been previously catalogued and If you would like to view this material, or have any enquires regarding the collection or the cataloguing project, please contact Archive Services on: enquiries@archives.gla.ac.uk

Happy International Tea Day everyone!



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