The James Finlay Tea Estates: International Tea Day

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International Tea Day is our opportunity to promote and celebrate the sheer scale of the tea growing industry, and how it is an integral part of the developing world, giving employment to millions of workers. James Finlay & Co Ltd is no exception, having played an historic and prominent role in establishing the modern tea trade in the Far East and Africa. In our second blog on Tea Day we continue to showcase the Finlay’s collection focusing upon the core of the business being the tea estate.

John Muir’s Travancore, India, trip in 1895 (GB 248 UGD 091/1/10/3/2/2) includes a handwritten notebook and two folded maps showing his route through the region. The notes are formal diary entries and include activities, weather reports, and business matters. This is the earliest record of a so called ‘board visit’, catalogued within the new accessions. With increasing sophistication and purpose, Finlays regularly sent board members on international trips to assess tea estates, factories, weather conditions and local hardships, such as drought. (GB 248 UGD 091/1/1/8)

Product and business development were at the heart of the visits. Working in collaboration with Tata, Finlay’s played a significant role in the development of instant tea brands. Held within this accession are an instant tea sample, laboratory books and recipes, and a file recording tea-tasting results from 1996. (GB 248 UGD 091/70)
Towards the latter half of the 20th century the company sought growth within new industries such as timber, rubber and agriculture. Often these new business ventures would be under the direction of an established tea estate such as the African Highlands Produce Limited. The collection highlights how James Finlay & Co Ltd consistently made key strategic business decisions by visiting and assessing business ventures at the tea estate.

With increasing media attention focused upon ethical trade and fair treatment, the company came under increased pressure following claims of exploitation of tea estate workers, by campaign group “The War on Want” (GB 248 UGD 091/1/9/3/27). The then chairman, Sir Colin Campbell, strongly defended the company’s record of ethical treatment, highlighting the access to facilities these workers would not normally have. Despite the company frequently supporting UK charities, and having their own charitable fund (GB 248 UGD 091/63), this didn’t stop the company’s Annual General Meetings being frequently disrupted by the campaign group during the 1980s. This led to Finlays agreeing to send the tea workers union leader Mr Eklasur Rahman on a site visit to tea estates in 1986.

While there is always scope for improvement, James Finlay & Co Ltd consistently concerned itself with the welfare of its workers. A photo album from the High Range, India (GB 248 UGD 091/1/12/15/30), highlights cases of deficiency diseases within children, and their subsequent treatment in 1939-1940. Workers had access to medical facilities such as the Chubwa Tea Estate Hospital, and potentially receiving a visit from chief medical officer, Doctor Burke, who travelled by elephant during the 1934 monsoon season (GB 248 UGD 091/1/12/2/9). Additionally there were opportunities for schooling and access to opticians. While perhaps not up to UK standards, the tea estate operated much like a mini welfare state.

Finlays had a philosophy of a duty of care towards their employees. As tensions built between East and West Pakistan, this philosophy was significantly challenged during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. A bundle of papers (GB 248 UGD 091/1/6/8) shows how the company collaborated with embassies and the British Foreign Office to evacuate European staff and their families. There are multiple communications between the head office and staff, with refugee updates, attempts to locate lost staff, and attempts to maintain pay of Bangladesh nationals despite the banking system being closed. The records reflect the fact that in an urgent and volatile environment the company did not waiver from that duty of care.

These are just a few snippets from the tea estate records that have been catalogued recently. Another blog will follow highlighting the personal experience of James Finlay’s employees. We are working hard to try and publish the new catalogue next year, however there is 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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