Mr Strachan: Tea Estates and Tiger Attacks

Who: Mr A W Strachan
Job: Assistant, Tea Estates of Finlay, Muir & Co.
Where: India
When: 1903-08
Archive: Scottish Business Archive at the University of Glasgow Archive Services

Extract of correspondence showing Mr Strachan's acceptance of a contract with Finlay, Muir & Co

Extract of correspondence showing Mr Strachan’s acceptance of a contract with Finlay, Muir & Co. Image © University of Glasgow Archive Services

In 1903, Mr Strachan accepted a three year contract (which included the usual pony and servant allowances) with Finlay, Muir & Company to continue to work on their tea estates in India.

Finlay, Muir & Co  was a business which had its beginnings in 1750 when James Finlay (1727-c1792) established the firm of James Finlay & Co in Glasgow. The company was highly successful, operating in overseas and UK markets and opening textile mills all over the world. Their Indian business connections were strengthened in 1862 when Finlay Clerk & Co was established in Bombay, followed in 1870 with the opening of the Calcutta branch of Finlay Muir & Co as the company was now known.

From 1882 the firm began to diversify into tea estate management and by 1901 Finlay, Muir & Cowas managing extensive tea estates in India and Sri Lanka. The Assam, Sylhet, Cachar, Dooars, Darjeeling and Travancore estate covered over 270,000 acres, 77,000 acres of which were planted with tea.

At this time the firm employed 70,000 native Indians and a large staff of superintendents, managers and assistants from Britain. They were the leading Indian tea suppliers in the UK market with five main subsidiary companies to manage the tea growing interests. Men were recruited in Britain to manage the Finlay tea estate business overseas and the archive collection contains a wonderful series of Managers and Assistants Letterbooks (GUAS Ref: UGD 91/1/6/3/1) which provide a wealth of information about the men working as managers and assistants on Finlay’s tea estates.

It is from entries in these books that it is possible to follow Mr Strachan’s career. The registers of Managers and Assistants track the progress of the men sent to estates and they reveal details of working lives in the British colonies. They contain summaries of the correspondence back and forth from the local superintendents to head office in Glasgow about the recruitment and performance of individual staff members.

However, the registers are much more than the bare details of an individuals employment; they give us a valuable insight into the experiences of these young men as the progressed through their career. As each was appointed, information was recorded about their home address, previous work experience and his general health. They also contain very personal comments, both positive and negative which can shed light on the personalities of the men who managed the estates as well as the practical details of their everyday lives far from home.

In the case of Mr Strachan, he was initially plagued by ill health suffering from fever and gastritis to such an extent that he was sent home to recover in a more ‘temperate climate’. However, by late 1904 he was posted to Goombira for an three year contract and by in the following years reports of his conduct are mainly favorable:

He has laid himself out to get into the ways of the District. He has got on well with the labour and is very conscientious. He is very pleasant to work with and is not above asking if he is not sure about anything…

A quiet sensitive man, may yet make a passable Planter.

Mr Strachan continues to work hard and is more atttentive to details. He has much improved all round as an assistant. He conduct is excellent.

In August 1908, his career with Finlays changes when Mr Strachan is attacked by a tiger:

We much regret to inform you that Mr Strachan has been the victim of an unfortunate accident having been very severely mauled by a tiger and it has been found necessary by Drs Silvester and Burkitt, who were both attending him, to amputate his right arm and also his left leg below the knee.

Following this attack Mr Strachan was transferred to a nearby town Dullabcherra and then to the general hospital in Calcutta until he was fit enough to return home in November on the ship SIMLA with a first class passage arranged by the company.

Mentions of attacks by animals in the registers are thankfully rare. Unfortunately, in the case of Mr Strachan his injuries were such that he could not be re-appointed to work with the company on their estates again. The registers record no further details about him after 1909.

Details of the tiger attack

Details of the tiger attack. Image © University of Glasgow Archive Services

The Finlay’s collection is just one of many collections held by Glasgow University Archive Services which has one of the largest collections of historical business records in Europe and it includes much of the archive of Scottish industries such as banking, retail, distilling and shipbuilding.  You can find out more about the James Finlay & Co. archive collection, including how to search for individuals in the Managers and Assistants Registers on their website.

Keep up to date with the archive on twitter @GUArchives.

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One thought on “Mr Strachan: Tea Estates and Tiger Attacks

  1. Pingback: BACS Meet the Archivists workshop for artists, architects and designers | GSA Archives and Collections

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