Sunday, 8 June 2014

W. Leslie & Co., Chowringhee

Old photograph of W. Leslie & Co.
Millions pass by the twin domed building on Dharmatalla crossing without having any idea of it’s history. Although presently almost derelict, this building still houses offices, lights can be seen in the windows, fans can be seen whirring, and people can be seen hard at work. I would have never found out what the origins of the building was if it wasn’t for Montague Massey’s excellent book “Recollections of Calcutta for over Half a Century”. In the pages of the book is a photograph of something that is unmistakably this very same building. Voila!



Leslie House today
What is seen in the photograph, is the office of W. Leslie & Co., “Ironmongers”, what we in Calcutta today call a “hardware business”. The business was founded in 1890 in Calcutta and Leslie House, was built in 1912. While World War I made life difficult for many, and forced many firms out of business, W. Leslie & Co. made a killing, supplying large orders of machinery and parts to various parts of India and Mesopotamia. The firm's premises were used as the headquarters for the munitions Department of the Government of India. After the founder W. Leslie passed away, his sons, Kenneth and Mark Leslie carried on the business till the early 1930’s. From private letters, we know that around 1934, the business was sold, and the brothers returned to England. Trading, in the name of the company was carried on for a while by P.B. Shah and Co..


Old photograph of Dharmatalla crossing. Leslie House's twin domes can be seen in the distance
Then, in 1939, W. Leslie & Co. was purchased by Ramji Hansraj Kamani, founder of the Kamani Group. The rest we know from a timeline on Wikipedia. Kamani shifted the company to Bombay in 1941, fearing a Japanese invasion of Eastern India. Further expansion happened, with a new factory being opened in Lahore, in 1942. Unfortunately, this was lost to Pakistan during partition. The W. Leslie & Co. name continued under the newly formed Kamani Engineering Corporation Limited, manufacturing aluminum, brass and stainless steel utensils and importing electrical and mechanical machinery and equipment and spare parts.
 
Infighting and litigation ensued on Kamani’s death in 1965, and the company accumulated heavy financial debt during the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis. The company was auctioned by the Maharashtra government in 1982 for recovery of dues and was acquired by the RPG Group. In a strange twist of fate, the building is actually just across the street from the headquarters of the RPG group’s power utility, the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation.


- by Deepanjan Ghosh

W. Leslie and Company photograph from Recollection of Calcutta courtesy Anirban Hazra
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