Monday, 26 May 2014

Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company, Govt. Place, East

In the late 19th Century, departmental stores in Calcutta rivaled those in European cities. The modern departmental store evolved from shops that were originally known as “drapers”. “Draper” was a term for a retailer or wholesaler of cloth that was mainly for clothing, says Wikipedia. One of the earliest such shops in Calcutta was Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company of Government Place, East.

Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company in it's heydays
My investigation was sparked by a photograph of Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company in Montague Massey’s Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century. The building, I thought, looked familiar, and upon sifting through my photographs, I realized I had photographed it on one of my earliest walks through the Dalhousie area, which is the central business district of Calcutta. Back then, when we had no name for it, we referred to it simply as the Times of India building, since the newspaper’s offices occupied part of the building. A phone call to Sashi Dhacholia, a very senior member of the Benett, Coleman & Co Ltd (TOI’s parent body) team, revealed that the newspaper had infact occupied these premises for four decades or more, on rent. The owners were the Mallicks, of Marble Palace fame.

The building today
A phone call to Hiren Mallick of the family revealed a treasure trove of information. The property had been acquired by the family in the 1850’s, and TOI had been operating from the premises since their arrival in Calcutta. The building has been home to many British firms over the years, one of them manufacturing one of the earliest “Arrowroot” biscuits in India. It is still home to the (originally German) machine tools company Francis Klein, and the Ranger’s Club, which was once The Calcutta Naval Volunteers Club. The famous Ranger’s Lottery would happen from these very premises. Tito's bar operates from one corner of the building. The property was particularly prized for it’s overlooking Government House (now Raj Bhavan) and members of the Mallick family would gather on the building’s two balconies which offered a unique view of the Viceroy’s processions from the eastern gate of Government House.

Tito's bar
Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company had around 11 European staff members which was considered very large for the time. By the end of the century they had around 40. Among them were several people who went on to start successful businesses of their own. In 1880, there was a certain Mr. E. Whiteaway who ten years later was the partner of Whiteaway Laidlaw, in Chowringhee. Their humongous building is now known as the Metropolitan Building and is still one of the architectural landmarks of the city. There were also P. N. Hall and William Anderson, who started Hall & Anderson’s, which, within a few years, began to give tough competition to Francis, Harrison, Hathaway and Company.

The building today clearly looks battered and bruised. I hope that the Mallick family will consider renovating it sometime soon. It would be a pity to lose yet another one of the city’s connections to it’s colonial past.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

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