Orr and Unger
For many years now, the Madras Club is home to John M Davies and his wife during the months of January and February. The Davies wing their way here rather in the manner of migratory birds and it is love for this city that brings them back each year. For Madras was once home. He was with P Orr & Sons in the 1940s and 50s. She was the daughter of S Ramsay Unger who ran the famous South Indian Royal Ice Factory in Egmore.
Meeting up with this couple and their memories of a Madras long forgotten was a wonderful experience. “Does your book on houses have Bens Gardens in it?” he asks as I hand him a copy of my book on Historic Residences. “It was a house that I knew very well at one time. When I came to Madras in 1946 it famous for its Sunday evening entertainments. Mrs Buck, the wife of the man who ran the YWCA had the run of the place having been given the responsibility by the Managing Director of Parry & Co who had gone on home leave following the war. Every Sunday a group would gather there to listen to gramophone music. There was plenty of dancing too. We could also have dinner for which the charges were Rs 2/8As.”
With that I am taken to Madras as it was around the time the Second World War was ending and independence appeared within reach. John was working as a draughtsman in a shipyard located somewhere outside London. Before the war the company had made yachts. But during the war the work comprised design and construction of torpedoes, landing crafts and launches. Work was monotonous and as it was a reserved occupation dealing with military designs, you could leave only if you found a job abroad. John, then young and ambitious and desperate to get out, responded to every advertisement that sought applicants for postings overseas. And one of these was from P Orr & Sons. The interview was held in London in November or December 1945 and the post on offer was that of manager for P Orr & Sons’ sheet metal furniture division for which they had recently tied up with Art Metal Company of London. John got the job and was all set to sail in February. But with a great shortage of shipping, berths were available only in July. He duly set sail for Madras, in a ship meant for troops and civilians. Cabins meant for two had to be shared by six and there was the ever present danger of deep sea mines. With a stopover in Ismaelia, the ship finally docked in Bombay – right in the middle of the monsoons.
“Nobody had prepared me for the rains,” remembers John. “All we were given were 100 clothing coupons with which we were expected to fit out our wardrobe. And rainwear was the last thing that entered our minds.” To John, Bombay presented an overall picture of shabbiness, with rain washed buildings with plaster peeling and mud on the roads. To cap it all, there was a postal strike and there was no way he could know if P Orr & Sons had got the message that he was coming over. Fortunately for him, they had and the local agent of Art Metal Company came to meet him at the docks, checked him into the Taj Mahal Hotel (“The bathroom was twice the size of the bedroom”), took him to a cinema to cheer him up and finally treated him to a heavily spiced Indian dinner. The next day he was put on the train for Madras, with a packed lunch. He also remembers a block of ice being placed in the middle of the cabin to cool it.
At the Central Station he was met by John Wood, a Director of P Orr & Sons in charge of its engineering section which imported optics and made theodolites for supply to the Public Works Departments of various provinces of India. He checked into Bosottos Hotel and remembers that it was a Saturday night and that Mount Road was full of Indian and English army officers. He walked down Blackers Road that evening. The next day, Sunday, was when John Wood supervised the cleaning of the P Orr showroom and John went along to help and become familiar with the operations. From then on, till 1956, P Orr & Sons was to be his life, for he not only rose within it to become a Director, but was also to meet inside the showroom the woman who would become his wife.
John remembers P Orr & Sons in all its glory. Besides John Wood there were two other Directors. Mackenzie Smith was the Managing Director and had his office on the top most floor of the Chisholm designed building on Mount Road. “He was a devout Catholic and lived with his wife and three daughters in Chesney Hall on Commander in Chief Road. Many a time the sisters of the Presentation Convent would call on him” recollects John. Ian Cormack was the other Director and he was in charge of the showroom besides being a trained gemologist.
Behind the lovely façade was a hive of activity that offered employment to a hundred and more. The basement had a packing section where the consignments meant for outstation clients were readied for dispatch. The ground floor had tiles that were imported from Italy and were laid under the supervision of Chisholm. Some of the display cases were also from Chisholm’s time though in the 1940s several had been replaced by the more au courant art deco designs. The coats of arms of local Rajahs and Maharajahs hung from the grilles of the first floor and these included the standard of His Exalted Highness, the Nizam of Hyderabad and Berar himself.
“Did he pay for what he ordered?” I ask, keeping in mind the ruler’s notorious niggardliness.
“A man from P Orr & Sons would go around the courts and canvass orders and also get payments” he says laconically.
On the right hand side in the basement were the foreman’s office and the jewellery workshops. There were six setters all of them Hindu. The polishers were all Muslims and some wore the tarbouche even while at work. “The youngest of them all became a film star”, says John with a chuckle, though regretfully he cannot remember the name.
Then there was the silver workshop with Natesan the master silversmith who died suddenly. John also remembers a chaser who wore earrings that came and went according to the state of his finances. The plating department had four people. P Orr did big business making trophies and cups, especially for the races.
Besides these there was a workshop for Smith’s movements which were then converted into full-fledged clocks with carpenters making the wooden cases. These clocks were sold under the P Orr brand. All these workshops were under the care of a man called Cheverton.
The ground floor had the showrooms. Two officers were in charge of the diamond table in the jewellery section. P Orr & Sons had a ready stock of precious stones. Solitaire rings made by P Orr were in great demand till the Great Depression and declined thereafter though the business in jewels continued for long. The Rangoon branch of P Orr did good business in gems as well. That showroom was looted by the Japanese during the war but the stores manager was clever enough to secret away as many gems as possible and make his escape. He walked all the way to India and later reported at the Head Office. After the war, an agent was stationed in Burma.
Next to the jewels section was the arms and ammunition showroom. The watch section was an extremely popular one. Twenty watch-makers laboured away in the first floor under the eyes of a Scot who was trained by Hamilton and Inches in horology. Down below was the showroom for watches. After the war P Orr acquired the franchise to sell Rolex watches. There was also the P Orr brand – the Orr Lion. Customers walked in all through the day and the most famous among them was Lady Nye, wife of the Governor of Madras, Sir Archibald.
If there was a department that won the stakes in popularity hands down, it was the gramophone department. Probably the P Orr & Sons orchestra had been disbanded by the time John came on the scene, but customers would always be present in this section and it was here that he met Pamela Ramsay Unger.
Pamela, unlike John came from an old Madras family. The Ungers, probably of Austrian origin trace their Indian roots to the time of Tipu Sultan when an Unger served as a gunner in the Madras Regiment. By the 1900s they had turned civilian with John Ramsay Unger working as a clerk in Parry & Co. He later went on to found Ramsay & Co, a firm of building contractors who were involved in the construction of Ripon Buildings. Pamela says that the plaque commemorating the construction also includes Ramsay & Co in the credits. John Ramsay Unger had many sons among whom Oscar became Chief Medical Superintendent of the Madras Jail. Another, S Ramsay Unger, went to the United States of America and qualified in refrigeration at Louisville in 1913 and returning from there, he set up the South Indian Royal Ice Factory (SIRIC), an ice making and cold storage unit located next to where the Albert Theatre is in Egmore today. “It was important that the unit be close to the Railway Station” says Pamela. A major customer for ice was the South Indian Railway Company (the SIR). The SIRIC stocked and sold besides meat, a whole host of food products, imported from various countries. At times they could rival and even better the availability at Spencers. Ramsay Unger’s business prospered and being a firm believer in real estate, he bought up land in plenty in Madras. He also ensured that he sent all his children to England for education. Of these, his son Raymond came back and joined him in the business.
Over the years there grew a rumour that Ramsay Unger was in reality Ramaswami Iyengar, who had changed his name to get a knighthood. Pamela chuckles in this memory. “He did have an extremely Brahmin face,” she laughs.
Pamela had just come back from England when she visited the gramophone records section at P Orr. John and she had fallen into conversation and into love at first sight. They were soon married. John who had lived in a large flat for bachelors on Commander in Chief Road, in a building that “probably dated back to the East India Company” with no kitchen and hip baths and generally managing with a bearer, now moved in with her and set up home at Edinburgh House, another Unger property close to the Egmore station. “It is still there,” says Pamela. “Now a marriage hall and a mere shell with its interiors completely changed.”
“Why and when did you leave India?” I ask.
“It was 1956. The P Orr business was winding down. We were still getting orders for engineering equipment but these were becoming fewer with the states favouring suppliers in their own territory. The branch in Ooty was still servicing the planters. Mackenzie Smith had long retired and Wood left in 1952. It was Ian Cormack who finally sold the shares to Karumuthu Thyagaraja Chettiar. By then, we were unsure of what would happen to us in India. We were still being allowed to repatriate our earnings but there were rumours that legislation to prevent this would soon come up. And we did not know what work we could survive with.”
The day of departure arrived and who should come calling but the polisher of P Orr who became a film star. He tore from his finger a silver ring with a cornelian set into it, presented it to John and burst into tears. It was an emotional moment for everyone.
The Ungers had also decided to wind up their business. The family migrated to Australia and the Ice Factory was sold to a consortium of four or five well-to-do landlords and businessmen of Madras including RSA Sankara Iyer of a prominent family of Kallidaikurichi bankers. It was said that much later Sankara Iyer felt uncomfortable with being associated with a business that sold fish and cold cuts and it changed hands once more. Today it does not survive any longer though the property continued to remain, a derelict premises, for very long.
John and Pamela moved to England and there he found employment with Garrards, the jewellers. It was work very similar to what he had done at P Orr & Sons, though settling down in post-war England was by no means easy. Madras never left their psyche. It stills exerts an attraction to keep them visiting it every year.