It was only last week that I posted on this personality in connection with the forgotten avenues of our city. I now have enough info for a full personality sketch thanks to the Indian Charivari album available as a free download.
This is a dark horse that would have remained hidden had it not been for the Indian Charivari album. The write-up against his name states patronisingly that the Hon’ble James George Coleman, member of the Madras Legislative Council, was something of an exception to his community. He was a Eurasian, what the modern world classifies as an Anglo-Indian. The album states that he is a shining example of “what a Eurasian can do, unaided, except by his own personal talent and energy.”
Coleman was born in the Nilgiris in 1826 and his antecedents were humble. Sent off while still young to join the navy as an apprentice, he soon rose to First Officer and then Captain. In 1850, he resigned and took to business, becoming a partner in McDowell & Co., Madras, a company that was trading in wines and spirits. Founded in 1825 by Angus McDowell, a Scot, the company was greatly successful and when the senior partner decided to retire, Coleman became the sole proprietor. Under him the company got into cigar manufacturing, all done in the premises in George Town. Coleman did not neglect the liquor side of the business either, making several visits to Europe to familiarise himself with various vineyards and distillers there.
In Madras he took a keen interest in city matters, becoming President of the Municipality (see MM, June 16, 2017 for a story on a tree-plantation drive taken up during his time). He involved himself in the Volunteer Guards, becoming in time a Colonel. He was a member of the Madras Legislative Council from 1879 to 1883. He passed away on December 14, 1883.
Coleman was a long-time resident of Royapuram, where he lived in a palatial house abutting the sea, said to have been in the same line as the “Railway Terminus and the Biden’s Seaman Home.” Described as a bungalow of fine proportions, it appears to have been swallowed up later by the expansion works to the Madras Harbour. Coleman was a pillar of Freemasonry in Madras, belonging to the Lodge Universal Charity. He became its Worshipful Master in 1853 and for 20 long years, between 1862 and 1882, was District Grand Treasurer. Besides, he also served as Dy. DGM in 1875. Coleman probably holds the record for being the first among Eurasians to reach high levels in Masonic heirarchy. It is no wonder then that as Karthik Bhatt informs me, the Biden Seaman Home in Royapuram, was a venue for Masonic meetings.
One son of Coleman was M. McDowell, probably taking his name from the company that his father owed his wealth to. But when in 1898 the firm was restructured as a private limited company, it had as its principal shareholders A.M. Hooper, G.D. Coleman and G.N. Ruppell. Presumably, M. McDowell was dead by then. The company had by then added tea to its portfolio. A decade later came insurance, where it was a Managing Agent for Oriental Insurance. In 1951, McDowell’s became a part of Vittal Mallya’s liquor empire. It was his second major acquisition after United Breweries. The rest of the history is known.
Sadly missing today is the massive headquarters that McDowell & Co. built for itself on Moore Street, Madras.
This article is part of a series on prominent men of Madras as included in the Indian Charivari Album of the 1870s. The others covered can be read below: