The late 19th and early 20th Centuries were exciting times if you were an entrepreneur in Madras. There was a feeling that not all companies had to be of British origin and that Indians too could try their hand at manufacturing. As these decades sped by, events such as the collapse of Dymes & Co and Arbuthnot’s would only strengthen such an opinion. The Swadesi movement was gaining momentum at the same time. An additional factor was the work of two pioneers – Frederick Nicholson, ICS and Alfred Chatterton, Principal of the College of Engineering. Both men felt very strongly that Indians could get into industry, a sentiment not shared by the established British business houses of the city.
Chatterton’s success with the manufacture of aluminium hollow ware at the Government College of Arts and Crafts in 1898 was almost the first step in Indian industry. This was sold in 1903 to the Indian Aluminium Company. Thereafter, Chatterton focused on pencils, leather, paper and matches while Nicholson notched up success in fisheries and soap. Given these forerunners, other enterprises began to be set up and one of these was the Madras Glass Works.
The founding fathers were Herr A. Scholl, German Consul in Madras and Ramsay Unger, a local entrepreneur. Of the former we have very little information. He was at various times Consul in Madras for Austria, Germany and Belgium. These were honorary posts and he must have been a businessman in the main. Of the latter, namely Ramsay Unger, we know quite a bit. The Ungers were an old Madras family, Eurasian (the Anglo Indians of today), with the name being probably of Austrian origin. According to Pamela Unger, one of the descendants whom I interviewed for Madras Musings in 2009 (see MM Vol. XVIII, No. 24, April 1st, 2009 – Orr & Unger), the first of that name was a gunner who saw action in the Anglo Mysore wars. Later, a John Ramsay Unger worked as a clerk in Parry & Co but gave it up to get into the construction business. His Ramsay & Co was one of the contractors that worked on Ripon Buildings and is commemorated in a plaque at the entrance. The same Unger began the Royal South Indian Ice Factory (see Lost Landmarks, MM Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, June 1st, 2018) in Egmore. A son was sent to the United States of America in 1913 to train in refrigeration and on his return, he ran the business.
Scholl and Unger decided that there was money to be made in glass. Madras was importing at this time around 52,000 soda water bottles each month. Commercial refrigeration had been perfected in the region by the late 1800s and soon thereafter, a number of aerated water companies came into existence. The undoubted leader was Spencer’s, with its plant in Ooty being commissioned in 1899. All of these companies needed soda water bottles and the demand was being met through imports. It was no wonder that Scholl and Unger saw glass making to be a viable proposition.
The necessary capital of Rs 77,200 was subscribed to by the promoters and their friends by March 1909, when the Madras Glass Works Ltd was registered. Herr Meier, a German, was appointed Technical Advisor and the plant was set up under his supervision. Four German glassblowers were brought out to commission the intermittent gas-fired tank and also train Indian labour. The bottles were blown by mouth, which was the old method used across Europe. The first batch of bottles and tiles were out in January 1910 but at enormous cost. The intermittent furnace it was discovered, was not the most efficient, leading to high fuel costs. It needed to be replaced by a continuous one. Indian labour was slow in adapting to the technique of glass blowing and the manual process had to be automated. All of this required additional investment which the promoters did not have. At this stage the firm of Beardsell & Co stepped in.
Among the big British business houses of Madras, this was a late entrant. And at around when the Glass Works was being established, it was still a small company. However, its founder and Managing Director, (afterwards Sir) William Arthur Beardsell saw potential in this new venture. Additional capital of Rs 100,000 was raised and WA Beardsell & Co became the Managing Agents for the Madras Glass Works. Scholl’s parting gift was a concession from the Government that it would supply 10,000 tons of firewood free to the glass works to keep it going. Beardsell at this point left for England on a business visit and while there visited the glass works of M/s Forster & Sons at St. Helens in the industrial district of Merseyside. This company not only made bottles but also sold plants for making them.
Beardsell discovered during his discussions that the additional capital of Rs 100,000 was insufficient for the erection of a continuous furnace. The best that could be done with the money was to import from M/S Forsters, six compressed air bottle-making machines which would reduce dependence on manual blowing. Two experts, one an engineer to supervise the installation of the plant and the other – an expert bottle maker to instruct the workers – sailed along with the machinery. The work was completed in June 1911.
The first batch of 26,000 bottles was taken out successfully in September. While this may sound impressive, what was disturbing was that enough raw material for 44,000 had been consumed. There had been huge losses owing to breakages of bottles, the brittleness being caused by inferior bricks used in the construction of the furnace, which resulted in debris getting mixed with the glass. There was no option but to replace the furnace with a continuous process variant. On November 28, 1911, the Directors of Beardsell met and resolved to discontinue the manufacture of bottles. But W.A. Beardsell, as was typical of most successful entrepreneurs, was not one to give in so easily. He met with Sir Murray Hammick, Member, Governor’s Executive Council and explored the possibility of the Government taking over the glass works. After all, it had been proven that the bottles could be made and whatever had been produced between September and November had found a ready market. It was only a question of funding a new furnace that could operate three shifts.
The Government however was not willing to intervene. It was facing enormous criticism from established British business houses and their representative body, the Madras Chamber of Commerce, for having begun a Department of Industries to encourage local entrepreneurship. There was no way it could do anything further to offend those vested interests. With that the Madras Glass Works went into voluntary liquidation. W.A. Beardsell would go on to make a fortune in piece goods, insurance, retailing tyres, and making paper. The company would also get into textiles and chemicals. The firm would become a pillar of the Madras Chamber and oppose any entrepreneurial efforts by Indians! In all that growth, this brief tryst with glass was forgotten.
For a long time thereafter, glass manufacture in Madras was not attempted by anyone. Then in 1937, Poppat Jamal began the Jamal Glass Works in Tondiarpet. And what is more, those that came later into the same business, also set up their plants in the same area. Was this where the Madras Glass Works once was? We don’t know at present. The land on which it stood was, it is recorded, sold to a businessman, who in turn sold it to the Government, which is all very mysterious. It can truly qualify as a lost landmark of the city. It may even be the nation’s loss for it was perhaps the first attempt at organised manufacture of glass.
After I wrote this article, Karthik Bhatt sends me a full report of the glass works, published in 1910. I will be writing a sequel to this article based on that in the next two weeks.
This article is part of a series I write on lost/barely surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier stories here