Cochin Tea Auctions – a freak incident!

Philip John

Till 1964 the Cochin Auctions used to be held at Aspinwall House in Fort Cochin. However, when Forbes Ewart and Figgis moved to Willingdon Island they built a proper Auction Room with theatre style seating.

However, Carritt Moran and J. Thomas’ offices were still in Fort Cochin.

We had Leaf Tea Auctions on Tuesdays and Dust Tea Auctions on Thursdays. Most of the Exporters were already operating from offices on Willingdon Island. The Internal buyers who supplied Kerala and upcountry markets continued to have offices in Mattancherry which was almost a continuation of Fort Cochin.

On Sale (auction) days the Carritt Moran team would zip across in their motorboat and have a car pick up and drive them to the Auction Room on Willingdon Island. JT did not have the luxury of a boat so Satyanath and team would have to come across by car which was a 30 minute drive.

You may recall that Willingdon Island was between Mattancherry and Ernakulam connected by 2 bridges – the Thoppumpady Bridge between Mattancherry and Willingdon Island, and the Venduruthy Bridge between Willingdon Island and Ernakulam. The Thoppumpady Bridge was built in 1943 and did look like a World War II relic! It was narrow, with just enough width for 2 vehicles and had a drawbridge to allow ships  to go to the other side. In the early sixties it did look like a bridge hastily put together by the Army Engineering Corp. Now a new bridge has been built and the Thoppumpady Bridge is used only for 2 wheelers.

The Auctioneers follow a roster. The Brokers draw lots every 3 months to follow an ‘Order of Sale’ for the upcoming quarter. You might think that it’s not going to make much difference between three auctioneers as to who sold first or last, but it did. Forbes had the largest catalogue and could meet a large part of demand. Carritt Moran was second. JT was small compared with either of them and somewhat inconsequential!

Assessing demand at the start of an auction is tricky business. If the Selling Broker does not get that right early he could sell teas below the market and invite the ire of his clients.

At the start of the Sale a Buyer seldom opens with a higher bid than the selling price of that tea the week before (same grade, same garden). It is a bit of a cat and mouse game and the skill and experience of the Auctioneer is vital. That is why a Tea Auctioneer has to have years of experience in the Broking business before the Auctioneer’s Gavel is given to him. The knocking down of the Gavel signifies the confirmation of sale as in any auction.

Prices of commodities are primarily driven by supply and demand. If the price expected for a particular tea (say a High-grown BOP) was not up to expectation, the Broker would withdraw the tea from sale.

All such withdrawn teas would be printed in a data sheet we call the Out-List. The teas printed on the Out-List would be reoffered to buyers the following day. It was usually up to the juniors to call up likely buyers and take offers. Selling teas from the Out-List was time consuming and sometimes problematic and we preferred to sell teas in the main auction itself!

Teas in the Auctions generally move in a price-band. For instance if a High Grown BOP is selling for Rs. 20 per kg then asking for Rs. 30 for another HG BOP was unreasonable and untenable. (In those days Rs.20 per kg was a good price. Today the same tea would sell at Rs.120 per kg or more.) This is why Tea Auctions did not encourage a tea producer to make extraordinarily good tea because the premium would not be commensurate with the effort and additional cost in producing that tea.

Let me explain. Like I said if the going rate for a HG BOP was Rs. 20 it would be next to impossible to expect Rs. 30 for an improved tea. At  best we could expect a 2 to 3 rupee premium but never 10 rupees.

An Auctioneer was expected to sell 3.5 lots a minute. If the market was weak there would be many withdrawals and the Sale would move faster.

You may recall that the JT office was in Fort Cochin. Satyanath and Richard Warren would plan to arrive at the Auction Room not earlier than 20 minutes before the previous catalogue ended. In one particular Sale Forbes opened, next to come was J. Thomas followed by Carritt Moran. As a junior I was sent ahead to study the market and pass on information about prices, speed of the auction and so on.

But something terrible happened! There was an accident on the Mattancherry Bridge and traffic was backed up on both sides. Satyanath and Warren waited for a little while but then decided to walk across the bridge hoping they could get a taxi on the other side.

Oommen Thomas (OT) was the Auctioneer for Forbes. He finished and got off the podium. There are always 3 people on the podium (the Auctioneer and 2 assistants – one on either side).

Usually, the next set of Brokers would take the podium immediately. In this case the podium was empty. Buyers were looking at me as I sat resolutely in the last row of the auction hall. I made a weak plea that Satyanath and Warren were on their way but some of the buyers said they would go out for coffee and come back later. I knew this would be the end of the JT catalogue for the day. It would be bad publicity for our company!

OT stayed on to see what was happening. The Carritt team had not arrived. The room was restless and slowly but surely disintegrating into chaos. And then something happened that I will not forget for as long as I live. Oommen came to where I was sitting at the back, held out his Gavel to me and said, “Philip, you go and sell. I will sit in the front row and indicate if any bid is too low, in which case you should withdraw the tea.”

I did just that! I went up with no one to sit on either side and started auctioning. The Buyers rose to the occasion and instead of bargaining and giving me a hard time gave me their best prices and before a flushed Satyanath and Warren appeared at the door I had sold half the catalogue at super prices! I then moved over and let the boss continue and finish the sale.

That day I became the youngest Tea Auctioneer in the world! To be given the Gavel at J Thomas & Co would take 7 to 8 years. But because of this freak situation and a competitor’s encouragement I received my initiation in less than one year after joining the company!

After this freak incident Satyanath was sporting enough to let me sell the occasional Dust catalogue when the market was strong and in a couple of years I became a regular Auctioneer for J.Thomas & Co!

That one act made Oommen Thomas a colossus in my eyes! After 55 years I still remember that episode as if it was yesterday!

11 Responses

    1. Extremely good reading and OT Sir was so sporting, in fact he took charge of situation for you

  1. Another great story. Achan would always tell us how smart and resourceful you were, and what gentlemen oomen uncle and deb uncle were even in the midst of tough competition. This story confirms everything! Thanks!!

  2. A great way to have got initiated to Auctioning, Philiji, and that too by a competitor. Truly amazing.

  3. A lovely read . I remember one of JT’s senior auctioneers once held fort for Carritts when their auctioneers didn’t turn up .in Coonoor as they got stuck too . Great days of camaraderie

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