The Coonoor Auctions!

Philip John

My wife and I were delighted with our move to Coonoor. She liked the cooler climes of Coonoor which had an amazing climate and vegetation. It was also just 10 miles away from Ootacamund (Ooty) where her mother and brothers lived.
I was overjoyed by the opportunity to build a JT branch from scratch! It was not often that a 26 year old got a chance to do that in a traditional company.

The Coonoor Auctions
I had written briefly about the Coonoor auctions in an earlier blog –
Role of Bought Leaf Factories.
Here is an excerpt:
“With the early stirrings of interest, the Tea Producers, Brokers, and Buyers formed the Coonoor Tea Trade Association (CTTA) in 1963. The first auction was conducted on 23rd March 1963 with 70 lots comprising 20,303 kgs of tea from 43 factories.

The first Tea Broking company in Coonoor was Sohrab Ardeshir Brokers Co. P.Ltd. (SABC) which was formed by the coming together of some tea planters from the Nigiris.

The Cochin Brokers, namely Forbes, Ewart, & Figgis and Carritt Moran decided to join hands and print a catalogue together. The first joint catalogue came up for Sale in the second half of 1963 but before the first Lot was sold Carritt Moran pulled out!”

However, Carritt Moran started a branch later, and J. Thomas was the 4th Tea Broker to participate in the Coonoor Auctions. We printed our first catalogue in January 1971.

I made a visit to Coonoor a month earlier to locate an office and a place to stay. K N Menon (Kuts) who was slated to join the company later suggested a bungalow called “California” for our office. This belonged to his brother in law, Mr. Raghav Menon who was to become the Managing Director of Tea Estates India, a Tea Plantation company owned by Unilever.

Meanwhile the owner of “Palloor House”, J J Williams contacted me and offered his place for our residence. J. Thomas & Co opening an office in Coonoor offered opportunities to the locals. Palloor House had only 3 bedrooms, but they were massive, with equally large Dressing Rooms, and correspondingly large bathrooms. It had a formal Drawing Room, Dining Room and the bedrooms opened to a veranda measuring 96ft by 8ft. The house sat on two acres of a well maintained garden. The house had an Annexe where J J Williams and wife lived with their infant granddaughter. Palloor House was situated next to the iconic All Saints Church and Hampton Hotel.

We accepted J J Williams’ terms and signed a Lease Agreement for couple of years. Their granddaughter, Anita was a year older than our daughter and the two became early friends. Anita’s father Walter Devaram was a police hero having led the fight against the Naxalites, a hard core Communist fringe organisation. His home was not a safe environment to bring up his infant daughter and Anita was sent to Coonoor to be raised by the Williams, her mother’s parents.

J.Thomas participated in Sale No.4 on 30th January 1971. The Coonoor auctions were held on Saturdays so as not to clash with Cochin where the Sales were on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This worked well and interested Cochin buyers had adequate time to travel up.

The Coonoor Tea Trade Association did not have an auction hall of its own and the sale was held at the Coonoor Club. The Auctioneer and his two assistants sat on bar stools behind the Bar while chairs and tables were arranged in front for the buyers. Since the Club was associated with ‘good times’ the tea auctions were held in a jovial atmosphere. After each sale decks were cleared and some of the auctioneers, buyers and perhaps a visiting seller would stay back for a quick drink and chat. After all it was a Saturday!

Satyanath had travelled up for JT’s inaugural sale and was happy to be offered the ‘hammer’ to knock down the first Lot. As a token of goodwill many producers had sent tea for our inaugural catalogue. It is customary for the first lot to be heavily competed for as buyers want their name in the history book of the company. The Broker would print the first contract on special bond paper and have it framed to be presented to the successful buyer. After knocking down the first lot Satyanath handed the gavel to me as I was more familiar with the names of the buyers. I guess he also wanted me to have the joy of selling JT’s first Coonoor catalogue. I remember the thrill and pride I felt that day!

The Coonoor office assembled a team quickly. The central figure was Mudaliar a senior accountant who had worked in East Africa who I appointed as Office Manager. He brought along a relative named Kulashekar who was trained to look after Sampling.  I owe them a debt of gratitude for helping me establish our Coonoor office quickly.

A year later, the JT Chairman, Dipak Roy visited us and auctioned a Coonoor catalogue. He was held in awe in the Calcutta Auction Room but must have been disappointed when he did not receive the same reception at our little Coonoor Club auction! Vivek Atal who was buying for Brooke Bond got into a heated argument with Dipak Roy. He closed his catalogue and stopped offering bids to show his clout. Brooke Bond was by far the most important buyer in the room.

With the main buyer sitting out, bids from other buyers were below market price and an angry Dipak ‘withdrew’ most of the teas from the catalogue. It was not a big deal in normal circumstances but here was a junior Brooke Bond buyer publicly flexing his muscles against the Burra Sahib of the largest Tea Broking company on the planet!

A few weeks later Vivek Atal was transferred to Calcutta and soon resigned from Brooke Bond! I couldn’t help thinking whether a rush of blood caused that fallout.
After a cooling off period Vivek joined Carritt Moran. To be fair he was a loveable guy, my junior at St. Stephen’s College with a great sense of humour. Sadly, he passed away in 2017!

All producers who sold through JT at Cochin did not automatically come to us though many did. V.K. Rajaram the MD of SABC was from a planting family and had strong relationships with the tea producers. He and his wife Muthu were a popular couple in the Coonoor social circles. However, he later sold his interests in SABC and relocated to Bangalore, and we breathed a sigh of relief!

6 Responses

  1. Those were pioneering days for the Trade and J.Thomas. I was privileged to be part of the team as an apprentice, in the mid- seventies. It was exciting and a pleasure to work with you, albeit for a very short spell. I was destined to be back for a slightly longer period in the mid- eighties, by which time you had shifted your base to Cochin; finally again in the late nineties, for an extended posting. Lots of pleasant memories…one of them my theatrical adventures, which actually started with you in Cochin!

    1. Vijay excelled in a Farewell skits we did in 1998 on Madhavs retirement. He not only penned a hilarious skits on Madhavs life but starred in it as well. !! Perhaps you may try get a copy of it from him. I did Dick Luffs part !!!!

  2. Which Vivek Atal…if it is the same person…he passed on a few years ago…much after retirement.

  3. As a kid I used to watch these auctions on my badminton court in coonoor club that was usurped for these auctions every Saturday/friday. I used to fill out the catalogue with the prices that tea was sold at… I still don’t know why I bothered! The highlight was when my dad, VK Rajaram sold his Woodbriar teas… He used to keep saying “I’m not selling MY tea at that price…” Good fun!

  4. Vijay excelled in a Farewell skits we did in 1998 on Madhavs retirement. He not only penned a hilarious skits on Madhavs life but starred in it as well. !! Perhaps you may try get a copy of it from him. I did Dick Luffs part !!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *