Around the last quarter of the 19th century, almost all regions of India had modern industry with firms engaged in cotton, coal, jute and tea. Sugar, shipping, and paper were some of the emerging industries. Engineering firms were also establishing themselves.
Jessop and Company is perhaps the first recorded engineering firm in India.
It’s founder, William Jessop (1745-1814), was a civil engineer in England whose firm, Butterley Iron Works, manufactured fish-bellied cast-iron rails. Jessop’s firm was engaged by the East India Company to provide an iron bridge that the Nawab of Awadh wanted built over the Gomti river in Lucknow. His son, Henry Jessop, was dispatched from England with the parts of the bridge to be assembled in India. For this task, he was to receive a remuneration of a princely sum of 500 ‘Sicca Rupees’ per annum and an additional amount of 400 ‘Sicca Rupees’ per month, besides the perk of free passage to and from India. He was also not required to stay more than 18 months in India after the arrival of the bridge in Lucknow.
For young Henry, the trip to India was life-changing and soon after his father’s death, along with his brother George, he acquired a small, Calcutta-based trading company called Breen and Company. Butterley Iron Works and Breen and Company soon merged to form Jessop and Company and started operations as an engineering firm in India.
Another engineering firm, Burn and Company, was established around 1820 and soon became prominent because it laid 100 miles of railway track for the East Indian Railway between 1851 and 1859.
Far away in the West, in Bombay, Noble Carr Richardson set up a small foundry in 1858, which prospered and merged with William Nicol and Company whose manager, John Cruddas, became a partner. The new entity was called Richardson and Cruddas. Cruddas left soon after, leaving the reigns of the new entity in the hands of the Richardson family. Constructing bridges was the firm’s forte, and it evolved into being the largest structural and mechanical engineering company in India having constructed bridges in distant places such as Travancore and Pegu.
In 1892, Martin and Company was established by Rajendra Nath Mookerjee, an engineer, Acquin Martin and two other Englishmen interested in engineering works. Martin and Company not only became one of the foremost engineering firms in the Eastern Region, it also gained the distinction of being run by an Indian – Mookerjee – after Martin’s death.
These India-based engineering firms did commendable work and exhibited potential, often bailing out worried East India Company officials when they found themselves in a tight spot: in 1854, when the East Indian Railways was to launch its railway service, it plans went awry because the coaches, being shipped from Britain, sank in the sandheads near the Hooghly estuary. With a non-negotiable deadline to meet, the desperate Chief Locomotive Engineer got two local coach building firms to build the coaches, and the first East Indian Railways trip between Howrah and Hooghly was on coaches made in India!
But the Government encouraged purchase from Britain, and one of its key policies – the Stores Purchase Policy – for railways and public works tilted the scale in favour of manufacturers based in the UK. The Government and lobbyists, largely, purchased material from Britain thus stymying the growth of the India-based firms.
At the beginning of the 1890s, the fate of the engineering industry was inextricably linked to that of the development of railways in India – an area of high-priority and investment for the Crown, the East India Company and the colonial administration. Thus, the expansion of the Railways was rapid, and the network covered vast tracts of the country, including hills such as Shimla, the summer capital of the British. By 1901, with about 25,000 miles of railway lines, India’s railway connectivity surpassed that of countries in Europe!
However, all material for this expansion came from England. Compounding problems for engineering firms based in India was the tariff structure, which favoured cheap import of machinery, and the Government’s view that imports from England could not be reduced until iron work and machinery of comparable quality and price could be manufactured in India.
There was widespread dismay, and Richardson and Cruddas, the leading engineering firm in Bombay, took up the matter with the Imperial Government, but to no avail. Undeterred, 35 firms joined hands to collectively make a representation to the Government for the relaxation of the Store Purchase Rules, and the Government conceded some ground, which however, did not cover railway purchases.
Since the fate of the engineering firms was inextricably linked to the railways, Jessop and Company, Burn and Company and Richardson and Cruddas met the Secretary of State in London to present their case, emphasising that the concessions granted were ‘meagre’.
The meeting was not fruitful.
And so, in 1895, 5 engineering firms – Martin and Company, Burn and Company, John King and Company, Jessop and Company and Turner Morrison and Company – joined hands to form the Engineering and Iron Trades Association (EITA) under the aegis of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce.
The objective of EITA was to leverage their collective power to negotiate with the Government to get orders for companies based in India. Even though EITA was driven by Britishers, its advocacy was in line with nationalist aspirations at the time of promoting Indian industry and Indian goods.
The companies which played a seminal role in the formation of EITA in 1895 continued to operate in India for decades.
Jessop and Company had a chequered history over the years, moving from nationalisation to privatisation and now facing liquidation.
Richardson and Cruddas was acquired by the Government under an Act of Parliament in 1972 after years of prolonged sickness. Although NITI Aayog has recommended its closure, the Byculla, Mumbai, premises have emerged as a desired venue for music performances, including the recent launch of the music of the popular film ‘Gully Boy’.
Martin and Company and Burn and Company merged to form Martin Burn Limited in 1946. Both had independently built many iconic building and monuments such as the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. The new company continued to prosper and was eventually taken over by the Government in the late 1960s along with many others.
In 1913, Braithwaite and Company was set up in India as the Indian arm of a successful British company and in 1935, it merged with Jessop and Company and Burn and Company to form Braithwaite, Burn and Jessop Company. This company built the famous Howrah Bridge (now known as Rabindra Setu), and the Yamuna Bridge in Delhi, among other landmark constructions.
In the normal tumult of business fortunes, the five founding members of CII faced many ups and downs in line with India’s economic experience. In 1912, the fate of the EITA was slated to be transformed forever as an Indian company entered its ranks for the first time.