This article appeared in The Hindu today

Wilson and Co’s headquarters in Madras

There has been much excitement in heritage circles with the recent discovery of a collection of photographs of Kolkata at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland in Edinburgh. It is rather akin to the finding of an entire collection of photos of old Madras in a home in Ooty which then went on to form the nucleus of the collection titled Vintage Vignettes.

What is interesting about this Kolkata collection is the presence of four photos pertaining to old Madras. Nos DP 097477 and 097493 pertain to Europeans relaxing at Ennore. DP 097486 is titled WJU Turnbull, Madras Mounted Infantry and shows a soldier standing in front of a building that looks straight out of something in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The last, DP097495 is the most interesting. It shows a typical business establishment of the times and the title says Messrs Wilson & Cos office, Madras, M Wilson and W Shelford. It shows an Englishman looking over the shoulder of a clerk seated at a desk. Behind him, another Englishman is reading a newspaper while several Indian office assistants stand behind. A huge punkah looms overhead.

This collection is dated 1914 and what is interesting is that almost at the same time, a huge documentation effort of South India’s resources was underway by the Foreign and Colonial Compiling and Publishing Company, London. Working on it was Somerset Playne, FRGS and the study was published in the form of a tome titled Southern India, Its History, People, Commerce and Industrial Resources, in 1914-1915. And in it is a full column on JW Wilson & Co, replete with photographs. Were these two companies the same?

The company according to Playne was founded by a JW Wilson, “about a quarter of a century ago” mainly as a chemist and druggist. The firm’s biggest success was Vimo, “a food tonic of exceptionally high recuperative character.” In recognition of its success, the firm’s handsome red-brick headquarters “on of the principal roads of Madras” was named Vimo Buildings. Was it on Mount Road or perhaps somewhere in George Town?

Soon exports commenced to Burma, Ceylon, Aden and other countries. What was a sole proprietary firm soon became a private limited, with rather surprisingly for its times, shareholders comprising “European, Anglo-Indian and Indian alike.” Perfumery, soaps, toilet requisites, patent medicines and surgical appliances were imported from England, France and America and sold by Wilson. An aerated water factory was opened complete with “thoroughly modern machinery and plant.” Wilson’s Artistic Press took care of the labels for bottles and publicity materials needed for the company. A novelty was the introduction of electricity for the water factory, label printing and the lights and fans in the building.

What happened to JW Wilson & Co in later years is a mystery. Equally mysterious is the fate of its building that formed “three sides of a square… with a frontage of 365 sq ft.”