JA Boyson

Two years after its founding, i.e. in 1886, the Gymkhana club got its first businessman (or boxwallah as men of that ilk were known) in the Hon. John Alexander Boyson.

The Boysons had a long association with Madras. JA’s father, JR Boyson had been solicitor to the Government of Madras and then in 1863, become one of the founders of the National Bank of India (later a part of Grindlays and now Standard Chartered Bank). The local agents for the bank were Binny & Co, whose Managing Partner, RO Campbell was also one of the Directors of the bank, besides being President of the Bank of Madras. Campbell and the Boysons were related by marriage and it is perhaps no wonder that JA joined Binny. When Campbell retired from Binny in 1871, JA succeeded to his share in the partnership. He was to be with the firm for a record 50 plus years.

It was during JA’s (or Boyson as we shall now refer to him) tenure as one of the senior partners that Binny got into the yarn business, an area in which it will forever be remembered. The Buckingham Mills came up in 1876 and the Carnatic Mills in 1881. In between, in 1877, the Bangalore Steam Woollen Mills were set up. In 1882, this became the Bangalore Woollen, Cotton and Silk Mills Co. Limited. In 1903, Binny went into coal mining and in 1905 it became the local agent for Burmah-Shell, setting up a vast storage facility at Royapuram. This was to be a convenient target for the German ship Emden in 1914. Under Boyson, Binny pioneered the introduction of electricity and trams into Madras.

But all was not rosy. It was also during Boyson’s tenure that Binny experienced two of its greatest crises. The first was its disastrous venture into sugar, begun in 1897 thanks to a desire on the part of Boyson and his junior GL Chambers to rival Parry. The Deccan Sugar and Abkhari Company was set up and was soon bleeding money hand over fist. By 1902, Binny was in dire straits. It was left to Parry to step in and buy the loss-making unit from Binny. Boyson, who had left Madras by then for London, with a view to managing the office there prior to retirement, had to come back. Chambers had conveniently gone off on a cruise and someone had to hold the fort.

And then in 1906 came the Arbuthnot Crash, which saw the going bust of one of the biggest business houses of the city. Arbuthnots, which had also been into banking as were Binny and Parry, went down with the savings of several thousand depositors. Confidence in British business houses was at an all-time low and soon there was a run on Binny. Boyson was the man on the spot and he worked at lightning speed.

Maintaining continuous telegraphic contact with London, Boyson and his partner CB Simpson first tried organising a local guarantee put together between the Chartered Bank, the National Bank, the Mercantile Bank, Best & Co and Wilson & Co. When this failed, he turned to British India Steam Navigation one of whose directors was James Lyle Mackay, later Lord Inchcape and founder of the Inchcape group of companies. Negotiations followed and the Inchcape group agreed to acquire and restructure Binny.

Following this, on 31st October 1906, the old firm of Binny & Co went into voluntary liquidation. And on 16th November, it resurrected, now as a private limited firm under the Inchcape group. Boyson’s partnership in the old firm was now worthless and he was practically ruined but being a Scot, he cannily managed to make himself and Simpson the Madras managers of the new firm at 3500 pounds a year plus 20% of the net profits. He prospered thereafter. In 1911 he became the only Director in India for Binny. He was knighted in 1914 and that year returned to England where he remained a Director at the London office till his death in 1926. His son John Charles Boyson became a Director of Binny in Madras and remained one till 1934.

Boyson was active in Madras society. He was Chairman of the Madras Chamber of Commerce in 1889/90 and also 1893/94. He fought for the laying of a broad-gauge Madras-Vijayawada railway line, which eventually came to fruition. He was a Director on the Board of the Bank of Madras and an active member of the Madras Musical Association founded in 1864 and still going strong. Boyson was also evidently an active clubman for he presided over the Madras Club the same year that he was overlord at the Gymkhana!