Assam Tea and The Magor Family

This is a brief overview of the Assam tea industry, the basis of the fortunes of the Magor family that married into mine. Richard Manuel Blamey Magor went to India from Cornwall about 1865. In 1869 in Calcutta he founded Williamson Magor (WM) as a partnership with James Hay Williamson. (Calcutta, on the northeast coast of India in West Bengal, served as the capital of India during the British Raj until 1911.)

Europe first learned of tea in 1559 with the publication of travelers' tales compiled by a Venetian charged to collect information of commercial value. One tale described tea and its medicinal values.

In 1600 the Honorable East India Company was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I with a monopoly over British trade from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope, with the intention of favoring trade privileges in India. Their initial focus was the spice trade but, in the face of Dutch competition, they shifted to tea.

The drinking of tea in England was established by 1658 and demand grew rapidly. This tea was imported from China, where the East India Company first established a trading post in 1684.

China proved to be too independent to provide a reliable source of the ever-increasing quantities of tea needed by England. Furthermore, China preferred to be paid in silver, the supply of which was in danger of being inadequate to buy enough tea. Eventually the East India Company, with its monopoly on the tea trade, looked for ways to cut China out of the profits. So tea plants were carried from China and planted elsewhere, the earliest being about 1792 when they were brought to the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. Then in 1833, by an act of the British Prime Minister Charles Grey (the second Earl Grey and the namesake of the famous tea), the East India Company lost its monopoly in the trade with China, most of it in tea.

Completely by chance a new location for the production of tea that they could control fell into the hands of the Company—Assam. It was conquered by the British when they evicted the Burmese in conjunction with the 1826 Treaty of Yandabo (or Yandaboo) wherein the British took possession of all Burmese-Indian possessions and also a third of Burma itself. The Company completed the annexation of Assam in 1839. Located northeast of Bangladesh and south of the eastern Himalayas, Assam comprises the Brahmaputra and the Barak river valleys and the Karbi Anglong and the North Cachar Hills. It was, until the proliferation of tea plantations, largely jungle.

In 1823 Major Robert Bruce, a Scottish trader and explorer, discovered tea growing wild in Assam, but it wasn't until 1835 that the Company realized what they had. By 1836 the first production was sent to Calcutta. In 1840 the first tea company, the Assam Company, formed and began to acquire large blocks of land, open new tea gardens, and erect tea processing factories. In 1853 George Williamson, who became known as the "Father of India's Tea Industry," began propagating the wild Assam tea plant. The Jorehaut Tea Company was the second to enter the tea enterprise, in 1859. By the end of that year there were nearly 50 tea gardens in Assam and a successful European tea industry was established there. In June 1873 the George Willamson School was opened in Jorhat (or Jorehaut) for technical education.

In 1858 possession of India was formally transferred from the East India Company to the British Crown. This had the effect of spurring new British businesses to organize in India and Assam around tea.

The first industrial revolution (1750–1850) resulted in a production method that was cheaper, faster, and more dependable. With it England became the most powerful nation on earth. The ever-growing demand for tea led some entrepreneurs to consider applying organized labor and mechanization to tea production.

By the application of industrial techniques tea in Assam began to cost less to produce than even the very cheapest Chinese tea. By 1899 Indian exports exceeded Chinese exports by 17 times, surpassing all Chinese yearly export figures. The China trade, at its peak in 1886, collapsed.

Enter Williamson Magor

By 1866 Captain James Hay Williamson was already involved in the management of tea estates in Assam. I believe James was a ship's captain, he was certainly a captain on a river steamer on the Brahmaputra River in Assam. (It was his brother George Williamson that, in 1853, began propagating the wild Assam tea plant.) James met Richard Manuel Blamey Magor, at that time an assistant with the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta. In April 1869 they signed a deed of partnership which they renewed periodically.

George had started the firm George Williamson & Co. It became the London end of the partnership and Williamson Magor, the Indian end of the partnership. The firm name George Williamson (Assam) Limited lasted until 2001 when it was changed to Williamson Tea Assam Limited, the current business name. Its chairman is Philip Magor. The Indian Company is linked to its UK parent company Williamson Tea Holdings Plc and its Kenyan sister company Williamson Tea Kenya Ltd. (headquartered in Nairobi and incorporated in 1950). Williamson Magor & Co. was converted into a Limited Company in 1954.

The company had its first offices at 7 China Bazar Street, Calcutta. In 1894 they relocated to 4 Mangoe Lane. By 1910 the London office was located at 138 Leadenhall Street. (The offices of the East India Company were on Leadenhall Street in the 1810s.)

J H Williamson died in 1898. George Williamson, who had already withdrawn his capital from the business in 1879, died in 1903. In 1904 the Partnership Deed was renewed with R B Magor and Robert Lyell, J H Williamson's brother-in-law, having equal shares. Robert died 8-4-1908 at age 71.

In the decades following 1869, while remaining almost exclusively in the hands of the Williamson and Magor families, the company consolidated its position and expanded through mergers. Running the tea estates was left to the visiting agent, and the partners generally came to India only in winter, for a couple of months, for a leisurely trip around Assam.

As a result of negotiated mergers, acquisitions, and takeovers, the Williamson Magor group grew into a large conglomerate.

In 2002 Philip Magor became chairman of George Williamson (Assam) Ltd succeeding S. K. Mitra who had been with the company since 1977. Mitra became the chairman and managing director of George Williamson (Assam) when Philip Magor and B. M. Khaitan decided to part ways almost two years previously, after a 30 year relationship. When contacted by The Telegraph (Calcutta), Mitra said, "The Magors have decided to run the show on their own so I have stepped down. After all, they control 70 per cent of the company. However, I will continue as a consultant to the company." Mitra said that two other Magor representatives would be inducted on the board.

In 2005 Philip Magor, as chairman of the Williamson Tea Holdings plc, sold his 70% stake in Williamson Tea Assam (WTA) to the Khaitans via their McLeod Russel India Ltd. (MRIL); Philip would continue to be on the board of WTA "as long as he wants to." This makes MRIL the world's largest integrated tea company.

Today, the Williamson Magor firm, under the name Williamson Tea Kenya Ltd., is still family owned and run. It owns four estates in Kenya, having divested their interests in Assam. Their tea is marketed under the brand Williamson Tea. Their headquarters are in Nairobi, Kenya. They also have offices in Newbury, Berkshire.


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Created 2-24-2007. Revision: 1-8-2010.