Established over 250 years ago, Finlays originated in Glasgow as a trader and manufacturer of cotton. During the second half of the 19th century, representatives were sent to India to plant tea and Finlays played an important role in the development of the industry there. Later, during the 1930s, the company expanded its tea business into Africa, establishing estates and production facilities which continue to form a major part of our business today. Finlays pioneered instant tea research, development and production in the 1960s, when the industry was still in its infancy.
Towards the end of the 20th century, cotton interests were replaced by financial services, onshore and offshore oil services, and a wide range of other businesses. By the early 1990s, however, we had reverted to concentrating on core tea and tea-related activities and we are today, an international company, principally focused on tea, although recent expansion has seen us move into rubber, flowers and fresh produce in Africa and Sri Lanka. As contemporary drinking patterns change and the enormous potential of tea as a healthy ingredient in other products is developed, we are at the forefront of producing and marketing tea extracts and aromas in addition to more traditional forms of processing. This is highlighted by significant recent investments in China and Kenya.
While Finlays continues to focus on its traditional agricultural activities, we have also expanded our various non-tea businesses, centred principally in Sri Lanka. These include the recent establishment of a state-of-the-art cold store facility in Colombo.
The Full Story
James Finlay Ltd is best known across the mercantile world for the production of tea. However, it was as a cotton trader that the founder of the firm established himself in Glasgow in the troubled years after the Jacobite rising of 1745.
James Finlay began his career in the family textile business, probably travelling with a pack-horse, selling cotton goods. By his death in 1790 he had established a small but respected and rapidly growing company, trading in cotton, including fine embroidered muslins. He had, by then, been described in a Glasgow directory as a manufacturer as well as a merchant. The removal of James Finlays head office from Glasgow to London in 2007 breaks the link with the mother city of one of Scotland’s oldest businesses.
The nineteenth century saw the fortunes of the company advanced upon the world stage by two remarkable men. It was under James’ second son, Kirkman Finlay, described by one historian as ‘the leading capitalist in Scotland’, that James Finlay & Company expanded into new markets in Europe, the Americas and India to become one of Scotland’s greatest, overseas-based, trading firms.
Kirkman’s initial move was to purchase three large spinning mills in west and central Scotland, at Catrine, Ballindalloch and Deanston. He was thus able to control the whole process, from the purchase of raw cotton in the USA to its finishing and marketing.
A true merchant adventurer, during the Napoleonic Wars Kirkman Finlay defied the Napoleonic blockades and the British embargo on trade through continental ports in order to sell cotton goods throughout Europe. He had by now established agents in Heligoland, Gibraltar and Malta, servicing more than 700 correspondents in continental Europe. Cotton goods were forwarded or, rather, smuggled along the Forth & Clyde Canal and then on as far as St Petersburg, the Mediterranean, the Levant, and up the Danube to Hungary.
Catrine: the 20th century mill village
From 1806, Kirkman Finlay opened branches in Charleston, New Orleans and New York. This completed the company’s control of the full cycle, from the direct purchase of raw cotton through manufacture to sale. The same year saw the firm move into the Latin American market with the opening of a branch in New Providence in the Bahamas; this agency alone made £10,000 profit in its first year.
A passionate free trader, Kirkman Finlay used his influence as MP for Glasgow Burghs, as Lord Provost of Glasgow and as chairman of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, to help persuade the British Government to break the East India Company’s monopoly on trade to Asia.
With the East India Company’s historic stranglehold loosened, in 1813 Kirkman and his fellow campaigner, John Gladstone of Liverpool, immediately fitted out ships. Three years later, Finlays Earl of Buckinghamshire was the first ship to sail from the Clyde to India. There, the success of the cheap cotton piece goods, packed as cargo makeweights, far outweighed that of the Western luxury items with which the vessel was stowed. With India’s voracious demand for cottons confirmed by the Governor of Madras, a whole new market opened up. Profits from sales in India soon exceeded gross sales in all Finlays’ other outlets in Europe and the Americas. Two young Finlay assistants set up an agency in Bombay in 1816; others soon followed in Calcutta and Colombo and elsewhere. Finlays also traded with China in tea and silks.
Nearly 20 years after Kirkman Finlays death in 1842, a second major influence began to make itself felt. In 1861, John Muir, who had joined the company in 1849, became a junior partner and began systematically to buy out the other partners. By 1883 he had become sole proprietor. Meanwhile, he and his cousin, Hugh Brown Muir, had revolutionised the activities of the company. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 brought British textile mills to a standstill, obliging Finlays, among others, to find alternative sources of cotton. They looked to India. In 1865 Hugh Brown Muir re-established the Bombay office, reopening the Calcutta branch in 1870. In 1871 the firm opened a small London office.
John Muir made his first visit to India in 1871, setting up Finlay Muir & Co that year as a private business to act as agent for his own ventures, while the Glasgow firm continued to act as home agent, selling piece goods to Bombay and Calcutta. He opened a jute press in 1871 and a jute mill in 1873; their foundation, the start of a major interest in jute, marked a first move into new commodities.
In 1873 John Muir also moved into the infant tea industry, acting as agent in Calcutta for two small tea estates in Northern India, and then buying up other estates as they came on the market. He was one of the first to realise that tea estates operated best in large groups under central control, rather than as individuals, a management pattern that was to be adopted throughout the industry.
In 1882, he floated the private North and South Sylhet Companies, based in present day Bangladesh. By 1896, Muir owned tea estates throughout the Subcontinent. In addition to tea and rubber, a variety of other crops were also grown. In 1894, Muir bought a large tract of high altitude virgin jungle in the South Indian state of Travancore. Between 1896 and 1898, a reorganisation of the estates owned by Muir, or managed by the Finlay Muir & Co agency, resulted in the formation of The Consolidated Tea and Lands Co. Limited, The Amalgamated Tea Estates Co Limited, The Kanan Devan Hills Produce Co Limited and The Anglo-American Direct Tea Trading Co Limited, all of which were floated on the Stock Market.
John Muir set up London warehouses at Orient Dock and established his own tea brokers and tea tasters. He owned a controlling interest in a tea packing and confectionery concern, George Payne & Co Limited. By the 1880s James Finlay was Scotland’s largest employer of overseas labour. By the 1890s, says The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Muir was the world’s major stakeholder in the growing and marketing of tea. At his death in 1903 he had some 90,000 employees on the payroll in Britain and the Indian subcontinent.
Under John Muir, Finlays had maintained Kirkman’s commitment to the production of cotton cloth in Scottish mills but its major theatre of operations had moved to the Indian subcontinent. Throughout the 20th century, Finlays also developed a string of successful agency businesses. One of the largest of these was the Clan Line for which, as a founding partner, Muir had secured all the agencies East of Suez.
In 1909 John Muir’s son, Kay, converted his father’s heterogeneous collection of businesses into a private company, owned by members of the extended Muir family. In turn, the new company held substantial interests in the tea and jute companies, some of which were wholly owned subsidiaries. The First World War saw Finlays making a modest profit from military staples: sandbags, khaki cotton cloth and tea. In 1924 Finlays became a public limited liability company and was floated on the Stock Exchange, the form in which it remained until the Swire Group took it over in 2000.
In 1926, Kay Muir instigated an important new venture for the firm, sending planters from India and Ceylon to open large tea plantations in Kenya and thus reinforcing Finlay’s position as one of major tea producers in the world.
Tea, cotton and agency work continued to dominate until the 1960s when the British cotton industry threw in the towel and Finlays faced the inevitable in breaking the 200 year-long thread which bound its fortunes to the trade. The Catrine Mill ceased production in 1972, while the Deanston Mill had already been converted into a whisky distillery in 1965. A reorganisation of the Company’s principal tea interests in 1976 saw a number of these becoming wholly owned subsidiaries while others were sold out with the Group. In 1983, Finlays finally divested itself of its Indian tea estates, when its shareholdings were sold to Tata’s, with whom the company had been in partnership for some years.
Towards the end of the 20th century cotton interests were replaced by financial services, onshore and offshore oil services and a wide range of other businesses. By the early 1990s Finlays had reverted to concentrating on its core tea and tea related activities. Today, Finlays is an international company, principally focused on tea, although recent expansion has seen us move into rubber, flowers and fresh produce in Africa and Sri Lanka. As contemporary drinking patterns change and the enormous potential of tea as a healthy ingredient in other products is developed, we are at the forefront of producing and marketing tea extracts and aromas in addition to more traditional forms of processing. This is highlighted by significant recent investments in China and Kenya.
While the Company continues to focus on its traditional agricultural activities, it has also expanded its various non-tea businesses centred principally in Sri Lanka. These include the recent establishment of a state-of-the-art cold store facility outside Colombo.
In keeping with its 250 year tradition Finlays continues to expand by seeking opportunities which will benefit shareholders, employees and stakeholders alike.
We are indebted for much of the above to Monica Clough’s entries in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and to her articles in early editions of the Finlays
A substantial number of historic Finlays documents and photographs are held in the archives of Glasgow University’s Department of Business History.