Who does not know Spencer Plaza and who does not to want to be in that happening place that draws people of all generations in droves day in and day out? Well, it has been a landmark on Mount Road and the happening place in Madras since 1863. In fact, it seemed to have had more exotic things stocked in its stores when it was housed in that quaint old two-storeyed red-bricked building.
During those hey days of Spencer & Co, there was also a hotel inside the premises and Somerset Playne, an eminent compiler of a book on South India, described Spencer's Hotel on Mount Road in the following words: 'It is a favourite residence for gentlemen who are engaged professionally or commercially in the 'west end' of the city, but owing to its very name it is an attraction to visitors from other parts of the Presidency to whom the name 'Spencer' is an everyday word'.
Started in 1863 by a British entrepreneur Charles Durrant with an initial capital of Rs.25,000, the company was joined in by J W Spencer later and the company became Durrant & Spencer Ltd. They were general merchants who started operating in a building which was subsequently occupied by the Hotel d' Angelis in the 1880s.
In the 1890s they put up a beautiful structure on Mount Road in the same place from where the highrise Spencer Plaza now beckons all. It had ornamented rooms and halls with exquisitely beautiful fittings reflecting the aristocratic taste and opulence of the late Victorian Era. It was a large departmental store filled with all kinds of consumer goods and other household goods.
This amazing range of goods included provisions, silver and electro-plated goods, watches and clocks, cutlery, ironmongery and turnery, china and glassware, harness and saddlery, boots and shoes, portmanteaus and travelling requisites, field-glasses and magic-lanterns, gramophones, lamps, and bicycles, fancy goods, photographic requisites, artists' materials, perfumery and toilet preparations, tobaccos and stationery.
Spencer & Co were producers of high-class cigars, which were entirely hand-made from the most carefully selected Havana and Indian leaf, and were rolled with scrupulous care by skilled workmen. Some of the most famous brands were Gold Mohur Special, Catamarans, Todas, Beaconsfields, Puros, Coronas, and Doreto Bouquets.
This company used to claim with legitimate pride that it held the premier position in the Presidency of Madras for many years for the superior quality of its wines and spirits. They were refreshment-room contractors to the Madras and Southern Mahratta and South India Railway systems, and to the Guaranteed State Railway of the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Well-appointed Spencer Restaurant Cars were attached to mail trains, and the company provided breakfasts, luncheons, and dinners to passengers. Spencer Refreshment-rooms at Railway Stations were numerous, and the requirements of all classes of passengers from the modest soda-water to the most sumptuous dinner, were promptly attended to.
The company opened branches at Calcutta, Bombay, Karachi, Bangalore, Secunderabad, Kolar, Ootacamund, Coimbatore, Coonoor, Trichinoply, Waltair, Coconada, Quilon, Madura, Kodaikkanal, Cochin, Calicut, Mandapam, and other centres. In 1900, it started publishing its corporate journal called Spencer's News. This journal contained several interesting articles on art, culture and society in Madras. In one of the issues, it referred to the fact that the area covered by its branches, refreshment-rooms, depots, and other stores was not less than 60,000 square miles, and that it extended from Bombay on the west coast to Calcutta onthe east, and as far as Tuticorin in the South.
Somerset Playne also wrote an interesting article in the Punch in London about a hilarious dinner party he had with the managing directors of Spencer & Co, J O Robinson and J H Thonger, in 1913 at the Connemara Hotel, which, too, then belonged to the company. A veena recital by Veena Dhanam was arranged and several legal luminaries, including Sir C P Ramaswami Iyer and Sir P S Sivaswami Iyer attended the dinner party.
Spencer & Co also owned the West End hotel in Bangalore besides the Connemara and Spencer's in Madras, and were managing Brind's Hotel in Madras and the Cubbon Hotel in Bangalore.
W Heath Robinson stayed in Spencer Hotel in 1908 and drew the illustration of Madras (above) which was later published in Kipling's The Song of the Cities. The lines on Madras read:
'Clive kissed me on the mouth and eyes and brow,
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