by Arnab Goswami
Arnab Goswami is a management professional and is extremely passionate about history and heritage.
Right beside the Asiatic Society, at the intersection of Park Street & Chowringhee Road, stands the imposing Chowringhee Mansion. Chowringhee Mansion was built by the Jewish real estate magnate Elias David Joseph Ezra in the neo-classical style, and is undoubtedly a fine example of the rich colonial architecture of Calcutta. Originally intended to house both residents and offices, even today Chowringhee Mansion is the home of banks, courier companies, and so on. However, a doorway featuring the wooden nameplate of “Morrison & Cottle” caught my eye. Upon looking at the colonial era nameplate and its modern counterpart below it, I grew curious: What did this firm do, and is it still active today?
In 1884, an individual named William Mason decided to start a boot making firm. Not much else is known about what Mason previously did or how he came to start the business. However, given that he continued for a decade, he likely had some skill or experience in the trade. This fledgeling business was to later become Morrison & Cottle, although we do not know what Mason originally named it. After ten years of fruitlessly trying to secure a foothold in a market dominated by the two older firms Monteith and Co. and Cuthbertson and Harper & Co., Mason decided to sell the business before he was forced to declare bankruptcy. At around this time, two friends named Edward James Morrison (a bootmaker) and John Cottle (a saddle maker) decided to form a partnership and bought the business from Mason, thus giving the business its name. Morrison and Cottle both acquired their skills in Northampton, England by working for the well-known boot-making firm Manfields. They came to Calcutta originally to work for one of the established boot making firms, most likely Cuthbertson and Harper & Co., but they did not wait long before starting something of their own. Such was their skill and entrepreneurial spirit that within a few years, Morrison & Cottle had become one of the upcoming boot and saddle makers in Calcutta. It became so well known that it received orders from as far away as Burma, Ceylon, and Australia. From the Calcutta Race Club, Shillong Gymkhana, and Tollygunge Club to the tea gardens of Assam, everyone ordered their saddles, harnesses, racing gear, and boots from Morrison & Cottle. Why, you may ask, were tea gardens their regular customers? The European superintendents and overseers in the plantations would use horses both to supervise the work in the large estates and for recreation. Hence, the need for saddles, harnesses, and riding boots. The bulk of Morrison & Cottle’s business was in custom-made boots, fashion shoes, saddles, and harnesses, but they also produced or sold bags, travel goods, riding crops, gloves, saddle soap, shoe creams, and socks. The socks were made in England by Howlett and White with gold lettering on the soles stating, “Made expressly for Morrison and Cottle and Co.!”
In 1913, Morrison & Cottle was converted into a private limited company. The company reached its peak in the late 1920s and early 1930s: for example, one guide to the ports of India and Ceylon published in 1928, declared Morrison & Cottle to be “Calcutta’s premier boot and saddle makers.” However, the decreasing reliance on horses caused by the emergence of automobiles signalled a change in the firm’s fortunes. While Morrison & Cottle could have diversified into producing leather seat covers for vehicles, had they had the foresight, that did not happen. The company managed to survive this technological change, but the automobile still initiated its gradual decline. Though Morrison & Cottle no longer sold as many saddles, they continued to sell shoes. The Calcutta Key, a guide for the United States Army Forces in India and Burma published in 1945, lists Morrison & Cottle as one of only two shoemakers operating in Calcutta, alongside Cuthbertson and Harper & Co. So it seems that they still sold shoes until at least 1945! Is the firm still active today? A perfunctory search on the internet reveals that “Morrison & Cottle Pvt Ltd” has Deb Kumar Dutt and Amar Paul for directors and the company last held its annual general meeting in 2018. As to what it deals in now, there is, unfortunately, no clear answer. Perhaps it now supplies leather to the newer shoe brands? The story of Morrison & Cottle is the story of many such firms which existed in Colonial Calcutta and are now a mere shadow of their past if they continue at all!
“The Early History of Morrison & Cottle (Private) LTD, A Producer-Retail Enterprise of Calcutta,” Bengal Past and Present, 1979, by Christine Furedy
The Calcutta Key, 1945, by the Services of Supply base section two, Information and Education Branch, United States Army Forces, India – Burma
Recollections of Calcutta for over half a century, 1918, by Montage Massey