One of Neville Wadia’s earliest memories of his father is the sight of him sliding down a ship’s rope into a lifeboat. It was the month of November 1916, and Neville was 5. “There had been a spate of illness in the family, and my father decided that we’d all go back to England,” Neville recalls. The time was 11 am – an hour that Neville remembers well because he had just been served his morning bowl of soup. Their ship, the Asia, was steaming westwards in the Mediterranean in brilliant winter sunshine when, without warning, the young Wadia was lifted from his chair and flung clear across the deck. The ship had been torpedoed by a German submarine. Many of the details of the disaster have faded, but Neville recalls that Sir Ratan and Lady Tata were also aboard and that Lady Tata’s jewels went down with the ship. That was not the case with Evelyne Wadia, who had providently retained possession of hers and carried them down the ship’s rope to the lifeboat bobbing alongside the dying ship and already crammed with children. The survivors were rescued by a little fishing trawler, which made for Malta through a heavy storm. Lying on the trawler’s deck with the other passengers, battered and soaked, young Neville contracted pneumonia. It was a narrow escape, not only for Sir Ness and his wife, but for their only son, who was to succeed his father as Chairman of Bombay Dyeing.
Another memory from Neville’s youth, involving another sea voyage, is recalled more vividly, for reasons that the event itself makes clear. The year was 1931, and Neville, then 20, was in his second year at Cambridge University when his father arrived in England. During Sir Ness’s stay, Neville confessed that his enthusiasm for scholar- ship was somewhat less than overwhelming. Said his father: “Well, then, why not come back with me to India?” They sailed on the P&O ship Viceroy of India, landing at 7 one morning at Ballard pier. Driven to Strachey House, Neville had a wash and sat down to breakfast with his father. Outside, a Rolls Royce land- aulet pulled up to the door, one of Sir Ness’s fleet. ( History of Textile Industry In India )
Always a car fancier, he is said to have been the owner of the fourth car imported to India, a racy de Dion Bouton one-cylinder roadster, built in France, that Sir Ness enjoyed driving himself. “The landaulet’s come,” said Neville. “Where are you going?” Replied his father, “It’s not for me. It’s for you.” “Where am I going then?” “To the mills.”
Thus unceremoniously, the third generation of Wadias was inducted into the family firm. The fact that he had been educated at Malvern College and Cambridge and was the Chairman’s son in no way earned him preferential treatment. Like any mill worker, he left home each morning at 6.30, in ample time to clock in at the Spring Mills by 7, put in the same 10-hour work day, six days in the week, and carried his own lunch, which he usually ate on the mill roof. In the course of a three-year apprenticeship he was paid no wages, subsisting on a small inheritance from his grandmother. He did duty in every department – engineering, carding, spinning, weaving, bleaching, dyeing, sales and marketing – and served as a weaver in the Platt sheds, surely one of the less at… factories. This was the New Bleach Works, which, although completed in 1957, still bears that designation, 22 years later. Both programmes gave Chairman Wadia an opportunity to exercise his architectural ability. “I designed all our new buildings myself,” he says, with understandable pride, “before passing on the drawings to a professional architect to fill in the details.” From Europe and America came the latest in textile printing and bleaching machinery, winding and sizing equipment, speed frames for the more rapid spinning of yarn. The bleaching agent, hydrogen peroxide, has been manufactured since 1956 by National Peroxide, whose largest shareholder is Bombay Dyeing. ( History of Textile Industry In India )
During Neville Wadia’s quarter century as Chairman, the Company had recorded remarkable progress. The mills had been almost completely re-equipped. Turnover had increased elevenfold. Bombay Dyeing’s gross profit had soared from Rs 8 million to Rs 52.6 million. Before his retirement, the third wave of modernisation was under way with the installation of the first Sulzer looms in 1973. But of his many contributions to the Company, none gave him greater personal pleasure than an idea that occurred to him in 1958, at a reception recognising his 25 years as a Director. On the occasion, a sudden thought struck him: “Why only me? Why shouldn’t every Company worker with 25 years’ service be honoured as well?” The fruit of this inspiration was the silver medal which, since 1959, has been awarded to every employee with a quarter century or more in Bombay Dyeing. ( History of Textile Industry In India )
Designed by Mr. Wadia and struck from 14 grams of .999 silver, the medal shows on its front, in bas relief, the face of Sir Ness Wadia, flanked on either side by the years 1890 and 1952, which bracket the period of his active association with Bombay Dyeing. Sir Ness’s eyes stare directly at the observer; the sculptor has softened their characteristic fierce look.
On the reverse side, the Company’s full title, The Bombay Dyeing & Manufacturing Company Limited, encircles the rim together with the year of its founding, 1879. The words enclose the Company seal: a palm tree bearing eight fronds and four coconuts, its roots embedded in a flower-strewn lawn. To the left of the tree appears the Company’s familiar trade-mark: a hand holding a scale of two trays, one bearing folded lengths of cloth, the other a weight. To the right, a peacock spreads the impressive fan of its tail. According to Mr. Wadia, the palm tree symbolises the site of the original dyeworks at Mahim, which in 1879 was an untamed forest of palms waving in the sea breeze. The peacock stands for the area of Bombay, then known as mor baug, or peacock garden, in which the Spring Mills plant rose in 1908.
This medal depends from a length of red ribbon with two vertical stripes of dark blue. These colours suggest the mills, which were originally painted red with a white and blue trim. Some years after distribution of the first silver medals, one of 14-karat gold was struck for employees with 40 years or more of association with the Company, Otherwise it is same design as the silver version. Each year, on the anniversary of Bombay Dyeing’s birth, those employees who have just earned a medal, and those who already wear them, assemble at a party honoring the new silver and gold wallahs. There are speeches, refreshments and a many-tiered cake. To date, 4.559 silver and 358 gola medals have been distributed. None are worn more proualy than by Jamshed B. Boyce. now in his 84th year, who came to Bombay Dyeing in 1918 as a clerk of the works in the Spring Mills, fresh from the College of Engineering in Poona. Semi-retirod in 1962 after 44 years, Mr. Boyce is still associated with the Company part-time. His period of service spans more than 60% of Bombay Dyeing’s existence.
A living and still active link with the past, Mr. Bovce cuts a figure familiar to three generations of Wadias. During Sir Ness Wadia’s term, it was the Chairman’s custom to inspect the two hospitals endowed by Bombay Dyeing and Wadia money: the Bai Jerbai Wadia Children’s Hospital and the Nowrosjee Wadia Maternity Hospital; frequently he was accompanied by Mr. Boyce who had superintended the construction of both. He lives with his wife in Cusrow baug, one of the five baugs for Parsis financed at the start by the Rs 850,000 lef by Bombay Dyeing’s founder in trust to his wife.
Again it was Jamshed Boyce who, in his capacity as works engineer, oversaw the erection of the baugs. The New Bleach Works also rose under his watchful engineer’s eye.
“When I went to work for the Company in 1918,” says Jamshed Boyce, his memory unimpaired by the years, “it was a simpler life, and Bombay was a much cleaner city than it is now. The millowners were the monarchs then. Today it’s the reverse; labour rules. People used to say in those times that a textile worker never saw his family. He was up at 4, because then the mills started at 6, and he worked 10-12 hour shifts; he was lucky to get back to the chawls by 9 in the evening. ” The white- crowned head shakes, remembering. “A weaver in that time earned three rupees a day.” As the Company’s oldest active employee, Mr. Boyce received a singular honour on 21 March 1973: at Neville’s invitation he laid the cornerstone of the Sulzer loom shed. Later a brass plaque was affixe in recognition of “his invaluable services as chief civil engineer of the Wadia group of companies for the last 55 years.” Says Jamshed Boyce: “I began my active life with Bombay Dyeing. I hope to die still in its service.”
In 1977, Neville Wadia decided that the time had come to step down. He was 66 and a gold wallah, with 48 years at Bombay Dyeing; his only son Nusli was already actively involved in the business, having survived the Same unsparing apprenticeship as his father and grandfather before him. “My father had been tough witn me, says Neville Wadia, ‘so of course I had to be tough with my son.”
On 3 April, accompanied by his son Nusli, Neville paid his last visit as Chairman to the mills. It was a farewen -and, as it developed, a sentimental one. The car bearing the two men moved through the entrance a of the Spring Mills on Naigaum Road that, for the visit, has been blanketed with flowers; the severe lines of the factory itself were gay with flags and bunting. Even the interior had been transformed: welcome arches of jasmine and marigold marking every department; each doorway adorned with mango leaves and tuberoses, and, here and there on the mill floors, the intricate rangoli designs laid in rice powder in the traditional Parsi motifs. The entire work force of the mill had mustered, millhands and managers alike; and father and son made their way through them to the sound of thun- derous applause. “Neville Seth zindabad! Nusli Seth zindabad!” The two Wadias bent their heads to accept floral garlands; their brows were daubed with red and saffron powder;
the fragrant smoke of incense, burning in salvers, drifted past their faces.
And everywhere there were pauses as the farewell ceremonies were repeated. Neville was visibly touche, and posed willingly with every worker who wanted a photographic memento of the occasion. On the following day, the chairmanship was formally handed over to the fourth-generation Wadia at the annual general meeting held in Bombay’s Taj Mahal Hotel. “I am absolutely certain that this is the right thing to do and that this is the right time to do it,” said the retiring Chairman. “I have seen too many people cling to office beyond their usefulness to make the same mistake myself. I have therefore, decided to resign not only as a Chairman but also from the Board of Directors.’ Mr. Wadia now makes his home in the village of Morcote, Switzerland, near Lugano. But he maintains an office on the fourth floor of Neville House, and from there conducts his many interests and keeps an experienced eye on the Company now in Nusli Wadia’s hands.