History of textile industry in India – Bombay Dying
History of textile industry in India – The second generation – Sir Ness N. Wadia
The second generation
Sir Ness N. Wadia KBE, CIE.
30 May 1873 – 22 April 1952
After the founder’s death, control of Bombay Dyeing passed to his three sons, Cursetjee, Nusserwanjee and
Rustomjee – or Cusrow, Ness and Rustom, the names by which they were commonly known. Frail health
denied Rustom an active role in the Company’s affairs; he died in 1919 at 42. Cusrow, the first-born, would
normally have succeeded his father, and until 1905 shared command with his younger brother Ness. But textiles
competed for his attention with other matters. Among contemporaries he was known as the “chronic philan-
thropist,” a designation that during his lifetime he earned many times over. The causes that he supported were
legion. To the Royal Western Indian Turf Club at Mahalakshmi, of which he was Chairman and Chief
Steward for 12 years, he made an interest-free loan of Rs 4 million; he and his brother Ness jointly endowed
the Wadia College in Poona. He was instrumental in the introduction of bunding, or contour terracing, to
Indian agriculture, a practice he studied during a visit to the US. Cusrow considered modern farming methods
so essential to India’s growth that he endowed a trust expressly stating that its monies were to be used only for
the improvement of agriculture. ( History of textile industry in India )
In the 1905 division of the company, Cusrow took charge of the Century Mills. Thirty years later, preoccupied
with his numerous benevolences, he offered to restore control to Sir Ness, who declined. India’s textile industry
was in the grip of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Sir Ness felt an understandable reluctance to expand
the operation in his charge. It is characteristic of Sir Cusrow, a man of great generosity, that he sold his
Century Mills shares at the market price to Sir Chunilal Mehta, a personal friend, and handed over free of charge
the mill’s managing agency, C.N. Wadia & Co. Ltd.,
which for its services had been drawing 10% of the Mill’s profits. Some years later, control of the Century Mills
came into the hands of the Birla family, which continues to operate it today. Sir Cusrow died in Geneva, Switzer-
land in 1950, in his 82nd year. In his will he left Rs 3.8 million to assorted charities.
Thus it befell the founder’s second son to preside over a period of great expansion, modernisation and growth.
By nature and upbringing, Ness Wadia was handsomely suited for command. A stocky, heavyset man unvaryingly
crowned in a white topee and brandishing a malacca cane, with fierce shaggy eyebrows and an imposing
countenance, Sir Ness owed part of his character to his mother Jerbai. She was a formidable person in her own
right, with an acute sense of business and strong con-victions. Ness’s conversion to Christianity and his
marriage outside the Zoroastrain faith must have been a disappointment to her. A devout Parsi, she spent hours
each day praying and reading the Zend Avasta in a special room facing the sea.
Each morning at 8.30 sons Ness and Cusrow were expected to stop at Bella Vista on their way to work.
Their appearance on the wide verandah was dictated only in part by filial devotion; it had the force of maternal
command. There, over tea, they discussed the affairs of the mills, of which Jerbai kept close track. Just as
regularly, the two sons were expected for Sunday lunch. If they neglected to do so, Jerbai pointedly had lunch
prepared and sent to them. The story is told that in Jerbai’s failing years, she emerged from a deep slumber
to observe the presence of Ness, bending anxiously over the bed. Her eyes strayed to the clock and then back to
her son. “Why,” she demanded, “are you not at the mills ?’
During his long tenure, Sir Ness earned the unofficial title of India’s cotton king. The market for textiles was
literally determined by him. Although Sir Ness divided his time between India and England, where he and his
family maintained a summer residence, he never failed to return to Bombay in time for Diwali, that important
Hindu date, set in October on the new moon, at which time India’s merchant community closed its books on
the old year and opened them for the new.
“In those days,” recalls Neville Wadia, Sir Ness’s son, “we used to sell huge quantities of cloth at a time –
10,000 to 20,000 bales. It was at the old Muljee Jetha Market – which is still there — that the new year opened
with the first trade. No other mill in India could make it. That honour was traditionally reserved for Bombay
Dyeing, and for my father.” ( History of textile industry in India )
At the market, all activity was suspended until the arrival of Sir Ness, where he was greeted by the Company’s
sole selling agents, Chaturbhuj Gordhandas & Co. Borrowing a paghri, Sir Ness placed it over his hand and
that of bidder for the first big batch of Bombay Dyeing cloth. The transaction thus concealed, the two men
agreed by finger signals on a satisfactory price. Whatever it was, that price became the top figure, on the unarguable
grounds that Bombay Dyeing textiles, of any sort, were of better quality than those of the competing mills in
Bombay. Recalls Neville Wadia: “the basic cloth being sold was standard shirting and the price of our shirtings
was fixed ‘under the turban’at so many annas per pound. That became the highwater mark. The value of shirtings
produced by all the other mills was set in relation to that – and all of them had to adjust their prices accordingly.
The mills as well as the Neville House office staff were constantly on the alert for an unheralded visit from the
Chairman. Generally he spent his mornings at the mills, sometimes taking lunch at the workers’ canteen. “Just
because it’s cheap,” he would say, sampling the fare, “doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be tasty.” At Neville
House, his portly figure emerged from the Chairman’s office punctually at 4 o’clock each afternoon to stalk the
rows of desks, ostensibly on his way to the bathroom.
This patrol was frequently interrupted as Sir Ness’s suspicious eye fell upon some paper, some accounting
sheet, that did not meet his exacting specifications. Almost intuitively Sir Ness could sense that a figure
was wrong,” remembers Fredoon B. Mody, a Bombay Dyeing veteran of 57 years service. “His finger would
fall on the offender and he would demand, Master, where did you get this from?’” On one occasion, he
lectured a weaving master with such severity that the fellow suffered a nervous collapse. But if Sir Ness’s
temper was quick to flare, it was just as quick to ebb.
On being told of the hapless weaving master’s state, he packed him off to Colombo for a holiday at Company
Sir Ness’s formidable countenance concealed a lively sense of humour. Accepting an Honorary Fellowship
from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Bombay, he dryly told the medical men his own formula for good
health: epsom salts for men, love potions for women and caster oil for children.
He was not a man to tolerate much argument. At the annual general meeting he dismissed questions brusquely.
“It’s quite in order,” he would say, or, “That doesn’t concern you.” At meetings of the Bombay Millowners
Association, which Sir Ness served for some years as Chairman, a standing order was to clear the conference
table before his arrival. He was a chronic table-thumper, enforcing his point so robustly with his fist as to set the
inkwells dancing. On one occasion, when the millowners had gathered to oppose a reduction in the price of
chrome khaki during the second world war, the fight was successfully carried by Sir Ness and Sir Sohrab
Saklatwala of Tata’s, who managed Tata’s textile interests. Sir Ness’s fist got a heavy workout that day.
After the meeting, he said reproachfully to Sir Sohrab, “You should have thumped the table too, my friend.
The reply: “No, Ness, you were more than enough.”
Born in Parel on 30 May 1873, the founder’s son began working for the company while still in his teens. “It
was on the second of December 1890 that I was first brought into the office by my dear father and began
writing the cash book and ledger on that very day,” he recalled in a memoir written three years before his death.
apprenticeship was rigorous; the right of succession was one that a Wadia had to earn; in their time both
his son Neville and his grandson Nusli, the incumbent Chairman, were to earn that right just as Sir Ness did:
from the mill floor up. ( History of textile industry in India )
Educated at St. Xavier’s College in Bombay, Ness received a thorough practical training course in the mills
before being sent to England for further instruction at London’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers and in the
factories of the Platt Brothers, Ltd., manufacturers of all the machinery bought by Bombay Dyeing, including
the first power looms. On returning to Bombay, he joined the Petit mills as manager and served there awhile
before entering the family firm.
Sir Ness’s impact on Bombay Dyeing, exerted over more than six decades, lifted it to prominence as one of India’s
largest, most progressive and profitable textile operations. At the time of his succession to the Chairman’s
desk in 1906, the Company was operating 71,936 spindles and 1,686 power looms; its working capital stood at
Rs 1.2 million, its annual turnover at Rs 2.99 million and its annual profits at Rs 181,000. It employed a
working force of some 5,000 and paid it an annual wage bill of Rs 1.97 million. At his death on 22 April 1952,
these figures had reached impressive heights: 203,942 spindles, 4,911 looms, a working capital of more than
Rs 25 million, an annual turnover of Rs 69 million, annual profits of Rs 2.6 million, a working force of
8,500 earning Rs 12 million. ( History of textile industry in India )
His most ambitious project was the construction of the Spring Mills on 84 acres of land fronting Naigaum Road.
Within Sir Ness’s lifetime it grew into Asia’s largest textile operation beneath one roof, a distinction that it
still holds today. Before his death this vast complex of buildings had assumed its present configuration: the
main mill building of four floors, the loom shed, the boiler house, the workers’ canteen building and the
creche for children of working mothers, the power house and mechanic’s shop, five godowns, a three-storey
building for the office staff, the dispensary and 14 workers’ chawls.
The sum of Rs 800,000 in fresh capital was raised to finance construction of the main mill, designed and
built under the supervision of the company’s managing agents, Nowrosjee Wadia & Sons, which was formed by
the founder in 1898. On 10 January 1907 the foundation stone was laid by the Chairman’s wife, Lady Evelyne
Clare Wadia, neé Powell, whom Sir Ness had met and married in England in 1906. In May the next year, the
Spring Mills’ 15 Lanchashire boilers were fired and the plant began producing yarn and cloth on 42,280 spindles
and 630 Platt looms. Later the same year Sir Ness added a shed with the capacity to bleach, dye, and finish 50
bales of cloth a day. By 1922, the Spring Mills’ spindle and loom count had increased to 109,848 and 3,116
From its neo-Roman, Corinthian-columned entrance arch to its emphatic exterior coat of red, white and blue
the Spring Mills has been a familiar Bombay landmark, surrounded by well-tended lawns, shady trees and flower
beds, for 70 years. In the late 1960s, for reasons of economy the mill was re-painted a more durable beige.
It still cuts an imposing figure against the sky, its single smoke stack jutting like a minaret high above the
It was also Sir Ness, the Builder, who gave Bombay Dyeing its permanent headquarters in Ballard Estate,
Until 1920 the company had directed its affairs from rented space in the Forbes Building on Home Street,
The first world war had ushered in a period of prosperity for Indian textilists, as the mills of England were diverted
to the war effort, and Sir Ness felt that now, if ever, was the time to give Bombay Dyeing a home of its own.
From his own funds, he commissioned a private architectural firm to erect the four-storey, buff-coloured
basalt building which, completed in 1921, still houses the Company’s officers and staff. One Sunday morning,
while the building was still under construction, Sir Ness visited the site with his son Neville, then 9. “Daddy,”
said young Neville, “what are you going to call this building when it’s done?” Said his father: “Well, what
do you think I should call it?” “Why don’t you name it after me?” said Neville. Amused by the temerity of
the suggestion, Sir Ness adopted it. In 1949, he sold Neville House to Bombay Dyeing for Rs.1 million –
some Rs 200,000 less than its construction cost.
He was a man of unimpeachable integrity, and possessed the kind of vision that could foresee the future before it
was born. During the first world war, for example, when India’s textilists were reaping record profits and divid-
ends soared, in some cases by 200%, Sir Ness refused to succumb to the general euphoria. While some Bombay
Dyeing shareholders grumbled, he stored the fat of the war years for a rainier day. “I have often been accused
of being too conservative and not paying large divid-ends,” he wrote in his 1949 memoir. “But my chief
boast is that during the years of depression, 1923-39, there was not a single year in which this Company did
not pay a dividend to its shareholders. Even in bad times [they] were assured of their income.”
“His word was his bond,” says son Neville. “There was no fiddling wherever he was concerned. Never would he
take advantage of fluctuations in the price of cotton or cloth, as some of the mills did. If after contracting for
so much cotton, its price went down, a mill might ask for delays in shipment so as to get it at the lower price.
But not my father. A contract was a contract to him; there were no two ways about it.”
During and after the second world war, when the mills grew fat and profiteering was rampant, Sir Ness ignored
again the temptation to greed. It was not in his nature, and he saw to it that even Bombay Dyeing’s retail
merchants got the message. They were ordered to sign written agreements to sell the Company’s fabrics for no
more than a 20% mark-up on the mill price, a profit margin that Sir Ness considered reasonable.
He was well in advance of the industry in anticipating the need to expand the export trade. In 1940 he made a
trip to Australia to develop the market potential for Bombay Dyeing fabrics. It was a propitious time. War
had already broken out in Europe and its clouds were drifting ominously eastward, forecasting the day when
Australia could no longer depend on the looms of England. Everywhere he went, the visitor from Bombay
gained a receptive audience. By 1941 Bombay Dyeing had replaced England as Australia’s and New Zealand’s
chief supplier of cloth; during the war, exports Down Under accounted for 33% of total production.
So impressed was this market by the quality of Bombay Dyeing textiles and by the honour of Sir Ness Wadia
that the price of Bombay Dyeing cloths became the fixed government price. “Some of our competitors inflated
the price of imports to this market by as much as 50% over ours,” recalls Neville Wadia. In such cases, the
governments of Australia and New Zealand made up the difference by subsidies to the importers. Again, Sir Ness
steadfastly refused to profiteer — a fact that no doubt helps explain why Australia New Zealand remains
Bombay Dyeing’s largest export market, with the same representatives, G&R Wills, appointed by him in 1940.
On the morning of 22 April 1952, Sir Ness Wadia collapsed and died at Bella Vista, his residence on Pedder
Road. He was nearly 79. The shock of his sudden death was felt throughout the textile industry and India, to
both of which he had given so much; it was as if an era had abruptly come to an end, as indeed it had. In his
lifetime Bombay Dyeing had grown to be one of the largest and most modern textile manufacturers in India.
His gifts were considerable, not only to the Company he headed but to the industry and the country as well.
It was he who, as early as 1907, opened a Provident Fund for the workers with a contribution of Rs 15,697,
one of the first textilists, if not the first, to do so. As Bombay’s most prominent mill owner, Sir Ness was
appointed in 1918 to the Indian Cotton Committee, formed by the government to undertake a comprehensive
survey of cotton cultivation with a view to improving it. In a special eight-car train, the committee members
toured India for six months, north to south and east to west. Their proposals, submitted to the Government at
the end of the journey, were adopted across the board and led to the formation of the Indian Central Cotton
Committee, the establishment of a testing laboratory at Matunga in the suburbs of Bombay and of field stations
throughout the cotton-growing regions. Under the auspices of the ICCC, such superior, long-staple varieties
of cotton as suvin and varalaxmi have been developed.
As Chairman of the Bombay Millowners Association, Sir Ness led a delegation to Delhi in 1925 to seek the
repeal of a 3.5% excise duty on all cotton cloths manufactured in India. The effort was completely and
immediately successful; after consulting with London, Lord Reading, then Viceroy of India, removed the duty
two days after the delegation’s arrival.
It was he, too, who in the 1930s, when the industry was staggering under the effects of world depression, per-
suaded the Chief Justice of Bombay that certain taxes against mill premises were unjustly high and saw their
reduction by 20%.
In the late 1920s, Sir Ness started the India Radio and Communication Co., Ltd. as a public service to his
country. At that time, India’s only communications connection with England and the world was by underseas
cable. With the assistance of the Marconi Company of London, he established a wireless service that linked
India to the world by radio, and also opened the first radio station in Bombay. In due course, thanks to Sir
Ness, India and England were speaking to each other by radio telephone — the forerunner of the country’s
present domestic and overseas telephone system.
For his service to the industry and his country, he was awarded the CIE in 1918 and the KBE in 1926 –
the first Indian to receive the latter honour. His charities were numerous.
Tributes flowed in from over the world. The cotton market at Sewree closed the day after his death; Bombay
Dyeing ceased operation for three days. Perhaps the most moving testament to Sir Ness came from the
workers at Spring Mills, which was his grandest creation.
On 30 April, they assembled in the chawls to mourn the death of the leader and to garland his portrait with
flowers. Three days before, every Spring Mills hand voluntarily abstained from work, thereby sacrificing a
day’s wages – a most extraordinary measure of their esteem for the man who employed them.
Flown to England, Sir Ness’s body was buried alongside that of his wife, Lady Evelyne, at Brookwood
Cemetery, Surrey, where both his father Nowrosjee and his great-grandfather Ardeseer Cursetjee are also at
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