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Printers' ink on Mount Road

S. MUTHIAH

A well-known landmark on Anna Salai is the stately Higginbotham's, which is the country's oldest surviving name in bookselling.


BETWEEN BHARAT Insurance Building and the Binny Road junction, Mount Road that is Anna Salai is a splendid commercial stretch of shops, with histories, business houses with landmark showrooms and, little-known, a long history of printing and publishing whose sole visible presence today is Higginbotham's, the country's oldest surviving name in bookselling. Higginbotham's, till the 1990s' boom in bookshops, was also the largest bookshop in the country, floor space-wise. It might still claim that distinction if it took into consideration the two acres of godowns it has behind the handsome showroom.

The showroom, elegantly restored in 1989, with its polished curving staircase to the first floor, an eye-catching feature of its interior, dates to 1904. The firm, on a neighbouring site from 1844, built this stained-glass-windowed, marble-floored and high-ceiling home to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee.

Higginbotham's was started by Abel Joshua Higginbotham, who was a librarian in the Wesleyan Book Depository, which was located not far from the site he chose when he decided to go into bookselling for himself. He did not start with a large inventory, but having been a librarian, he had an encyclopaedic memory about what to recommend to whom and what to get from where. He also maintained a huge catalogue. And so, in its early days, Higginbotham's was a `you-order-and we'll-get-it-for-you' business. The successful growth of the business - which included selling stationery from the 1860s - led to greater stocking and then the need for a bigger building: the present Madras landmark.

Higginbotham was a well-loved character in Madras, whose Sheriff he was in 1888 and 1889. Of him it was said, that he was so trustful that in the days when he could not afford a cashier and had to make bills and collect money from customers himself, he'd leave cash on the counter covered with a duster while he guided a customer around the shop himself. He was succeeded by his son, C.H. Higginbotham, who joined the firm in 1880 and, in time, became as well known in Madras public life as his father. It was C.H. as managing director of Higginbotham & Co - its name from 1888 - who expanded the firm beyond Madras. As Higginbotham's grew, it not only established branches throughout South India, but also became a presence as familiar as the Spencer's restaurants in the Madras and South Mahratta and South Indian Railway stations. But while a number of those railway bookstalls remain in Southern Railway stations to remind the public of how big Higginbotham's used to be, there's very little today to show that it was once one of the leading publishers in the South and that it had its own printing press in one of those godowns.

Higginbotham's is a desultory publisher these days. The firm today is totally focussed on selling books - and other printed materials. Its stock of books must be the biggest in the country - and includes Tamil books, Higginbotham's being one of the few large booksellers in the country stocking books in a vernacular as an accompaniment to its main business, books in English from all over the world.



Abel Joshua Higginbotham.

Abutting Higginbotham's on the east is a little noticed driveway that leads to its godowns and its neighbour and present sister concern, Associated Printers, perhaps the oldest surviving printing press in the city apart from the Government Press and the down-sized CLS, or Diocesan, Press - the oldest in the country. Associated Printers' roots lie in the Madras Times printing facility, which after that paper was taken over in 1859 by Justinian Gantz, Booksellers, was printed at that firm's Popham Broadway address. The Times' press moved to the Mount Road site - of what is now Associated Printers - when the paper was taken over in 1910 by a new management, the Madras Times Printing and Publishing Co. In 1921, the paper was again sold, this time to that takeover king who headed Spencer's at the time, J.O. Robinson. The company now was called Associated Printers, the name that still survives. When the Robinson Group also bought The Madras Mail during this takeover spree, it merged The Madras Times with The Madras Mail and decided to upgrade the latter's better facilities to print newspapers and allow Associated Printers to concentrate on commercial printing. Robinson, next, in 1926, bought Higginbotham's from C.H. Higginbotham and promptly amalgamated its printing press with Associated Printers.

When Higginbotham's, Associated Printers and The Mail - together known as Associated Publishers - were acquired by Anantharamakrishnan of Amalgamations in 1945, he amalgamated with Associated Printers yet another printing press, `The Addison Press'. This Press had come to him fortuitously, when he had in 1943 bought Addison & Co., one of Madras's major business houses of the time. Few know that Addison's origins were in a small printing and publishing house that a Garratt had started on Mount Road in 1873. He named it after the prolific essayist and critic, Joseph Addison, of The Tatler and Spectator, London. The Addison Press occupied a building called the Eastern Castle, near the eastern end of Addison's premises today but had moved across the road by the time it became Amalgamations'. In 1882, a Scottish journalist with a fine reputation in Ceylon, Tom Luker, joined The Madras Mail and three years later decided he wanted to strike out on his own. When his brother Frank, a printer, joined him, they bought The Addison Press in 1886 and began to develop it. In its heyday, Addison's described itself as "Letterpress and lithographic printers, bookbinders, manufacturing stationers, engravers, fancy goods merchants, cycle and motor agents, and repairers and engineers". Of the non-printing business, more next week. But for the nonce, it should be recorded that The Addison Press published the weekly Madras News for many years, as much to publicise Addison's other products as to provide good literary fare and local news and comment. The press also published other journals - and books on one of journalist Luker's hobby - horses, shorthand.

Across the driveway from Higginbotham's is another establishment once long immersed in printing ink. In that era, it was part of the Government Press known as the Lawrence Asylum Press. Till the Asylum Press moved to the Egmore Redoubt, it issued from 1800 the famous Asylum Almanac from here. The Government Gazette was also printed here till the Government Press was firmly established. After the Asylum printing activities moved from here, the Government Press used it as a branch establishment - and for all I know still does. But it is better known today as a sales outlet for Government publications and an Indo-Saracenic frontage, which regularly keeps changing but within which Tamil Nadu Handicrafts' Poompuhar displays and sells its wares.

One other printing and publishing house in this area was the Madras Publishing House - whose exact location, I am unable to recall and which, if I remember right, was associated with the House of Bobbili. That vanished in the early post-Independence era.

Whoever associates printing ink with this stretch of Mount Road today!

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