A friend invited me for a dinner meeting at her home in the apartment complex of ‘Grayshott’. Intrigued by the origins of the name, I set out in search of its history and learnt the following: Grayshott is a hamlet somewhere near Southampton, U.K. and I wondered why an upscale gated community situated at 4, Bishop Garden Ext, Kesavaperumalpuram, Raja Annamalaipuram, Krishnapuri, Chennai, Tamil Nadu 600028 would be named thus.
Once upon a time there came to Madras, a certain Charles Durrant, merchant and commission agent who established a corner store. In the year 1863, Durrant was joined by John Spencer who later bought out Durrant and named the store ‘Spencer’. In 1871, Eugene Phillip Oakshott joined the firm as a partner and took over its ownership from John Spencer in 1882. However, the store continued to be called ‘Spencer & Co’. An ambitious man, Oakshott had a nose for good deals and perhaps because of his sharp business acumen, he was dubbed the “first ever takeover King” in the history of early Madras. Soon, he was joined by his nephew, John Oakshott Robinson, and together they quickly expanded their business empire into multifarious ventures. Eventually, John Oakshott became the chairman of this enterprise and under his stewardship, the company further expanded into seventy branches, with businesses in retailing, hotels, catering, and also areas such as the motor industry, pharmaceuticals, cigar manufacture and so on. Spencer’s also had numerous hotels, club stores, 300 railway refreshment houses and provided the catering services for most of India’s railways.
At one time, the Grayshott property was part of a huge acreage called Bishop Gardens. These gardens were later purchased by P. Venkatachellum, a merchant of curry powders and condiments, and a rich landowner, who owned a large number of properties in Chennai or erstwhile Madras. In 1927, Venkatachellum’s son sold Bishop Gardens which was divided into lots and sold to different buyers. John Oakshott Robinson found a suitable alliance for his eldest daughter in fellow director Stanley Edwards, who was managing the business at Sri Lanka (Ceylon). John Oakshott Robinson bought nearly three acres for Rs.14,750 and gifted it to his son-in-law-to-be and daughter Esther as their wedding present.
Why the name Grayshott?
John Oakshott hailed from the hamlet of Grayshott, Hampton, UK, and his daughter Esther and Stanley Wilson Edwards, the eventual residents of Grayshott, tied the knot on 13 September 1926 at St. Luke’s church, Grayshott. A beautiful 7,000 sq. ft. mansion was built in this three acre plot and was nostalgically christened ‘Grayshott’. The splendid home was built in what is known as the art-deco style for Mrs and Mr Stanley Edwards who were then in Colombo, Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). The Edwards moved into this home in 1929. Stanley became a director of Spencer & Co., and later went on to become chairman of the company and saw it through the period of changes in the late 1940s and early 1950s post India’s Independence. Stanley was an outgoing socialite who used to frequent races with his wife, and also held racing weekends for the ‘who-is-who’ of Madras, and all those in the racing circuits attended them. The couple continued to live at Grayshott until 1957 and later the property was taken over by Spencer & Co. for Rs. 1.5 lakhs. The last member of the family, John Oakshott, retired in 1974 and returned back to England. Grayshott was later the home for Spencer’s chief executives. However, the fortunes of the company were on the decline throughout the 1970s and 80s, and what was left of a once great empire was the subject of a takeover by the RPG group. However, the name Spencer remains the name of the chain of stores to this day, but of course carries with it the dubious distinction of ‘Spencer rate’ – meaning expensive.
In the 1970s the company suffered financial stress and wanted to sell the property for Rs.19.75 crores, but the Income Tax Department thought the price too low and took it over, paying, however, only Rs.19.18 crores (!!!) in December 1995. (Rs. 19.75 to 19.18 crores – don’t property prices always increase?!) Anyway, on 8 July 2002, this huge property was auctioned in Bishop’s Garden Extension, by the Income Tax Department. The department had earlier tried to auction the property twice, but without luck. So once again the auction was held. In the meantime, the once stately mansion had become dilapidated and overgrown with bushes, and the once magnificent gardens now a jungle infested with snakes. In the auction, the construction company Ceebros successfully completed the bid for Rs. 22.15 crores, which was accepted by the Income Tax Department on behalf of the Central Government. The once magnificent Grayshott house was pulled down making way for a gated community that bears this name today.
I wondered if W.N. Pogson, the architect for old Spencer’s, which was a famous landmark before it was burnt down, was the architect of Grayshott. It seems unlikely though. I am not able to find an answer to this, as it is not clear to me who actually designed and built the Grayshott house. I have not come across any complete photographs of the building either. Sri. Mohan Hariharan, a leading architect in South India informs us that W.N. Pogson had however, interestingly, built Arni Jagirdar’s forest bungalow. Robert Pogson, the astronomer was brother of architect W.N. Pogson worked in the Madras observatory in 1861. He discovered many minor planets like ‘Asia’, many asteroids including a comet which was named after him, and his ‘Pogson Ratio’ is still used in astronomy.
Thanks to Sri. Arni Narendran, I learnt that Jiddu Krishnamurthi, the famous philosopher held public meetings on Sunday evenings at the Vasantha Vihar, and on Monday morning at 7.00 am at Grayshott for a smaller group meeting. For those who would like to see what Grayshott possibly looked like, may see another large property adjacent to Grayshott. This bungalow, was bought for the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi by Annie Besant in 1934 and was named ‘Vasantha Vihar’ (Vasantha being a sanskritised name of Madame Besant). Today, it serves as the Krishnamurthi Foundation’s Study Centre. I have spent many hours in the library at this serene old house and with its kindly staff.
- Madras Rediscovered by S. Muthiah.
- The Spencer Legend by S. Muthiah.
- A Madras Miscellany – a decade of people places & potpourri by S. Muthiah.
- Articles published in The Hindu.