Britons Abroad: John Binny in India

Fragment: Two photograph albums with images of the Buckingham and Carnatic textile mills in Madras, Binny and Company’s woolen, cotton and silk mill in Bangalore, and people, streets and buildings in and around Madras.

In 1869 the Governor of India, Lord Napier, urged Britons not to neglect the capacity of India for industrial production. Amongst the first to take up his challenge was a Scotsman called John Binny, who had first arrived in India in 1797 to offer his services (partly as a money-lender) to the Nawab of the Carnatic. In the late 1870s Binny moved into the manufacture of textiles in two mills, the Buckingham, which went into production in 1878 and the Carnatic, which opened in 1881. By 1891 the two mills employed 1,200 hands. They represented the beginning of industrialization in Madras. Working conditions for the mills’ employees, most of them Indian peasants, were harsh: pay was low, hours long and the workers subject to a punitive set of rules which punished refusals to work and absenteeism. It was partly for this reason that Indian trade unionism began in the Binny mills, with the foundation of the Madras Labour Union in 1918. In 1921 the spinners came out on a strike for better pay and working conditions which won the support of Indian nationalists, the Indian National Congress and the pro-British Justice Party. Although the strike was ultimately brought to an end by mediation, the police had twice opened fire on the strikers, with some fatalities.

Views of Carnatic Mill
Work in Progress
Carnatic workers

The mills prospered until 1970 when their declining profits ended with their closure in 1996.

‘How we go to the mill when the roads are flooded.’
‘Native children fishing for crabs.’ The photographs show keen interest in local life, both in people and places.
‘Mending nets’ and ‘Fishing’

The present photographs date from the late 1920s. They reflect the workings of Binny and Company at its height, the ‘Carnatic Club’, which provided a social life for its white managers, the ‘bungalows’, in which those managers lived, and the company’s workers both on site and in the city of Madras.

The captions read: ‘Carnatic House’, ‘Carnatic Club’, ‘Bargains?’ and ‘View of room’


Bungalows like this one were a typical accommodation arrangement for the British-born managers of the mills.


In contrast, most of the workers lived in huts similar to this one.



John Binny was the agent of British imperialism. His company was part of a process, which began with the import of Manchester textiles, which brought to an end the Indian hand-loom weaver, and drove India’s cottons from the European market. The British Governor of Madras at the time of the strike was the former army officer and Liberal politician, and Old Etonian, Lord Whittingdon. One of the albums includes photographs of the military parade he organised for a ceremonial visit to Madras by prince Arthur, the third son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Prince Arthur visits India.

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