Unforgotten Brands – Higginbothams


Higginbothams continues to attract customers, fueled by the same passion for books that captivated its founder two centuries ago.

Abel Joshua Higginbotham was born in 1819 in Cannanore (now Kannur), Kerala. His father, Joseph Higginbotham, passed away a year after his birth. Joseph served in Bangalore as part of the 69th regiment, a unit whose Indian sepoys had rebelled during the 1815 Vellore mutiny. Joseph likely belonged to the lower ranks of the landed gentry in England, a social class with limited options that often sought livelihoods either as merchants or soldiers in India.

Higginbotham’s early life was marked by challenges. After his mother died when he was 12, he was taken under the care of missionaries from the Church of Scotland. Initially, he pursued a career as a seaman after completing his schooling. However, the unpredictable nature of the sea and the harsh lifestyle did not suit him. At one point, he attempted to abandon his ship and return to India but was caught and forced to complete his apprenticeship. There are even accounts suggesting that he had been a stowaway, trying to enter the seafaring profession covertly.

A New Path in Madras

At the age of 21, a cousin persuaded Higginbotham to attend services at the Methodist chapel in Madras’ Black Town, a neighbourhood reserved for Indian residents. The Wesleyan Methodist Mission had been active in Madras since 1817. Over time, Higginbotham became involved with the mission’s activities, assisting in their schools and managing the bookstore located in the chapel’s basement. His commitment to the store, which primarily sold religious works, quickly became apparent. However, the Mission considered the bookstore a losing venture. In 1844, they decided to close it down but offered Higginbotham the opportunity to purchase the stock on favourable terms, which he accepted.

Higginbotham relocated his collection of books to Mount Road. The original store, which no longer exists today, looked quite different at that time. A 1904 article in the Publishers’ Circular noted that the first bookstore “occupied half the width of the entrance of the present premises.” Despite its modest beginnings, Higginbotham’s talent for sourcing books, discussing them with knowledge and ease and recognizing the potential of newspaper advertising soon paid off.

Recognition and Expansion

Lord Charles Trevelyan, who served as the governor of Madras starting in March 1859 for a little over a year, praised the bookstore in a letter to Thomas Macaulay, a member of the East India Company’s governing council in London. Trevelyan described it as one of “the many elusive and indescribable charms of life in Madras City.” In the 1860s, the store underwent significant renovations under the guidance of John Law, a respected builder and architect. In 1875, Higginbotham and Co. were honoured with the role of bookseller and stationery supplier to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) during his visit to India.

During this period, Higginbotham began publishing its books, including classics in ancient Hindu law and notable works such as “Sketches of South India” by Mark Wilks, Colonel Todd’s “Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan,” Francis Buchanan’s “Mysore, Canara and Malabar,” and “The Griffin’s Aide de Camp” by ‘Blunt Spurs,’ a crucial guide on the treatment of horses in India.

Higginbotham himself was gaining prominence. Civic officials often sought his expertise, and in 1889–1890, shortly before his death, he served as Madras’ sheriff.

Family and Legacy

Earlier in life, Higginbotham experienced the tragedy of losing two children in their infancy. Of his six surviving children, his daughter Isabel married James Perrat Nicholas, who, along with his brother, established the first photo studio in Madras and Ootacamund. Higginbotham’s oldest son, John Joshua Higginbotham, became a writer and modestly referred to himself as a “compiler.” His book, “Men Whom India Has Known,” published by Higginbotham and Co. in 1871, covered nearly a century of history. It detailed the lives of notable East India Company officials like Warren Hastings and Lord Wellesley, Indian rulers such as Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, and the controversial corruption case against Raja Nandakumar, who was executed on Hastings’ orders for counterfeiting documents.

Tragically, John Joshua Higginbotham passed away in Bangalore in 1874 at the young age of 29, dashing his father’s hopes of seeing him succeed in the family business. His daughters were not involved in the family enterprise, and it wasn’t until the mid-1880s that Higginbotham’s younger son, Charles Herbert Higginbotham, joined the firm. Charles Herbert had also been the lawn tennis champion of South India for seven years in the 1880s.

Continuing the Legacy

Under the leadership of Charles Herbert Higginbotham, the bookstore reached new heights. Already the city’s premier destination for books, stationery, and related supplies, Higginbothams expanded significantly. In 1904, as the store celebrated its 60th anniversary, it moved to its impressive new premises on Mount Road. Another store was opened in Bangalore, and Higginbotham’s bookstalls were established at railway stations serving the Madras and South Indian Railways. The printing operations also grew considerably. According to Macmillan’s “Seaports of India and Ceylon,” the area behind the store housed a wide array of printing equipment and employed between 200 and 300 people.

Abel Joshua Higginbothams (L) and his son Charles Herbert Higginbotham (R).

The Next Steps

Charles Herbert Higginbotham continued his father’s legacy in publishing. Higginbotham and Co. published some of India’s first curry cookbooks and illustrated guides for the Madras and South Indian railways.

By 1912, the extensive printing, stationery, and engraving operations evolved into Associated Printers, incorporating Higginbotham and Co. In 1924-25, John Oakshott Robinson of Spencer’s, a well-known department store, acquired the Madras Mail, Higginbothams, and Associated Printers to form Associated Publishers (Madras). Charles Herbert Higginbotham passed away in 1930. Following a merger in 1949, Associated Publishers became part of the Amalgamations group, a Chennai-based business conglomerate.

With a storied 174-year history, Higginbotham remains a legendary and recognizable landmark at various railway stations and cities. In an era where brick-and-mortar bookstores struggle to remain relevant against e-commerce giants, Higginbothams continues to attract customers, fueled by the same passion for books that captivated its founder two centuries ago.




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