Friday, 4 November 2011

William Gordon Gordon


William Gordon Gordon was a hard man. She knew that, sitting in the mist of her grief in the formal, austere foreign-seeming office. Her hands appeared to her too thin, too white, too care-worn. Her black dress wasn’t black enough. Suddenly, the enormous door opened and a thin-faced man appeared. She saw nothing but his gold-rimmed spectacles and his insipid blue eyes.
“He will see you now,” the effeminate voice piped. From the street came the clatter of donkey hooves, the sound of iron wheeled traffic and the smell of cocoa beans.
She rose, the black taffeta dress stiff about her, and walked to the door. The dim room was not unpleasant, but she knew that its comforts were not for her. The interview was short, but unhurried.
Joachim was dead. The estate had failed. He, Gordon Gordon, foreclosed. There was still money due to him.
“What else you have?” His manner was mild. For a moment, she remembered the reflection of her thin, pale body that she had tried not to notice, reflected in the bathroom mirror. A sort of laugh escaped her. She noticed that he had grown ever more sever.
“Only these.”
“Put them on the desk.”
She drew off the gold band from her finger and removed the two gold bracelets with their large cocoa pod rondelles and placed them on the mahogany desk. Their eyes met. He nodded slightly. She rose and left.
William Gordon Gordon had come to Trinidad in 1868.  He was 17 years old and had ‘come out’ as a clerk to the Colonial Bank at a salary of £150 per annum. He was the second son of a Scottish squire.
During the five years he spent at the bank, he was able to acquire the skills of assessing and taking risks. He also got the feel of the island’s merchant community and an understanding of the French planter class. This was a period of relative prosperity. Indian indentureship had saved the sugarcane industry, and despite the problems arising from the beet sugar, there was money to be made in sugarcane, if only at the expense of the Indian field labour.
On the other hand, cocoa, grown in the lush valleys of north and central Trinidad by French Creoles, yielded sizable fortunes for a fortunate few.
In 1872, Gordon left the bank to join the firm Campbell Hannay , an import-export house. He was able to buy out Hannay in four years and form a partnership with George Grant, creating the firm Gordon, Grant & Co.
They maintained the import-export business. The experience, however, that he had gained at Colonial Bank, enabled him to commence another business: that of lending money to the firm’s clients. As the majority of them were in the cocoa estate business, and with the fluctuations of that market often affecting the unwary, this activity led inevitably to the acquisition of property and estates all over the island.
It was from this humble beginning that Gordon Grant conducted a vigorous private merchant banking business. Gordon, in fact, pioneered this line of business in the Caribbean. The production of sugar and cocoa were other significant areas of the company’s business. George Grant retired in 1886 and William brought in his younger brother John Arthur Gordon, as well as George Boos and Robert Reid.
William Gordon Gordon was a major player in the business world of his time. Gordon Plantations owned some 50 estates. He owned a London-based financial house by the turn of the century. Together with Leon Agostini, Gordon was one of the founding members of the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce, which held its first meeting in 1879. In Franklin’s yearbook of 1916, he is listed as the president of that organisation, whose vice-presidents in that year comprised the illustrious names J.H. Smith, Randolph Rust, Hon. A. Fraser, Edgar Tripp, T. Boyd, A.H. Cipriani, A. Cory Davies and Hon Adam Smith.
In 1904, he erected a large and imposing building at the corner of the Savannah and Chancery Lane. It comprised an entire block. He named it “Knowsley”, perhaps after a property owned by Lord Derby in Cheshire, England, with whom he had connections. It cost $ 100,000 to build Knowsley - an enormous sum at the time. The yellow bricks were imported and limestone from the Laventille quarry were hand-hewn. The marble on the gallery which surrounds the ground floor was imported from Italy. The wood for the beautiful staircase of purple heart came from Guyana. The ceilings on the ground floor are of plaster of Paris and the engraved gesso work is that of an Italian craftsman, who also did the work on the ceiling in the council chamber in the Red House. Architect John Newel Lewis thought that Knowsley and the other large houses around the Savannah looked like Queens of Carnival Bands, and said that they couldn't really be explained. He thought them all originals.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, an English visitor, thought it looked like the witch’s house in ‘Hansel and Gretel’. He wrote:
“Georgian bow windows, roofed like Chinese pagodas, suddenly bulge from the walls and the steep roofs grow the spires of Hohenschwangau, the turrets of Azay-le-Rideau and the domes and cupolas of Kiev.” Words almost fail these visitors when they see the magnificent follies built by the cocoa barons of Trinidad’s boom years. These extravagant men rode the road to fortune on the backs of many. Their wealth reflected itself in the houses they built, their own dreams of glory. These houses now truly belong to us all and that is why they must be preserved. They have been paid for.
William Gordon Gordon died in 1923 at the age of 75. He had become something of a legend by that time. During his lifetime, he had been prominent. He had been a member of the Legislative Council. Interestingly, he supported ‘the people’ in the notorious water riots of 1903. In June of 1956, Knowsley was purchased by the Trinidad and Tobago government for $ 250,000, and today houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

1 comment:

I Mulligan said...

I am always excited to read these facts...about the history of our island and the poor slaves and indentured laborers whose sweat built this island's wealth...too bad corruption is still alive here...