The Men Behind Jardine Matheson

Jardine LogoThe Jardine Group, which includes Jardine Matheson Holdings (SGX: J36) Jardine Strategic Holdings (SGX: J37) Jardine Cycle & Carriage (SGX: C07) and Dairy Farm International Holdings (SGX: D01) form a large chunk of Singapore’s Straits Times Index (SGX: ^STI).

However, this behemoth had pretty humble beginnings, founded way back in the 19th Century by two Scots named William Jardine and James Matheson.

William Jardine was born on a small Scottish farm in 1784, one of five children. After his father died when he was nine, leaving the family with severe financial difficulties, William’s brother paid for him to attend school and he qualified as a physician in 1802.

He first set sail for the East aged 16, as a surgeon’s mate, but in 1817 decided to abandon medicine and became an independent trader in Canton (Guangzhou).

James Matheson was born in Scotland in 1796, the son of Captain Donald Matheson, a trader in India. After university, Matheson sailed for Calcutta, India, to take a position in his uncle’s trading firm.

By 1822, William Jardine’s business reputation as an experienced trader was well known in Asia. He was asked to take charge of Canton’s largest trading house, Charles Magniac and Company that was facing financial difficulties after the death of Charles Magniac.

James Matheson was also asked to join the company and after some restructuring in 1832, it was renamed “Jardine Matheson & Company” (Jardines) and given the Chinese name ‘Ewo’ (怡和) meaning “Happy Harmony”. William Jardine was given the title “Tai-Pan” (大班) meaning “Great Leader” and Matheson was said to have written in tribute: “None could be more zealous in your service”.

The firm began life trading spices and sugar with the Philippines, exporting Chinese tea and silk, renting dockyard facilities and warehouse space, as well being heavily involved in the lucrative but illegal smuggling of opium from India to China.

In 1834, England’s East India Company lost its monopoly on trade with China, and Jardine Matheson & Co quickly moved in, sending the first private tea shipments from China to the UK and started its transformation from a commercial agent into a large British trading company (or Hong) in its own right.

Jardines was instrumental in promoting the founding of Hong Kong as a hub for British business and purchased some of the first plots of land there in 1841, moving Jardine’s headquarters to the island. The company also started to reduce its share in the opium trade, expanding into importing coal, metals and machinery as well as offering services such as banking and insurance.

Over the years the company has established cotton mills, wharves, railways, hotels, helped to establish Hong Kong’s famous “Star Ferry” and even established its own airline – Jardine Airways. Today in Singapore, the Jardine Group owns Giant and Cold Storage supermarkets, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to name but a few.

Jardine and Matheson were said to be perfect partners to one another- Jardine being austere, detail-oriented and reserved, contrasting with Matheson’s suave, creative and outspoken nature. Both men were hard working and expected others to be the same.

Iron-headed Old Rat

Jardine gained his reputation for being tough after being clubbed on the head from behind at the Petition Gate in Canton – and not so much as turning around. The incident earned him the nickname “Iron-headed Old Rat” – a name he quite enjoyed. However, he was also known as an “honourable and kind hearted fellow,” quietly helping a great many family members as well as those less fortunate than himself.

Matheson, was a keen reader and founded China’s first English language newssheet – “The Canton Register” and was said to own the only piano in Asia. He, too, helped a great many others, notably the people of the Scottish Isle of Lewis during the Highland Potato Famine, for which he was awarded a Baronetcy in 1851.

Member of Parliament

William Jardine returned to the UK and in 1841 was elected to the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament. He died in 1842 a bachelor, having willed his estate to his siblings and nephews.

James Matheson became Tai-Pan after Jardine’s departure and ran the firm with the help of his and Jardine’s nephews, before retiring himself. He returned to Scotland and got married in 1843, and was also elected a Member of Parliament, first in England, then Scotland. He died in 1878.

The Jardine Group is today still very much a family business, its current directors being descendants of Jardine’s and Matheson’s siblings. Not only is it the biggest employer in Hong Kong (after the government) it is one of the few original Hongs still in existence.

Indeed, the company’s fascinating history inspired James Clavell’s novels Tai-Pan and Noble House, which, when made into a TV series actually used the real Jardine’s as the fictional company’s headquarters.

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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Alison Hunt doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.