Saturday, December 23, 2023

Dhotis not allowed at the Willingdon Sports Club

A victim of its own success, membership to the Royal Willingdon Sports Club is closed. Only children of current members, wealthy ones, can become members, and even that on a selective basis depending on the applicant’s family background and profession.

The private club was founded by Lord Willingdon in 1918. Willingdon (1866-1941) ruled as Governor of the Bombay Presidency from 17 Feb 1913 through 16 Dec 1918. This administrative subdivision of British India, more or less the size of today’s Germany, counted then nearly 30 million people.

A highlight in the Willingdon Sports Club’s existence is the visit in 1921 of Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales. The Prince played four chukkers at polo on the club’s ground. This non-interest bearing irredeemable debenture, issued by the club in 24th Nov 1916, is issued to the Maharaja of Gondal and signed by Sir Stanley Reed as Secretary. 

From the beginning Willingdon maintained good relations with the Indian Princes and India’s important business men. The crème de la crème of British India often met on official events. 

However, on one occasion he invited some friends, Maharajas, to the Royal Bombay Yacht Club. The Governor and his Indian guests were denied access. The club only accepted European members. Willingdon did not agree with the situation and discussed the incident with his friend Stanley Reed.

Sir Herbert Stanley Reed (1872-1969) joined the Bombay based journal The Times of India as correspondent in 1897. When George V, then Prince of Wales, and Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, made their royal tour of India in 1905 and 1906, Reed traveled along as special correspondent of the Times of India.

Stanley Reed became the newspaper’s longest serving editor from 1907 until 1924. He maintained close ties with the British political elite. Mahatma Gandhi corresponded with Reed and occasionally paid him a visit at the newspaper office to discuss the questions of the hour. 

Reed was one of the first persons to whom Gandhi revealed his Swadeshi pledge. The Swadeshi movement strived for India to be self-sustainable and self-reliant. Gandhi's swadeshi pledge in 1919 was a pledge to boycott foreign goods.

Stanley Reed improved the coverage of The Times of India and made it ‘the leading paper in Asia’. He is credited with extending the deadline for carrying news from 5 PM to midnight. Earlier, news that came after 5 PM would be kept over for printing the next day. During his tenure the cover price of the paper was reduced from four annas to one, which gave a phenomenal boost to its circulation. 

At the end of World War I, Reed exposed the grievous sufferings of the Indian troops in a newspaper article in which a change in the High Command was argued. Lord Willingdon supported him in that. The latter took responsibility for treating the thousands of wounded that returned from the Mesopotamian campaign by ship to Bombay in appalling circumstances.

Reed and Willingdon discussed the latter’s experiences in the Royal Bombay Yacht Club. It was decided to start a private club that would bring together the best elements of Indian and European society on an equal basis. Lord Willingdon was its President and Stanley Reed became its Honorary Secretary. 

Willingdon found a piece of land in what is now south Mumbai where he established his club. To finance his project, he had to attract funds. 

Stanley Reed writes in his book The India I Knew 1897-1947: “British residents subscribed handsomely, but it was the generosity of the Indian Princes which made realization possible. They contributed not less than £25,000 in non-interest-bearing irredeemable debentures, and asked no more than life membership.” Note that 'irredeemable debentures' are debentures that cannot be redeemed during the lifetime of the company. Investors can only redeem if the company is winding up. 

Freeman Freeman-Thomas & Maria Adelaide Brassey, also known as Lord and Lady Willingdon, 1916. Attribution: Parasnis, Dattatraya Balwant, Rao bahadur, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

Lord Willingdon formally opened the club on December 8, 1917. The princes came be-jewelled and robed, the Maharaja of Idar standing out in his gold earrings. Lady Willingdon wore a mauve dress, the colour of the Club’s crest, its curtains and, until 1975, the hue of the waiter’s waistcoats and neckties. In the temporary parking place stood Rolls-Royces, Duesenbergs, Alfa Romeos and other fabulous cars.

Sport amenities were constructed for playing polo, golf, cricket, tennis, badminton, swimming, billiards, poker, and a rifle range as well. The club was not meant to be a sports-only club but also promoted intercultural activities by means of music performances, lectures, ballroom dances, banquets and dinners, etc. Its first name was the Willingdon Club, but Lord Willingdon didn’t like the club’s shortened name. Hence, the Willingdon Sports Club.

The exclusive club attracted maharajas, high government officials, upper rank army officers and India’s top business men. To name a few: the Maharaja of Mysore, the Raja of Ratlam, Sir Dorab Tata, Sir Sassoon David, the Aga Khan, Ibrahim Rahimtoola and then later JRD Tata. Top financier FE Dinshaw was a club’s recurring bridge player.

Lady Willingdon was equally thrilled with the founding club and was the driving force for opening it up for the members’ wives as well. It was said that she got the ruling princes to contribute towards the establishment of the club. One story about her was that she would admire the diamond rings and necklaces that the maharajas used to wear (some even wore them while playing tennis). The recipients of the compliment had no alternative but to present her with the valuables. It is said that soon the maharajas made sure not to wear anything expensive at the club. 

His Highness Maharaja Thakore Shri Sir Bhagwant Singhji Sagramji Sahib Bahadur, Maharaja of Gondal, 1911. Attribution: Photographs from the Lafayette Studio Archive of the V&A, London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

Several Indian princes invested in the Willingdon Sports Club. This certificate shown here was issued for two debentures of 500 Rupees on 24th November 1916 to Bhagvatsinghji, His Highness the Thakore Saheb of Gondal, the ruling Maharaja of the princely state of Gondal (1865-1944). Back then, the Indian princely states were sovereign entities within the British Indian Empire, not directly governed by the British, but by an Indian ruler.

Bhagvatsinghji reformed the administration of his state, provided free and compulsory education for men and women, and made Gondal a tax-free state. The Thakore Saheb was one of the first maharajas to welcome at his residence Gandhi and his wife after their return from South Africa in 1915. The maharaja would meet with Gandhi several times more. On some of these occasions Gandhi deemed it necessary to appeal to the maharaja’s conscience to be a good ruler for the people of Gondal. On the 50th anniversary of his accession to the throne the maharaja gave his weight in gold to charity.

Lord Willingdon also met Gandhi on several occasions. In 1931 he became Viceroy of India for five years. During his reign Gandhi and the Indian National Congress party organized a mass Civil Disobedience Movement. Of course, all of this was covered in Stanley Reed’s Times of India. Eventually Willingdon would imprison Gandhi, the INC members and tens of thousands of Indian activists.

A bouquet for the author, picture taken from Stanley Reed’s book “The India I Knew 1897-1947”.  An expert on Indian current affairs, Reed wrote and compiled several year books such as The Times of India Directory, and The Indian Year Book Including Who's Who. 

I wonder whether Stanley Reed got along with Gandhi. In his more than 260 pages counting memoires The India I Knew 1897-1947, he mainly describes his experiences with British India’s politicians. Though Gandhi made the headlines all those years, Reed dedicated merely five pages to the Mahatma.

I’ll end this article on the Willingdon Sports Club, with an interesting note. In 1954 a post-awards banquet was held at the club to celebrate the first Filmfare awards ceremony. The event was attended by actor Gregory Peck. One of the award winners, influential director Bimal Roy, was denied entry into the club because he was dressed in a dhoti, a type of sarong, fastened in between the legs in a manner that it outwardly resembles trousers. The most photographed person in the world wearing a dhoti must be Gandhi. He was never invited to the Willingdon Sport Club. 


  • A commemorative Volume to mark the sixtieth year of the Willingdon Sports Club Bombay 1917-1977, by Behram Contractor, Naval J. Ardeshir 
  • His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales Tour In India (1921-1922), by O’mealey M
  • The India I knew 1897-1947, by Stanley Reed 
  • The TOI Story, by Sangita P. Menon Malhan [ed.: about The Times Of India] 
  • The Royal Tour in India - A Record of the Tour of T.R.H. The Prince and Princess of Wales in India and Burma, from November 1905 to March 1906, by Stanley Reed. The book has been digitized by Google and is available to the public here 

Previous posts

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Jigsaw Mourier

A new jigsaw puzzle in scripophily features snow dogs in a winter landscape. We are talking about the share of the Mourier company.

Mourier company had its registered office in Paris, France. The company traded in furs and pelts in France and its colonies. This share, from 1927 and showing the signature of its founder in the lower left corner, depicts in great perspective northern fur traders (see more on that here). 

Ready to puzzle? You can find the puzzle here:

Have fun !