The Answer to a Question That I Have Searched For Years
Those of us with a interest in Indian silver will no doubt be aware of the huge argument that developed in 1881 between P. Orr & Sons of Madras and the Goldsmiths Company in London. The argument, in a nutshell, was that Orr's sent a large consignment of silver to their London agent, and after paying the custom's duties he sent the silver to the London Assay office. The silver did not come up to required standard required for it to be sold in the United Kingdom, and thus the staff at the assay office took a hammer to the entire consignment and sent it back to Orr's agent in London. P. Orr & Sons were infuriated at the actions of the assay office and thus started a long-running extremely public war of words between the two that lasted for years.
I first read the story years ago and always read the many period reports published in the English press regarding the dispute that drew many allies, both in and out of the trade, to the two divided camps. There is little doubt that the Goldsmiths Company were correct and followed the letter of the law, but many people felt their actions were unnecessarily harsh and Orr's gathered much sympathy for their loss and the way they were treated, whilst others considered them unbelievably naive. The dispute raised questions in Parliament and a revision of the law was eventually achieved.
Here's a report that was published in the 'Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith' of February 1884:
THE GOLDSMITHS COMPANY AND INDIAN SILVER PLATE
We extract the following correspondence from a recently issued Parliamentary Report which has been forwarded to us. The "Revenue
Act of 1883," sec. 10, a copy of which we published in our December number, provides that imported plate, if found to be below standard, may be returned to the owners or agents for re-shipment, so that the grievance complained of by Messrs. P. Orr & Sons, is to a certain extent modified.
Statement made by P. Orr & Sows, Silversmiths, of Madras, regarding their attempt to introduce into England a trial consignment of their Silver Indian Swami Embossed Work:
In August, 1881, P. Orr & Sons sent to England 25 pieces of Indian silver work, consisting of cups, goblets, spoons, &c, weighing 335 ounces, and value about Rs. 2,500. These articles were made of rupee silver, the current silver in India, and the only silver ordinarily procurable. Import duty was charged by the customs in London at the rate of Is. 6d. per ounce, and paid by the firm's English correspondents. All silver plate being required by law to be stamped by the Wardens of the Goldsmiths' Hall before being offered for sale, the Indian Plate in question was sent to the Hall and pronounced to be below "English standard," and notice was given that it would be destroyed. Every effort was then made to avert its destruction ; the payment
of any penalty was offered, or the entire withdrawal of the plate from the country proposed, in order to atone for the unwitting transgression of the law; but it "was out of the power of the Wardens to assent to the course proposed; they dare not return the goods." There was no appeal, and the
whole parcel was completely "smashed and battered" beyond recognition (a specimen of this "smashing" was submitted to his Excellency the Governor of Madras for inspection). After addressing a petition to the Inland Board of Revenue, and much trouble and delay, the duty levied by the Customs
was, as a special case, ultimately recovered.
With reference to the foregoing statement, we beg leave to remark :—
1. That we were not aware—the question never having specifically come before us—that rupee silver was lower than " English standard," a fineness arbitrarily adopted by the Hall, and which, it may be remarked, is lower than the French standard.
2. Apart from other considerations, it is manifest from our procedure that there was no desire or attempt on our part to evade the law in any particular ; we paid the import duty, and with a light heart sent the plate to the Hall for stamping.
3. Notwithstanding that we were as foreigners in England, we were treated with merciless rigour, and our plate subjected to barbarian treatment, for we think that we may say that both in style and finish this plate was unique, and worthy of special consideration. One hoped that the articles not
assayed might have been re-shipped to India without further sacrifice or injury to English interests, but it seemed as if nothing could satisfy that vindictive jealousy cloaked as " the law," which fitly dates back to the Middle Ages.
4. We wish, however, prominently to bring to notice that the imposition of the duty and the compulsory conformance to a particular standard are not the only or the most serious difficulties against which the importers of Indian or foreign silver into England have to contend.
5. When articles of silver plate are sent to the Hall they are, before marking, " scraped and assayed," a process which is so clumsily and ruthlessly performed that silversmiths in England find it best to send their wares for stamping before being polished or finished, and then to return them to the
workshop. This course is not open to the Indian manufacturer, who must be content to run the risk of seeing his finished goods injured, in some instances, past hope of recovery. We beg to point out that it is this arbitrary power, wielded by the Goldsmiths' Hall, which virtually prohibits the importation of foreign silver-plate into England. It is astounding that such extraordinary privileges should be allowed to be exercised in this nineteenth century by a corporation who are responsible to no one, and amenable to no law, and consequently reign with absolute despotism.
6. It may be here parenthetically added, that " they manage these things better in France." The French will not only stamp silver of various degrees of fineness, but the operation itself is conducted with neatness and care, so that finished articles are stamped without suffering injury; the convenience of the manufacturer is further consulted in some cases by " controle officers " being deputed to workshops to assay and stamp plate.
7. We submit that the Hall-marking of gold and silver plate should, as in the case of gold and silver jewellery, be an entirely voluntary and optional matter.
8. It only now remains for us to observe that the recent large-minded abolition of duties in India on English manufactures should be followed by the mother country promptly and completely abolishing the silver duties, and sweeping away the absurd and anomalous privileges so banefully exercised
by the Goldsmiths' Hall, and which are directly prohibitory of the production of Indian art and industry.
I have, &c,
(Signed) P. Orr & Sons.
Madras, 23rd November, 1882.
Remarks by the Goldsmiths's Company on the foregoing Statements.
1. The statement with reference to the quality of the plate sent by Messrs. Orr and Sons is absolutely incorrect. No one of the 55 pieces (not 25 pieces as mentioned by Messrs. Orr) was made of the quality of rupee silver, and the allegation that rupee silver is the only silver procurable in India is
ridiculous. In the first place rupee silver varies from 2 to 2½ dwts. only worse than the English standard, while of the 55 pieces sent to Goldsmiths' Hall by Messrs. Orr, no single piece was less inferior than 7½ dwts. worse than the English standard, and the great bulk of the plate was as much
inferior as 15 dwts. worse than the English standard. There is no more difficulty in obtaining in India fine silver to mix with rupee silver than there is in any other country, and it is quite possible for Indian silver to be made up to the English standard. Cases have indeed occurred, and can be vouched for by the Company, in which plate imported from India (and also from Japan and Burmah) has been so manufactured, and has passed the London Hall.
2. Before the plate in question was sent to Goldsmiths' Hall, Messrs. Orr and Sons' London agent called at Goldsmiths' Hall and informed the officials there that the plate was about to be sent. It is well known that rupee silver is not up to the English standard (and this might readily have been
ascertained by Messrs. Orr, or their London agent), and, therefore, the gentleman in question was, on two separate occasions, informed of this fact, and urged to have & private assay of the plate taken before the plate was sent to Goldsmiths' Hall, and he was informed that, in the existing state
of the law, the Goldsmiths' Company would be compelled to break the plate, should it be found to be under the legal standard. Messrs. Orr's agent informed the officer of the Goldsmith's Company that Messrs. Orr quite understood that the plate would have to be sent to Goldsmiths' Hall to be marked, and that he was convinced that they believed the plate to be of the proper quality, and he therefore said that he should send it with confidence to the Hall. The plate was accordingly sent to Goldsmiths' Hall without a private assay having been taken, as recommended on two occasions by the Goldsmiths' Company, and, the great inferiority of the quality of the silver having been ascertained, notice was given to Messrs. Orr's agent that the Goldsmiths' Company would be compelled to break the plate in accordance with the provisions of the laws regulating their proceedings in these matters. Upon this notice being given to Messrs. Orr, a correspondence ensued between Messrs. Orr and the Goldsmiths' Company, a copy of which, marked B., is enclosed herewith. Such correspondence speaks for itself. It will be noticed that not only did the Goldsmiths' Company act in strict conformity with the laws regulating the manufacture and sale of plate, by which laws they are bound equally with the manufacturers and the public, but that the Company actually went out of their way on two occasions by the advice which they gave Messrs. Orr's agent to endeavour to protect Messrs. Orr from the consequences of their own negligence and imprudence.
3. The "smashing" mentioned in this paragraph of Messrs. Orr's letter was simply a breaking sufficient to prevent the plate from being used before it should be re-manufactured, and was merely what was sufficient for this purpose. The duty would probably not have been recovered by Messrs. Orr if
the Goldsmiths' Company had not exerted themselves in the matter. Mr. Prideaux saw the customs authorities and also Mr. Garnett, the then Secretary of the Board of Inland Revenue, upon the subject, with the view to assist Messrs. Orr in the recovery of the duty ; and it was mainly upon Mr. Prideaux's representations that an exception was made, and the duty returned to Messrs. Orr. The ill return which Messrs. Orr's agent makes for this gratuitous assistance will be seen from the newspaper cutting hereto appended.
4. This appears inconsistent with the statement of Messrs. Orr's agent in his letter of the 11th of October, 1881, as the agent then states that " it was quite understood " by Messrs. Orr that the silver would have to pass the English Hall before it could be sold, and if Messrs. Orr and their London agents
did not take care to enquire whether rupee silver was up to the English standard, that was a piece of negligence on their part for which nobody but themselves can be held responsible. It is entirely incorrect to say that the fineness of the English standard is " arbitrarily adopted by the Hall." The standard of English silver is fixed by Act of Parliament and not by the Goldsmiths' Company, and the Goldsmiths' Company have no power either to raise or lower the standard prescribed by law. The standard has not been altered since the year 1720, when it was slightly lowered. Again, it is
not the case that the English standard is lower than the French standard. There are two standards of English silver plate fixed by Act of Parliament ; one (which is very rarely used, and is purely optional) is of the value of 11 oz. 10 dwts. fine silver in the pound troy, and the other, which is the
regular legal standard in use, is of the value of 1 1 ozs. 2 dwts. fine silver in the pound troy, or, expressed in decimals, .925. The French have likewise two standards for silver, their highest standard, which is compulsory for ornamental plate, as expressed in decimals, is .950, and their second standard, which is the one adopted for useful plate, as expressed in decimals, is .800, or 9 ozs. 12 dwts. fine silver in the pound troy, and therefore 1 oz. 10 dwts. in the pound worse than the ordinary legal standard in England, exactly the reverse of Messrs. Orr's statement.
5. The correspondence already referred to (and a copy of which is sent herewith) will show that Messrs. Orr as foreigners were not treated with any greater rigour than the Goldsmiths' Company are obliged by law to treat home manufacturers. It is not correct to say that the plate was " unique and
worthy of special consideration." The designs were of the ordinary kind of silversmiths' work, consisting of cups, mugs, spoons, muffineers, napkin rings, &c, and the work was not more elaborately chased than is the case with the generality of English work received daily at the Hall for the purpose of being assayed and marked. Again, there were "no articles not assayed." Every single piece was carefully assayed and found wanting. The Goldsmiths' Company had no power whatever to allow the plate to be re-shipped, and the suggestion that there was any "vindictive jealousy" on their part is perhaps scarcely worthy of notice.
6. With reference to this statement the Company appeal with confidence to the evidence given before the committee on Gold and Silver Hall-marking in 1878 and 1879 (see particularly Questions 93, 94, and 95), evidence which shows that the work of scraping and assaying is performed in the
best possible manner, and with as little injury as possible. There can be no doubt that finished works, when sent to be assayed and marked, suffer some injury in the first instance from the necessary scraping, but this is an injury which in most cases any silversmith can readily make good when the plate is returned to him. It is material also to state that the English manufacturer is required to send his wares to the Hall in an unfinished state
(an allowance of one-sixth of the duty upon the entire weight being made to him upon this account), while no such obligation attaches to the foreigner.
7. Here again the statements are most inaccurate and misleading. The Goldsmiths' Company are bound by, and are responsible to, the laws in force with regard to the manufacture and sale of plate, and it is very rarely that they have any complaint from manufacturers with reference to the manner in which they perform their duties.
8. With reference to this statement we may remark that the French method of dealing with plate is precisely similar to that employed in England, as the Goldsmiths' Company of London have ascertained both by a personal visit to the French Hall, and also by a written answer given by the chief officer of the Assay Office there to certain inquiries addressed to him by the Goldsmiths' Company. It is true that in France small articles, which cannot be scraped without injury, such as jewellery, which in England are exempted from Hall-marking, are tested by what is called the touch ; but the French, recognising the inaccuracy of this method, by the law of 19 Brumaire, an 6 (9th November, 1797), require that the assay of all such articles as alone are here subject to obligatory Hall-marking shall be dealt with in the same manner as that employed in England, namely, by scraping and cupellation ; as above-mentioned, there are only two legal standards of silver in France, and therefore we disbelieve Messrs. Orr's statement, that the French mark silver of various degrees of fineness. We entirely disbelieve that the "controle officers" visit the workshops for the purpose of assaying and marking plate for the convenience of manufacturers. The " controle officers " visit the shops for a very different purpose.
9. We will make no remark upon the expression of opinion, except to state what is an undoubted fact, namely, that there never was a time when the British trade of goldsmiths and silversmiths were practically so unanimous in their desire that compulsory Hall-marking should be retained in its integrity; and there never was a time when the Hall-mark was more sought after and appreciated by the public than at the present day. There are serious objections to making Hall-marking voluntary instead of compulsory.
10. With the question of the abolition of the duty upon plate, the Goldsmiths' Company have always considered that they have nothing to do. This is entirely a question for the Government. The Goldsmiths' Company simply act as the agents and receivers of the duty for the Government, because
the duty can be more easily collected by the Hall than it could be in any other manner. Persons interested in the abolition of the existing state of things have often endeavoured to create an impression that the Goldsmiths' Company derive pecuniary benefit from their Assay Office and from the
collection of the duty. It cannot therefore be too often repeated, and insisted upon, that the Goldsmiths' Company derive no pecuniary benefit from either source. The Company are absolutely prohibited by the laws relating to Hall-marking from making any profit out of their Assay Office, and the
one per cent, allowed by the Government to the Company as commission for the collection of the duty, does not pay the necessary cost of collection. In point of fact, during the last ten years the Company have made a loss of some £600 over their Assay Office, and a loss of more than £500 over the collection of the Government duty. The Goldsmiths' Company do not in any sense exercise "absurd and anomalous privileges," or any "privileges"
whatever. They simply perform duties imposed upon them by Act of Parliament, at the expense of a great deal of time and trouble, and at some pecuniary loss to themselves, but with (it is confidently believed) great benefit to the public, and the assent and approbation of the respectable members of the gold and silversmiths' trade.
I have, &c.
(Signed) Walter S. Prideaux,
Goldsmiths' Hall, Clerk.
22nd March, 1883.
Extract Letter from the Board of Trade, dated April 17th, 1883, to the Treasury.
Sir,—I am directed by the Board of Trade to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 13th ultimo, in which you transmit copy of a statement of Messrs. Orr and Sons, of Madras, relative to the treatment of Indian plate imported for sale in this country when found at Goldsmith's Hall to be
below English standard, and ask to be favoured with the views of this Board as to the maintenance of the restrictions now imposed by law upon plate, whether of home or foreign make, exposed for sale in the United Kingdom. In order to be in a better position to comply with the request of the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, the Board of Trade referred the statement of Messrs. Orr to the Goldsmiths' Company. The Company have replied by transmitting to this Department copy of the letter on the matter addressed by them to the Treasury. The Board now desire me to offer the following observations for the consideration of the Lords of the Treasury :—
As regards the case to which Messrs. Orr's complaint particularly relates, there seems to be no question that the Goldsmiths' Company had by law power to act as they did. But they appear to show that they felt the injustice of the case, first by having advised Messrs. Orr not to send the plate to the Hall for assay, and by having afterwards assisted the firm in endeavouring to obtain a return of the duty. The Board of Trade are clearly of opinion that it is most desirable that measures of some kind should be taken with the object of saving manufacturers from the injury and loss
involved in the breaking of plate under circumstances such as are described by Messrs. Orr.
I have, &c,
(Signed) T. H. Farrer.
The answer to the question that I have been seeking for a long time is, that as P. Orr & sons never registered with the London Assay Office, then under whose name was the silver submitted and what mark was struck upon that silver before it was destroyed? At last, I think I have found the answer. Whilst read a Parliamentary Report that was inquiring into the Livery Companies, this statement was made:
3054. (To Mr. Walter Prideaux, junior.) Mr. Burt desired to put to you a question about the plate, but he has had to go away. The question is with respect to Messrs. Fry and some Indian plate. Are these the facts of that case. On the 19th of September, 1881, the writer of the letters I have here says, " I paid the sum of 24l. 9s. for Customs Duty on 326 ounces of silver plate ex Peshawur from Bombay on the 28th of September, 1881, in conjunction with Messrs. Fry and Company. I sent the plate to the Goldsmiths' Hall to be assayed and stamped as required by law before the plate is sold. On the 5th October, 1881, I was informed that the same was under standard, and must be broken up. I forthwith made application to the wardens of the Hall that the silver might be exported under bond, but the application was refused, and on the 22nd October the plate was returned broken up. I was also informed that the duty could not be repaid by the Goldsmiths' Hall authorities, and that I must apply to the Customs to whom I had paid it. At the same time I was furnished with a certificate that the silver had been broken up. On the 31st October, 1881, I petitioned the Board of Customs for a return of the duty,and placed the above-mentioned certificate before them. They replied that "they could not "'return the duty, because the plate had been taken " out of the charge of the officers of their department. " I then petitioned the Honourable Board of Inland Revenue, and on the 10th February, 1882, received notice that the Lords of the Treasury sanctioned the repayment of the duty on the condition that the officers of the Customs who examined the plate on its importation were satisfied as to its identity. In reply, I addressed the Honourable Board of Customs, showing that the plate had been entirely smashed, not a handle, foot, or body left whole, and that identification was in the documents only. And he wishes attention directed to these points ; he says, " the loss actually incurred was about 100l., as the goods were 'finished;' had they been of English manufacture they would have been sent to the Hall in the rough state, and, if broken up, the loss would not have amounted to one half that sum. Then he says, "the duty was returned," and he says, "no method "exists whereby an importer can get a return of the duty in the simple manner accorded to the English "manufacturer." Then he says in a subsequent letter: "I did all in my power to prevent the plate being broken. I offered a bond for double the value of the plate, and applied that it might be repacked in "the Hall;" and then he says, "I further pointed out that the intention of the law was that no plate of inferior quality should be sold in England, and "that if my request were entertained such intention would be fully carried out. The reply was, that the law requiring all plate below standard to be 'smashed applied equally to manufacturers and importers.'" Then he submits, that "when those "laws were passed, the importation of silver plate "was probably non-existent" ?—As the letter has been read to the Commission, I should like to mention this fact. Mr. Fry, who, I presume, writes this letter, is not a silversmith at all, he is a mere commission agent.
3055. The letter is written by Mr. Wood —I was not aware of that, but it makes no difference; Mr. Wood is not a silversmith, and his statement is very inaccurate.
3056. (Chairman.) That makes no matter it seems to me; a gentleman has a right to sell plate if he sells honestly, and if he brings to your hall plate below the standard you find out that it is below the standard and under the Act of Parliament you break it up. That is hard upon him, but if it was below the standard that was not your fault?—I would make this one remark, when Mr. Fry came to Goldsmiths' Hall and informed me that there was this large parcel of plate at the customs from India, knowing the silver from India to be very much below the standard, I strongly advised him on two occasions to have a private assay made before he sent the plate to the hall, telling him that we should have no alternative but to break it up if he sent it, and it proved to be below the standard. He disregarded that warning, told me that the plate had been made expressly for importation to pass the hall, that he was quite sure it would be all right, and he persisted in sending it. When we came to assay the plate, instead of its being made of rupee silver as he states (which is about two pennyweights worse than the British standard) there was no single article in the package less than 7½ pennyweights worse, and the great bulk was as much as 15 pennyweights worse than the British standard, so that it was not even made of rupee silver. I merely wish to mention this, as he was twice warned and recommended to have a private assay.
3057. (Mr. Firth.) The question Mr. Burt would have put would have been this : is that a state of things that is calculated to benefit or restrict the trade? —I think as long as the British manufacturer is obliged to send his plate to be marked up to a certain standard it would be very hard upon him if a foreigner could import such rubbish as that, which was 15 pennyweights worse than the British standard.
3058. (Chairman.) I do not want to argue that out, the difference is that it has not got your mark upon it, That is a very obvious difference. The buyer who buys without your mark knows that he is buying something without your mark upon it ?—The British manufacturer cannot sell without his plate having our mark upon it.
Source: Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command - Volume 39 - Part 1 - 1884
Although the amounts stated differ, as they do in all of the above, this reference surely relates to the Orr submissions. So who was Mr. Fry? A search of the assay office records reveals that that Fry & Co., (Henry William Fry), of Langbourn Chambers, 17, Fenchurch Street, London, entered their mark 'H.W.F' contained within an oval punch, with the London Assay Office on the 23rd September 1881, just a few days prior to the submission of the Orr silver.
Orr's Swami silver is held in the highest regard these days. If the submission of that silver had passed that assay in 1881, then the 'H.W.F' mark would now have become a very well-known one.