Ship shape: Furness Withy

How did Furness Withy become the third largest shipping company in the world?

The origins of the shipping business
John Furness (1808 – 1885) was a coal trimmer who lived in West Hartlepool, Durham. He married the daughter of his employer, Averil Wilson, and established a provisions and grocery business.

Under the leadership of his eldest son Thomas Furness (1834 – 1905), the provisions business developed into one of the largest of its kind in the North of England.

Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912) joined the family business from an early age. He was instrumental in developing a trade in goods from the United States and Northern Europe.

Christopher Furness became frustrated by freight costs, and acquired his first ship in 1876. Further ships were acquired from William Gray & Co of West Hartlepool, and the firm assumed full responsibility for its own shipping. A regular service between West Hartlepool and Boston, Massachusetts was inaugurated in 1877.

Christopher Furness develops Furness Withy
Differences of opinion in 1882 saw Thomas Furness retain control of the provisions concern, with Christopher Furness gaining responsibility for the shipping business, which by this time included seven vessels. Christopher Furness & Co was established as a private company with a capital of £100,000.

A portrait of Christopher Furness
A portrait of Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912)

Frederick William Lewis (1870 – 1944) joined the business as an office boy in 1883.

Christopher Furness & Co, with 18 wholly-owned steamers and stakes in 21 other ships, merged with the West Hartlepool shipbuilding firm of Edward Withy & Co in 1891. The new concern, Furness Withy & Co, had a capital of £700,000.

The Edward Withy shipyard machinery was electrified and the yard was tripled in size. The yard built the largest vessels in England.

Christopher Furness was a restless man with a keen eye for opportunity. He received a knighthood in 1895. When asked the reason behind his success in life, he replied, “putting two days work into one”.

The British Maritime Trust, with 26 ships, was acquired in 1896.

A stake in the marine engineering business of Richardsons, Westgarth & Co of West Hartlepool was acquired in 1900.

The Gulf Line, with seven ships, was acquired in 1902.

Furness Withy becomes one of the largest shipping companies in the world
Furness Withy was one of the largest shipping companies in Britain by 1907, with control of tonnage of 504,582. The Furness Withy interests were largely in the cargo trade, as opposed to mail and passenger steamers. Company capital had increased to £3.5 million.

Irvine’s shipyard at West Hartlepool was acquired in 1907. Furness Withy became one of the largest shipbuilders in Britain.

Furness Withy ranked as one of the Big Five of British shipping by 1910, alongside Cunard, Royal Mail, P&O and Ellerman. The business ranked among the hundred largest publicly-quoted companies in Britain.

A large interest in Houlder Brothers & Co was acquired in 1911.

Christopher Furness was a Methodist, and enjoyed good relations with his workforce. A radical Liberal, he was a Member of Parliament for Hartlepool from the 1890s. Furness was raised to the Peerage as Baron Furness of Grantley in 1910. He had eleven live-in servants by 1911.

Furness died with an estate valued at £1.8 million in 1912. An obituary in The Straits Times commented, “to his energy and industry a great deal of the unparalleled success of West Hartlepool is due.” Christopher Furness was succeeded as company chairman by his nephew, Sir Stephen Furness (1872 – 1914).

The Warren Line of Liverpool was acquired in 1912

Furness Withy was the third largest British shipping line, as measured by tonnage, by 1913. Furness Withy controlled over one million gross tons of shipping by 1914.

Sir Stephen Furness died after a fall from a window in 1914, and Lord Furness (1883 – 1940) was appointed chairman. Frederick William Lewis was appointed to the newly-created role of deputy chairman.

The head office was transferred from Hartlepool to Liverpool in 1915.

Furness Withy acquired full control of the Johnston Line of Liverpool, with 17 vessels of 73,000 tons, in 1916.

Furness Withy owned 200 vessels by August 1916.

The Prince Line of Newcastle, with 38 ships, was acquired for £3.3 million in 1916.

Furness Withy lost 97 vessels to enemy action during the First World War.

Furness Withy largely controlled the North Atlantic cargo trade by 1918, through its ownership of the Furness, Manchester and Johnston lines. It also had an interest in the Argentine meat trade through the Houlder line. The Prince line ran boats to South America and South Africa from New York.

End of family control
A clash in strategy between Lewis and Lord Furness saw the family interest in Furness Withy sold to the management, led by Frederick William Lewis, for £10.2 million in 1919. The deal saw the Furness family take control of the the shipbuilding and industrial interests.

Frederick William Lewis was appointed chairman of Furness Withy. By this time group assets were valued at £34 million. Company capital was increased to £5.5 million.

Frederick William Lewis (1870 – 1944) in 1932. Image used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery.

Furness Withy was the third largest shipping company in the world by 1921, with a fleet of 168 vessels.

Company headquarters were transferred to London in 1931.

Lewis was awarded a barony in 1932 and became Lord Essendon.

The Shaw, Savill & Albion Co, with 22 passenger liners and freighters, was acquired in 1933 to make Furness Withy the largest British shipowner.

The company lost 42 vessels and 1,078 men to enemy action during the Second World War.

Lord Essendon died in 1944, and was succeeded as chairman by Ernest Henry Murrant (1889 – 1974).

The firm took time to regain the number of ships lost during the war. In 1951 it controlled 81 ships with an aggregate of 680,000 gross tons.

Royal Mail Lines was acquired in 1965. Following the acquisition Furness Withy operated 64 ships with a tonnage of 600,000.

The Furness repair yard in Hartlepool was sold to Swan Hunter in 1967.

Sale of the business
Furness Withy had a fleet of just over 100 vessels by 1970, with a tonnage of over one million. The company employed 9,500 people in Britain.

In response to rising costs and declining revenues, Furness Withy sold 23 ships in 1971.

Furness Withy operated 50 vessels with a tonnage of one million, and was the third largest merchant shipping group in Britain in 1980.

Furness Withy was acquired by Orient Overseas Container (Holdings) of Hong Kong, controlled by C Y Tung (1912 – 1982), for nearly £112.5 million in 1980.

Tung introduced dramatic cutbacks, and had reduced the Furness Withy fleet to 24 vessels by 1982. He was accused of asset-stripping the business. The entire Furness Withy fleet had been registered under flags of convenience in countries such as Panama and Liberia by the mid-1980s.

Furness Withy was sold to Oetker Group of Germany in 1990.

Furness Withy returned to British control when Swire Group acquired the bulk shipping interests of the Oetker Group in 2019.

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