Furness Withy was one of the “Big Five” British shipping companies alongside Cunard, Royal Mail, P&O and Ellerman.
John Furness was a West Hartlepool coal trimmer who married the daughter of his employer, Averil Wilson. He established a provisions and grocery business.
His son, Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912), joined the family business at an early age. Under the leadership of Christopher’s elder brother Thomas, the provisions business developed into one of the largest of its kind in the North of England.
The firm was spending a significant amount on shipping costs, and in 1877 acquired its own vessels and inaugurated a regular service between Boston, Massachusetts and West Hartlepool.
Differences of opinion saw Christopher’s older brother Thomas take full control of the provisions concern from 1882, while Christopher took over the shipping business. Christopher Furness & Co was established as a private company with a capital of £100,000.
The firm, 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.
Christopher Furness was knighted in 1895.
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.
Company capital had increased to £3.5 million by 1907. By this time Furness Withy was one of the largest owners of British shipping tonnage.
A stake in Irvine’s shipyard at West Hartlepool was acquired in 1908.
Christopher Furness was a Methodist, and enjoyed good relations with his workforce. He introduced a pioneering co-partnership scheme which enabled employees at his shipbuilding works to purchase shares from 1908. It was the largest scheme of its kind yet introduced in England. Unfortunately the scheme had been quashed by the unions by 1910.
Furness had a restless energy and a thorough knowledge of the shipping industry. Furness was a Member of Parliament for Hartlepool from the 1890s. He was a radical Liberal.
Furness was raised to the Peerage as Baron Furness of Grantley in 1910. He had eleven live-in servants by 1911. When he died in 1912 he left probate of £1.8 million.
By 1910 Furness Withy was one of the Big Five of British shipping, which also included Cunard, Royal Mail, P&O and Ellerman.
Furness Withy was among the hundred largest publicly-quoted companies in Britain by 1911, with a capital of £3.5 million.
A large interest in Houlder Brothers & Co was acquired in 1911. In 1912 the Warren Line of Liverpool was acquired. By 1913 Furness Withy was the third largest British shipping line, as measured by tonnage. By 1914 Furness Withy controlled over one million gross tons of shipping.
In 1916 the firm acquired full control of the Johnston Line of Liverpool. This was followed by the Prince Line of Newcastle, with 38 ships, for £3.3 million.
Through the ownership of the Furness, Manchester and Johnston lines, Furness Withy largely controlled the North Atlantic cargo trade by 1918. 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.
The family interest in Furness Withy was bought out in 1919 and Frederick W Lewis became chairman. By this time group assets were valued at £34 million. Company capital was increased to £5.5 million.
During the Second World War the company lost 42 vessels and 1,078 men to enemy action.
F W Lewis (by now Lord Essendon) died in 1944, and was succeeded as chairman by Ernest H Murrant.
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 and the Pacific Steam Navigation Co were acquired in 1965. Following the acquisitions Furness Withy operated 64 ships with a 600,000 tonnage.
The Furness repair yard in Hartlepool was acquired by Swan Hunter in 1967.
In 1970 the firm had a fleet of just over 100, and a tonnage of just over one million. The firm employed 9,500 people in the United Kingdom.
Furness Withy had 50 ships of one million tonnes and was the third largest merchant shipping group in Britain by 1980. That year the business was acquired by Orient Overseas Container (Holdings) of Hong Kong for nearly £112.5 million.
Furness Withy was sold to Oetker Group, its present owner, in 1990.