Category Archives: Shipping

Magnate personality: John Ellerman

How did John Ellerman become the richest man in Britain?

Early life
John Reeves Ellerman (1862 – 1933) was born in Hull, a large port town on the Yorkshire coast. He was the son of Johann Herman Ellerman (1819 – 1871), a shipbroker and corn merchant who had emigrated from Hamburg in the 1840s.

His father died in 1871, and left a relatively modest estate of £600. Ellerman spent much of his childhood in Caen in Normandy, before being educated at the King Edward VI School in Birmingham. Ellerman would comment, “if I had gone to a public [fee-paying] school I should never have got so far in business”.

Ellerman inherited around £14,000 from his maternal grandfather in 1879, and used the money to train as a chartered accountant under William Smedley of Newhall Street, Birmingham. Smedley, a “Victorian eccentric”, was a successful speculative investor, and almost certainly inspired the young Ellerman.*

Ellerman subsequently became an accountant at Quilter Ball & Co, headed by Sir Cuthbert Quilter (1841 – 1911), one of the great accountants of the era. Quilter regarded Ellerman as one of the most promising accountants he had ever employed. Ellerman was offered a position as partner, but declined in order to establish himself independently.

J R Ellerman & Co, accountants of Moorgate Street in the City of London, was established in 1887. Ellerman soon enjoyed an annual income worth thousands of pounds.

Shipping interests
Frederick Richards Leyland (1832 – 1892), owner of the Leyland shipping line, died suddenly in 1892. Ellerman capitalised on the opportunity, and with a group of investors including Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912), acquired the line for £770,000. This was an excellent price, as profits during the previous four years had averaged £121,159.

The new company had a share capital of £450,000. The assets acquired were excellent, and the modern fleet boasted a gross tonnage of 60,511. Existing management was continued.

Hard work, shrewdness and good luck would see Ellerman amass great wealth. He divested his accountancy business in order to focus on capital investment from 1896. Ellerman was the first prominent investor to have received formal accountancy training, and this was to afford him a significant advantage with regards to financial and legal knowledge.

The Leyland shipping line was sold to J P Morgan (1837 – 1913) in 1901. Ellerman gained £1.2 million in cash for his stake, a sale that represented a 33 percent premium over market prices.**

Ellerman established the London, Liverpool and Ocean Shipping Company with a share capital of £1.3 million. He invested a capital of £500,000.

Ellerman acquired the Leyland Mediterranean fleet of eleven vessels. He also acquired the Papayanni Steamship Co of Liverpool. Both assets were significantly undervalued. These businesses formed the basis of the Ellerman shipping line.

Ellerman then acquired the City line, which ran between Glasgow and the West Indies, and controlled 400,000 tons of shipping, for an estimated £1 million.

Later in 1901 Ellerman acquired the Hall line and the Westcott and Lawrence line (with nine steamers and a gross tonnage of 15,000 tons).

Ellerman extends his interests to include brewing and the media
Ellerman was a quiet, unassuming figure. He spent just five percent of his income, and reinvested the remainder. TIME magazine described his lifestyle as one of “almost miserly simplicity”. According to his daughter, Ellerman was not materialistic, “he was a mathematician, and his interests were in abstractions”.

Ellerman paid great attention to the smaller details of business. He was remarkable for his kindness in offering advice towards those who sought it. He retained the most highly-skilled managers from the businesses he acquired, and respected the decisions that they made when he was absent.

Ellerman identified the brewing industry, with the exception of the global brands of Bass and Guinness, as stagnant. Perceiving the industry as undervalued, he began to invest in breweries from 1897.

Ellerman became the largest shareholder in the Financial Times and one of the largest shareholders in the Daily Mail in 1904.

Ellerman was created a baronet in 1905.

Ellerman acquired the Bucknall line, which had 28 vessels and a large freight trade with South and East Africa, in 1908. Following the purchase Ellerman controlled 108 vessels with a combined tonnage of over 420,000.

Ellerman became the third largest shareholder in The Times in 1912. He also acquired the Sphere and Tatler.

Ellerman acquired over a third share of the Illustrated London News and Sketch in 1913.

Ellerman rendered valuable assistance to the Ministry of Shipping during the First World War. He also equipped and maintained the Ellerman Hospital at St John’s Lodge, Regent’s Park, London.

Ellerman was the richest man in Britain by 1916, worth, at his own estimate, £20 million. His income that year was estimated at £3 million.

Ellerman made his most significant purchase with the acquisition of Thomas Wilson & Co of Hull for £4.1 million in 1916. Thomas Wilson & Co was the largest privately-owned shipping line in the world, with a fleet of 70 ships.

Ellerman controlled 204 vessels following the Wilson & Co acquisition, representing one eighth of British mercantile shipping. Unfortunately, the Wilson purchase was to prove a rare misstep for Ellerman, due to a slump in global shipping following the First World War.

Ellerman was extremely shy of publicity. He sold his house in Eastbourne in the early 1920s after double-decker buses were introduced which would have allowed passengers to glimpse a view of his home.

Ellerman sold his controlling interest in the St Clement’s Press, owner of the Financial Times, to the Berry brothers in 1919. He sold his holding in The Times to John Walter and John Jacob Astor (1886 – 1971) in 1922.

Ellerman divested his illustrated newspapers, which included the Sphere, Tatler and Eve to the Inveresk Paper Company for around £3 million in 1926.

Ellerman controlled over two million tons of shipping and was the third largest owner of shipping in the world in 1927.

The Inland Revenue privately assessed Ellerman as easily the richest man in Britain in 1929, with a fortune valued at more than twice that of the next wealthiest individual.

Ellerman died in 1933 with a British estate valued at £36,684,994, equivalent to around £20 billion in 2022 prices. Death duties amounted to around £18 million. It was estimated that Ellerman paid between £17 million and £20 million in wealth taxes during his lifetime.


  1. The Heart To Artemis, Bryher (1963).
  2. ‘J P Morgan in London and New York before 1914’ by Leslie Hannah (2011).

Ship’s set sail: Irvine’s Shipbuilding Co

Irvine & Co, along with William Gray & Co, helped make West Hartlepool a major centre for British shipbuilding.

Irvine Currie & Co, shipbuilders, was founded at Hartlepool by Robert Irvine (1824 – 1903) and Alexander Currie in 1863. The first vessel, an iron screw steamer, was launched in 1864. Robert Irvine took full control of the company from 1866.

Robert Irvine was succeeded in management by his son, Robert Irvine Jr (1845-1901), from 1880. By this time the firm was better known for ship-repairing than shipbuilding. An average of 300 workmen were employed.

The firm was acquired by Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912) in 1887, and renamed the Irvine Ship Building and Dry Docks Company Ltd.

Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912) in 1902

Irvine’s yard was struck by fire in 1891, with damage estimated at £20,000.

The yard was considerably extended in 1897 to enable it to construct steamers of 10,000 tons deadweight. There were three large berths, and the yard employed around 1,000 men.

Robert Irvine died in 1903 and his estate was valued at £104,238.

Irvine & Co had the capacity to construct 24 steamers per annum in 1908. The Furness Withy shipyard at Middleton, Hartlepool, was acquired in 1909.

In 1911 Irvine & Co was the eighth largest shipbuilder in Britain, as measured by gross tonnage. Irvine & Co built twelve ships a year during the First World War.

The company was acquired by the Commercial Bank of London, led by Clarence C Hatry (1888 – 1965), in 1917. The company prospered during the First World War, but had to reduce its capital in 1920 following a depression in the shipbuilding industry.

The company employed 3,000 employees by 1922. The yard covered eleven acres.

The last Irvine-built vessel to use the dry dock was in 1924. The shipbuilding yard was closed in 1925-6. The company entered receivership in 1926.

Capital was further reduced from £740,000 to £157,000 in 1929. The company entered into liquidation in 1930 after accruing excessive debts.

Later that year the yard received a reprieve when it was acquired as a going-concern by a syndicate of West Hartlepool businessmen, led by Stephen Furness, with a capital of £20,000. The plan was to maintain the yard with repairing and breaking contracts until the shipbuilding industry revived.

Unfortunately Britain had an oversupply of shipyards, and in 1938 the yard was nationalised by the government and mothballed.

Attempts to reopen the yard during the Second World War were unsuccessful due to a shortage of labour. It was found to be more efficient to simply increase production at existing shipyards.

A Wear we go: William Doxford

Doxford of Sunderland was the largest shipbuilder, and the largest manufacturer of marine engines in the world.

The business is established
William Doxford (1812–1882) established a shipyard at Coxgreen, Sunderland, from 1840. He built wooden sailing ships.

Doxford relocated the works to Pallion, Sunderland from 1858. Here, he began to build composite vessels; ships made from both wood and iron. From this time he was joined by his eldest son, William Theodore Doxford (1841 – 1916).

William Theodore Doxford (1841 – 1916) by Benjamin Stone in 1899. Image used with the kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

Business expanded after the firm launched its first iron vessel in 1865.

A larger yard with a five berth capacity was acquired in 1870.

The first government contract, an order for three gunboats, arrived in 1872.

The engineering works were opened in 1878. The marine engines business was to become as important as shipbuilding to the firm.

The firm built the largest steamer afloat, the 4,500 ton Grecian, in 1879.

William Doxford Sr died in 1882, and Theodore William Doxford became the head of the business.

Theodore William Doxford was a firm supporter of trade unions, and stated his belief that, “the stronger the unions are the less likely there will be strikes”.

William Doxford & Sons is incorporated
The business was incorporated as William Doxford & Sons with a capital of £200,000, all owned by the Doxford family, in 1891.

William Doxford & Sons launched the first turret-deck steamer in 1892. The Samoa, the largest cargo vessel in the world, was launched in 1892.

William Doxford & Sons launched the largest cargo-carrying vessel ever built in England or Scotland in 1896. The Algoa, with a carrying capacity of 11,300 tons, was the second largest ship afloat.

William Theodore Doxford was knighted in 1900.

William Doxford & Sons laid down the largest private crane in the world in 1900.

William Doxford & Sons made a limited public offering of shares in 1900. The company had a share capital of £500,000. The works covered 32 acres.

An aerial view of the Doxford shipbuilding and engine works in 1967. Image used with permission from Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

The original five berths were replaced with three berths of greater length, each with the capacity for a 12,000 ton ship, from 1904.

William Doxford & Sons held the “Blue Ribbon” for the largest output of any British shipyard in 1905 and 1907. 20 vessels were launched in 1905 with a gross tonnage of 86,532. Output in 1906 was much larger, at 106,000 tons, although the shipyard did not win the Blue Ribbon that year.

William Doxford & Sons constructed its first oil-powered engine in 1912.

During the First World War the shipyard and engineering works concentrated on the construction of destroyers. 21 destroyers were built between 1914 and 1918.

Loss of independence and eventual closure
The Northumberland Shipbuilding Company, controlled by the Sperling Group, acquired William Doxford & Sons for over £3 million in 1919. Chaired by Viscount Furness (1883 – 1940), the combine was one of the largest industrial companies in Europe and the largest shipbuilding group in Britain.

The Doxford opposed-piston, airless injection oil engine was introduced from 1921.

At one point during the 1930s, 90 percent of the world’s diesel marine engines were designed or being built by William Doxford & Sons.

Charles David Doxford died in 1935, the last member of the Doxford family to take an active interest in the management of the business.

William Doxford & Sons launched its largest vessel to date, the 16,500 ton Charlton Venus tanker, in 1951.

Inside the Engine Works Fabricating department (1954). Image courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

The Doxford engine held a 25 to 30 percent global market share throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The Doxford engine was also produced under licence by 25 different businesses around the world. However foreign competitors such as Sulzer Brothers of Switzerland and Burmeister & Wain of Denmark had begun to take market share.

The Sunderland Shipbuilding Dry Docks and Engineering Company was acquired in 1961. The amalgamation brought the largest engineering works on the River Wear and three shipyards under a single owner.

William Doxford & Sons was acquired by Court Line in 1972. Court Line ran into financial difficulties, and Doxford was starved of investment for research and development.

467 engine making jobs were lost in 1979.

The last Doxford engine was made in 1980. Across its history, 1,200 Doxford engines were sold.

The three Wearside yards of Sunderland Shipbuilders were closed with the loss of 2,500 jobs in 1990.



Marching orders: Palmer of Jarrow

Palmer’s of Jarrow was the largest shipbuilder in the world throughout much of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Jarrow became nicknamed “Palmer’s Town”.

The Palmer brothers establish a shipbuilding works
Charles Mark Palmer (1822 – 1907) was born in South Shields, the son of a merchant and shipowner.

Charles Palmer partnered with John Bowes to establish a coke-making business. John Bowes & Co grew to become one of the largest colliery concerns in the North of England, producing one million tons of coal per annum.

The growth of the railway network meant that coal from the Midlands could be supplied to the large London market at a lower cost than coal from the North. Palmer believed that coal could be shipped to London at a lower cost if steam-powered vessels were used instead of wooden sailing ships.

Together with his brother George Palmer (1814 – 1879), Charles Palmer leased a shipyard at Jarrow on Tyne from 1851. It had previously been used to make wooden frigates for the Royal Navy.

Palmer Brothers launched the John Bowes, the first successful iron-built, steam-powered, screw-propelled, water-ballasted collier, in 1852. The John Bowes became the first steam ship to transport coal from the North of England to London.

The launching of the HMS Queen Mary from Palmer's shipyard in 1912
The launching of the HMS Queen Mary from Palmer’s shipyard in 1912

Palmer Brothers soon became known for the quality of its ships,and received its first Royal Navy contract in 1856. The HMS Terror was the first rolled-iron, armour-plated ship. The Royal Navy association would remain throughout the history of the company.

Four blast-furnaces were built in 1857, and rolling mills in 1859.

Palmer Brothers was the largest shipbuilder in the world by 1859.

The business employed 3,500 men, consumed 18,000 tons of iron, and produced over 22,000 tons of shipping every year by the early 1860s.

George Palmer retired from business in 1862.

Charles Palmer opened a Mechanic’s Institute for the education of the men of Jarrow in 1864.

Palmers is registered as a company
The business was registered as Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company Ltd in 1865.

The Jarrow works covered nearly 100 acres of land by 1869. Four blast furnaces had a capacity of 60,000 tons of pig iron per annum. Around 5,000 men were employed.

Rolling mills were established from 1874.

Sir Charles Mark Palmer (1822 – 1907) in 1899

Charles Palmer was appointed as a Member of Parliament from 1874. However the business suffered without his presence, and he was forced to return in 1876 to save the company. Various members of management were dismissed.

Palmers broke the record for the largest shipping tonnage (61,113) produced in a single year in 1883. Palmer was largely producing cargo-carrying steamships for the coal and iron industries of the North of England.

A steel works was established from 1885.

Charles Palmer employed over 20,000 people by 1891, and was one of the largest employers of labour in the country.

The shipbuilding works employed 7,600 people in 1893. The majority of the workforce consisted of Irish immigrants.

The works began to make a loss, and Palmer, facing bankruptcy, resigned as head of the company in 1893.

Palmers was the sixth largest shipbuilder in Britain, as measured by tonnage, in 1899. Just under 10,000 men were employed by the company by 1900. Between 1852 and 1900, nearly 1.25 million tons of shipping were produced, more than any other company.

A steel-producing plant, the third of its kind in England, was opened in 1903.

The company employed 7,500 people in 1908, and was amongst the top thirty largest British manufacturing employers. In 1910 the Jarrow works covered nearly three quarters of a mile along the River Tyne, and about 100 acres. The works included five blast furnaces.

Lord Furness, a local industrialist, became chairman of the company from 1910. Furness planned to extend and consolidate the firm. Under his impetus, in 1911 the firm acquired Robert Stephenson & Sons, with a shipyard at Hebburn. The Hebburn site included the largest dry dock on the East coast; the only one capable of accommodating the new dreadnought battleships. Hebburn would take on merchant work, and Jarrow would be largely dedicated to naval contracts.

Following a reluctance of shareholders to contribute further capital to the company, as well as his ailing health, Furness resigned in 1912. The national coal strike of 1912 cost the firm £30,000.

Palmer’s shipyard in the early twentieth century. Courtesy of the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

The San Hilario was launched in 1913. Built for the Eagle Oil Transport Company, it was the largest oil tank steamer afloat.

By 1913 the firm had built 76 battleships at its Jarrow yard.

During the First World War Palmers docked and repaired 347 warships and merchant vessels.

Palmers built its thousandth vessel in 1930.

Palmers enters into receivership
Palmers shipyard entered receivership in 1934. It was taken over by National Shipbuilding Securities Ltd, a government company which acquired redundant yards.

Thomas W Ward Ltd of Sheffield, a dismantling firm, acquired the Jarrow blast furnaces and steel works in 1934. The company acquired the yard in 1935.

Vickers Armstrong Ltd acquired the Hebburn site in 1935, which continued to be operated under its old management.

The poverty that ensued among former Palmers workers led to the Jarrow March of 1936.

Swan Hunter of Wallsend

Swan Hunter was the largest shipbuilder in the world by the early twentieth century. The yard constructed 1,600 ships, including the RMS Mauretania (1906), HMS Ark Royal and numerous supertankers before its closure in 2006.

Swan Hunter is established
George Burton Hunter (1846 – 1937) partnered with the widow of Charles Sheridan Swan and became managing director of a new shipbuilding firm, C S Swan & Hunter, with a yard at Wallsend, Tyneside from 1879.

The seven acre site provided employment for up to 700 people. The business steadily expanded under boom conditions and able management from Hunter.

Sir George Burton Hunter (1846 – 1937) by Walter Stoneman in 1920. Image used with kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

An evangelical Anglican, Hunter was a strong temperance advocate. He was regarded as a fair and just employer.

The name of the firm was changed to Swan Hunter from 1880.

Swan Hunter becomes one of the largest shipbuilders in Britain
Swan Hunter became the leading Tyneside shipbuilder, in terms of tonnage constructed, for the first time in 1893.

Swan Hunter was established as a limited liability company, with Hunter as chairman, in 1895.

The company shipyards (not including the engine works) employed 2,500 men by July 1897. The works covered over 33 acres.

The Swan Hunter yard circa 1900
The Swan Hunter yard circa 1900

The neighbouring yard of Schlesinger, Davis & Co was acquired in 1897, and thereafter used to build floating docks.

Swan Hunter was the second largest shipbuilder in Britain in 1898, as measured by tonnage. The following year it was the seventh largest.

Swan Hunter differed from competitors in that it built ships inside large sheds, which allowed work to continue during poor weather conditions.

After winning a valuable contract with Cunard, Swan Hunter merged with Wigham Richardson & Co of Tyneside to create the largest shipbuilder in Britain, with a share capital of £1.5 million, in 1903. The company employed 4,600 people.

Swan Hunter broke the world record for tonnage produced (126,000) in 1906.

Construction of the RMS Mauretania in 1905. Source: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

The building of the RMS Mauretania, launched in 1906, brought the company worldwide repute. At 30,000 tons, she was the largest ship in the world until the completion of the RMS Olympic in 1911, and the fastest until the maiden voyage of the Bremen in 1929.

Swan Hunter had the largest aggregate production of any British shipbuilder between 1902 and 1909: 150 vessels of a total of 569,842 tons.

Swan Hunter had the largest output of any shipbuilding business in the world between 1910 and 1913. The company launched 21 ships with a combined tonnage of over 126,000 in 1912. The works on Tyneside covered 78 acres.

Barclay Curle & Co of Glasgow was acquired in 1913. The merged company had a combined annual tonnage of 230,000. The Clydeside works covered 60 acres.

During the First World War the yard built over 100 warships and 230 other vessels.

Swan Hunter employed 10,000 people across a 100 acre site by 1920.

In 1921 George Burton Hunter lamented that American shipyards were twice as efficient as British ones, which were hampered by restrictive trade union practices.

Swan Hunter had the largest output of any British shipbuilding company, with a tonnage of just under 120,000 in 1922.

Swan Hunter employed 10,000 men and boys during regular periods by 1928.

George Burton Hunter retired in 1928, and died in 1937.

Mergers and decline
Following a recommendation by the Government’s Geddes Report, Swan Hunter merged with fellow Tyneside shipbuilders Vickers, R & W Hawthorne Leslie & Co and John Readhead & Sons in 1968. It was the largest shipbuilding group in Britain, with 20,000 employees. It held one third of British shipbuilding and repairing capacity.

The British shipbuilding industry was largely nationalised by the government in 1977, and Swan Hunter, with 11,000 employees, became a part of British Shipbuilders.

Swan Hunter regained its independence in a £5 million management buyout in 1986. 4,500 people were employed.

Swan Hunter entered into receivership in 1993. It was acquired by a Dutchman, Jaap Kroese (1939 – 2015), for £4 million in 1995.

Swan Hunter ceased to build ships on Tyneside in 2006. The company’s last cranes on the River Tyne were shipped to India in 2009.

Head of steam: William Gray & Co

William Gray & Co was the largest shipbuilder in the world. The founder, Sir William Gray, was largely responsible for the growth of the town of Hartlepool.

William Gray establishes a shipbuilding business
William Gray (1823 – 1898) was born in Blyth, Northumberland. He established himself as a draper in the growing port town of Hartlepool, in the North East of England, from 1843.

Gray made a success of the drapery business, and reinvested his profits into sailing ships. He had become the largest owner of wooden ship tonnage in Hartlepool by 1863.

Sir William Gray
Sir William Gray (1823 – 1898)

Gray decided to enter into shipbuilding for himself, and entered into partnership with John Punshon Denton (1800 -1871), a well-established Hartlepool shipbuilder, from 1862. Denton & Gray launched their first ship the following year. The yard concentrated on the construction of iron ships, which were increasingly replacing wooden vessels.

Pile Spence & Co had pioneered iron steamship construction in Hartlepool in 1855. The business entered into liquidation due to the failure of the Overend Gurney bank, and Denton & Gray acquired its three shipyards in 1869.

John Denton died in 1871 and the business became known as William Gray & Co. By this time the firm was established as the largest shipbuilder in West Hartlepool, with an annual production of 16,490 tons.

William Gray & Co became the largest shipbuilder in the world, as measured by tonnage, for the first time in 1879. The ships were largely mid-sized cargo steamers.

The yard had produced 157 iron vessels with an aggregate value of £3.1 million by 1880. William Gray & Co was indisputably the largest industrial business in Hartlepool, and employed 1,400 workmen.

Gray established the Central Marine Engineering Works to manufacture steam engines from 1884. The chairman was G H Baines and the managing director was Thomas Mudd (1852 – 1898), one of the most talented engineers in the country.

Gray was a man known for his energy, perseverance and integrity. A large factor in his success was his willingness to extend credit to ship owners, or to take stakes in the ships themselves.

A warm and amiable man, Gray was a staunch Presbyterian. He donated thousands of pounds to the non-conformist chapels of Hartlepool in 1881. He was appointed the first Mayor of West Hartlepool in 1887.

William Gray & Co becomes a limited company
William Gray & Co became a limited company with a capital of £350,000 from 1888.

Weekly pay for employees amounted to over £8,000 in 1889.

William Gray & Co was quick to respond to an increasing demand for oil tankers. The yard built Bakuin (1886), the first oil tanker for a British owner. The Murex (1892) was the first of a number of oil tankers built for Shell, and became the first oil tanker to navigate the Suez Canal.

William Gray & Co had launched around 350 vessels, almost all steamships, by 1890. William Gray was also one of the largest shipowners in the United Kingdom. William Gray & Co employed 4,000 to 4,500 men and boys; a third of the population of Hartlepool. It was reported in an American newspaper that William Gray “almost owned the town”.

William Gray received a knighthood in 1890. He was appointed president of the Chamber of Shipping for the United Kingdom in 1891. Gray became High Sheriff of Durham in 1892.

For most of his life a Liberal, Gray stood as the Unionist parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool in 1891. He lost to fellow Hartlepool industrialist Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912), and was said to have been “beside himself with rage and disappointment” that his own employees helped to elect a rival. Gray was a good employer, but the electorate preferred the rival Liberal policies. It was alleged that Furness had promised his employees to only hire union labour if he was elected.

A statue of William Gray, paid for by public subscription, was erected in Hartlepool in 1898. Gray died later that year with an estate valued at over £1.5 million.

William Cresswell Gray takes over the business
William Gray was succeeded in business by his only surviving son, William Cresswell Gray (1867 – 1924).

William C Gray spent £9,000 to clear the debts of all the churches and chapels of Hartlepool in 1899.

William Gray & Co employed over 2,000 men in 1897. The company was the largest shipbuilder in the world in 1898, as measured by tonnage, and the second largest the following year. In 1900 it again won the title of the largest shipbuilder in the world. The business employed 2,000 to 3,000 workers by 1901.

Gray & Co launched the sixth largest aggregate tonnage of shipping in Britain between 1901 and 1909.

Gray & Co was the fourth largest shipbuilder in the world in 1915.

William Gray visited the Harland & Wolff yard in Belfast and was impressed by the amount of orders received for ship-repair work. He established a ship-repairing yard at Graythorp, Hartlepool, in 1916.

Following the First World War there was a rise in demand for new ships. To meet demand, a new shipyard was established at Pallion on the River Wear.

Despite a failed attempt by Christopher Furness, it was William Gray & Co that successfully introduced the first large-scale profit-sharing scheme for shipbuilding industry workers from 1919. Every employee received a 20 percent share of net profits.

William Gray & Co gifted a park and a worker’s institute to the people of Hartlepool at a cost of £35,000 in 1920. The company also established a convalescent home at the cost of £10,000.

The profit-sharing scheme saw William Gray & Co distribute £31,784 to 4,262 employees in 1921.

Sir William Gray and the demise of the business
Sir William Cresswell Gray died in 1924 and left a net estate valued at £279,069. He was succeeded by his son, Sir William Gray (1895 – 1978), as company chairman.

17 vessels with a total tonnage of 107,393 were launched in 1928.

William Gray & Co launched its thousandth ship in 1929. By this time the business had built 774 marine engines, and 2,196 boilers. 3,500 men were employed.

The Wearside yard was closed in 1930, and sold to National Shipbuilders Security in 1936.

William Gray & Co was the second largest British shipbuilder in 1932.

Frederick Cresswell Pyman (1889 – 1966) had been appointed managing director of William Gray & Co by 1939.

William Gray & Co had the second largest output of any shipbuilder in the North East of England during the Second World War, constructing 90 vessels. At its peak, the company employed 3,545 men in the shipyard and 1,400 in the engine works.

William Gray & Co had fallen to eleventh place in the region by 1950. The company received no orders in 1952 or 1953.

F C Pyman suggested that the post-war shipbuilding industry lacked sufficient managers and foremen. The two World Wars had killed off many experienced men, and the trade depression between the wars had seen an underinvestment in training. The industry was also hampered by the fact that trade unions had secured large increases in pay for their workers, but that this was not accompanied by a rise in productivity.

In order to meet capacity for oil tankers, £2 million was invested at the Graythorp site to make it the main shipbuilding centre from the mid-1950s.

Pyman stepped down as managing director in 1955, and was replaced by Stephen Furness and W T Gray as joint-managing directors.

300 men were laid off in 1959.

William Gray & Co launched its last ship in 1961, after which the company was solely engaged in repair work. Amid a trade recession in the early 1960s the company was forced to take on conversion work at a loss in order to provide employment for its workers. 450 men were made redundant in 1962, leaving a workforce of just under 1,000. The firm entered into voluntary liquidation in 1963.

Company director Nicholas Anthony Gray (born 1934) explained:

The main reason for the company disbanding was that it was situated in an enclosed docks system with a limited entrance which restricted the company to building ships of no more than 16,000 tons deadweight and in these days it is really necessary to be able to build much larger ships than this if you are in the market of ocean-going vessels. The final decision to close was accelerated by the UK shipbuilding slump.

In one hundred years the yard had built around 1,400 ships.

The ship-repairing business at Graythorp was sold to Smith’s Dock Company in 1963.

The Graythorp site was acquired by Laing Offshore in 1969, and used to construct North Sea oil rigs. The site became the largest dry dock in the world. The site is now owned by Able UK.

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.