Monthly Archives: July 2020

Moments in Time.. Paddy Henderson

Paddy Henderson’s Burmese Venture

An interesting history – By Geoff Walker

The house flag of P. Henderson & Co., of Glasgow. A vertical red white and blue with a small Union Flag in the center. P. Henderson & Co, also known as Paddy Anderson & Co was a Scottish ship owning and management company. The company was founded in 1840 as a partnership between Patrick and George Henderson, who initially operated chartered vessels to Australia, then to New Zealand. Patrick Henderson was a merchant, who had three brothers, two also being merchants, working for an agent at the Italian port of Leghorn. The third brother, George, was a Sea Captain. Together, the brothers invested in a ship, the Peter Senn, and the business started to blossom, but tragedy struck when Patrick died in 1841, and the business was taken over by his brother, Captain George Henderson. In 1848, George went into partnership with a young man, James Galbraith. James showed outstanding abilities and successfully expanded the business from merchants, to become ship owners and ship managers, when in 1848 they established the Albion Line.

Their concept was to carry Scottish emigrants, cargo and Royal Mail to Australia and New Zealand on their outbound leg of the voyage, and to secure cargoes from Australia and New Zealand for the return voyage to the UK., but they encountered difficulties in attracting sufficient return cargoes. As a remedial action, and in attempts to fill their homebound ships, they decided to try calling at Rangoon, which was then the principal port of British colonial Burma, situated on the Irrawaddy River. So, during 1865, Henderson and Co established the Irrawaddy Flotilla & Burmese Steam Navigation Co in co-operation with the Denny companies, which provided a vast water transport network to the interior of Burma. There was an abundance of cargo from Burma which benefitted their ships considerably, so in 1870 P. Henderson & Co. inaugurated a steamship service between Glasgow, Liverpool and Burma The incorporation of the British and Burmese Steam Navigation Co (BBSN) in 1874, followed the opening of the Suez Canal, and carried passengers direct to Burma. BBSN took over the fleet of steamships on the Burma route, and appointed P Henderson and Co., as managing agents. Meanwhile, the Albion shipping company, which Henderson’s had earlier established became the dominant British company in the New Zealand trade, and holders of the lucrative mail contract. They also introduced the first refrigerated sailing ships between New Zealand and the UK. Sailing ships were used due to the limited number of coaling ports which were required by the newer steamships.

Progressively, as more coaling ports became available, steamships increased trading potential but required high capital investment which were beyond the scope of P. Henderson or the Albion Shipping Company to meet in their own right, and so in 1882, the Albion Shipping Company amalgamated with Shaw, Savill and Company to form the Shaw, Savill and Albion Company Ltd. The death of James Galbraith in 1884, the driving force of P. Henderson & Co marked the end of an era of when private capital was the norm for shipowners.

The Peter Denny built in 1865 by Duthie of Aberdeen belonged to the Albion Shipping company. She operated the New Zealand route, mostly carrying emigrants from Scotland.

(unknown source) After the amalgamation, P. Henderson & Co remained as managers and loading brokers for the new company in Glasgow. British and Burmese Steam Navigation Company Ltd., remained as a ship owning company along with another member of the group, the Burma Steam Ship Company Ltd., both being managed by P. Henderson & Co. British colonial rule in Burma lasted from 1824 to 1948, which resulted from the successive three AngloBurmese wars through the creation of Burma as a Province of British India, known as British Burma, to the establishment of an independently administered colony. Final independence being granted in 1948.

Above, an early poster of Paddy Henderson promoting their UK to Rangoon service via the Suez Canal.

The post independent years saw a decline of the Burma trade, which was one of the factors why Elder, Dempster Lines chartered P Henderson’s fleet from 1947 onwards and took over the company in 1952. Under Elder, Dempster stewardship and modernization, P Henderson fleet continued in service, with some new motor ships being delivered until the early 1960s. But due to the Suez crisis and nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1954, the trade between UK and Burma all but ceased causing a rapid decline in the company’s fortunes over ensuing 8 years of disruption, as most cargo and mails were routed via India.

Left, the Paddy Henderson liner

“Amarapoora”. She was built in 1920 for the Glasgow – Liverpool Rangoon service. At the outbreak of WW 2 she was requisitioned by the British Admiralty for use as a hospital ship. She was purchased by the Ministry of Transport in 1946, became an emigrant ship in 1948, was renamed Captain Hobson in 1951, and eventually went for demolition in 1959.

Another Paddy Henderson Poster advertising their freight and passenger service to Burma

The Paddy Henderson fleet suffered badly during both world wars with many ships lost. In 1905 a P Henderson steamship, the cargo ship Ava, ran aground and was wrecked 9 nautical miles off Maulmain in Burma. Henderson’s quickly replaced the ship with a new Ava built the following year, but the new ship’s career was cut short in the First World War, when she disappeared in January 1917 with the loss of all 92 persons aboard. She is presumed to have been sunk off the south coast of Ireland.

That year P. Henderson lost one more ship to enemy action. On 8 July 1917, the U-boat U-57 torpedoed the passenger cargo ship Pegu off the south coast of Ireland. Fortunately, all but one of those aboard survived. A replacement Pegu was built in 1921.

Just after the Armistice with Germany was declared, P Henderson lost yet another ship: on 19 December 1918, the passenger cargo ship Tenasserim was destroyed by fire in Rangoon.

P. Henderson also endured greater losses during the Second World War. On 24 November 1939, the Pegu ran around close to the Crosby Channel, off Liverpool. She broke her back and was wrecked, breaking into two sections. On 13 July 1940, the German commerce raider and auxiliary cruiser Atlantis sank the British & Burmese SN Co. & Burmah SS Co. (P. Henderson as managers) passenger cargo liner Kemmendine by gunfire, in the Indian Ocean about 700 miles south of Ceylon whilst on a passage from the UK. to Rangoon via Cape Town. All the crew were taken prisoners and transported to Europe where they remained until the end of hostilities.

On 9 April 1942, the passenger ship Sagaing – pictured left, was in Ceylon (Sri Lnka) at the port of Trincomalee, when aircraft from a Japanese aircraft carrier attacked her and set her on fire. Her crew abandoned ship but then she was sunk by gunfire. The wreck was later raised from where she lay in Malay Cove, relocated and deliberately re-sunk, to be used as a pier.

On 1 August 1942, the cargo ship Kalewa collided with the Dutch liner Boringia off the coast of South Africa. Kalewa sank but Boringia survived the collision and rescued everyone from the Kalewa.

P. Henderson’s heaviest war losses were during 1943. On 2 April, the German submarine U-124 torpedoed the cargo ship Katha off the coast of Portugal, killing six of her crew. On 9 May U-123 sank the passenger cargo ship Kanbe by torpedo, off the coast of West Africa, killing all 66 people aboard. On 24 July, U-199 torpedoed the cargo ship Henzada off the coast of Brazil killing 2 crew members.

The MV Kadeik built for Paddy Hendersons in 1952, Although part of the P. Henderson fleet she was mostly operated by Elder, Dempster Lines.the British and Burmese SN Co’s, 1950 built ship Martaban, under P. Henderson & Co management. She was sold for continued trading in 1964 to China Merchants’ SN Co Ltd and renamed Hai Ho. She was then sold to shipbreakers in 1971 but gained a lastminute reprieve, and was resold as a going concern with a name change to Ken Ho. She was finally demolished in 1975 by Taiwanese breakers.

{unknown source} Yet another war loss, on 17 June 1943, U-81 sank the passenger ship Yoma in the Mediterranean. Yoma had been converted into a troopship, and the sinking killed 484 troops and crew. The ship was owned by British & Burmese S.N. Co. Ltd. and Burmah S.S. Co. Ltd., under the management of Paddy Henderson & Co.

(unknown source)

The very elegant Pegu, built in 1961, for British & Burmese SN Co. (P. Henderson as managers) she was one of the last ships to be delivered under the Paddy Henderson banner. Between 1964 and 1975 she sailed for Elder, Dempster and Guinea Gulf as one of the group fleet ships, finally being sold for continued trading. She continued to serve various foreign owners, prior to being sold for scrap in 1982

In 1965 Ocean Steamship Co acquired control of the Elder, Dempster group. In 1967, following the Six-Day War, Egypt closed the Suez Canal, so Ocean SS Co discontinued the Burma route and transferred Henderson’s last three ships to Elder, Dempster.

By 1970, by this time all shareholdings had been transferred to Elder, Dempster and the Henderson name disappeared into obscurity with their last vessel being sold in the same year.

Since concept by the Henderson brothers in 1840, Paddy Henderson’s ships frequent and became familiar sights in the Burmese, Indian Ocean, and African trades, before their eventual demise in 1970. Their presence in the Burmese trade, became iconic and indelibly stamped for over a Century. Their innovation, drive, and farsightedness as shipowners and managers is a matter worthy of great veneration.


Credits and References: Various P. Henderson archival sources.

See for similar accounts and lots more….

Tramp owners…

One of the last Chapman ships MV Frumenton.

A Moment in Time – A Series..Chapman and Willan Ltd.

Compiled and edited by Geoff Walker

One of the best known and dynamic Tyneside tramp shipowners. The company was commenced as a partnership in 1878 between Ralph Chapman, and Thomas R. Miller, both originating from the Newcastle area. They had previously worked together and held interests in several small sailing vessels. Ralph Chapman had a background as a Ship Chandler, Insurance Broker and in Shipping Agency.

Ralph Chapman and Thomas R Miller decided in 1878, to form the partnership Chapman & Miller to buy two ships. They purchased their first ship later the same year, a steamship which named Benton, which had been built in 1872. Their new acquisition was soon lengthened by thirty feet to increase her dwt cargo carrying capacity.

Expansion of their shipping enterprise was expanded on a steady and solid footing with both the Carlton Steamship Co. Ltd. and Cambay Steamship Co. Ltd. being established in 1892 as subsidiaries. The principal shareholders in both companies were the Chapman family, business associates and some friends. The managing partnership eventually became Chapman and Son. Thomas Miller had left the Newcastle area to spend more time in London on business, but the Miller family continued to own shares in the Chapman companies until 1958. Frank Chapman was the son of Ralph Chapman and he had joined the family business in 1892, having served a four years apprenticeship with Stephens and Mawson of Newcastle, later Stephens Sutton Ltd. Consequently, the main company name was changed to R. Chapman & Son in 1896. Chapmans again changed name in 1950s to become Chapman & Willan Ltd. The introduction of bulk carriers and later, container ships signaled the end of tramp shipping and the old fleet was progressively reduced, by either sale or demolition. Eventually, the company was sold to Burnett Chapman Ship Management Ltd., part of the Federal Commerce and Navigation Group, of Canada in 1974.

Throughout its tenure Chapmans had principally been involved in worldwide tramp trades from its inception and was the basis on which their business had become successfully established, by 1914 eight ships were owned. Their fleet never became overly large however, one of the main factors being that they suffered frequent losses at sea, including ships lost during WW1.Nevertheless, by the outbreak of WW2 their fleet had been rebuilt to some 15 vessels. Unfortunately, 11 of those ships became casualties of WW2. Their ships were engaged in long trade routes from North Africa to the U.S.A. with iron ore, and on the ‘Eternal Triangle’ route with Tyne coal to the Mediterranean, usually returning with grains from the Black Sea.

Steamship Amberton, built 1928. Wrecked Western Head, Cape Pine, Newfoundland in 1947 whilst en route from Quebec to London with a cargo of timber.

The Steamship Allerton, built 1941.

Originally managed by Carlton SS Co Ltd & Cambay SS Co Ltd

Sold and changed name to North Lady in 1957, onsold 1961 and renamed Ypapanti. Sold 1964 and renamed Ever Fortune. She went for demolition at Kaohsiung in 1968

All their vessels had the suffix “ton” in their name, ie.Allerton, Amberton, Brighton, Carlton, Demeterton, Ingleton, Merton, Norton.

MV Brighton built 1960. A handsome profile and the forerunner to several similarly designed vessels. Change of name to Kaptayanni in 1971, renamed Mareantes 1973, change of name to Loukia and owner to Conship Cia SA 1975, change of name to Melpo 1976, change of name to Despoula K. Parted tow and wrecked 1982 whilst en-route from Monrovia to Split for demolition. Chapman Group House Flag and funnel Logo

One of the last Chapman ships MV Frumenton. Built in Japan 1968 for John Manners of Hong Kong, as “East Breeze” but delivered ex yard as “Frumenton”. In 1974 sold to Burnett SS Co of Canada, 1974 sold to Maidstone Shipping, Liberia r/n Aegis Typhoon, 1979 sold to Asterion Shipping, Greece r/n Asterion, 1987 r/n Nicolaos A, 1990 r/n Astron, 1992 r/n Colmena, 1994 sent for demolition.

So, there came about the demise of yet another British shipping icon, but the company lives on through the mists of sentiment and nostalgia, especially for those mariners who sailed on Chapman ships.


Many thanks to an ex Bank Line man, Captain Geoff Walker for this contribution. See his fascinating maritime site at

CEDARBANK painting..

This lovely rendition is by junglecat. See more at

The CEDARBANK shown was the 3rd vessel to bear this name, and there was another built in 1976 from the FLEETBANK class. The CEDARBANK above was one of the highly successful ‘Copra’ ships built in the mid 1950’s. If appointed to them there was a good chance of a six month voyage but it was by no means guaranteed!


A copy of the original Indentures between George Russell, 16 years old, and Andrew Weir in 1889. George sailed on the HAWTHORNBANK and the THISTLEBANK and successfully completed the 4 years, no mean feat in the sailing era.

George Russell’s photo some 30 years later when working as a FOY boatman on the River Tyne out of S Shields. ( Towing sailing ships for a fee, and later for rope handling for the steamers)

Wages for the first year £4. He should not play ‘unlawful games’ nor frequent Taverns or Alehouses. NB: The wording 60 years later was still in use with only a few changes such as the dropping of a reference to ‘Prize money’, a relic from earlier times still.

The reverse showing the wages settlement and the sentence, ” The within Indenture has been completed by George Russell, and he leaves as a good seaman,”

Hawthornbank, one of George’s vessels in which he did 2 voyages. Shown under new owners

Thistlebank Master and Officers

The fascinating account and material above kindly supplied by Peter R Russell, George’s grandson. Many thanks Peter.

Sailing Fleet article


“ How a young Scottish entrepreneur built up the largest fleet of British flagged sailing ships”.

Andrew Weir, the great shipping entrepreneur, was born in April  1865.   He later became Lord Inverforth,  and among many other achievements, he created the largest sailing ship fleet under the red ensign.  His great adventure started in 1888 with a small purchased three-masted vessel, the Willowbank. Soon, Andrew Weir  added both second hand and new buildings and evidently he was  a man in a hurry.    The start was made in the tramping trades where ready cargoes were available.   Some might say that good fortune smiled on the new owner, getting ten years valuable trading out of that first all-important purchase.  Eventually,  some forty-five vessels made-up the fleet, and these beautiful three and four-masted ships roamed the seas from 1885 to 1915.  During WW1 the company also managed ships for the Admiralty, which some observers count towards a bigger total.    The graceful ships that made up the fleet led a life that was fraught with danger however, so much so that the chances of a long career also carried rather long odds. What follows describes some of the tragedy.

The Willowbank had been named the ‘ Ambrose’ at launch, but in 1884 a company called J.F.Gibb gave her the ‘ Willowbank’ name.   She was small by the standard of later additions at only 882 tons gross but she played a crucial role in that all-important start-up.   Fate determined she should be sunk off Portland in a collision in 1895.  Another old vessel, the Anne Main which was even smaller at 156ft length was purchased in 1886, and she also gave ten years service before being wrecked at Goto Island, Japan.  By this time around thirty-five other vessels, both new and second hand had been added to the fleet, or traded.   It was a fortuitous start built upon those first successful purchases.

 The suffix ‘bank’ then continued for over 100 years through sail, steam, and motor, there being a total of five ships bearing that first lucky name.   The last vessel ever built for the Bank Line repeated the name, and was launched by Smith’s Dock, Middlesborough in 1980.

The first purpose built three-masted sailing ship joined the fleet in 1886 and she was named the ‘ Thornliebank’. Russell and Company in Port Glasgow were entrusted with the order.  They went on to build many more for this owner.   Thornliebank burned out in 1891 and ended her short life as a storage hulk in Fremantle, W. Australia.

1888 saw two more vessels purchased, called the Francis Thorpe and the Abeona. They were both unfortunately wrecked after two years service.  A vessel called ‘ Pomona’ had three short years in the fleet from 1889 to 1892 before being abandoned at sea shortly after leaving London with a general cargo.

Then came a rapid spate of new orders.  The fast growth of the fleet was breathtaking. In all eighteen new vessels joined the fleet and in order they were:  Hawthornbank, Hazelbank, Elmbank, and Comliebank in 1889/90.     1891/2 saw eight new vessels named Thistlebank, Gowanbank, Ashbank, Beechbank, Fernbank, Oakbank, Cedarbank, and Olivebank built by A. McMillan & Sons.  They were all four-masted vessels. A year later came  six new buildings  named Levernbank, Laurelbank, Castlebank, Heathbank, Falklandbank, and Springbank.  This latter order from Russell and Company, in Port Glasgow, was called the Levernbank class after the lead ship, and they were also big  four-masted vessels with dimensions of 282.9 x 43 x 24.4 and 2,400 tons gross.   

Of the above, the Hawthornbank served for a remarkable twenty-one years and was eventually torpedoed and lost in 1917 when under the Norwegian flag.

The Gowanbank was abandoned off Cape Horn in 1896.

The Fernbank was wrecked in the Mozambique Channel after ten years in service.

The smart new Hazelbank was also unlucky, as on the 25th October 1980 she was lost on the Goodwin Sands whilst on a voyage from Port Townsend to Hull carrying a cargo of wheat. She had been in service less than twelve months.

 The Elmbank was lost when in January 1894 when being being towed from Le Havre to Greenock, she broke adrift from her tug and was wrecked on the South part of the Isle of Arran, near Bennan Head. The master’s wife and children were fortunately taken off by a tug before the ship was wrecked on the shore.

Oakbank was another casualty.  In 1900, while on a voyage from Callao to Iquique, she was wrecked on Serrano Island near Iquique.

The Comliebank was one of the few fortunate ships and lasted twenty-three years in the fleet, only to be lost in the Atlantic six years later under the Norwegian flag.  Thistlebank also went twenty-three years with the Weir fleet, and was torpedoed in 1915 when under Norwegian Ownership.

 Only the Beechbank made it to the breakers yard, but she had suffered a severe dismasting in 1916 during a gale, and managed to make refuge in Lerwick harbour.

Such was the ambition of Andrew Weir that second hand vessels continued to be purchased even in the middle of a big building programme.  Vessels named, Sardhana, Dunbritton, River Falloch, and Trongate were all acquired.   The Dunbritton foundered in the North Sea in 1906, mainly from having slack rigging, and an official enquiry at the time stated: “ The abandonment of the sailing ship “ Dunbritton” was not caused by the wrongful act or default of the master and chief officer, or of either of them. No blame attaches to Mr Andrew Weir, the managing owner. “   It goes on to blame the stowage of the cargo, and the foreman rigger, who failed to see the rigging was “ properly set up and taut”. He was fined £25 accordingly.     The other vessels were either sold off or went to the breakers.

The four-masted ships, ‘ Trafalgar’ and ‘Mennock’  joined the Weir fleet in 1893 . Trafalgar had been built in 1877 and was a fairly big ship at 271.5 ft long and 1768 tons gross.   After  eleven years valuable service she was wrecked after rounding the Horn, West to East on a voyage from Sydney with wheat, bound for Falmouth for orders. She had been in trouble before as stated in a report:   “During a voyage from Batavia to Melbourne in December 1893, the master and all the officers died, presumably of Java fever. Command was taken over by the senior apprentice, William Shotton (18 years), who navigated the ship all the way from Batavia to Melbourne.

Mennock was hulked after sixteen years service, but new owners re-rigged her and gave her the romantic name of Don Agusto. After a further seven years at sea she was also wrecked.

Only a handful of the full fleet of forty-seven vessels had an uneventful fate.   In the first fifteen years of trading, there were thirty sailing vessels and eleven steamers listed, but it must have been hard to accept the setbacks when smart new ships were lost. Building up a fleet in the days of sail was truly a battle against the elements, and to a certain extent ‘Lady Luck’ played a big part.

A closer look at the individual losses reveals some heart-rending stories, not least about the vessels that sailed and disappeared, never to be heard or seen again. The three-masted Falklandbank, built in 1894 by Mackie and Thomson, Glasgow, for example, disappeared at sea with all hands in December 1907.  She was loaded with coal in Port Talbot and bound round the Horn for Valparaiso.   The Loch Eck, purchased in 1894, stranded at Valparaiso within the year.   1895 two more vessels, the Isle of Arran and the Colessie joined the fleet, the latter ship being wrecked 6 years later.

The Ashbank, Laurelbank, Castlebank, and Heathbank mentioned earlier simply disappeared for good without any news of the ship, cargo, or crew.   It was agony for the family and friends of the crew ashore, made worse by not knowing the circumstances, and the long drawn out realisation as time passed with no news, that they were gone forever.      Other ships in the fleet with none ‘bank’ names that disappeared were the David Morgan, the Perseverance, the Glenbreck, and the Ellisland.   The Cedarbank also suffered this fate later when with new owners.   Pomona and Sardhana were abandoned, as was the Allegiance.  Others were wrecked.  The wrecked vessels each had a story to tell, which at least met the need for news of those waiting on shore,  albeit tragic news.  

The three-masted Thornliebank, built in 1896, was the second vessel with this name and also the last purpose built sailing vessel. She came to sudden grief after a long voyage from Chile when she hit the notorious Crim rocks in the Isles of Scilly.  The enquiry criticised the master.    He had not had a firm position for several days due to inclement weather, and what finally did for him and the ship was the Bishop Rock light characteristics which had been changed but crucially not registered on board.  The actual words of the Court of Enquiry judge were: “  Apart from the master’s omission to obtain a line of soundings, and his failure to identify the Bishop Rock Light, and the siren of the Round Island, the vessel was navigated with proper and seamanlike care.  The court finds that the loss of the ‘Thornliebank’ was due to the default of the master in not making himself acquainted with the changes in the seamarks at the Scilly Isles”.  

Although it was the tramping trades that gave young Mr Weir the way into the ship owning business, he soon created some regular trades.  Over time they became established liner routes.    It became a highly successful pattern, and it was reinforced at every opportunity.  The big fleet of vessels remained available on the open market for tramping, giving a high degree of flexibility and It was a successful formula.  In 1905 he settled on a new name for his fleet, the ‘Bank Line’ and this became world renowned and synonymous as a ‘no frills’ global service in both tramping and liner services.  For mariners, it was never a so-called ‘ prestige’ company, but many liked the varied and regular work that the growing fleet offered.  To achieve his aims, the owner built up a comprehensive network of agents and subsidiaries around the world, many of whom he partnered with in business, and many of whom became long-standing personal friends.       It was another success story, and it ran for many years from the beginning in 1885 to the time when rampant containerisation arrived in force.   When this happened, the regular trades that had formed the backbone of the modern service were gradually eroded by the growing container consortia and the concept of ‘hub’ ports and feeder services that evolved.  Today,  it can  be seen how the company desperately formed innovative services in the 1980s and 90s in an effort to find stability, but all to no avail.        Within the company itself, tragedy struck as the owning family suffered early deaths in the 1980s, and the interest and drive for shipping waned and then morphed into other non shipping activities.   

At the start, Andrew Weir went about his business quietly, content to trade and provide the best service possible to shippers worldwide.  Virtually unknown to the general public,  the nearest to global recognition of Bank Line occurred on the rare occasions that an incident hit the headlines.        Of the ships that made up the sailing fleet, the Olivebank was the most famous, as she was occasionally in the news, usually for being late, and she was to end her days under another well-known Finnish owner, Gustav Erikson.  With this owner some smart passages were made. Reams have been written about her longevity and ability to turn up when lost, but the end of her days came when she was ignominiously mined in the North Sea in 1942.     A few survivors clung to a spar protruding from the water, but the master and many others on board drowned. It was a sad end for a ship that had stretched the imagination of maritime folk, especially, the young. 

In the sailing ship age, longevity was down to a combination of factors, not unlike life itself.    Careful management, good masters, and a liberal helping of good fortune were essential ingredients.  Disaster at sea was a real possibility, and looking back it is clear that certain routes and particular cargoes flagged up danger.       A cursory examination of sailing ship records would show that coal from Newcastle, N.S.W. Australia was always a high-risk cargo due to fire from spontaneous combustion.  Careful stowage was also needed to avoid the danger of this cargo shifting in adverse weather.   The Bank Line had vessels lost on this route,  and the Castlebank  and Ellisland both suffered this particular fate.  The Gowanbank also met her end with a coal cargo, but loaded in Barry, S.Wales.  The following is a true account of the unwelcome experience of a coal cargo loaded in Newcastle and a subsequent fire:

“The beautiful Barque Cedarbank  was a sistership of the famous Olivebank, built at the same yard.   Her tonnage was 2825 gross, and 2649 net.  On her maiden voyage, in June 1892, she loaded coal at Newcastle for San Francisco.  Her cargo was 4,400 tons.   She sailed at the beginning of March, but shortly after sailing she lost part of her masts off of the Australian coast after being caught in a cyclone.    The cyclone caused much damage on the Australian coast, and the Cedarbank had to return to Sydney for repairs, sailing again at the end of April.   Outside of the harbour, the winds were mainly SE’ly, and it was decided to take advantage and sail the northerly route across the Pacific.   After 45 days at sea, strong fumes were then detected coming out of the ventilators, and later some hatches were taken off to allow painting of the coamings, when smoke was seen trickling up through the coal cargo.   The temperature was taken by lowering a thermometer down inside the masts, and as a result, it was decided to fight the fire at number 2 hatch first.       The coal was stowed right up into the hatch square, and about 250 tons was dumped overboard so as to make a space, and to get near the seat of the fire.   After three or four days, the men were overcome by fumes, so the pumps were started and water played over the coal until there was about 30 inches in the bilges where it was pumped out and recycled back onto the cargo.   This was kept going for several days, until just after 12 midnight one night, and ten days after the fire was first noticed there was an explosion.   This was in the fore end of number 2 hatch, and whilst a man was down below spraying water around.   The flames burst up through the coal and blue flames continued to cover the coal”.     The account continues and to a successful conclusion, as the Cedarbank made port safely after a long struggle.

   The saying, ‘ prudent mariner’ was never more relevant than when it was applied to a sailing ship master. His was  both a skill and a talent, enhanced with a sixth sense, one that enabled a few masters to live to old age, and to bring their crews home safely.   They needed to avoid disaster on a regular basis.    Appointing a trustworthy master was one of the trickiest decisions an owner had to make.  Nothing was guaranteed however, and the loss of the big beautiful German five-masted sailing vessel, the ‘Preussen’ captained by one of the most seasoned and skilled captains in the famous Laeisz fleet is a prime example where luck ran out. She was lost in the channel in a collision with a railway steamer and grounded at Beachy Head in adverse winds.  With hindsight, a wrong judgement over the position at a crucial time by the master meant the loss of this beautiful ship.    It is fascinating reading and heartrending in cold print, but the company did keep faith in him and he went on to successfully command other vessels.

   Sailing the big unwieldy ships, bereft of engines, and subject to current, tide, and fickle winds, meant that vigilance was constantly needed.   The ships were happiest out on the oceans with plenty of sea room but were helpless without tug assistance close to port.  The master alone regularly had to make crucial decisions that often meant life or death, and this could be a daily occurrence unless some relief was obtained in long periods of steady winds, as in the trades.   It was a guessing game to some extent betting on wind and weather in the immediate future, but years of experience and local knowledge determined whether sail should be set or shortened.     This was harder than it sounds because owners kept the pressure on to make fast passages which could not be achieved by regularly shortening sail unnecessarily, and an over-cautious master was unpopular and could lose his job.    In anything but steady winds, there was a constant need to be weighing up the amount of canvas aloft, and no master got it right 100% of the time.  No office job even remotely compares!

What of the crews?    They were a mixture of hard-bitten sailing men who were wild ashore, but good at sea, and crucially good aloft in times of need.  They were able to operate in all ocean conditions, often with howling gales plus the misery of the wet and cold.  Young, idealistic men made up the balance of able bodied hands,  but they often became disillusioned, and it was very common, even normal, for men to run away in foreign ports, quite regularly and at the first opportunity.  There was a common saying in the Forecastle – 

  ” Anybody who goes to sea from choice, would go to hell for a pastime!”  

Apprentices were a useful addition to the sailing vessels and were more idealistic and reliable than the hardbitten seamen.   Over the whole of the lifetime of Andrew Weir and the Bank Line, thousands of apprentices served their time afloat in sail, and later in steam and motor vessels.

Out of the grand total of sailing ships owned, twenty-six only were purpose-built, and the rest purchased, including a couple, Poseidon and Marion Frazer that were bought to serve as storage hulks at the Chilean  loading ports.  Some were in and out of the fleet only a short time.  It is clear that the owner proved to be very astute in the sale and purchase of ships in addition to his other considerable skills.  Sizes ranged, but the  4 vessels of the Levenbank class were some of the biggest. 

In 1896 the first steamer Duneric was built.  Thereafter the fleet had a steadily growing proportion of steam vessels, and in 1912 the last sailing vessel Philadelphia joined the fleet. She served for three years before being sold on to the Norwegians.   

So ended a remarkable story that has passed into the Maritime history books alongside other famous fleets.  The sailing era with all the beauty and romanticism it possessed was still a tough trade, and it was a tough life for those motivated enough to crew the ships.   They will long be remembered, as will Andrew Weir and the Bank Line sailing fleet that flew the flag so proudly for Britain.    

Alan Rawlinson – author of “ Any Budding Sailors?”


One of the ‘Empire’ ships purchased by the Bank Line in 1946. Built in the war but completed at Sunderland after the ceasefire. Originally named the EMPIRE HONDURAS she served as the LOCHYBANK in the fleet until 1954 when sold to Dutch interests and then she became the STAD HAARLEM serving them for 10 years. Another 5 years were completed as the UNION FAIR under the Liberian flag, and she finally went to the breakers in 1969.

Dragon Boat Racing…..(Click on the Download button to read)

This interesting and original article is from the pen of Geoffrey Walker, a regular contributor who commenced his sea-going life as a Bank Line apprentice. He went on to have a long and successful career as Master on a variety of ships and companies serving a vast range of Pacific and Far Eastern ports, big and small. He also has his own specialist maritime website which can be viewed here at Geoffrey continues to make a valuable contribution to contemporary maritime history with fascinating first hand accounts of seagoing life in the China seas in all seasons including access to remote river ports.



HMS Foylebank bombed in Portland Harbour. When out of the sun they came, enemy dive bombers. Diving straight down onto the guard ship, machine gunning and bombing. Hell let loose, about 20 planes, they appeared to have caught us napping. I immediately told my crew that we were going in to pick up the hands and ratings who were jumping and being blown into the water alongside of her. There was a barge with work people alongside of Foyle Bank, a bomb dropped alongside the barge turning it upside down.

RUDDBANK, the 4th of the 6 ‘FISH’ class ships.

The RUDDBANK only stayed in the fleet for 4 years (a record minimum stay from 1979 to 1983) and became the ROMNEY of Lamport and Holt. This class were popular as a part container ship that ran at 16kts, but they entered the fleet at a time of great turbulance due to the world wide impact of containerisation and the rapidly changing parameters for a stable and profitable service that affected all owners. She eventually came to grief as the GLOBAL MARINER on the Orinoco river.

The 1924 CEDARBANK in dock

Torpedoed and lost in 1940 off Aalesund. (see below)

CEDARBANK MV was a British Motor cargo vessel built in 1924 and owned by Weir & Co , Andrew. Bank Line Ltd and was of 5159 tons. She was built by Harland & Wolff Ltd Govan, Yard No 662 and powered by diesel engine of 717 nhp, giving 11 knots. On the 21st April 1940 when on route from Leith to Aalesund she was torpedoed by German submarine U-26 and sunk. The crew of 14 and 1 gunner were all lost. Read more at wrecksite: