Andrew Weir – Lord Inverforth

The following article is an extract from the book ” Mirrors of Downing Street” by Harold Begbie. – and is shown here courtesy of the Gutenburg library. Written just after WW1 with some of Lord Inverforths greatest successes still to come….



Born 1865. Head of firm of Andrew Weir and Co. shipowners of Glasgow, Surveyor General of Supplies, 1917-19; Minister of Munitions, 1919.




Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people

We are keeping up Voltaire’s idea of our English character. Instead of only admirals, however, we are now hanging all sorts and descriptions of our public servants, but whether to encourage the others or to pay off a grudge, who shall determine?

Lord Inverforth takes his hanging very well. One might go so far as to say that he is not merely unaware of the noose round his neck but so perverse as to think he is still alive. His sense of humour is as good to him as a philosophic temperament.

I like his sense of humour. It manifests itself very quietly and with a flash of unexpectedness. One day at luncheon he was speaking of Lord Leverhulme, whose acquaintance he had made only a week or two before. Someone at the table said, “What I like about Leverhulme is his simplicity. In spite of all his tremendous undertakings he preserves the heart of a boy.” With a twinkle in his eyes, and in a soft inquiring voice, “Have you ever tried to buy glycerine from him?” asked Lord Inverforth.

This story has a sequel. I mentioned it to Lord Leverhulme. “One day two Englishmen,” he replied at once, “were passing the Ministry of Munitions. They saw Lord Inverforth going in. One who did not recognize him said, ‘Anyone can tell that man; he’s a Scotsman.’ To which the other, who did recognize him, replied, ‘Yes, but you couldn’t tell that Scotsman anything else.’ You might repeat that story to Lord Inverforth the next time you meet him.”

I did, and the Minister of Munitions accepted the compliment with a good grace.

It is a fortunate thing for this country that a man of so remarkable a genius for organization as Lord Inverforth should be found willing to serve the national interests in spite of an almost daily campaign of abuse directed against his administration. I sometimes wish he would bring an action for libel against one of these critics. It would be an amusing case. He might claim damages of, let us say, £7,000,000 or even £10,000,000, for he is a man of gigantic interests, claiming these damages on the score that his alleged libellers have injured his reputation as a man of business in all quarters of the world. They would have him the craziest muddler and the most easily swindled imbecile outside Fleet Street—where alone wisdom is to be found. How one would enjoy a verbatim report of the cross-examination of these critics in their own newspapers.

I will endeavour to show that Lord Inverforth is not quite so consummate an ass as his critics would have the public to believe, but rather one of the very greatest men, in his own particular line, who ever came to the rescue of a chaotic Government.

Let me not be supposed to insist that a great man of business is a great man. I regard Lord Inverforth as an exceedingly great man of business, one of the very greatest in the world, and this fact I hope to make clear in a few lines, but I do not regard him as a national hero in the wider sense of that term. He has too many lacks for that, and some of them essential to true and catholic greatness.

He could never fire the imagination of a people, nor does he convey a warm and generous feeling to the heart. His enthusiasms are all of a subdued nature. The driving force in his character which has made him so powerful a man of business, owes little to the higher virtues. He has found the plain of life too full of absorbing interest and too crowded with abounding opportunities for getting on to raise his eyes to the mountains. This is not to say that he is a man of no ideals, but to say that his ideals are of too practical and prosaic a kind ever to stir the pulses with excitement.

Nevertheless I regard him as a born statesman, and could wish that the conditions of political life made it more easy for a man of his gifts to serve the country than men with the gifts of, let us say, Dr. Macnamara or Sir Hamar Greenwood.

The world knows so little of him that perhaps I may begin my political reflections in this case with a brief summary of his career, such details of a business man’s biography as may contribute to an understanding of his character.

Andrew Weir, as he was in those days, went to school at Kirkcaldy, where he was chiefly notable for seeking information on more subjects than came under the jurisdiction of his pedagogue’s ferule. A benign Rosa Dartle might have been his godmother. He was for ever consulting encyclopædias and books of reference. However badly he knew his Greek verbs or his Latin syntax he had a very shrewd and curious knowledge of the world when he left school at fifteen to enter the local branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland.

At school he had wanted to own ships. This ambition still lodged in his brain. His thoughts were all at sea. There was no romance in the world so pleasing to his soul as the romance of the merchant marine. He had a real passion for harbours. He loved the idea of far voyages. The smells of cargoes and warehouses composed a sea-bouquet for him which he esteemed sweeter than all the scents of hedges and wood. If there was a big man for him in the world it was the sailor.

I don’t think he had so profound a feeling for bankers. Not quite so downright as Lord Leverhulme in stating his opinion of bankers, Lord Inverforth nevertheless regards them on the whole as lacking in courage and imagination. He said to himself on his banker’s stool, “I will learn all I can, but I won’t stay here; I’ll be a shipowner.”

In his twentieth year he bought a sailing ship. This was at Glasgow in the year 1885. He called himself Andrew Weir and Co. He had the feeling that sailing ships, engaged in coastwise trade, might be bigger. He announced his intention of building a large coasting ship. People informed him, with an almost evangelical anxiety as to his commercial salvation, that he was a lunatic. But the big ship was a success. He built more and bigger. Then, in 1896 he said to himself, “Why shouldn’t steam be used in the coasting trade?” and he went into steam. Again there were inquiries after his mental health, but the steamer flourished like the big sailing ship. At the beginning of what the curate called “this so-called twentieth century” the firm of Andrew Weir and Co. flew its flag in all the ports under heaven, and controlled the largest fleet of sailing ships in the world.

There is this fact to be noticed in particular. Mr. Andrew Weir’s inquisitive mind had not merely mastered the grammar of shipowning but had crammed the cells of his brain with the whole encyclopædia of commercial geography. He knew each season what the least of the islands of the world was producing, and the crops, manufactures, and financial condition of every country across the sea. He knew, also, the way in which the various nations conducted the business of transport. From his office in Glasgow he could see the whole vast labours of industrious and mercantile man, that Brobdingnagian ant of this revolving globe, merely by closing his eyes. The map of the world’s commerce was cinematographed upon his brain.

One thing more remains to be said. Mr. Andrew Weir inherited the moral traditions of Scotch industry. He grew rich, but not ostentatious. His increasing fortune went back and back into trade. He never dreamed either of cutting a figure in plutocratic society or making himself a public character. A quiet, rather shy, and not often articulate person, he lived a frugal life, loving his business because it occupied all his time and satisfied nearly every curiosity of his inquiring mind.

War came, and Mr. Weir was busier than ever with his ships. Not until 1917 did it occur to the Government that the work of buying supplies for its gigantic armies was something only to be mastered by a man of business. The nation may be grateful to Mr. Lloyd George for having discovered in Glasgow perhaps the one man in the British Isles who knew everything there was to know about commercial geography.

Mr. Andrew Weir entered the War Office in March, 1917, as Surveyor General of Supply. The position was not merely difficult in its nature, but difficult in its circumstances. Soldiers are jealous animals, and not easily does the War Office take to the black-coated man of business. Mr. Weir was tact itself. For some weeks the soldiers were hardly aware of his presence, then they learned that the quiet Scotsman in the black coat was saying the most laudatory things about their organization; then they found themselves marvellously improving this organization merely by acting on the most modestly given suggestions from the smooth civilian; and finally the very greatest of them discovered that somehow or another Supply had now got a wonderful “move on,” and that among other things this wonderful “move on” had brought the civilian on top of them—still smooth and modest, still in the background, but absolute master of the whole machinery.

Lord Inverforth’s work soon involved not merely the care of the British Armies but the care of the Allied nations. What did he do? Besieged by the unconscionable rascals of the world, fawning or blustering to get contracts at extraordinary prices, Lord Inverforth struck a master blow at this international cupidity by obtaining control of the principal raw materials and instituting the system of costing. Manufacturers got their contracts on a fixed basis of profits. Lord Inverforth knew the exact cost of every stage in the manufacture of each article he bought, and he saw that the manufacturer received from the taxpayer only a small percentage of profit on that cost.

The greatest thing he did at that time, and the bravest, for he did it without authorization and at a cost of £250,000,000, was to buy up the Australasian wool-clip from 1917 to 1920. In this way Germany was doomed to defeat. England, so to speak, had the clothing of humanity in her right hand.

But Lord Inverforth also controlled flax, hemp, leather, and jute, so that the enemy’s case was as hopeless as our own was secure.

These gigantic operations involved an expenditure of over £500,000,000. They brought an actual profit to the British Government of over £20,000,000, saved the taxpayer Heaven only knows how many millions, and were conducted at an administrative cost of three shillings for every £100.

Nothing like it had ever been done before in the world.

Early in 1919 Lord Inverforth was asked to clear up war’s rubbish-heap. He became Minister of Munitions. Within twenty-four hours his body of expert buyers had become the Disposal Board—a body of expert sellers.

The property of the British taxpayer was scattered over four continents, and in all manner of places in those four continents. It was composed of 350,000 different kinds of things.

At once Lord Inverforth was again besieged by the rascals. There was an army of them, composed of many “rings,” seeking to buy up these “waste products of war” at a knock-down price. At the same time came the blustering contractor, cheated by peace of his contract, with a claim for millions on one ground or another.

Lord Inverforth made it clear, first, that the stores were to be sold at a commercial value, and, second, that he would protect the taxpayer against extortionate claims on the part of contractors. As regards this second difficulty, pressure was brought against him from the very highest political quarters to admit certain claims and to avoid legal action. His reply was, “I will resign before I initial those claims.”

He fought them all, and he beat them all. He saved the taxpayer millions of pounds.

As for the disposal of stores, he has already brought to the Exchequer over £500,000,000, and before these pages are printed that sum may be increased to something like £800,000,000.

The least imaginative reader will perceive from this brief statement that a veritable Napoleon of Commerce has presided over the business side of the war. Where there was every opportunity for colossal waste, there has been the most scientific economy; where there was every likelihood of wholesale corruption, there has been an unsleeping vigilance of honesty; and where, at the end, there might have been a tired carelessness resulting in ruinous loss, there has been up to the very last moment an unremitting enthusiasm for the taxpayers’ interest which has resulted in a credit contribution to the national balance sheet of £800,000,000.

I have left to the last this not unworthy feature of Lord Inverforth’s labours. Those labours have been given to the nation. He, at the head of things, and the chiefs of the Disposal Board under him, have refused to accept any financial reward. One and all they deserted their businesses and slaved from morning to night in the national interests, and one and all they gave their services to the State.

What has been Lord Inverforth’s reward from the public? From first to last he has been attacked by a considerable section of the Press, and has been accused in Parliament of incredible waste and incorrigible stupidity. Let it be supposed (I do not grant it for a moment) that he made mistakes, even very great mistakes, still, on the total result of his gigantic labours, does not the public owe him a debt of gratitude? Has he not been an honest man at the head of a department where dishonesty had its chief opportunity? Did he not strike a death blow at Germany when he secured, with a suddenness which ruined his rivals in the field, the wool-clip of the world? Is there one man in these islands who thought for a moment that the overplus of stores would fetch a sum of £800,000,000?

I will say a word about Slough, which is still the favourite cry of Lord Inverforth’s critics, who have held their peace about the “dumps” since the publication of the White Paper describing the sale of stores.

Slough was the work of the War Office. It was begun badly. Mistakes of a serious kind were made. It might have been a financial disaster. But Lord Inverforth is a chivalrous man. He has never disclosed the fact that he inherited Slough. In the face of violent criticism he has maintained a dignified silence, letting the world think that he was the parent of the idea, and bending all his energies to make it a success. He has had his reward. Slough has been sold and the transaction shows a profit for the taxpayer.

During the last years of his administration I saw a good deal of Lord Inverforth. He was anxious to get back to his own work. He asked again and again to be relieved of his duties—the machinery he had set up being in excellent running order. But the Prime Minister begged him to stay, and he has stayed, against his will and against his own interests, and all the time he has been subjected to a stream of malignant criticism.

Let the reader ask himself whether the case of Lord Inverforth is likely to encourage the best brains in the country to come to the political service of the nation. Is there not a danger that we may fall into the American position, and have our great men in commerce and our second-rate men in politics?

I regard Lord Inverforth as one of the few very great men in commerce who have the qualities of genuine statesmanship. I am not at liberty to give my chief grounds for this belief, but before long the world may know from Lord Inverforth’s commercial activities on the Continent that more than any other man in these islands he has seen the way and taken the step to reconstruct the shattered civilization of Europe.

On many occasions I have discussed with him the future of mankind. I have found him the least anxious and always the most self-possessed observer of events. Quiet, patient, practical, and imaginative, inspired too by humane motives, he cherishes the unshakable faith that Great Britain is destined to lead civilization into the future as far as human eye can see. He places his faith in British character. Rivalry on the part of powerful nations, even when it is directed against our key industries, does not disturb him in the least. While others are crying, “How shall we save ourselves?” he is pushing the fortunes of the British race in every quarter of the world. And where British trade goes, on the whole there goes too the highest civilizing power in the world—British character. It is significant of his faith that he has ever worked to get the British mercantile marine manned by men of the British race, and to this end has led the way in improving the conditions of the British seaman’s life.

“All the fallacies and wild theories of revolutionary minds,” he once said to me, “break ultimately on the rock of industrial fact. The more freely nations trade together the more clearly will it be seen that humanity must work out its salvation within the limits of economic law. And the way to a smooth working out of that salvation is by recognizing the claims of the moral law. We are men before we are merchants. There is no reason why mistrust should exist between management and labour. The economic law by no means excludes, but rather demands, humaneness. I believe that a system of profit sharing can be devised which will bring management and labour into a sensible partnership. Selfishness on the part of capital is as bad as selfishness on the part of labour. Both must be unselfish, both must think of the general community, and both must work hard. The two chief enemies of mankind are moral slackness and physical slackness.”

There is no man living who would make a better Chancellor of the Exchequer than this merchant prince who, however, has had enough of politics and is going back very gladly to his desk in the City. He is not in the least soured by the public ingratitude, and rightly judges it to be rather the voice of unscrupulous and stunt-seeking journalism than the considered judgment of the nation. But he has a very poor opinion of the way in which the Government of the country conducts its business.

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