UBC as it was commonly known had an interesting history, being founded at the request of King George V. to serve Poland and the Baltic countries. Shares were equally held by Andrew Weir in the UK, and the East Asiatic Company in Copenhagen. It commenced trading in 1919.
The 1924 built BATAVIA purchased in 1937. Passengers and cargo.
Some vessels of the UBC fleet. For the Bank Line mariners, hooked on world-wide sailing, UBC and the subsidiary company, MacAndrews serving the Mediteranean were sometimes regarded as a bit ‘down market’ – but hindsight suggests that they were a ‘best kept secret,’ offering the most interesting short voyages!
Cyprus Maritime Co. Ltd. of Athens’ 1979 Sunderland built MULTI TRADER is seen at Birkenhead on 23rd February 2001. She had arrived on 4th February from Belem via Nantes with a cargo of timber which was poorly stowed and so difficult to unload – this cargo has of course long since been containerised
TENCHBANK was introduced in 11/79 and was the 6th and last of the ” Fish Class” vessels. Sold in 1987 when she became the EASTMAN. 2 years later she was bought by a London based company and then became the TAMATHAI. IN 1995 Panamanian interests bought her and renamed her CLINTON K. 1997 saw her owned by a HK company and a new name of JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA. A year later she was the MP TRADER of Greek Cypriot ownership, who then renamed her MULTI TRADER in the year 2000 which was her name until 2008 when she went to the breakers at Alang.
Photo credit for the MULTI-TRADER – Malcolm Cranfield
Loading flour at Fremantle. She was one of the 9 survivors of an 18 ship order made in 1924. It was a well placed order as they served the company extremely well. 8 lost to war action and 1 ( Forresbank) stranded.
There you are, all the home comforts. Television, fireside, steak puddings, warmth, and an attractive girl friend – when a 3 line telegram arrives out of the blue by courier, the narrow printed strips pasted onto the form, and tucked inside an orange coloured envelope.
“Report McAndrews Liver Building Liverpool with all kit readiness join ANYBANK 1st June Stop Rail voucher follows Stop Acknowledge.”
That’s it, – short and sweet, and your life is about to be seriously challenged. The passport to another, possibly magical world has arrived and you already begin to feel like a seagoing gypsy.
It is the 1950s, and Britain is still coming out of post war austerity. The merchant navy is recovering from it’s battering in WW2. Rationing is ending and life is good, the first televisions are appearing in the shops, and a noticeable buzz is starting, – but not for you, who are about to enter a completely different, alternative, surreal world. Harsh and grim, with no frills, but exhilarating at the same time due to high expectations of sailing to strange new places, with new horizons, and the unknown. You are about to be locked away on a 2 year committement with people you have never met, and may not like, and what’s more, in close confinement. It’s a huge gamble. This then was the life offered at sea, particularly in the ‘Bank Line’, and for some, it was strangely addictive. A life a million miles from the settled shore life enjoyed by most people, and only a place for adventurers, or as some might say with justification, loners or even masochists. Time spent away might easily run well beyond the stipulated 2 years, given the difficulty of arranging a home cargo, but such is the lure of the life, some Masters have to be gently prized out of their commands after repeatedly declining to be relieved. Something surprising you might have learned much later, is that you were in the footsteps of a proud band of seafarers.
It seems no time before you are in a taxi, kitbags and suitcases filling the luggage space, and the driver crawling the cab around rain soaked and bleak dockside sheds. It could hardly look more depressing. In the back seat you are miserable and excited, all at once. Peering out of the blurred window and craning your neck upwards at slab sided vessels, cold and foreboding, you feel anxious. As the taxi wends its way forlornly from berth to berth, sounds of crashing and banging with shrill scraping noises make it difficult to talk, as steel grabs fly in and out of a ship. Is this the one, you ask rhetorically? Oh, no, then, “ keep going driver”. You are looking desperately for that all important ship name with a ‘Bank’ suffix, or maybe even the familiar buff and black funnel. Upsetting thoughts race through your mind at this point like, “ Am I doing the right thing? ” Suddenly, the taxi rounds a shed corner, and, eureka! There is the big bluff bow of your ship looming high above and with the name proud. There is no mistake. It is winter, and ice puddles lay around the quay, but in no time you are at the foot of a long, high, gangway, the hand ropes dangerously slack, and looking at slippery steps leading upwards at a ridiculous angle. Health and safety are dirty words. The taxi is fast disappearing around the shed, the driver muttering to himself, your bags are piled up in the puddles, and a curious Asian face is peering down from the top platform. Smells and strange noises are all around as you tentatively start the long climb. Your mind is in overdrive, and your past experience tells you that the loud sounds of clattering, banging and sudden racing and chugging that you hear signals that old fashioned steam winches are in use. You are joining a veteran ship then, a gallant survivor of WW2. For hopeless addicts of the life, this is the moment your heart races and there is a rush of pure euphoria.
For better or for worse, you are a ‘Bank Line man,’ committed to the 50 ship fleet endlessly circling the globe. At this stage, you are not to know that decades later, it will be a sort of “ Badge of Honour,” revered by many. Here you are, setting foot physically, and metaphorically, on a life and a career path where the sky is the limit, and the world is out there to conquer.
You reach the deck and are greeted by a startling sight of crazily stacked hatch boards, beams, wires, piles of rubbish, tarpaulins, and pieces of dunnage. Pipes snake in and out of the mess, steam is rising, and a welding machine is groaning away among the pile. You calmly survey the scene. It’s a sort of nautical collage, and a feeling of being home overwhelms you. Overhead, grabs flails in and out of the nearest hold demanding immediate respect from anyone in the vicinity. It is a first lesson in how to duck out of danger, and in the art of vital situation awareness, survival even. Wisps of steam are snaking up from the winches and pipes, and a grim faced winch driver is pulling levers madly. It is mesmerising. You look for an entrance to the accommodation and then gingerly step forward over a foot high cill into the darkened alleyway. Your cabin when you find it is small with white panelled tongue and groove boarding. A weird looking tall wooden contraption takes up a corner, and which turns out to be an all-in-one washing stand. It has a tip up bowl on hinges and a dirty water tank below. It shouts out ‘1930s vintage’. The bunks are narrow. A distinctive crisp blue and white cover stretches tight over them with a company motive woven into the design. A small settee and a writing desk make up the other sides, and a porthole with a heavy brass surround and butterfly nuts lets in some light. On the bulkhead is a dilapidated fan with a wire cover. The whole effect is gloomy, as you start to meet up with some of your new shipmates, and settle the all important bunk allocation.
The company that you have committed to, and your acceptance by that company seals a unique deal. Shunned by many on account of the long voyages, the appointment, nevertheless, is to become recognised much later as a unique experience denied to many of your fellow seasoned mariners. You meet them at examination times. They often spent a career sailing between two ports or countries, or at best two continents. It was a great life, enjoyed by all, but there is no denying that Bank Line tramped the whole world.
In no time, you become forcibly acquainted with an array of spanners, Stillson wrenches, and tank sounding lines. Not for you the finer mysteries of the ‘Marc St Hillair’ intercept method of navigation, but in it’s place, familiarity with cement boxes, strum boxes, deep tank lids, packing, sounding lines, and chipping hammers. There would be much catching up to do on the study front later, but meanwhile it’s into the brand new dungarees. They won’t be like that for long.
Life slowly takes on an aura of reluctant acceptance and a routine. The meals are signalled by a distinctive clattering of a hand bell vigorously swung outside of the accommodation by an Indian steward. The sound reaches everywhere. The now grubby dungarees have to be replaced by clean white clothes if you are to eat with the others. Plus epaulettes, if the Master is a stickler for discipline. The eerie saloon protocol is watched over by a solemn portrait of the owner staring expressionless down, and the silent respect for the Captain seated at the head of the table all becomes boringly familiar. Conversation is stilted, and seems pregnant with hidden meaning. It’s an autocratic regime with ‘him’ as God. The prongs of a fork act as a makeshift menu holder, and the food is strange. Bowls of glutinous curry are offered, sometimes at breakfast. Halves of hard boiled egg float in a sea of coloured effervescent, shimmering liquid, and create a picture hard to forget. It’s popular with some, but you beg for something nearer an English breakfast. Out on deck the cacophany of noise continues in a muted fashion, accompanied by the occasional thump as contact is made with the bridge front. No one comments.
Within days, the voyage finally begins. The twice daily routine of fetching water from locked pumps, primitive and antiquated, starts. A ritual sets in which includes heating cold water for washing by using a crude steam underwater jet in the bathroom, and fetching buckets of cold water for the Officers. Ahead lies days, weeks, and months of monotonous routine punctuated by highlights and occasionally, some rather special moments. The first occurs when the drab, cold, and wet surroundings of a UK winter are replaced by blazing sunshine and dancing, racing, dolphins. Flying Fish and breaching whales appear, and suddenly life is not so bad after all. There is anticipation of the first run ashore in the USA or maybe a Caribbean port. Stories abound from the old hands, some of the tales sounding lurid and unlikely. As the destination nears, the excitement mounts.
Up on the bridge, the wheelhouse is small. At sea, an Indian Seacunny helmsman stands silently behind a creaking wheel. The heavy sliding doors are jammed open with small wooden wedges. A chalk board shows the course to be steered, and there is little else of interest, other than an Aldis lamp in it’s box, and a small table with a green shaded light. Radar is yet to arrive, but in the chartroom behind the helmsman, a DF (direction finding) set is prominent and is given due respect. Below the chart-table and in drawers, an impressive array of thousands of Admiralty charts that cover the world. Chart corrections are a nightmare, and the stack of ‘ Notices to Mariners’ containing them are piled high to one side. Soon, only the charts showing the immediate route ahead will be corrected, while the rest await shoreside help. A wooden rack holds pilot books for most places, and on the bulkhead, next to the hinged mercury barometer, is a new echo sounder utilising a roll of special wet chemical paper and a stylus which whizzes round when switched on. It is relatively new and novel and replaces the need for the ancient manual wire and lead sounding machine still in position on the deck below, known as the ‘Captain’s deck’. The chartroom settee is occupied by sextants in their boxes, all personally owned by the officers. Celestial navigation is the order of the day, and the hinged flap beside the chart-table hides the chronometer, worshipped like some strange God. “Eight turns to the left” is the mantra drilled into the second mate’s head, whose duty it is to wind it carefully each morning. A small notebook records the error which is checked daily by Sparky, seated in the radio room, and with a link to the Portishead time signal.
Soon, the various port calls begin. The regular US Gulf loading ports of this company offer much in addition to the hectic schedule loading oil, bulk sulphur, and general cargo. It is also a chance to top up personal supplies of beautiful ‘sea island’ cotton shirts and pants, and more mundane items like fishing hooks and line, used when meandering around the Pacific Islands. The challenges of navigating among the island atolls loading copra has resulted in ship losses and strandings over the years, especially where anchoring is out of the question. Some lucky vessels have wriggled free but others have broken up in situ, the crews repatriated.
For the discerning few, and in mid ocean, the canopy of stars on a dark night is another special moment. It is breathtakingly beautiful and wondrous, with shooting stars, nebula clusters, the steady planets, and a myriad of fixed and twinkling coloured features.
A few months later, and with the ship in the antipodes ready for the next leg, questions about the new employment and where it could possibly be will concentrate the minds of shipmates, all hoping for somewhere special. A few will fervently wish for a cargo home. In this shipping company, there is always a small chance that a run home with coconut oil and copra (dried coconut) will materialise, cutting short the long trip. More often than not, the news is disappointing when it comes; a trip to the phosphate islands being the booby prize! High on the preferred list are Japanese ports, and the magic of S. American ports on both the East and West coasts, and the news is awaited eagerly.
After the second traipse around the world, and a tedious passage of around 18 months, the thoughts turn to when a home run will come. The clock is winding down, and either a cargo to Europe or the UK, or possibly repatriation is on the cards. Excitement mounts, as the news must be soon. Back home, the girlfriend has long gone, and things have moved on, making an extended leave period less attractive than it might have been.
Given the vagaries of world trade, and glitches over shore strikes, charter party clauses, and weather induced delays, a long voyage may well include an unintended stay somewhere. Months stuck at anchor, or maybe in port, are not unknown, and then money will run out, and patience is
stretched. Being young and inexperienced, no thought will be spared for the potential loss to the owners.
You may not know it at this time, but you are a tiny cog in a mammoth and largely silent organisation spanning the world in a web of agents and business partners. It sometimes throws up organisational hiccups, but year on year it will operate smoothly and efficiently. The gifted owner, Lord Inverforth, has built up his large empire privately, and without fanfare, and you are one of the lucky recipients of his largesse. His achievements include the distinction of having built up the largest ever fleet of British flagged sailing vessels, a fleet which included the famous “ Olivebank”. Some will tell you later that you have been used as ‘cheap labour’ during your apprenticeship, and to be fair, it is debatable. However, when the time comes to evaluate your past life and career, you most likely will vehemently disagree, cherishing these days as a priceless experience.
You are also unaware that this unpretentious company is set on a path of massive expansion with 50 new British built vessels due to be delivered over the next 10 years. This means among other things that rapid promotion to Master is a near certainty for the able and successful deck officer, and while still on the right side of 30 years of age. It also mean that conditions will vastly improve, with air conditioning, running hot and cold water, a bar and a pool, and a handy runabout boat which will all be standard. Wives will accompany their husbands. Gone will be the much loved wartime Liberty ships, the ex Fort vessels, the last steamers and coal burners, the old twin screw veterans, and the passenger ships from the India/Calcutta service.
Out of sight and still unknown, there is an existential and monumental threat. A tsunami of containers and a worldwide movement to container consortia will spell the end of the glory years and the decline and end of the company. Painful and ugly corporate death throes commence, as the board tried desperately and unsuccessfully to match tonnage available to the ever changing demands.
The brilliant shipping entrepreneur who founded the company dies in 1955 at the age of 90, while still working. With him goes the genius and hard work behind his unique creation. New generations of family members continue the tradition, but all their efforts are in vain. The long voyages are gone forever, but the memory lingers!
Alan Rawlinson ( author of “Merchant Navy Apprentice 1951-55”)
A slide show featuring Pikebank,Tenchbank, Roachbank, Dacebank, Ruddbank, Troutbank. Please use the arrows to see the images…
The newly formed Sunderland Shipbuilders completed all 6 of the ‘ Fish’ class Bank Line vessels in 1979. They were purchased in turbulant times, as the rush to containers challenged the whole industry. Designed with the maximum flexibility for the rather unique trades of the company, they were a partial success. Most stayed 8 years before being sold on.
Napoli 1948-71, ex Araybank 1940, sunk off Crete 1941, salvaged 1947, at Melbourne 15th May 1949
This vessel started life as a Bank Line ship – the ARAYBANK built in 1940. Hardly recognizable here after a massive rebuild when she was turned into the Italian emigrant ship – NAPOLI.
7 months after she was launched WW2 was raging, and she was sunk at Suda Bay in Crete when discharging military stores. After the war, Achille Lauro of Italy purchased the wreck which was towed to Genoa, and fitted with a 9 cylinder engine. Accommodation was added for 650 passengers. She served on the Australian route, before switching to the central American and Caribbean services for a further 20 years from 1951 to 1971.
A slide show featuring Pikebank,Tenchbank, Roachbank, Dacebank, Ruddbank, Troutbank. Please use the arrows to see the images…
The newly formed Sunderland Shipbuilders completed all 6 of the ‘ Fish’ class Bank Line vessels in 1979. They were purchased in turbulant times, as the rush to containers challenged the whole industry. Designed with the maximum flexibility for the rather unique trades of the company, they were a partial success. Most stayed 8 years before being sold on.
Click to download this harrowing account of WW2 action at sea
https://oceanjoss.com is Geoff Walker’s web site containing many interesting Maritime entries – articles – paintings- ephemera, and lots more… Regular updates are available for subscribers to the site.
An extract from a new book. Cover picture courtesy of https://junglecat.de. The German raider ATLANTIS also captured the SPEYBANK and the story is told in detail in the book.
The following account is taken from a new book, available for pre-order on AMAZON called ” STOP – at ONCE!”
The Zam Zam Story
The sinking of the ZAM ZAM by the German armed raider ATLANTIS
The sinking of the Egyptian passenger vessel ZAM ZAM was one of the more bizarre episodes on the high seas. Kommandant Rogge on the ATLANTIS must have regretted the action many times over after the event. Not only was she neutral flag, but the passengers were largely American at a time when Hitler was trying not to provoke the USA into declaring war In support of Britain and the Allies. Among the passengers were 138 Americans, 26 Canadians, 25 British, 5 South African, 4 Belgians, 1 Italian, 1 Norwegian, and 2 Greeks who were nurses. The crew consisted of 129 persons made up of 106 Egyptian nationals, 9 from Sudan, 6 Greeks, 2 Yugoslav, 2 Turks, 1 Czech, 1 French, and the Captain and Chief Engineer who were both British. It was a mixed bag, but the predominance of American citizens was a major problem, and it wasn’t long before the world was calling it, “ the second LUSITANIA” with all the consequences that that might mean.
Built back in 1919 as the Bibby Liner LEICESTERSHIRE, she was a stately old lady who had seen better days. She was 4 masted, an unusual profile in WW2, and later analysis and post mortem confirmed that by a quirk of fate, Kommandant Rogge recognised her as one of the GLOUCESTERSHIRE/LEICESTERSHIRE class usually used as troop transports. He was unaware of the sale and change of flag. The mistake stemmed from a visit pre-war that Rogge had made to Dartmouth, during the coronation of George VI, when he had admired their lines and use.
Her details were Length 467.2ft, 54.3ft beam, and 31.7 depth. Her tonnage was 8,059 tons gross and she was a twin screw vessel that could make 15 kts on a good day. Accommodation was provided for 230 passengers in single berth cabins. Her trooping activities when owned by Bibbys were numerous, and the Government of the day requisitioned her in 1914 over to be used by the Indian Expeditionary Force. Then it was the turn of the troops to be transported to Russia in 1918 for the Bolshevik revolution. A voyage was made down to Melbourne to repatriate Australian troops after WW1. When finally handed back to Bibby Line, she was converted from coal to oil burning and updated in a comprehensive make over, after which she resumed a regular service around the Cape to Rangoon.
The LEICESTERSHIRE was laid up briefly in 1932 before being offered for sale, and going to The Egyptian Company for Transport and Navigation, who gave her the distinctive name of ZAM ZAM. According to Islamic tradition, “Stop Stop” or ZAM,ZAM were the words that Hagar cried when the Angel Gabriel struck the ground to bring forth water to save her and her son Ishmael. The water flowed and was God’s blessing which still flows today.
The name was appropriate for the intended use on the popular run down the Red Sea to Jeddah, and it was the opposite of her previous world-wide wanderings. After changing Egyptian owners and being laid up for a period, she again resumed sailing, this time on the Alexandria/Cape Town/New York route. This was a few months before the fatal voyage and the confrontation with SCHIFF 16, the ATLANTIS, an action which is still reverberrating today, 80 plus years later, in court.
The fateful voyage began on March 20th, 1941, when the ZAM ZAM sailed from Jersey City bound for Brazil, and then onwards to the Middle East. Although she had a neutral flag, a decision was made to sail at night without lights, something which became an issue when the neutrality was questioned after the sinking. The Master was a dour Scot called William Gray Smith and he oversaw the boarding of the passengers with some misgiving. On the quay at departure, some 120 missionaries booked as passengers, were singing, “ Lead, Kindly Light” which prompted him to comment about it being bad luck. There was a majority of missionaries with their families, plus 24 ambulance drivers commited for service in Africa with the ‘ Free French’. The crew were predominantly Muslim.
The ATLANTIS had a pre-arranged rendezvous with the Lloyd liner DRESDEN. This ship was acting as a supply vessel for many German ships, including the ill fated GRAF SPEE. After hiding in Santos Brazil, she now met up and handed over some supplies. The fresh food that Rogge and his crew were desperate for did not not materialise however, due to an order from Germany to supply another vessel, the BABITONGA. Rogge was furious.
On the 17th of April, 1941, when still in sight of the DRESDEN, and during the moonlit night, ATLANTIS spotted the distinctive outline of the ZAM ZAM. At that time, ATLANTIS was dressed as the Norwegian ship TAMASIS and much effort had gone into making it look authentic, including the men dressed in Noregian uniforms and the boats marked with the TAMESIS name. ZAM ZAM had departed from Recife in Brazil with the next intended stop being Capetown. She was sailing on a course close to the DRESDEN, who promptly steamed away. Believing the stranger was a British troop transport he gave the order to shadow the vessel through the night, and to attack at dawn. Firing commenced at 9,200 yards distance, shells exploding on the bridge with the fusilage lasting 9 minutes. There were many injuries onboard, and panic ensued with the lifeboats swung into action and women and children running everywhere. The ship stopped and blew off steam. There were 76 women onboard, 5 of whom were pregnant. 35 babies were also passengers. Of the injured, the ambulance group leader Frank Vicovari was seriously hurt and was to be later cared for in the hospital of the ATLANTIS. Also, Ned Laughinghouse who had been sleeping on deck received serious head wounds from schrapnel. A rescue operation was mounted to save the survivors, and the people in boats and in the water were efficiently brought on board, the crying children in improvised baskets lowered over the side.
When the ATLANTIS had called in Brazil, Life magazine photographer, David E Scherman, and Charles Murphy, editor of Fortune magazine, had boarded the ship for passage to Cape Town, and they later was able to provide many photos, even being advised and assisted by Lietenent Mohr to film the sinking. ( See picture). Weeks later and when the Americans were landed in France most of the film was confiscated, but the wily photographer managed to hide precious rolls containing spectacular phots in a toothpaste tube and other toilrtries hidden in a missionaries doctor’s bag. When released, the two flew to New York, and the sensational pictures made headlines. The ATLANTIS views were circulated to Royal Navy ships.
Over on ATLANTIS, Rogge was beginning to realise the gravity of his actions, and the likely outcome in the eyes of the world. He quickly briefed his team of officers and the crew regarding the ship they had just attacked, and the task ahead being responsible for many women and children, largely American nationals. It was then 2 pm before ZAM ZAM lay ready to be sunk, and all the passengers accounted for, and papers and needed items removed . Boats went to and fro loaded down with items, especially clothes snatched from the cabins and needed by the survivors. Stores and food also were taken before the ZAM ZAM was abandoned. The ship was later fitted with three explosive charges, and when fired, she rolled over and sank, all the while being photographed by the LIFE magazine photographer. A particular photo of the ATLANTIS later proved useful when it was circulated to the Allied forces hunting the raider.
The rescued people and the Master were quick to complain to Rogge about the sinking, voicing their objections and accusations that a neutral ship had wrongly been attacked, but this was dealt with by Rogge who immediately pointed out that the ship was sailing without lights, that she maintained radio silence, and that she was following British Admiralty directions. Some of the cargo was also identified as being supplies for the British troops in Egypt.
Although the ATLANTIS now had around 800 persons on board, Rogge knew that the DRESDEN was nearby, and it was a heaven sent chance to offload the ZAM ZAM survivors, many of whom were confused and troublesome, asking for facilities that did not exist on the tightly run raider. They met up the morning after the sinking, and most of the passengers, apart from the injured too ill to move, transferred over to the DRESDEN. A rendesvous with a supply ship the ASTERUFER took place at the same time, and ATLANTIS received much needed stores. This included 3 new ARADO seaplanes, plus mail for the crew who had now been away well over 12 months.
ZAM ZAM / the DRESDEN follow up…
The story of the ZAM ZAM would not be complete without an account of the time survivors spent on the German DRESDEN under her Captain, Jaegger. 5 weeks of captivity in difficult and somewhat primitive conditions made worse by knowledge that the majority of the captives were American and still neutrals in the conflict presently raging. After the new arrangements between the ships, ATLANTIS resumed her aggressive hunt for more victims. DRESDEN meanwhile was ordered by Rogge to sail to a neutral port and to release the passengers. His idea was the Canary Islands, but this order was countermanded by Berlin who directed the DRESDEN to occupied France, where she arrived at the small town of St Jean-De-Luz, near the Spanish border with France on May 20th.
This short extract about the ZAM ZAM is a sample only. There were many different ships of all nationalities caught by the ATLANTIS and the PINGUIN.
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….
LORD INVERFORTH 1ST BARON OF SOUTHGATE (ANDREW WEIR)
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.
The old ‘ white ships’ photos – both twin screw, running between Calcutta and Durban with many stops between. A pungent aroma of rich spices was strong in the alleyways, coming from tween deck ventilators situated there. Plenty of anchor work, cargo and passengers, and a sort of poor man’s ” Somerset Maugham” atmosphere onboard!
A trio were built, but the third vessel named INCOMATI was torpedoed off of the W African coast in WW2. One person died.
The apprentices ( Ian Harvey and the author) with a girl passenger.
This report covers a voyage back in 1969 and is kindly provided by Peter Ferrer who was 2/0 onboard. His detailed notes and plans etc follow. Although this is 1969, it is a typical ‘go anywhere’ Bank Line voyage, looked upon with great nostalgia today, and not only by those serving in the company – as evidenced by the envious comments sometimes read on ‘facebook’ about the Bank Line experience.
A new book is underway… It will be the full story of the fate of the SPEYBANK – The capture by the German raider ATLANTIS, conversion to the DOGGERBANK, loss in error to U-43, and the agonising boat journey of the survivors which left only 1 man alive. Plus some accounts of the victims of the German ships, including the Blue Funnel ship yielding most important secrets. This tale is better than fiction!
Grateful thanks to Peter Ferrer who has sent in the following pictures and details of his voyage as second apprentice on the FLEETBANK way back in the 1960’s!
2nd Trip Details on M.V. Fleetbank Apprentice P G Ferrer
Below are the details of a typical copra run when I was 2nd apprentice. I didn’t take many notes but did record all the crew, ports, distances etc which are shown below. Digital cameras were not invented and as an apprentice money was short, so taking pictures was at a premium. Many accounts have been written of the Copra run and mine was no different, but Washington Island and Christmas Island were an experience not to be forgotten.
The view from the remote Washington Island. The stranded SOUTHBANK in the foreground with the FLEETBANK standing off.