Bank Line - Part 11

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Narative by Alistair Macnab; Edited by Fred Henderson

Andrew Weir[edit]

For practical and technical reasons, the Articles covering Bank Lines's 20 Century history are presented in the following parts: -

  • Part 1 – The transition from sail to steam, then to motorships
  • Part 2 – The Inter-War Years
  • Part 3 – Bank Line at War & Post-War Rebuilding
  • Part 4 – Backing the Multipurpose Ship Concept
  • Part 5 – The Varying Fates of the Liner Services
  • Part 6 – Bank Line and British Shipbuilding
  • Part 7 – The end of Bank Line's Multipurpose Ship Liner Services
  • Part 8 - The Sailing Ship Fleet in the 19th Century
  • Part 9 - Early 20th. Century Developments: Basrah, Hong Kong, and Rabaul
  • Part 10 - United States and Mexico: Western Hemisphere Developments
  • Part 11 - Participation in the Petroleum Industry
  • Part 12 - Passenger Ships
  • Part 13 - Bank Line London
  • Part 14 - The Bank Line and the British Merchant Navy

Participation in the Petroleum Industry[edit]

Adventures in California, Mexico, Venezuela, Britain, and France[edit]

Much has already been written about the Andrew Weir involvement in the carriage of petroleum products and it may at first glance seem to be superfluous to devote an entire chapter to this topic. There are so many interesting aspects of these fascinating adventures at the very beginning of the development of the oil and tanker sector- now as much as 50% of all shipping activity- which have only just been touched upon, that bringing the entire body of the Weir participation into focus, is historically interesting and informative. It is, however, informative to compare this chapter's narrative on the fortunes and misfortunes of the infant petroleum industry to today's evolution now taking place in the liquid natural gas (LNG) industry.

Because, Andrew Weir was one of the first individuals to recognize that if oil-burning steamers and motor ships were ever to achieve widespread acceptance, there had to be a functioning oil bunker supply network on a world-wide basis. At the beginning of WWI, the British Royal Navy had already entered the ‘oil age’. In Britain, the first oil-fired warships had been ordered by Admiral “Jackie” Fisher when the Tribal or “F” Class destroyers were built for the Royal Navy between 1905 and 1908. With limited bunker capacity, however, these 12 warships were not particularly successful even although they could achieve 33 knots with their turbine engines.

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Photo 1: The Tribal Class Destroyer HMS Zulu. She was one of the many destroyers built by Hawthorn Leslie. Her stern was blown off by a mine in WW1, but her forepart remained afloat. This was towed into Chatham Dockyard, where the surviving stern section of HMS Nubian was brought in after also striking a mine. These remaining parts of the two ships were joined and the rebuilt and commissioned into the fleet as HMS Zubian.

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Photo 2: The United States Battleship USS Texas as she appeared during World War 1

In the USA, the venerable USS “Texas” built in 1914 and still today, one of Houston’s main tourist sites, was the last of the post-dreadnought coal fired American warships, so it could be said that whilst oil fuel was already a feature in surface military circles, it was virtually unknown in merchant shipping. The transatlantic express ships were all still coal-fired although several other smaller ships with limited service ranges had been converted from coal to oil when undergoing routine maintenance. One such was the s.s. “Princess May” of the Canadian Pacific coastal fleet which was converted in 1911 with the owners reporting that: “two oil-fired boilers could do the work of three coal-fired boilers and one man could do the work of 18 firemen and nine trimmers” with the new installation.

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Photo 3: Princess May was built by Hawthorn Leslie in 1888 as Cass for the Formosa Trading Company's, Taipeh to Shanghai service and changed hands between various Chinese Government Departments before being acquired by Canadian Pacific in 1901 for their Vancouver coastal services as far as Southeast Alaska. In 1919 she was sold to the Standard Fruit Company and remained their ownership in the Caribbean until 1930.

Oil Bunkering Services[edit]

The extensive range of British world-wide commercial ships and shipping was already adequately provided with coaling stations in all corners of the world but what about the provision of oil for bunkering ships? This was a question that Andrew Weir and others were already contemplating when the Great War intervened.

Mention has already been made of the British-Union Oil Company, which was originally conceived to provide oil bunkering for the transatlantic passenger ships based in Southampton from a depot that would subsequently be called Fawley. British-Union Oil Company were desirous of obtaining control of Californian oil which had been discovered and exploited in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Edward Doheny, an American of Irish descent and one of the most powerful personalities of the United States petroleum world at that time and by Lyman Stewart, the President of Union Oil of California. Whereas much of American oil assets were already in the hands of the Rockefeller Standard Oil companies, Stewart seems to have been a better choice of partner whose history and way of doing business were more compatible with Weir and his partners, Earl Grey, Lord Pirrie of Harland and Wolff, (and through Pirrie, Elder Dempster's, White Star, and Union Castle), Thomas Royden of Cunard, and P.N. Anderson of the Danish East Asiatic Company. This project was set in train in 1913 and was reported in the New York Times that: -

British Syndicates Deal Gives Control of One-fourth of California Supply
Weir and Associates Carrying Out Far Reaching Plan to Establish Subsidiary Selling Concerns

This then, was the genesis of a grand master plan to develop a world-wide ship oil bunkering network that would gradually replace coal for steamships of the British Royal and Merchant Navies and provide diesel oil for the new motorships that were to come . At the same time, other oil interests including Standard Oil, Anglo-Saxon (Shell), and Anglo-Iranian (British Petroleum) were engaged in similar schemes, and Mr. Halfdan Wilhelmsen of Tonsberg (Wilhelmsen Lines), Norway was one of the independent shipowners, who first recognised the coming importance of transporting oil by sea, to order four 10,000 deadweight tankers in 1912 for Californian coastal operation.

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Photo 4: Wilh Wilhelmsen's first tanker "San Jaoquin"

The inclusion of Mr. Peterson of the Danish East Asiatic Company in the Weir venture was as a result of Weir's great interest in the potential future of the oil engine and Peterson's alliance with Danish shipbuilders, Burmeister and Wain, that resulted in the delivery of the first ocean-going motorship mv. "Selandia" in 1912. Of 6,800 tons deadweight, this ship was powered by a twin-screw arrangement of B&W 8 cylinder, 4 cycle, single-acting diesel engines each of 1250 ihp operating at 140 rpm. "Selandia" just beat out her near sister, mv. "Jutlandia" built by Barclay Curle on the Clyde and launched only one week later. As far as Andrew Weir was concerned, the steamship era was over and the motorship era had arrived. World-wide oil bunkering facilities were needed and he intended to be part of this new industry!

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Photo 5: Sealandia

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Photo 6: Sealandia's Engine Room with her two Burmeister & Wain eight-cylinder, four-cycle, 1,250 hp diesel engines

The start of WWI in 1914 temporarily placed a hold on all of these business activities except as they might be related to war programmes. Negotiations and adjustments in the proposed investment in Union Oil in California and London continued during the war and it was intended first to convert the Cunard Line’s “Lusitania” from coal to oil as an example of what could be done with respect to operational cost savings, but the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of southern Ireland in 1915 before this could be done.

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Photo 7: Lusitania entering New York


By 1919, however, all these schemes and their amendments were back in motion except that by now, Doheny’s independent control of the Mexican oil exploitation around Tampico in the Gulf of Mexico had been added to the list of assets in play and visions of a two-ocean strategy- Pacific and Atlantic- had been conceived but with certain Rockefeller participation. Andrew Weir then sold his personal stock in British Union in order to buy into Doheney's Mexican venture to form the British-Mexican Petroleum Company and brought most of the original British participants of British Union Oil with him. Harland and Wolff would build the tankers to be operated by Andrew Weir to transport and distribute the Mexican oil to coastal and international markets, with emphasis on the great ships of Cunard and White Star Lines converted to oil-firing as examples of oil’s future to power ocean shipping. With the power of hind sight, it begins to look like Andrew Weir and Edward Doheny were always wanting to be independent of any Rockefeller connection, but the Mexican and Venezuelan projects to come were eventually gobbled up by Rockefeller interests anyway- such was the corporate and monopolistic power of Standard Oil (Esso/Exxon to be).

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Photo 8: Inverglass; an Inverleith Class tanker

To progress the corporate strategy of British-Mexican, Harland’s designed seven engines amidships tankers of the “Inverleith” Class based on the standard “N” type but built in several other yards between 1921 and 1924. Fitted with circular cargo tanks in the holds to carry about 10,000 tons they were driven by a single screw triple expansion steam engine. At the same time, six bunkering tankers of the “Inveritchen” Class were delivered between 1920 and 1925 for port bunkering work from Harland’s, Glasgow (4) and Henry Scarr, Hessle (2), and had a deadweight of 800 tons in three tanks. These handy vessels were not self-propelled but would deliver bunker oil assisted by tugs to deep sea ships particularly in Southampton where a valuable contract from Cunard had been obtained.

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Photo 9: Inveritchen providing bunkers to the Cunarder, Mauretania

The Cunard liner "Mauretania", for example, was converted from coal to oil in 1922 that reduced the engine room staff from 366 men to 79 and daily fuel consumption fell from 1000 tons of coal to 620 tons of oil. Other bunkering services were opened up in London, Liverpool, Avonmouth, Belfast, Hull, and Newcastle even as a further eleven smaller bunkering vessels were delivered into service during 1920 in the “Britmex” series.

Mention has already been made of the first class of oil tanker built by Hawthorn Leslie for Bank Line in 1913, 1914 and 1917. These three ships had engines aft and looked like tankers except that they also had circular tanks below decks for the carriage of oil cargoes. The second one of the three, named “Oyleric” as a Bank Line ship, was to have an interesting history. She was eventually acquired by the Mexican Government’s oil monopoly (Pemex) and as the “Faja de Oro” a neutral ship, was sunk by a German submarine off Key West in 1942 and was said to be the cause of Mexico’s joining the allies in WWII to declare war on the axis countries. Mexico had for some years, seemed to favour German influence and it was a relief to the allies when Mexico eventually came to their side.

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Photo 10: Olyeric

Bank Line also operated several other tank ships for the British Government’s Shipping Controller during the war. Five of these were “War” class “AO” standard tankers built in several yards of three island profile looking for all the world like dry cargo tramp ships.

The British-Mexican Petroleum Company did not, however, have a monopoly on Mexican oil. The other British company also involved, “El Aguila” or the Mexican Eagle Oil Company was controlled by the publisher, Mr. Weetman Pearson (afterwards Lord Cowdray) who became very well-known for building and operating the largest tankers at the time of 19,000 tons deadweight. Eagle Oil was eventually to be sold to the Shell Group.

It could be said that the situation was too good to last and, indeed, Mexican labour, landowners, and the Mexican government at various times objected to this foreign control of a national asset. A certain peace was established through tax and fee payments to Mexico City and it was pointed out by the oil companies that there was no petroleum technical knowledge nor Mexican personnel to run what was now a major international operation of world-wide reach and significance. Nevertheless, the government in Mexico City, whilst dropping some of their more onerous fiscal demands, insisted that only Mexican nationals should be involved with this industry leading several Bank Line individuals to assume Mexican citizenship for the duration of their involvement with British-Mexican Petroleum Company and its fleet.

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Photo 11: Francunion

Parallel to all of these happenings the Andrew Weir Company formed a French-flag operation in Paris called Venture Weir S.A. and set up bunkering operations in 1921 in France and Algeria. Ships of the “Francunion” series were involved and included floating oil storage and bunkering services. But the truly major happening occurred in 1924 when British-Mexican set up Lago Petroleum and Lago Oil and Transport Company to assist in the development of the oil concessions obtained by Mr. Doheny in Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela which had now become the destination of choice for all the foreign oil interests in Mexico thinking of abandoning that country owing to continuing political difficulties. It should be noted that oil speculators like Doheny were always looking for the next chance to develop fresh opportunities to make money before the major oil companies moved in, and for shipowners like Weir to likewise take advantages of opportunities to finance and provide ocean transport!

In fact, it would take until this year - 2013 - before Mexico's oil monopoly, Pemex, would finally consider allowing international oil companies to participate in exploration and drilling of the nation’s oil and gas reserves. Mexico’s oil industry had been nationalized in 1938 and had become one of the most controlled oil industries in the world.

But the more things change, the more they remain the same! Shortly after Pemex announced the consideration of re-opening up Mexican oil and gas exploration and exploitation to non-Mexicans, the following announcement was made: "Thousands of people rallied Sunday, September 2013, in Mexico City to oppose President Enrique Pena Nieto’s plan to open the state-owned oil sector to profit-sharing contracts with private firms. Leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told the rally that the proposal constitutes “treason” and “a filthy, shameless robbery.”.

This is exactly what happened to drive Weir, Doheny, and Eagle from Mexico all those years ago! Proposals to open Mexico’s energy industry to outside investment could make a good thing even better for oil field services companies now operating there. Analysts predict that services companies already in Mexico — including Houston heavyweights Halliburton, Schlumberger, Baker Hughes and Weatherford — will profit from increased drilling activity if Mexican lawmakers agree to a constitutional amendment that would allow international interests to share in the risks and rewards of the nation’s oil business.


The situation in Lake Maracaibo was that the oil fields were in and around the lake to which deep sea ships had no access owing to the shallowness and ever-shifting bar that blocked the narrow channel connecting the lake to the Caribbean Sea. The solution was to employ shallow-draft tankers to bring the oil out to refineries located on the Dutch West India islands. The Lago company selected San Nicolas on Aruba as a transshipment point for lake tankers called the “Mosquito Fleet” to connect with ocean tankers. San Nicolas would eventually grow into a substantial residential community that would include docks, a drydock, tank storage, and a major refinery.

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Photo 12: Inverlago Class Mosquito Tanker "Invercaibo"

Some ships of British-Mexican now found themselves servicing San Nicolas but soon, the old arrangement between Weir’s and Harland and Wolff produced ships specifically for Lago. First, four specially designed ships for Lake work, the “Inverlago” Class, were delivered in 1925 followed by 18 near sisterships of the “San Nicolas” Class in the same year and up to 1931. It had been decided to utilize local names for this class instead of the Weir “Inver-“ prefix although Weir continued to manage them, at first directly from London but eventually through their Aruba agency.

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Photo 13: San Nicolas Class Mosquito Tanker "Yamamota"

The San Nicolas refinery, which was also a Weir investment, came on stream in 1929 to become one of the world’s largest and most important especially during WWII. The output of aviation spirit/kerosene from this location was vital to the British Royal Air Force before the United States entered the war at the end of 1941 and was no longer prohibited by its former neutrality to send petroleum products from America to the war effort in the United Kingdom.

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Photo 14: San Nicolas Wharf

But the petroleum world of the 1930s was a heady mix of financial opportunism involving joint operations, amalgamations, disposals, buy-outs, and shares manipulation. As a new world-class industry, it was a very attractive field for speculators, entrepreneurs and consolidators. The giant Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (the Rockefeller interests) after acquiring additional important oil-field holdings in Lake Maracaibo also purchased the San Nicolas refinery and Weir’s Mosquito fleet of 21 tankers in 1932. But the management of the ships had by then already been transferred to the Andrew Weir Agency, J. Hamilton, in Aruba in 1930.

This arrangement was continued by Standard Oil and actually enlarged with the transfer of the Lake tankers of the Creole Petroleum Corporation (another Standard Oil acquisition) to Weir/Hamilton management. In 1937, however, Standard took over the entire combined Mosquito fleet. The Lake ships, as well as the British bunker supply fleet, were transferred to the direct control of the Anglo-American Oil Company which became Esso Transportation Co. Ltd. London in 1947.

It should be noted here that Royal Dutch Shell/ Shell Oil were the major competitors when all these machinations were under way, and retained their position as one of the two surviving operators by the time all the manoeuvring, wheeling and dealing had subsided. These were exciting times in the oil industry!

As with today’s container ships, bigger is better from an economic and profitable point-of-view. Accordingly, the continued operation of smaller tankers only provided diminishing returns especially since the bar at the entrance to Lake Maracaibo had been dredged by the converted “Invercaibo” in 1938 to admit ocean-going tankers. The Mosquito fleet was dispersed to other duties and spent a lot of time in lay-up only to again find useful employment during war conditions.

Andrew Weir, recognizing the trend to bigger ships had substantial revenue tied up in German banks that was prohibited from repatriation to home office account by the political control exercised by the German government in the 1930s. Accordingly, it was decided to build a series of 13,700-14,000 deadweight ton sea-going tankers in Germany using these funds and the first of these, the m.v.”Inverlee” was obtained from Bremer Vulcan in 1938 for Inver Tankers Ltd, Dublin and managed by Weir. Three ships were built by Bremer Vulcan and four more by Deutsche Werft. All were completed and delivered in 1938 apparently to work in conjunction with an intended refinery in Dublin, which was never built . But here again, a world war intervened, and all seven ships were transferred by the Irish President deValera to Britain and registered in Glasgow only to became war losses by 1943.

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Photo 15: Inversuir

It has often been said that Andrew Weir (later Lord Inverforth) was the driving force behind Bank Line and the other Weir enterprises. The oil and tanker ventures certainly reflect his deft touch at selecting business opportunities and partners. At the age of 48 when lesser men are more than happy to leave wheeling and dealing to younger minds, Andrew Weir, a very private Scottish gentleman, was just embarking on a business adventure that would take him into the inner circles of the early energy industry – a forum for the creation of great wealth or utter ruin – no place for the indecisive or unwary! A private company such as Andrew Weir's was much more flexible to adapt to changing conditions and it is perhaps an indication of the first Lord Inverforth's dynamism that he could embark on any venture that interested him. This opportunistic way of business certainly redounded greatly to the fortunes of Bank Line and other elements of the Weir Group and was reflected down through subsequent generations of the Weir family.


The photographs used to illustrate this article are from the Ships Nostalgia Galleries, which are available for use in the Directory. The individual photographs used in Part 11 have been provided as follows: -

  1. Wikipedia Commons
  2. Wikipedia Commons
  3. British Colombia Provincial Archives
  4. Wh Whilhelmsen
  5. Ships Nostalgia - hasse neren
  6. Ships Nostalgia - stein
  7. Ships Nostalgia – threebs
  8. Ships Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
  9. Clydebuilt Ships Database
  10. Ships Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
  11. Tyne Built Ships
  12. Auke Visser
  13. lago colony
  14. lago colony
  15. Ships Nostalgia - Brent Chambers

Article written and compiled by Alistair Macnab with detailed assistance from Mr. Ken Dagnall, on the topic of British Union Oil Company.
Formatting and presentation only, by Fred Henderson

© RVW Productions LLC, 2013

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