Bank Line - Part 13

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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

Bank Line London[edit]

People, Propulsion and Policy Development[edit]

This is not intended to be a definitive description of the Bank Line head office in London but rather to merely record the superintendents’ technical departments and the commercial section in so far as they related to the design of the ships and the operation of the liner and tramping services. It has been said that the London office was structured and run rather like a ship with a definite chain of command and a seniority structure that was not difficult to identify even although individuals did not wear insignias of rank on their sleeves or shoulders!


In what this author considers to be a unique management structure in British shipping organizations, over the developing years, the Bank Line always relied upon experienced sea staff promoted to the superintendents’ departments at home and abroad to assist the company and the home office executives in developing and growing business strategies as these related to the continuous smooth running and reliability of the extensive fleet in all parts of the world and the careful handling of all cargo types.

The Weir family, consisting of the founding Andrew Weir (Lord Inverforth), the second Lord Inverforth (Morton Weir) and the third Lord Inverforth (Roy Weir) and senior management always recognized the valuable contributions that Masters, Chief Engineers, and Superintendents abroad, brought to the success of business strategies and were continually looking out for promising younger officers to be groomed for senior positions at sea and prospective positions on land. It was not uncommon for recognitions to be offered to a succeeding generation of the same family that had earlier provided a significant contribution to a successful strategy or service, but this was by no means the only way to progress within the company.

Another way of progressing was said for a candidate to have “the right name and to come from the right airt” which may have been discouraging for Englishmen, or Welshmen but which gave Scottish, Geordie and Northern Irish individuals certain advantages. Fortunately, there is no sign of this bias ever having been implemented to any great extent.

Captain Alexander Scobie certainly was a Scotsman who joined Bank Line as an Apprentice in 1917 and who ultimately became the Chief Marine Superintendent in London in 1946 and a Director of the company in 1953. Captain Scobie was appointed to the London management via, what was at the time, the traditional route to the top position: the Calcutta office, which he joined from seagoing command in 1935 replacing Captain T.R. Kidd.

His engineering counterpart as Chief Engineer Superintendent in London was Mr. J. Routledge who had served his engineering apprenticeship with the Glasgow firm of G and J. Weir, a successful company to this day as a leader in “fracking” for the oil and gas industry and no relation to the Andrew Weir group of companies. Mr. Routledge had joined Bank Line in 1914 and was promoted to the company’s shore staff at Workman Clark in Belfast to supervise the building of the “White Ships" TSMVs “Isipingo”, “Inchanga” and “Incomati”. A spell in Calcutta followed and he arrived in the London office after WWII in 1946. He was appointed Chief Engineer Superintendent in 1951.

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Photo 1: Like many shipyards, Workman Clark faced increasing financial difficulties during the 1920s and was reconstructed as Workman Clark (1928) Ltd, but although it was granted some orders from Bank Line, by 1930 it was virtually bankrupt. In that year it opened merger negociations with the Trustees in Bankruptcy of the Royal Mail Group which had been dragged down by their ownership the equally insolvent, but much larger Harland & Wolff organisation. The Harland and Wolff management were reluctant to take over more facilities and the merger was not completed until 1935. Even in 1928, Workman Clark was short of work, as will be seen from this photograph of the Norwegian whale factory ship Kosmos about to be launched from its shipyard.


Assistant Deck and Engineer Superintendents were always assigned to the shipyards where Bank Line ships were built. This meant that close technical oversight was maintained in Glasgow, Belfast and Sunderland with respectively Harland and Wolff and Doxford. As has already been noted, Weir’s early adoption of the oil engine had resulted in an entire motorship fleet with the exception of some second hand tonnage or opportunistic purchases through government ‘scrap and build’ schemes of steamers from time to time.

And in truth, Lord Inverforth was no dilettante as far as oil engines were concerned. Early on, he had developed a close friendship with Mr. H. N. Anderson, the founder and Chief Executive of the Danish East Asiatic Company. This relationship was to mature into joint ownership of the United Baltic Corporation and Macandrews but that is another story. Mr. Anderson through his relationship with shipbuilders, Burmeister and Wain of Copenhagen, had, in fact, built the first sizeable ocean-going oil engined cargo ship, the “Selandia” in 1912 which had the following characteristics: -

6800 deadweight; 2 X 8 cylinder 4 cycle engines, single-acting, 1250 ihp each, 12 [email protected] 140rpm.

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Photo 2: The engine room of Selandia

The oil engine had been invented by a German, Rudolf Diesel and B&W had obtained the Danish license in 1895, but the advantage of oil instead of coal was not generally accepted by shipowners until after WWI even then, for use in oil-fired steamships rather than for diesel-engined propulsion. The Danish combination of East Asiatic and Burmeister & Wain changed all that and Andrew Weir was one of the early promoters of oil fuel and the diesel engine. Through the Weir/Pirrie connection, Harland and Wolff were encouraged to bid for and receive a license from B&W to build oil engines in the UK, the other licensee being Barclay Curle in Glasgow.

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Photo 3: The Institute of Marine Engineers building, London

When Inverforth was appointed to the Presidency of the Institute of Marine Engineers in 1925 he gave a very spirited address to the membership on the oil engine as the motive power of the future. He opened his remarks: -

“Having regard to the roll of distinguished men who have preceded me in filling the Presidential Chair of the Institute of Marine Engineers, I realize and appreciate the high honour you have conferred upon me in electing me as your President for the ensuing year. I recognize, however, that your motives have been influenced entirely by my position as a shipowner and not in any sense from scientific or mechanical qualification, which, needless to say, I do not possess. I have nevertheless always studied with great care the economic aspects of ship owning, and in this connection it is a most obvious fact that the question of motive power is of outstanding importance.”

His lordship went on to review the aspects of ship propulsion that he had been associated with from his initial reliance on wind and sail - the windjammers - through the comparatively short period of the company’s steamship era, and up to his early recognition along with his friends, Anderson and Pirrie, of the benefits of the oil engine which had resulted in the largest British order of 21 motorships from Harland and Wolff’s shipyard in Govan, involving no fewer than 39 engine units, from their Lancefield Engine Works in Finnieston, Glasgow, the equivalent of a full year’s output of the engine factory.

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Photo 4: The Harland & Wolff Clydeside shipyard at Govan

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Photo 5: The Harland & Wolff Lancefield Engine Works on the north bank of the Clyde at Finnieston, Glasgow

The benefits to a shipowner of the oil engine other than the initial cost to which must be added the increased machinery and associated insurance premium, Inverforth categorized as:

  • Fewer men in the engine room
  • Less fuel consumption per day vis-à-vis a comparative steamship
  • A larger deadweight cargo capacity for the same ship dimensions
  • A longer steaming radius
  • The saving of fuel
  • Savings by the installation and operation of electric winches.

On a recent comparison of Bank Line ships of similar configuration, His Lordship noted that the oil-engined ship had carried 2,000 tons of additional cargo versus the coal-burning steamer because of a reduction in the required bunkers and bunker space. He was already encouraging his seagoing engineers to qualify for the diesel endorsement to their qualifications at company expense.

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Photo 6: An early Harland & Wolff, Burmeister & Wain main engine

As time went on, senior superintendents retired. In the case of Captain Scobie, he was succeeded by Captain David Gale (via Calcutta) in 1965 then Captain Brian Rogers in 1975 who had come up through the ranks in the London office after his seagoing career as Master which included the command of Lord Inverforth’s yacht.

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Photo 7: Lord Inverforth's yacht Venetia

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Photo 8: Lord Inverforth on the right and Sir Thomas Lipton on the left aboard Lipton's racing yacht "Shamrock" at Cowes on 14th August 1925.

Mr. Routledge was replaced by Mr. J. Davidson from the Sydney office and in due course, Mr. A.A. Smith held the top engineering spot to be replaced by Mr. Roddie MacLeod from the New Orleans staff in 1976.

Policy Development[edit]

The design of Bank Line ships generally followed the builders’ own concepts of what a general-purpose cargo ship would look like. Harland’s and Doxford had each developed universally marketable tramp and liner versions of this class of ship with the Bank Line editions of these builders’ designs more distinguished for conformity to existing market demand than to any unique design and capability. But some increase in scantlings in certain critical areas was demanded by Bank Line over and above those of underwriters and Lloyd’s Register based on experience gained in the operation of a large fleet over many years.

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Photo 9: Inverbank, the first of 18 diesel powered cargo liners delivered by Harland & Wolff, Govan between 1924 and 1925

The corporate requirement that all Bank Line ships should be interchangeable and capable of moving from a tramp voyage to a liner berth was an absolute requirement that allowed the London chartering department to confidently offer a Bank ship to charterers at short notice, anywhere in the world. The company had been built on this trading concept and on no account would this marketing benefit be undermined. Sir John Niven and later Mr. John Hawkes had become chartering directors of the company and had safely brought Bank Line through the lean years of the shipping depression of the 1920s and 1930s. Mr. Hawkes was succeeded by Mr. Ian McEwen assisted by Mr. Barry Peters.

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Photo 10: The Doxford shipyard at Pallion, Sunderland, in 1921

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Photo 11: The Pallion ship factory on the same site in the 1970s

But there were specific internal Bank Line features that distinguished these ships. In many of the various versions of ship from both Belfast and Sunderland a greater capacity of cargo oil carriage had to be catered for. This usually resulted in many ships having six coiled deeptanks adjacent to the motor casing because the carriage of bulk oils and chemicals was a regular feature on several company liner sectors.

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Bulk coconut and palm oils were regular cargoes from the Pacific Islands to North America and Northwest Europe as were a wide range of bulk lubricating oils, additives, chemicals and vegetable oils from the U.S. Gulf to Australia and New Zealand. Eventually, some ship versions had 11 deeptanks of varying capacity from 90 to 700 tons. Other unique Bank Line features were often second tweendecks, cargo reefer chambers and large mail and strong rooms for cargoes requiring these features. Cargo-handling equipment was invariably located at both ends of main hatches. Container capacity was not a consideration until 1973 when holds and twinned hatch tops were configured for a small number of standard boxes.

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Photo 13: The foredeck of Roachbank

It has often been remarked on how a “Bank Boat” could be easily identified by its external features. Even when sold for further trading, an ex-Bank Boat in another operators’ livery could be readily recognised. Over the years, the buff funnel with the black top had become ubiquitous but it is often forgotten that the latter-day smart white topsides had originally been buff painted overall in presentation of a somewhat dowdy appearance. After WWII, a white riband was actually introduced on the black hull at sheerstrake level but this was eventually discarded in view of the many variations of this feature thought up by Chief Officers and Masters and by the time and expense involved for its application.

But the policy of accepting the builders’ ideas of the “ideal Bank Boat” was temporarily laid aside when the Chief Marine Superintendent of the day, Captain Gale designed the more flexible “Corabank” Class of 1973 assisted by his London and overseas staffs intended for purely liner operations. These six ships initially gave stalwart service on the U.S. Gulf-Australasia Lines, The Pacific Islands Homewards and Round the World Westbound Lines as well as latterly on the Bank-Ellerman Service from and to South Africa, the Arabian Gulf, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and western India.

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Photo 14: Moraybank, one of six Corabank ships built in Swan Hunter's Tyneside shipyards at South Shields, Hebburn and Wallsend.

But beyond this exception, the Bank Line were already building new general purpose ships from Sunderland based on “standard” ship designs of British Shipbuilders (with the customary Bank Line variants) of the “Fleetbank” Class starting in 1972. These 12 ships (the last two of greater deadweight) were a reflection of the type of general purpose tween-decker that could be constructed in Britain for the replacement of world-wide shipowners’ aging tonnage of this type. But it was a very competitive field. Tween deckers, but more especially bulkers and container ships were already being offered from shipbuilders in Japan, South Korea and Germany at lower prices with early deliveries, and even although a subsequent ‘new’ standard British Shipbuilders version, represented by the Bank Line “Fish” Class (“Roachbank”) of six units was offered in 1979, the world of ocean shipping had firmly moved away from general purpose ships and into two classes - dry bulkers and container carriers. Somewhat belatedly, the last Bank Line ship to be built was a refrigerated container ship in 1980- the “Willowbank” for Bank & Savill Line. Even then, it was a variant of a ‘standard’ reefer container ship based on a Blue Star Line prototype. Its 768 teus with standard 8 feet height and air-blown refrigeration from a ship plant into insulated containers, identified a type of ship that would be fast overtaken by more flexible designs.

For a brief spell Bank Line chartered-in several "container-friendly" ships to run on the liner services - but at the end of their charters, they were usually released. Whether or not they had demonstrated their value as revenue earners is not known.

The acquisition of four ships of the Finnish-built, Russian-owned “Tiksi” Class in 1995 can now be seen in hindsight as essentially a stop-gap measure to keep the Sopac/Round the World service viable for a few years longer. Even so, the commercial operation of the line was ceded to Swire Shipping in 2006 although the technical management of the ships was still in Andrew Weir hands. These flexible ships included a ro-ro feature and were modified to accommodate 7,000 tons of bulk liquids (coconut oil and palm oil), eventually going to the ship-breakers in 2009 when the service was no longer viable.

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Photo 15: Mahinabank

There it is then the end of Bank Line and the end of the British Merchant Navy as a national asset which latterly brought good working and living arrangements to crews and officers. The decades of the 1960s and 1970s also brought forth fine-looking and well-equipped ships as well as a belated recognition and respect to those of our fellow seafarers who made the private sector business of ocean transportation work efficiently and well. I suppose we didn’t see the end coming. There is a Greek word for this – hubris.

Now all that is left of the glorious 20th Century of the British Merchant Navy is nostalgia for the “Good Old Days”. Don’t feel sad. Remember that you were once a part of it and rejoiced in stowing interesting and varied cargoes, keeping temperamental engines working, visiting exotic places and meeting interesting people. Whether Durban, Dunedin, or Dunkerque; Buenos Aires, Bombay or Bahrein, the world and all its wonders was available and accessible to you, courtesy of your employer and your chosen profession. It was great while it lasted.


The individual photographs used in Part 13 have been provided as follows: -

  2. Ships Nostalgia - stein
  3. Grace's Guide
  6. Grace's Guide
  8. Alistair Macnab
  9. John Ward-McQuaid – Clydebuilt Database
  10. Wikipedia
  11. John Ward-McQuaid – Clydebuilt Database
  12. Bank Line Magazine
  13. Ships Nostalgia - Polaris
  14. Ships Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
  15. Wikipedia

Article written and compiled by Alistair Macnab
Formatting and presentation only, by Fred Henderson

© RVW Productions LLC, 2013

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