Bank Line - Part 14
Narative by Alistair Macnab; Edited by Fred Henderson
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
Photo 1: Fleetbank, which was completed by Harland & Wolff, Belfast in 1953, was the Author's first ship as an Apprentice, completing a two year trip on the India - South America (East and West Coast) service.
I see from my original writings when I started to record yet another version of the Andrew Weir story, that I likened Bank Line to the general history of the British Merchant Navy during its highs, lows, and eventual decline during the 20th Century. Having reached the end of my story, I am more convinced than ever that what happened in Bank Line was certainly most representative of the industry as a whole. Let’s review the situation.
Bank Line survived all the technological changes from sail to steam, from coal to oil, and from reciprocating to diesel engines as did many of Britain’s shipping concerns. It did not survive the technological change to containerships nor did most of its fellows. Why was that? What significant factors were at work to reduce a once-dominant industry to a rump? And by industry, I mean the ship building and engineering that went along with ship operations.
Photo 2: Ettrickbank, delivered by Doxfords in 1937, was the Authors oldest ship. In 1956 he was Acting Third Mate, serving 18 months on the Oriental-Africa Line (It has been pointed out to me that the oldest Bank Boat I served on was, in fact, the "Inchanga". How could I have forgotten)?
It’s interesting to speculate. I have no particular insight into the decisions that were made in high places but my observations come from the ‘sharp end’ that is, as the proud master mariner who faithfully started out as an apprentice and climbed the ranks to Master then spent several years on the operational and commercial side ashore. It could be said that I have had the opportunity of observing the outcomes of corporate policy at first hand. Nevertheless, this is only one opinion and I’m sure there are many others.
Photo 3: Roybank (Harland & Wolff, Belfast, 1963) was the Author's first command, serving on the India-Africa Line (East, South and West Africa) (She was a good-looking ship and easy to work. We called her "Daddy's Yacht" as she was named after Roy Weir (Third Lord Inverforth).
Like all businesses, the birth of a successful enterprise starts with an all-consuming idea to make money. It’s a case of marrying a dream to the means of making it pay for its transformation into sustained reality. In the mid 1880s there was a lot of enthusiasm for international commerce. Gladstone’s moralistic Liberal Party made steps to quell domestic upsets in Ireland and Disraeli’s efforts to expand overseas influence on Queen Victoria’s behalf made for a moment in time when Britain was at peace, the Empire was growing, and manufacturing, engineering, and transportation systems were being steadily improved in the hands of entrepreneurs and a better-educated workforce through compulsory education.
The American Civil War was over by 1865 and the Franco-German War by 1871 so overall, it was a good time to venture into international commerce. Many shipping companies had already ventured into the steam engine but on the sail side, the last hurrah of the tall ships, the windjammers, was just emerging. This latter factor that enabled a British ship operator to compete at the low-price end of the international ocean transportation sector saw the initiation of Andrew Weir’s Bank Line in 1885, at a time when other British ship operators were pursuing scheduled steamship sailings to connect the Homeland with the far-flung colonies or to carry good Welsh coal out to the world-wide coaling stations that supported these lines of service.
As yet, the colonies and overseas dependencies did not have merchant fleets of their own and were forced to rely upon the British carriers that called at their seaports. This took care of shipments to and from Britain but the ready availability of tramp ships for charter in order to expand colonial business beyond the mother country was difficult and, in fact, discouraged by the powers of the day that had created colonial preference laws.
But just as in Britain, there were entrepreneurs also in the colonies and other overseas countries who felt the opportunistic winds of change and wanted to participate. The coal mine owners of New South Wales, the sheep herders of New Zealand, the nitrate miners of Chile, the steel mill proprietors of Pennsylvania, and the farmers of the Ukraine and Argentina, all were desirous of extending the results of their labours and the bounty of the earth to new world markets. And as many of these enterprises had been founded or were controlled by British or British expatriates, the natural desire was to support British shipping if it was available for the right price
This then, was the opportunity that young Andrew Weir saw as a business sector that was comparatively undeveloped and certainly neglected. Of course, he was not alone. As he was busy looking for an opportunity to enter this business sector, there were other sailing ship owners succeeding or failing at any given time so he had many opportunities to observe the apparent good practices of the successful operators as well as the foolish and fatal decisions of those whose fortunes were lost through bad management decisions. Glasgow was a very suitable port for shipping entrepreneurs at the time as the"Second City" in Britain for manufacturing, ship building, cotton, sugar, and tobacco trading, and good banking arrangements to encourage all these activities.
As always, the problem of seed money was an obstacle. Young Weir (he was only 21) presumably had to do some smooth talking to convince the money men that he had a sterling business concept. He started small with a third-hand, coaster-sized three-masted iron barque the “Willowbank” of 882 tons gross and the rest, as they say is history. From the prudent management of this vessel, it was only a year later that he was able to persuade a well-known shipbuilder on the Clyde, Russell and Co., to help him to finance the first of what came to be a string of windjammers. You see, Weir had noted that having the right ship in the right place at the right time was also a key ingredient to the success of his master plan.
Photo 4: Willowbank (1861) became Andrew Weir's first ship in 1885
If a potential customer were to enquire of the availability of a ship to carry his future shipment the correct response was to say: “What are your preferred laydays?” With the study of the likely availability of basic commodity cargoes, such as harvest time, the end of a rainy season, the completion of an inland railway, the development of a port, or the sudden overseas demand for a particular commodity, ships could be managed to be pre-positioned where they would be likely to be needed in the near future.
Andrew Weir was, of course, not alone in his understanding of ship operations. Many were his competitors but for one reason or another he seemed to being doing all the right things and prospered accordingly.
All this is purely background and speculation drawn from what we know of the Andrew Weir story. But the bare bones of ocean shipping development at that time suggest that the scenario must have been somewhat as described. But we are supposed to be looking at the 20th. Century and how Weir’s and Bank Line’s experiences closely mirrored the British shipping industry as a whole.
Shipbuilders and Andrew Weir
One thing that proved to be significant that came out of the 19th. Century was Weir’s close relationship with one shipyard and to build essentially similar ships in series. Some series building of ships was effected during the Great War but only became the thing to do during WWII and subsequently. Was Weir ahead of his time or just lucky?
Photo 5: Gujarat was the first Harland & Wolff ship to be built for Andrew Weir, being delivered by the Govan shipyard in 1923 and powered by a single oil engine. In this photo she is in her original livery with buff upperworks
In the 20th Century, Weir forged a close relationship with Harland and Wolff which lasted from 1920 to 1968. The association stemmed from Weir’s desire to branch out into the new field of oil and tankers, again driven by his vision of the need to provide the world-wide availability of oil to bunker ocean shipping which would replace coaling stations. In this particular venture, Lord Inverforth (he was ennobled in 1919) teamed up with Lord Pirrie, the chief executive of Harland and Wolff to build a series of deep sea tankers and bunker barges in support of oil investments in California and Mexico. This also led to the building of cargo and cargo-passenger ships by Harland’s in Glasgow and Belfast. The design and layout of each of the 52 ships that resulted from the association was based on its immediate predecessor. In 48 years the general cargo ship size went from 5,000 to 18,000 deadweight tons, all powered by Harland’s version of Burmeister and Wain’s oil engines, the enthusiasm and promotion of which was shared by Inverforth and Pirrie.
Photo 6: Gowanbank" (1968) was the last Bank Line ship to be built by Harland & Wolff.
The venture into tankers was to be essayed by other British shipowners during the 1960s when the oil majors were to retrench into their principal function of exploration, research and refining and get out of the ship owning business to the extent that their transportation requirements could be undertaken through charters. Again, this is a case of “been there; done that” as Weir’s had diversified in this direction throughout the 1920s and ‘30s.
Photo 7: Eskbank, the first motor ship from Doxford in 1937, was a variant of the "Doxford Economy Ship" with a 4-cylinder Doxford engine instead of the 3-cyl fitted in the basic design. She also had overall wood-sheathed decks fore and aft which was a Bank Line feature that lasted until "Laganbank" from Harland's in 1955
Another profitable linkage with British shipbuilders was Bank Line’s support of William Doxford and Sons of Pallion, Sunderland. Again, this was largely based on an engine. Although Doxford had built several steamships of a semi-standard design for Bank Line starting in 1913 it was not until 1937 when Doxford commenced building Bank Line ships in series in a similar fashion to the Harland and Wolff arrangement. In this occasion, the relationship was built around the Doxford oil engine and to last until 1979 when by that time no fewer than 55 general cargo units had been built in 42 years.
Photo 8: Tenchbank, leaving the River Wear in 1979. She was the last Bank Line ship to be built by Doxford's, which had by that date become part of Sunderland Shipbuilders under the control of the nationalised British Shipbuilders
During these years, the shipbuilders had been given several subsidies from the British government to keep them afloat and it is certain that Bank Line followed government money when the time came to order ships. The company always paid in full for its ships upon delivery right up to 1972 when for the first time Bank Line financed their new ships through a low-interest bank loan. Bank Line’s boast that they had never built a Bank Boat overseas was perfectly true and towards the end of shipbuilding in the United Kingdom, Bank Line were certainly persuaded to support British Shipbuilders – the nationalized entity of the surviving yards – by accepting their latest and last-gasp general purpose ship design.
It seemed to many that British shipbuilders had come somewhat late to the general-purpose ship production business and the “Fish” or “Roachbank” Class of 1979 were the last of a magnificent contribution of excellent, all-round ships for the British Merchant Navy. The novel Pallion Ship Factory never had an opportunity to deliver a financial return on its investment.
Next stop, dry bulkers, tankers and container ships. The reign of the general purpose tramp and its more sophisticated sister, the cargo liner, was over.
But this story is not over. We certainly know why container ships took over the cargo liner business. It was too good an opportunity to mechanise port loading and discharging and to get out from under the time-consuming and expense of dockland labour. But we now know that that exercise might have been successful from a time-saving point-of-view, but dock labour have been certainly smarter than container ship operators and managed to keep high the cost of cargo operations through featherbedding and extension of their work jurisdiction into the landside. One notes the purchase of container terminals by ocean container operators and one has to wonder on what basis this strategy will provide in cargo-handling cost savings? Inviting the fox into the hen-house seems at best to be a short-term strategy.
Looking specifically at British shipowners’ ventures into owning and operating container lines as replacements for their former liner operations, we can do no better than look at the construction and operation of OCL and ACT.
Photo 9: The first OCL container ship Encounter Bay (1,530 TEU) seen leaving her builders Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, Hamburg in 1969
OCL –Overseas Container Lines - you will recollect, was the consortium of Britain’s public shipping companies – P&O, Furness Group, British & Commonwealth, and Ocean Steam to containerize the UK-Australian trade. One could well imagine the initial problems of non-reefer containers outwards and insulated containers homewards. Not only would this be a problem with equipment balance but as the initial concept was to utilize 20’ units but they were to be 8’ high as well; these were surely bad choices when considered as instruments of international commerce. So much for the wisdom of the experts who were in control by this time!
Also, insulated 20s, as opposed to 20’ integrated units had a very limited landside range which was to hamper door-to-door deliveries mainly limiting the insulated units to pier-to-pier activity. Initially, wool bales did not stow well in containers resulting in opposition to containerization from that particular quarter.
Photo 10: ACT 1 (1,334 TEU) the first of six ships built for Associated Container Transportation
ACT – Associated Container Transportation – was the other principal British container consortium. Comprising the collective liner services of Britain’s private shipping companies, Ellerman, Ben, Blue Star, Harrison, Cunard/Port, and Bank Line although Bank eventually declined to join on the basis of cost and relevance to that company’s existing liner services.
In both cases, OCL and ACT, the experts were of the opinion that container suites should be no more than three to one per ship slot, and that proved to be totally inadequate. What with specialized containers – half-highs, open tops, tank units, reefers, flatracks, platforms, etc - the supply and tracking of containers and chassis was very much a full-time job and resulted in a totally new management section - equipment control - to keep track of all equipment. The fact that the problem of providing and managing container chassis is still today an issue in the USA, is a case in point.
I’m afraid that traditional British ship management structures were not up to the task. There was an unhappy melding of talent from the various proud constituent lines that was apt to break down whenever historical and supposedly rejected policies were proposed and challenged. Newly-minted experts brought in with no historical connections to any of the constituents, were inexperienced and unfamiliar with the separate political undercurrents flowing through the consortium. Demands for discipline were often ignored.
Mini-groupings broke away from the main two consortiums and gradually faded away due to the absence of corporate mass whilst the P&O element continued longer than the others because of its size and possibly because a stricter management regime had already been imposed during the earlier consolidation of the breakbulk companies within the group.
Photo 11: Willowbank (768 TEU) was Bank Line's only cellular containership. She was built by Smith's Dock, Middlesbrough in 1980 and initially employed in the joint Bank and Savill Line service from the US Gulf to Australasia. In 1984 she was switched to a California to Australia/New Zealand direct service, before being sold to Austasia Line in 1988
But the collective heart was not into consortia and container operations. Protests from management survivors of these perilous times will inform you that they worked long hours, night and day to make containers work only to be constantly told by the accountants and technicians who somehow had leap-frogged their way to the top, that their efforts were not good enough. Money was going out at a terrifying rate and revenue was never enough. Potential personal career structures were suddenly in jeopardy and a classy job in the City had suddenly been reduced to clerical status. There was nothing creative about booking and placing containers in slots. It was the end of an era.
With this upheaval going on with the changeover from breakbulk cargo liner services to containers it is easy to understand how the seismic shift would affect many shore-side shipping people. The same excuses, however, cannot be said for the charter or tramp breakbulk sector, although faced with the advent of bulk carriers; the general-purpose ship sector was also a casualty of the container revolution. Given the strength of the non-container sector today some 40 years later, it is difficult to see why this sector should also have disappeared from the British flag although it is flourishing in Denmark, Germany, and Holland.
I think it is simply that the entrepreneurs who laid the foundation for the glorious 20th. Century British Merchant Navy finally got tired of ocean shipping. It was no longer glamorous and their money men told them that there were better places to invest their diminishing fortunes than in ocean transportation. Anyway, the Asians seemed to have unlimited funds or acquiescing banks to take containerization to its fullest potential and then there’s always Maersk, Mediterranean and CMA-CGM, so Europe is not entirely left out.
Photo 12: The maiden arrival at Felixstowe of Majestic Maersk (18,270 TEU) in October 2013. The 13,400 TEU, COSCO England is visable on the left of the photo
That only leaves what’s left of the British Merchant Navy looking on.
Photo 13: Mark C (19,500 dwt), the largest of 71 ships owned, operated, or on order by Carisbrooke Shipping, Cowes, Isle of Wight
The individual photographs used in Part 13 have been provided as follows: -
- Shis Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
- Shis Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
- Ships Nostalgia - CRANFIELD
- Ships Nostalgia - TORRENS
- Ships Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
- Ships Nostalgia - A.D.Frost
- Ships Nostalgia - Bootsmann
- Ships Nostalgia - threebs
- Ships Nostalgia - oliana
- Courtesy of the Port of Felixstowe
Article written and compiled by Alistair Macnab
Formatting and presentation only, by Fred Henderson
© RVW Productions LLC, 2013
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