Bank Line - Part 5
Narrative by Alistair Macnab; Edited by Fred Henderson
A 20th Century Perspective of a British Ocean Shipping Company
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
Lord Inverforth by the “Mirrors of Downing Street (by a political observer - Harold Begbie - in 1918)”:
“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 encyclopaedias 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 encyclopaedia 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 seewhole 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 cine- matographed upon his brain.
“One thing more remains to be said. Mr.Andrew Weir inherited the moral traditions of Scottish 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.”
Lord Inverforth’s Business Philosophy
"All the fallacies and wild theories of revolutionary minds, 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.”
Losses of Bank Line Ships Since 1945
Launched as the “Jesse De Forest” from Bethlehem-Fairfield’s shipyard in Baltimore MD. in 1943, this “Liberty” ship was assigned to the British Government as a “SAM” or “Standard American-built Merchantman” as s.s.”Samuta”. She was bought by Bank Line in 1947 and renamed “Kelvinbank” as one of twelve Sam ships bought by the company to replace WWII losses. Operated chiefly as a tramp ship on many of Weir’s bulk interests, “Kelvinbank” was on charter to the British Phosphate Commission and had just completed loading bulk phosphate at Ocean Island on January 6th. 1953 when she ran aground on departing the berth. “Kelvinbank” was said to have lost main engine power but to compound the problem, she also ran afoul of an existing wreck, the s.s.“Ooma”. She was refloated but badly holed and abandoned as a Costructive Total Loss.
Photo 1: Kelvinbank after breaking in two. Original photo taken by John Beale.
"Kelvinbank”s remains were visible for a time with the bow and the foremast visible on the reef but with the rest of the ship broken off and sunk in deep water.
The ninth of eighteen units of the trendsetting Inverbank Class from Harland and Wolff’s Govan, Glasgow shipyard in 1925, and a motorship replacement for WWI steamship losses. “Forresbank” had survived WWII and was still performing steadfast service on Bank Line’s Oriental African Line after 33 years when on November 9th. 1958, there was an explosion and a fire in the engine room whilst the ship was on passage from Capetown to Durban and the Far East.
Only 150 miles southwest of Durban but off South Africa’s inhospitable “Wild Coast” the “Forresbank” was abandoned by her crew in very difficult circumstances in heavy seas and eventually drifted ashore between Presley Bay and Strachan’s Bay and became a total loss.
This ship was a variant of the Firbank” Class from Doxford’s Sunderland. The sixteenth unit of the series but distinguished from many of her step-sisters by having a raised poop and an additional pair of Sampson posts aft of the main mast, she was designated as a Copra Boat by virtue of her six deeptanks installed immediately forward and abaft the engine room. “Trentbank” was completed in 1962.
Photo 2: Trentbank
On passage from Port Pirie and the western Pacific Islands ports, “Trentbank” had just cleared the Suez Canal en route for Liverpool when on the 18th.September, 1964 she was in collision with the Portuguese tanker “Fogo” following a steering gear malfunction and was badly holed. The ship was towed towards Port Said barely afloat with a view to beaching in shallow water but foundered just eight miles from shore before that could be accomplished. All passengers and crew were rescued except the 4th. Engineer who was a casualty at the time of the collision and salvage of the wreck was undertaken, resulting in the hulk being raised and towed on her side, 650 miles to Piraeus where she was eventually scrapped in 1970.
Representing the first of the WWII replacement ships from Wm. Doxford’s shipyard in Sunderland, the “Southbank” was the second of a three-ship order from Bank Line and came out in 1948. As one of the post-war Copra Boats, she was regularly employed on the South Pacific-Homewards Service and was just completing loading bulk copra at Washington Island in the Line Islands Group on the 26th of December, 1964, when a freak 40-foot wave forced the ship onto the nearby reef and to her doom amongst the heavy surf. Crew and temporary on-board labour from Fanning Island were landed safely on the island with the help of the islanders but unfortunately there was one ship’s officer casualty.
The salvage tug, USS “Winnebago” was immediately dispatched from Honolulu but salvage was found to be impossible despite favourable weather. The ship had flooded and rapidly broken up, so “Winnebago”s job was now to get the survivors off the island and carried to Fanning then Honolulu. “Southbank” was declared a Constructive Total Loss, ending the year 1964 as an extraordinary year of ship casualties.
Another Pacific Ocean casualty was the “Levernbank” but on the coast of Peru where she was discharging almost at the end of her voyage on the Indian-Chile service having proceeded via South Africa and the Straits of Magellan calling at nearly every port between Punta Arenas and Matarani, not her ultimate destination which would have been Buenaventura, in Colombia.
The m.v.”Levernbank”, built in 1961, was a product of Harland and Wolff, Belfast and was the 12th. in a series of 17 general-purpose cargo ships started in 1957 with the “Cloverbank”, the class leader.
Photo 3: Levernbank aground at Matarani
Whilst approaching Matarani in fog on July 9th. 1973 the ship stranded just one mile north of the port. Salvage was attempted and the ship actually refloated but again drifted ashore and sank with no loss of life.
Another Copra Boat from Doxford, Sunderland, the m.v.”Lindenbank” was the third of a sub-group of the 19-unit Firbank Class built in 1961 and regularly employed on the U.S. Gulf – Australia service outwards and the South Pacific service homewards. Last loading before departure to Liverpool, the ship was taking on bulk copra at Fanning Island during the day and laying off the atoll at night since there was no anchorage available owing to the extreme depths of the Pacific Ocean surrounding the Line Islands Group.
The hand-over of the bridge watch at midnight on August 17th. 1975 was uneventful but shortly afterwards, the vessel gave a lurch as it contacted the coral reef that surrounds Fanning. The Equatorial Counter Current had been unexpectedly strong and forced “Lindenbank” onto the western lea shore.
As in the case of “Southbank”, the nearest salvage vessels were at Honolulu and operated by the U.S. Navy. The USS. “Bolster” and “Brunswick” were sent to salvage “Lindenbank” but before their arrival, a series of incessant westerly winds and currents had moved the ship further onto the reef.
Nevertheless, strenuous salvage efforts were made despite the inability to place ground tackle to seaward of the wreck owing to the depth of water. With one salvage boat at each end of the stranded ship, she was found to be pivoting on a hard coral outcrop located just under the after deeptanks area even when the cargo of bulk liquid palm oil was pumped out from the six deeptanks and spread a red tide of vegetable oil into the Pacific Ocean that was detected by university and government satellites.
After many days of attempted salvage the “Lindenbank” was declared a Constructive Total Loss. Her back was broken and she was abandoned on the reef as a visible sign of the navigational hazards of trading in the vast Pacific Ocean.
Ultimately, intensive research into the effects of vegetable oil spills into navigable waters resulted in this class of discharge being classified as extremely harmful to the marine environment in a manner similar to mineral oil.
The Varying Fates of the Liner Services
At the end of WWII the first Lord Inverforth (the original Andrew Weir) was in his 80s and his son, Morton Weir, was active in day-to-day business although his father still came to the office in Bury Street and his two sons, Roy and Vincent were also in the family business. Many of the pre-war activities had been curtailed or eliminated and as far as Bank Line was concerned, Calcutta still remained as the most important centre for employment of the fleet. In any month, individual Bank Line ships could be seen loading on the berth for East Africa, South Africa, West Africa, the River Plate and the West Coast of South America.
But the U.S. Gulf-centered trade to Australia and New Zealand was growing in significance and, of course, the long established Pacific Islands -Europe service was again getting back on its feet after the Pacific war.
The partition of Bengal into India and East Pakistan entailed separate marketing efforts of the company's services to Africa and South America that became even more important when East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971. Manufactured jute products mainly came from the Indian side through Calcutta whilst raw jute was the principal export from the East Pakistan then Bangladesh ports of Chittagong and the new port for Khulna, called Chalna which was essentially a mid-river anchorage served by barges. Eventually, however, the several services from Calcutta and Bangladesh to Africa were combined into the Bay of Bengal Africa Line servicing East, South and West Africa all the way from Mombasa in Kenya to Dakar in Senegal with selected port ranges served by four sailings per month. The South American services remained unchanged with monthly sailings to both coasts which usually called at Durban en route to cater for Colombo tea sales to South Africa with a direct sailing.
Durban was also an important centre for Bank Line as the Oriental African Line resumed service, with Japan becoming increasingly important as it recovered from the effects of the war and China less so as the political circumstances in that country interfered with commerce. Over time, the Oriental African Line was to be extended to serve Taiwan, the Philippines, East Malaysia, and Thailand at one end and Mauritius, Reunion and Madagascar at the other.
Photo 4: Riverbank entering Durban
Politics, too, entered into the India - South African trade when India officially withdrew from trading with South Africa over the issue of apartheid and a similar situation was to develop over the India-Rhodesia trade with Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence and the British general trade embargo with his regime. Nevertheless, there were always commercial ways of overcoming such impediments to trade and the Bank Line's Indian-African Line, Indian-Natal Line, Pakistan-African Line Pakistan-Natal Line and Bangladesh-Africa Line operated successfully within and despite the prevailing political restraints. As mentioned above, the various African services were collectively named the Bay of Bengal Africa Line as time went on and the several services were consolidated and streamlined and calls at Rangoon were included.
Over in the United States, the Bank Line's services from the Gulf to Australia and New Zealand were growing steadily despite US-flag competition even as the Bank Line’s participation in the Bombay-American Line and the American and Oriental Line had succumbed to American-flag competition in 1949. Bank Line were members of the USA-Australasia Conference but were limited by the other members to the Gulf ports as they confined their operation to the U.S. East Coast and the Canadian ports. This was somewhat similar to Bank Line's membership in the Calcutta Conference where the other members took all the "home" cargoes but allowed Bank Line to operate exclusively on the lesser and "cross trades" services to Africa and South America. These were examples of the hold that British shipping companies had on world commerce even after WWII, with the Calcutta Lines including latterly, Clan, Hall, Harrison, Brocklebank, Bank and BI inheriting and operating the world's oldest ocean shipping cartel. Somewhat belatedly, Indian-flag Lines such as Scindia and Indian Steamship Lines were accepted by the Conference but these carriers were initially interested only in the services to and from the UK/Continent and the East Coast of North America although one or two sailings were assigned to African and South American destinations.
But Bank Line were also interested in tramping and it could be argued that at any one time, the split between liner services and tramp operations was about half-and-half. Tramping operations were very much conducted with a group of world-wide commodity traders with whom Lord Inverforth had built up a close personal relationship. These included the British Phosphate Commissioners (Nauru, Ocean Island and Makatea), Bunge y Baun (Argentina grain cargoes), the Anglo-Lautaro Chilean nitrate interests, Colonial Sugar Refiners in Queensland and the Lever Brothers Pacific plantations (copra). Not for nothing was Weir's office next door to the Baltic Exchange in London where cargo and ship trading were closely watched and monitored by Bank Line through their brokers, Chadwick Weir & Co.
But a fleet of 48 generally similar ships had to be operated profitably and the Bank Line boast was still that they could place an empty, recently-built Bank Boat or a sequential series of ships for any charterer at 28-day's notice in full readiness to load. The corporate belief that a multipurpose-type ship could trade profitably still predominated in the head office in London even after Andrew Weir (the first Lord Inverforth) died in 1955. Chartering out to other liner operators which were not renewing their conventional fleet was also good business.
The liner services too, benefited from a uniformity of ship layout, equipment and performance. Some of the liner trades would diminish over these post-war years whilst others would grow and it was vitally important that the chartering and ship operations departments in London could maintain flexibility with the ready ability to switch any individual ship unit from liner to tramp operations or vice versa and from a Calcutta base to a New Orleans base with the minimum of notice and the maximum of ease.
Increasing the Standard Ship Size to 16,000 dwt:
But the so-called handy-size ship was changing. a deadweight of 12,000 tonnes was no longer the industry’s preferred size. With the development of geared and gearless dry bulk ships of around 25,000 dwt and upwards, there was a growing preference for general-purpose tween-deckers to be 15,000/16.000 dwt . Bank Line, therefore, embarked on a series of newbuildings with this capacity to eventually replace the smaller ships or at least to supplement the company's chartering department's ability to deliver what charterers wanted: 25% greater cargo deadweight at the going charter price.
Accordingly, in 1963 at Doxford's and 1964 at Harland's, a series of 15,000 dwt tween-deckers was commenced. These would be the "Taybank" Class from Doxford's and the "Hazelbank" Class from Harland's. These geared ships would operate in the smaller bulk cargo charter market with the ability to service the secondary bulk loading and discharging ports and berths where water depths and cargo-handling-facilities still had not been adapted for the very large dry bulkers beginning to dominate the tramp markets. They would also do very well for the liner trades: Bank Line's and those of other liner operators looking for additional ships to maintain advertised schedules which were becoming necessary as an operational strategy to meet the demands of cargo shippers.
Photo 5: Taybank - The handsome first Bank Line 16,000 dwt ship
The building program was:
1963: "Taybank" (Doxford)
1964: "Tweedbank" (Doxford); "Hazelbank" and "Irisbank" (Harland's)
1965: "Beechbank" and "Ernebank" (Doxford)
1966: "Shirrabank" (Doxford); "Nairnbank" (Harland's)
1967: "Teviotbank" (Doxford); "Maplebank" (Harland's)
1968: "Gowanbank" (Harland's)
This represented six ships from Sunderland and five from Belfast. The physical differences between the two classes were that the Doxford ships were much more 'streamlined' when compared with the more traditional Belfast shape.
Photo 6: Hazelbank - The first H&W built Bank Line 16,000 dwt ship
Topmasts had gone to be replaced by a signal mast immediately forward of or mounted on the leading side of the funnel. Doxford ships had an elongated funnel often accommodating the radio room whilst the Harland & Wolff ships were content with a smaller sized funnel. All ships were of the raised forecastle hull type with three hatches forward of and two hatches abaft the amidships accommodation block with deck and engine room crew located aft at tween deck level. Steel Macgregor hatch covers with four cargo booms at hatches 2, 3 and 4 and 2 at hatches 1 and 5 were fitted. All ships had their builders' latest 4-cyl (Doxford) or 6-cyl (Harland's) 2 S.C.S.A. oil engines giving 16 knots except in the case of the Doxford ""Shirrabank" and "Teviotbank" which were given 6-cyl versions of the builder's engine which made these two ships capable of maintaining a service speed of 18 knots.
Apart from the loss of the "Trentbank" by collision in the East Mediterranean in 1964, and the sales of the "Eastbank" and "Westbank" in 1965 for further trading, the fleet had now increased to 57 units because the "Beaverbank" Class (1953 - 1955) of Copra Boat still continued to operate and would do so until 1970 - 1973 when they would also be disposed of for further trading.
It would be 1973 before the next building splurge would take place and this would prove to be extraordinary in Bank Line terms as it would include the design and building of trade-specific ships, the shifting of accommodation blocks to the three-quarters aft position and even a cellular container ship.
Bank Line and Doxford Engine Development:
It is interesting to record that Bank Line's reliance on the oil engines designed and manufactured by the Doxford Group happened at the same time as Doxford continually upgraded their engine designs, which went from the "67P4" to "76J6" in stages as follow:
67P4: Testbank, Inverbank, Forresbank, Trentbank, Rowanbank, Laurelbank, Hollybank, Sprucebank, Taybank, Tweedbank, Beechbank and Ernebank;
67J6: Shirrabank, Teviotbank, Fleetbank, Cloverbank, Beaverbank, Cedarbank, Firbank, Streambank, Riverbank, Nessbank, Laganbank, Crestbank and Fenbank;
76J4: Roachbank, Pikebank, Dacebank, Ruddbank, Troutbank and Tenchbank;
76J6: Corabank, Meadowbank, Forthbank, Clydebank, Moraybank and Ivybank.
[This information kindly provided by Sunderland-based Mr. A.D. Frost.]
A complete Bibliography for all of these Articles is given at the end of Part 7
The photographs used to illustrate this article are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain, or the Ships Nostalgia Galleries, which are available for use in the Directory. The individual photographs used in Part 5 have been provided as follows: -
Frontispiece – Wikimedia Commons
- Ships Nostalgia - allagie. Original photo by John Beale.
- Ships Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
- Ships Nostalgia – rabaul
- Ships Nostalgia – McMorine
- Ships Nostalgia – tridentport
- Ships Nostalgia – Brent Chambers
- Ships Nostalgia – TORRENS
- Ships Nostalgia – TORRENS
Article written and compiled by Alistair Macnab
Formatting and presentation only, by Fred Henderson
© RVW Productions LLC, 2010
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