The Founder, James Robinson, was born in the North Yorkshire port of Whitby in 1768. He was the son of a sailor and, like his father, he also took to the sea and in due course became 1 st. Mate on a Whitby vessel. In 1796, however, he signed off in London and moved to North Shields where he settled and in the following year married a Northumbrian girl. Of their eight children, two were to take up seafaring careers and thus maintain a family tradition. It was some time however, before the Robinson family were to acquire a vessel of their own. This opportunity came when there was a reduction in the demand for shipping and a consequent drop in the value of ships at the end of the Napoleonic wars. In 1817 Captain James Robinson took his chance to buy the brig BLESSING of 221 tons, which had been built at Sunderland twelve years previously, in the year of Trafalgar.
In the late 1820's a further recession in trade caused him to raise money by a loan against the ship. James Robinson died in 1833 and the management of the BLESSING passed to his wife Grace. Their sons. Captain John and Captain Joseph Robinson commanded the BLESSING from time to time. In 1843 Joseph (always known as Captain Joseph) took over the loan and when his mother Grace died in the following year he became sole owner of the ship.
In March 1846 the BLESSING was lost and it would appear that Joseph, using the insurance money, ordered a new vessel from Luke, Blumer and Bushel! of South Shields and named her STAG. The prevalent method of shipowning was to divide the ownership into 64 shares, known as the 64ther system. Of the 64 shares in the STAG, Joseph took 28, his brother Thomas, a tailor, took 22 and James Miller, a previous employer, took 14 shares. A stag trippant is the crest of a North Yorkshire branch of the Robinson family and was adopted as the house flag. "Trippant" is a heraldic term where an animal has one foot raised in a trotting action.
Over the next quarter century the demand for shipping expanded due to the Industrial Revolution, the increase in the population of the United Kingdom and the importation of foreign grain due to the repealing of the Corn Laws. This gave Joseph the right conditions to increase the fleet and in 1848 the FELLOWSHIP was purchased secondhand but was sold in the following year and replaced by the newly-built ELEANOR GRACE. A painting shows her flying a Stag flag on her main mast. She was followed in 1853 with the purchase of the eleven year old ALBERT and in 1856 the ROBINSONS was completed at Sunderland. From 1850 onwards the fleet was managed by Joseph Robinson and Company. Joseph owned a large portion of the 64th. shares in each ship whilst other shares were owned by his relations, local traders and professional men. The first ship with a flower name was the barque CAMELLIA, built in 1858. By 1871 Joseph had built up a fleet of one brig and eight barques totalling 3,282 tons in all.
The development of the compound steam engine in 1852 and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 persuaded many British shipowners to change from sail to steam. In 1871 the STEPHANOTIS was the Company's first steam ship and, carrying a stag on her funnel, was delivered by Iliff, Mounsey and Company of Sunderland. In addition to sails she had a 98 h.p. steam engine and was of 1,042 tons gross. Eight years later there were no sailing ships left in the fleet which then consisted of eleven steamers of 16,113 tons.
In October 1880 the Company had the misfortune to lose two vessels in unusual circumstances. The steamers STAG and ROBINIA, both on passage from New Orleans to French ports, were at anchor at Punta Delgada, Azores. During a severe storm the anchors of both vessels dragged and the two ships collided. The anchors of the British steamer BENELLA also failed to hold and she collided with the ROBINIA. When the storm had passed the three ships were to be seen lying wrecked in the harbour.
The management firm of Joseph Robinson and Company was changed to Joseph Robinson and Sons in 1883 after three sons had joined the partnership. In 1889 Captain Joseph Robinson died, having seen the fleet grow to sixteen steamers of 28,302 tons. He was typical of those hard-working, thrusting Victorians who built up the nineteenth century prosperity of Britain. In 1891 Joseph Robinson and Sons moved its office to No. 1 Howard Street, North Shields which was to be its home for ninety years. The building had been erected as the first Subscription Library in the North of England, the foundation stone being laid in 1806.
In 1895, due to the high cost of insuring each ship individually on the market, it was arranged with all the 64th shareholders to transfer the ships to a limited company known as "Stag Line", Ltd. which would carry its own insurance. Of the shares in the new company 72 were held by the family with the balance being held by friends and local traders. Joseph Robinson and Sons continued as managers and also acted as directors of the limited company. "Stag Line", Ltd. was established with a paid up capital ot £148,032 divided into 16,448 shares of £9.
In 1896, with shipbuilders quoting keen prices, the first order for 13 years was placed for a steamer with triple expansion engines and 4,310 tons carrying capacity at a cost of £27,860. This compared with £31,250 paid for the STAG of 2,900 tons and built in 1884. The new ship was completed inJanuary 1897 as GLOXINIA and marked the beginning of a policy to sell the older ships and replace them with larger and more modern vessels. Three more steamers followed during the next three years and continued the long association with the Tyne Iron Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. who delivered two more ships in 1904. By 1904 two brothers and a cousin of the fourth generation of Robinsons were at the helm with a fleet of ten ships of 29,414 tons. In the same year, with a more encouraging freight market, orders were placed for two Doxford turret steamers of 6,600 tons. These two ships were completed in 1907 as EUPHORBIA and CLINTONIA. The policy of replacing ships continued whilst some of the older vessels were fitted for the carriage of molasses in bulk.
When the War broke out in 1914 the Company had a fleet of twelve steamers with a carrying capacity of 65,460 tons. Seven ships were lost during the conflict including the EUPHORBIA completed in 1917 and the BEGONIA built in 1918.
26.12.1914 LINARIA Mined and sunk near Filey on voyage London to Tyne.
1.8.1915 CLINTONIA Torpedoed and sunk 30 m WSW of Ushant.
16.7.1916 EUPHORBIA Torpedoed and sunk 56 m NE of Algiers.
27.9.1916 CYDONIA Wrecked on Holy Island on voyage Burntisland/Brest.
27.11.1917 CAMELLIA Sailed from Dakar for U.K. and disappeared.
1.12.1917 EUPHORBIA Torpedoed and sunk 14 m SE of Royal Sovereign Light Vessel.
21.3.1918 BEGONIA Torpedoed and sunk 44 m SW of Wolf Rock.
In order to replace war losses and older less efficient ships that had been sold, the managers in 1916 obtained permission from the shareholders to build six new steamers but due to Government restrictions on the building of ships for private investment it was only possible to build limited replacement tonnage.
When the War ended in 1918 the Company had only two ships the GARDENIA of 1914 and the CLINTONIA of 1917, with an order for a third ship deferred due to Government restrictions.
As there was little prospect of building new ships for some time, it was decided to reconstitute the Company and distribute surplus cash to the shareholders. The new company, named Stag Line, Ltd. was registered on the 26th August 1918 with two ships totalling 10,700 tons deadweight. The Company returned to the Tyne Iron Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. for the first ship of the post-war building programme. She was, however, to be the last ship to be built at the yard for Stag Line and marked the end of a long association between owner and builder. The GLOXINIA was completed as a cargo steamer in September 1920 but was immediately handed over to Smith's Dock Co. Ltd. at North Shields and converted into a tanker.
Her total cost including that of conversion came to a staggering £236,234.
The IXIA joined the fleet in July 1922 and served the Company until 30th June 1929 when she was wrecked on The Brisons. The loss of the IXIA had far-reaching effects and became the leading case, decided by the House of Lords, on the complicated subject of reasonable deviation of course. The IXIA was fitted with a superheater and when she sailed from Swansea on passage to Constantinople with a cargo of coal there were two shore engineers on board for the purpose of observing the working of the superheater at the beginning of the voyage. The two engineers were subsequently transferred from the ship in St. Ives Bay by a boat which put out from the shore. In order to effect this transfer, the vessel deviated some five miles off the normal course for the Mediterranean so as to enter St. Ives Bay. Thereafter the IXIA kept closer to the Cornish coast than if she had been on the normal course. Shortly afterwards she ran aground and was lost with her cargo, though the weather conditions were fairly good at the time. The charterers claimed the full value of the cargo from the shipowners. The Company maintained that a clause in the Bill of Lading provided for such a deviation of course but the House of Lords ruled against the Company.
Two ships were delivered by the Sunderland Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. in 1924 and named LINARIA and EUPHORBIA. The next ship to be delivered to the Company was the steamer CYDONIA. The keel of this ship had been laid down at the North Dock yard of J. Blumer and Co. Ltd., Sunderland in 1922.
The hull of the ship stood on the stocks for four years whilst the shipyard was closed. It was not until December 1926 that the vessel was launched after the shipyard had reopened. The ship was purchased by Stag Line and as the
CYDONIA she sailed from Sunderland in January 1927. A sistership which had been built in similar circumstances was completed in December 1926 as the USWORTH, having been purchased by the Dalgleish Steam Shipping Co.
Ltd., Newcastle. The completion of the CYDONIA however, marked the end of shipbuilding at the North Dock, Sunderland.
In December 1928 the Company took delivery of the GARDENIA. This ship had been launched as the STRONGARM, having been commenced on speculation by Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. Ltd., Newcastle. The fleet had been built up to six ships totalling 35,173 tons when the slump started in 1930. All the vessels were laid up for extended periods and the tanker GLOXINIA lay idle at Stanhope Buoys in the River Tyne from 14th. October 1930 until 26th January 1937. It was eight years before full depreciation had been provided and it was possible to recommend the payment of dividends again. Despite this however, the bank overdraft never exceeded £4,750.
The dry-cargo fleet at the beginning of the depression was five tramps: CLINTONIA, LINARIA, EUPHORBIA, CYDONIA and GARDENIA.
GLOXINIA was re-activated by the strong demand created by the Spanish Civil War and carried 8 cargoes from Batum to Spain. On one voyage she called at Marseilles and was quickly cleared for her destination of Valencia. She was seen approaching there by German bombers, who then heavily attacked that harbour during the night but GLOXINIA escaped after a quick discharge and moved along the coast to Barcelona during the night.
By September 1939, when the Second World War started, the fleet totalled seven ships, following the purchase of the HOPEDENE from Hopemount Shipping Co. Ltd, Newcastle in 1938 which was renamed PHOTINIA.
12.3.1940 GARDENIA Mined and sunk NE of Cromer.
19.10.1940 CLINTONIA Torpedoed and sunk to W of Hebrides.
14.12.1940 EUPHORBIA Torpedoed and sunk in North Atlantic.
24.2.1941 LINARIA Torpedoed/sunk by Italian submarine in North Atlantic.
Although in 1940 the Company had agreed to purchase the steamer HOLLINSIDE 4172/30 from Charlton, McAllum and Co., Ltd., Newcastle and had selected the name BEGONIA for her, a disagreement arose over the condition of the ship and the terms of the final contract and Stag Line withdrew. On the following voyage her stern frame fractured and the HOLLINSIDE had to be towed into Punta Delgada, Azores where she arrived on 16th March 1941. In 1943 the Company purchased the ELIZABETH MASSEY but wartime regulations prevented the renaming of the ship and so it was in 1945 that she took the name BEGONIA. The steamer BRIARWOOD was purchased from Joseph Constantine in 1945 and application was made to change her name to ZINNIA. In fact she was renamed GARDENIA on 13th December 1945.
In 1946 Nicholas Robinson, after serving six years in the Royal Corps of Signals, joined his cousin David as a partner in Joseph Robinson and Sons. Their cousin, Robin Pender, joined the firm in 1954 and became a partner in 1957 to complete the fifth generation team. During the immediate post-war years the Company purchased four war-built steamers. The EMPIRE KUMASI became the IXIA whilst H.M.S. SANCROFT, formerly the EMPIRE BAFFIN, was renamed CLINTONIA. Both the ships had been previously managed by the Company and were converted from coal to oil firing before entering service with Stag Line. H.M.S. MORAY FIRTH had been laid down as EMPIRE PITCAIRN but completed as a maintenance repair ship for the Admiralty whilst H.M.S. PORTLAND BILL had been similarly employed. These two ships, after conversion back to dry cargo carriers, were renamed LINARIA and ZINNIA respectively.
The CYDONIA was one of the ships which survived the war although on 28th February 1945 she had struck a mine in the North Sea and arrived at Hull in a damaged condition. On 21st. October 1949 she again had the misfortune to strike a mine. The ship was on passage from Workington to Cardiff when the mine was seen on the surface about 200 yards away. Avoiding action was taken but owing to the force of the wind she drifted down on to the mine. The engine room flooded rapidly and a greaser on watch lost his life. The remainder of the crew was rescued by the ST. CLEARS (4308/36) of the South American Saint Line Ltd. and the ship was towed to Milford Haven by the tug ENGLISHMAN (762/45). She was found to be badly damaged however, and was sold to be broken up.
In 1950 the first steps were taken to replace the fleet with modern dry cargo bulk carriers and an order was placed with J. Readhead and Sons Ltd., South Shields. This ship was completed in February 1953 as CAMELLIA and was the first motorship in the fleet. She was followed in 1955 by the steamer CYDONIA from the same yard. During the ice-free season of 1956 the BEGONIA, CAMELLIA, CLINTONIA and GARDENIA each made two voyages to Churchill in Hudson Bay, Canada, and lifted a total of 59,112 tons of grain. This was regarded at the time as a record outloading in one season by one shipping company. The BEGONIA was sold at the end of 1956 and other steamers were also sold as new tonnage was delivered. In May 1958 the motorship GLOXINIA was completed to bring the fleet to six ships.
A notable achievement of the Stag Line management was their quickness off the mark in recognising the importance of the St. Lawrence Seaway, opened in 1959. Before construction had finished, visits were made to Canada and the Great Lakes to discover its potential for deep-sea ships. The CAMELLIA and GARDENIA had the distinction of being the first deep-sea ships to be chartered to load in the Great Lakes when they were fixed on 12th November 1958. The vessels were fitted with equipment for the St. Lawrence Seaway in April 1959 prior to sailing from the River Tyne. They both entered the Seaway on 3rd May 1959, eight days after it had opened to commercial traffic.
In March 1961 the PHOTINIA was completed by J. Readhead and Sons Ltd., South Shields. Just before she was delivered, arrangements had been made to timecharter her to British Insulated Callender's Cable Company to lay three 5" diameter power cables across Cook Strait between North and South Island, New Zealand. After a few months trading the ship returned to the builder's yard to be fitted with cable laying equipment. On 7th March 1 962 she sailed from the River Tyne and carried out laying trials in Loch Fyne before returning to the shipyard at the end of April to have the equipment removed. The PHOTINIA then resumed normal trading until the manufacture of the 75 miles of cable had been completed. In February 1964 the ship arrived at South Shields for the cable laying equipment to be refitted and then proceeded to Loch Fyne for more trials before sailing to Manchester to take on board three 25 mile lengths of 5" diameter high voltage submarine power cable. The PHOTINIA sailed from Manchester on 22nd August 1964 and successfully completed the laying of the cable in November. After returning to the United Kingdom the ship loaded a further 25 mile length of cable which she laid between Trinidad and Tobago during September 1965. With her cable laying tasks completed, the PHOTINIA returned to the River Tyne where the equipment was landed and she reverted to her normal role as a bulk carrier.
During 1964 the Company sold the last of the pre-war and war built tonnage, and the fleet was strengthened with the delivery of the IXIA by Austin and Pickersgill Ltd., Sunderland. She was the largest ship that the Company had owned up to that time whilst her dimensions and equipment enabled her to trade to the St. Lawrence Seaway. In 1965 the IXIA arrived in the River Mersey with a cargo of 23,1 92 tons of grain from Canada which, at the time, was the largest bulk grain cargo to be discharged in the river. The CYDONIA had the distinction in October 1965 of making the fiftieth voyage to the Seaway by a Stag Line ship when she discharged a cargo of ferro manganese from Boulogne and loaded a cargo of grain homewards.
The Company placed an order with J. Readhead and Sons Ltd. in 1966 for another bulk carrier and in October 1968 she was completed as ZINNIA. The CYDONIA was the last steamer in the fleet and in August 1969 she was sold to Liberian-flag owners. During 1969 the managing partnership of Joseph Robinson and Sons was absorbed into Stag Line, Ltd. and with an improved freight market the company was in a position to benefit from the trading by its fleet of modern bulk carriers. The motorship CAMELLIA was sold in 1972 and the year closed with the Company operating a fleet of four ships.
Early in 1974 it was announced that Ropner Holdings Ltd. had purchased a shareholding in Stag Line, Ltd. which represented 27.94 of the issued share capital.
The Company acquired two ships in April 1975 for which bareboat charters had been arranged. These vessels were renamed KIELDER STAG and SILLOTH STAG and were engaged in the coastal and short sea trades. In January 1976, following the cancellation of a number of their orders. Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Ltd. submitted an attractive offer to build a third 26,000 ton deadweight bulkcarrier which was named BEGONIA and delivered in May 1978. This was a valuable order for the Tyneside shipyard and was followed later in 1976 with a contract for J. Readhead and Sons Ltd. to refit the PHOTINIA for a further cable laying operation. A fault had developed in one of the Cook Strait cables and so in October 1976 the PHOTINIA commenced conversion prior to making the voyage to New Zealand. On 20th August 1977 the repair was completed and the ship sailed for the River Tyne. She was then once more converted back to her bulk carrier role but, unfortunately, her career ended in May 1978 when she was driven aground by a storm off Milwaukee and was declared a total loss.
Sadly, on 3rd March 1977 David Robinson C.B.E., J.P. died suddenly whilst on business in London. He had retired as chairman of Stag Line in 1975 but had remained on the board. In addition to his association with Stag Line, he had held several other posts and was a past president of the Chamber of Shipping.
The BEGONIA was completed in May 1978 and to finance her the GLOXINIA was sold during 1977 and the KIELDER STAG was sold in the following year. With freight rates at rock bottom and 400 dry cargo ships totalling 13 million tons deadweight laid up, the Company had difficulty in meeting the Government loan repayments. However, the granting of a three year deferment helped the Company through the worst of the depression and with a strong demand for tonnage following the failure of the U.S.S.R. grain harvest, the Company moved back into profitability in 1980. With a second U.S.S.R. grain failure, a forecasted increase in demand for coal to replace a continuing shortage and high cost of oil and with the lowest dry cargo laid up figures since 1975 (just over 2 million tonnes deadweight) the trading prospects for 1981 looked very good.
Early in 1981, Ropner Holdings Ltd. who had bought a total of 29 of the shares in Stag Line in 1974, sold their holding to Hunting Gibson pic. who then made a public offer for all the shares. Stag Line Directors recommended acceptance as this was in the best interests of all concerned and Stag Line, Ltd. became a wholly owned subsidiary of Hunting Gibson on 1 st April 1981. Hunting Stag Management Ltd. was set up in Newcastle to absorb the sea going and shore based staff of Hunting and Son and Stag Line, and to manage the Hunting and Stag fleets. Nicholas J. Robinson, however, stayed with Stag Line as non-executive chairman until 31st December 1982. In October 1981 the offices in 1 Howard Street, North Shields, occupied by Stag Line for 90 years, were sold.
Unfortunately, the deepening world recession caused a drop in the demand for raw materials, the U.S.S.R. met much of her demand for grain from Europe's bumper harvest and the delivery of many large bulk carriers ordered during 1980 and 1981 resulted in freight rates starting to fall during 1981. By the end of 1982 the number of dry cargo ships laid up due to lack of employment had reached 1,146 of 24 million tonnes deadweight, 7% of the world dry cargo fleet. Medium sized bulk carriers under the British flag, if trading, were losing around £1,000 a day and shipowning faced a worse situation than during the 1930's depression. To reduce losses the IXIA was sold in February 1982, when 17 years old, for just over her building price. The SILLOTH STAG together with Hunting Stag Management Ltd. were sold to James Fisher and Sons, Barrow in July, Stag Line, Ltd. remained a subsidiary of Hunting Gibson but in November 1982 the ZINNIA was sold to Singapore buyers, then in March 1983 the BEGONIA, the remaining Stag Line ship, was also sold to Singapore buyers.
The sale of the BEGONIA highlights the end of an era, not only for Stag Line (1817-1983) but, maybe, also for British Tramp Shipping.
Stag Line 1817-1983, N. Robinson, WSS, 1984.
Travel of the Tramps, twenty Tramp fleets Vol. II, N.L. Middlemiss, Shield Publication, 1991.