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  • 1 World War One, during which RMSP fatally takes control of Harland & Wolff
  • 2 War Losses
  • 3 Moss Hutchinson
  • 4 Nicholas Mihanovich - Argentine Navigation
  • 5 MacAndrews
  • 6 Coast Lines
  • 7 Lamport & Holt's shipyard purchases
  • 8 The Government Ship Management Department
  • 9 Harland & Wolff and its acquisition of Caird & Co, A & J Inglis and D & W Henderson
  • 10 The growing H&W threat to the financial stability of the Royal Mail Group
  • 11 Bibliography
  • 12 Photographs
World War One, during which RMSP fatally takes control of Harland & Wolff[edit]

In the twelve years from his appointment as chairman of Royal Mail in 1903 to the outbreak of the First World War, Owen Cosby Philipps transformed the company from a dying, outdated shipping backwater to the flagship of a dynamic leading British shipping group. This breakneck expansion was based upon heavy borrowing and very dangerous internal financial policies that depended upon the maintenance of favourable world trading conditions.

Philipps snatched control of Royal Mail Steam Packet Company during the hysterical British hostile reaction to the attempt by the American financier J Pierpont Morgan to establish a monopoly of the shipping lines carrying migrants to the USA. Despite the fact that Morgan's chief ally in the establishment of his International Mercantile Marine Company (IMMC) was William James Pirrie of Harland & Wolff, Philipps and Pirrie became friends and close business associates. That story is told in Part 1 of this history. This Part continues the story from 1914 until the end of the First World War.

War Losses[edit]

Like all British shipowners, the Royal Mail Group, lost a considerable number of ships during the First World War, including two Union-Castle liners serving as hospital ships, which were torpedoed despite being clearly marked as a hospital ship and thus being protected by international law. The following losses were suffered by the companies that were in the Group at the start of the war: -

  • Royal Mail S P Co - 15 ships
  • Shire Line - 3 ships
  • Elder Dempster Group - 33 ships
  • Pacific S N Co - 8 ships
  • Union Castle - 8 ships
  • Lamport & Holt - 10 ships
  • Glen - 6 ships
  • Nelson - 6 ships

Moss Hutchinson[edit]

Despite the war, Philipps continued to add companies to his empire and to move into new operational areas. In 1916 he acquired the Mediterranean and Black Sea specialist James Moss & Co Ltd. Moss operated its peacetime services in partnership with J & P Hutchison Ltd and that company was later added to the Philipps group.


Photo 1: Assiout - James Moss. 4,215 tons; built by Northern Ireland Shipbuilding Co, Londonderry 1918

Nicholas Mihanovich - Argentine Navigation[edit]

The war also caused difficulties for Europeans who had settled overseas. One example was the Croatian entrepreneur Nicholas Mihanovich, who had established a substantial local shipping business in Argentina. In 1909 he formed a London company, Argentine Navigation Co (Nicholas Mihanovich) Ltd, to raise capital to fund the purchase of British built river and coastal passenger steamers. As Croatia was part of the Austrian Empire and therefore at war with Britain, the 72 year old Mihanovich, decided to sell the British company and its Argentinean subsidiaries to a group of Philipps companies.

On acquisition the Argentinean companies owned 71 vessels, including passenger ships, tugs and barges. The companies' main services were an overnight express route from Buenos Aires to Montevideo and a passenger service up-river to Rosario.


Photo 2: Viena - Argentine Navigation. 2,400 tons; built by Inglis, Pointhouse, Glasgow in 1906


Photo 3: Bruselas - Argentine Navigation. 2,300 tons; built by Inglis, Pointhouse, Glasgow in 1911

Upon acquisition by Philipps, ship's names associated with the Central Powers were changed. At the end of the war, a number of ships owned by local subsidiaries of German shipping companies were taken over by Argentine Navigation Co.


Photo 4: Washington - Argentine Navigation. Viena was renamed Washington in 1915


Photo 5: General Artigas - Argentine Navigation. Built by Inglis, Pointhouse, Glasgow in 1913 for Hamburg-Sudamerikanische as Cabo Santa Maria. Taken over by Argentine Navigation in 1921


Robert MacAndrews & Co was founded in London in 1853 as shipbrokers and shipowners. The firm acquired its first small steamer for use in the Spanish trade in 1857. Several Spanish subsidiaries were established, some as fruit exporters and others as shipowners. By 1900 the company had 23 ships under the Spanish flag and 7 under the British flag. The fleet gradually changed to a smaller number of slightly larger vessels and by 1914 consisted of 10 Spanish and 8 British ships, the largest being 2,233 grt.

During WW1 the firm lost 7 ships, but it took over Liverpool based Hall's Line. In 1917 the MacAndrews family decided to sell the business and accepted an offer from Philipps. A new company MacAndrews & Co Ltd was formed as a subsidiary of Philipps' Royal Mail Group. All of the ships were transferred to the British flag.


Photo 6: Cervantes - MacAndrews. 2,436 tons; built by Grayson's, Liverpool in 1919

Coast Lines[edit]

In 1917 Philips took over The Liverpool Shipping Company, renamed it Coast Lines Limited and set out to create the largest non-railway owned British coastal shipping company, concentrating much of its operations in the Irish Sea.
In addition to Coast lines being a shipowner in its own right, it also built up a stable of operating subsidiaries that eventually included: -

  • Ardrossan Harbour Co
  • Belfast Steamship Co Ltd
  • British & Irish Steam Packet Co Ltd
  • Burns & Laird Lines Ltd
  • City of Cork Steam Packet Co Ltd
  • Dublin General Steam Shipping Co Ltd
  • Dundalk & Newry Steam Packet Co Ltd
  • Michael Murphy Ltd
  • Tedcastle McCormack & Co Ltd
  • John Westcott Ltd


Photo 7: Graphic - Belfast SS Co. 2,017 tons; built by Harland & Wolff in 1903


Photo 8: Lady Munster - Belfast S S Co. Graphic was rebuilt and renamed in 1929 and given a dummy funnel to match the diesel powered units entering the fleet

Lamport & Holt's shipyard purchases[edit]

During 1917 the Dumbarton shipyard of Archibald MacMillan & Son was acquired by Philipps and Pirrie through Lamport & Holt. The management of the yard was entrusted to Harland & Wolff. This action seems to have been the result of Pirrie persuading Philipps to finance part of the massive expansion of Pirrie's Harland & Wolff Group that was taking place at this time. The Dumbarton yard was of course fully employed as a result of the war, but its peacetime prospects were uncertain and owning the yard produced no obvious benefits to the Royal Mail Group. Nevertheless the arrangement was soon repeated with Lamport & Holt acquiring Ardrossan Dockyard & Shipbuilding Co Ltd, which was again placed under the management of Harland & Wolff.

The Government Ship Management Department[edit]

The Russian Volunteer Fleet Association was founded in St Petersburg in 1878. The initial working capital of the organisation was subscribed on a "volunteer" basis by the Russian people as a patriotic gesture to enable a fleet of passenger ships to be acquired that would be capable of being converted into auxiliary cruisers to augment the Russian Navy in times of war. Sufficient money was raised to buy three steamers from Hamburg America Line, with a fourth being purchased a year later. From 1880 the vessels were employed on a service from Odessa on the Black Sea to Vladivostok in the Far East. Despite a large Russian Government subsidy per voyage the service was unable to pay its way and in a major reorganisation in 1886 RVF was placed under the supervision of the Minister of Marine.

Between 1890 and 1902, 15 newly built ships were added to the fleet, including six fast passenger ships, five of which were built by Hawthorn Leslie at Hebburn-on-Tyne. The RVF went through difficult times during the Russian-Japanese War and World War I and after the October Revolution in 1917 and the signing of the treaty of Brest Litovsk by the Bolshevik Government and the Central Powers many of the RVF ships were seized by the Allies. Britain took over 11 ships and placed them under the management of RMSP. The ships were painted in RMSP colours and operated by a separate organisation called The Government Ship Management Department. In 1923 the USSR petitioned the British Courts for the return of the vessels and won their claim, but writs for unpaid bills were served on all of the ships and they were arrested. Most of the vessels never returned to Russia.

Harland & Wolff and its acquisition of Caird & Co, A & J Inglis and D & W Henderson[edit]

The Harland & Wolff accounts for their financial year to 30 June 1918 portrayed a very profitable company that was heavily in debt. Astonishingly Pirrie persuaded Philipps to invest £925,000, through companies in the Royal Mail group, to purchase of 500 shares in H&W, thus ensuring that the two friends controlled the shipbuilder. As the Royal Mail group was also heavily in debt, servicing the combined debts of the two enterprises became the major cause of the ultimate collapse of the Philipps empire.

From its inception H&W had faced financial difficulties. The majority of the construction material and equipment for its ships came from mainland Britain at additional cost. It frequently faced shortages of skilled labour and with only one other major shipyard in Belfast (Workman, Clark) the Ulster shipyards did not have the same ability to balance individual fluctuations in their labour requirements that was enjoyed by the large number of yards in the major shipbuilding centres like the Clyde, Tyne and Wear. The formation of H&W was assisted by the Liverpool financier Gustav Christian Schwabe and his subsequent involvement in Ismay's White Star Line and other new shipping companies was usually on the basis of work being placed with H&W on cost plus contracts, through secret arrangements known as the "Commission Club".

Pirrie succeeded in bringing other shipping lines to H&W on the same basis. Unfortunately cost-plus contracts do not provide any incentive for the shipyard management to save cost. Profitability is however, dependent upon uninterrupted production and H&W were usually successful in avoiding demarcation disputes between the members of the 20 trade unions representing the work force. The cost of this harmony was over manning and high labour costs in addition to the higher material costs facing H&W. As a result, by the early years of the 20th Century the company almost invariably lost money on fixed price contracts obtained in open competition with other yards.

A further consequence of the Commission Club was that H&W was inevitably effected by the problems and requirements of the members. Part 1 of this history explains the difficulties experienced in financing the creation of IMMC, which resulted in H&W being saddled with a £1,000,000 investment in IMMC. This seriously reduced H&W's ability to self-finance work in progress for its clients and made it dangerously dependent upon debt finance.

G W Wolff retired as principal in 1906 and sold his shareholding to Pirrie, who proceeded to make H&W his personal fiefdom, surrounded by managers who would unquestioningly obey his orders. In 1907 the H&W administrative headquarters was transferred to London and the day-to-day management of the Company was devolved to a committee of managing directors whose technical skill and devotion Pirrie could rely upon. They were only given the barest minimum of financial and contractual information. The central financial records of the business were under Pirrie's personal control and the only other men allowed access to them were the chief accountant and the company secretary.

Thanks to Commission Club contracts, H&W was profitable, but its cash earnings were swallowed by the cost of major investment in its Belfast facilities and the creation of large shiprepair facilities. In 1906 White star decided to move the UK terminus of its North Atlantic mail service from Liverpool to Southampton and H&W was called upon to establish repair facilities in Southampton and Liverpool to service the White Star and Royal Mail fleets. White Star also informed H&W of its intention to build two gigantic 46,000 ton liners to compete with Cunard and the German liners. This necessitated the construction of two larger building berths at Belfast.


Photo 9: Harland & Wolff. Olympic and Titanic under construction at Belfast

White Star caused further problems for Pirrie by specifying steam turbine propulsion for the liner Laurentic ordered for the Canadian trade. With all of the H&W capital commitments, Pirrie could not afford to invest in turbine manufacturing plant. This difficulty coincided with a serious threat to H&W's sources of supply of heavy forgings needed to produce crankshafts, stern frames and propeller shafting. The five largest British forgemasters were also heavily involved in the production of armour plate needed for the Anglo-German naval arms race and all had merged with shipbuilders constructing battleships for the Royal Navy. H&W was not in the battleship league, but Pirrie was afraid that his mainland competitors could use the naval construction programme as an excuse to starve his shipyard of essential components.

In May 1907 Pirrie decided to pre-empt any attempt to strangle H&W by offering to merge with John Brown, the Sheffield steelmakers and forgemasters, who had recently taken over the J&G Thomson shipyard at Clydebank. The offer was accepted and John Brown bought 52% of H&W's share capital from Pirrie, paying him in John Brown shares and cash. Pirrie remained in charge of the business. John Brown agreed to share its turbine technology with H&W and to supply "steel shaftings, flues, castings and forgings" on a cost plus basis.

The construction of the White Star giants, Olympic and Titanic created considerable production difficulties for H&W, the concentration of the yards steelworkers on the two ships resulted in a reduction in total output during 1909 and the finishing trades were left without work so that the total numbers employed at Belfast fell by a third. The company was so hard pressed that it was obliged to sub-contract the Hamburg America liner Preussen to John Brown.

John Brown provided assistance and technical know-how to enable H&W to begin turbine manufacture. As part of the training process the turbine machinery for the Royal Navy battleship Neptune was sub-contracted to H&W by John Brown.

In the midst of these production activities, John Brown was attempting to exert some control over its new investment. It nominated two principals for election at the 1909 annual meeting, but Pirrie did not allow them access to his private accounting books. Nevertheless they were the only men who could apply some check on Pirrie's actions. The successful delivery of Olympic in 1909 enabled H&W to temporarily pay off its overdrafts and reduce its other borrowings. White Star were delighted with their new ship and placed an order with H&W for a third sister, Britannic, with work to commence after the delivery of Titanic.


Photo 10: Harland & Wolff. The workforce leaving the Belfast shipyard at the end of a shift. Titanic is visible under the gantry in the background

Improved world trading conditions produced more Commission Club orders than H&W could handle and an agreement was made with the Tyneside shipbuilder Hawthorn Leslie to take some of the excess. These developments alerted other shipbuilders to H&W's need for additional capacity at a time when the owners of a number of medium sized shipyards were seeking to leave the industry. Both Caird & Co of Greenock and the London & Glasgow Engineering & Iron Shipbuilding Co at Govan offered their businesses to Pirrie, who decided to take over London & Glasgow, because of its larger capacity and its highly regarded Lancefield Engine Works across the river in Finnieston. The Govan shipyard was operated as a division of H&W and its output was given H&W ship numbers with the suffix G.

In a further development that was to have a profound impact on the future of H&W, Pirrie outmanoeuvred Barclay Curle and Swan Hunter to obtain control of the UK licence for the production of Burmeister & Wain diesel engines. This was organised through a new company, Burmeister & Wain (Diesel System) Oil Engine Co Ltd. This company bought the recently acquired Lancefield Works in Finnieston from H&W.

Early in 1912, just as all these corporate transactions were reaching completion, and with the political uproar in Ulster at its height, the 65 year old Pirrie became dangerously ill with an enlarged prostate gland. He underwent surgery in February. At the time this was a most hazardous procedure, with a high mortality rate, but the operation was a success, although his doctors demanded that he rest until the autumn and they refused to allow him to sail on the maiden voyage of Titanic. The combination of his illness, the loss of Titanic and the death in the tragedy of his nephew, Thomas Andrews who was chief designer at H&W, all prolonged Pirrie's recovery.

H&W's main bankers, London City & Midland Bank became seriously concerned by Pirrie's reliance on heavy borrowing to finance the expansion of his shipbuilding empire and to finance work-in-progress in the H&W facilities. Sir Edward Holden, the bank's managing director, summoned Pirrie to a meeting to discuss H&W's ever-increasing liabilities, particularly the volume of discounted bills of exchange. This system of finance involved H&W issuing bills of exchange calling upon the owners of ships under construction to make a specified payment at a fixed future date. The owners signed the bills to accept them, before returning them to H&W, who then cashed them at a discount in the London market. When a bill reached maturity, a further bill was frequently issued and discounted to provide the cash needed to settle the early bill. In the event of the owner failing to honour a bill, the liability fell upon H&W. In June 1912 the face value of H&W's share capital was £600,000, it had an overdraft of £21,000 from London City & Midland Bank, long-term borrowings of £600,000, but its contingent liabilities for bills were £1,535,000. To make matters worse almost all of the bills were drawn on Royal Mail and IMMC, both of whom had heavy borrowings of their own. Pirrie agreed to issue £600,000 new preference shares, but even so Holden imposed more expensive rates to discount future bills. In fact Pirrie only succeeded in raising £177,000 from his initial preference share issue.

The preference share money was quickly swallowed by the cost of re-equipping Govan and financing the massive volume of business being undertaken by H&W and by June 1914 the total volume of discounted bills had reached £2,227,500 with overdrafts up to £221,724. The relationship between Pirrie and his bankers was almost at breaking point. The situation was greatly worsened by serious financial problems at IMMC, following the death of its founder J P Morgan in 1913. IMMC was having difficulty settling £585,000 in bills drawn by H&W. Fortunately the outbreak of war dislocated the entire international bill market and disguised H&W's financial problems.

When war was declared it was generally assumed that hostilities would be short-lived. There were no national plans for the production of merchant ships needed to support the war effort. Materials were in fact diverted to accelerate warship construction and production in merchant shipbuilding yards like H&W slowed down or even came to a halt. This created difficulties in retaining the company's workforce as many enlisted in the armed forces in the belief that there would be no civilian requirement for their skills. At the end of July 1914, H&W employed 24,425 people, by the end of October this figure had declined to 18,412. By this time the British Government realised that it was facing a long and bitter war that would tax the capacity of the shipyards and orders naval work began to flow.

H&W was called upon to convert merchant ships to resemble battleships, to confuse the enemy as to the whereabouts of the Grand Fleet. These were followed by a series of orders for Monitors to use a variety of spare heavy gun mountings to support the seaward end of the Western Front and later the Dardanelles campaign. Govan also received a series of orders for destroyers. The largest individual warship ordered from H&W was the preposterous white elephant HMS Glorious. She was one of three totally impractical light battlecruisers ordered in 1915 and completed in 1917. No operational purpose could be found for these very expensive ships and after the war they were converted into aircraft carriers. All of the naval contracts were awarded on a cost plus basis, with payment by cash progress payments during construction, which brought much needed relief to H&W's strained finances.


Photo 11: Harland & Wolff - HMS Raglan. This ship was one of four monitors built to utilise four surplus 14 inch gun mountings secretly supplied to Britain by the American company Bethlehem Steel, in a flagrant breach of the neutrality laws. Rather unwisely the Admiralty decided to show their gratitude by naming the ships after famous American military leaders. It was intended to name this Govan built ship, Robert E Lee, but after protests from the American State Department she was commissioned as M3 and later named Raglan.


Photo 12: Harland & Wolff - HMS Glorious. This ship and her Armstrong's built sister HMS Courageous were officially classified as light battlecruisers. They were very lightly armoured allowing them to achieve a speed of 32 knots and carried four 15 inch guns. They were originally intended to support an Admiral Fisher scheme to land an army on the German Baltic coast. Their precise role in this abortive plan was never established and the Royal Navy could not imagine any proper employment for these handsome, very expensive, white elephants.

H & W suffered a further financial scare early in 1915, when IMMC was placed in receivership under the supervision of a committee of bond holders. As H&W's investment was almost £1,000,000 IMMC's plight had the potential to bankrupt H&W. Fortunately the excellent work of the committee and the unprecedented wartime demand for tonnage, rapidly restored IMMC and the re-organisation of the combine enabled IMMC's securities owned by H&W to become marketable at above their value in H&W's accounts. The H&W board decided to sell the entire holding, providing the company with a much needed cash inflow of £1,000,000.

By June 1916 H&W had paid off its overdrafts and had £177,000 in the bank. Although its loan debt was still £510,000 its outstanding bills of exchange were down to £25,000. This happy financial state did not last as Pirrie authorised major capital projects in Belfast, Govan, Southampton and Liverpool during 1916. In October he purchased the Greenock shipbuilder Caird & Co for £432,493. Like the Govan shipyard, the Greenock facility was operated as a division of H&W. He also persuaded Burmeister & Wain to sell H&W their shareholding in the joint UK diesel engine building company for £100,000.

Caird & Co began in 1890, as a family firm in Greenock, operating initially as an iron foundry, developing into general and marine engineering. James Tennant Caird joined the family business in 1833, which later moved into shipbuilding following the acquisition of the Cartsdyke yard in 1842. Together with shipbuilding, the yard was also involved in the construction of a number of locomotives for Scottish railway companies. The company became Caird & Co Ltd in 1888. It built its first passenger ship for P&O in 1846 and developed an important long standing relationship having built over 60 ships for P&O by the time of the H&W takeover.

For almost two years after the outbreak of war the national policy was to only authorise work on merchant ship construction to clear the slipways. Pirrie, as a shipowner as well as shipbuilder realised that wartime sinkings and the requisition of merchant ships for military duties would generate a severe shortage of tonnage by the end of 1917. He agreed contracts with Philipps for 15 diesel-engined cargo ships as well as entering into contracts with Bibby, P&O, British India and IMMC. Pirrie then convinced the Board of Trade that these vessels should be classified as munitions. Armed with this massive programme of merchant ships in addition to the contracts for the Admiralty, Pirrie was able to convince his board of directors of the need for further expansion of H&W capacity.


Photo 13: Glenamoy - Glen Line. Lord Pirrie convinced Philipps to share his enthusiasm for diesel propulsion, but the operation of these pioneering vessels proved to be very challenging. To build a pool of expertise, it was decided to concentrate all of the initial motor ships in Glen Line. Glenamoy of 1916 was the second such vessel. The hull of the ship was built in the new Mackie & Thomson shipyard in Irvine on the Ayrshire coast. This arrangement was part of an agreement that involved the sale to Harland & Wolff of Mackie & Thomson's old shipyard, which was located next to the H&W Govan yard.

In December 1916, Pirrie entered into negotiations to buy David Colville & Sons, the Motherwell steel company that supplied most of the steel used by H&W. The bid failed due to the two firms' inability to reach agreement on the valuation of Colville's. Early in 1917 Pirrie informed his board that he had however, bought two Clyde shipyards for £397,466. These were A & J Inglis of Pointhouse and D & W Henderson of Meadowside.

A & J Inglis Ltd was founded by Anthony and John Inglis in 1862. Its shipyard was located at Pointhouse on the River Kelvin near to its confluence with the River Clyde, directly opposite the H&W Govan shipyard and across the Kelvin from the Meadowside yard of D & W Henderson. Inglis specialised in the construction of smaller vessels including, Clyde steamers, paddle steamers and coasters. A significant proportion of the ships built at Pointhouse were paddle steamers, many of which were for export.

D & W Henderson & Co Ltd owned a much larger shipyard at Meadowside, along the north bank of the Clyde with a dry dock and fitting-out Quay on the Kelvin. The firm was founded by the famous Henderson brothers from Pittenweem in Fife. The four brothers were the sons of a sea captain and all became captains before entering business. The eldest brother Thomas became a partner in the shipbrokers and managers Handyside and Henderson in 1855 and started Anchor Line. As the Handyside family retired Thomas was joined by his brother John, then David and William and the firm was renamed Henderson Brothers. Thomas and John ran Anchor Line, while David and William started Finnieston Steamship Works Co in 1857, mainly to build steam engines to convert existing sailing ships. In 1872 the Meadowside shipyard of Tod & MacGregor was bought and renamed D & W Henderson.

The Meadowside shipyard built a large number of passenger liners and cargo ships for Anchor Line and through a partnership between Thomas Henderson and the Duke of Devonshire provided designs, drawings and shipbuilding expertise to enable the Duke to establish Barrow Ship Building Co. John Henderson died in 1892, David in 1893, while both Thomas and William died in 1895. The firm drifted and lost ground without the leadership of the brothers, but in 1899 it was revitalised by the formation of Anchor Line (Henderson Brothers) Ltd and the sale of both the shipyard and engine works. The shipyard remained an independent entity until it was bought by H&W.

At the end of 1916 and during the early months of 1917 the merchant shipping situation became increasingly critical and the Government decided to construct a large number of standard ships for its account. Work on all existing merchant contracts was suspended and new contracts from private owners prohibited for the duration of hostilities. H&W were permitted to continue work on 11 merchant ships on order, to clear the building berths. H&W and Henderson quickly produced the designs for the A and B type standard vessels and the keels for the first two were laid down in February 1917.

During 1917 Pirrie agreed to build aircraft at Queens Island in Belfast, thus providing work for the joiners' shop that was underutilised following the cessation of passenger liner construction. Pirrie felt that building numbers of aircraft to the same design would encourage standardisation of joinery work for ships. New workshops were later constructed to meet a Government order for the production of Handley Page heavy bombers and an airfield created at Aldergrove. H&W was awarded orders for 100 De Havilland, 300 Avro and 20 Handley Page aircraft.

This surge of capital expenditure consumed all of H&W's cash resources. At the June 1917 end of the company's financial year loans stood at £593,000 and overdrafts at £693,000 and Holden was again becoming concerned. Nevertheless the company was obliged to continue investing to increase output. Pirrie responded to a Government demanded that H&W build an additional shipyard in Belfast by leasing land on the east side of the Musgrave channel and commencing the construction of a six berth yard at a cost of £600,000. Additional facilities were also commissioned for the Clyde, Liverpool and Southampton works.

To placate the banks, Pirrie again sought to raise additional equity capital and persuaded Philipps to invest £500,000, plus a £425,000 share premium, in H&W from the Royal Mail group, thereby "cementing the building agreement". This investment had the advantage of wresting voting control from John Brown and passing it to Pirrie and Philipps. John Brown did not object, on the understanding that this "would not interfere with their working relationship."

Unlike many UK shipbuilders, Pirrie was an enthusiastic backer of the standard ship programme and H&W quickly established itself as the most prolific producer of these vessels. Unfortunately the national programme was well below target and to counter this situation Premier Lloyd George persuaded Pirrie to accept the newly created post of Controller General of Merchant Shipbuilding, whilst retaining his appointments with H&W and Royal Mail. Pirrie proved to be an ideal man for the job and ruthlessly imposed the standard ship programme on the reluctant shipyards. He forced through technical change and better relations with the trade unions. In the process he succeeded in raising national output by almost 50% in the last 8 months of the war. By the end of December 1918, 181 standard ships were delivered.


Photo 14: Harland & Wolff. The A-Type standard ship War Clover, delivered in 1917.

During the war, British shipyards achieved a phenomenal output of vessels, but the industry continued to be plagued by work demarcation disputes between the various trade unions. The long run of cost plus H&W Commission Club contracts placed an emphasis on management avoiding dislocation of work, regardless of cost. As a result Belfast had a sophisticated system of settling turf wars between the 20 different trade unions in the shipyards, but uninterrupted production was obtained at the cost of over-manning and poor productivity. The Clyde facilities, which were more recent additions to the group experienced greater problems but lower costs.

In February 1915, serious strikes and demonstrations broke out on the Clyde. This incensed the Government and all of H&Ws works were declared "controlled establishments" giving the Ministry of Munitions wide powers over their labour practices, including the ability to order men who misbehaved to the front. Nevertheless H&W management resisted the Ministry's efforts to enforce greater flexibility of employment of the existing workforce and the introduction of non-union workers, preferring to work in harmony with the unions throughout the war.

When the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918, the entire H&W workforce downed tools and took a week's holiday to celebrate. The Admiralty immediately took action to halt naval work. Pirrie issued instructions for the resumption of work on the 21 merchant ship contracts that had been suspended by the Ministry of Shipping's embargo. He also ordered preparations to be made to reconstruct the large number of Commission Club passenger ships that had been adapted to the requirements of the war effort. Finally in January 1919 he announced that shipowners were again free to place orders for new ships.

Thanks to the Royal Mail investment, the company's ordinary share capital increased to £1,000,000 in 1918 and through other sales the preference share capital was up to £281,074 but these amounts were totally overshadowed by H&W's borrowings. Loans to the company were £961,607 and overdrafts £885,106, despite the fact that all H&W's construction contracts were on a self-funding, cash basis from the government. Clearly when H&W resumed civilian contracts, with the need for it to finance work in progress, the company was destined to face severe cash shortages. Pirrie's coup in persuading Philipps to bring his Royal Mail group companies as shareholders provided H&W with a post-war lifeline.

The growing H&W threat to the financial stability of the Royal Mail Group[edit]

Royal Mail group was financially weak during most of the years it was controlled by Philipps. By acquiring control of H&W, Philipps greatly increased the fragility of Royal Mail. It will be seen in Part 3 that Philipps was content to allow Pirrie to continue to operate H&W as an independent entity, even though there were repeated requirements for Royal Mail to increase its investment in H&W to keep it afloat. The consequences of this recklessness are related in the remaining parts of this history.


A complete Bibliography for all Parts of this Article is given at the end of Part 7


Many of the photographs used to illustrate this article are from the very large collection contained in the Allen Collection hosted by Benjidog at: -
Most of the remaining photographs are from the Ships Nostalgia Galleries, which are available for use in the Directory. The individual photographs used in Part 2 have been provided as follows: -

  1. Benjidog - Allen Collection
  2. Paddle Steamer Preservation Society
  3. Paddle Steamer Preservation Society
  4. Paddle Steamer Preservation Society
  5. Paddle Steamer Preservation Society
  6. Ships Nostalgia - Galtra
  7. Benjidog - Allen Collection
  8. Ships Nostalgia - dom
  9. Wikipedia
  10. Ships Nostalgia - Steve Woodward
  11. Wikipedia
  12. Benjidog - Allen Collection
  13. Ships Nostalgia - Tmac 1720

Article written and compiled by Fred Henderson

Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Kylsant Empire
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