I’ve been working on cataloguing the Ben Line collection for a little over 3 months now, and recent weeks have seen me absorbed in the process of producing an EAD catalogue of the collection using XMetaL (software for the creation and editing of documents in XML and SGML). As I sit here at my desk in the cataloguing room here at Thurso Street, I’m surrounded by shelving piled high with the oldest records in the collection that are my particular focus this month. It is a strange gap of time that I am bridging in this process. Crew agreements and voyage account books that were created largely in Leith, Edinburgh, in the later decades of the 19th century are once again opened and scrutinised – but this time not by the business mind for the analysis of efficiency of ships or the tally of profit or loss, but for extraction of data key in the creation of a kind of electronic sign-post for each record.
As I work my way through these records, I feel as though I am re-witnessing the birth of what would become the Ben Line – a name that is now very well known within the context of Scottish shipping heritage. But when this company was but a child, stumbling around the great seas and oceans of the world without its later, more grown-up and iconic identity, it was simply a collection of sailing ships – accounted for separately and with disparate names such as Carrara, Wanderer and Golden Pledge. It is these early ships that pioneered the trade routes and made the early profits that the Ben Line would benefit from that I feel should be given a mention at this stage of the cataloguing project. This brief summary of the development of the early sailing fleet will also provide an overview of the development of Wm. Thomson & Co. – the parent company of the Ben Line and associated companies that prospered through the hard work that these ships and their crews put in.
Wm. Thomson & Co. originated in 1825 as A. & W. Thomson, a ship broking partnership between brothers Alexander (1795-1880) and William (1806-1889) based in the port of Leith, Edinburgh. The brothers’ father, James Thomson (1756-1814) left a building business for his two sons after his death in 1814. This business was particularly concerned with the import of marble for the construction of the houses of Edinburgh’s New Town and had strong Thomson family connections to the marble trade in the form of their brother-in-law, Thomas Henderson, who exported Carrara marble from Leghorn, Italy, and their uncle, Alexander Thomson, owner or chief partner of the Leith Marble Works. Despite setting up their ship broking partnership in 1825, it wasn’t until 1839 that the Thomson brothers had their own ship built – the 88 foot barque, Carrara (in the fleet 1839 to 1847) – in Buckhaven, Fife. This enabled A. & W. Thomson to export coal and wool from Leith to Leghorn, and import marble directly for their continuing interest in the building trade. As the building trade declined, the brothers invested more in their maritime business, establishing a regular trade route between Leith and Canada for the export of coal and the import of Canadian timber. The success of this early trade was indebted to the financial support provided by family connections established through the personal relationships of the two brothers. In 1836 William married Sarah Wishart, whose father was a Leith merchant dealing in textiles, which were subsequently exported to Italy. Similarly, when Alexander married Isabella Thomson of Alloa in 1844, he married into a family involved in the business of importing timber. The Alloa Thomsons also directly helped to finance the purchase of the company’s second ship, the Australia (1840-1841). The Alloa connection expanded to include support from another family, the Mitchells, who provided cargo for export in the form of coal from the Alloa Coal Company, of which the Mitchells were a partner in. The Mitchells, along with the Thomsons, also helped to finance the purchase of the company’s third ship, Joanna (1844-1864).
In 1847 Alexander Thomson left the partnership and A. & W. Thomson was renamed Wm. Thomson & Co., continuing under the management of William. William Thomson died in 1889, but the company continued to be managed by members of the Thomson family under the name of Wm. Thomson & Co. for the remainder of its life.
For much of the remaining 19th century, spurred on by the growing success of their shipping business, the company continued to aquire sailing ships, amounting to a total of 23 including the three already mentioned. The others were: Wanderer (1847-1864); Signet (1848-1853); Araby Maid I (1851-1862); Bencleuch I (1853-1869); William Mitchell (1856-1872); May Queen (1862-1875); Alexandra (1863-1869); Vicksburg (1863-1884); Annie Laurie (1864-1880); Golden Pledge (1864-1869); James Wishart (1864-1887); Ocean Chief (1867-1872); Araby Maid II (1868-1894); Palmyra (1873-1883); Mic Mac (1873-1879); Benan (1875-1888); Bencleuch II (1875-1898); Royalist (1875-1881); Adriatic (1875-1882) and Algiers (1875-1882). Notable is Bencleuch I, the first ship owned by the company to bear the prefix ‘Ben’, a practice that would become universal within the fleet by the 20th century.
These sailing ships enabled the company to forge trade connections with far flung places, including Chinese and Japanese ports in the 1850s, and shortly after Australia and other parts of North America. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 furthered the possibilities of distance and voyage times that these ships were capable of achieving. The voyage account books for these ships illustrate the wide arcs that they drew across the surface of the world’s seas: ports frequented include Adelaide, Aden, Akyab, Algoa Bay, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bangkok, Barauka, Bombay, Buenos Aires, Calcutta, Callao, Cronstadt, Diamond Island, Dunedin, Gopaulpow, Havana, Hong Kong, Macau, Madras, Mahé, Malangas, Manila, Mauritius, Melbourne, Mobile, Montreal, Moulmein, New Orleans, Nordenham, Otago, Penang, Pensacola, Point de Galle, Quebec, Rangoon, Rio de Janeiro, Rotterdam, Saigon, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, Toulon, Valparaiso, Whampoa and Zaandam.
Aside from providing evidence of voyage routes, these account books also tell us how much each ship first cost and the profit (or loss) that it made on each voyage. They further show us the names of each captain and the nature of their accounts with the Thomson company. They began life as a useful accounting tool at a time when ships were a single business entity made of wood and powered by the wind; they are now a very useful recounting tool of the early days of the company that went on to establish itself as the Ben Line.
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