The Ships that Built the Ben Line

Thomson voyage account books

The Wm. Thomson & Co. voyage account books

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.

Voyage account book for Araby Maid

Voyage account book for Araby Maid

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).

James Wishart

James Wishart

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.

May Queen

May Queen

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.

Signature of Captain Archibald Perrie on his account with owners of Araby Maid, 1862

Signature of Captain Archibald Perrie on his account with owners of Araby Maid, 1862

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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12 replies

  1. Interesting article and a lot of work on your part. My great-uncle, Arthur William Gibson Lindsay was a Marine Engineer for William Thomson Co. His WWI draft registration indicates he was on the steamship Benalder when he was on shore in Baltimore.

  2. Hi Neil,

    I came across your article today (21/02/2015). In 2001, I self-published a small book detailing the journal of one of the passengers aboard the Vicksburg on her journey from London Docks to Melbourne in 1867. I am trying to establish some additional information about various crew members mentioned in the journal. I am also keen to get an illustration of the Vicksburg if one exists.

    I am in the process of producing a new and updated edition suitable for publication on Kindle.

    I would be grateful if you would contact me with a view to discussing what if any additional information might be gleaned from the above archive.

    Yours,

    Keith

    • Hi Keith,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I have forwarded your query to our enquiry service at enquiries@archives.gla.ac.uk and they will be able to help you.

      Best wishes,

      Rachael

    • Keith, any info you have gleaned ref David Miller Thomson would be gratefully received. All I have is a copy of one voyage record from Kew, on the bencleuch from Bristol to Madras and back to London. Your book sounds very interesting as does Neil’s work. I wonder if it’s possible to obtain a copy?

      Regards

      Mark

  3. Loved your article. My ggggrandfather was master of the bencleuch sailing from bristol to madras then back to London. His name was David Miller thomson tho I don’t think there is a family connection to the Ben line owners. I have a copy of a record of this voyage (26 feb 1859 to 29 feb 1860).

    • Hi Mark,
      Thanks for letting me know of your connection to the company. If there’s anything else you’d like to know about your ancestor or that voyage then do let us know. Thanks, Neil

      • Neil, just rediscovered your article. I would appreciate any hints on where I can find additional info on David Miller Thomson. The voyage info I had was gleaned from a researcher at Kew. He also provided a ticket history which mentioned several other ships mentioned in your excellent article.

      • Hi Mark, I have information about your ancestor David Miller Thomson that you may find interesting. I am currently in the process of trying to finalize a Kindle book on the voyage of the three masted vessel “Vicksburg” which sailed from London to Melbourne in 1867 with Miller as Master. The main part of the book relates the a journal made of the voyage by one William H Haselwood and in it he refers several times to the captain including a personal description, etc. I also have sourced details from Melbourne newspapers of the period. I also recently researched the Ben line archive with Neil’s help and have now quite a collection of information on Miller. If you are interested in exchanging information, please feel free to contact me.

  4. I wondered if you had come across the name of Master Mariner, Alexander Cromarty in the accounts? He (and his brother William) was with William Thomson & Co for 50 years 35 at sea and then as Surveyor. His picture hangs in Trinity House, Leith and I would be interested to know more about his voyages. They were brothers of my great great grandmother.
    The gentleman at Trinity House said someone went there with lots of Ben Line documents recently. Was it you?

    • Hi John,

      I have found 6 volumes of voyage accounts in which Alexander Cromarty is named. The ships and time periods these volumes cover being: Algiers, 1857-1870, Annie Laurie, 1864-1874, Bencleuch II, 1876-1898, Palmyra, 1873-1883 and William Mitchell, 1871-1872. Each volume typically records: voyage number, voyage date(s), name of captain, ports of call, costs expended on stores, victualling, repairs, pilotage, insurance, crew wages (includes name and rank) and earnings from cargo carried. Each Captain’s account with the ship owners is included at the back of each volume, and this is the case with Alexander Cromarty too. If you wish to view these volumes I’d encourage you to contact our enquiry service to arrange a time to come in: enquiries[at]archives.gla.ac.uk
      I haven’t visited Trinity House but from references made within the collection I gather there are, or were, some nice paintings relating to the Ben Line / Wm. Thomson & Co. that I’d like to see at some point.
      Thanks for getting in touch,
      Neil

      • Neil,
        Thanks for your reply, I’ll be coming to look at the documents some time. We’ll worth a visit to Trinity House, some of the paintings are by Cromarty.

        John

  5. A nicely written and interesting post. Well done!

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