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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The pies that Viscount Pirrie had his fingers in

Well we've all heard in the newspapers haven't we. The director of company 'A,' lets call him 'Bob,' was involved with another company, the imaginatively named company 'B', and used his influence to secure contracts for company 'A' with company 'B.' More often we hear of these slightly dodgy associations through replacing company 'A' with the word 'Government,' but the principal is roughly the same. In short, what I am talking about are nefarious arrangements between businesses and institutions brokered by individuals who have a stake in both. For that individual, when the sordid details come out, they just look bad, their faces are emblazoned across the tabloids, their names writ-large in the banner headline.

But this is not a new phenomenon and my work on the directors of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) has exposed the links between the directors of that company and external organisations. I have pieced together the history of L&SWR directorship in part through the Directory of Directors (DoD), a publication that from 1880 told the casual reader who, exactly sat on what company boards. So if Lord Geoffrey Munkton-Spitalton-Poo sat on the the board of the Walton-on-Thames Dog Food and Cannery Co., as well as the company that supplied the dogs for the food, it'd be in there. I just hope someday, someone, is going to sit down and like a massive spider work out exactly all these directorial webs, it'd be well sticky and catch many flies. For now, however, we're just going to have to put up with my little study of the other interests of the directors of the L&SWR. I want to highlight one part of my study in this blog.

In 1880, when the DoD was first published, the directors of the L&SWR seem quite a boring, uninteresting bunch. Of the 12 individuals, only 3 had other directorships. That meant that 9 of them simply turned up every fortnight to the L&SWR committee and board meetings and spent the rest of the time supping Cognac and beating the local peasantry (oh, and there were quite a few gentry in there also if you didn't get the stereotype). Of the three that had other financial interests, firstly, Serjeant Gaselee, (yes that is his name and I have always wondered if he did a lot of marching) was a director of the London and Provincial Law Assurance Society. We can surmise that because he was in insurance, he was therefore evil. Arthur Govett, whose name I can't make fun of, was a director of the quaintly named Whitby, Redcar and Middlesbrough Railway Co., a company so insignificant it doesn't even warrant its own Wikipedia entry. Lastly, Captain James Gilbert Johnson, who I am sure did do some marching, was a director of the South Indian Railway Company and the Southampton Dock Company (SDC). The latter, as we will see is the crux of our story. However what can be said of the South Western Board members of the 1880s is that there were no tangible links at board level between the L&SWR's business and external companies. Boy, would that change.

You see the Southampton Dock Company in the 1880s, was, as companies go, pretty crap. Originally in 1831 the London and Southampton Railway, that would become the L&SWR, was promoted with the docks as part of it. This was quickly dropped and the Docks Company was set up independently. Unfortunately for the SDC a chronic lack of investment in the second half of the nineteenth century meant that by the 1880s the biggest boat you would be likely to see docked there would be little Tommy Burton's toy replica of the H.M.S Victory. So the L&SWR in 1885 stumped up some cash to help the company get a large, modern, dock built. The provisos were that four L&SWR directors would be on the Dock Company Board and the SDC had to use the L&SWR's engineer for the work. This effectively made the Dock Company into a vassal state of the railway company. The problem was that the L&SWR didn't give the SDC enough cash to finish the job. So when in 1890 the new dock was opened it was missing small things that you might need there, you know, things like cranes. The upshot was that in 1892 the L&SWR directors decided to buy the SDC, they finished the docks, fell in the dock and climbed out again (OK I made the last part up). This was a sensible course of action for the L&SWR. If the SDC had have gone under, and yes I will unashamedly use shipping metaphors, it would have meant that much of the L&SWR's goods traffic, that came through Southampton, would sail to other ports and complete their onward journeys via other railway companies. Therefore the L&SWR had to buy the SDC to save their own skin. After the purchase the L&SWR invested and expanded the docks precipitating a very large increase in the trade moving through the port, and making Southampton one of Britain's major trading centres.

So this is the state of play in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Now, if you are a wandering shipping magnate, wandering around, then you'd say getting a 'piece of that action' of a company with an expanding dock and increasing trade, would be a good thing. One such magnate was the Right Honourable Lord William Pirrie, 1st Viscount Pirrie (shown).

Pirrie had been born on the 31st May 1847 in Quebec, Canada, however his parents had brought him back to Colnig, County Down, when he was two. He went to school at the Royal Belfast Academical institution and in 1862 became a gentlemen apprentice at the Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff (H&W). He would stay with the company all his life and would make partner in 1874, becoming its chairman on the death of Sir Edward Harland in 1895. Now looking at the myriad of directorships he held in 1907 it would seem that Pirrie was a man with little time on his hands to attend all the board meetings. I'm going to list them because the energy of the man must have been amazing. In alphabetical order they are:- African Steam Ship Co, British and Atlantic Steam Navigation Co, Eastern Telegraph Co, Frederick Leyland and Co, International Merchantile Marine Co. of New Jersey, London City and Midland Bank, Mississippi And Dominion Steam Ship Co, Ocean Transport Co, Oceanic Steam Navigation Co, Scottish Widows' Fund Life Assurance Soc and Wilsons and Furness-Leyland Line Ltd. Oh, and don't forget H&W. In short, he must have been run ragged.

On the death of Arthur Govett, he of quaint railways and director of the L&SWR, Pirrie was elected to replace him on the board. This therefore created a link between the L&SWR, the Docks at Southampton and the Shipping magnate's various concerns. Now I am not sure as to whether the L&SWR approached Pirrie, or the other way round, however the appointment must have been attractive to all involved. The South Western had access to an influential figure in the board rooms of one of Britain's biggest shipbuilders and also of many shipping lines. This therefore had the potential to bring trade to the Docks and the L&SWR, and make it a heck of a lot of money. It also brought Pirrie's experience in shipbuilding to the company, as the L&SWR had its own Steam Packet services operating, and in the years after 1907 it had built a number of new ships. The benefits for Pirrie were that those shipping companies he was involved in may have got preferential rates for docking at Southampton from the L&SWR. Further, when the L&SWR came to build ships, H&W may have received the contracts, making that company substantial sums.

Another point of interest was that Pirrie was involved in the Oceanic Steam Navigation Co, a company that also went by the name of the White Star Line. You may have heard of them as they owned a little vessel called the Titanic, you know, the one that came off worse than the iceberg in 1912. The White Star Line operated a considerable numbers of ships out of the South Western's Southampton Docks, as well as had all its ships built by H&W. In addition the White Star Line completed in 1911 its own docks at Southampton, with rail links to the South Western and attachments to their dock infrastructure. This is from where the Titanic sailed, and then promptly sank. Many of the first class passengers that sailed on the Titanic, were brought to Southampton by the L&SWR, and all of them stayed before they sailed in the very high class, caviare supplying, gold plated, South Western Hotel (owned by the L&SWR), just outside the dock complex. This hotel had long been the home of the high-class passenger waiting to depart from Southampton. These arrangements therefore would have benifitted both the White Star Line and the L&SWR.

Therefore, it is clear that, Pirrie had his fingers in many interlocking pies, a bit like a strudel. It is quite clear that he was the linchpin of a network that existed between transport, shipping and shipbuilding concerns. These links between them were clearly important to the companies involved as he brought bringing his expertise and influence, like a business octopus, to each. At the same time he personally would have befitted as the network increased his own wealth and the wealth of his main company, H&W. He wouldn't have chosen directorships by 'fancy,' and clearly he strategically placed himself so as to benefit himself and his companies to the maximum effect. There is however a large gap of information. At the current time we do not know to what extent his network connections played in shaping the different companies' policies, cooperative arrangements and investments. There is still much work to be done on the interlocking agreements and arrangements between companies. This, then, is what I hope to do in my work, a daunting task to be sure.

1 comment:

  1. A great addition to existing knowledge


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