This is the story of a remarkable achievement. How one man built an amazing shipping empire throughout his long life, weathering the ups and downs along the way, and going from strength to strength.
From 1885 onwards for well over 100 years, the iconic British shipping company called the Bank Line, criss crossed the globe with a fl eet of up to 50 ships. Trading to all ports in the world within 60 degrees north and south, and visiting remote locations on all the continents, the ships could regularly be seen in most ports with their distinctive buff and black funnel. For this writer, sailing on the long and often mysterious voyages in the 1950’s, the sight of another Bank Line ship toiling away in an arrival port engendered a feeling hard to describe. It was a strange mixture of pride, curiosity and camaraderie. Today, the ships are all gone, another victim, mainly of rampant containerisation, but it might be said that the special hunger for success died with the founder. It was a magic ingredient only gifted to true entrepreneurs.
The build up began in sail, continued into steam, and then continued into a fleet of modern diesel vessels. Like many of the traditional shipping companies, the fleet successfully weathered two world wars, and numerous economic crises, including the Great Depression. A heavy price was paid however. For example, a venture into tankers in the Second World War, owning ships with names beginning with an ‘ Inver’ prefix ended with the whole fleet of seven vessels being lost to torpedoes and mines from enemy action.
The full story of the Bank Line growth would fill a fascinating book or two, but this brief overview of the ‘glory’ years from a mariner’s perspective, only aims to highlight the scale of the growth, together with some of the achievements and some of the setbacks.
The entrepreneurial owner was a young man called Andrew Weir, born into a family of cork merchants in Scotland, and he was imbued with the essential ingredients for success - hard work, shrewdness, and above all, vision. The sailing fleet he built up rapidly became the largest under the red ensign.
Today, we have not only the benefit of hindsight, but a clearer picture of this sailing ship achievement, and it is impossible not to be awed by the risk that owners, and particularly seafarers faced in that age. Nearly half of the vessels met an untimely end from stranding, burning, or simply going missing on passage, an all too frequent ending. One noted graveyard in the sailing ship era was the trade with coal from Australian ports like Newcastle to the Nitrate loading berths in Chile.
Looking looking through the fleet lists, this was the fate of at least three of the Weir fleet. Of all the handsome sailing ships built for Andrew Weir, the Beechbank, one of an eight ship order, stands out for she somehow managed 32 years afloat, a rare feat. Wrecks from the fleet dotted the world, for example at Goto Island, Japan (Ann Main), Goodwin sands, (Hazelbank), Isle of Arran, (Elmbank), Mozambique Channel, (Fernbank), Iquique Chile, (Oakbank), Recife, (Trafalgar), Chinchas, Chile, (Forthbank), Scilly Isles, (Thornliebank), and many more.
Numbers of vessels were sold out of the fleet to Norwegian owners over the years, no doubt when good money was to be made. Then, only 11 short years after starting up, and already with a substantial fleet of sailing vessels, Andrew Weir took delivery of his first steam driven ship, the Duneric in 1896, a measure of the confidence and ambition that drove him forward.
Before leaving the sailing ships, mention should be made of probably the most famous of them, the Olivebank. This beautiful vessel made fast passages, for example taking only 85 days from Melbourne to Falmouth in 1900. She achieved passages which were up there with the best of her class, and Sea Breezes magazine of 1935 reports in the ‘Signal Station’ section of that time, Olivebank, arr. Port Lincoln, 19th January, 85 days from Elsinore. This put her firmly in the same class as the renowned Pamir and Passat and the other ‘Flying P Liners’ of the F Laeisz fleet. Olivebank was sold to Norwegian owners in 1913, and in 1924 became a part of the well known Gustav Erikson fleet of Finland in whose hands she continued to make fast passages, mainly in the Australian grain trade.
In the early 30’s she was regularly featuring alongside the flying ‘P’s’ and others competing on the long passage from Europe to mainly the Spencer Gulf and back. A typical decent passage was around 85 to 100 days to Falmouth, ie,. A good three month voyage each way. These hazardous passages were faithfully reported in the Sea Breezes. In 1939, Olivebank met her end when she was mined in the North Sea. A few fortunate survivors were rescued from a mast which remained sticking up above the waves.
One of the talents of Andrew Weir was a gift for creating a strong network of worldwide agents, many of whom were also friends and business partners, and who shared independent trading and shipping activities in their own sphere. These bonds grew very strong, and they were to form the sinews of world wide shipping services that endured for decades. Over the years patterns emerged, and Lines were created with fixed schedules, the loading not always carried out by dedicated ships, but by company vessels that could be stemmed on to the loading ports just at the right time.
The uninitiated maritime onlookers often referred to the Bank Line as a tramp operator, but the truth was more complicated. A typical voyage could consist of passages in world wide Liner trades, stitched together with charters arranged at the Baltic Exchange in London, and true tramping voyages. This pattern strengthened as time went by, and worked very successfully for more than 100 years.
Orders for the first steamships were given to the Russell & Co yard, and it was a characteristic of Bank Line buildings over the years that batches were ordered. It is an impressive list, ie, single ships were first ordered, namely Duneric and the Elleric.