top of page
Blue Funnel Plate.JPG

Alfred Holt (1829-1911) was the son of George Holt, who was a successful Liverpool businessman and a figure of some considerable importance in the cotton, banking and insurance businesses.
Alfred, who, like his father, was a man of strong moral character and mental discipline, showed an early interest in steam engines and became apprenticed to a railway engineer. When, at the age of 21 in 1851, he completed his apprenticeship, he was unable to find work in a railway industry that was suffering a depression, and so he took employment as a clerk in the shipping firm of Lamport and Holt that had been founded by his elder brother George in partnership with William James Lamport.

Later that same year, 1851, Alfred assisted with the fitting of the steam engine to the new steamship Orontes and then sailed as supernumerary engineer in her on her maiden voyage to Sicily, Egypt and Syria. In January 1852, after his return from the Mediterranean, Alfred, at his father’s suggestion, set himself up as a consulting engineer.  
It was not too long before Alfred was able prove his considerable talent as a marine engineer and, as a result, in 1852 he became manager and engineer of the Dumbarton Youth, a steamer jointly owned by his father and Thomas Ainsworth of Cleator.

Alfred Holt.jpg

The Dumbarton Youth was the first ship to have a blue funnel, and, as a result of the profits made from her voyage, Alfred was able to persuade his father and Thomas Ainsworth to advance the capital for the laying down of a second ship, the Cleator, for the iron ore and coal trades. By the time she was delivered in 1855, the Crimean War had broken out, and so she was hired to the French government at such “an outrageous rate” that it caused Alfred to suffer a degree of moral discomfort. Success in the West Indian carrying trade was to be relatively short lived, and, largely as a result of severe competition from well established rivals, Alfred decided to abandon this operation, and so, in 1864, he sold all his ships, bar the Cleator, to the West India and Pacific Steamship Company

TSS Patroclub.jpg

During 1864, Alfred and Philip turned their attention to investigating the feasibility of building and operating steamships that could successfully with the sailing ships in the China trade. Alfred had designed a new type of compound tandem steam engine, and sea trials of this were carried out in the Cleator in December of that year.

These trials successfully demonstrated that, with the right design of hull, the relatively low fuel consumption of this new engine should enable vessels of around 2000 gross tons to operate competitively on regular services from Liverpool to China.

Accordingly Alfred and Philip placed orders, worth a total of £156,000, with Scotts of Greenock for 3 new steam ships for the China trade. They were to be called Agamemnon, Ajax and Achilles, and they were to be the first of many ships to be operated by the Ocean Steam Ship Company, which was registered on 11 January 1865.  

The Agamemnon sailed for China on 19 April 1866. She, along with the Ajax and Achilles had been designed, in accordance with Alfred’s specifications, to have the latest design of iron hull with a length to beam ratio of 8:1. Driven by Alfred’s revolutionary compound tandem steam engine, Agamemnon’s performance amply demonstrated that she should be able to operate at a profit.
The Ocean Steam Ship Company began formal operations on 1 July 1866 with Alfred and Philip Holt as Managers, and so began a partnership that was to last for more than 30 years. Although the Holts’ steam ships were undoubtedly superior to sailing ships with regard to speed and carrying capacity, several years were to pass before the Holts gained the upper hand. Whilst the sailing ships were slower, this disadvantage was offset by their lower freight rates. Also merchants in the China trade exhibited a marked reluctance, born of prejudice, to move away from the known environment of the sailing ship.

Blue Funnel Agents.JPG

In 1875, the Blue Funnel fleet suffered its first total loss when the Hector struck a reef and sank. This and a succession of collisions, groundings and breakdowns, all contributed to a reduction in earnings through lost freight. It is worth noting here that, from this point onwards, Alfred and Philip Holt decided that the Ocean Steam Ship Company would cease insuring its ships and that the Company would assume the whole of the risk on its vessels.
Competition became so intense in 1878 and 1879 that the Ocean Steam Ship Company’s financial stability was threatened. John Swire proposed a practical plan for a Far Eastern Conference to produce a working agreement with other competing lines as to freight rates and a fair division of cargoes.

He argued that shippers did not want the uncertainties brought about by cutthroat competition, but, instead, sought stable freight rates and regular, reliable services. Despite initial reluctance by the Holts, full agreement to the Conference was reached in August 1879. The growing demand within Europe for tobacco from the Far East, particularly North Sumatra, led the ever-resourceful Holt brothers to decide in 1880 that the Ocean Steam Ship Company should invest in this trade. 

Blue Funnel Envelope.JPG

As a result a sizeable business, in which the Ocean Steam Ship Company was the controlling shareholder, was developed with its main base in Singapore. It comprised a fleet of coastal ships and storage facilities to be used to feed tobacco and other commodities into the Holt fleet for transhipment to Europe.

This operation was run by Theodore Bogaardt of ‘Mansfield, Bogaardt and Company’, Holt’s Singapore agents. It played a significant part in the Ocean Steam Ship Company’s prosperity. During the 1880s an increasingly bitter argument developed between John Swire and the Holts.

In 1895, Richard Durning Holt, Maurice Llewelyn Davies and George Holt junior joined Alfred and Philip Holt and Albert Crompton as Managers of the Ocean Steam Ship Company. Albert Crompton had become a Manager in 1882. The new Managers undoubtedly made a major contribution to the improvements in the profitability of the Ocean Steam Ship Company.

Significant operating economies were made, even to the extent of reducing salaries and wages of Ocean Steam Ship Company employees by 15%. New markets were identified, and operating practices revised. Old ships were disposed of, and, between 1894 and 1902, twenty-two new, large steam ships were added to the Blue Funnel fleet. Agreements were made with the Dutch lines, and relations were markedly improved with the China Mutual. Overall, a combination of shrewd financial management and a willingness to exploit any business opportunity saw the Ocean Steam Ship Company Managers take net profits from £27,500 in 1892 to £266,100 in 1902. The China Mutual got into financial difficulty during a recession in 1901 and 1902. As a result, an agreement was reached in 1902 that led to Holts acquiring a controlling interest in the China Mutual. This astute move on behalf of the Ocean Steam Ship Company Managers meant that the Blue Funnel fleet increased in size by 13 modern and well-equipped ships, enabling considerable economies of scale. It also meant that the Ocean Steam Ship Company no longer had a serious competitor in trade from Glasgow and Liverpool.

Alfred Holt resigned as a Manager of the Ocean Steam Ship Company in 1904 – some 40 years after having started the Blue Funnel Line. His brother Philip had resigned in 1897 followed by Albert Crompton in 1901, and William Stapledon had been appointed as a Manager in 1902.
As part of their on-going aim to reduce costs and improve efficiency, the Managers decided, in 1905, to purchase land at Kowloon and Shanghai for the construction of wharves and warehouses and thus ensure that dedicated and independent facilities were available for the Blue Funnel fleet. Later, in 1911, land was also purchased on the riverfront at Hankow for storage facilities. In 1908, the increase in the Company’s business led to the appointment of 2 new Managers: Henry Bell Wortley and Lawrence Durning Holt. George Holt retired in 1912 and was succeeded by Charles Sydney. By now, the size of the business and its interests was such that corporate decision making became the norm in place of the once prominent and influential roles of individual Managers.
Alfred Holt died on 28th November 1911. He had been a man of strong character who had adhered to a strict code of probity in both his business and private life. Whilst he had been stubborn and uncompromising in matters of principle, he had certainly not been afraid to take risks. A talented marine engineer, he had possessed the foresight, spirit of adventure and energy to pursue and seize a favourable business opportunity. With the help of his brother, Philip, upon whose wise counsel on commercial matters he had relied heavily, he had become one of the great businessmen of his time. His brother, Philip, died 3 years later on 27th November 1914.

Holt Family.jpg

Alfred Holt's father set up his own office at 1 India Buildings in January 1852, the office which he was to occupy for the rest of his life. Alfred Holt and Company staff transferred to the new India Buildings in 1928, although building work was not finally completed until 1932.
In 1936, Alfred Holt and Company became a major shareholder in Elder Dempster, and the Ocean Steam Ship Company took responsibility for managing Elder Dempster’s shipping operations for a period of 7 years. At the outbreak of hostilities on 3rd September 1939, Alfred Holt and Company was in a sound financial position, and its fleet comprised 76 Blue Funnel and 11 Glen Line ships.
However, 28 of these ships had been built before or during the First World War, and the average age of the fleet was almost 20 years. “A Merchant Fleet in War 1939-1945” by Captain S W Roskill RN is a beautifully crafted and deeply moving account of the tragedies and triumphs experienced by the Holt fleet during the Second World War.  

Richard Holt died in March 1941, and Lawrence Holt became senior partner. Richard Durning Holt had been a Manager since 1895 and Senior Partner since 1904. He had, for over 40 years, been the dominant force in Alfred Holt and Company.

On 3rd May 1941, India Buildings, and the Company records contained therein, were almost completely destroyed by fire caused by the bombing of adjacent buildings. The rebuilding of India Buildings was finally completed in 1953. In 1943, Alfred Holt and Company ceased to be responsible for managing Elder Dempster’s shipping operations.
The Ocean group’s headquarters was moved from Liverpool to London in 1980. As a result of the dramatic decline in the Blue Funnel fleet, all the buildings that comprised Ocean Fleets Training Establishment, with the exception of the original hostel, were leased to Liverpool City Council in 1981. The Company’s much depleted training facility then moved back into the hostel next door, where it remained until it was disbanded on the 31st December 1986.

bottom of page