While the Commissioners, as will be thus seen, were
continually striving to meet the demands of the trade of the Port, so far
as their financial resources permitted, these demands continued to grow at a constantly
increasing rate. Graving docks of larger and still larger sizes had to be
provided; increased shed accommodation had to be supplied; more quay space
for the storage of timber and similar commodities had to be found; and a
handsome swing-bridge across the harbour had to be built. This bridge, it
may be said, was for a considerable time the largest of its kind in this
country, the clear span being one hundred and twenty feet. All
these. and other extensions and improvements, were carried out from time
to time as the needs arose, and as circumstances allowed. And yet the
incessant call was for more, and still more.
About this time, also, a matter was taking place
elsewhere which had a bearing of some moment upon Leith ships and
shipping, both then and since—the construction and opening of the Suez
Canal. Among the more enterprising of the Leith shipowners of that day was
a Mr. Donald R. Macgregor, who later became Member of Parliament for the
Leith District of Burghs. Foreseeing that the new route to the East could
not fail to greatly affect the flow of commerce between Great Britain and
India, China, Japan, and our Australian Colonies, Mr. Macgregor set
himself, with characteristic vigour, to meet the new conditions in the Far
Eastern trades. With the aid of local capital, ships and men were provided
and connections formed which, for a considerable period, brought
profitable employment to both. Mr. Macgregor himself, it is true, was not
entirely successful financially, but up till the present day the relations
thus brought about between Leith and the East remain in part at least.
The growing trade, particularly with America, and the
still increasing tonnage of the vessels frequenting the Port, put pressure
upon the Dock Commission for further dock and quay accommodation, and led
to the making of the Edinburgh Dock. This necessitated, to begin with, the
building of a great seawall on the sands to the east of the then existing
dock works. Begun in 1874, this occupied some three years; and by it over
one hundred acres were reclaimed from the Firth of Forth. Within this area
the dock itself was made; the work being so
far completed by July 1881 as to permit of its being opened for traffic by
the Duke of Edinburgh.
A lapse of about a dozen
years served again to bring up the ever-recurring subject of additional
accommodation. The greatly extended trade with America was attracting to
Leith vessels of a size taxing to the utmost both the depth of water
available and the capacity of the sheds to accommodate the cargoes.
Parliamentary powers were therefore obtained for a new deep-water dock
upon the foreshore to the north-west of the Albert Dock. Being entered
from a point considerably farther down the harbour than any of the other
docks, it has a substantially greater depth of water, the gauge sometimes
registering at spring tides fully thirty-one and a half feet on its sill.
The Imperial Dock, as it was named, was opened in 1904. Equipped with
extensive sheds, hoists of exceptionally large size for shipping coals and
similar bulk cargoes without handling, powerful cranes for dealing with
heavy pieces of machinery and cargo, and with a most valuable adjunct in
the form of a very large dry dock, it very quickly proved a splendid
addition to the undertaking under the charge of the Commissioners.
For some time previous to
the outbreak of war in 1914 plans were in existence for a great extension
of the dock estate. These provide for the reclamation of a large portion
of the foreshore between Leith and Newhaven. This, it will be remembered,
was proposed by Rennie fully a century earlier, although in a somewhat
different form. On the ground so reclaimed it is contemplated to place
further dock accommodation; to supply greatly increased facilities for the
prosecution of the fishing industry; and to afford room for the storage of
wood and other commodities. The present conditions as regards two most
important factors, however, militate strongly against proceeding
immediately with this work. On the one hand the costs of construction
meantime stand at an unprecedented height. This would place an
exceptionally heavy burden for many years upon the resources of the
Commission if the undertaking were carried out while this continues. The
volume of traffic, on the other hand, has as yet shown only a partial
recovery from the great set-back experienced in several directions during
the war. This, again, while minimizing the need for increased
accommodation for the present, also reduces substantially the surplus
revenue at the disposal of the Commissioners for such purposes. It seems
probable, therefore, that some years must elapse before this projected
extension can become an accomplished fact.
The area of the existing
dock estate is 375 acres, of which 1044 acres are occupied by the docks
and harbour. There are six wet docks and eight dry docks, the length of
the quays of the former and the inner harbour measuring 24,020 feet. As
already stated, the recent war greatly interfered with not a few branches
of the shipping trade of Leith—quite a number of these, indeed, were
completely stopped, of which several have up till now given no indication
of an early resumption. The high-water mark of Leith’s shipping trade as
regards volume was reached in 1913. According to the statistics compiled
by the Leith Dock Commission, the imports amounted during the twelve
months to Whitsunday in that year to 1,564,991 tons, while the exports
reached 3,081,046 tons, a total inward and outward of 4,646,037 tons. The
quantities of the more important commodities were:-
Many of these classes of
goods, it will be seen, constitute the raw materials or the finished
products of not a few of our local industries.
The total revenue of the
Commissioners in the year in question amounted to £163,546, comprising
£40,082 upon ships, £76,606 upon goods, and £46,858 for charges for the
use of dry docks, sheds, rails, and other miscellaneous sources of income.
Owing, however, to the greatly enhanced rates which the very much higher
costs of working and maintenance necessitated, the revenue for the twelve
months ending Whitsunday 1921 reached the amount of £299,159, being about
£2,000 below that of the preceding year, which constituted a record in
the annals of the Port. The amount to May 15, 1921, represented £96,053
upon ships, £94,421 upon 958,489 tons of imports and 727,725 tons of
exports, and £108,685 of miscellaneous receipts.
From first to last the sums
expended upon the harbour arid docks and their equipment have exceeded
£3,500,000. The present value of the whole undertaking is put
considerably above that; while the debt remaining upon it at Whitsunday
1921 was £1,008,639.
Of the shipowning companies
and firms whose headquarters are at Leith the oldest is undoubtedly
Messrs. George Gibson and Company, Ltd., which was founded in 1797: indeed
it is recorded that as far back as 1758 a Mr. Mungo Campbell Gibson was
connected with the shipping trade of the Port, and it is believed that
this connection has continued unbroken from then till now. There has
recently been incorporated with the company the firm of Messrs. James
Rankine and Son, whose head office was in Glasgow, although their
principal shipping port was Grangemouth. The combined fleet numbers
seventeen steamers, by which an extensive business is conducted,
principally with the Dutch, Belgian, and northern French ports. These
trades lying directly within the scope of the naval operations in the
North Sea during the late war, it fell to the lot of quite a number of
their steamers to traverse during its course between one hundred and two
hundred times the zone most frequented by the enemy submarines. It is
therefore not a matter of surprise that ten of their vessels were sunk by
Picture taken about 1933. Front row in the middle: P.M.
[From 1927 till about 1934 my
grandfather, P.M. Verloove, has been manager of the branch office of
Gibson & Rankine's at Calandstraat 7, Rotterdam. The Chamber of Commerce
of Rotterdam has kept no files of this branch office, although it was
entered in the commercial register. So I would like to inquire at the
present-day company of Gibson & Rankine's, or their successors, if they
have kept some historical information about their former branch office
(for example letters written by my grandfather, staff lists). Moreover I
have a picture of my grandfather with his staff (above) and perhaps
visiting staff from Scotland. Perhaps they can help me to identify (some
of) the persons on the picture. If you know anything then email
The present head of the
company is Mr. Robert A. Somerville, who is assisted by his brother, Mr.
Hugh C. Somerville, and Messrs. John and David Macgill. In the year 1850
the firm of Messrs. Gibson put its first steamer; the Balmoral, into
the Leith and Rotterdam trade. Previous to that time it had been carried
on by sailing vessels of moderate size. The occasion of the first strike
of dock workers recorded at Leith, which took place in connection with a
steamer which Messrs. Gibson had built some years later, may be worthy of
mention. To facilitate the work of loading and discharging steam winches
had been provided; but on her being berthed at Leith the men refused to
make use of the gear, as it would "take the bread out of the
mouths" of several of them by reducing the time taken to do the work,
and perhaps also the number required.
It was stated in the
preceding chapter that the London and Edinburgh Shipping Company, Ltd.,
was established in 1809. These were the days of the famous smacks, which
were followed by the almost equally famous Aberdeen-built clippers. It was
one of this Company’s clippers, the Isabella, from Canton, that
brought into Leith the first cargo of tea which had ever been shipped to
any British port except London. This was in 1833, when the Charter of the
East India Company, which up to that time had the monopoly of the tea
trade with China and British India, came to an end and the trade became
free. The cargo, whose arrival excited the greatest interest in the Port,
was for Messrs. Andrew Melrose and Company, the well-known tea merchants,
who now own extensive warehouses in Leith.
A few years later, however,
the general introduction of steam navigation entirely put an end to the
service carried on by these very fine and splendidly commanded vessels,
and the introduction of a fleet of steamers for the trade between the
Thames and the Forth took place. During the war the company lost four of
its vessels, the fleet now numbering seven. The manager is M.r George C.
Duff, who joined it in 1907 as assistant manager, and was promoted to his
present position in 1916.
Although its foundation was
somewhat later, The Leith, Hull, and Hamburg Steam Packet Company, Ltd.,
has become possessed of numerically the largest local fleet. About the
year 1836 a few gentlemen combined to run steamers from Leith to Dundee
and to Hull. It is said that for a time their starting point was the now
defunct Chain Pier at Trinity, and that the Fife ports formed their
objective. One of the leading partners was Mr. Thomas Barclay, a brother
of the head of the great shipbuilding concern known latterly as Messrs.
Barclay, Curle and Company, Ltd., Glasgow. The venture prospered, the
fleet increased, and various new trades were in turn inaugurated. In 1862
the late Mr. James Currie joined the company as manager, his brother, the
late Sir Donald Currie, having become a partner some time before. Mr.
Currie died in 1900, and his elder son, Mr. James Currie, M.A., LL.D.,
J.P., was appointed to the vacant post. The management continues to be
conducted under the style of "James Currie and Company," Mr.
Currie’s brother, Mr. Alastair Currie, C.A., being associated with him
in the conduct of the company’s business.
When the war with Germany
broke out in 1914 its fleet numbered thirty-six steamers, besides about a
score of small vessels for local services. Among the ports with which it
carried on regular services were Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Hamburg,
Bremen, Christiansand, Copenhagen, Stettin, Danzig, Pillau, Königsberg,
and Libau, besides less frequent sailings to other Baltic ports, and to
those in the Mediterranean and North Africa. As the direct outcome of the
years of war the company lost eighteen of its steamers—sunk by
submarines or mines or seized by the enemy—besides two detained in
German ports on its outbreak, but returned after its conclusion; and three
other losses of which two were indirectly occasioned by the war. Besides
its other services it carries on a long-established trade between
Liverpool and Manchester on this side and Hamburg and Bremen on the other.
Its fleet at present numbers twenty-one.
Of considerably more recent
date than those already mentioned, the firm of Messrs. William Thomson and
Company owns a fleet of twenty steamers—the well-known "Ben"
line—which by reason of their large size give at present a greater total
tonnage than that of any other Leith concern. These are mostly engaged in
the Far Eastern trade, their principal port for loading and discharging in
this country being London. They are, however, not infrequent visitors to
Leith, their home port. The principal managing owners are Mr. William
Thomson and Sir James Wishart Thomson. The manifold public services of the
latter gentleman, both at home and in the East in the course of the war,
during which his company lost five large vessels, earned for him the
well-merited title of K.B.E.
The firm of Messrs. Chr.
Salvesen and Company, with a fleet at present of eleven steamers, carries
on an extensive general trade, largely with Mediterranean ports. It has
also a numerous fleet of other vessels engaged in the interesting industry
of whale fishing at South Georgia, in the far south of the Atlantic Ocean.
Eight of their steamers were lost during the war. The three partners in
the firm are Messrs. J. T. Salvesen, F. G. Salvesen, J.P., and T. E.
Salvesen, J.P., the first-named gentleman being Norwegian Consul and the
last named French Consular Agent and Vice-consul for Finland.
Undoubtedly the largest
proportionate loss of tonnage arising out of the war was sustained by
Messrs. James Cormack and Company. Their pre-war fleet numbered eleven,
and of these the war deprived them of ten. Their trade was mainly
conducted with Russian ports—Riga and Archangel, chiefly—and this is
one of those which up till now have shown no signs of an early revival.
The head of the firm is Mr. James Cormack, J.P., who is assisted in its
management by his two sons, Messrs. James Cormack, Jun., and A. C. Cormack.
The other local shipping
companies and firms include Messrs. Thomas C. Steven and Company; the New
Line, Ltd., managed by Sir Richard Mackie’s firm of Messrs. Richard
Mackie and Company; and Messrs. A. F. Henry and Macgregor, Ltd., all of
whose vessels are employed in the general European and coasting business.
Besides those already
named, a number of others carry on very extensive shipping trades with
Leith, although their headquarters are located elsewhere. Among the more
important of these are the North of Scotland and Orkney and Shetland Steam
Navigation Company, Ltd., whose designation amply indicates the sphere of
its operations; Messrs. Furness, Withy, and Company, Ltd., by which a very
extensive American trade is conducted, as well as others with Danish ports
and with Iceland; the Coast Lines, Ltd., whose steamers call at the
various ports between Leith and Liverpool, besides at one or two on the
north-east coast of England; the General Steam Navigation Company, Ltd.,
conducting a regular service with London; the Antrim Iron Ore Company,
Ltd., whose vessels trade regularly between Belfast and the north of
England, calling at Leith and the Shipping and Coal Company, Ltd., which
carries on a line with Amsterdam.
From what has been already
said, it may be gathered that the services rendered to the nation by the
shipping community of Leith during the Great War were, in proportion to
its resources, surpassed by none, if equalled by any other. The shipowners
and their men vied with each other in their willingness, even their
anxiety, to respond to their country’s call. However heavy the toll
taken by the enemy submarines upon his own or his neighbours’ vessels,
no shipowner hesitated for a moment to place his ships at the disposal of
the Government. However serious the risk to life and limb, no vessel was
ever detained for one hour by hesitation on the part of the crew to embark
on the most perilous of voyages. In two or three cases the owners of fine
steamers and of handsome yachts placed these for lengthened periods at the
disposal of the authorities free of all charge. Men who had undergone
shipwreck by mine or torpedo, sometimes more than once or twice, and whose
shipmates in many instances had perished before their eyes, were found as
ready to "sign on" again for further service as before their
first experience of this nature.
The fifty-five vessels of
the eight shipping concerns already referred to as having been sunk or
otherwise lost through the war by no means exhaust the list of those
belonging to Leith whose end came about in this way. Practically one half
of the tonnage of the Port was thus destroyed. But the men who, knowing
the dangers and daring all, went forth on their hazardous enterprises that
Britain might be served and saved—went forth, but returned no more—these
men, good and true, heroes all, Leith holds in everlasting remembrance
their name endureth for ever. And of the others who, going about their
peaceful business in great waters, met and fought and overcame their
country’s foes as gallantly as did their progenitors of earlier
centuries - shall not a word also be set down to record their deeds?
One such vessel, the Coblenz,
commanded by Captain Henry G. Speed, on a homeward voyage from Italian
ports, encountering an enemy submarine, was subjected to a lengthy attack.
Armed with a small-calibre gun for purposes of defence, the master
mustered his men, made his dispositions, and replied with such spirit and
effect that after a two hours’ combat the enemy was fain to submerge and
escape from the deadly counterattack of the brave men from Leith. But for
the fortunate circumstance that an enemy shell which lodged in the
coal-bunker failed to explode, probably not one of the passengers or crew
would have been left to tell the tale. While the ship suffered severely
from the battering to which she was subjected, the gallant men aboard of
her did not get off scot-free. One passenger was so badly wounded that he
succumbed and died in two or three days, while a member of the crew had
his leg shattered, and, there being no doctor aboard, the captain, after
driving off the enemy, had to get out his surgical instruments and
amputate the damaged limb. Of such stuff are Leith’s seafarers still
made—worthy sons of their gallant sires, some of whose exploits have
already been recounted in these pages.