“Pioneers of the General Cargo Trade from Swansea”:
Burgess & Co., shipowners and agents at Swansea for 150 years.
West Country roots
Like many of the major shipping companies established in the ports of south Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Burgess & Co. had its origins in the West Country; the two families who would play a crucial role in the company’s later history both came from north Devon. Though born in Llanelli in 1791, William Burgess’s family roots were in Coombe Martin, where the Burgesses had been stone masons and builders. The Shaddick family hailed from Northam, near Bideford; William Shaddick, probably born in the late 1780s, was a shipwright by trade who found employment in the naval dockyard at Pembroke Dock, from which ships were first launched in 1816. William Burgess’s eldest son, James Edwards Burgess, was born in Llanelli in 1823, but was educated at Swansea.
1.) James Edwards Burgess, 1823-1889, founder of the company.
This photograph was taken in a studio at Barnstaple,
perhaps at the same time as the launch of one of the Westacott-built ships?
(Mr Bill Burgess)
Having completed his education he was indentured as an apprentice to a Swansea ironmonger by the name of John Beynon, but disliked the trade intensely, eventually leaving to join Richardson & Francis of Swansea, who were shipwrights operating from their ‘Patent Slip’ on the east bank of the River Tawe at the time. This was his first experience of maritime business; he became the company’s accountant and was soon thoroughly conversant with all aspects of the town’s growing maritime economy.
His interest in maritime affairs was reinforced in 1843 through his marriage to Mary Frances Baker. She too was of West Country origins; her father was a Barnstaple corn merchant and miller who had extended his business to Swansea, where he had established a bakery and provision warehouse in College St. Following his marriage, the new bridegroom joined his father-in-law in business and in 1847 they established a mechanised bakery at the bottom of Welcome Lane off the Strand for the manufacture of ships’ biscuits, the unappetizing ‘hard tack’ which went into so many very basic sailors’ meals in that pre-refrigeration age. Interestingly, these biscuits would later provide the inspiration for the company’s houseflag – a light yellow circle upon a red background.
From baker to shipowner
The business prospered and Burgess soon found himself with surplus funds for which he sought a profitable field of investment. From the early 1850s onwards he took interests in timber cargoes imported from Canada for ship repairs at Richardson’s ‘Patent Slip’ and in 1862 he took the major decision to extend his interests to shipowning, with the acquisition of a substantial shareholding in the 111 gross ton wooden schooner Sarah Fox, built at Bideford eight years previously. At the same time - further maintaining West Country connections, probably via his father-in-law - he ordered a new ship from the yard of William Westacott & Co. of Barnstaple, in business on the banks of the River Taw in the town since the latter years of the eighteenth century. She was to be a considerably larger vessel, a wooden barque of 299 gross tons; given the name Patagonia, she was intended for the copper ore trade from Chile, a trade that had become synonymous with the port of Swansea.
By the early 1860s, the port of Swansea had at last undergone considerable development after decades of inaction on the part of the Harbour Trustees. As the size of ships using the port had grown (deep-sea ships importing copper ore from Cuba and Chile had replaced the little sailing coasters which had once brought ore from Amlwch on Anglesey and numerous Cornish ports), they were no longer able to sail up the Tawe to discharge their cargoes directly onto the various copper works’ quays. Floating docks (i.e. docks in which ships remained afloat, regardless of the tide) were needed, and in 1851 the North Dock was opened, utilising the former course of the Tawe on the eastern side of the town; this was followed in 1859 by the South Dock (today’s Marina), built on ‘the Burrows’, the sand dunes south of the town. The South Dock became the main coal-exporting facility, whilst the North Dock, with its iron-plated quays, was the point of import for the valuable copper ore. In 1864 the annual trade of the port exceeded 1.5m tons for the first time.
Throughout the 1860s, Burgess placed further orders for successively larger wooden barques with Westacott’s yard in Barnstaple; the 377 gross ton Admiral Fitzroy was delivered in 1864, followed by the 387 gross ton Lieutenant Maury in 1865, the 410 gross ton Professor Airy in 1866 and the 500 gross ton Red Cross Knight in 1868. Like the Patagonia, these vessels were all intended for the Chilean copper ore trade. On 28 July 1864 the North Devon Journal carried the following fascinating account - written moreover in florid Victorian prose! - of the launch of the Admiral Fitzroy.
“BARNSTAPLE – on Thursday evening last a vast concourse of spectators assembled on the quays, wharves, banks and bridges commanding a view of the river to witness the launch of a splendid clipper barque from the yard of our esteemed townsman, Mr William Westacott…the weather was beautiful, a gentle westerly wind causing a slight ripple on the broad expanse of water and a very high tide materially aided the operations. At the appointed moment she went off the stocks into her intended element in right gallant style, receiving at that moment the name of Admiral Fitzroy (after the great meteorologist) from Miss Burgess of Swansea, who officiated as ‘priestess’ on the occasion…[the vessel] is planked inside and out with East Indian teak and greenheart, and is fitted-out with trunks and platforms expressly for the copper ore trade…the Admiral Fitzroy has been built for a Swansea firm and Mr JE Burgess is managing owner. She is considered the finest vessel ever launched from the above yard and her model and workmanship are of great credit to Mr Westacott’s skills as a shipbuilder. The barque now lies at the Great Quay and, contrasted with the usual traders to the port, is as a leviathan amongst minnows. She is rapidly being completed, with cabins for the accommodation of passengers…she will leave for Swansea about the middle of next month.”
At the same time, James Burgess was also willing to snap up smaller vessels similar in size to the Sarah Fox when appropriate opportunities presented themselves, so creating a flexible fleet comprising vessels suited to different trades. Amongst these acquisitions were the Cardigan-built brigantine Farmer’s Lass in 1865 and the Swansea-built brigantine Pitho in 1868. The creation of a significant new fleet such as this could not be achieved without additional financial assistance, and the statutory shipping registers of the port of Swansea reveal that Burgess turned mainly to a tight circle of some eight to twelve fellow-businessmen in Swansea - butchers, chandlers, drapers and jewellers – to purchase parcels of the traditional 64th shares in his new ships. He was the manager and largest (though not the majority) shareholder in each ship and it is interesting to note that whilst he described himself as a ‘baker’ in the shareholders’ list of the Patagonia, he described himself more fittingly thereafter as a ‘shipowner’!
The connection with the Shaddick family became significant in the later 1860s when William Shaddick’s grandson George, born in 1841, came to James Burgess’s attention. The family had moved to Swansea and George Shaddick was a coal merchant’s clerk in the town, but he was also a talented self-taught linguist, fluent in French and Spanish; these were talents which would be most useful in an expanding shipping company. He was invited to join the company and in March 1867, looking to the future, Burgess created a new partnership comprising himself, his son James Henry and George Shaddick, under the title of Burgess & Shaddick, shipowners, shipbrokers and agents. And to add a romantic overlay to a commercial association, George Shaddick successfully wooed James Burgess’s daughter Anne, eventually marrying her in 1869!
A fine fleet of ships
Whilst the copper ore trade remained buoyant, the shipowning side of the business continued to expand; between 1867 and 1877 Burgess & Shaddick built, or purchased, a total of twenty-three ships. Just one further wooden vessel came from Westacott’s Barnstaple yard, and their first iron sailing ship was the Maxima, a 499 gross ton barque acquired from London owners in 1872. They were also early - if short-lived - exponents of steam propulsion, taking delivery of the 412 gross ton steamship Olaveaga, built by Bartram & Haswell of Sunderland, in the same year. A close study of the pattern of ownership of the sailing ships reveals that many of them were owned for relatively short periods of a few years only, with just a few being owned for longer periods. Of these, the wooden barque Standard Bearer of 1871 – the last vessel ordered by the company from Westacott’s yard - was famous for her record passage to and from Chile in 1872: seventy-one days out to Valparaiso, seventy days homeward to Queenstown, Ireland (today’s Cobh). Another well-known vessel was the iron barque Illimani, ordered in 1874 from Dobie & Co. of Govan and delivered the following year.
2.) ‘Illimani off the Mumbles’ by Alexander K Branden .
This iron barque was built on the Clyde for Burgess & Co. in 1875; note the Burgess houseflag flying from the foremast and the Swansea pilot schooner on the right.
(Mr Bill Burgess)
Caught in a tsunami whilst loading at an offshore anchorage at Iquique, Chile, in 1876, she was badly damaged in collisions with other ships at anchor at the time, but having undergone temporary repairs, she was sailed home without incident before being fully repaired at Swansea upon her return. She would serve the company for a further thirteen years. Typically, Burgess’s ships carried masters and officers from north Devon, the Gower and south-west Wales, with the seamen being drawn from a far wider international pool in which Scandinavians were often prominent.
The growing cost of new ships – especially those built of iron rather than wood – meant that potential investors could be discouraged by the high cost of 64th shares, and in an attempt to overcome this problem, in 1873 Burgess & Shaddick floated a joint-stock limited liability company, the Swansea Shipping Company Ltd., with a capital of £250,000 divided into 25,000 £10 shares. Shortly afterwards a competing company, the Swansea Merchant Shipowners’ Company Ltd was set up, chiefly by members of the Bath family who had long been prominent in Swansea copper smelting and shipping circles. In 1877, five Burgess & Shaddick ships were registered under the Swansea Shipping Co. Ltd., with the remaining nine directly owned by the parent company.
Growing agency business
Apart from the shipowning side of the business, the company (re-organised and re-named simply Burgess & Co. in 1877-78) was also undertaking an increasing amount of agency work at Swansea, representing colliery companies in the area and chartering ships to carry coal to destinations other than Chile, especially in France, Portugal and Spain, where George Shaddick’s linguistic skills doubtless proved most useful. It seems likely too that the Olaveaga was employed in these trades. A further boost to the company’s agency work came in the wake of changes to Swansea’s industrial base as the tinplate industry expanded in the area from the 1860s onwards.
3.) Packs of tinplate awaiting export in a warehouse alongside the Prince of Wales Dock in the 1890s.
(Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales)
There was a growing world-wide demand for tinplate for a number of uses, ranging from food canning to building material, and initially the product was shipped from Swansea up to Liverpool in coastal vessels, where it was transhipped on to ocean-going cargo liners. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, however, Burgess & Co. succeeded in attracting a number of cargo liner companies to make Swansea a port of call; amongst the earliest to start using the port were Houlder Brothers, then settling into what would become their main trading route to River Plate ports, and the newly-established Bristol City Line, trading to Boston and New York. Such companies were given further encouragement to call at Swansea with the completion of the commodious East (later the Prince of Wales) Dock on the eastern side of the Tawe in 1881.
The expansion of the tinplate industry in the Swansea area in the later nineteenth century coincided with the contraction of the copper industry; countries like Chile, which had once simply exported copper ore, now undertook the smelting and refining processes themselves and began exporting finished copper ingots instead. This meant that the era of the port’s traditional sailing ship trade to Chile went into a long slow decline; the last of the forty-nine ships that had flown the Burgess houseflag, the iron barque Camana, was sold in 1896 and the Swansea Shipping Co. Ltd. was wound-up two years later.
4.) The directors and office staff of Burgess & Co. in 1890.
(Mr Bill Burgess)
But if Burgess & Co. were no longer shipowners, the agency side of their business continued to expand; it became their proud boast on advertisements that they were the “Pioneers of the General Cargo Trade from Swansea”. In 1898 a London office was opened and in that year too they made a significant addition to their business when the ships of Alfred Holt & Co. of Liverpool – the famous ‘Blue Funnel Line’, running from the UK out to the Far East – started to call at Swansea, with Burgess as their agents.
5.) The first ‘Blue Funnel’ vessel to call at Swansea was the Glaucus, in June 1898.
A crowd of stevedores and trimmers made sure that they too were a part of the record of this notable occasion!
(Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales)
The Glaucus was their first vessel to call in June that year, and Holt’s handsome cargo liners with their distinctive light blue funnels would be part of the Swansea docks scene for some eighty years thereafter. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the following major cargo liner companies represented by Burgess & Co. had vessels calling regularly at Swansea:-
|Anchor Line, Glasgow||India|
|Bristol City Line, Bristol||Boston & New York|
|Bugsier Line, Hamburg||Hamburg, Bremen & Baltic Sea |
|Elder Dempster Line, Liverpool||West Africa|
|Ellerman’s City Line, Glasgow||India|
|Ellerman Lines, Liverpool||Mediterranean & Black Sea |
|T & J Harrison, Liverpool||West Indies, east Africa & India |
|Alfred Holt & Co., Liverpool||Far East|
|Houlder Brothers, London||River Plate|
|J & P Hutchison, Glasgow (later Moss, Hutchison, Liverpool) ||France & Iberian Peninsula|
|Johnston Line, Liverpool||Greece, Turkey & Black Sea|
|Palgrave, Murphy & Co., Dublin||Irish & near-Continental ports|
‘Liquid gold’ comes to Swansea
The First World War was a difficult period for all shipping and Burgess & Co. went through lean times during those years as a result of the huge disruption caused to most cargo liner services during hostilities. Business gradually began to pick up thereafter, and despite the depressed conditions that characterised much of the inter-war period in south Wales as a result of the contraction in the steam coal trade, Swansea’s anthracite exports and general cargo trade remained quite buoyant; in 1929, Burgess & Co. handled a record amount of general cargo a little in excess of 300,000 tons.
Swansea docks underwent further development in the early twentieth century. The extensive King’s Dock, handling both coal and general cargo, was opened in 1909 and in 1920 the still larger Queen’s Dock, to the south of the King’s was opened; it was adapted to serve the new oil refinery then under construction at nearby Llandarcy by the Anglo-Persian Oil Co. Ltd. The refinery started production in 1922 and the thirty-nine newly-built oil tankers of Anglo-Persian’s shipping arm, the British Tanker Co. Ltd., were soon a regular sight at Swansea, importing cargoes of oil from the Middle East.
6.) Oil tankers belonging to the British Tanker Company discharging in the Queen’s Dock at Swansea in the early 1930s.
(Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales)
Initially, the British Tanker fleet had their own staff operating at Swansea, but in 1934 the company decided to close this office and an agreement was reached whereby Burgess & Co. took over the agency. This was a huge boost to the Burgess business, and tanker agency would remain at the heart of the company’s operations until the firm’s eventual demise.
The Second World War too caused massive disruption to the port’s business, but in the years leading up to the Normandy invasion of June 1944, Burgess & Co. were appointed local representatives of London shipbrokers Hogg, Robinson & Co., principal shipping agents to the Ministry of War Transport. As Swansea was an ‘American embarkation port’, the amount of work involved in the preparations for the invasion was huge and it was an exceptionally busy period for the company. The years immediately following the war were also difficult, as many of the shipping companies represented at Swansea by Burgess & Co. had lost considerable tonnage during the war and could not immediately restore their former services as they awaited new vessels. Industries ashore were also undergoing considerable upheaval. The nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947 meant that the agencies of individual colliery companies were lost, whilst smaller steel and tinplate works began to be consolidated into larger units, such as the newly-established Steel Company of Wales (1947), which concentrated its expansion at its new works at Felindre, Margam and Trostre. But as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s and 1960s, it became clear that the economy was burgeoning.
7.) A 1960 advertisement for Burgess & Co., listing the numerous cargo liner and tanker owners represented by the company at Swansea and elsewhere in south Wales.
(Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales)
The demand for oil grew as road transport assumed greater significance, and additional specialist tanker business was generated with the opening of BP’s petro-chemical plant at Baglan in 1961. It was also an expansive era for all manner of UK exports, which in turn boosted the general cargo business; Burgess & Co.’s business prospered throughout the period in these favourable circumstances.
Despite these buoyant years however, by the early 1960s the economic trends that were eventually to lead to the demise of Burgess & Co. were beginning to make themselves manifest. In response to the economies of scale that could be achieved by transporting crude oil in ever-larger tankers, in 1960 British Petroleum (‘BP’, the 1954 ‘re-branding’ of the Anglo-Persian company) opened a terminal at Angle Bay on Milford Haven from which oil was piped sixty-two miles overland to Llandarcy refinery. This led to the end of crude oil imports into Swansea, and in order to maintain its BP business, Burgess & Co. opened an office near Angle on Milford Haven. Llandarcy continued its output of a wide range of petroleum products which were in part exported from Swansea, and the company subsequently secured the agencies for many of the specialist tanker companies engaged in this trade, such as the major Norwegian company, Stolt Tankers.
There were also significant developments in the general cargo trades which would impact upon Burgess’s business at Swansea. The concentration of steel and tinplate production at larger works, manufacturing huge coils of strip products, meant that there were no longer smaller consignments of tinplate or steel being brought to Swansea docks for export. Thus the days of the general cargo liner calling at numerous ports to pick up small parcels of cargo were numbered, especially as containerisation developed apace from the 1960s onwards. Many of the famous names of the UK shipping industry, for whom Burgess had been agents for decades, gradually faded from the scene in the 1970s and 1980s; the last call by a ‘Blue Funnel’ ship at Swansea was in 1978, thus ending an significant link between the two companies.
In 1985 BP announced its intention to cease oil refining at Llandarcy, concentrating instead on the production of lubricants, bitumen, and other specialist products on the site. The pipeline from Angle Bay to the refinery became defunct and in its place, a tanker shuttle service was initiated between Angle and Swansea to maintain supplies to the remaining production processes.
8.) The products tanker Stolt Kestrel in the Queen’s Dock, Swansea, on 9 May, 1996.
(Mr Dennis Shaddick)
Although this boosted tanker traffic into Swansea in the short term, the long term prospects were far from bright. In 1993 Philip Shaddick, one of James Edwards Burgess’s great-great-grandchildren, retired from the business and three years later, another great-great grandchild of the founder, William Burgess, decided to merge the business with that of OBC Shipping Ltd., a company with an extensive tanker agency business, based chiefly at Hartlepool and Grangemouth. The merged company was known as OBC Burgess Ltd. Then in 1998, after a lengthy run-down period, the remaining plant at Llandarcy finally closed, with the Baglan petro-chemical plant due to close six years later after a similar gradual run-down.
9.) The liquefied gas tanker Happy Girl discharging ethylene from Fawley refinery at the Baglan petrochemical plant terminal on the River Neath on 8 June, 2001. Shipping from this terminal ceased eight months later.
(Mr Dennis Shaddick)
These were severe blows to the remaining tanker business in the Swansea area; the offices in Queens Building, built for the company in 1890, finally closed in 2000 and the company then moved to a new office on Swansea docks before ceasing to trade with the final closure of the Baglan plant in 2004.
From very ordinary origins in late eighteenth century north Devon, the Burgess and Shaddick families rose to prominence as shipowners in Swansea’s copper ore trade in the nineteenth century. With the decline of that industry, rather than withdraw from shipping entirely, they repeatedly re-directed their resources, firstly to coal and general cargo agency and latterly to tanker agency, continually responding to the changing trades of the port of Swansea over the years. It was only with the decline of those trades in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that the directors of this notable company, independent for most of its existence, decided that it was prudent to withdraw from the fascinating business that is shipping, a business that had occupied them for almost a hundred and fifty years.
Dr David Jenkins,
National Waterfront Museum,
Documentary material relating to the history of the Burgess and Shaddick families, and the company, from family and various local sources, in the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales.
North Devon Record Office, Barnstaple – North Devon Journal.
West Glamorgan Record Office, Swansea – statutory shipping registers of the port of Swansea; Swansea crew lists.
Anon., South Wales Ports, 1960 (Cardiff: British Transport Commission, 1960)
Falkus, Malcolm, The Blue Funnel Legend – a history of the Ocean Steamship Company, 1865-1973 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990).
Farr, Grahame, Shipbuilding in North Devon (Greenwich: The National Maritime Museum, 2nd ed., 1980).
Griffiths, Vivian J, Llandarcy remembered (Neath: Bryngold Books, 2007)
Harvey, WJ & RJ Solly, BP Tankers – a group fleet history (London: Chatham Publishing, 1988).
Jones, William Henry, History of the Port of Swansea (Carmarthen: W Spurrell & Son, 1922).
Talbot-Booth, EC, Merchant Ships 1942 (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1942)
Thomas, Norman Lewis, The Story of Swansea’s Districts & Villages, Parts 1-3 (Neath: The Guardian Press, 1969).
I wish to thank Mr Bill Burgess for suggesting that I undertake the research and writing of this short history, and for his subsequent help and encouragement. I also wish to thank Dr Roy Fenton, Mr ‘Pip’ George, Dr Richard Haines, Mr Louis Loughran, Mr Robert Protheroe Jones, Mr Dennis Shaddick, Mr Philip Shaddick and the staffs of the North Devon Record Office and the West Glamorgan Record Office for their kind assistance.