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In a simply worded circular published on 16th January, 1866, Alfred Holt stated his intent to set up a shipping company. 'I beg to inform you that I am about to establish a line of Screw Steamers from Liverpool to China...The first vessel will be the Agamemnon, now nearly ready for sea, and intended to sail about the 20th of March. They exact day of sailing will be advertised when I obtain delivery from the builders, but I expect it will not be far from this date... The Agamemnon will be followed by the Ajax and Achilles, similar vessels. The service I propose these vessels to perform is somewhat as follows'. The circular, which had been published at No1 India Buildings, Liverpool, went on to show details of a non-stop run to Mauritius then on to Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai with a call at Foochow to pick up a cargo of tea on the return voyage.

The circular continued, 'All the steamers have been built on the Clyde; they are full of power, and they will steam the whole passage, both out and home... Though principally intended for Cargo each vessel has accommodation for 40 Cabin Passengers..... My hope is to establish a reliable line of Steamers which will carry cargo at moderate rates of freight, both safely and at tolerable speed. I shall be glad to give any further information. Yours respectfully, Alfred Holt.' The simple circular signalled the birth of Alfred Holt & Company and the Blue Funnel Line although Alfred Holt had registered the Ocean Steamship Company a year earlier, on 11th January,1865.

It is believed that Alfred and Phillip Holt conceived the founding of the Ocean Steamship Company in the garden of their father's Liverpool home. They saw it as the greatest adventure of their lives and, because Homer's Odyssey was for them the finest adventure story ever written, they gave Homeric names to all their ships. The Holt brothers were courageous technical innovators and , despite the initial lure of China, had a vision to embrace the whole of the Far East.

alfred holt
Alfred Holt

dumbarton youth
The Dumbarton Youth.
philip holt
Philip Holt

The Holts are a pretty numerous tribe in the large parish of Rochdale in Lancashire', so wrote, for the benefit of an inquisitive posterity, George Holt, the father of Alfred, and the founder of the modest fortunes of the Holt family. During the eighteenth century one can imagine them strung out along the steep valleys of the Pennine ridge, wresting a penurious livelihood as small tradesmen or artisans in the industries which were beginning to grow there; in religion militant dissenters; in politics Cromwellian republicans, natural enemies of the prevailing aristocratic system in Church and State.
From this somewhat Spartan community, George, with his father's present of one guinea in his pocket, set out on foot in October 1807 to seek his fortune in Liverpool. George Holt's life was a classic example of success through self-help. After completing an apprenticeship with a cotton broking firm he was taken into partnership and, soon after, secured his position in life with a happy and advantageous marriage. A typical son of the Industrial Revolution.

Consequently, he was able to give his children a sound, but not brilliant, education in local schools, where, he encouraged them to follow their bent. Alfred's interests were in engineering. The fascinating developments of the steam engine, then being evolved, led him from a railway apprenticeship to ship owning. It was this, and no maritime tradition, which gave birth to the Ocean Steamship Company. But Alfred was not only a gifted technician but a man of restless energy, great intellectual curiosity with considerable powers of leadership. He has recorded a good deal about himself and was evidently possessed with a remarkable personality. He was also clearly a good man, who, for all his pugnacity and quick temper, dealt in justice and kindliness. His character set its seal upon the Ocean Steamship Company, of which the marks were born until the end of the company, which had grown beyond any of his dreams, and are still proudly displayed by the men and women who crewed his vessels and are now forever joined by the Blue Funnel Association.


The Agamemnon in 1866

The Deucalion in 1872

The Priam in 1870

Less is known about Philip, the brother whom Alfred took into partnership. He had a gentleness which Alfred lacked and and became benign and humorous in old age. There is a tradition of his sometimes having to take over handling of the staff from an angry and impatient Alfred. In general his outlook seems to have been more flexible than his brother's; it was he, for instance, who persuaded Alfred to give the Conference system a try, though they were both ideologically opposed to it.. But Philip was much more than a conciliator; sometimes he was called upon to play a decisive part in shaping company policy and organisation. He died childless, and through his Will enabled his holding in the Ocean Steamship Company to be converted into a charitable foundation, now known as the 'PHH Trusts'.
In 1866, however, the cheaper, faster and more reliable sailing ships dominated the shipping routes, although steamships were coming into regular usage. And the China trade was no exception; the clippers reigned supreme and had yet to reach their peak. The two most famous clippers, the Cutty Sark and the Thermopylae, romanticised in poem, prose and picture, would not sail on their maiden voyages for another year. In the year that Alfred Holt challenged the supremacy of the sailing clipper, the Ariel broke the record for the London to Hong Kong passage with a time of 79 days 21 hours, overcoming a north-east monsoon on the way.

Alfred Holt was confident that the passage to Shanghai could completed in 76 days but other Liverpool shipowners did not share his optimism. According to Alfred in his biography, one Liverpool shipowner was quoted as saying, 'steamers may occupy the Mediterranean, may tentatively go to Brazil and the River Plate, but China at least is safe for the sailing ships.'

As a qualified mechanical and civil engineer the austere and practical Alfred had no romantic feelings for the clippers nor did he have much faith in the future of sail. He was an engineer and had an unshakeable belief in steam propulsion. For a short time, during a trade recession, he worked in the offices of Lamport & Holt (George Holt II, Alfred's elder brother) as a shipping clerk. He eventually became their shipping consultant and learned a great deal about shipowning and management. This gave him the background knowledge which enabled him to set up his own business as a consulting engineer with an office at India Buildings, built by his father George in 1834.

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