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.
The Dumbarton Youth.
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
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
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
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.