William Milburn was born at Ashington
in 1826 and by 1849, at the age of only 23, was part owner
of the schooner John Twizel. Three years later he was operating
the barques Halicore, Pero and Walton in coal trade out of
Newbiggin and Blyth in the North East of England. His activities
were mainly coastal to other British ports and one of his
customers was the Gas, Light & Coke Company which had
been founded in 1812 by Royal Charter and based in London.
As a point of interest, at that time a gas burner consuming
five cubic ft/0.14 cubic metres per hour had to produce a
light equal to 12 candles - hence the term candle power.
In 1856 he extended his operations to deep sea voyages out
of the North East of England gradually introducing the larger
sailing ships Eastern Queen and Equinox on a service to the
West Indies and the Hindoostan to India and China where she
loaded her inbound tea cargoes. He met up Edmund H. Watts
in 1857 and founded the firm of Watts, Milburn & Co. of
Newcastle with Watts as the senior partner. The new company
expanded its operations to include voyages to the Black Sea
calling at ports such as Odessa in the Ukraine and Trabzon
in Turkey and topping up at Constantinople (Istanbul) for
the homeward voyage. Being under sail only the ships had to
be towed by a steam tug through the Bosphorus from the Sea
of Marmara to the Black Sea.
In 1867 Watts, Milburn &
Co. ordered four clipper-stemmed, barque rigged steamships
for deployment on the China tea run. Being faster than sail
steamships were able to bring home the first crops and attract
prime market prices and this together with the opening of
the Suez canal in 1869 when the Suez Canal brought about the
final demise of the tea clipper. The ships, delivered on a
semi-annual basis, were the Canton, the Hong Kong, the Nankin
and the Singapore and with their arrival London gradually
became the main port with cargoes being handled by loading
agents but supervised by one of the partners right up to the
point of sailing. As the tea trade was seasonal the need for
out of season cargoes saw the ships extending their operations
as far as Australia and New Zealand.
The composite tea clipper Taunton was delivered in 1868 and
when the Suez Canal opened in November 1869 the Watts, Milburn
steamship Otterburn was one of the first ships to complete
the southbound transit during a voyage from the UK to Calcutta.
In the same year William Milburn formed the Hamburg-Brasilianische
D.G in partnership with August Bolten of Hamburg. Destined
to become one of the world's foremost shipping ogranisations
the first three steamships were supplied by Milburn with the
Criterion making the company's first sailing on 15th June
During the following year the 'lovely Lutterworth', William
Milburn's last sailing ship, joined the fleet. In 1871 the
Hamburg venture formed the Hamburg-Sud Amerikanischen Dampschiffarts
Gesellschaft - the Hamburg-South America Line- in which Milburn
had 225 shares. By 1914 the Hamburg-South America Line was
the largest operator in the south Atlantic.
In 1872 Edmund Watts formed
a new concern, Watts, Ward & Co. for the purpose of becoming
colliery owners and eventually built up an independent fleet
of 22 steamships.
Three large steamships were
built in 1874 which despite there names, Whampoa, St Osyth
and Hankow, signified a determined entry into the Australian
market with regular sailings from London to Australia via
Cape Town which were completed in 42 days. The first sailing
by the St. Osyth on the 31st October to Melbourne was on charter
to Anderson, Anderson & Co. with a cargo for the Orient
Line of Packets. After that the three ships were chartered
to John Flint's Colonial Line for triangular voyages, the
first sailing being made by the Whampoa on 24th December 1874.
The ships would carry a general cargo on the outward leg to
Australia then proceed to China in ballast where they would
load tea for the homeward run. This arrangement lasted for
almost six years and, in effect, the Watts, Milburn vessels
were established on the Australian run some years before Milburn
introduced vessels in his own right.
In 1877 Watts, Milburn began to sell off their ships and in
1879 the partnership split into two. William Milburn opened
his own registered office in London placing his two sons,
William Milburn junior and Charles in charge and a further
son John, later to become Sir John, was given the task of
running the Newcastle office. With the proceeds of ship sails
both William Milburn and Edmund Watts started new careers;
Milburn forming a new company Wm. Milburn & Co.
The first ship to be built for the new company was the Conniston
in 1880 followed by the Ascalon in 1882 which was the first
of a class of ten vessels similar in size and appearance.
In 1883 William Milburn
formed the Anglo-Australasian Steam Navigation Company with
the intention of operating direct services to Australia from
London via Antwerp. New ships were ordered for the service
but while they were being built Milburn used his existing
ships to open up the route, the first voyage being undertaken
by the Chollerton which sailed on 30th April 1883. The first
new ship delivered to the company was the Port Jackson and
with her the 'Port' nomenclature was initiated. This nomenclature
was further endorsed when the second ship, the Port Phillip,
joined the fleet in the October of 1883. When the Haverton
sailed on 31st January 1884 the service became twice monthly
and passengers were carried in the saloon and 'tween decks.