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Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, one of the largest shipping companies in the world, started life as a shipping agency business run by two young men, Brodie Willcox and Arthur Anderson, shortly after the Napoleonic which ended with Wellington's victory at Waterloo in 1815.

Little is known about Brodie McGhie Willcox apart from the fact that he was a dour shipbroker. Arthur Anderson's life story, on the other hand, was a classic example achievement through self-help. Like many Victorians he was energetic and full of entrepreneurial enterprise, recognising business potential and exploiting it. Born in poverty on the Shetland Isles he used his talents to create what was to become one of the world's largest and best known companies and to be elected as a respected member of the House of Commons.

Anderson served as a Royal Navy clerk during the Napoleonic Wars and came ashore in 1815, penniless, but was fortunate to meet up with Willcox who had just started his own business. By 1822 the two men had become partners and later, in 1826, the pair became the London agents for the City of Dublin Steam Packet Co., one of the first successful coastal steamship companies, and started a steamship service to Portugal.

Because of the nature of their trade to Portugal and Spain it was inevitable that they would soon become embroiled in the tangled, and often violent, politics of the Iberian peninsular. In the first instance the Portuguese Queen was faced with insurrection and Anderson, the driving force of the partnership, sided with her against the rebels. On one occasion he refitted a half wrecked schooner and went gun-running on behalf of the Queen and, on another, posed as a Mr Smith and smuggled two of the Queen's agents into England. Anderson then used his influence in the City of London to raise funds to mount an expeditionary force which the Queen deployed to defeat the rebellion. The partners efforts did not go unrewarded and they were suitably endowed with numerous royal and official favours.


Arthur Anderson (1792-1868)

Oil by TF Dicksee, 1850 (P&O Lines) Brodie McGhie Willcox (1786-1862)

Oil by TF Dicksee, 1850 (P&O Lines) Capt. Richard Bourne, R.N. (c1787-1850) (P&O Lines)

However, no sooner had Portugal regained some semblance of stability, civil war broke out in Spain. The partners sided with the legitimate Queen against the pretender Don Carlos, and once again, were proved to be right. When, in 1835, the Spanish Minister in London took steps introduce the benefits of steam communication to Spain he chartered steamships from the Dublin & London Steam Packet Company and placed the management of the venture in the capable hands of Anderson and Willcox, trusted servants of the Spanish Crown. The arrangement with the Dublin & London Steam Packet Company enabled Captain Richard Bourne to join Anderson & Willcox and together they inaugurated a regular service between London, Spain and Portugal under the name 'Peninsular Steam Navigation Company'.

From the beginning the company was concerned with the comfort and welfare of the passengers. Models of the ship's accommodation could be inspected at the company's head office 'by which a Passenger may see at once the size and situation of any cabin or bed-place as well as if he were on board the ship'. On every ship a complaints book was prominently displayed and passengers requested, in four languages, to note 'any want of civility or attention on the part of the cabin attendants, or any want of cleanliness in the cabins or bed or table linen or scarcity in the provision department'

By 1836 weekly sailings to Madeira were being advertised 'for the accommodation of Invalids', a venture which was, in reality, a gamble. The company was providing more shipping than the existing volume of traffic could fill in the belief that once the service was established the passengers would follow. The policy was vindicated then any many times on subsequent occasions. However, on the first occasion it was an Admiralty mail contract worth £29,600 per year which kept the company solvent.


(Oil by S.D Skillett,1836)
(P&O Lines)
The William Fawcet, the first ship chartered by
Anderson and Willcox


Oil by (W.J.Huggins)
(P&O Lines)
The Liverpool coming to the aid of the Dutch vessel
Banka in 1845


The 1837 routes
(P&O Lines)

The British government's contract to carry the mail to the Iberian peninsular was signed on 22nd August,1837. Signed by Richard Bourne on behalf of the company, this was the first mail contract awarded to a commercial shipping company, the first of many contracts which promulgated the foundation of many of Britain's well known shipping companies in the mid to late 19th century. The inaugural service operated between Falmouth, which had become the established 'packet' port, Vigo, Oporto, Lisbon, Cadiz and Gibraltar. The mail contracts would provided P&O with a degree of financial security and a major source of revenue until the outbreak of the Second World War.

However, the first mail run was almost the last. The pride of the company's fleet and one of two steamers advertised as 'the largest and most powerful yet put afloat', the 933 tons Don Juan sailed on 1st September to inaugurate the mail service. After leaving Gibraltar on the homeward run on 15th September the ship ran aground off Tarifa, some twenty miles out. Apart from the mails and $21,000 of bullion, Arthur Anderson was onboard and his presence prevented a disaster. Bargaining with the local fishermen in Spanish he got them to carry the mail safely ashore and with the help of a squad of Royal Marines he managed to get the bullion unloaded.. Unfortunately, the Don Juan was lost at a cost to the company of £40,000 as it was only partly insured.

The company's dedication to fulfilling its obligations was rewarded when, in 1840, it was awarded the contract for the carriage of mails to Britain's empire in the East. 'Oriental' was added to the name and on the 31st December,1840 the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., was incorporated by a Royal Charter and, today, remains one of the few British companies not governed by the Companies Acts.. The company's house flag, however, reflects its humble, and somewhat precarious, origins. The blue and white quarters represent the royal house of Portugal and the red and yellow quarters the royal house of Spain.

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