History of the Merchant Navy

Andrew Weir was born on 24th April, 1865 and started his working life in the banking circles in Scotland. However, it soon became apparent that his future ambitions lay in the shipping industry and this ambition was soon to be realised. On 5th May 1885, after a brief spell in a shipowner’s office to learn the ropes, he opened his own office in Glasgow and acquired his first ship, the Willowbank, a sailing ship of 882 gross tons. The business prospered and within ten years Andrew Weir owned one of the largest fleets sailing under the red ensign.

During the thirty year period between 1885 and 1915 the company ordered 21 new vessels and acquired 24 other sailing ships, the last purchase being in 1896 and the last addition to the fleet being in 1915. Details and a brief history of each vessel can be found on a later page

By the end of the 19th century the company began to take an interest in steam propulsion but were wary of disposing of the sailing ship fleet until steam had proved itself as a viable alternative. But, as a first step, in 1896 Andrew Weir acquired the steamship Duneric. Once the use of steam had been proven the Duneric was followed by a long list of steamships of increasing size all with the suffix “eric” in the name. In fact, the growth of the steamship fleet was as rapid as that of the sailing vessels in the company’s early days and it wasn’t long before the combined tonnage of the steamship fleet totaled 312,534 tons deadweight. At about the same time the structure of the company began to change and instead of utilising the ships in the tramping business, picking up cargoes wherever they could, Andrew Weir began deploying them on regular routes all over the world.

In the early years of the 20th century rapid expansion necessitated to opening of a branch office in Middlesbrough and in 1905 the headquarters of the company was moved to London. In the same year Bank Line Ltd was formed and since that date all ships have been registered in that company or one of its subsidiaries. At the same time the first of many branches were established overseas in New York, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. In 1906 the company inaugurated its India-African Line followed, in 1907, by the introduction of a Seattle to Australia service.

Andrew Weir

The India – African Line was formed to carry immigrants from India, mainly from the Gujarat region, to South Africa to work the newly established sugar plantations in Natal as the back-breaking work would not be performed by the local Zulu population. The company initially used chartered tonnage and operated a monthly service from Cape Town to Calcutta and Rangoon. The passenger service, however, really got underway in 1913 when the Johannesburg, the Fort Salisbury and the Buluwayo were purchased from the Bucknall Line and renamed the Surat, the Gujarat and the Kathiawar.

The next milestone in the company’s history was in November 1913 when the first oil tanker joined the fleet. The Desabla (6,047 GRT) was built and engined by Hawthorn Leslie & Co. Ltd at Newcastle but it wasn’t until after the First World War that the tanker fleet began to expand.

In 1917, with the First World War in its fourth year, Andrew Weir was called into public service and appointed to the office of Surveyor General of Supply at the War Office. He became a member of the Cabinet in January 1919 as Minister of Munitions and in 1921 was appointed as the first chairman of the Liquidation and Disposals Commission. This role took him all over the country and occasionally to the battle-fields of France. For his services to the country Andrew Weir was created the first Baron Inverforth of Southgate.

When Andrew Weir became a Cabinet minister he resigned from the company and was succeeded by his son the Hon. A. Morton Weir. In due course, however, Lord Inverforth return to the company to continue to guide the partnership he had founded.

Following his success with steamships Lord Inverforth was quick to spot the potential of the internal combustion engine and, once again, embarked on a rapid expansion program to incorporate the new technology. In 1922 he consulted with Lord Pirrie the chairman of Harland & Wolff and placed his first order for 21 motorships, 18 of which were to comprise the “Inverbank” class. With the advent of the diesel ship the company reverted to using the suffix “Bank”, which had fallen into disuse at the end of the sailing ship era, on all vessels.

The first vessel, the Gujarat, was completed in December 1923 and continued the company’s venture into the passenger carrying business. Two further ships, the Kathiawar and the Luxmi joined the Gujarat on the Rangoon to South Africa service and, in addition to carrying up to 6,550 tons of cargo, had accommodation for 12 first class and 20 second class passengers.

Also in the early 1920’s the company expanded its tanker operations through the management of the British-Mexican Petroleum Co. Ltd. By 1926 the fleet had risen to 12 tank steamers, each with the prefix “Inver”and 11 barges for harbour service. Seven of the ships had been laid down before the war as standard cargo ships and were converted by fitting large cylindrical tanks in the cargo spaces and carrying oil in the double bottom tanks. They were fairly successful but it soon proved necessary to build ships specifically for carrying oil products.

In 1934 three elegant motorships built by Workman, Clark (1928) Ltd at Belfast, the Isipingo, the Inchanga and the Incomati joined the fleet. Named after a coastal area south of Durban, a hilly plane inland of Durban and a river running from the Transvaal to Mozambique, respectively, they were a contrast to Bank Line’s traditionally austere looking fleet. Painted white with a buff band round the hull, green boot topping and a small buff, blacked top funnel, the raked masts gave the vessels a yacht like appearance. The first-class accommodation for 50 passengers was spacious with the ambience of an English country house. The lounge, flanked by enclosed tea terraces, had large forward facing windows and was furnished with a light green and pastel colour scheme which offered escape from the heat out on deck. All the first-class cabins had an outside window and a private shower and toilet. Unusually for a British ship she was equipped with a large outdoor swimming pool and there was also a barber’s shop which was frequently visited by officers of other British ships. Accommodation for the 20 second class passengers was situated aft and up to 500 ‘natives’ were carried in the tween decks.

2nd Lord Inverforth Hon.Roy Weir Hon. Vincent Weir

During the Second World War the company lost a number of ships as a result of enemy action and, consequently, in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s there was an extensive program to replace and modernise the fleet. There was a steady flow of new motorships from the yard of Harland & Wolff Ltd and William Doxford & Sons, and, in addition, the company purchased 12 “Liberty” steamships from the United States as well as several more that had been laid down at the end of the war for other owners.

Under the guiding hand of Lord Inverforth the company built up a substantial insurance underwriting and broking department and, together with extensive activity in commodities including nitrate , coal, oil and grain, extended its influence throughout the world with the opening of branches and subsidiary companies.

During his active business life Andrew Weir was highly respected so much so that he was elected President of the Institute of Marine Engineers and was one of the very few honorary members of the Baltic Exchange. Before his death on 17th September, 1955 Lord Inverforth saw his two grandsons, the Hon. Roy and the Hon. Vincent, taking an active interest in the company he had founded 70 years previously.