History of the Merchant Navy

As might be expected from the name, Glen Line’s origins are to be found in Scotland. The Gow and McGregor families set themselves up in Glasgow during the mid 1850’s as cargo and voyage brokers. It would appear that they worked closely together to ensure full cargoes with the Gow’s doing the chartering and the McGregor’s putting together the freight.

Advertisements show that in 1860 ALAN C.GOW, whose interests lay in steam and machine technology, was acting as a voyage broker in partnership with James McGregor who, at the same time, was still engaged in business on his own account. Seven years later, in 1867, Alan Gow had the sailing ship Estrella de Chile built for trading to Chile via Cape Horn. Due to its proximity to industrial Lancashire, Liverpool became a leading centre for imports and exports and Gow’s ship operated initially on a Glasgow-Liverpool-South America route.

The ‘Glen’ prefix first emerged when the barque Glenavon was acquired in 1868. By this time a formal partnership had been entered into with the McGregor’s as the ownership was under the name Alan C Gow & Co. With Alan C. Gow as manager, the Glenavon was destined for the China tea trade but, since this trade was seasonal and one way, she went to Chile in the first instance before crossing the Pacific to China.

In 1869 the sailing ship Glenaray joined the fleet and the company began to advertise their services as ‘Glen Line’. The routing of the Glenaray differed from that of the other two vessels inasmuch that she went directly to the Far East where profits were greater and, being largely under the British flag, more politically stable than South America.

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869 Alan Gow and James Mcgregor did not ‘sit back and wait’ like many other companies operating ships to the Far East but took the initiative and placed an order, at a cost of £25,700, for a ship to compete in the China tea trade, the Glengyle. At the same time, as the tea commodity trade was centred in London, the company moved its base accordingly and Glen Line remained there for the rest of its existence.


The Glengyle joined the fleet in 1870 and was profitable from the start even though steamships were comparatively small and the coal consumption of compound engines high. The compound engine had only been in service for five years, since Alfred Holt had installed them in the Agememnon trio for the Far East route. The Glengyle completed the voyage from China an 50 days as compared with the best time of George Thompson’s sailing clipper Thermopylae’s 91 days. The Glengyle wasn’t faster; it was the Suez Canal that made all the difference. However, the scene had been set and plans for expansion were prepared which involved the raising of additional working capital. To facilitate the expansion programme ALAN C.GOW & COMPANY was formed with James McGregor responsible for steamship activities. With the appropriate funding in place orders were placed with the London & Glasgow Engineering & Iron Shipbuilding Co. (London & Glasgow Co.), the builders of their first steamship, for five sister ships.

In the end fifteen similar ships were built during a 23 year period but the first out of the shipyard was the Glenroy in 1871 followed by four more over the next three years after which the company had nine ships including two which were under sail.

The record for the China tea run was being beaten on a regular basis and in 1874 the Glenartney completed the voyage from Foochow to London in 44 days although her best time was 41 days achieved some years later. Also in 1874 James McGregor transferred the remainder of his activities into the partnership but the name remained and, with this, the company began to operate sailings from New York to the Far East.

Through its life the company was never one which went in for acquiring second hand ships but in 1876 it purchased the Glenorchy which had been built by John Elder for Dutch owners. Designed for the Far East trade she was wider in the beam than those built by London & Glasgow, which meant a greater cargo carrying capacity. With her the steam fleet was now eight which enabled the company to provide a monthly sailing on a three and a half month round voyage.


The only four master in the fleet, the Gleneagles, was built by London & Glasgow & Co. in 1877 and, being an extented version of her earlier sisters, was, for the first time, advertised as having passenger accommodation. All the company’s ships had carried passengers in the past but usually only local business people and shipping agents and their families.

The Far East Conference, initiated by John Swire of the China Navigation Co., was set up in 1879 with Shire and Glen Lines as members. The Conference concentrated on stabilising freight rates on the UK-China and Japan-UK. Up until the Conference was formed the principle was that freight rates, which could fluctuate even as the ship was loading, would only be fixed at the time of departure which could lead to loss making voyages.

By 1880 James McGregor had become the senior partner and to recognise this the name was changed to McGREGOR, GOW & COMPANY but everybody now knew the company as Glen Line and even advertisements in Lloyd’s List and the Journal of Commerce promoted ‘Glen Line to the Far East’. The company’s aim by now was to increase the speed of its ships and, in 1882, the two funnelled vessel, Glenogle, joined the fleet. Costly to build she had a service speed of 15 knots which made her capable of completing the run from China in 31 days. In addition, she also carried passengers in direct competition with P&O’s twin funnelled ships, the Clyde built in 1881 being the first of eight. Thomas Skinner introduced the Stirling Castle on the same route in 1881 but, as there was now an over capacity of passenger ships, he was nearly bankrupted and had to sell in 1883. The management of Glen Line had second thoughts, cancelled further orders, and reverted back to the tried and tested three masted ships but, as they had come to realise that passengers provided good revenues, they increased the passenger accommodation in First and Second class.

In 1883 the Glengarry was the first of a new class of five ships built by London & Glasgow Co. with increased passenger accommodation and the company had its first loss, as a shipowner, in 1884 when the Glenelg was wrecked.

By the mid 1880’s steel was replacing iron as it was a far stronger and lighter material. Hulls constructed in steel, although more expensive to build, gave the ships a longer life over which the cost could be recovered and enabled them to carry more cargo. Insurance rates were also lower as steel was considered to be a ‘safer’ material and several companies were that confident that they self insured the hulls covering only third party liabilities. Glen’s first steel hulled ship was the second Glengyle and she marked a big step forward for the company as she was also fitted with triple expansion machinery.

During the 1890’s the China tea industry was being superceded by exports from India and Ceylon and competition in the Far East was fierce. The passenger market was dominated by P&O and many companies were finding it difficult to earn a profit and to raise the funds to replace their ageing fleets. To be competitive the new ships had to incorporate all the latest technology and amenities which pushed construction costs higher and higher. The problems of British shipowners were further compounded by the additional competition from European operators including the French Messagaries Maritimes and the German Norddeutscher Lloyd Line.

Glen Line was no exception and profitability was a constant cause for concern. By 1895 the company was operating a twice monthly service with a passage time of 40 days equating to three round voyages per annum.

James McGregor dies in 1896 and his son, Alan, became the senior partner. He immediately was faced with the trading problems and embarked upon a period of consolidation whereby the older vessels were sold and replaced by larger ships with a greater carrying capacity. The number of sailings was reduced but the reduction of operating costs and increased capacities compensated for the loss of the smaller ships. The Glenlochy, delivered in 1897, was the first of three ships with a tonnage of 4,700grt, 1000 tons greater than any of her predecessors. The additional size was virtually all cargo carrying space and the carriage of passengers was discontinued in order to reduce operating costs further.. By law the carriage of more than twelve passengers required the presence on board of a doctor and a steward and, if ladies were on board, a stewardess.


When the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 prevented any trade beyond Hong Kong the company took the opportunity to dispose of four vessels. Three were sold to the Japanese for service as supply vessels and the fourth went to Singapore owners.

GLEN LINE LTD was incorporated in 1910 and in the same year over at Royal Mail Sir Owen Philips purchased the late Sir Alfred Jones’s holdings in Elder, Dempster & Co. giving him, together with Lord Pirie of Harland & Wolff, control of 109 ships. To consolidate the purchase Elder, Dempster & Co. Ltd was formed as an associate company of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.

In 1911 Elder, Dempster Co. Ltd acquired all the shares in Glen Line, leaving the management with McGregor, Gow and Co., and Royal Mail purchased Brocklebank’s remaining shares in the troubled Shire Line. As the two companies had been operating closely for many years, they were then integrated under the GLEN & SHIRE LINE banner but, although the brokers were merged as McGegor, Gow, Norris & Joyner Ltd, the ships remained under the ownership of the former companies.

On the outbreak of the First World War on 4th August 1914 Glen Line suffered its first war loss when the Glenearn was detained by the Germans in Hamburg. However, on release in 1918 she did not return to Glen ownership. Size was still important and, in the same year, the largest ship owned, the third Glengyle was delivered followed, in 1915, by a sister ship, the Gleniffer.

Marine technology had advanced once again with the introduction of the motorship and Glen’s first of such vessels, the Glenartney joined the fleet in 1915. Intended for Elder, Dempster as the Montezuma she experienced teething problems and the management decided to contain the new motorships within one company. The Glenartney was quickly followed by two others and they were the British motorships to trade in the Far East. They all had twin screws and Burmeister & Wain engines which, unfortunately, gave rise to problems in the early days.


At the beginning of 1916 the eighteen month old Glengyle was torpedoed and her replacement, the new Glenogle, met a similar fate shortly afterwards as did the Glenlogan and Glenstrae in the following year. Alan McGregor died during the year and was replaced by Lord Pirie but, in reality, Charles Holland was, in effect, the chief executive officer in charge of the day to day affairs of the company. Since Lord Pirie was also the chairman of Harland & Wolff it was natural that Glen Line should have a growing faith in the oil engined ocean going motorship. By now Harland & Wolff also owned London & Glasgow Co. who built the first 20 Glen ships and their yard was destined to become Harland & Wolff, Govan. When Charles Holland became managing director of the handling agents in 1917 the name was shortened to McGregor, Gow & Holland Ltd.

By Armistice Day on 11th November, 1918, Glen Line had lost 6 ships, the last one being the pioneering motorship Glenartney. The need for replacements necessitated a resumption of the development of the diesel engined ship and the Glenapp, originally being built for Russian owners, was purchased by Glen Line. However, being large enough for the purpose, she was later transferred to Elder, Dempster for conversion into the first major deisel engined passenger liner, the Aba.

When the first of four ” Glenade” class motorships, the Glenade, was delivered by Harland & Wolff in 1919 it may have been thought, in some quarters, then Glen Line had given up on steam but this was not the case. War losses had to be replaced and four standard “N” class led by the Glenstrae were acquired, but only to make up the numbers until larger, permanent replacements became available.

Up until 1920 the Glen and Shire operations had been integrated but not amalgamated but, in 1920, activities were properly amalgamated although ownership of the vessels still remained with the original owners. However, the Shire vessels adopted Glen’s livery and flew their houseflag.. At the same time a new class of purpose built oil engined ships, the “Glenapp” class began to join the fleet starting with the Glenogle. They were, at the time, the largest oil burning ships in the world. The last of the class, the Glenshiel, was delivered in 1924 with similar hull characteristics but a different profile and proved to be the last of the wartime changes. From then on the fleet settled down for a period of regular trading under the Royal Mail/Elder, Dempster for some ten years.

The slump in world trade contributed to the down fall of Lord Kylsant, as Owen Philips was now known as having been elevated to the peerage, and by 1929 he was experiencing financial problems. It was group policy that each company should make a return of 5% on capital employed although the bank rate was around 3%. Profits were used to expand the group unnecessarily and to prop up lame ducks such as the White Star Line. Companies failing to meet the 5% target had to top up the difference out of reserves and when they were exhausted by mortgaging their ships against bank loans. New ships were financed by loans but the 5% took precedent over repayment of the loan, a policy which works well when trade is expanding but disastrous in times of recession. Eventually the group was unable to repay Government loans made available for the construction of ships under the Trade Facilities Act.

In 1930 a Government enquiry recommended that the Kylsant Group should negotiate with its bankers and raise funds to repay the loans but when, by July of the same year, nothing was forthcoming Lord Kylsant was divested of his powers and the group put into the hands of three Trustees. By 1931 the Kylsant empire was bankrupt and the affairs of the group, which included Union Castle Line, White Star Line, Elder, Dempster and both Glen and Shire Lines had to be unraveled, a complicated but not impossible problem. Lord Kylsant was found guilty of making fraudulent statements to attract working capital.

A Board of Trustees was set up to administer the companies as going concerns and, fortunately, Glen Line was relatively unaffected as its operations were separate from the rest of the group. Although the company owed very little to its creditors there was no capital and cash in hand was in short supply. Its ships had been mortgaged and the proceeds siphoned off by Head Office and the only way forward was for the Trustees to negotiate bank loans which were partially underwritten by the Government.

The Chairman of the Board of Trustees was Sir Richard Durning Holt who was also the head of Alfred Holt & Co – Blue Funnel Line. By re-capitalising Glen Line at market value Holts purchased the shares of the company including Shire at an agreed price and the proceeds were used to pay off Preference share and Debenture holders. Royal Mail, the Ordinary shareholders, received nothing. With secured loans and trading debts also being underwritten by Holt’s the Government were satisfied that Glen Line had been successfully extricated from the Kylsant debacle and was in safe hands. Holt’s similarly rescued Elder, Dempster in the following year.


Under new ownership the company continued to be managed by Cameron McGregor, grandson of the founder, and Ernest Hills who transferred from the Shire office. Head Office remained at 20 Billiter Street, London but registry of the ships was transferred to Liverpool where Alfred Holt & Co. was based. The first problem confronting the Holt Group was the need to replace some of the Glen vessels as there had been no additions to the fleet during the previous twelve years. A precendent was established which was to continue throughout the remaining years of the companies whereby ships were transferred between the fleets, reliveryed and renamed. The first two to undergo the change were Blue Funnel’s Elpenor and Machaon who were give the Glen Line red funnel and renamed Glenfinlas and Glenaffric respectively. The arrival of these two vessels in 1935 released the ageing Pembrokeshire and Carnarvonshire which were duly sold.

In 1936 the Alfred Holt Group laid down plans for modernising both the Blue Funnel and Glen Line fleets. A larger class of ship, considered to be the finest ever deployed on the Far East routes, was designed and, because a quick delivery was required, orders were placed with five different shipyards. A new Managing Director, Mr C.E. Wurtzburg, was appointed in 1937 to lead Glen into this period of growth. Wurtzburg had worked with Alfred Holt & Co. for some seventeen years and had been the Chairman of a subsidiary company, Straits S.S. Co.

Eight ships of the ‘Glenearn’ class were ordered to operate a twice monthly service but only the Glenearn, the Glenroy and the Denbighshire were completed before the outbreak of the Second World War. Because of their advanced design, speed and operating range, seven of the vessels went immediately to the Royal Navy on completion during 1939. The Glenearn, Glenroy and Glengyle were used as large infantry landing ships and the Denbighshire, Breckonshire, Glenorchy and Glenartney as fast supply ships. The latter four vessels participated in the famous Malta convoys which kept the island supplied with food, oil and weaponry thus preventing it from being invaded by the German forces. The eight member of the group, the Glengarry, was captured when the Germans invaded Denmark , where she was being fitted out, in 1940. Although converted for military use she was seldom used by the German Navy.


During 1942 the company lost three ships as a result of enemy action. Flying the White Ensign, H.M.S Pembrokeshire was lost in the March while entering Valetta Harbour, Malta after strenuous convoy duty. The Glenshiel was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the Maldive Islands in April and the Glenorchy was lost while forming part of Operation Pedestal the most famous and vital of the Malta convoys.

After the cessation of hostilities it took Glen Line eighteen months to return to full commercial operations. During the latter end of 1945 non combatant vessels were used by the Shipping Controller as supply ships and for general tiding up duties and when they were released in 1946 priority in the overcrowded and overstretched shipyards was given to the refurbishment of food ships.

Consequently, it wasn’t until 1948 that the refurbishment programme was completed and the fleet then consisted of the Breckonshire, the Denbighshire, the Glenafric, the Glenapp, the Glenartney, the Glenbeg, the Glenearn, the Glengarry, the Glengyle, the Gleniffer, the Glenogle, the Glenroy, the Glenstrae, and the Glenorchy which had spent the war as the Priam. The ages of the vessels ranged from 33 years to 6 years, a mixture of old and new vessels. As it was necessary to maintain a regular fast service out of London some of the older ships were transferred to Blue Funnel in exchange for the Radnorshire which reduced the fleet to 9 ships. The pre-war fleet requirement for the service was eight but war damage slowed loading and unloading in some ports and the extra vessel became a requirement. By 1949 Glen Line had been transformed into a company operating a fleet of extremely well equipped and fast class of sister ships.

In 1950 the company moved its management and administrative operation to larger premises at 16 St Helens Place, London. Around the same time Blue Funnel started to operate a secondary service out of London using a number of Liberty ships which were given Glen and Shire names. Whereas most shipping companies would charter ships between subsidiaries without changing the name and livery Alfred Holt & Co’s policy was to keep the identities of its two operations completely separate and totally identifiable. Blue Funnel ships operating out of Liverpool would always have blue funnels and mythological names, Glen Line ships operating out of London would always have red funnels and Glen and Shire names. The interchange of ships continued throughout the 1950’s and it was once suggested that if a Blue Funnel ship was diverted to London it would be repainted and renamed before arrival. One joker also suggested that, if the berth in the Royal Docks was advised in advance the company could save money by painting only one side of the funnel.

Mr C.E Wurtzburg was succeeded by Sir Herbert McDavid as managing Director in in 1952 at a time when the fleet numbered 15 ships.

In 1959 Glen Line’s main competitor to the Far East, William Thompson’s Ben Line, introduced the 20 knot Benloyal onto the route which reduced the passage time between London and Hong Kong to 19 days and between London and Shanghai to 21 Days. Three more ships of a similar class were planned and Blue Funnel was unable to compete so faster ships were ordered for Glen Line. Four new ships to comprise the ‘Glenlyon’ class were ordered, two to be built at the Fairfield Yard and two in Holland in order to hasten delivery. The ships were larger than any in the fleet at the time and were capable of 24 knots although the service speed was specified as 20 knots. The additional built in speed was to compete with the new ‘K’ Class ships being introduced by the Japanese company Nippon Yusen Kaisha. However, four faster ships could replace 5 slower ones with the consequential savings in operating costs.


The first of the four new ships, the Glenogle, was completed in 1962 and commenced her maiden voyage to the Far East in the October of that year. The order was completed in 1963 when the Glenfalloch was delivered and the company was able to maintain an express with two sailings per month out of London. But there was still a marginal imbalance as some of the ships in the fleet were still only capable of 18 knots and this was remedied by deploying a ninth ship on an intermediate service which called at lesser ports.

Mr W.H.McNeil replaced Sir Herbert McDavid in 1965 and plans were formulated to smooth out the operating irregularities. By this time changes were taking place in the shipping industry. Additional speed was required to meet the competition from Europe and Japan, British ships were becoming increasingly costly to crew and the new concept of containerisation was beginning to emerge. To meet the changes Glen’s parent company, Ocean Steam Ship Company, acquired a 49% holding in Overseas Containers Ltd, a company formed in partnership with P&O, Furness Withy and British & Commonwealth. Although the fleet stood at 15 ships it was recognised that, as the new container ships came into service, these ships would become surplus to requirements. However, in the short term, it was still necessary to meet the competition and up to date tonnage had to be acquired.

By 1966 eight ships were under construction, four for Blue Funnel (the ‘Priam’ class) and four for Glen Line, the ‘Glenlomond’ Class. They were modern and fast with a service speed of 21 knots. Operating with the four ‘Glenlyon’ class vessels Glen Line was able to operate a weekly service out of London and, with a fleet of fourteen ships, have six additional vessels to operate other services. The Glenalmond began operating in September 1966 and arrival of the new vessels allowed the former Blue Funnel tonnage to transfer back to Liverpool.


The Six Day Arab-Israeli war which closed the Suez Canal in June 1967 seriously dislocated Glen Line’s services causing them to go via the Cape of Good Hope which added to operating costs and increased freight rates. On shore rationalisation was being planned and the parent company incorporated Ocean Fleets Ltd to be responsible for all personnel, buildings and ship management. In 1969 Mr H.O. Karten was appointed Chairman and Managing Director of Glen Line while over in Liverpool the entire Holt Fleet was being assembled under the umbrella of Ocean Steam Ship Co. Ltd with certain shore based operations being amalgamated. Fortunately, being London based, Glen Line escaped the changes

By 1970 trade with China had become virtually non-existent having been replaced with trade from Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. Consequently, regular sailings to Shanghai were discontinued and, in the December, the Glenearn was withdrawn although her sistership , the Glengyle, survived a little longer as Blue Funnel’s Deucalion. In the same year four of Blue Funnel’s ‘P’ Class ships were transferred and renamed the Glenfruin, the Glenroy, the Glenbeg and the Glenlochy.

A big corporate reorganisation took place in 1972 when the Alfred Holt group became OCEAN TRANSPORT & TRADING CO. LTD with the fleets being managed in six separate departments. The non-container and non-specialist fleets Glen Line, Blue Funnel and Elder Dempster were managed by Liner Shipping. The last ship to join the fleet, albeit for only a few months before going to the breaker’s yard, was the Glenbeg a ‘P’ Class Blue Funnel vessel. Tradition was finally abandoned in 1974 when the Flintshire was transferred to the Dutch subsidiary, N.S.M.’Oceaan’, without a change of livery or name.

In the same way that Glen Line and Shire Line joined forces many years previous, in 1974 Ocean Transport & Trading Co Ltd, comprising Blue Funnel, Glen Line and N.S.M. ‘Oceaan’, linked with William Thompson’s Ben Line to form BEN-OCEAN SERVICES. Glen Line supplied its quota of express vessels but the management of the service was undertaken by Ben Line and the ships were given the Ben Line pale yellow funnel.

The reopening of the Suez Canal in May 1975 presented the opportunity for the management of Glen Line to effect their fleet reduction programme. With the advent of the containership the conventional cargo ship had become obsolete so the four ‘Glenlyon’ class vessels were put up for sale and by 1977 had been sold. In 1978 the eight ‘Glenalmond – ‘Priam’ class, with a container capacity of 160 as opposed to the 600 attainable by the first generation container ship, were similarly disposed of.

During 1978 a total of 18 conventional cargo vessels were disposed of by Ocean Transport & Trading and with them went the last of the red funnelled Glen ships. The Pembrokeshire was chartered to Wilhelm Wihelmsen for a short period but never returned to the fleet. After more than a century of maritime trading, during which time the company was a respected operator on the Far East service, Glen Line Limited was no longer a ship owning company.

In 1986 P&O acquired the groups shares in the Overseas Container Line which severed the final links to the Far East and in 1989 the West African trades of the Elder Dempster Line, the remaining deep sea operations of Ocean Transport & Trading, were sold to Societe Navale Chargeurs Delmas-Vieljeux.

Finally, in 1990 the name and corporate assets of Glen Line Limited were sold to the Cornish based Curnow Shipping Limited who intended to use it for a passenger/cruise operation based in Scotland. Nothing appears to have developed from this and the Glen Line name remains registered but dormant.

The history of Glen Line and its’ ships has been extracted from
Merchant Fleets 22: Glen and Shire Lines
by Duncan Haws
to whom we extend our grateful thanks.
To purchase the book Click Here

Enlargements of photographs by Iain Lovie can be obtained from