Innovator of the White Star Line: Mr Thomas Henry Ismay

by

Thomas Henry Ismay

 

A Great-grandson of Thomas Henry Ismay, Mr Michael Manser, recently bought a copy of our biography of Joseph Bell ‘Tarn to Titanic’. He kindly supplied me with details about his Great-grandfather T.H.Ismay who was the founder of the White Star Line. and son of Cumberland boatbuilder, born 7th January 1837 and died 23rd November 1899. He was able to secure an interest in a fleet of boats, and out of that he built up the splendid service of steamers known in all parts of the world. On his death in 1900, he left the great fortune of £1,297,887; this sum in 2014 terms would be equal to the sum £139,288,583.90.

The White Star Line was very reflective of Great Britain’s expansion of maritime commerce; the line owes its success mainly due to the business genius and thoroughness of one man – Thomas Henry Ismay who laid the foundation of its fame and enabled the White Star flag to extend its sway over the seas of the world. The rise and development of the White Star fleet are so closely interwoven as to be inseparable.

After schooling in Carlisle in 1837 aged 16, and mastering as much of the shipbuilders art at his father Joseph Ismay’s Maryport shipyard could offer, Thomas left there for a wider field of experience and went to Liverpool. During the mid fifties Mr Ismay entered the firm of Imrie, Tomlinson & Co as ship-owners and shipbrokers in Liverpool. After the completion of his indentures where he gained much experience and trust, he travelled, sailing round Cape Horn and visiting Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. It was said his motto was, then and always,” Be mindful”.

Liverpool at this time was in the throws of commercial expansion with many well-established shipping companies who controlled much of the shipping, but still offered the opportunities for further trading from Liverpool to overseas destinations. Mr Ismay’s opportunity came at aged 30, in 1867, when the managing-owner of the old White Star Line retired. He bought the White Star Line flag and goodwill together with their Australian wooden clippers, White Star & Blue Jacket and other sailing vessels.

In the following year of 1868, T H Ismay with a former apprentice, Mr William Imrie, formed the Ocean Steamship Company; Ismay then began to make the changeover to steam from the wooden sailing ships he owned. When the American service commenced in 1870, the naming of “White Star Line” was associated with it. Much progress was made expanding the passenger steamer fleet in partnership with Harland & Wolff, the ship builders, who received the sum of £7,000,000 from White Star for their construction. The White Star flag – the red swallowtail, with the five-pointed star in the centre is to be seen flying above the funnels of the great iron steamers. The White Star ships had heretofore been employed exclusively in the Australian trade, but Mr Ismay saw no reason why the vessels under his command should not steam westward, as well as southward across the North Atlantic, and the South Pacific. In due course the White Star fleet were making regular voyages between Liverpool and New York.

The first White Star steamer of the Atlantic fleet, the Oceanic was launched on the 27th August 1870, with best of officers and men that were available. When the Oceanic made her first round voyage to New York and back, in March 1871, Mr Ismay accompanied her. When he returned to Liverpool elated, the word was given to proceed as fast as possible with the building of additional steamers.

In the year following the foundation of the new company, Mr Wm Imrie, of the former firm of Imrie, Tomlinson & Co in whose office he and Mr Imrie had been fellow apprentices, joined Mr Ismay in the management. The firm then took the title of Ismay, Imrie & Co. Mr Ismay was the leading figure from 1867 to 1899. a period of thirty-two years.

In partnership with Harland & Woolf’s shipyard in Belfast the White Star fleet grew; The Oceanic was quickly followed by the Baltic,Republic,Adriatic and Celtic; and in 1874-5 two larger ships, the Britannic and Germanic were built. Following these came the Arabic, Coptic, Ionic, Doric, Gaelic, Belgic, Cufic and Runic. In 1889 and 1890 the mercantile armed cruisers Majestic and Teutonic were launched; in 1891 and 1892 the cargo and live-stock steamers Nomadic,Tauric and Bovic; in 1893 the Gothic, a twin-screw passenger steamer for the New Zealand service; in 1894 and 1895 the Cevic and Georgic, twin screwed cargo and live-stock steamers for the Liverpool and New York trade.

Later additions to the White Star fleet were the Oceanic [2], and the Celtic, the former a vessel of 17,274 tons launched in 1899, the latter, a still larger steamer of 20,904 tons, sailing on her maiden voyage in the summer of 1901. Another great steamer, the Athenic, is almost ready for taking its place on the Atlantic service, and two more – the Corinthic and Ionic are to be launched during 1902. To date the twenty-eight ships of the White Star Line represent a total tonnage of approx 226,000 tons.

In 1887 Mr Ismay offered to place the whole of the White steamship fleet, being the swiftest vessels afloat at the disposal of the Government for service as cruisers or transports in the event of war. Mr Ismay in celebrating Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887 and his fiftieth birthday, gave £20,000 to found a pension fund for old and worn-out sailors. In commemoration of the founding of the fund, the Mercantile Service Association, who also had his portrait painted for their rooms, presented Mr Ismay with an illuminated address. He was one of the founders, and for over twenty years acted as chairman and treasurer of the training ship ‘Indefatigable’, the only institution of its kind in Great Britain for the training of orphans of sailors and other destitute boys for the sea, since its formation has been the means of educating and giving a start in life to more than two thousand poor lads.

Mr Ismay was loved and trusted, and much of his success was due to his capacity of surrounding himself with good and capable men and treating them well. In 1885 the shareholders of the White Star Company, anxious to acknowledge in some prominent way their obligations to Mr Ismay for his energetic and successful management of the business, presented him with a valuable service of plate and a portrait of himself painted by Millais. In 1891, after forty years of business life, Mr Ismay retired from the firm of Ismay, Imrie & Co, but continued to control the destinies of the White Star Line as its chairman until his death, having died at his home at Dawpool Hall, near Thurstaston, of a heart attack following a serious illness on the 24th of November 1899.

The family sold the Ismay home at Dawpool Hall, Thurstaston, on the Wirral, on the banks of the river Dee in 1907. Dawpool was subsequently demolished in 1927. The gravestone of Thomas Henry Ismay and his wife Margaret was designed by R.Norman Shaw, who was also the architect of the White Star office building in James Street, Liverpool. It is situated in the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s Church, Thurstaston, the inscription on the tombstone reads:

Sacred to the memory of

THOMAS HENRY ISMAY

Who died fully trusting in God’s mercy on November 23rd 1899 in the 63rd year of his age

 “Great thoughts, great feelings came to him

Like instincts unawares”

Also of his wife

Margaret Ismay

who passed away in the same trust on April 9th 1907 in the 70th year of her age

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God

 

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