Records of The Ben Line Steamers Limited, shipping company, Edinburgh, Scotland

Scope and Content

  • Voyage account books, 1871-1920;
  • Cargo earnings book, 1911-1963;
  • Victualling book, 1919-1954;
  • Bills payable book, 1934-1958;
  • Second World War voyages account book, 1940-1945;
  • E. G. Thomson's voyage account book, 1948-1963;
  • Voyage account files, 1949-1978;
  • Cheque books, 1970-1983;
  • Adjustments of general and particular averages on ships, 1980-1983;
  • Agreements and accounts of crew, 1872-1914;
  • Official log books, 1871-1914;
  • Bencruachan III first voyage log books and navigation chart, 1967-1969;
  • Voyage record book, 1945-1973;
  • Fleet maintenance and repairs book, 1881-1890;
  • Ben Line Private Code books, 1956-1961;
  • War service correspondence (WW2), 1939-1947;
  • General correspondence, 1945-1981;
  • James Brow's Certificate of Competency as First Class Engineer, 1915;
  • Photographs - staff, c1927-1980s;
  • Papers of Gilbert Hawick, 1931-1987;
  • Staff dinner menus, 1936-1938;
  • Papers of Captain J. C. Sinclair, 1940-1998;
  • Ben Line Steamers officers book, c1942-1948;
  • Crew lists books, 1942-1952;
  • Ben Line Steamers ratings book, c1943-1947;
  • Character book - deck and engine departments, 1945-1953;
  • Instructions for Sea Staff, 1952;
  • Photographs - ships, c1876-1980s;
  • Photographs - ships managed for the British Government, 1918-1946;
  • Photographs - various ships, personnel, places and cargoes, 1930-1977;
  • Ship publicity files, 1945-1987;
  • Ship plans, 1873-1982;
  • Promotional booklets and leaflets, 1937-c1980s;
  • Ben Line Steamers Limited pocket diary, 1950;
  • Press release - Fleet and Services To and from Europe and the Far East, 1952;
  • Ben Line proof advertisements book, c1960s;
  • Presscuttings, 1947-1972;
  • Far Eastern Freight Conference Freight Tariff books, 1947-1950;
  • Photographs - Ben Ocean (Ocean Transport & Trading Group) ships, c1975-1980;
  • Ben Ocean eastbound sailing schedule, 1975;
  • Ben Ocean outward to Indonesia sailing schedule, 1977;
  • Ben Ocean outward to Indonesia sailing schedule desk calender, 1977;
  • SOGRA, 1979;
  • The Ben Line Steamers Ltd ink stamp, c20th century;
  • Flags, banner and ensigns, mid - late 20th century.

Administrative / Biographical History

Wm Thomson & Co, the managing company of The Ben Line Steamers, bought their first steam-ship, Benledi I, in 1871. They were advertising a service as The Ben Line of London and China Clippers by 1881, despite most of the emerging 'Ben Line' fleet being steam ships. This naming convention was used because such ships remained partly rigged as well as having a steam engine. There was a slight period of overlap between the Wm Thomson & Co sailing fleet and the fleet that would come to be recognised as the Ben Line, however The Ben Line Steamers is generally considered to have its origin in the first steam ships owned by Wm Thomson & Co that were all named after a Scottish Ben.

By 1900 this service was being advertised as The Ben Line of China and Japan Steamers. Following the First World War The Ben Line Steamers was incorporated as a limited company on 28 March 1919, ending ‘one ship accounting’ whereby previously each ship had been a single business entity. Wm Thomson & Co became the name of the managing company of  The Ben Line Steamers Limited, and this style was retained for much of the 20th century.

The ‘Ben Line’ as the company became advertised technically refers to the Ben Line Steamers Ltd, but in actuality the ‘Ben Line’ represents the interests of several parties. The first and major component is The Ben Line Steamers itself. In around 1949, E. G. Thomson of the Ben Line Steamers Ltd board bought 20% of the company’s shares from the Mitchell family (increasing his holding to a total of 45%), and at the same time set up his owned limited company, E G Thomson (Shipping) Ltd (EGTS). He then transferred almost all of his Ben Line Steamers Ltd shares to EGTS, making it the major shareholder. EGTS also bought and owned some ships in its own right, which were then chartered to Ben Line Steamers Ltd. For all accounting purposes evident in this collection, Ben Line Steamers Ltd and EGTS ships were accounted for within the same account books held by E. G. Thomson at the time. As majority shareholder, EGTS was in effect the same organisation as Ben Line. The Lloyd’s shipping registers for the years concerned show that ships on several occaisions changed ownership between Ben Line and EGTS.

Similarly, two syndicates set up by Sir Douglas Thomson, Chairman of The Ben Line Steamers Ltd between 1966-70, Sir Douglas Thomson & Partners and Sir Douglas Thomson & Others also owned ships at various times that were also all chartered to the Ben Line Steamers Ltd.

During the Second World War most of the Ben Line fleet was requisitioned by the British Government, with a total of 13 ships lost to enemy action. The company also managed ships for the British Government during this period.

In 1964 the Wm Thomson & Co partnership was wound up, and all assets were transferred to the Ben Line Steamers Ltd, which then became the managing company, but retained the trade name Wm Thomson & Co. This decision as noted by  M. Strachan, The Ben Line 1825-1982, Michael Russell Publishing (Wilby, Norwich) 1992 , was primarily for financial reasons.

In December 1976 Ben Line Steamers Ltd purchased the Sheaf Steam Shipping Co Ltd and its subsidiary Bamburgh Shipping Co Ltd from W A Souter & Co Ltd. This purchase included the Sheaf Steam Shipping Co bulk carriers Sheaf Tyne, Sheaf Field, Sheaf Royal and the Bamburgh Shipping Co bulk carriers Cheviot, Dunstanburgh Castle, Alnwick Castle and Ros Castle. the ships initially continued to be managed by W A Souter & Co Ltd on charter to British Steel. When the charters were finished most of the ships were sold off or renamed with Ben names.

After diversification into the container and oil industries in the 1970s-1980s, The Ben Line Steamers Ltd became part of The Ben Line Group Ltd. After the sale of all of the groups assets to the East Asiatic Company Ltd in 1992, the company ceased to operate.

The company was liquidated in 2000.

Access Information

Some files in this collection are subject to Data Protection legislation as they contain sensitive information. These records will not be fully accessible to the public until 100 years from the date on each file. However, they may be accessible to bona fide researchers and academics. Please contact the Duty Archivist for advice on how to apply for access to these files. Contact details are as follows: Duty Archivist, Archive Services, University of Glasgow, 13 Thurso Street, Glasgow, G11 6PE.

Acquisition Information

Gift : E G Thomson (Holdings) Ltd : June 2013 : ACCN 3773

Gift : E G Thomson (Holdings) Ltd : February 2013 : ACCN 3744

Transfer : Edinburgh University Library : June 2006 : ACCN 2949

Other Finding Aids

Digital file level list available in searchroom

Alternative Form Available

No known copies

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

None which affect the use of this material

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the Archivist.

Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 248 procedures

Custodial History

All Materials held by Ben Line Group Limited until it was wound down in 2000. Thereafter transfered to and held by E G Thomson (Holdings) Ltd until deposit at GUAS, with exception of ACCN 2949, containing voyage account books and voyage account boxes, which were held by Edinburgh University Library until transfer to GUAS in 2006.


None expected

Related Material

The earliest Ben Line Steamers records, including financial and crew records, are present in the records of Wm Thomson & Co as managers of The Ben Line Steamers along with The Petrograd Steamers. As the managing company transitioned from operating a sailing fleet as Wm Thomson & Co to operating their 'Ben' line and Baltic trade prior to The Ben Line Steamers Ltd and The Petrograd Steamers Ltd becoming incorporated as single business entities, and for a short time thereafter, they initially accounted for the whole fleet under their management in the same account books. Therefore, the account books of Wm Thomson & Co GB 248 UGC 199/1/1 hold the earliest accounts where The Ben Line Steamers Ltd and The Petrograd Steamers Ltd were accounted for in the same volumes. Similarly, crew records from this time were kept in single volumes for crews serving on ships belonging to both companies. These can be found in GB 248 UGC 199/1/4-5. Records relating to The Ben Line Steamers Ltd can also be found in the records of The Ben Line Group Ltd where records such as staff record cards and promotional material cover functions that spanned companies within the Group, including The Ben Line Steamers in its later days.

Location of Originals

This material is original


The Ben Line Steamers LtdThe Ben Line: The Story of a Merchant Fleet at War. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd , 1946 .Somner, G.Ben Line: Fleet List and Short History. Kendal, England: World Ship Society , 1st edition 1967 , 2nd edition 1980 .Blake, G.The Ben Line - The History of a Merchant Fleet, 1825-1955. Edinburgh: Wm Thomson & Co , 1970 .Strachan, M.The Ben Line 1825-1982. Norwich: Michael Russell , 1992 .Somner, G.Ben Line. Preston: Ships in Focus Publications , 2009 .

Additional Information

Description compiled in line with the following international standards: International Council on Archives, ISAD(G) Second Edition, September 1999and National Council on Archives, Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names

Scotland is the location of all place names in the administrative/biographical history element, unless otherwise stated.

Fonds level description compiled by .

Family Names