The Ben Line Group was a family owned company with its origin in the shipping company, A & W Thomson, set up by brothers Alexander and William Thomson in Leith, near Edinburgh, in 1825 . Following the departure of Alexander from the partnership, the company was renamed Wm Thomson & Co in 1847. This Company employed sailing ships engaged in trade around the globe, particularly in the Far East but also Australia and North America. Wm Thomson & Co went on to become the managers of several shipping companies in the 20th century, and continued in some capacity until 1987 .
In 1889 Wm Thomson & Co entered into a partnership with John Jordan, a Leith Merchant with business connections in Russia, to establish The Leith and St Petersburg Steam Shipping Company. This company, with a fleet distinct from Wm Thomson & Co's other developing interests, ran the Baltic trade route until the Russian Revolution in 1917 put an end to much of the trade. Wm Thomson & Co soon after took full control of the company and renamed it The Petrograd Steamers Limited in 1921 . It continued formally until dissolved in 1941 , although in reality it ceased to function after the First World War.
Developing in parallel to The Leith and St Petersburg Steam Shipping Company was a line of steam ships owned by Wm Thomson & Co that became identified as 'The Ben Line of London and China Clippers' by 1881 . By 1900 this service was being advertised as 'The Ben Line of China and Japan Steamers'. In 1919 The Ben Line Steamers was incorporated as a limited company in its own right, with Wm Thomson & Co as managers. For much of the 20th century The Ben Line Steamers Limited was a dominant name in Scottish shipping that continued to maintain strong trade links with the Far East. This company built such a strong reputation that as the company diversified into a group later in the century, 'The Ben Line' became a by-word for what in reality was a series of separate business entities, including earlier companies such as The Petrograd Steamers and the Wm Thomson & Co sailing fleet that contained only a handful of ships named after a 'Ben'. In 1964 Wm Thomson & Co transferred all of its assets to The Ben Line Steamers Limited which then kept the name Wm Thomson & Co as a trade name.
In the 1970s the company began to diversify, and the modern Ben Line Group began to emerge.
In 1970 Ben Line Containers Limited was established as a partnership with Ellerman Lines who held a 20 percent share. This company ran a container shipping service within the 17 strong fleet of a three-nation consortium (the Trio Group) made up of Ben Line, Hapag-Lloyd, Mitsui-OSK (MOL), Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) and Overseas Containers Ltd (OCL) all engaged in the Far East trade.
In 1972 the company further branched out into ship management services, establishing Ben Line Ship Management as a joint venture with Galbraith Wrightson Limited. This company provided ship management services until the 1987 reorganisation of the associated companies into the Ben Line Group Limited. At this point Ben Line Ship Management was renamed Benmarine Limited and it continued to offer ship management services as well as marine consultancy. Also at this point all of the ships previously registered as being owned by Wm Thomson & Co appear to have been transferred to Benmarine Limted, as recorded in Lloyd's Shipping Register.
In the mid-1970s further expansion occurred into the growing oil industry.
Ben Odeco Ltd was established in 1974 as a joint partnership between the Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company Ltd (ODECO) of USA and Ben Line Ocean Contractors Limited, which was set up by Ben Line for the partnership.
In 1976 , following the purchase of The Sheaf Steam Shipping Company from W. A. Souter, Ben Line acquired a 50 percent share in Atlantic Drilling Company Limited (ADCO), with Reardon Smith holding the other 50 percent share.
In 1987 a major re-organisation of the related Ben Line companies took place and The Ben Line Group Limited was established. At this point all of the business entities, including The Ben Line Steamers Limited, became subsidiaries of The Ben Line Group Limited. Wm Thomson & Co appears to have ceased to exist at this point, with Benmarine Limited being listed as owners of the fleet.
In 1992 The Ben line Group Limited sold all of its assets, including remaining fleet, to The East Asiatic Company Limited. Most of the Group companies were dissolved by 2002 . Ben Line Group Limited was liquidated c2002 . In its place the holding company E G Thomson (Shipping) Ltd retained a few subsidiaries including E G Thomson (Bulk Carriers) Ltd, Ben Travel Ltd and a newly named Ben Line Agencies Ltd which continues to operate as a shipping agency today in Asia.
Further detailed histories of each company within the Group, including the initial Wm Thomson & Co, can be found in the administrative histories in the respective catalogues for each company.