Records of Wm Thomson & Co, ship owners and managers, Edinburgh, Scotland

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

  • Voyage account books, 1851-1898;
  • Pro forma voyage account book, 1890-1909;
  • Sir James Wishart Thomson II's account book, 1897-1911;
  • Day book, 1900-1964;
  • Expense book, 1904-1921;
  • Outward cargo and freight book, 1904-1941;
  • Bills payable and receivable book, 1913-1948;
  • Ben Line and Petrograd Steamers assets and account book, 1902-1964;
  • Memorandum of trade agreement - Japan, China and Hong Kong to New York, 1889-1890;
  • Chartulary, 1806-1861;
  • Apprentices book, 1902-1923;
  • Character books, 1864-1951;
  • Agreements and acounts of crew and official log books, 1859-1898;
  • Photographs - ships, 20th century;
  • Photograph of crew of Araby Maid II, late 19th century.

Administrative / Biographical History

Wm Thomson & Co originated in 1825 as A & W Thomson, a shipbroking partnership between brothers Alexander (1795-1880) and William (1806-1889) Thomson, based in the port of Leith, Edinburgh. The brothers' father, James Thomson (1756-1814), left a building business for his two sons after his death in 1814. This business was particularly concerned with the import of marble for the construction of the houses of Edinburgh's New Town and had strong Thomson family connections to the marble trade in the form of their brother-in-law, Thomas Henderson, who exported Carrara marble from Leghorn, Italy, and their uncle, Alexander Thomson, owner or chief partner of the Leith Marble Works. Despite setting up their shipbroking partnership in 1825, it wasn't until 1839 that the Thomson brothers had their own ship built – the 88 foot barque,  Carrara (in the fleet 1839 to 1847), built in Buckhaven, Fife. This enabled A & W Thomson to export coal and wool from Leith to Leghorn, and import marble directly for their continuing interest in the building trade. As the building trade declined, the brothers invested more in their maritime business, establishing a regular trade route between Leith and Canada for the export of coal and the import of Canadian timber. The success of this early trade was indebted to the financial support provided by family connections established through the personal relationships of the two brothers. In 1836 William married Sarah Wishart, whose father was a Leith merchant dealing in textiles, which were subsequently exported to Italy. Similarly, when Alexander married Isabella Thomson of Alloa in 1844, he married into a family involved in the business of importing timber. The Alloa Thomsons also directly helped to finance the purchase of the company's second ship, the  Australia (1840-1841), in 1840. The Alloa connection expanded to include support from another family, the Mitchells, who provided cargo for export in the form of coal from the Alloa Coal Company, of which the Mitchells were a partner in. The Mitchells, along with the Thomsons, also helped to finance the purchase of the company's third ship,  Joanna (1844-1864), in 1844.

In 1847 Alexander Thomson left the partnership and A & W Thomson was renamed Wm Thomson & Co, continuing under the management of William. William Thomson died in 1889, but the company continued to be managed by members of the Thomson family under the name of Wm Thomson & Co for the remainder of its life.

For much of the remaining 19th century the company continued to own sailing ships, amounting to a total of 23, including the three already mentioned. The others were:  Wanderer (1847-1864);  Signet (1848-1853);  Araby Maid I (1851-1862);  Bencleuch I (1853-1869);  William Mitchell (1856-1872);  May Queen (1862-1875);  Alexandra (1863-1869);  Vicksburg (1863-1884);  Annie Laurie (1864-1880);  Golden Pledge (1864-1869);  James Wishart (1864-1887);  Ocean Chief (1867-1872);  Araby Maid II (1868-1894);  Palmyra (1873-1883);  Mic Mac (1873-1879);  Benan (1875-1888);  Bencleuch II (1875-1898);  Royalist (1875-1881);  Adriatic (1875-1882) and  Algiers (1875-1882). Notable is  Bencleuch I, the first ship owned by the company to bear the prefix "Ben" (and the convention of naming ships using anglicised versions of the Gaelic names of Scottish mountains or hills), which would eventually become universal in the naming of their ships by the 20th century, giving rise to the informal identity "The Ben Line".

The later half of the 19th century saw the trade routes operated by the company expand to include Chinese and Japanese ports in the 1850s, and, shortly after, Australia and other parts of North America. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 prompted the company to adopt its first steam ship, the  Benledi (1871-1887) in 1871 in order to keep up with others in the competitive Far East trade. For the remainder of the century the company employed both steam and sail ships, with some steam ships partly rigged; leading to the company advertising "The Clipper Line of Steamers". By 1881, following the launch of further steam ships bearing the prefix "Ben" the company was advertising "The Ben Line of London and China Clippers". This trend continued and in 1919 the Wm Thomson & Co owned "Ben Line" was formalised by establishing  The Ben Line Steamers Limited. Developing in parallel to the business of its "Ben Line" ships, Wm Thomson & Co had entered into a partnership with John Jordan, a Leith merchant who was himself a partner in James Millar & Co, a merchant and millowner in Russia. In 1878 the sailing ship  Bencleuch II made the first voyage in this partnership that saw Wm Thomson & Co diverge into a Baltic trade that saw The Leith and St Petersburg Steam Shipping Company being incorporated in 1889. Following the Russian revolution, it seems that Wm Thomson & Co took full control of the company, and they renamed it as  The Petrograd Steamers Limited in 1921. They continued to own it until it was dissolved in 1941.

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, 1992, (Wilby, Norwich) Michael Russell Publishing was primarily for financial reasons.

Wm Thomson & Co continued to operate as the managing company of The Ben Line Steamers and associated ships until 1987. At this point the management of Ben Line Steamers and other Ben Line companies appears to have been transferred to Benmarine Limited, and in the same year The Ben Line Group was formed as a limited company in an era of increased diversification of the group's business interests into the oil, containership, bulk carriage and ship management services. There is no further mention in the records of Wm Thomson & Co as ship owners or managers after this point, and so it appears to have ceased to exist.

Conditions Governing Access

Open

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.

Accruals

None expected

Related Material

The records of The Petrograd Steamers Limited and the Ben Line Steamers Limited, both owned and managed by Wm Thomson & Co can be found elsewhere in GB 248 UGC 199, Records of The Ben Line Group Limited.

Location of Originals

This material is original

Bibliography

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 1999 and 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 and lower level descriptions compiled by Neil Ogg, Ben Line Archive Cataloguer, 2014-2015.

Family Names