John Swire & Sons (JS&S) was founded in 1832 when John Swire, a Liverpool merchant since 1816, extended his business to include his young sons John Samuel (born 1825) and William Hudson (born 1830). On his death in 1847, they inherited a small but solvent business.
Over the next twenty years, evidence points to a series of attempts by the firm to expand its trade in America, Australia and the Far East when China was finally opened to foreigners. The beginning of the firm's real expansion in the East dates from the creation of Butterfield and Swire. Previously, textiles assigned to JS&S for sale in China were handled for them in that country by the Shanghai firm Preston, Bruell & Co. However, JS&S aimed to have their own trading house in the East to attend to this side of the business. In 1866 they formed a partnership with R.S. Butterfield - a Yorkshire textile manufacturer - to create Butterfield & Swire (B&S) with two other firms in England and America. B&S opened its first office in Shanghai in 1867, with William Lang and R. N. Newby to handle the textile shipments and James Scott employed as a bookkeeper. On 1 August 1868, the short-lived partnership came to an end, leaving B&S in the hands of JS&S, whilst the other two firms became the property of R.S. Butterfield. The prospects of B&S were quickly strengthened with the acquisition of the agency for Alfred Holt's Blue Funnel Line. JS&S continued to develop and expand and in 1870, the London Branch (established 1868/9) became the Head Office. Two years later in 1872, the China Navigation Company (CNCo) came into being, and in 1874 the Coast Boats Ownery was created, extending JS&S's involvement in the shipping trade. Both concerns, which amalgamated in 1883, were intended to act as feeders to Holt's ocean going vessels by capturing the growing steam trade along the China coast and Yangtze River.
It was, however, a period of economic difficulties and fierce competition with existing trading and shipping companies in the East, notably Jardine, Matheson & Company and the Chinese sponsored China Merchants Company. The impetus for the establishment of the Taikoo Sugar Refinery in Hong Kong in 1881 and the insurance interests of John Swire and Sons arose directly from this period of hostility with Jardines. In 1876 William was forced to retire from the firm because of poor health, further increasing the financial strain on his brother but also leaving him in sole control of the business. By the late 1870's the partnership consisted of John Swire, his right hand man in London, F. R. Gamwell and the three Eastern Managers, William Lang, J. H. Scott and Edwin Mackintosh. Initially however, only John Swire put up any capital and until his death in December 1898 the history of the firm is very much that of its Senior Partner.
When James Scott became the Senior Partner on John Swire's death, he put through two schemes previously vetoed by Swire: the Taikoo Dockyard and Engineering Company (1901), and the Tientsin Lighter Company (1904). Scott died in 1912 leaving three partners: his son Colin, and John (Jack) and George Warren Swire, the sons of John Samuel Swire. These three became life Directors of the private limited company, which was formally announced on 1 January 1914. Throughout the Twentieth Century the firm has remained a family concern. J. K. (Jock) Swire and John Swire Scott joined the Board after the First World War and further generations were brought in after the Second World War.
Despite the internal disturbances in China in the Inter-War period, JS&S's interests in the East continued to prosper and expand. The Taikoo Chinese Navigation Company (registered in 1930) was an attempt to encourage Chinese participation in Taikoo; the Orient Paint, Colour and Varnish Company was opened in Shanghai (1934) and continual efforts were made to increase Taikoo's markets in Asia and the Pacific area generally. The Directors and Eastern managers found themselves more involved in Chinese politics and local problems than John Samuel Swire would have approved. B&S senior staff played important parts in Hong Kong and Shanghai municipal affairs, while the London Directors, in particular Warren and Jock Swire were involved with the China Association and other Eastern trade and political interest groups in Britain.
The Second World War appeared at first more likely to affect JS&S in London than its subsidiaries in the East, although Government requisition of shipping in 1940 affected the working of the CNCo. In December 1941, however, the Japanese invasion of China pushed the British firm out of all its interests in the Pacific and China including the Orient Paint, Colour and Varnish Company in Shanghai and the Dockyard and Refinery in Hong Kong. Many of the staff were interned although some escaped from Hong Kong to Australia. For the duration of the war B&S's presence in the East was maintained from Bombay and Calcutta by B&S (India), with an office remaining in operation in Chungking in Free China. In Britain the Directors, particularly J. K. Swire worked with the Ministry of War Transport and in the National Dock Labour Board to assist the war effort as well as taking an active part in the China Association's plans for the post- war redevelopment of the Far Eastern trade. In the autumn of 1945 the offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai were returned to B&S and the task of rebuilding their interests in the East began.
The above history is based largely on the introduction to the catalogue produced by Elizabeth Hook, A Guide to the papers of John Swire and Sons Ltd., (SOAS, 1977)
Further Reading: Marriner, S. & Hyde, F., 'The Senior' John Samuel Swire 1825- 1898, (Liverpool University Press, 1967) Hyde, F., Blue Funnel. A History of Alfred Holt & Co. of Liverpool, 1865-1914, (Liverpool University Press, 1956)