John Swire & Sons Ltd Archive

Scope and Content

The collection comprises the bulk of known surviving material stored in the London Office of John Swire & Sons, covering the development of the firm from about 1870 to 1982. The collection is not complete, due mainly to bomb damage suffered during World War II. There is also a paucity of Eastern records attributable to the occupation of local offices and the firm's Head Offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1941, when records were destroyed either by the Japanese or beforehand by staff to prevent them falling into enemy hands.

The importance of the collection lies in the comprehensiveness of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century correspondence in illustrating the development of the firm and its subsidiaries from the London side where policies were decided, and from the Eastern side where they were implemented. It also gives a good picture of leading figures and firms involved in the Far Eastern trade at that time such as Jardine, Matheson & Company, the China Merchants Company and Holt's, and reveals aspects of Chinese trade and British business philosophy at the end of the Victorian era.

The material includes series of correspondence coming in and out of the London Office; legal material including original deeds and leases; accounts; organisation papers, board papers and minutes, papers relating to staff and photographs.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Swire & Sons Limited (JS&S), headquartered in the U.K, is the parent company and corporate co-ordinator of the Swire group, a multi-national, multi-disciplined commercial group, with its principal areas of operations in the Asia Pacific region, and centred on the Greater China area, but also interests in America, Canada, and New Zealand.

John Swire & Sons Ltd 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 Hudson 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)


The collection is arranged by organisation - beginning with material relating to the parent company in London, followed by a section for each of the main subsidiaries representing Swire's interests in the East. The subsidiaries are arranged in order of their foundation. The main sections, with their references are: (JSSI) John Swire & Sons; (JSSII) Butterfield & Swire; (JSSIII) China Navigation Company; (JSSIV) Coast Boats Ownery; (JSSV) Taikoo Sugar Refinery; (JSSVI) Taikoo Dockyard & Engineering Company; (JSSVII) Tientsin Lighter Company; (JSSIX) Orient Paint, Colour & Varnish Company; (JSSX) Swire & Maclaine; (JSSXI) Other organisations (Alfred Holt & Company; Steamship Companies; National Dock Labour Corporation; London General Ship Owners Society; China Trade Association; Ministry of War Transport; Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Company Ltd.); (JSSXII) Miscellaneous. Subsequent accruals to the collection have resulted in the creation of new sections for additional subsidiaries, though these have not necessarily been added in order of foundation. These sections are: Cathay Pacific [JSSXIII], John Swire & Sons Australia [JSSXVI], Hong Kong Aeronautical Engineering Co [JSSXVII]. Accruals to the collection are ongoing and papers for further subsidiaries will be added in time. Within each section, the main series of papers are arranged in chronological order.

Access Information

The majority of files are open for consultation. Some files are closed under the Data Protection Act. See individual file descriptions for more details

Restrictions Apply

Acquisition Information

Deposited in 1975, 1977, 1988, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2016

Other Finding Aids

Paper handlist available for material deposited prior to 2012. Material added from 2012 onwards has been catalogued online only.

Archivist's Note


Conditions Governing Use

Copying for personal research purposes is permitted. Please contact the archivist for all publication requests.

Copyright is owned by John Swire & Sons, Ltd, 59 Buckingham Gate, London, SW1E 6AJ

Custodial History

Material has been transferred from the offices of John Swire & Sons, Ltd.


Accruals ongoing

Related Material

Associated Material held elsewhere: Photographic collection held at the Head Office.

At SOAS: Scott Family Papers [ref. PP MS 49], particularly the papers of Maurice Woodforde Scott who worked for Butterfield and Swire in Hong Kong and Shanghai (1934-1937).

Digitisation Projects:

Historical Photographs of China: