Butterfield and Swire General Correspondence

Administrative / Biographical History

Butterfield and Swire [B&S], the Far Eastern trading company of John Swire and Sons, was one of three companies established from the partnership of John and William Swire with R S Butterfield. The Shanghai Office opened on 1 January 1867 to handle JS&S textile shipments to China which had previously been consigned to Preston, Bruell & Co. Almost at once the firm's interests were extended with the acquisition of the agency for Alfred Holt's Blue Funnel Line and expansion into shipping, insurance and other fields was eventually to lead to the abandonment of textile shipments for which the company had originally been formed.

Throughout the Nineteenth Century branches were opened and agencies established in ports in Japan, along the Yangtze River and down the China coast, including in 1870 the Hong Kong office which was accorded equal status with Shanghai. Expansion also took place into South East Asia, Australia and the Philippines until there were B&S offices or agents in most parts of the Far East.

Although the partnership with Butterfield was dissolved in 1868 the firm retained its original title and gradually new partners were taken in by John Swire, particularly after his brother's retirement in 1876. All JS&S interests in the East were placed under the direction of B&S and all correspondence from the East was conducted through the Hong Kong or Shanghai Head Offices.

By the 1930's, apart from the management of JS&S concerns in the East such as China Navigation Company [CNCo], Taikoo Sugar Refinery amongst others, B&S also held the important agencies of the Ocean Steamship Company and the China Mutual Steam Navigation Company as well as numerous insurance companies and other companies trading in the East. Despite the serious internal problems affecting China and severe Japanese competition the firm flourished until the Japanese invasion in 1941, when the outports offices and Hong Kong were taken over and closed down and the staff interned. The Shanghai office continued to function into 1942 and some accounts and letters were sent out with the British Embassy staff who were repatriated in the spring of 1942, shortly after the remaining B&S staff were interned.

During the war the B&S office at Chungking [Chongqing] in Free China took over the remaining Chinese business of B&S while the main B&S presence in the Far East was maintained from Bombay and Calcutta [Kolkata] by B&S (India). The Hong Kong and Shanghai Offices were reopened in the autumn of 1945 and the outports gradually as business resumed and B&S property was returned from the Japanese.

Under normal conditions the Hong Kong and Shanghai Head Offices divided the various B&S responsibilities between them, although maintaining consultation on issues involving both. Shanghai controlled B&S and CNCo branches, business and property in Shanghai, along the Yangtze River and in coastal ports north of Ningpo [Ningbo], as well as the management of the Orient Paint, Colour and Varnish Co and the Tientsin Lighter Co. Hong Kong dealt with B&S and CNCo branches and agencies on the South China coast, in Indo-China, Siam, the Philippines and the Straits, and with the management of the Dockyard and Refinery. It was also the senior Blue Funnel Agency in the East, dealing direct with Holt's in Liverpool on all matters including the routing of homeward loading vessels, and sending copies of the correspondence to Swire's in London. Eastern staff postings, pay and leave arrangements for JS&S owned concerns were discussed by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Managers before joint recommendations were sent to London for final decision. The daily running of the firms TD&ECo, TSR and OPCo were, however in the hands of works and factory managers rather than the responsibility of B&S although all overall policy and management recommendations were made and put forward to London by the relevant B&S office.

Both Head Offices were organised on the same basic structure as the London Office; the Outer Office being divided into sections dealing with particular interests and specialities and a Private Office with a Manager and assistants. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Managers wielded considerable power, all communications with London being conducted through them and their opinions were respected by the London Office. J S Swire took first William Lang, the head in Shanghai, and then J H Scott and Edwin Mackintosh as partners and these three men controlled the Eastern end for many years. Lang retired in 1888 and Scott and Mackintosh returned to Britain in the 1890's and their replacements were not taken in as partners as they had been but later in the Twentieth Century it became practice to appoint one Director from the Eastern staff who had had experience as Manager in Hong Kong or Shanghai.

Almost every record series within the archive contains material relating to B&S, but the groups listed below concern its own particular organisation, mainly for the years 1922-1947. For the Nineteenth Century the JS&S correspondence series (JSSI 1 & 2) cover B&S in detail and the Accounts Books (JSSI 6) contain what evidence remains of the early financial position of the company. The majority of the local Eastern records of B&S offices were lost during the Japanese occupation (see JSSXII 1/6) and the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Outports Letters in to the Manager, Shanghai (JSSII 1) are an important, if incomplete, record of the functioning of the B&S organisation within China.

There are some gaps in the later material in the series: future accruals may be expected

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