A Century of Success
The history of Manchester Liners is inextricably linked to that of the Manchester Ship Canal. The canal was opened in 1894 and it was soon realised that it was going to be necessary to prove the worth of both the canal and the newly created Port of Manchester to the ship owners of the world.
A few shipping lines had already started using the Port of Manchester and amongst them was Furness Withy. In 1897 Sir Christopher Furness initiated trial sailings between Manchester and Montreal. This developed into the idea of a dedicated shipping line for this service. Backing, finance and support for this new venture came from Furness Withy, the Manchester Ship Canal Company, the Canadian Government, the Canadian Pacific Railway and other interested parties in the United States of America.
In 1898 the company Manchester Liners Limited was formed. Sir Christopher Furness who as the major shareholder became its Chairman. Also from Furness Withy, came Mr Robert Burdon Stoker who was appointed Managing Director. When Robert Burdon Stoker died in 1919 the Company Secretary Mr F E Vaughan became Managing Director until his death in 1932. Robert Burdon Stoker’s son Kenneth Stoker replaced him, having been a director of the Company since 1919. His son Robert Burdon Stoker MBE, who was often affectionately known as “Mister Manchester Liners”, in turn succeeded him. The family connection has continued through three generations. It could be said that he was continuing what had almost become a family business. He had the foresight to pioneer the trade into the heart of the Great Lakes in the 1950’s and was the driving force that instigated the use of containers in the 1960’s. The family connection has continued to this day with the founding Robert Burdon Stoker’s great-granddaughter Ann, whom we are proud to have as a member of The Old Shipmates Association.
Manchester Liners became a success story and had regular sailings to most of the ports of eastern Canada and the eastern seaboard of U.S.A.
During the First World War the Company lost ten ships, including the the Manchester Commerce, which was the first merchant ship of the war to be sunk by a mine. The Second World War saw losses of five of its fleet of ten ships. In 1939 the Manchester Regiment was sunk by the Oropesa after colliding with her whilst in convoy with dim navigation lights. In 1940 the Manchester Brigade was torpedoed taking all but four of her members of crew with her. The Manchester Citizen in 1943 was sunk by enemy action. In July 1943 the then new Manchester Merchant was torpedoed whilst returning from Algiers resulting in the loss of 36 members of her crew. In 1944 the Manchester Spinner was scuttled as a block ship for the Normandy landings. The Royal Navy requisitioned the newly built Manchester City as a minelayer “Mother” ship with the home fleet until December 1940 whence she proceeded to the Indian Ocean to play her full part as a naval auxiliary supply ship in the Far Eastern War. Three new ships had been built so that on the cessation of hostilities the company was able to resume its weekly Canadian service.
Before the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the Company was also innovative in using small ships sailing direct from Manchester to create a service to the Great Lakes, where its house flag could be seen in nearly every lake, river and creek that was accessible and big enough to take its ships. This was followed by an all the year around container service to Montreal through the ice bound St Lawrence River that was normally closed to navigation during the wintertime.
Diversification saw the Company expand into port management, ship repairs with Morrell Mills, container repairs and road transport. Investigations were even made into the feasibility of cargo carrying airships.
In the 1970’s with the container revolution having taken over and ship sizes growing, both Manchester Liners and the Manchester Ship Canal Company were fast becoming victims of their own success. Therefore, with great reluctance, Manchester Liners moved their container base first to Ellesmere Port and then to Liverpool. This move was a contributory factor to the decline of what had become the United Kingdom’s fourth largest port.
In 1980, the Company being a part of the Furness group, whose black Furness band it displayed on its funnels, was to lose its autonomy when the group was taken over by Orient Overseas Container (Holdings) owned by C Y Tung of Hong Kong, who transferred the group’s container services to Felixstowe.
With 1988 came the cessation of its North Atlantic services, integration with the Orient Overseas Container Line, and finally the acquisition of the Furness Group in 1990 by the Hamburg-Sud Amerika group. After a century of trading, the end came for the United Kingdom’s most innovative shipping company, and also the Port of Manchester as we knew it.