The story of Manchester Liners from 1898 to the company's diamond jubilee year of 1958 has already been told by Mr R. B. Stoker in articles published in "Sea Breezes" in May 1948 and July 1958. Now Mr Stoker has written an account of the company's subsequent 25 years, packed with some of the most exciting and far reaching developments in world shipping. It is reproduced here from Volume 58 No. 467 Novemnber 1984 & 468 December 1984 and Volume 59 469 January 1985 & 470 February 1985 of "Sea Breezes" with their kind permission.
By Robert Burdon Stoker
In this third instalment covering therecent history of Manchester Liners Ltd., the period between 1970 and 1982 is recorded — a period when there were many changes, most important of which was the acquisition of the Furness Withy Group by the C. Y. Tung Group, of Hong Kong.
STRIKES which disrupted the 1960s did not end with with the start of the 1970s. Unofficial strikes took place at Manchester Docks despite the saving of Prince Line services for Manchester and the fact that all possible was done at the start of containerisation to safeguard jobs at the docks. The problem continued intermittently throughout the decade, and was a major factor in the decline of the Port of Manchester.
Direct employers of labour can establish close and trusting relationships with their employees. However Manchester Liners did not employ the dockers — and nor did the company which paid them, the Manchester Ship Canal Company.
The dockers were in the army of the National Dock Labour Board, formed as a result of a social experiment designed to give greater security and a bigger say to the workmen. The men were allocated to employers — at Manchester the Manchester Ship Canal — who collected a levy on behalf of the Dock Labour Board.
On the local board were representatives of the Transport and General Workers' Union (T&GWU), the "white" union — and employers, including shipowners, on a 50-50 basis. This meant that the union officials, instead of exclusively looking after the interests of a member, could also be judge and jury on a disciplinary panel.
The root of the problem went back to the 1967 national dock strike. After that strike, the dockers were all "decasualised", that is, they not only had a continuous job but a job for life.
Lord Brown, of Glacier Metals, who was an idealistic Socialist, and Mr. Frank Cousins, of the T&GWU, produced this wide-ranging scheme under the umbrella of the National Dock Labour Board.
The board, although operating on levies from the employers, fostered loyalty to itself through clubs and events such as races or rowing competitions. But in fact it formed a wedge between the employers and the men. preventing the loyalty and understanding which good employers are able to create.
The job guarantee was given at a time when every type of cargo-handling — bulk, pallets and containers — was becoming less labour intensive. This "fairyland" situation had a great deal to do with the gradual self-destruction of the jobs of dockers.
In 1971 a series of first one-day, then two and three-day strikes commenced at Manchester. No notice was given, and the result was that customers kept their cargoes away. It was a real boost to new emerging competitor lines.
The strikes ended in June, but it took a long time to re-establish confidence. Some of the cargo which Manchester Liners had developed from the Continent through the Port of Manchester disappeared for ever.
The problem went deeper. The "blue" union — London stevedores — established an autonomous branch in Manchester. They had been kicked out of Trades Union Congress for poaching, so they were not recognised.
The T&GWU forbade the Manchester Ship Canal Company to recognise the "blue," union on pain of refusing to allow ships into the port. Unofficial meetings were called on the "croft"" by the "blue" union. They wanted higher rates to he negotiated by the Port Modernisation Committee — on which they were not represented, but on which the T&GWU had 50 per cent representation.
A report in the "Manchester Evening News" stated: "Only those lucky enough to work at the container terminal get a good days pay".
As the "meat in the sandwich", Manchester Liners, from a profit of £716,000, turned in a loss of £440,000.
During 1972 there was further disruption in Montreal in May and June. Due to the unit train operation from Halifax, Nova Scotia, there was much less traffic going through the Port of Montreal. With no arrangements to cushion the dockers, they went on strike — and hurt the very people who were giving them the most work.
At the end of nine weeks, the Canadian Federal Government ordered the dockers back to work. In the meantime, the vessels had to go into Halifax or straight up into the Lakes. When they got back to the UK there was a national dock strike for four weeks which was only settled by the well-known Jones/Alderton Report. These two strikes cost Manchester Liners £1½mn. but the year's loss was only 5111,000.
In 1976 there were again strikes in the St. Lawrence from the end of March to May and unofficial strikes until July.
Manchester Liners fought hard behind the scenes to prevent nationalisation of the main British ports, believing the result would be a bonanza for Antwerp and a disaster for Britain.
Looking back on this period is interesting. On January 18 1984 the "Financial Times", in an article on the Transport and General Workers' Union, stated: "The T&GWU used to bestride Britain's trade unions like a Colossus. Its voice was heard everywhere.
"The General Secretaries became Government Ministers, its ideas became Acts of Parliament. At the height of its influences in the 1970s Mr. Jack Jones was seen as the most powerful man in Britain".
Commented Mr Stoker: ""But at local level, with a closed shop, the officials were impotent to influence their members. It was the weakness, rather than the strength of the union which was so disastrous:"
Retirement of "Mr. Manchester Liners"
In 1979 there were top-level changes in the board structures of Furness Withy and Manchester Liners. Mr. Brian. P. Shaw, managing director of Furness Withy, succeeded Sir James Steel at the end of June, taking over the joint roles of chairman and managing director.
Mr. R. B. Stoker retired from the Furness Withy board at the same time. Mr. T. R. Pulley, of Furness Withy, joined Mr. Shaw on the Manchester Liners board.
Mr. Geoffrey Murrant resigned as deputy chairman of Furness Withy and retired from the board of Manchester Liners. His father, Sir Ernest Murrant, served Furness Withy as chairman of Manchester Liners from 1944 to 1959.
In .July, having reached the age of 65, Mr. Stoker retired as chairman of Manchester Liners, being succeeded by Mr. Tony Roberts, who continued as managing director.
Paying his own tribute, Mr. Roberts presented Mr. Stoker with the original company seal, the stamp having been changed to read: "Robert Burdon Stoker, 1932-1979, Manchester Liners Ltd..'
An inscription read: This seal was in continuous use by the company from its incorporation in May 1898 until July 1979, during which time the Stoker family was represented on the board of directors."
Mr. Roberts told the assembled staff — employees with 30 or more years service — at Manchester Liners House that he was going to describe a man of many parts, an author infused with a sense of history, appreciative of art and a painter himself, an orator with a gift for finding the right and imaginative phrase: a man with a genius for improvisation who followed his own judgement, intuition and impulse, a man of courage, of action and of humanity, a leader who got things done; who often dressed outrageously and wore strange headgear, who produced and seized on new ideas so indiscriminately that others had to sieve them to prevent time-wasting schemes — and yet who was responsible for, at the bottom of the sieve, many golden nuggets of wisdom, talent, drive and genius.
Pausing for a moment, Mr. Roberts then added: In fact these words were written about Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. "If you thought I was referring to Mr. Robert Burdon Stoker then, clearly, these two men shared many characteristics.
"Like many of us, he started with Manchester Liners by making tea in the Dock Office and making dock returns. He did a good job there. His ability to write at the same time with both hands certainly speeded documentation.
"During the war, as Deputy Ministry of War Transportation Representative, he earned a great reputation as the "uncrowned King of Sicily." He designed his own uniform, which was very impressive. His unconventional approach achieved dramatic results.
"He was involved in laying out railroads. He ran the Messina-Reggio ferry. And he organised the biggest shipment of oranges and lemons from Sicily to the UK in fewer ships than ever previously recorded — producing orange crush and lemon squash by his stowage!
"Then it was back to ML and all his great achievements. Under his leadership there has been so much new thinking and action.. . the first British company into the Great Lakes, seven years before the Seaway was built; the first ship into the Seaway when it was opened. Then the first British deep-sea container service.
Mr. Stoker, in an amusing reply, referred to many of the captains, crews and staff he had known over his 47 years of service, expressed his thanks for all the gifts, and praised Mr. Roberts. "I am quite sure that you could not have a better chairman," he said.
Mr. Stoker's boundless energy and drive were not confined to Manchester Liners. Perhaps some idea of the extent of his activities can be gained from an entry in "Who's Who in Greater Manchester," published in 1982, reading:
STOKER, Robert Burdon (MA (Hans.) (Manchester University).
Chairman, British Engine Insurance Ltd: Director, Manchester Ship Canal. Born. 12 July 1914; Hoylake. Married, 1914, Mildred Cameron; one son, two daughters. Education: Marlborough College. War Service: Deputy Ministry of War Transport Representative. Previous positions: Chairman, Manchester Liners; Presdent, Manchester Chamber of Commerce; President, Manchester Guardian Society for Protection of Trade; National President, Institute of Shipping and Forwarding Agents; Publications: The Legacy of Arthur's Chester; Cheshire's Greatest Battle; 60 Years on the Western Ocean. Prizes: Queen's Jubilee Medal (1977). Societies: Court, University of Salford; President, Manchester Outward Bound; President, Cheadle Conservative Association; Vice-Chairman Churchill Club; President, Alderley Edge and Wilmslow Arthritis and Rheumatism Association; Vice-President, St. Ann's Hospice; Trustee, Boat Museum, Ellesmere Port; Chairman, Manchester Church Army Centenary; Royal Liverpool Golf Club; Wilmslow Golf Club; Prestbury Golf Club; St. James's Club,' Manchester. Recreations, interests: Golf, painting, history.
Even that list is not complete, not mentioning, for example, that he founded the Manchester Junior Chamber of Commerce, was a director of Furness Withy, a local director of Barclays Bank, a director of Charles Hill of Bristol Ltd., a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Transport and a Fellow of the Institute of Materials Handling.
Mr. Stoker's father, Kenneth, had stayed on as chairman of Manchester Liners until June 1968 in order to allow his son time to devote to his presidency of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce — and also to relieve the load in the planning of the container services.
British Engine Insurance Ltd. — carrying out engineering inspection and insurance — was also a three-generation firm, founded in 1878 by Robert Bewick Longridge, whose son became chairman, and then his grandson, Harry, the last Longridge with British Engine. Mr. Stoker became chairman in 1975, retiring in 1984.
READERS of Kipling will remember the dour, Scots chief engineer, McAndrew. Mr Robert Stoker, as a boy of 14, was given £5 and sent off to Canada in the Manchester Regiment. The commodore chief engineer, Jimmy Duncan, had been with the company from the start and could have been Kipling's character.
They shared agents in Montreal with McLean Kennedy. who were also agents for the privately-owned Head Line, of Belfast. Before the war they took parcels of grain to Irish ports, getting a premium for such ports as Londonderry. Then, during the war, they were directed also into Liverpool and stayed there after the war.
They built faster ships like the Ramore Head fitted with turbines and believed (probably wrongly) to be a first cousin of the Manchester Liners ships. Being faster, they were able to make a deal with Canadian Pacific to load on their berth out of Liverpool.
When the containers came the lnishowen Head was converted for them and sailed on the Liverpool berth of Canadian Pacific but they finished in the mid-1970s.
IN 1970 came word that the Mediterranean lines were proposing a consortium for containers. Manchester Liners had put on little ships to "cream the traffic" and to avoid lengthy times in port. The ML share of the West coast trade had gone down to about 5 per cent but it was a profitable 5 per cent.
Obviously, any consortium would be out of Liverpool not Manchester. Says Mr. Stoker; We would be a very minor partner, the object of giving employment to dockers in Manchester would be negatived and furthermore, we were busy building up transhipment cargo to and from North America.
The British lines all used the same agent in Beirut as in Israel. The rules of the game were that a vessel going to Israel could not go to an Arab country and vice-versa. So two seperate services with different vessels were run.
We spied out the land and found in Israel a fine old-established agent, Ardo Shipping, who had been sacked by the UK lines — but our London friend asked us not to break with their new friends who represented all the British lines."
Mr Stoker and Mr D. E. Warburton, director of Manchester Prince Line, went out to sell the container concept in the broadest terms in company with a common agent.
"Then a visit was made to Cyprus'", said Mr. Stoker. It was found that Queen Victoria's regulations were still intact and the lorry with a container would need a man with a red flag in front!
"However we visited the Transport Minister and the groundwork was laid for a service there.
When we arrived at the agents office in Famagusta, the switchboard operator reported that the opposition agents across the road had rung up our agents asking, Who are the two Englishmen?'
The Middle East is, of course, a land of mystery, so one of the visitors put on his straw hat well down over his eyes and, with dark glasses and a notebook, walked across the road into the opposition's office, making phoney notes of what he saw, into the private office of two startled partners and back across the road.
"Perhaps it was not surprising when on arrival at London airport there was a Tannoy message asking us to ring Mr Murrant, deputy chairman of Furness Withy.
"What on earth have you been doing in the Mediterranean?" he inquired.
The next day a summit meeting was called of the top brass of the Mediterranean."
The chairman of Manchester Liners was up against the wall with the chairman and deputy chairman of Furness Withy trying to see fair play. "It was a difficult meeting with so many lawyers for the prosecution but nothing was conceded", said Mr Stoker. 'The result was that we were able to say we must have our own agents.
The scene was then shifted to a Conference meeting. One of the lines had just arranged for new conventional tonnage so was not too enthusiastic about a container service.
"Altogether there were six British lines and Zim Lines the Israel national line in, and our friend the Prince Line had to speak against us as they were part of the proposed new consortium from London.
They used to have one vote but when we took over the West coast service they were reduced to half a vote — and we had half a vote. So it was 63 votes to one against.
We were told that we could join in at 5 per cent ex-the Mersey and our reply was that we had a ship available, the Manchester Merit, which we had ordered in Spain and could start the service next month, months ahead of any other line. This was not very popular.
On the next day we compromised and put the service off for four months to enable the lines to organise themselves.
An uneasy peace was restored and we developed Cyprus further with a big meeting in Nicosia attended by the Transport Minister, a devotee of Shakespeare.
"Another meeting was then called in Manchester, at Manchester Liners House, hoping that our friends would be impressed by it.
"We were three times expelled from the Conference and three times brought back again, finally on the basis that we promised not to absorb any inland charges from London where the rates were much higher than from Manchester as the cargo was of better class.
"However to put pressure on us, the new Furness Withy vessel, the Chiltern Prince, bound for the London consortium, was not allowed to join it, so we chartered her on our service which improved it until such time as wiser counsel prevailed and they were allowed into the London consortium.
"What is certain is that because of our dedication to the container concept we brought containers into the whole Mediterranean certainly six months before they would otherwise have taken over.
"Equally, without our strong minority interest we would have been unable to go it alone.
It is interesting that the line which was busy building conventional vessels was the first of the main lines to give up its service."
ALSO in the Mediterranean, Furness has been trading to Greece with the old Johnston Line since the last century but they had finished their service around the end of the 1960s. The philosophy of Manchester Liners was that wherever there was no service out of Manchester to the Mediterranean the company would put ships in.
About four years later Manchester Liners put in a regular service to Greece, basically for the homeward cargo which assisted in developing the Beirut trade.
This was a rather unpopular move with our colleagues but eventually they got used to it'", said Mr Stoker.
"Other outside competitors appeared and towards the end of the decade we suggested to our principal competitor it was time we started to work together and take business from our competitors instead of from each other.
Then Christopher Furness changed the Furness Line funnel to these colours.
"Following a stormy interview with RBS, it was at once back to black;" said Mr Stoker.
In 1921 Sir Frederick Lewis then changed the Furness funnels to black with a narrow and a broad red (purplish) band — and so it has been seen since in the ports of the world.
It was around the same time that the Prince Line added the Prince of Wales feathers to the funnels of their ships.
A story about Sir James Knott, founder of the Prince Line, concerns an occasion when Knott met a group of cadets on the quayside at Newcastle and inquired, "What ship are you from, my boys?"
The Sailor Prince," -- one of the Prince Line vessels -- said one of the cadets.
"Well", said Sir James, "I'm Knott". Came the reply, "You're jolly lucky!"
SAILING in the remote and icy northern regions of Canada in the 1950s apparently involved not only the difficulties of serving rather primitive ports but also of being guided by an Eskimo pilot believed to be around 95 years of age and blind, assisted as deputy pilot by his son, a youngster of about 65.
"Legend has it that the son would say "Onk, onk, onk", meaning "There is a lone pine tree on the starboard bow", said Mr Stoker.
"Father would say "Oink"", which meant "Put your wheel hard to port".
The vessel would be steered like that for something like 34 miles!"
ANOTHER story from the period of expansion in Northern Canada concerns head salesman John Killick, who was in the United States city of Savannah, Georgia, and complaining about the heat. He was sent to the cold far North — to Churchill, on Hudson's Bay, joining colleague Harry Harrison, who was awaiting the arrival of the next Manchester Liners ship.
Says Mr Stoker: "Harrison, later to become manager in Vancouver, is the man who, after six weeks in Churchill, earned immortality by sending his boss a postcard picture of an Eskimo woman smoking a pipe. Wrote Harrison, 'She is starting to look attractive. Please can I come home?"
DURING the unofficial strike of seamen in 1960, directed more at officers of the union than the shipowners, the wives of strikers were given a breakdown of earnings of their husbands. It was not a popular move in some quarters.
In an effort to keep matters good-humoured, Mr Stoker offered a "Kentucky breakfast' to any seaman who had received less than a certain figure on a voyage.
A "Kentucky breakfast" is a bottle of whisky and a steak. — you give the steak to the dog!
An argument developed over whether ''Sundays at sea money" should be included. Compromising, Mr Stoker presented a bottle of rum., which was promptly raffled by the unofficial strike committee as the management's personal contribution to the strike fund!"
On hearing of this ingenuity, Mr Stoker commented. "Thank goodness I didn't offer 200 bottles of whisky'.
FOR some years after the First World War Manchester Liners had carried up to 12 passengers in the cargo vessels. this ending after the Second World War as Passenger airliners began to take over.
On one passenger voyage, the master. Cape Horner Carat Emile, had been told to be specially polite to an important guest, a lady who while dining could not get the salt out of the salt cellar. Gallantly, the captain said, "Let me help you. madam'". He picked up the salt cellar and blew down its top!
WHEN the Manchester Shipper and Manchester Pioneer were chosen to star in the film of Shelagh Delaney's novel "A Taste of Honey'', it was not known that part of the plot involved a drunken seaman taking his girl friend on board. involving an also drunken chief officer!
When the premiere took place, the company had to take space in the programme to point out that Manchester Liners neither approved nor allowed such conduct!
THE company was, of course. learning about container handling when the Manchester Shipper was fitted with a derrick crane for the pilot scheme between Manchester and Chicago.
In Chicago the port labour seemed to delight in seeing how big a hole they could make in the containers with fork-lift trucks. Another problem was controlling the movement of containers. In Manchester there was a ticket for each container giving a number and routing directions hooked on to a destination dividing board.
Nobody visualised how vigorously these would be dusted by the dusting ladies. Much time was spent picking up the labels from the floor so a better system was devised.
WHISKY was one of the most vulnerable conventionally-shipped cargoes. Cases were easily opened, bottles taken and bricks of the right weight substituted. A case dropped on its corner would enable a bowler hat to be filled,
A St John legend is that some people, knowing the exact spot in the shed where the whisky would be stowed, would go out on Sundays in a boat complete with a bath-tub, rowing underneath the shed.
As the tide lifted the boat to the underside of the floor they would drill with an awl through the wooden timbers and into the barrel, filling the bath-tub.
The change to containers certainly cut pilferage.
"Do you charge him less than you charge me?' asked Mr Kosygin.
Mr Stoker felt he really ought to intervene so he said. "Now, Mr Kosygin, you see all those containers stacked up there? I painted them red especially for you. And you might like to know that our strong ice-strengthened vessels come up the St Lawrence breaking the ice for yours that come along behind — and we don't charge you anything,'
Mr Kosygin immediately burst out laughing.
This, at first, seemed puzzling as all the conversation was being translated by an interpreter into Russian. However it transpired that Mr Kosygin had started his working life as an apprentice with Platt Brothers in Oldham, Lancashire, and knew English perfectly!
The party then became quite informal and friendly.
As a tailpiece to this story, Mr Stoker was in Greece some time later when he was invited on board a Russian cruise ship as guest of the head of the Russian Merchant Marine, to whom he said. "By the way, I was talking to your boss the other day:'
"But I haven't got a boss", the Russian replied.
Mr Stoker explained that he was referring to a "chap called Kosygin", to which the reply was, "Oh, you mean God!"
Evidently, Russia is not entirely an atheist country.
THE closing years of the 1970s brought many influences to bear on the world-wide development of containerisation and the fortunes of ship-ping companies.
On the North Atlantic the activities of non-Conference carriers in a fierce rate-cutting war were a major factor in producing headlines such as Who will survive?", "Steaming into the red' and "Rates battle of the Atlantic."
Another headline, in the noted shipping daily "Journal of Commerce" made clever use of the names of ML vessels. Referring to the departure of two of the original containerships from the Montreal service and the arrival of two larger ML ships on the route, the headline read: "Challenge with Courage brings Reward and Renown"
The impact of the Common Market was making itself felt, with the emphasis on getting into Europe, bringing the South East coast into greater prominence.
In 1979 we had the misfortune to be adversely affected in every sector of our United Kingdom trading activities, resulting in a serious loss.
"During the first two months of the year the road haulage strike and 'secondary picketing' resulted in the blockading of all UK ports and brought the fleet to a standstill.
This militant action by the labour unions also took a toll upon the trade of our road haulage companies and the marine engineering group.
'Equally disappointing was the depressed world charter scene for those of our containerships made available on the market as the result of the lack of activity from the UK. These ships. which had been trading profitably. were chartered out together with our regular ships for the charter market, in a weak dollar-earning currency.
"When the blockade ended, urgent steps were taken to get our North Atlantic and Mediterranean trades flowing again.
The road haulage companies quickly regained their profitability but the engineering group continued with work unrest and against severe competition from the nationalised ship repair yards who were bidding at depressed rates for the limited business availabie.
"Losses continued and eventually the nettle had to be grasped. Manchester Dry Docks Ltd., Morrell Mills and Co. Ltd. and Container Workshops Ltd., were placed in creditors' voluntary liquidation, E. Wilcox and Co., (Chains) Ltd., was sold and James Walker and Sons (Shipping) Ltd., was closed down.
"These were old and respected companies but painful decisions were necessary to get us back into shape:'
Quantifying the effects of industrial disputes on profits, Mr. Roberts said the loss on sales on the liner services during the road haulage strike resulted in a shortfall in contribution to profits of more than £2mn. The engineering companies, before closure in August 1979, had lost in excess of 10.5mn.
Because of the depressed market and weak US dollar, the ships out on charter, while covering their operating costs, failed to meet the total cost of their depreciation.
"The 1979 loss put a severe strain on the cash flow," said Mr. Roberts. "Current high loan interest charges for a company such as ours — which employs assets of a value many times excess of an historically narrow based capital structure — erode the profits."
The Medliners-Iran sea-road service was affected by increasing chaos in Iran caused by anti-Shah factions.
On a brighter note, the Marine Transport International Co. Ltd., in which Manchester Liners had a 36 per cent share, was doing well in managing and operating container terminals at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and at Khor Fakkan, Sharjah.
The Golden Cross Line subsidiary made news by carrying the biggest lift ever from the Port of Manchester in a conventional ship, a 210-tonne stator core for Sundance hydro-electric power scheme in Canada.
Not to be left out of the picture, the heavy-lift capabilities. of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean services were also in the news. A power station boiler weighing 116 long tonnes was shipped from Erie, Pennsylvania to the Middle East. It was carried from Erie to Montreal on the ML feeder containership Kathleen, transferred at Montreal to the Manchester Concorde and at Liverpool to the Manchester Faith for the final leg of the journey, in a total sailing time of 19 days.
In the Mediterranean, against a background of overtonnaging and rate-cutting, the United Kingdorn/Mediterranean Container Conference was born. Original members of the new Conference included Manchester Liners, Adriatica di Navigazione. Cent-ship, P&O Strath, Prince Line and Ellerman City Liners, covering ports in Malta, Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon and Southern Turkey plus through carriage to hinterland destinations.
Under New Management
MANY of the headlines in 1979 and 1980 were in the financial pages, relating the last chapters of the shares battle between Eurocanadian Shipholdings Ltd (Cast), Furness Withy and Manchester Liners. in the wake of the 1976 Report of the Monopolies Commission.
Typical in 1979 were "The thrust and parry at Furness Withy", "Narby attacks in FW battle'", "No love match", "Struggle for power" and "Furness repels boarders."
In early 1980 the headline writers had to cope with another factor — the arrival on the scene of the C.Y. Tung Group. Headlines in February and March read: "Tung wants Furness' and "C.Y. Tung bid to clinch Furness: On February 14 the business staff of the 'Manchester Evening News' wrote: "Last night Furness collected a surprise takeover bid from one of the most fascinating shipping men in the world. C.Y. Tung, of Hong Kong."
On March 17, 1980 the board of Furness Withy and Co. Ltd.. unanimously recommended to shareholders an offer of 420p per share by Orient Overseas Containers (Holdings) Ltd. The offer, made by Kenwake Holdings Ltd., a wholly-owned subsidiary company of OOC(H)L — part of the C.Y. Tung Group, of Hong Kong — was successful.
As a result of acquiring the majority of the issued capital of Furness Withy and Co Ltd. OOC(H)L had, of course, also acquired the 61.6 per cent equity of Manchester Liners held by Furness Withy.
The 37 6 per cent ordinary shareholding by Eurocanadian (Cast) in Manchester Liners was purchased by Rendish Investment Ltd., a member of the C.Y. Tung Group.
The man who built up Orient Oversees Chao Yung (C.V.) Tung, the second largest shipowner in Hong Kong, was in his late 60s at the time. His interests included the Europe/Far East container trade through the fast-growing Orient Overseas Container Line: a stake in the Dart Containerline operating between UK/Continent and North America: membership through OOCL of a Far East/Australia container consortium; and a Middle East service by OOCL.
In the mid-70s he handed over the day-to-day running of the business to his sons Chee Hwa (C.H.) Tung (cargo operations) and Chee Chen (C.C.) Tung, North American operations.
Mr. Shaw, who joined the board of OOC(H)L, said Furness Withy looked forward to working in a much larger group with world-wide interests and potential.
We shall be glad to concentrate on the future of the business without having to spend half the time stopping to look over our shoulder," he said. "It is an exciting and challenging prospect."
Commented Mr. Roberts: "The C.V. Tung Group, together with Furness Withy, will be helping the company to continue developing its container service on the North Atlantic route as well as other activities — but, as usual, our future will rest on our own efforts."
The start of the Eighties
MANY forces affecting shipping were reaching a climax when Mr. Roberts took over the helm of Manchester Liners.
The three years from 1980 to 1983 will undoubtedly go down in shipping history as a period when the older order underwent rapid change, yielding place to new, never to be the same again.
The stark background of the latter half of the 1970s was that overheads had escalated practically beyond control. Fuel prices increased dramatically. The cost of oil reached 50 per cent of a ship's operating costs. Seamen's wages had continued to rise considerably. At the same time, world-wide recession was deepening.
All these factors affected the North Atlantic in the 1980s. The Cast Line — plus, in due course, the break-away Sofati Line — continued cut-throat rate cutting despite falling cargo tonnages, especially Westbound. Too many slots were chasing too little cargo. The Atlantic Ocean was being described as a "battleground" and a "bloodbath."
Another difficulty for Manchester Liners, was the problems of chartering out surplus containerships for which there was little demand. And, as ever, there were strikes, particularly the seamen's strike at the beginning of 1981, lasting until mid-February.
As losses mounted, great shipping lines plunged into the red. Famous names like Hansa, Farrell and Seatrain headed for the bottom or limped off the Atlantic sea lanes.
During 1980, in the closing stages of the Furness Withy and Manchester Liners share activities of Cast Line, financial dealings continued until the take-over of Furness Withy and Manchester Liners by the Tung Group.
The year 1980 started in drearily familiar style as far as Manchester Liners were concerned. Liverpool Docks were closed for two weeks while the dockers supported a totally unrelated strike of steel workers causing losses to the North Atlantic and Mediterranean services. Mr. Roberts would realise that the consequence of their actions was to jeopardise their employment and that of others.
Writing to Mr. Roberts, Mr. Balfour said. You must be proud to be chairman of such an efficient company with such helpful and cheerful staff."
Film-maker Brian Vaughton travelled to Montreal and on by feeder vessel into the Great Lakes, then sailed out again from Manchester to the Mediterranean, producing a half-hour documentary film about the container services of Manchester Liners.
Bill Martin was appointed owner's representative of Manchester Liners, centrally-based in Cyprus.
In August the Med Division opened a Manchester-Naples service (later transferred to Salerno), bringing the total of countries served to seven, sailing regularly to nine Mediterranean ports.
On October 30, Manchester Liners held a reception at the new Container Terminal in Chicago — Iroquois Landing — to commemorate the arrival of the first container vessel, the motorship Liberta.
In Sharjah, Marine Transportation International (UAE) Ltd., built a floating ro-ro berth at the Khor Fakkan Container Terminal, officially opened by His Highness Sheikh Saqr Bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, able to handle two ro-ro vessels simultaneously. Conflict which had broken out between Iraq and Iran served to highlight the strategic location of Khor Fakkan, outside the vital Strait of Hormuz, entrance to the Gulf.
On December 31 Capt. Eric Askew retired. He had joined the company after being twice torpedoed during the war, served on the Manchester Progress as third officer, obtained his master's certificate in 1947, and took over the Manchester Progress in 1956. In 1978 he gained the Gold Caine, the Manchester Concorde being first of the New Year into Montreal.
Share dealings continued. In October the Tung Group and Compagnie Maritime Beige (CMB) acquired the Dart shares held by the old-established Bibby Line, of Liverpool.
In 1981 the seamen's strike brought services to a standstill, meaning that the year started with a group loss of 1½ mn.
During that year, Westbound freight revenue per container for Manchester Liners was a mere 4 per cent over the level for 1979, quite insufficient to cover the percentage increase in overhead costs. There were special problems in Lebanon as fighting continually flared. Life was not easy for Manchester Liners — nor for many other operators.
Action was taken by the "big three" North Atlantic operators servicing Canada to stem the tide. In the Spring, Manchester Liners, as members of Furness Withy (Shipping) Ltd., Dart Containerline (Canada) and Canadian Pacific announced plans for a new co-ordinated weekly container service, operating from Walton Container Terminal, a subsidiary of OOC(H)L Felixstowe, to the Racine Container Terminal Montreal to commence in August 1981.
Mr. Roberts, deputy chairman of Furness Withy (Shipping), chairman and managing director of Manchester Liners, explained: The whole concept of this new venture is that the three companies will continue exactly as before by way of marketing and selling with a view to retaining and hopefully expanding their share of the market, each providing their usual back-up services such as documentation, container control and inland transportation."
Instead of the three companies providing their own North Atlantic ships of medium size they would utilise four large container vessels, each company providing one ship and sharing in the fourth. The vessels, to be named Manchester Challenge, Dart Europe, CP Ambassador and Canadian Explorer would provide a regularly weekly service, Eastbound and Westbound, sailing not only from Felixstowe, but also from Hamburg, Antwerp and Le Havre.
In preparation for the new service, Dart vessels were being re-fitted to carry 1,800 TEU and ice-strengthened, said Mr. Roberts.
The new St. Lawrence Co-ordinated Service (SLCS) from Felixstowe would mean withdrawing Manchester Liners services from Liverpool and Greenock to Montreal. It also means that while providing the same amount of capacity only four vessels would be required instead of eleven.
The company opened a branch office at Felixstowe. Mr. Sam Wall moving from Manchester to become manager, with Mr. Robert Barnacle also going there as his assistant.
"With the current background conditions on the North Atlantic Manchester Liners had a very uncertain future because of the size of its vessels and the restricted market of the UK", said Mr. Roberts.
"The integrated service enables ML to be an important member of the newest and strongest 'big battalion' on the North Atlantic."
The calls being made in Germany, Belgium and France by the new service meant that Manchester Liners had to return to the Continent for cargo. Mr. Derek Spanton was appointed general manager — Continent, and no time was lost in setting up a strong network of continental general agencies.
Representatives of Jokelson and Handtsaem, of France; Phs. Van Ommeren NV, of the Netherlands and Belgium; and Aug. Bolten, Wm. Miller's Nachfolger of Germany, met in Manchester with UK directors and executives, plus ML staff from Canada and the USA, to discuss combined operations.
Willem D. Passenier was appointed ML owner's representative — Continental Europe, based in Antwerp. A considerable linguist, he was fluent in English, French, German and Dutch, with a working knowledge of Portuguese and Spanish.
The SLCS Service commenced in August, initially with the sailing of the Manchester Vanguard from Felixstowe and the Manchester Concorde from Montreal.
The second Manchester Challenge, captained by John McKay, was the first of the four 1800 TEU vessels to join the service. She arrived at Walton Container Terminal, Felixstowe from Hamburg and Antwerp at the beginning of October, going to Le Havre and Montreal carrying cargo from the Continent and the UK for Canada and the US Mid-West. The new North Atlantic era had begun.
In November, almost 12 years to the day after the start of Britain's containership services by the first Manchester Challenge the second Manchester Challenge was in the news, carrying the 2,000,000th container into the Port of Montreal. The port gave a reception to mark the occasion.
In the Middle East the MTI container berths at Jeddah were thriving — but Khor Fakkan was in difficulties after the closing of Mideast Cargo Services. Despite all efforts, sufficient new traffic was not attracted and the decision was made to relinquish the terminal.
Changes were also afoot on the Mediterranean front. Mr. John Keville, chairman of Furness Withy (Shipping) saw that when Furness Withy acquired Manchester Liners it was an opportune moment to bring together ML and Prince Line under one management.
Board responsibility for the company's interests in the Mediterranean was given to Mr. C. A. (Chris) Skelton, director of Furness Withy (Shipping) and Manchester Liners. Mr. R. A. H. (Ray) Farrer was appointed manager — Mediterranean Trades.
Mr. David Penny, a director of Prince Line, moved to Manchester to assist Mr. Farrer, and Mr. Arthur Whalley, one of ML's most experienced salesmen, became sales manager — Mediterranean.