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A Century of Success

Arrival of the Manchester City (1)


Dwindling Fleet

Ships We Forgot to Remember

Reproduced from Sea Breezes - February 2011©

Ships We Forgot To Remember....

The "Manchester Challenge"

by Andrew Bell (England)

The "Manchester Challenge" was Britain's first container ship to "go foreign". Delivered in 1968 the concept for her design, the shipyard that built her and the company that owned her were all British: she represented the shape of what could be described as the biggest revolution ever in cargo carriage and cargo care. From then onwards shipping companies had to turn their faces to the future and become operators of through transport links, door to door: supplier to customer: seller to buyer.

Few could argue that Manchester had never lacked confidence that came from its wealth being based on being "cottonopolis". If it meant creating a lake in Cumberland to provide the metropolitan conurbation with clear water along a leat so precisely engineered that the gradient dropped four inches each mile for its 80 mile length, Manchester built it. Even by Manchester's catalogue of achievements connecting the city with the sea, through 35 miles of Cheshire's countryside with a canal capable of being used by ocean going ships, was a monumental project. With Daniel Adamson leading the city elders, wooing local industrial barons and ignoring chorus of critics — notably from neighbouring Liverpool who had much traffic to lose — the Manchester Ship Canal opened for business in January 1894 and the elderly Queen Victoria made a rare public appearance in May 1894 to officially do the honours and transit westwards to the Mersey in HMS Enchantress, one of the Royal Yachts.

"The Manchester Ship Canal opened for business in January 1894 and the elderly Queen Victoria made a rare public appearance"

One shipowner on the national scene who matched Mancunians with similar confidence and canniness was (Sir: later Viscount) Christopher Furness (1852 -1912) who lost no time in leading the founding of a local shipping line appropriately named, for the whole of its history, Manchester Liners. The Furness Withy group, as it was to become, named their terms: they would take up £50,000 worth of ordinary shares if Manchester investors subscribed £200,000: they duly did and a prospectus was issued in 1898. The original shareholders represented the trade route that Manchester Liners planned to serve, namely North America, and they included Canadian Pacific Railway and the meat magnate, Mr Swift of Chicago. Using two ships bought from Elder Dempster the company got off to a cautious start but became confident enough to order a new building, the Manchester City (7,696 grt) which was delivered in 1898. Built at a yard on Teeside she was to start a business link with Middlesbrough that was to last for almost the whole history of Manchester Liners. With a deadweight capacity of 8,600 tons, an overall length of 461ft and included in the cargo space facilities for refrigerated stowage as well as a capacity for 700 live cattle, the Manchester City made an emphatic statement for she was the largest ship to have been built on Teeside and the largest by 1,000 tons grt to navigate the Ship Canal, confounding the ever vocal Liverpudlian cynics.

The person to lead this leap by an inland city into trans ocean shipping was the first of three generations that were to serve Manchester Liners. Robert B Stoker (I) (1859-1919) came from North East England and thanks to his father's generosity was given a 500 ton coaster at the age of 17. Such was his acumen and success that, by the age of 23 and based in Liverpool running small ships to America, he was noticed by Christopher Furness (aged 30 at the time) and recruited to open and run the new Furness Line between the Baltic, Newcastle, South Wales and North America. Within a year the company was operating ten ships. By the age of 39 Robert B Stoker had a record of success that gave confidence to the Manchester investors and he accepted the appointment of Managing Director of Manchester Liners and by 1912 was also chairman. Coinciding with his father's death in 1919, Kenneth Stoker (1886-1979) was appointed a director and became MD In 1932, retiring in 1968 having been at the centre of Manchester's shipping venture for 48 years. Kenneth's son was Robert B Stoker (II) (1914-2005) and it was at his initiative that Manchester Liners lead the revolution into containers.

In the 1960's the biggest cost of carrying cargo was loading and discharging it. The shape of ship's cargo holds had hardly changed since the age of sail ended in the late 1880's – in fact that shape had got more complicated. General cargoes of merchandise, whether it was textiles or vehicles, foodstuffs or raw materials for industry required a high degree of cargo care: it was presented loose and had to be stowed to prevent damage. Manchester Liners operated between two areas where increasingly high costs of stevedoring was taking an ever larger proportion of a ship's earnings. Manchester Liners' management had watched American companies try to staunch the rising costs on their domestic trades to Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

If ever a well established shipping company had an innovative thinker leading it, Manchester Liners had one in "Bob" Stoker.

The setting and the location in which he operated helped: 'Manchester' was Manchester Liners: there was an integrated degree of common-wealth between the company, the Ship Canal Company and their labour forces. Although not without local problems with waterfront labour relations compared with those in other major British ports, Manchester was progressive. It was there that the basically simple idea of road transport delivering export cargoes by an appointment system was shown to work in 1960 — a first at any UK port. This was the setting in which Manchester Liners introduced pallet loads and experimented with home made containers for cargo trying 8ft square ones, then 10ft types and finally being early adopters of the ISO 20ft model. Lead by Bob Stoker and Messrs Roberts, Pattison and Clay – respectively MD, company secretary and engineering superintendent — the shape of the future began to be seen in the Company's ships. In place of the engines at the mid-length of the hull Harland & Wolff built the Manchester Miller (9,286 / 1959) with her boilers and steam turbines right down aft but the bridge was located mid-length. The next trio in 1963-1964, lead by the Manchester Commerce (8,724), had all five hatches forward and all the accommodation aft. The passing craze for stove pipe funnels was seen on this trio no doubt influenced by P&O's Canberra (44,807/1961) and a batch of Shell Tankers. The Manchester Progress (8,176/1967) displayed two pairs of derrick posts together with three cranes: cargo containers were beginning to be commonly seen.

From the founding of Manchester Liners Furness Withy had held a substantial minority shareholding: in 1970 this was raised from 42% to 56% making Manchester Liners a subsidiary but it seems to have long been a relationship of consensual independence. Furness Withy became the last of the big British shipping companies to join Overseas Containers Ltd. They were seen as the weakest of the four financially, technically, and in terms of senior management but with established trades that were a dowry for OCL. In Shaw Savill's Bob Russell there was a director who, in 1965 proposed a container to Australia in partnership with Brostroms of Sweden only to be rebuffed but not told that his parent company were already committed to OCL. In contrast in their new head office overlooking Salford Docks Manchester Liners were moving towards ordering 10,000 20 ft ISC containers.

As often used to happen amongst British shipowners, years of co-operation and trust lead to a shipyard of choice developing the next innovative generation of their principal's fleet.

In 1967 Smith's Dock was part of the Swan Hunter group. The order for three sister ships was placed with much contrived secrecy: it was worth £2 million for each ship. With a 27ft long hull 535 TEA could be carried in five holds handled through 14 hatches. Such is the reputation of the North Atlantic's weather all the containers were to be carried under deck and the hull was classed for navigating through ice, enabling Montreal to have a weekly arrival from Manchester even in the depths of a North American winter.

The Manchester Challenge (11,989) was launched into the Tees on 11th June 1968, delivered in October and departed on her maiden voyage on 5th November 1968. It was four months later, in 1969 that OCL's first container ship Encounter Bay (26,756) sailed from Rotterdam for Australia and another fourteen months before Tilbury dockers let OCL's ships use their home port. Starting modestly with a competent management, a professional sea staff and a dedicated one-port-to-one-port service they knew well that their opening part of the container revolution was contrasted with OCL's early woes.

Not only was the Manchester Challenge offering a new concept in cargo carrying but so too was just about every other feature designed and built into her. She was powered by two 18PC2V-400 Pielstick Vee type diesel engines producing 8,190 SHP coupled to a controllable pitch propeller giving a 19.5 knot service speed. A total deadweight of 12,000 could be carried on a draught of 27ft. There was bridge control of the main engines and the Engine Room could be unmanned: all maintenance was done during the Manchester turn round when the ship was coupled to shore power supplies. The detail that went in the C Class design was extraordinary. Two 20ft containers of stores were loaded and stowed through their own hatch located just ahead of the accommodation block: for the voyage they became the facility for the ship's stores. Under the Upper Deck and running the length of the ship on the out board side was a working alleyway to starboard and a pipe and cable one to port. There was no need to brave the weather by going on deck to reach the forecastle where the mooring arrangements were located under the forecastle head. If there was a snow storm in Montreal's winter the mooring equipment and the windless did not need to be excavated before it could be used.

The enclosed crows nest look-out on the short mast over the forecastle included closed circuit TV to enhance the view forward from the large bridge down aft. Because any listing could jam a container being handled into its cell guides there was a sophisticated ballasting system that could be operated: it also improved stability of the ocean passages. In its time the Manchester Challenge's accommodation for a crew of only 27 was lavish, with all the officers and PO's having cabins each with its own shower and toilet. A large saloon and bar area for the officers took up to whole width of the ship at upper deck level. All the ratings had single berth cabins and all the accommodation air conditioned. There was an owner suite on the bridge deck and the three sisters may have been the only ones ever to have provided the Radio Officer with a separate bedroom and a day room both adjacent to the radio room on the boat deck: his only neighbour was the Master with an ever larger suite.

The Manchester Challenge was followed into service by the Manchester Courage in 1960 and the Manchester Concorde in the same year. A fourth ship, Manchester Crusade came from Smith's Dock in 1971. being owned and financed by Furness Withy's Nile Shipping Company. By then the original weekly service had grown into two sailings each week with the Manchester Miller being converted at a cost of £500,000 into full container ship and, now with a proper funnel, emerging in 1970 as the Manchester Quest: the Manchester Progress (8,176) joined the full containerised service as the Manchester Concept in 1971. Two "Improved Manchester Challenge" ships came from Smith's Dock in 1975. Delivered as Manchester Renown (12,577) and Manchester Reward, because of a freight rate war going on in the trans-Atlantic trades they went straight the Swire group's China Navigation Co on charter for the first four years their eight year career with the Company.

Briefly for three years Manchester Liners branched out of the canal and into a supplementary service that ran from Rotterdam and Felixstowe to Montreal, but business was slow to build up and resulted in a trade-off with Canadian Pacific withdrawing from their Liverpool-Glasgow to Montreal service in exchange for withdrawing from their Continent-Felixstowe or 1974 was the beginning of a period of complex cross holdings companies, once competitors, teaming up to form consortia. It was also the year in which there was a very aggressive takeover bid for Manchester Liners and, with their 61.6% holding Furness Withy mounted an eventually successful defence in which, in 1976, the British government's regulatory body ruled that the proposed takeover by a foreign carpet bagger was "not in the public interest".

The volume of trans-Atlantic container traffic was grown spectacularly: so too was the level of competition. The pioneering quartet of expensive inland ports were becoming too small and uncompetitive. In October 1978 despite being only ten years old the Manchester Challenge was sold for $3,250,000 to Hong Kong buyers. Trading in the Far East she passed through the ownership of two further operators ending up being sold for scrap at Alang, India for $928,000 in February 1993. By 1983 the four sister ships had been "Sold East", the last going to breakers being the Manchester Challenge.

The name Manchester Challenge was revived in 1981 when the Dart America (31,030) built by Swan Hunter in 1970 for Dart Line (originally a short lived grouping of Belgian's CMB, Bibby and Bristol City) was renamed and operated for the consortium as Furness Withy's contribution In 1988 she became a unit of the OOCL fleet of C Y Tung and Manchester Liners ceased trading but many a challenge from Manchester to the world lives on. SB

Thanks to:

Tony Atkinson, of Truro, Cornwall.

The Motor Ship and Shipbuilding & Shipping Record.

The Saga of Manchester Liners. Robert B Stoker (II). 1985.

Merchant Fleets. Furness Withy, Duncan Haws. 2000.

Furness Withy. 1891-1991. David Burrell. World Ship Society. 1992.

British Box Boat Business. A History of OCL. Edited by Alan Bott. 2009.

© Sea Breezes February 2011
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