Records of Blue Funnel Line (Ocean Steam Ship Company)



From the Maritime Archives Guide to Collections, volume 1: The Ocean Steam Ship Co. (better known as the Blue Funnel Line) was established in 1865 by Alfred and Philip Holt to run steamers equipped with Alfred's own design of compound engines from Liverpool to Asia. Steamers had not been sufficiently economical hitherto to compete with the tea clippers in this lucrative but distant trade. After some initial difficulties, the company's fortunes were boosted by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 which reduced the distance and was not accessible to sailing ships. In the next decade the Holts expanded their services with the assistance of Butterfield and Swire, their agents in Shanghai, and were prime movers in establishing the first Far Eastern Conference in 1879. Holts continued to expand their feeder services, for example, to Sumatra for the tobacco trade. Between 1882 and 1893 it was in severe competition with the China Mutual Steam Navigation Co. (see separate entry). In 1891 it established a Dutch subsidiary to run a direct service from Amster¬dam to Indonesia. Three years later it extended its Singapore feeder services as far as Fremantle. This was followed by a direct UK Australia service in 1901. By 1911 (the year of Alfred Holt's death) the company had acquired China Mutual and owned sixty-two ships. Acquisi¬tions continued including Royden's India Line 1915 and Greenshield Cowie's Knight Line in 1917. Wartime action caused the loss of twelve ships. The 1920s proved difficult for example, reduced demand in the Australian passenger business led to a joint service with White Star in 1924. In 1932 Holts obtained effective control of Elder Dempster Lines and in 1935 the Glen and Shire Lines and the Straits S.S. Co. (in which it had a substantial stake already) were acquired. Forty-one ships were lost in the Second World War (no less than eighteen in 1941). Peacetime services were resumed with stop gap Liberty ships for many sailings until twenty-one A-class replacements were delivered between 1946 and 1953. Holts maintained their formidable position in Asia until the 1970s. Their future to an extent was secured by participation in the Overseas Container Lines consortium, set up in 1965 and from 1972 (marked by a change of name to Ocean Transport and Trading Co.), it diversified away from deep sea shipping with the takeover of the Cory fuel distribution group. New shipping activities included Ocean Inchcape Ltd., operating offshore supply vessels (1971), the purchase of bulkers, tankers and gas carriers and the Barber Blue Sea transpacific ro ro service. But by 1987 these and the traditional Holt cargo liners, as well as the holdings in OCL (except for Ocean Inchcape Ltd.), had been disposed of. The collection provides a good record of the development of the parent company. Voyage books, freight accounts, statements of depreciation, earnings, taxation and staff records extend in depth over a hundred years. The attached lists (as at November 2023) are for the main company archive (Blue Funnel) and Glen Line. As sections of the collection are recatalogued new lists will be made available, often attached to series level entries rather than this main collection level entry. All the entries will be found with a search for the OA reference number in advanced search. Contact The Archives Centre for a copy of the catalogues and explanation of the cataloguing structure.