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Blue Funnel to China

6 July 2002 to 31 July 2006

Please note that this exhibition has now closed

Composite image of handbook and calendar both with image of a liner with a blue funnel

Handbook (on the left) and calendar (on the right) with images of the company's famous ships

For more than a century the Ocean Steam Ship Company, better known as the Blue Funnel Line, was the leading British shipping company trading to China.

Founded by Alfred Holt in 1865, the Blue Funnel Line ran the world's first regular, long-distance cargo liner service. It played a major part in the port of Liverpool's shipping activities for more than 100 years.

The legendary service is celebrated in this small display of colourful publicity posters, interviews, personal items from crew members and ship models at the Merseyside Maritime Museum.

The China connection

China and the Far East formed the company's core business until the 1970s, although the business expanded to cover the United States, Australia, and Java from the 1890s.

'The China Company', as Blue Funnel was known on Merseyside, built up an unrivalled reputation due to the quality of its ships, management, crews and shore staff. Many seagoing staff were from Wales, north-west England and Scotland, but it also employed large numbers of Chinese seafarers. The origins and development of Liverpool's Chinese community, one of the oldest in Europe, are partly due to the Blue Funnel connection.

Until the 1880s, Chinese tea and silk were the main imports, but by the 1930s cargoes from Malaya (Malaysia) included rubber, tobacco, sugar and coffee. The earliest outward cargo was Lancashire cotton bound for Shanghai, but by the 1960s consumer goods, food drink and cars had taken over.

Cover of leaflet with image of ship and ducks flying and text 'The Blue Funnel Line 1937 opportunities for travel abroad'

Chinese emigrants sometimes travelled on the Blue Funnel ships as temporary workers and deck passengers around South East Asia and beyond. The ships also carried thousands of Muslim pilgrims to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia - the nearest port to Mecca. Eventually, passenger facilities were halted when air travel became popular in the 1960s.

Regular Blue Funnel services to China ended in the early 1970s due to the unfavourable political climate in Communist Climate and global changes in trading patterns.

Alfred Holt and the Blue Funnel ships

Alfred Holt was the most famous member of the renowned Holt shipping dynasty of Liverpool.

His father was cotton broker George Holt. George Holt was responsible for the construction of the first India Buildings in Water Street, where the Blue Funnel Line had its head office. The original building was demolished in 1927 to make way for a new design, but this was damaged during the blitz (1941) and was not fully restored until 1958.

Alfred's elder brother George (junior) was also a ship owner (Lamport & Holt Line) and he lived at Sudley House - his significant art collections can be visited at the house in Mossley Hill, Liverpool.

Alfred made his name as a marine engineer and ship owner, founding the Ocean Steam Ship Company in January 1865. He developed a type of compound steam engine which enabled ships to travel further and more economically than ever before.

His original aim was to build safe and reliable ships, but his exacting standards gave rise to the terms 'Holts' class' - the technical excellence of Holts' ships became a tremendous source of pride within the company.

The ships had a distinctive look with tall, almost vertical funnels and were widely considered as the aristocrats of the port of Liverpool and the British merchant marine.