Going bananas

Article Featured Image
Framed plaque of a man with moustache

Plaque of Sir Alfred Jones

It’s strange to think that bananas were once considered an exotic luxury in Britain.

My grandmother Lillian Potter, who was born in 1885, remembered them being hawked around the streets by a “banana man” - they were not cheap.

As late as 1915 bananas were still rather glamorous and featured in society soirees, as illustrated in the classic music hall song: “I’ve just had a banana with Lady Diana, I’m Burlington Bertie from Bow”.

Sir Alfred Jones (1845 – 1909) is credited with introducing the banana to Britain when he transported the fruit on refrigerated vessels run by his Elder Dempster shipping company.

We now take for granted refrigeration for perishable goods travelling by land, sea and air. This has enabled all manner of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables to arrive in our shops throughout the year.

Little more than 100 years ago this would have been unthinkable and it was pioneers like Sir Alfred who helped transform the way we eat.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum’ s Life at Sea gallery there is a wax plaque of Sir Alfred, who was the dominant figure in the development of the trade with West Africa (pictured).

He looks the epitome of the Victorian businessman with his formal jacket, starched collar and fancy whiskers. Born in Carmarthenshire, Sir Alfred started work at the age of 12 with the African Steamship Company in Liverpool. He made several voyages to West Africa and was manager of the business when he was only 26.

He then started business on his own account with two or three small sailing ships. In 1891 he was headhunted by Liverpool-based Elder Dempster which, through purchasing shares, he later controlled.

Sir Alfred had wide territorial and financial interests in West Africa. He played a key part in opening up the West Indies to trade and tourism. In addition, he was instrumental in setting up Liverpool’s School of Tropical Medicine and left large charitable bequests in his will.

Other exhibits include a visiting card case commemorating the 1902 trials of the Elder Dempster ship Burutu.

A vintage illustrated poster declares: “Travel in comfort, travel in style, travel better - travel Elders”.
Elder Dempster operated mainly between its Liverpool base and West Africa. In later years it ran three still fondly-remembered liners – Aureol, Accra and Apapa – to Ghana and Nigeria.

Eventually the Elder Dempster line name came to an end in 1989 when it was bought by a French company. However, the company continued as shipping agents before being wound up in 2000.

There's more on Elder Dempster, and the company records we hold in our archives, on our main site.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).