Shipping mogul

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Oil portrait of an elderly man in a suit looking over the top of his glasses.

Sir Percy Bates. Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

This portrait of Sir Percy Bates is one of my favourites as it makes you want to know more about the man as he looks quizzically over his spectacles. The painting hangs in the Life at Sea gallery in the Merseyside Maritime Museum along with personal items and other memorabilia.

Cunard chairman Sir Percy (1879-1946) had the idea of building legendary liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. He was one of a long line of shipowners and shipping company bosses who had tremendous influence when British vessels led the world.

Sir Percy, a baronet, began his career with the family shipping firm of Edward Bates & Co. He joined Cunard in 1910 and was chairman from 1930 to 1946, a crucial period in the Liverpool-based company’s history when both the Queens were built and Cunard merged with rival White Star.

In December 1930, Sir Percy’s dream of two world-leading ships had begun to take shape when the Queen Mary’s keel was laid at John Brown’s Shipyard at Glasgow. Work was delayed because of the Depression before the Queen Mary was launched and sailed on her maiden voyage in May 1936. The Queen Elizabeth was completed in 1940 and both Queens became troopships in the Second World War. Queen Elizabeth did not enter normal passenger service until 1946. Sadly, Sir Percy died from a heart attack, aged 67, at this time.

Items on display include a beautiful illuminated scroll carrying the speech Sir Percy made at the launch of the Queen Elizabeth in 1938. A cigarette box is made from oak off the Cunard liner Aquitania. A gold medal produced to mark the launch of Queen Mary. Only four others were produced – for Edward VIII, Queen Mary, President and Mrs Franklin D Roosevelt. In contrast, a simple leather briefcase was used by Sir Percy when he was Cunard chairman.

Other leading shipping figures are featured. A photograph of members of the Liverpool Shipowners’ Association 1890-1 shows the top-hatted grandees standing proudly in rows.Alfred Holt (1829-1911), founder of the Blue Funnel Line, was also an engineer and designer of the compound engine. His work ensured the ultimate success of the long-distance steamer.

Sir Alfred Read (1871-1955) brought together a number of small companies to form Coast Lines in 1912. Until the Second World War, Coast Lines was the largest trading group between British ports, including Ireland.

Lord Kylsant (1863-1937) was chairman of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company from 1903 to 1931.The group was broken up in 1931 after financial problems and irregularities for which Kylsant was convicted.

Merseyside Maritime Museum is open seven days a week, admission free. A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.