The History of Leith

February 16, 2011


CLOSELY concerned with, and keenly alive, as constant port users, to the berthing, loading and discharging facilities provided by the Leith Dock Commission, the locally established firms of Shipowners and Shipping Agents are concerns of peculiar moment in contributing so
greatly to the activities of the Port and, therefore, to its prosperity and to that of its environment and even, in a more or less extent, to that of its more distant hinterland in so far as their distributive
equipment is competent to serve it economically.

These areas depend very considerably on the successful prosecution of the particular lines of business followed by such firms, consisting, as they do, in the ownership and expert management of the means of importing and exporting the materials on which whatever overseas business they transact relies, whether that business is pursued in places separated from us only by the narrow seas or by the wide and dividing oceans.
Long before the creation of our railway systems, and longer still before the coming of our ubiquitous motor road traction, sailing coasters plying from Leith and like places were constantly and busily engaged in coping with the carriage of the heavier kinds of traffic which demanded conveyance beyond the scope of horse traction along the coastline of the United Kingdom. The utmost that the horsepower
of the day could generally encompass was confined to the short road hauls of merchandise from its point of origin to the nearest and most
convenient port, from which it could be readily conveyed by water to the port most conveniently placed for reaching its final destination, thus, as a rule, using for the best part of its entire journey, the
then handiest and most economical means available, that of sea transit. And, even now* when both road and rail are so fiercely competitive, our coasters are often still by far the best medium for the carriage of so many of the varied types of commodities, raw or manufactured, which require movement at the generally more moderate cost which seaborne transportation can best supply. Then, when in the case of removal to foreign parts being called for, the land-based competitors are compelled to come to a standstill at the water’s edge, the shipowner’s intervention becomes indispensable if the goods and/or passengers concerned are to be brought to ” their desired haven.” Leith as a general, all-round Port, fully equipped to deal with the shipping and unshipping of practically every possible type of import and export, is perfectly capable of offering ample and comfortable accommodation to vessels of every shape and dimension, save, perhaps, those passenger line giants which must, on account of their gigantic proportions, necessarily demand berthing in the outsize docks and harbours devised to take in their massive bulk and provide for their adequate reception. Yet, even so, Leith can offer welcome to such giants as these in its roadstead when, as frequently happens in the appropriate season, they call in the course of their luxury cruising, to send their passengers ashore for dispersal on sight-seeing tours in
our ” Bonnie Scotland ” or on buying sprees uptown of articles unencumbered by Purchase Tax. As is shown in another section of this Handbook, copious berthage in both wet and dry docks is here provided for shipping plying on all the seven seas, ranging from the most modest of small fry up to vessels of quite impressive tonnage engaged in transoceanic business, and to provide effectively for the expert handling of every description of inward cargo, for its safe and convenient storage when required, pending conveyance to a home
destination, for its deposit in bond or transit shed to await a convenient opportunity when, upon meeting the duty chargeable, it can be released for home consumption, or, again, be transferred to an
outward bound ship for futher conveyance to a destination abroad.
The foreign traffic passing through Leith is very considerable, as a reference to the Dock Commission’s returns prove, and a high proportion of this comes from, or is entered outwards to, continental destinations, principally in Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, Northern France, Belgium and Holland. Transatlantic business is, besides, a not unimportant feature, and even whaling, now followed for the most part in the far-off Antarctic, has very intimate connection with the Port. Formerly this whaling industry was pursued in a much more primitive
fashion by sailing vessels owned, manned and fitted out here and despatched to Arctic waters, around Greenland and the Davis Straits according to John o’ Leith, on hunting trips often extending to
seven or eight months’ duration.


Chr. Salvesen & Co.—This important firm was founded in 1846 and are Steamship Owners, Shipbrokers, Coal exporters, Bunker contractors, Timber agents and Members of the International Air Transport Association. They are also Managers of the South Georgia Company and its subsidiaries which are the Owners of a fleet of vessels whose
gross registered tonnage is no less than 134,974. This fleet consists of two floating factories and whale catchers totalling 51,490 registered tons, five tankers of 60,678 tons, ten dry cargo ships of 30,190 tons
and one fish factory trawler of 2,605 tons. This last-noted vessel, of which mention is made under the heading of the Fishing Industry, is capable of operating as a trawler on the Newfoundland Grand Banks, of quick freezing its catches on board and of otherwise preparing them for instant marketing on arrival, and, in addition, of treating offal and other by-products for immediate disposal on landing. When not engaged in the whaling trade, the tankers are available for the carriage of other oils. The dry cargo vessels consist of three of the 10,000 ton class and one of 4,500 tons in the deep sea tramping trade,
five smaller ships of 6,447 tons deadweight, engaged almost entirely in trading between Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, and another in course of construction of 500 tons deadweight. This important
Company is also Agent for the Svenska Lloyd trading from Leith to Gothenburg and vice versa.

Ben Line Steamers Ltd.—This line of fine speedy cargo vessels, managed by a local firm of long and honourable association with Leith, namely that of Messrs Wm. Thomson & Co., has over many years plied between the United Kingdom and ports in Europe and the Far East. It provides modern fast cargo liners with which to maintain a service
between the home country and the many eastern ports with which it traded with great regularity even in the now far-off days of sail. Its ships no longer call at Leith, their principal port of loading and discharge in the United Kingdom being London, but as all its fleet is registered in Leith, its combined tonnage adds very greatly to the standing of their home port among British ports of registry.

George Gibson & Co. Ltd.—Established some 160 years ago—to be more exact in 1797—the firm of Geo. Gibson & Co. has built up during the lengthy interval and well maintained a most creditable record of sea service. Its principal activities are devoted to trading with near continental ports with which it regularly operates scheduled sailings as
follows :—Weekly to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp and Ghent and at ten-day intervals, to Dunkirk, Rouen and Paris. At three-weekly
intervals, sailings between home ports and Lisbon and Oporto are also on schedule. Vessels which are not engaged in supporting their regular services are used in the coastwise and short-sea tramping trade. Gibson’s fleet at present comprises thirteen modern motor vessels and other two motor ships on time charter. In addition to conducting the sailing programme above outlined, the Company maintains an extensive stevedoring department and undertakes a considerable amount of shipping agency business.

The Currie Line Ltd. derives first from the merger in 1836 of two Companies which became The Leith, Hull and Hamburg Steam Packet
Company. This Company in 1941 changed its name to Currie Line Ltd. Prior to 1939 regular services were maintained from Leith to Hamburg,
Bremen, Copenhagen, Danzig, Riga and other Baltic ports and a coastal service was kept in operation between Leith and Newcastle and Hull.
After the war the coasting run was abandoned, while Russian occupation of Baltic ports made it impossible to resume much of its former trading. At the present time the Company connects Leith
with Copenhagen, Hamburg, Bremen and Finnish ports, and the Portuguese, French and Italian ports with other home ports, as well as maintaining services between New York and Central American ports.
The Company’s fleet consists of four motor and ten steam vessels. Three motor coasters are on order and a motor ship of 12,800 tons deadweight is also under construction to augment the tramping
fleet already operating. Shipping & Coal Co. Ltd.—Supplementing the
particulars given above, the Shipping & Coal Co. Ltd. has a regular connection between Forth ports and Holland and several other shipping firms are also engaged in keeping up consistent contact with nearer and more distant continental ports.

Coast Lines Ltd.—Along with all noteworthy ports in the British Isles, Leith is served by the Coast Lines Ltd., the operators of the world’s largest fleet of coastal liners. This great undertaking has rendered approximately a century and a half of
continuous service to British commerce, and is a group of Companies principally engaged in the carriage of passengers and goods in the narrow seas surrounding our island home. The Company also maintains a number of ancillary services. Altogether, the organisation embraces passenger and cargo liners, operating to fixed schedules, carries on a
series of holiday cruises, owns wharves in various ports, and engages in stevedoring and ship repairing. The services require no fewer than 120 ships of many types to fulfil the requirements of the many trading routes covered in coastal, Irish and near continental waters. The extent of the traffic handled may be gathered from the fact that, in a single year, cargo in excess of 4,000,000 tons and over 500,000
head of cattle were carried, while a million passengers were also safely transported. Coast Lines became associated with Leith in 1919 when they acquired the firm of M. Langland & Sons conducting business on northern routes which included Lewis, and Scottish mainland ports. For many years Coast Lines have maintained regular direct or inter-connecting sailings between Leith and the principal ports of the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the near continent, but the main flow is from here to Liverpool, Belfast and the Hebrides via Stornoway. They keep constantly before them the problem of fleet replacement, and it should be noted that during the last two years they have introduced to the services using this Port, four new cargo carriers, the Lancashire Coast and the Cheshire Coast, both of 1,400 tons deadweight, and the Fifeshire Coast and Essex Coast, each of 1,000
tons, and these are now familiar as regular visitors.

London Scottish Lines Ltd. run regular coasting cargo liner services between Leith and London, providing frequent sailings. In pre-war motor land-transport days, the sea route to London had a wide popularity with passengers which, however, declined with changing times and modes of travel, to the great regret of the many who relish voyaging by sea in preference to rail and omnibus transport. One of the oldest regular lines out of Leith is by the North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Shipping Co. Ltd. to Aberdeen and the Orkney and Shetland Isles inclusive of agreeable summer tours, some of them residential, which have become very popular with holiday-makers with a
leaning toward sea cruising. The coasting and near-continental tramp section of the industry includes the local fleet of Messrs A. F. Henry and MacGregor Ltd.
Shipping Agency Business.—As befits a port having an annual import and export of round about two million tons of cargo, Leith can offer to Shipowners the services of an ample list of experienced Shipping Agents and Brokers, including eleven firms whose Directors are Fellows of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers. Several of these firms
specialise in particular commodities such as Coal, Scrap Iron, Grain, Phosphates, Produce and Timber among others. New developments affecting agency business have been large scrap imports and the
reversal of coal from export to import. The completion of the new Rank mill, the extension of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society’s mill and the erection, as well, of the phosphate plant for the
Scottish Agricultural Industries, will all tend to increase the work of Shipping Agents in Leith.

A feature of the past year has been the resumption of trade with Russia. Leith Shipping Agents have always been keen in their efforts to foster the Baltic trade between Finnish, Russian, Swedish, Polish
and Danish ports and Leith. Among these Agents, Furness, Withy & Co. Ltd., in addition to acting as Lloyd’s Agents and Insurance Brokers, exercise the local oversight of certain Dutch and Danish shipping lines and also superintend the local interests of the Cairn Line of steamers, largely dealing with Canadian traffic in grain and miscellaneous cargo transport. The firm of Geo. A. Morrison & Co. (Leith) Ltd. has close Swedish and more general connections ; R. Cairns & Co. are intimately
involved in Danish and Icelandic trading; and Chas. Mauritzen Ltd. serves the Faroes connection. These and others like Neil & Hannah Ltd., Reid & Howard Ltd., Claireaux & Sanderson, and Moffatt & Warden Ltd. (this last-mentioned firm having intimate concern with the import and export of Coal) have an extensive and thorough knowledge and experience of the business they competently undertake.

source-Leith Dock Commission-1956

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