THE HISTORY OF THE BIBBY LINE
Our January 2015 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Christina Spencer came to talk to us on 25th January. She is the Archivist of the Liverpool-based Bibby Line Group. Not many companies employ archivists these days, but Bibby is proud of its heritage.
John Bibby (1775-1840) was the son of a Lancashire farmer. He went to Liverpool, and found a job in an iron foundry. He worked hard and did well. Thanks to a gift from his new father-in-law, he was able to buy a share in a shipping company. He also started a 'yellow metal' business, supplying sheets of copper to shipyards around the country.
In 1840 Bibby was brutally murdered, on farmland near Bootle. He left his children - 4 boys and a girl - a vast fortune. Copies of letters between the family members were stored in a special book, which Christina has read. There were many disputes, but the letters were always cordial - ending "Your affectionate brother" even when they accuse the recipient of will forgery or fraud! One of the sons, Thomas, became a vicar. Another, John Junior (who had married Jesse Hartley's daughter) took over the copper business.
A third son, James, was keen on shipping - particularly steamships, which were disliked by some customers (and the Liverpool Mercury newspaper) at that time. One of his young friends was a Mr Harland, who wanted to set up a shipyard on the Mersey but - having failed to find either land or encouragement from the authorities - went to Belfast instead. The very first order for what became the Harland & Wolff shipyard was the 'Venetian' (1859) for the Bibby Line.
James Bibby later lost almost everything, as a result of the duplicity of his general manager, Frederick Leyland. He resolved never to allow a non-family member to control the company. Arthur William Bibby - son of Thomas - came in as manager. Two new steamships were ordered for the Burma trade. Passengers as well as freight were carried, and Christina showed us pictures of how they occupied their time on the voyage: the tug-of-war for men, and the egg-and-spoon race for the ladies. The company pioneered 'holiday cruising' in the 1930s, with summer tours (1st class only) to the Mediterranean and winter sunshine cruises to Egypt, Sudan and Ceylon. The main purpose of the voyages was freight, so sailings were never cancelled. Christina told us that a 12-piece band was employed, and 8-course meals were provided, even if there was only one passenger on board!
A tradition developed of naming the ships after English counties; for example the Lancashire, Staffordshire and Oxfordshire. Some of them served as troop ships during the world wars, and some fell victim to enemy U-boats. Christina - herself German - wrote to the German Admiralty and "was sent a big box full of information about the Bibby Line ships involved in the war". After WW2, under the leadership of Sir Derek Bibby the company prospered, and built up a fleet of bulk carriers and tankers - including the MV Derbyshire, sadly lost in the South China Sea in 1980. They diversified into financial services and road haulage. Today, their maritime activities include the maintenance of oil and gas rigs. On land, it operates convenience stores, woodland burial parks, and motorway service areas.
After 207 years, the company's head office remains in Liverpool and its chairman is Sir Michael Bibby. Christina told us that the Bibby Line Group is 'fiercely loyal' to the city. Her talk was a welcome reminder of a local success story, and her own pride in the company's achievements came across loud and clear.