Shenanigans in shipping

An unsolved, high-profile murder… and a ruthless, manipulative tycoon. The remarkable shipping business of the Bibby Line, more than 200 years old, inevitably holds some strange and intriguing stories in its archives. One of my favourite stories is that of Frederick Leyland, patron of the arts, friend of Whistler and Rossetti, but with a murky past in the streets of Liverpool. The story of John Bibby himself, founder of the business, is worth closer examination, not least his vicious and unsolved murder. Remember The Onedin Line series on television in the 1970s? James Onedin was a Liverpool shipowner, and the high-risk, high-reward business of building and running ships, then sail, later steam, was a TV winner. The Hornblower books and Patrick O’Brien’s series were both based on the Royal Navy, but merchant shipping was at least as risky, with the added drama of money, power and family politics.

Betrayal from the inside

Frederick R Leyland came to John Bibby & Sons in 1845, aged 13; his mother ran the eating house in Chapel Street, Liverpool, where John Bibby often dined. Mrs Leyland took young Fred to the office one morning and went to see Henry Stripe, the clerk. Stripe takes up the story: ‘He was apprenticed to the Bibbys accordingly. He began to shoot out in stature very rapidly… and his mind expanded same time. Fred used to talk to me very freely and confidentially… one thing he had resolved upon & that was to make a fortune and then retire for he did not intend to spend all his life in business. A few years only had passed away before Fred began to exhibit his intention to make a fortune. He began by telling tales to Mr James Bibby about Robert Lawn the Manager, no doubt with a view to his dismissal, and working his way gradually into the good graces of Mr James.’ Leyland was ruthless, discarding erstwhile allies, like head book keeper Robert Lawn who resigned in 1851. Says Stripe: ‘He resigned… disgusted at the conduct of Fred R Leyland who was just then pushing himself into note and endeavoured to supplant him… Lawn had taken great pains to make Fred a proficient book keeper and this was the way he showed his gratitude…. It was Leyland’s way of acting thro’ life to anyone who stood in his way.’ There’s little doubt that Leyland had a first class brain. He gave his employers such valuable advice that he was made manager of the shipping business and in 1856, Leyland became manager of the metals department as well. ‘He lost no time in begging for a share in one of the Steamers to be paid for out of profits, which was given to him,’ writes Stripe. ‘The Steamer business was wonderfully prosperous, a great deal no doubt owing to Leyland’s management and exertions.’

Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of...
Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1871-1874, by Whistler (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leyland was a generous patron of the arts, and cultivated the American painter James McNeill Whistler. The two were close friends until they quarrelled and became bitter enemies; the official story was that the argument was over a commission, but whispers suggest that Whistler was having an affair with Leyland’s beautiful wife. Whistler’s vicious caricatures of Leyland, such as The Gold Scab, are testament to the strength of his hatred for his former patron.

In November 1872, while still friends, Leyland wrote to Whistler: “Dear Jimmy, I would have written you before but that I have been so worried and anxious as to arrangements at the end of my partnership. I have had a hard battle but have come out of it victorious in every point and at the end of the year down comes the brass plate at present on the door and my own flag hoisted instead:- the name of Bibby and all belonging to them consigned to the limbo of forgotten things.

Yours ever, Fred R Leyland”

Leyland’s letter to the great Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti included the paragraph: ‘I have been most anxious and worried… However, I have at last carried my point and got quietly rid of them…. I know you will be glad to hear it; and still more that I have succeeded in dictating my own terms.’

On 1 January 1873, 21 Bibby steamers and the tug Camel were transferred to Frederick Leyland & Co, although James Jenkinson Bibby retained shares in the new company, and Leyland got no part of Bibby’s metals business, which stayed wholly in the family’s control.

Leyland died in 1892, aged 63, and left an estate valued at £916,953 – a fantastic sum for those days, when £300 a year was a decent salary. A large bequest went to Leyland’s mistress, with whom he’d had children.

The Leyland Line was taken over and finally ceased to trade in 1935, while the Bibby Line Group is still thriving with the sixth generation of Bibbys running the business which has a turnover of several hundred million pounds a year.

Brutal murder still to be solved

Entrepreneur and shipower John Bibby was on his way home, on 19th July 1840, after a board meeting at the Royal Bank in Liverpool, when he was murdered. The Times newspaper reported from Liverpool that: ‘considerable sensation has been created in this town in consequence of the mysterious death…’ John and his friend Mr Taylor had taken a cab, which dropped John off near midnight to walk the last 400 yards, as usual. He never reached home. The next morning, at Stand Park Farm near Aintree racecourse, the farmer, Henry Ambrose, found the body in a pond. John Bibby’s hat had been flattened on his head, with a dent on the left side. The police examined the cab driver, who said the passenger had paid 7s 6d fare, and seemed to have been drinking, although he was not insensible. The police concluded John had been attacked by footpads who stole his silver watch (actually his son James’s), threw him into the pond and left him to drown. A couple of years later, a sailor took a watch to Roskells in Church Street, Liverpool; the jeweller recognised the watch as James Bibby’s, having made it himself, and raised the alarm. The sailor was accused of murder, but finally proved he had bought the watch in Bristol, and was released, with compensation from the Bibbys.

There were facts that didn’t fit the robbery theory: for instance, John still had his pocketbook on him when discovered – why would the robbers not have taken it? Aintree is more than two miles from John’s house – so why would footpads drag or carry him unconscious so far, instead of leaving him where he fell? The case has never been closed; the files still sit in the archives of Merseyside Police.

John Bibby was born on 19th February 1775, the fourth of five sons of James and Alice Bibby, farmers in Eccleston, south Lancashire. Without hope of any inheritance or even a decent living from the farm, John went to Liverpool in his late teens and took a job with James Hatton, a ship’s iron merchant. In a few years John was in business for himself in the iron industry, and metals were to become a profitable business for the Bibby family throughout the 19th century. A true entrepreneur, John saw an opportunity to diversify and expand, and in 1801 he set up a shipbroking business with William Hall; their first venture was a small share in the 60-ton galliot Dove. In 1805 John married Mary Margaret Mellard (inset, left), an alderman’s daughter from Newcastle under Lyme; she brought a dowry of £2,500 and took an active interest in her husband’s business until her early death in 1819.

The year he married, John got involved in cargo broking in partnership with his friend John Highfield, the partnership with William Hall dissolved – although Hall still had a financial interest in the new company. Bibby & Highfield’s first ship was the galliot Margaret; built in Liverpool in 1800, she was 177 tons and only 69ft in length (she was lost in 1810 off the coast of Ireland). Over the next two years the partners bought substantial shares in at least seven vessels operating mostly in the coastal trade. In 1806 the Eagle, a 186 ton brig in which John Bibby had a small share, transported slaves from Cameroon to America – his only connection with the slave trade, which was abolished the following year. Meanwhile, in Europe, the British government declared a blockade from the Elbe to Brest, restricting trade routes to much of northern Europe, although Bibby & Highfield sent ships to the Baltic as soon as the Treaty of Kiel was signed in 1814.

In 1807, the partners began a regular packet service from Parkgate (then a busy port on the River Dee, now a picturesque waterfowl reserve) to Dublin, and it is this venture that marks the true start of what was to become the Bibby Line Group. The partners were still buying ships rather than building their own; of the first 17 ships they owned, all but four were lost or were captured. The Thames, for instance, a snow built in New York and acquired in 1807, was captured by the Americans in 1812.

That same year, Bibby & Highfield commissioned their first purpose built ship, a 142-ton brigantine which they named Highfield, from Cortney’s yard in Chester; the following year, the 163-ton brig Bibby was built in Liverpool. The Fearon, of 1813, was named after a short-term business partner, Joseph Fearon.

When Highfield left to set up on his own, John Bibby & Co was in the sole charge of the founder, now running a line of packet boats from Liverpool to Lisbon. In 1825 John commissioned his biggest ship to date – the  first over 100ft in length – Mary Bibby, 104ft, 299 tons, fully rigged ship, with her figurehead portraying the head and shoulders of John’s late wife.

In 1827 John Bibby & Co was still described as ‘Iron Merchants and Ship Owners’, suggesting that the ironworks was the principle activity. According to Henry Stripe, a clerk in the Bibby metals business from 1840 to 1886, John Bibby’s energy and enterprise ‘laid the foundation for all the future prosperity of the firm.’ Stripe relates that ‘when he could not procure dead weight to ballast the vessels he at once shipped iron in his own account, consigning same to the ship’s agents for sale. In this way the firm had iron on sale in most of the important ports of the world. …. Mr Bibby Snr, I am told, would sometimes enter an order or change late in the afternoon for 100 tons Bar Iron and give instructions for the whole to be carted to an exporting ship the same evening… He was continually chartering vessels, his own fleet being too small for his requirements.’

With the ironworks doing so well for the firm, in 1839 John Bibby started a copper smelting works in St Helens, a few miles east of Liverpool, which produced copper ingots, tiles and cakes, and the copper rolling mills at Seacombe (just across the River Mersey from the ironworks at Duke’s Dock) produced fire box plates, bolts, sheathing and braizery, and so on.

By this stage of his life, John Bibby was a wealthy and influential man, a shareholder and director of the Royal Bank of Liverpool and with extensive property; he had houses in Linacre Marsh and Everton Crescent, others in Mersey Street, and several acres of land in Great Crosby. He built himself a large house, Mount Pleasant, on Linacre Marsh, with a splendid view over the Mersey estuary, the perfect point from which to see his ships sailing to and from the port.

John Bibby’s untimely death at the age of 65 left his sons with a thriving business, and an estate worth some £25,000. John Bibby & Sons continued; James Jenkinson, the youngest son, was already working in the Liverpool office, and John junior had come back from India, where he’d been acting as his father’s agent for some while. Joseph Mellard, the eldest son, had been in the company and was apparently a shrewd man of business, but – according to office clerk Henry Stripe – ‘somehow had a quarrel in the office and left finally in 1837. There have been several stories about him since, some very painful ones.’ Joseph married, but had no children, and died in 1855.

The other son, Thomas, had gone into the Church and when his father died, was minister of Trinity Church, St Anne’s Street, Liverpool. He took no active role in the business, but it is Thomas’s descendants who took over the running of the company from the third generation onwards. Little is known about Mary, John Bibby’s daughter, other than that she married shipowner HF Penny; few women in those days were allowed a career beyond the household, and little attention was given to their histories.

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