End of the line; Liverpool's last ship-owning line is saying Bon Voyage and selling up its matchless memorabilia. Peter Elson reports on the last days of the famous ``Hungry Harrisons''.
SMALL may be beautiful, but this no longer applies to the maritime world. The last true Liverpool ship-owner, Harrison Line, has finally rung ``finished with engines'' for its ships and the fleet has sailed into the nautical history books.
How ironic that Liverpool, the port that more than any other shrank the world, as its shipping line tentacles spread across the world, has so deeply suffered from the negative effects of the globalisation it set in motion.
In spite of its long experience and viability, Harrison Line, a name internationallysynonymous with the British merchant marine, simply cannot compete with the multi-national forces that now dominate trade.
Next year, the company will celebrate its 150th anniversary and will continue in other spheres. But the clearance and auction early next year of the contents of its Liverpool headquarters will be the end of an era not only for this company, but in general for the Liverpool shipping business of world renown.
No better illustration of the city's seismic change of direction is that of the Albert Dock, where Harrisons was the first tenant. The quay and warehouse where Harrison ships off-loaded Bordeaux wines and brandies from Charente, in France, is now occupied by the Italian restaurant Est Est Est.
The company's lineage begins in Liverpool's golden age. Thomas and James Harrison joined Samuel Brown in 1830 and became T & J Harrison. In 1871, Charente Ltd was founded and the Harrison brothers became the managers, using the name Harrison Line.
No more will the distinctive livery of red, white and blackbanded funnels (which gave rise to the quip ``two of fat and one of lean'' and thus the nickname ``Hungry Harrisons'') be seen on waters anywhere. The ships, named after just about every profession except Anarchist or ``the oldest one'' have all been sold off.
Today, the atmosphere hangs heavy in Harrison Line's Mersey Chambers head office, topped by the oldest Liver Bird statue in Liverpool. Since the 1880s, this was the heart of a company - from where ships were ordered, men's lives directed and cargoes calculated - no longer beats.
Dust hangs in shafts of sunlight and the silence is broken only by the forlorn sound of an echoing unanswered telephone. Enough remains to show you what a real shipping office should look like.
There are 31 fabulous models, representing the fleet from the beginning, to the Wayfarer of 1973, and all still gleaming within their shadowy glass cases.
Magnificent paintings charting the company's course from sail to steam cover the walls, including the Astronomer which served in the Falklands War and was eventually bought by the Ministry of Defence.
Some of the older paint-ings, such as early 19thcentury Merseyside examples by Joseph Hurd, Miles and Samuel Waters may fetchpounds 20,000-pounds 30,000. Other 20th-century examples by Verity, Stobart and Burgess are also highly collectable.
Overlooking the Mersey's waters, the power and the glory still emanates from the boardroom's dark panelling, last officially used in April. The 120 employees in Liverpool and London have been whittled down to nine.
A large silver German-made model Dutch galleon glitters on the boardroom table. Presented by one of the family shareholders, and dating from 1902 this ``nef'' was made by Bertold Mueller and imported through Chester.
Yet it's up in the attic storey that the real soul of Harrison's lies. Here is a gallery of treasures, which covers the formal, ephemeral, quirky and serious that defined the character of one of Liverpool's greatest shipping lines.
Nigel Hollebone, Charente director, says: ``Because we kept it all for ourselves there are cupboards stuffed with masses of detailed records: ship-building, crew lists, trade volumes and voyage details.
``Graeme Cubbins, a retired Harrison Line captain, built up the museum over the last couple of decades, besides writing the definitive history of the company.
``We've also got telescopes, tide clocks, chronometers, stability calculators to ensure you arrived the right way up after using all your fuel and water. They all have a value for collectors.''
Books crammed with vital statistics give us the facts, but nothing conveys the lifeblood of a company like Harrison's as this marvellously jumbled set of artefacts. Merseyside Maritime Museum's chief, Mike Stammers, describes its record sections as: ``The most complete history of any shipping line.''
In spite of this endorsement, it will be broken up and sold off with the rest. The most startling item looks inoffensive enough: a faded letter from the war years. Closer inspection reveals that it is a receipt signed by Capt Lansdorff, of the German pocket battleship, Graf Spee.
This was for a Harrison Line ship that he captured and used as a larder for revictualling before sinking her. The receipt informs us that: ``This ship is now a German prize.''
Nigel Hollebone says: ``I'm sure that, as a proper, well-ordered German he meticulously gave a receipt for every ship he sank. It meant the captain didn't get the sack for coming home empty-handed.''
Photos show the fast Harrison cargo-liner SS Politician which, due to compass error, was wrecked off a Scottish island while carrying pounds 250,000 worth of whisky and bank notes. The accident became the basis for Compton MacKenzie's novel and then Ealing Studios' comedy, Whisky Galore, with the ship renamed Cabinet Minister.
``There was a lot of talk that the captain was drunk, but he and the company were officially exonerated as the grounding was caused by magnetic variations caused by the Scottish islands,'' says Nigel Hollebone.
``Even to lose a ship in the war was not a fine thing. I suspect some of the Harrisons are still turning in their graves at the thought of all the publicity.''
BETWEEN the wars, Harrison's ran a first class service, with the steamers Inkosi and Inanda, to the West Indies and carried the England Cricket Team to Trinidad. Crockery and menus are kept from this voyage.
The company's zenith was just before WWII when the fleet numbered 48 ships. After the postwar rebuilding programme the company had 41 ships in 1954.
The last ship in the company's colours was the Author, on the Caribbean trade, which was highly popular with passengers wanting the long, leisurely voyages aboard a freighter.
Nigel Hollebone, who has been with the company for 30 years, says: ``The sale of the liner trades was sad but inevitable. We are competing with multi-national companies and its impossible to keep a toe in the water. We are a victim of the worldwide consolidation into massive global alliances ``Everyone understands it's inevitable that we should move away from liner services, particularly in this neck of the woods, where we have such a good name.' Charged with this task is Charente development director Peter Morton, who says: ``We have to shrink the business to survive. We have two distinct businesses selling charts and making nautical instruments and compasses, plus ship-broking, which will continue from 1 Water Street, in Liverpool.''
While this fascinating collection of memorabilia won't survive complete, at least everyone who loves Liverpool's maritime history will be able to buy a part of it.
L BONHAM'S Harrison Line sale will take place at its auction rooms in New Bond Street, London, on January 21, 2003. Catalogues (pounds 15) available, tel: 01666-502200.
model Dutch galleon
NAUTICAL MEMORIES: Items collected include pictures of ships, including the famous SS Politician, left, which inspired a book and a film, or simply the everyday items passengers might have used, above; GLITTERING PRIZE: Charente's Nigel Hollebone with one of the line's treasures, a large silver German-made; Daily Post, Wednesday, October 23, 2002
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|Publication:||Daily Post (Liverpool, England)|
|Date:||Oct 23, 2002|
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