Ismay, The White Star Line & Liverpool

Liverpool’s dockyards handled more than just cargo…

Besides The Beatles, one of Liverpool’s greatest exports were ships themselves with one particular vessel going down in history for all the wrong reasons.

Although the legendary doomed ship the RMS Titanic took its maiden voyage from Southampton, the vessel was registered in Liverpool, the base of operations for the White Star Line. The White Star Line was established in Liverpool in 1845 by a couple of men looking to capitalise on the new trade route between the UK and Australia. They chartered many ships to and from Australia, benefiting from the discovery of gold there in 1851.

In a strange bit of foreshadowing, this early incarnation of the company was haunted for many years by a shipping disaster which saw Tayleur, the largest ship of its time, sinking on its maiden voyage to Australia. This failure followed the company and despite merging with other companies in 1864, the first White Star Line was forced into bankruptcy in 1867 with a debt of £527,000 (equivalent to around £41 million in today’s money).

A year later, Thomas Ismay, a businessman who had already found some success in the steamship business, purchased the flag and trading name from the company for £1,000, intending to expand his successful National Service and operate larger vessels between the UK and New York. The headquarters of the company was established at Albion House, overlooking the Mersey. Ismay was planning on constructing the grandest ships that the world had ever seen, but in order to do that he needed contacts, it was a good thing then that he was a sociable man.

Ismay met Gustave Christian Schwabe and his nephew, Gustave Willhelm Wolff, and over a game of billiards they laid out a plan that would see the three businessmen join forces to create The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. This venture, separate to the White Star Line, was set up with the specific task of constructing the new ships that would see Ismay and his fellow conspirators earn thousands of pounds, but would also lead to one of the deadliest commercial peacetime maritime disasters in modern history.

It is perhaps fortunate for that Ismay did not live to see the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 (although his son came to international renown as the highest-ranking White Star Line official to survive the wreck). Despite the significant loss of lives, the disaster did not prove to be the sinking of the company. During the interwar years the White Star Line benefited from an increase of emigrant travel, and it might come as a surprise to hear that the White Star Line business exists to this day, albeit under the new name of the Cunard Line.

After mergers led to the White Star Line being dissolved in name, Albion House was left empty and derelict for decades. It wasn’t until 2014 when the grand building was bought by developers Signature Living to create a luxury hotel paying homage to the Titanic and the White Star Line legacy. After a £5.5 million pound investment, years of construction and plenty of social media marketing, 30 James Street – Home of the Titanic opened to much applause and has proven to be one of the most popular new hotels in the city, especially for tourists with a particular interest in this interesting, yet tragic part of Liverpool’s history.

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