REMINISCENCES | The shipping quarter

Various vessels on the River Thames

Events such as the London International Maritime Week are held from time to time to generate some interest in the maritime world among those who mostly don’t have a clue it is still there. Up to about half a century ago, such an enterprise would have been unnecessary – the footprint of the maritime industry could still be seen in the City of London, within a well-known and compact area. Just as Clerkenwell had its clockmakers and jewellers clustered in Hatton Garden, just about everything to do with ships and shipping was within a five-minute walk around Leadenhall and Fenchurch Street.

In an age before instant communications and e-mail, this was hugely convenient for everyone, from the brokers who congregated around Lloyd’s and the Baltic Exchange, to the ranks of shipping companies whose imposing offices were to be found along the two streets. The presence of the owners in one of the world’s biggest service industries  attracted a large number of enterprises whose business was with these powerful people. The more prominent British shipbuilders may have been located on the northern rivers, but they ran representative offices in London, whose ears were tuned for the slightest signs that an owner might be contemplating some new tonnage.

There were all the marine equipment folk, who were always on the lookout for business, whether it was for newbuildings or replacement equipment. The place heaved with experts and consultants of every kind. Just as it was said that you are never more than twenty feet from a rat, you could probably have found a maritime lawyer, cargo surveyor, average adjuster, shipmaster, or any other maritime service provider by shouting out of the window. That might be an exaggeration, but nobody in those days ever had to go far for some business.

“There were ‘communities’ within the London maritime community itself with their own climate of togetherness.”

The helpful proximity of everyone to everyone else was perfect for the circulation of maritime intelligence. The word “networking” had yet to be invented, but in the Marine Club, the bar of the Institute of Marine Engineers, that of the Baltic and numerous rather lower-class hostelries, the information circulated along with the food and drink. The liner company technical superintendent, chatting to a naval architect and an engine manufacturer in the Institute bar, confided that his owner might be considering the replacement of some of the older units in the fleet. This important news would be flashed around the marketing departments of the northern shipbuilders before close of business. It would be given headline treatment in the maritime press and spread like incense around the industry.

There were “communities” within the London maritime community itself with their own climate of togetherness. The London Greeks, for instance, were an important force to be reckoned with in the tramp trades, stalwarts of the Baltic Exchange, enthusiastic buyers and sellers in the sale and purchase market, and magnets for those who wanted to sell them something.  Everything that anyone needed to do with the maritime world was at hand, a legacy that had come down the years from the days of sail and the time when the ships themselves were but a stone’s throw away.

This close knit self-sufficiency of an important global industry was to be found replicated in other maritime centres around the world, although none was quite so dominant as that of London. In the UK, Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle and the Tees had recognised shipping centres, as had Hamburg, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Singapore, Yokohama, New York and San Francisco. The Piraeus waterfront was a memorable experience, before their emigration to posher suburbs of Athens.

“It is the same in most parts of the world – the shipping quarter, which was once so distinctive, has disappeared.”

In the City of London today, there are still fragments of this compact maritime community to be found, but by and large it is all gone, replaced by the all-pervasive financial services sector and their towering blocks of glass. The street plan remains, but high rents, poor rewards, and the diaspora of maritime business around the world has effectively seen off that once vibrant community that revolved around the trading of ships. With it has gone much of the consciousness among the public of an industrial sector that is, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

In London, marine insurance, law, technical expertise, and a number of specialist service functions survive and indeed prosper, but the fact is that wonderful communications mean that ships, shipping companies, ship managers, shipbuilders and repairers, equipment manufacturers and all the integrated intelligence can be globally dispersed. It is the same in most parts of the world – the shipping quarter, which was once so distinctive, has disappeared.

There are efforts, mainly to raise awareness among governments and the public to bring maritime people together to make a bit of collective noise at “Shipping Weeks,” which present the sector as a sort of cohesive cluster. It does the business, but to somebody of a certain age who has walked down Leadenhall Street in its shipping prime, to stroll along the city pavements today, as with the British shipping industry, it is only the memories that remain.

Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing, or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Send your submissions to: [email protected].

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.