Our Men of The Blue Funnel Line



My ancesters and relatives were significantly involved with the Blue Funnel Line. Captain Turner Russell (1832-1918), Captain Alexander Kidd (1830-1883), Captain John Dodd Soulsby (1889-1966), Captain James Watt Walker (1863-before 1951), mariner John Dodd (1849-1871),  Chief Engineer Joseph Hodgson Russell (1861-1933), Chief Engineer Robert Reuben Spring Collings (1863-1953), Chief Engineer David Herbert Martin (1874-1926), Engineer Turner Alexander Russell (1889-1964), and Turner Russell Walker (1893-1916).  I have used the following published references and family legends to more fully cover this relationship that started in 1854 and continued through the 1950's. The indented paragraphs are taken from -- Jottings from a Sailor’s Life – The Journal of Alexander Kidd.   Diary of Alexander Kidd     

1. C. H. Milsom, Blue Funnel the Later Years, 1925-1982

2. Malcom Falkus, Blue Funnel Legend History of the Ocean Steam Ship Company, 1865-1973

3. LE FLEMING, H.M..SHIPS OF THE BLUE FUNNEL LINE.; Southampton. 1961. Adlard Coles. 1st Ed. VIII, 56 PP plus 24 pages with 53 b/w photos. Hard cover, price clipped picture drawing. The ships of the company founded by Alfred Holt.

4. HYDE, Francis E.. BLUE FUNNEL, A History of Alfred Holt & Company of Liverpool 18651914.; Liverpool. 1957. Liverpool Univ. Press. Third Impression. XVII, 201 PP plus 10 pages with 13 b/w illustrations. and Index. Fp Portrait of Alfred Holt. Map Japan to P.N.G. The first fifty years of the Holt enterprise which became the Ocean Steamship Company.

5. HAWS, Duncan.BLUE FUNNEL LINE [No. 6 in the Merchant Fleets Series].; London. 1984. Author. 1st Ed. 149 PP with 113 b/w drawings by author. Picture card cover. History of the line, fleet index and fleet list (351 vessels).


The initial three captains of the Blue Funnel Line were Isaac Middleton (my great grandmother's god father), Alexander Kidd (my second great grandfather) and Turner Russell (my second great grandfather).


    Isaac Middleton                                Alexander Kidd                                Turner Russell

Taken from Blue Funnel Line, Duncan Haws (a cousin by marriage) with his permission:

Alfred Holt, the company's founder, was born in Liverpool on the thirteenth June 1829. He was the middle son of five children, all male. His mother, Emma Nee Durning, his father, George, was a well-respected cotton broker who went on to build the 'India Buildings' which was later to become the Headquarters for Blue Funnel. 1834 saw the completion of India Buildings and it was also the year that the East India Company's monopoly of the Far East was terminated thus opening the way for other private companies. In 1845 Alfred started work as an apprentice engineer working for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company of Edge Hill.

The Company later became known as the London and North Western Railway Company in 1846. In 1850 Alfred completed his apprenticeship. Unfortunately this also coincided with a slump in railway development and in 1851 he joined Lamport and Holt (his brother George was a founding partner) and started work on his first ship 'Scamander' a screw steamer. The second ship he worked on was the 'Orantes' and after completion he sailed on her maiden voyage as a supernumery engineer to the Mediterranean. This was later to prove invaluable as a source of what it was like to be at the working end of Marine design.

1852 Alfred opened an office in the India Building and started work as an engineer consultant. This office was to remain Alfred's for the rest of his working life. In 1853 he was to form two alliances. First with Thomas Ainsworth, a coal merchant from Cumbria, and second with Captain Isaac Middleton, who skippered Ainsworth's collier 'Alpha'. Alfred and Ainsworth formed a joint venture and acquired the screw steamer 'Dumbarton Youth' from the William Denny yard. Here legend has it that on sighting her tall black funnel, Alfred armed with tins of blue paint, set about changing it to powder blue topped with a black band. This colour scheme was to be retained for the rest of the Company's history. 1854 saw the completion of the second ship 'Cleator' built at Liverpool by Cato and Miller under the supervision of Alfred. Later that year she was chartered by the French Government for the duration of the Crimean War. Incidentally 15 years later, 1869, the 'Cleator' was to become the first 'Blue Funnel' ship to transit the Suez Canal. 1855 a second ship was built, her name was 'Saladin'. She was completed just after the war ended and thus found herself on the West Indian run competing against subsidized Royal Mails, financially something of a disaster to begin with, Alfred almost gave up but fortunately on her third voyage she turned in a profit. 1857 saw four more ships completed. 'Plantagenet', 'Askalon', 'Talisman' and 'Crusader'. Trade grew and along with it, profits. Alfred was on his way. 1864 saw Alfred selling his interests in all ships, save the 'Cleator'. Retaining her to try out his idea of a two-cylinder compound tandem engine, steam supplied at 60lbs. Three times the pressure of normal steamers. Alfred's new design was innovative and by December 1864 the 'Cleator' was at sea, not only cutting fuel costs but also adding two knots to her speed. She was commanded by Isaac Middleton no less, Alfred's friend from way back in 1853 ('Alpha'). This was also the year that, after much discussion, the division was made to trade East as opposed to West and South. Also to order three new ships which were to revolutionise trade namely 'Agamemnon', 'Ajax' and 'Achilles'. All three built at Scott's of Greenock.

Michael J. Vienneau, Scrimshander, Nantucket, MA.

1865 saw the registration of the company name, 'The Ocean Steam Ship Company' and the announcement of their trading routes Mauritius, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai via the cape of Good Hope. The 'Agamemnon' made the inaugural sailing to China commanded by Captain Isaac Middleton, who up until this time had been in command of the 'Cleator'.

1867 a working alliance was formed between the Holts and Butterfield/Swire who later went on to found the 'China Navigation Company' in 1872.

1868 saw yet another Alfred Holt innovation, in September the 'Ajax' sank in Shanghai! What happened was that the engineer who was working on the shaft that coupled the engine to the propeller shaft couldn't complete the task and was set to finish it the following day. During the night the outgoing tide unscrewed the propeller and its shaft sinking the ship to her uppers. Alfred didn't sack the poor unfortunate but redesigned the coupling arrangement making the coupling flange bigger than the stern tube gland also making the gland watertight.


"4th Voye June 25th 1868. Commenced another to China in the Ajax had a good passage & arrd in Mauritius on the 4th Augst left again in pursuit of two Chinese Absconding Debtors with a detective. On the 12th day caught the S.S. Quang Tung & put the detective on board who apprehended the delinquents on arrival at Singapore but they were released through some informal nature of warrant & the scoundrels got away with a lot of stolen money8000 Pounds in Gold, the Mauritius creditors were furious at the action taken by the Singre authorities & made it a subject with the home Government. We arrd in Shanghai on the 9th of Sepr 1868 but we met with great trouble before we got away from Shanghai, our poor Ajax sank in the Shanghai river at her moorings & was under water for 24 days destroying a lot of property, the accident occured through the shaft running out of the stern pipe while under repairs caused by an unusual current running up the River. After strenuous exertions & spending about £17,000 pounds, we got our good ship afloat again & made all right & returned home again, arriving in London on the 19th Febry1869 all well - after discharging homeward cargo steamed round to Lpool arriving there 2nd March 1869". Jottings from a Sailor’s Life – The Journal of Alexander Kidd


1969 from the obituary of Captain Turner Russell we learn of Captain Russell's record run from Foo Chow to Gravesend:

"Of the different ships he commanded Captain Russell's favorite was the Achilles. This steamer was barque-rigged, had a crew of sixty-three and carried a cargo of tea of about 3800 tons. He considered her a great ship when he got all of his canvas to draw, and often remarked what a fine sailing ship she would have made if only the engines had been taken out of her. Her steaming speed was only about nine knots, but with this steam power and the aid of her canvas Captain Russell achieved the feat of winning the tea race from Foo Chow around the Cape, beating the West Indian, a steamer that had been put on this service against the Achilles, by a fortnight. This was considered a record run. Captain Russell used to relate that when he wired his arrival at Gravesend the late Mr. Alfred Holt would not believe it until it was confirmed by the London agent."

Henry Hyde relates the following in the Blue Funnel, p 37-39:

The full measure of the change from sail to steam can, perhaps, best be exemplified in the all-important matter of the tea race. The most important homeward cargo from China was still tea and the carriage of the new season’s crop to the London market was subject to the keenest competition. In modern phraseology the tea race was a logistical exercise involving the concentration of the most efficient types of carriers at strategic ports, the supplying of essential services and the speediness of delivery to the point of distribution. Until 1867 at least, the sailing ship had the race very much within its grasp, but thereafter, for the reasons already given, it passed to the steamer and, by implication, into the hands of Alfred Holt. "A very great pride and pleasure to me this year" he wrote on 13 October 1869 ‘has been the almost perfect performance of four of our China steamers with new tea.’ Their records, together with those of two competing steamers are worth quoting:



Pounds of Tea Carried



Sailing Date

Passed Gravesend






9 June - 5.0 a.m.

25 Aug - 4:30 pm


Erl King



5 June - 4.0 a.m.

29 Aug - noon





22 June - 12:30 p.m.

15 Sept - 9.0 p.m.





16 July - 2.0 p.m.

16 Sept - noon





8 July

22 Sept


West Indian



8 July -8.30 p.m.

24 Sept - 3.0 p.m.



The Erl King was ‘fairly pitted’ against the Agamemnon and the West Indian against the Achilles. It was generally believed in China that the Holt ship would be outpaced on the homeward run, so much so, that the West Indian was paid £5 a ton freight for a voyage under 70 days, whereas the Achilles loaded £4 10s. a ton for a voyage of under 75 days. The Holt cargoes were not only delivered sooner and in better condition than those of their rivals but were sold for 2d. per lb. more. The Agamemnon on this occasion brought back ‘the largest cargo ever embarked in one ship’ and earned the largest freight Holt had ever heard of – £28,087.


1869 the Suez Canal opened, reducing the passage to China by ten to twelve days. This was the to signal the beginning of the end of sail though it did take another quarter of a century for sail finally to give way to steam. Also this year five new ships were ordered, delivery spread over the following two years.


Thursday 21st Octr having loaded in London. Started for Tunis Malta & Alexandria had my wife & 3 children, Alick, Annie & Willie. At Tunis we had an opportunity of going to visit the ruins of Ancient Carthage and the Tomb of St Louis at Malta, we visited St John*s Church & other places worth seeing. While in Alexandria at the request of Mr Alfred Holt took a passage in a Russian Steamer to Port Said for the purpose of seeing the Suez Canal, it was opened at that time the Inauguration was a fine sight. I had a conversation with Mr Lessep*s for the information of Mr Holt about the Canal. I took a passage to Ismailia in a Post Boat & remained one night there, fortunately I found a bed at a small tavern & met an old acquaintance a Swiss Mr Ernst who at one time lodged with Mrs Nicoll in Lpool. We saw all the preparations being made at a new Palace of Pasha Ismail for the reception of his grand visitors "Eugenie" Francis Joseph & a lot others to a Ball in honour of Opening the Suez canal. The whole altogether was a grand sight and worth having seen. I returned by Rail to Alexandria & sailed for Liverpool & had a rough & prolonged passage called at Queenstown, short of coals. We got to L*pool on the 11thJottings from a Sailor’s Life – The Journal of Alexander Kidd

1870 'Priam' and 'Sarpedon' delivered, fleet now seven.

1871 'Hector', 'Ulysses', 'Menelaus' and 'Glaucus' delivered.

1872 'Patroclus', 'Delicalion' and 'Antenor' delivered. 'Cleator' and 'Saladin' sold.

1875 Three two funnelers ordered. 'Orestes', 'Stentor' and 'Anchises'. Fleet now totals sixteen.

1876 'Orestes' sinks off Ceylon. 'Sarpedon' sinks off Ushant.

1878 Isaac Middleton dies. (Shipping Superintendent)

1879 Far Eastern Conference established. 1880 Company enters tobacco trade. Fleet now 23 ships.

1881 John Swire and Alfred Holt begin to argue. Two specialized ships enter service on the tobacco run. 'Mercury' and 'Ganymede'.

1882 'Hecuba' built and placed on the Bangkok rice run. John Swire resigns as Conference Chairman. The formation of 'The China Shippers Mutual Steam Navigation Company' is announced to run in competition with Alfred Holt.

1885 'Hebe' enters on the tobacco trade. 'Telamon', 'Titan' and 'Palamed' enter on the Eastern service. 'Teucer' sinks off Ushant.

1886 'Palinurus', 'Prometheus' and 'Dardanus' enter service. 1887 Sees more aggravation between China Mutual and Alfred Holt. 'Sappho' enters service.

1888 John Swire unsuccessfully tries to mediate between China Mutal and Alfred Holt. 'Ulysses II' is delivered with triple exp engines. Holt not happy reverted to tried and tested compound. 'Priam' sinks.

1890 'Myrmidon', 'Teucer II', 'PriamII' and 'Polyphemus' all enter service. Fleet now 30 ships. 'Ulysses' sinks.

1891 Blue Funnel form the 'East Indian Ocean Steam Ship Company' to run in competition against 'Nederlandsche Stoomboot Maatschappi Oceaan' a Dutch company and the Royal Packet Company, also Dutch (KPM). China Mutual joins Homenard Conference. 1893 China Mutual resists joining Outward Conference.

1894 Gold discovered in Western Australia. China Mutual agrees on Outward Conference rates. 1900 The Fleet had risen to 41 ships.

1902 Limited is added to the Company's name and it acquires China Mutual Steam Navigation Co. . Adding a further 13 ships to the fleet.

1908 Three new passenger ships ordered for the Australian service.

1910 Aeneas and Ascanius II enter service on the Australian run. 1911 Anchises joins her sister ships on the Australian service. The Fleet now totals some 62 ships. Sadly Alfred Holt dies this year. 1913 Nestor III and Ulysses IV enter on the Australian run. Liverpool now becomes the main passenger port instead of Fishguard. 1914 War breaks out and the Company owned 83 ships, 18 of which were sunk.

Revised:  September 30, 2002