The making of a shipping magnate

Doxford Hall, the family home of Lord Runciman.
Doxford Hall, the family home of Lord Runciman.

Walter Runciman was brought up in the coastguard cottage at Cresswell. When he was 12 he ran away and joined a sailing ship as a cabin boy.

His first voyage was to the Kuria Muria Islands, now part of Oman, and then several times to the Baltic and the Mediterranean.

I had waited patiently for the opportunity when managers would be forced to sell tonnage at scrap prices.

Lord Runciman

It was an adventurous life and fraught with danger, but he was proud of his profession and became an AB at 17-and-a-half:

“The best North Country and Scotch trained sailors loved to excel in every phase of their many-sided occupation. I cannot recall any instance where the charge of slackness could be fairly brought against them.

“Skulking and being paid for it was only practised amongst longshoremen, Liverpool packet rats, and other typical rascals, but never by the class of North Country trained seamen with whom I lived.”

He sailed to Alexandria aboard the Northumberland:

“On Sundays the sailors’ rendezvous was the Catacombs or Pompey’s Pillar, and if he rode an ass it invariably deposited its burden abruptly over the side, bows or stern...amidst the shouts of laughter from earlier arrivals who gathered to see the fun.”

On the return: “The passage to the Rock of Gibraltar was one of the finest that could be made...and after a boisterous passage of twelve days we warped the bonny brig into the West India Dock.

“As much of my wages as I could spare was sent home...for the purpose of paying go to a Navigation School and sit for my ‘ticket’.

“We spent the first night ashore together at a music hall, called the ‘Gunboat’, or ‘Jolly Tar’... in Ratcliffe Highway....It was an evening of riotous, but harmless fun.”

Walter came from a Methodist family and was a lifelong teetotaller. He saw for himself the disastrous effects of liquor on his first voyage, and many times afterwards. What he drank, if anything, in places like the Catacombs or the Gunboat, he never says.

Some days later, having spent up, they agreed to sail together once more:

“A large, smart-looking barque was loading a general cargo in the West India Docks....The voyage to Constantinople and several Black Sea ports was uneventful, until we were driven...on our return well into the Atlantic, and ran short of provisions on the way home.”

This was the captain’s fault for not putting into port. They were over a week without food or water, but finally attracted the attention of another ship. Her captain agreed to supply them, and because they were so weak, his crew volunteered to man the boat passing between the two ships.

They were paid off at London and, being utterly exhausted: “All went at once to our respective homes.

“I went to the Nautical School at once, passed the Board of Trade examination for Mate, got a berth aboard a copper-bottomed West Indiaman, and sailed for St Lucia in 1867....The voyage to me was a success in every way....I went home and married in 1868.”

He qualified as a Master Mariner in 1871, and, much to his surprise, was immediately given command of a splendid clipper, the F.E. Althausse.

He was 22. His record was excellent, and the managing owner was a Methodist and knew Walter’s father.

The voyage went well, and before he sailed again, the owner gave him complete authority: “to fix the vessel at any rate of freight any part of the world that I was assured would yield profitable results. It was a responsibility I had not asked for, but was very proud of.”

He commanded the Althausse for four years, when another owner offered him the command of the steamer Coanwood, then about a year old, on much better terms.

The accommodation was excellent, but Coanwood, like many steamers then, was too narrow-built. Her construction beside was weak and her engines and boilers defective, though these things were all put right over the next two years.

He sailed mainly to the Black Sea, engaged in blockade-running, and was twice employed by people from Gibraltar who turned out to be tobacco smugglers.

On the second occasion, he was to transfer the tobacco onto several feluccas in international waters off the Spanish coast. On reaching the rendezvous, the ‘fair-traders’ tried to take the cargo off by force without paying the balance due, but Walter cleared them from the decks by a pre-arranged ruse, and steamed off at high speed.

He jettisoned the tobacco at sea, and reported to Customs on arrival.

After eight years on the Coanwood, he retired to become a ship-owner. But: “I decided the time was not opportune to invest in shipping, as prices were high and the trade outlook bad.”

He made a few more voyages, but retired for his health’s sake in 1884:

“I had waited patiently for the opportunity when managers would be forced to sell tonnage at scrap prices, and although freights were deplorable I never doubted the wisdom of buying when prices were low.”

He bought a laid-up steamer, the Dudley, 1,200 tons, and put her into trading condition:

“The first twelve or eighteen months freights were at vanishing point, but we always managed to get some employment for her that left a profit and earned a really high percentage on her low capital.”

He got rid of the auxiliary sails, with their heavy spars and rigging, and supervised loading and unloading himself whenever possible. Then the Dudley was impounded at Archangel for sinking a Russian ship:

“I felt as though my soul had been taken from me....The news would give the eager gossips fresh proof of my not being able to keep off the rocks.”

Despite the setback, he at once bought another ship, and thanks to his reputation for making the Dudley pay: “The response was incredible; all the shares...were quickly taken....This second ship, in a year and a half, paid back her first cost, plus a new boiler and the renewal of her class at Lloyd’s.”

When he had 12 second-hand steamers, all paying good dividends, he ordered a new ship from Readhead’s, calling her Blakemoor after the estate belonging to his wife’s family.

In 1889 he set up what became the Moor Line, again named for Blakemoor. By 1914 he had 40 steamers, all new-built, selling them on after a few years, and always buying new.

In 1900 he had the yacht Asthore built to his order. In 1922 he bought the much larger Sunbeam, and in 1929 had Sunbeam II built for himself and his son.

He wanted to buy the Cresswell estate, but withdrew because of damage from coal mining.

Instead, in 1909 he bought Doxford Hall, which became the family home, and soon after bought Shoreston Hall for himself and Lady Runciman.

Lord Runciman died in 1937, aged 90.

Acknowledgment: My thanks to Daniel Davison of Doxford Hall, for his kind assistance when I visited the hotel.