Ben Line Steamers Ltd.
Ben Line Steamers Ltd. has been associated with Singapore since the 1860s. Its ships, bearing names prefixed by “Ben”, used to ply the Europe–Far East route, calling at Singapore and other ports in the region.1 However, an inability to compete with larger carriers ultimately led to Ben Line selling off its shipping operations to concentrate on the shipping agency business.
While the Edinburgh-based Ben Line Steamers Ltd. was set up in 1919, the shipping line originated from a partnership formed in 1825 between brothers Alexander and William Thomson. The establishment was renamed Wm. Thomson & Co. in 1847, after Alexander left to pursue a merchant business.2
Wm. Thomson & Co. made its first visit to Singapore in 1859 when its ship, the Araby Maid, was on its maiden voyage to the Far East. The vessel called at Singapore to unload and load cargo before proceeding to China and Japan.3
In the 1950s, Ben Line started to establish offices in the region to manage and develop its liner services between Europe and the Far East.4 On 1 August 1955, a Ben Line office was established in Singapore.5 Offices were subsequently opened in Malaya, Hong Kong and Thailand in the late 1950s.6
Ben Line Containers Ltd. was formed in the early 1970s, marking Ben Line’s entry into the container shipping business.7 In 1987, Ben Line Agencies was established to complement Ben Line’s core container shipping business with an agency business, which later became a key contributor to the group’s operations.8
In 1990, Ben Line started the process of developing a cooperative arrangement on Europe–Far East trade with the East Asiatic Company of Copenhagen. The resulting joint venture was named EacBen Container Line.9 In 1992, however, Ben Line sold its shipping operations to East Asiatic Company, citing its inability to compete with larger carriers, thus ending more than 150 years of ship ownership.10 Today, Ben Line is focused on the shipping agency business through Ben Line Agencies.11
Nature of business
Ben Line’s main interests began to shift towards the Far East starting from the 1860s.12 Following the Araby Maid’s voyage in 1859, other Ben Line ships began to ply a similar route in the 1860s, carrying a general cargo from Britain to the Far East, and returning with cargoes of tea and other items purchased in China, Japan or other ports along the way. By the 1880s, Ben Line ships were travelling a predetermined route from Britain to Singapore or Hong Kong, whereupon they roamed between different ports of call. The ships picked up cargo and traded between the places until they had enough to justify a return voyage. This practice continued into the years up to World War II.13
After World War II, Ben Line was able to take advantage of its experience with shipping items such as steel, concrete, locomotives, bulldozers and munitions. These items were called for as the British re-established themselves in the Middle East and the Far East. From Singapore, Ben Line ships continued to transport cargo such as timber, sago, flour, pepper and spices, alongside rubber, which was in great demand in Britain, and manufactured products from Hong Kong.14 In the early 1950s, the company started a coastal service between Singapore and Bangkok to transport rice, jute and sometimes elephants.15 In the late 1950s, a fast direct service was introduced between London and Singapore.16
Container shipping gained prominence in Singapore in the early 1970s, and Ben Line’s first container ship, City of Edinburgh, arrived in August 1972.17 While Ben Line’s Singapore office had become the hub of its operations in Southeast Asia by the late 1970s, the company’s operations in the Far East were overseen by its Hong Kong office.18
In the late 1980s, Ben Line entered the shipping agency business, which has since become its main activity, after it ended its shipping operations in 1992.19
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia & Chan Fook Weng
1. George Blake, The Ben Line: The History of Wm. Thomson & Co. of Leith and Edinburgh, and of the Ships Owned and Managed By Them, 1825–1955 (London: T. Nelson, 1956), 40–41, 52 (Call no. RCLOS 387.5 BLA); Austin Morais, “Linking S-E Asia with Japan and Europe,” Straits Times, 23 June 1972, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Blake, Ben Line, 6, 11, 14, 111.
3. Blake, Ben Line, 35; Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, From Early Days (Singapore: International Chamber of Commerce, 1979), 173. (Call no. RSING 380.10655957 SIN)
4. “About Us,” Ben Line Agencies, accessed 31 May 2020.
5. Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, From Early Days, 173.
6. “Ben Line,” Straits Times, 23 January 1958, 10. (From NewspaperSG.
7. “Ben Line Containers,” Business Times, 17 May 1977, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Ben Line Agencies, “About Us.”
9. “Ben Line Agencies Appointed EAC-Ben’s S’pore Agent,” Business Times, 13 August 1991, 29; Dexter Lee, “Ben Line to Join Scan Dutch Consortium Next Year,” Business Times, 2 November 1990, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Ramesh Divyanathan, “Ben Line Sells EacBen Container Stake,” Business Times, 10 July 1992, 29 (From NewspaperSG); “Until It Sold Its Ships Ben Line Achieved More than a Century and Half of Ownership,” Lloyd’s List International, 30 June 2000. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
11. Ben Line Agencies, “About Us”; Divyanathan, “Ben Line Sells EacBen Container Stake.”
12. Blake, Ben Line, 35, 45.
13. Blake, Ben Line, 40–41, 72, 76–77.
14. Blake, Ben Line, 170, 174–75.
15. Blake, Ben Line, 178; “Page 11 Advertisements Column 2,” Straits Times, 17 March 1950, 11 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, From Early Days, 176.
16. Blake, Ben Line, 35.
17. “Until It Sold Its Ships Ben Line.”
18. Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, From Early Days, 176.
19. Ben Line Agencies, “About Us”; Divyanathan, “Ben Line Sells EacBen.”
The information in this article is valid as at May 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.