The history of Elder Dempster Lines

Elder Dempster Lines was one of the UK's largest shipping companies

Elder Dempster was the largest UK shipping group trading between Western Europe and West Africa from the late-nineteenth century to the 1980s. In 1965, a merger with the Ocean Steam Ship Company created the UK's third largest shipping group.

Elder’s headquarters were in Liverpool, the UK's second largest port in the early 1970s. The company and its employees played a key role in developing economic, social and cultural links between West Africa, the UK and the wider Atlantic, including continental Europe and North America. As well as carrying large volumes of cargo – such as cotton textiles, cement, heavy engineering, salt, cocoa, palm oil, latex rubber, groundnuts, timber, tin and copper – they also provided passenger and mail services.

A vibrant social life developed around the firm in the UK and on the West African coast, both ashore and afloat.

"Many employees commented on the family nature of the company. They spoke about how well the company looked after its employees and made genuine personal efforts to assist employees in difficult family circumstances. Several interviewees commented on how the company paid for a wife to join her husband after a bereavement, miscarriage or illness."

Ailbhe McDaid -
Project Assistant

A brief history of the Elder Dempster Lines

By the mid-1890s, the firm’s founding father and one of Liverpool’s most important businessmen, Sir Alfred Lewis Jones, had established the dominance of Elder Dempster Lines in the West African trade. Despite challenges from continental European shipping and other UK shipping and trading interests, dominance was maintained during the difficult ‘little’ and ‘great’ depressions of the 1920s and 1930s.

During both WWI and WWII, Elder Dempster suffered many casualities. West African crews were particularly affected. Especially those caught in the engine rooms when ships were torpedoed on the hazardous UK-West Africa run. Convoys had to try and outrun or outmanoeuvre German U-boats lying off the West African coast. In the 1939-45 conflict alone, Elder Dempster Lines lost over half of its tonnage and 478 of its sea-going staff.

The firm recovered remarkably quickly post-1945. Elder Dempster Lines undertook a huge rebuilding programme, which included the new and much loved flagship Aureol. By the early-1950s, the fleet was almost restored to pre-war levels and the 1950s and 1960s, when many of our interviewees began their careers with Elders, constituted the firm’s ‘Golden Age’.

Staff at Elders

At its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, Elders employed over 4,000 people, including:

  • 1,500 full-time seafarers over approximately 60 vessels
  • 250 UK office staff (Liverpool, London, Manchester)
  • 2,400 on-shore staff in West Africa

As the first company to train African navigating officers, Elders was a major employer in West African ports. In 1957, for example, there were 1,400 Nigerians and 400 Sierra Leoneans working on Elders ships, as well as in clerical or management positions in West African branches.

Elder Dempster Lines and Liverpool

Elder Dempster Lines was fundamentally important to Merseyside. Liverpool was the centre of the West Africa trade as late as the inter-war years. Through Elder Dempster Lines, Liverpool remained a major centre of this trade throughout the 1950s and 1960s, serving Liverpool’s industrial hinterland with both raw materials and foodstuffs, as well as manufactured goods for export into the 1970s and 1980s.

Many of the seafarers who worked for Elder Dempster Lines were from Merseyside, but there was also a huge office staff working in the firm’s headquarters in India Buildings on Water Street in Liverpool.

When Elders and Ocean Steam Ship Company merged, Elder Dempster Lines became part of the largest shipping group in Liverpool and together these companies controlled approximately one third of Liverpool’s registered tonnage in the late-1960s, when Liverpool was still the UK’s second largest port after London. Much of the produce transported to Liverpool on Elder Dempster’s ships was processed locally. For example, palm oil and groundnuts were processed by Lever Brothers/Unilever at Port Sunlight. Copper was processed by British Insulated Callender’s Cables at Prescott.

The revival of the West African trade in the 1950s and 1960s was a key element in Liverpool’s ‘Golden Age’ in the post-war era, when tonnages handled in the port returned to the previous heyday of the Edwardian era.