When London had international shipping, it didn’t need a Week

I started work in the City in 1974; within walking distance of my office in St Mary Axe were three Admiralty chart agents – Kelvin Hughes, Brown and Perring and JD Potter, in the Minories, with its upper floor devoted to sextants of practically every make. There were uniform tailors in Fenchurch Street, the City Poly hard by the Tower of London was turning out deck officers and had a particularly splendid model of the Jervis Bay*, and there were, besides the shipbrokers, the banks, the Baltic Exchange itself, the Average Adjusters, the Admiralty lawyers, the Salvage Association, the Warranty Surveyors, the experts in almost everything to do with ships, and the then more modest offices of the P&I Clubs, there were shipowners offices in all styles, from the very grand, such as P&O, in their own modern building on Leadenhall Street with a polished bronze propeller blade in place of a group of statuary outside (I liked that) through the lesser lights of British shipping and down to the small tramp owners and coaster owners who seemed to live in garrets. You could tell which division of the P&O was next for the chop, because it invariably became the custodian of the British India brass cannons. When they arrived at Beagle House, pointing inwards, the senior staff of Overseas Containers Limited proclaimed their faith in their koi carp, a fish that was as old as the company. The carp would see off the bad joss of the BI cannons.

The fish died. As did P&O Nedlloyd. I wonder if Maersk took the cannons, along with the rest of it?

Today, we have London International Shipping Week. A distinguished friend tells me not to mock it, because “it sheds a warm glow over the resultant inactivity”.

Perhaps the rot started when the custom of “posting defaulters” – those scoundrels who had failed to honour arbitration awards made against them – on notice boards in the Baltic Exchange, became a subject for mockery. Posting a defaulter simply meant that you were admitting that you had been taken to the cleaners. The person doing the posting, not the defaulter, became the one who lost face.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics, in the specific form known as Parkinson’s Law, is operating with a vengeance. As less and less business is done, the rituals of doing it and the complexity of the rules by which it is done, increase.

There was a time when the British mocked the elaborate bureaucracy and the bad plumbing of the Europeans; today Britain is a by-word for bureaucracy (this very day, I have had to get the Master of a ship which had had a trivial incident entering Tilbury to copy out and sign a second copy of the Incident Report that he had made out and signed for the Port of London Authority, to be given to Forth Ports, who operate Tibury, because the PLA consider themselves too grand to give Tilbury a copy… yes, both organisations do have email…) and Britain imports European plumbers ( maybe we know where the OCL carp went…)

The British people were told by their Establishment, for 71 years, that they were Exceptional, and in due course a small army of spivs and chancers, led by the Dirty Digger and including Mr Nigel Farage, who was fascinated by the Nazis as a schoolboy, and has never grown up, the absurd Mr Boris Johnson, the slimy Mr Gove and the disgraced former Defence Minister Liam Fox, and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and his hedge fund, saw their opportunity to sell the British a dream of the 1950s as they never were, persuaded British voters that they were indeed Exceptional, and that they were being ill-treated by Europe, and thus brought them to commit national suicide, to the benefit of Mr Putin, who, after the Cold War, like Tolkien’s Saruman after the War of the Ring, still has his voice and is still capable of a little evil in a small way.

Job done. The Rees-Moggs will soon have solved the Servant Problem, as the hungry serfs queue once more for “inside work” as parlourmaids and cooks. There is nothing to detain the international shipowner here. A Rolls-Royce car is a Mercedes 7-series, ‘badge engineered’”, and if you want to know how good their ships’ equipment is, ask around.

This year’s London International Shipping Week is glancing fearfully over its shoulder at Europe, which is ignoring it, and is hardly daring to look past Europe at the spectre of its complete irrelevance to the rest of the planet. The British are lazy and ill educated, they have no manners and, increasingly, they have the morals to suit. They build no ships, they own few ships, they man fewer ships and yet they claim the rights to call themselves the world centre of maritime law, of marine insurance, of chartering, of hydrography, of finance and of the related trades and professions. But all these depend on the business of owning and running ships profitably. We no longer do that. The level of sheer ignorance to be found in a British P&I Clubs’ claims staff is shattering. You can’t blame the people; they just don’t know, and because they have never been told how useless they are, they think they are God’s gift to honest shipping.

In maritime terms, Britain is now an irrelevant embarrassment. Go East, young woman.


*If you need to know why the City Poly had a model of the Jervis Bay, I rest my case.

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. Are the joys of visiting Bury Street to be sent to some far off land by my shipping department at Bank Line.

    1. Next dooor to Cunard, one way, P&O the other, and their P&I Club in Baltic Exchange Chambers at 24 St Mary Axe…

  2. GM Andrew.Nice piece albeit strongly critical.

    I tend to receive your message in a broader context of western decay, certainly not only British. The US and most notably the EU are not doing better either. We struggle to maintain the same level of living but the gravity centre of the globe is moving eastbound.That is why we need negative interest rates to maintain our welfare. Like a ship engine that goes from heavy fuel to kerosene. It will spin faster but will eventually burn.

    All nicely said but history has its own timing. Ecosystems that are not sustainable will not survive in the long run.

    Give it a bit of time and do not forget that workplace capabilities are being reshaped in an era of Millennials wielding iphones, not knowing anything that did not come out of facebook.

    The pattern is there and is certainly not only British. In a nutshell, the world is changing at a fast pace that seems incomprehensible exactly because it is this fast.

  3. Given the inability of our present Government to tell the truth, or even to count properly, the news from the Shipping Minister, speaking on Monday, that “more than half” of Greek Shipowners are thinking of “relocating to London” should be taken in the context of the said Government of chancers and wide boys’ dreams of creating what they call “Singapore-on-Thames”, a dream that exists only in the mind of people who don’t know the real Singapore and who would be horrified by the idea of a Central Provident Fund.

    Most real Greek Shipowners are already in the real Singapore…

    1. I am afraid that the Shipping minister is rather misled or misleading. The report is available for download, pp.45 is rather enlightening. On pp.46 where the “crucial” question is posed, 48% of respondents mentioned London as one of their preferences. By same token, 52% mentioned Singapore and so on. This is not equivalent with saying that 48% of GR owners want to move to London. A quick interpretation check: The referenced pct quotes do not add up to unity.

      To me it looks like an effort to smooth out the edges of Brexit. UK political scene is in a free-fall and to my eyes [i am Greek] it seems that the Brits have collectively let things be governed by mere chance.

      On top of that, we are discussing a survey on ship-owning in a country that today, resembles more a socialist regime than a free country. Naturally, they all want to escape the GR madhouse.

  4. There was a quote used this morning in one of the ‘free’ events (of which most of them are and so £€$ is not an issue) that seems relevant to this post…”It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”. –Charles Darwin
    Shipping is a global industry, all main hubs now have week long shipping events – in fact I’ll be in Cyprus next month for their version. It’s been a great gathering of the industry leaders and decision makers in London – I personally get a lot from it – networking, industry knowledge, direct business, indirect lead generation etc.
    We can all reminisce about the past, but probably best we all adapt to changing times and make the best of it.(in my opinion!)

    1. Martin – with great respect, my point is that London as a “shipping centre” has failed to understand the changes, and has therefore failed to manage them.

      The same can surely be said of Britain as a whole – most certainly of its Government, who seem to dream of bringing back Empire Preference, with the aid of an aircraft carrier with one shaft 15mm out of alignment.

    2. Thanks, George.

      Amusingly, I ran into the authors of the report, Oliver Hogan and Cristian Niculescu-Marcu, at the House of Commons during a speech by the Minister! (You are quite right…)

      Thanks for pointing out the lie.



    1. Thanks Bruno – it’s high time that a little boy remarked on the Emperor’s lack of clothes..

  5. Andrew thoroughly agree with all that you comment on. I started in the city a couple of years after you and frankly am disappointed on how everything has developed. To think that it was necessary to write a strong letter to the Chairman of Swiss Re (as I did) to consider putting plaque on the building remembering the cite and those lost in the Baltic Exchange Bomb kind of sums up the direction of the modern day, without going into the details of the CLC not permitting the rebuild of the Baltic Exchange in favour of lining their pockets with gold from a buyer who paid top dollar or rather sterling for the site… Good to know that we are not entirely alone in this modern world.

  6. A terse, and very accurate reportage of UK’s maritime decline since the 60’s.

    I enjoyed the description of the Baltic’s ‘posting defaulters’ .What was originally regarded as the ultimate in maritime opprobrium morphed into no more than a gentle slap with a wet lettuce.

    Attempts to ‘dress-up’ UK’s global maritime presence have become increasingly delusional.

    Only last week we had to suffer the MOD saying there was a renaissance in UK shipbuilding, offering as evidence, orders for two car ferries and a research vessel, forgetting the orders had benefited from generous Govt subsidy.

  7. For one who very rarely has the need to visit London these days, the shipping scene there appears irrelevant in global terms. Andrew’s article sums up the situation in a nutshell as the weeks’ participants are deluding themselves. For me, it is clearly spelt out by the fact that my marine consultancy clients over the past 15 years, which in the early 2000’s may have been London based, are now mainly from Greece, Turkey or SE Asia. It’s only the Insurers that are still in London.

    1. True! But the (allegedly) Fragrant Harbour still has a significant population of ship owners..

  8. Indeed sad whats happened to Ldn – however there is still a very substantial rump left of Greek shipowners and global shipbrokers ? One small correction: shurely RR is based on the underpinnings of a BMW (there is no such thing as a 7 Series Merc)

    and hello Robert Trythall from PEM in Oz…

  9. Hi Andrew, we’re of the same vintage and I too recall fondly the early 1970’s in the City and especially at the Baltic. However tongue in cheek your acerbic article is supposed to be, I fear that too many of your readers have taken you too seriously. Yes indeed, London has changed ~ mostly because the Millennials are not taught sufficient in school and have no clue about geography or what we used to call basic common knowledge. However, it’s both incorrect and insulting to say that London has nothing to offer nowadays just because there are no big UK shipowners left ~ what about maritime arbitration, world class solicitors and barristers and judges,the marine insurance and reinsurance markets, chambers of commerce, P&I Clubs, surveyors, banks, several professional institutions and various specialist shipping colleges (including my own, founded 15 years ago). Yes I do know about the Jervis Bay and often saw that ship’s model at City Poly, Minories, Tower Hill as a student and then as a lecturer. If you ignore all these, you play straight into the hands of those who falsely insist that “shipping has gone East”, where you went. Your last sentence quotes this plus the poignant “young woman” ~ mildly droll, if that’s what you intend. A sad reflection on you if it’s not.

    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      I fear I am indeed saying that what we might call the “support services” cannot thrive indefinitely once the shipowning and ship operations are no longer present.

      I’ll try to pen a longer answer when the demands of “LISCR” allow me a moment!

      1. I look forward to your ‘ longer answer’ possibly commenting on (1) the contrast in Baltic Exchange corporate membership, and activity in 2017 , from that of the 60’s, (2) the emergence and expansion of alternative legal fora eg Singapore and (3) the emergence,from nowhere, of the Oslo Bors as the largest securities market place for shipping in Europe, and the second largest globally.

        1. Dear Jeffrey and Rob,

          Here is my shot at the first part of the promiosed “longer answer”. I put off writing this until after last night’s LISW “gala dinner” at the Grosvenor House, in the hope that some positive result for the week-long shindig would be announced there.

          No such luck. We had Grace by the Archbishop of Westminster, who seems to be a Good Bloke and who, having grown up in Liverpool, was able to show some knowledge of our vanished shipping business. He made a plea for support for the victims of what we now know to call “modern slavery”, a cause that I and many others in the room support.

          We then had a speech by Jeffrey Evans (how we British do love a Lord!) who did the standard Clarksons-broker-giving-a-talk act (“look and act as much like Martin Stopford as possible and they may mistake you for him, and think you have something to say”) and proceeded to regurgitate twelve minutes of boilerplate that could have been given (and almost certainly has been given, repeatedly) at any “shipping industry event” for the past twenty years.

          And then we had the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, described, not by me, as a “political buffoon” much earlier in his career, the man who stopped prisoners in Britain’s jails reading books, who launched into a speech clearly written for him by a SPAD with no knowledge of the maritime world, and who showed his contempt for his audience by launching into another boilerplate, seeking to justify himself and his fellow Quitlings. How he finished his speech I do not know, because by then I had walked out.

          This morning’s news for the UK Register, commanded to double its tonnage, is that Grimaldi will be leaving the UK register because of Brexit.

          You couldn’t make it up.

          1. Jeffrey says that I am both incorrect and insulting when I say that “London has nothing to offer nowadays just because there are no big shipowners left” and goes on to say “What about maritime arbitration, world class solicitors and barristers and judges, the marine insurance and reinsurance markets, chambers of commerce, P&I Clubs, surveyors, banks several professional institutions and various specialist shipping colleges…?”

            I was the guest of one of those world class solicitors, Hugh Livingstone of HFW, at the LMAA Dinner last year and found myself surrounded by a group of Silks. They had but a single topic – the amount work that they are now doing, and the amount of time they are now spending, in Singapore.

            It is now a common practice – I have recently done it myself on the advice of another eminent solicitor – to agree LMAA Rules and to accept that the place of arbitration shall be Hong Kong, or Singapore, and this is done because of the sheer number of both owners and charterers who have their head offices in that time zone.

            Where your business is, there will your heart, and your lawyers, and your accountants, and your bankers, be. And that is just where they are.

            Let us now consider the matter of marine insurance. There can be no doubt that Lloyd’s is no longer the force in the world that it once was. To some extent that was the fault of the market itself in sticking with its excellent 1920’s paper driven systems and not taking action sooner to stop such absurdites as the LMX spiral, leading to the take over of the syndicates by, not to put too fine a point on it, Warren Buffett, but to a much greater extent it reflects the rather simple truth that in order to carry on underwriting one needs what insurers call “capacity” and others call “capital”, and there is now much more capacity in China and elsewhere in East Asia than there is in London. And where the underwriting capacity is, there also will its services be.

            The P&I Clubs have been heroically resistant to the pull of the shifted centre of gravity, but they are now in a world in which they need to recruit staff who will work in the East Asian time zone and speak the languages spoken by their members. The entry premium into long tail mutual insurance is famously high, and this accounts for the persistence of the Clubs in their present forms, but the same forces are at work.

            As for the Banks, I need go no further than to point out that there is more ship financing being done in China than anywhere else at the moment and at at the way in which its relationship with Chinese financing has drawn CMA CGM into the Chinese orbit.

            If you want a container crane – or indeed a shipyard gantry crane, such as the one bought to build those two aircraftless aircraft carriers, then you will be buying it from ZPMC who will deliver it to you with their own fleet.

            Robert remarks on the changes in the composition of the Baltic Exchange, but one might simplify that by looking at the change in the ownership of the Baltic Exchange, as well as looking at the way in which derivatives trading has risen to prominence.

            Robert’s example of the Oslo Bors ( a wonderful example of how, with the use fo information technology, it is possible to retain an early nineteenth century building, incidentally) is an excellent one – where there is interest in shipowning, there you will find shipping shares and derivatives traded also…

  10. I too was working as dry cargo operations managers in 149 Leadenhall street from 1972 to 1979 those days we had 80% less accidents, 300% better efficiency, and 85% less rules and regulations; the latter in the hands of corrupted and idiot port officers, untested seamen, and frightened class and P&I surveyors, has destroyed commercial shipping efficiency shifting good seamanship from experience and good training to papers filling. Global warming will deteriorate sea conditions everywhere, not only in hurricane areas, the seafarers and office personnel of the sixties and seventies could have handled it, now they cannot and many ships will sink with perfect paper work in their files.

    1. Konstantinos – we agree and as further evidence in support of what you write, you may like to glance at the Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board’s recently published report entitled “Maersk Battler – loss of tow”…

  11. I enjoyed your article very much, and share your views. In the long run I can only the legal services remaining relevant. Everything else (shipbroking, financing, insurance, even education) is fading as the context of shipping itself fades. Deals are being done with little knowledge of the product. I moved to Greece permanently a few years ago to be near the people with ships. It was the right move.

    1. Thanks Simon,

      I concur, but am not that optimistic about the legal side of things, either. I had the doubtful pleasure of listening to the Wagner-philiac “architect of Ress-Moggery”, Roger Scruton, informing the listeners to BBC Radio Four that “the Common Law is fundamentally incompatible with Civil Law” – a proposition that will come as a surprise to every lawyer in Scotland and which, drawn to its rational conclusion, would prevent Britain from ever signing an international treaty – but perhaps that is what Scruton, whose intellectual kinship with the origins of what became Nazi ideology perhaps deserves a closer investigation, intends – in which case, goodbye shipping…

  12. Brilliant article! It has long been flabbergasting to outsiders (Ie. non british) how and why that self-image of being so superior to the rest of Europe (and the world) exists? Somehow it does even if it is a self perceived image which I expect could start to crack over the coming years and especially after Brexit! Lets see where the UK will be in 5 and 10 years from now.

    1. Thanks, Knut.

      I am expecting the unjustified self image to shatter, but I fear that what will replace it will not be nice – there are, as we are increasingly coming to see, demons which lurk just under the surface of “Anglo-Saxon” social order – those demons are being unleashed by Trumpery and the Quitlings, and they are not at all a pretty sight – xenophobia is perhaps the least of them.

  13. In the course of my Cadetship with a distinguished British shipowner (whose fleet is based in Singapore) I have been shipmates with Rolls-Royce steering gears.

    I am most grateful to R-R for week long holidays in Venice and in Vlissingen…

  14. My son has asked me to post a comment:

    “In the course of my Cadetship with a distinguished British shipowner, whose fleet is based in Singapore, I have been shipmates with Rolls-Royce steering gears, and I would like to thank R-R for my two week long holidays, in Venice and in Vlissingen.”

  15. Assuming in your article the City Poly you mention is what I always knew as the nav school at the bottom of the Minories, then as I recall when ‘up’ for 2nd and 1st Mates there were a few models of ships around, most it has to be said, for use in the purpose built tank on the ground floor to demonstrate squat, bank effect, etc. However I am afraid to say, as a long time afficinado of the maritime city of the past, I have absolutely no idea why the model of Jervis Bay was there and neither have many of my ex MN colleagues of those days.

    So whether it rests your case or not, perhaps you might care to enlighten those of us who don’t know why it was there and perhaps those who wouldn’t own up to not knowing!

    1. Thanks Mike,

      The model of the Jervis Bay was there for the same reason that the dining room of the Merchant Navy Hotel in Lancaster Gate was named the Jervis Bay Room; her suicidal distraction of the pocket battleship “Deutschland” to give time for her convoy to scatter was, in those distant days, held to embody an ideal of heroic self sacrifice that, it was hoped, the British merchant marine might continue to aspire to.

      But I think you knew that…

  16. so you could let your son know that the good old days of shipping do exist Andrew –with a little help from equipment makers !

    1. Hi Arvind – he also credits Rolls-Royce with curing his life long seasickness problem – after a few hours in the steering flat slithering around in hydraulic oil in a fresh Westerly in Biscay it has never recurred!

  17. this is really funny Andrew ! hope he is ok

    something to take note of in the new world of unmanned fully emission controlled vessels i guess ,

  18. Thanks your ‘longer answer ‘ .We sing from the same song sheet.
    This wee anecdote sums up, for me , the contrast in the Norway vs UK shipping psyche.
    I was a trainee shipbroker in Oslo in the late 60’s early 70’s. Oslo taxi drivers could discuss the shipping market . Worldscale was not an intangible concept.
    On my return to the UK(Glasgow) my taxi driver from the airport asked me what I did. ‘Shipbroking’, I said .
    His reply brought a wry smile .
    ‘Aye , ya poor bxxger, ya canna be busy, cos tha’ brekin’ yerd doon a’ Faslane is doin’ fxxk a’.
    Says it all !!

  19. Many thanks for reply Andrew and whilst uncertain exactly I did have some idea for the Jervis Bay being at the college. Given, as we are, to lamenting about the demise of the MN and the role the city played in it it’s even more disheartening when walking around the area these days to note that the college itself has been demolished and replaced by some modern edifice. Keep up the good work by the way.

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