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14th August 2020

Watching shipping on the river Humber has been a popular pastime for generations. The owners of ships often display flags and paint funnels in company colours. But which companies own them and what do they do?

Student volunteers from the University of Hull's Hull History Network have researched objects in our collections plus the companies behind them and uncovered some interesting facts, characters and stories.

In this blog Laura Dean looks at the Ellerman Wilson Line.

The story of Sir John Ellerman is the story of one of the UK’s great elusive historical figures. Born on Anlaby Road, Hull, in 1862, John was the son of a German corn merchant, but he went on to become the wealthiest man in Britain. When he died he left close to £36 million, the largest estate ever in the UK up to that point. In today’s money that would be something like £1.5 billion!

However, despite his extreme wealth, Ellerman was practically invisible to the public eye, keeping himself and his family out of newspapers and away from high society. It is possible he did this because of his relationship with Hannah Glover, whom he lived happily with, and with whom he had a daughter in 1894. The scandalous part? The pair were not married. They did not become husband and wife until 1908, having lived together but unmarried for years. While this is normal now, it was frowned upon at the time. Shortly after their marriage they had a son, also called John.

Whatever his reasons, Ellerman hid himself from the public all his life. His business, however, is a different story.

After the death of his father Ellerman worked as an accountant in Birmingham, and then London. But this career did not hold his attention and in 1892 Ellerman turned his mind to shipping, purchasing a failing shipping company which he sold several years later for a substantial profit. This gave him a taste for buying and fixing shipping companies. And he was good at it. He owned so many ships that he was responsible for supplying them to the government during the Boer War, for which he was made a Baron in 1905, making him Sir John Ellerman.

His practice of buying and selling lines seemed to peak in 1916, when he purchased the Wilson Shipping Line, which had once been the world’s largest privately owned shipping fleet. This meant that by 1917 Ellerman’s lines held up to 1/8th of Britain’s shipping capacity. This was equal to the entire French fleet!

Plans for an Ellerman’s Wilson Line cargo and passenger vessel 1949
Photograph album containing photos of the launch of Ellerman Lines’ ship ‘City of Port Elizabeth’, 1952

However, like many businessmen of the time, Ellerman didn’t just work in shipping. He expanded into buying coal mines, breweries and property, and he was also involved in newspapers (while remaining off their covers), but his main business was always shipping.

Ellerman was also a great philanthropist, this means he gave money to good causes such as charity. This is something he passed onto his children, particularly his son. Sir John Jr. did not care a lot about shipping and gave almost 80% of his shares to two trusts before his death. The two trusts later became one fund, the John Ellerman Foundation. So, while you may not have heard of Sir John Ellerman, his work has had a lasting impact on the lives of many.

Pennants of Ellerman Line and Wilson line