The thread about Leith shipping owners, their pivotal part in 20th century industrial whaling, the penguins of Edinburgh Zoo and the city’s “homes for heroes”

This thread was originally written and published in September 2020. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

Today’s “auction house artefact” is a painting of the handsome steam & sail ship SS Windsor of Leith off of Flushing in 1874. She carries the house flag of George Gibson & Co. who were a big name in Leith shipping, principally serving the Low Countries trade, and the Windsor was initially employed on the Leith to Antwerp run. The painting was by Carl Ludovig Weyts (1828-1875), a Dutch artist. The Windsor was last noted in newspapers in 1899 when she landed the crew of a French hospital ship, St. Paul, who had been rescued off of the Iceland coast after their ship ran aground and had worked their way back to Leith.

Windsor of Leith, Capt T. Fulton, Passing Flushing, 1874

George Gibson & Co. was set up by George Gibson in 1820, he had previously been the general manager of the Leith, Hamburg & Rotterdam Shipping Co. They acquired their first steamer, the Balmoral in 1850. There is an example of the George Gibson house flag in the collection of the National Maritime Museum:

An 1886 advert for Gibson’s lists 9 steamers in service. Alongside Windsor there is the Abbotsford, Amulet, Anglia, Kinghorn, Mascotte, Osborne, Talisman and Woodstock, serving Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Ghent and Dunkirk from Leith. Advertising played heavily on their links to the Low Countries and they offered a comprehensive freight and passenger service between Leith and Dutch and Belgian ports. As late as 1964, they were still advertising weekly sailings to Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Dunkirk.

On the death in 1920 of the last family owner of George Gibson, a joint parent company was formed; Gibson-Rankine line, with the commercial shipping interests of J. T. Salvesen of Grangemouth, James Rankine & Sons of Glasgow and P. S. Nicoll of Dundee. The Gibsons house flag is on the left, Gibson-Rankine on the right. Gibson’s were bought by Anchor Line in 1972 and had ceased to exist as a distinct subsidiary by 1976.

The Gibson Rankine house flag (right) alongside that of George Gibsons

J. T. Salvesen of Grangemouth was founded in that port in 1843 by Johan Theodor Salvesen, the third son of the Norwegian shipmaster Thomas Salvesen (1787-1853) of Kristiansand. Johan Theodor founded a business in Leith with the local partner George Vair Turnbull in 1846 as Salvesen & Turnbull. The business imported grain for distilling and timber for pit props and railway sleepers for Norway, sending coal and iron back from Scotland in return. They also dealt in Norwegian salted herring, which returned healthy profits.

J. T. Salvesen house flag
J. T. Salvesen house flag

Younger brother Salve Christian (known as Christian) was brought over from Norway to help in this business and Johan Theodor left Leith to run the Grangemouth business, whose house flag was a red field, with a blue diamond, bordered in white and with a white “S” in the centre. Johan Theodore died in 1865, that company passing on to his sons. Christian left his partnership with Turnbull in 1872 following disagreements between the pair and he set up in Leith as Christian Salvesen & Co, focussing on trade between mines he owned in Norway and Leith, via Stavanger. The Christian Salvesen house flag was a Norwegian cross in a diamond in the middle of a white field.

Christian Salvesen house flag

In 1883, Christian delegated control of the company to his eldest sons Edward T. and Theodore. By the turn of the 20th century, the company was sailing between Leith and many Baltic ports in Norway and Sweden, as far east as Malta and Egypt and were also involved in supplying the North Atlantic and Arctic whaling stations in the Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes. In 1904 they moved directly into whaling, setting up a shore base at Olnafirth in the Shetland Islands. The company’s whalers would travel up to 200 miles into the Atlantic in the hunt for whales, which they continued to do until 1929.

Processing a whale carcass at Olnafirth. © Shetland Museum & Archives
Processing a whale carcass at Olnafirth. © Shetland Museum & Archives

A depression in the global shipping industry early in the 20th century saw whaling become an increasingly important part of the business, and its profits kept the company as a whole going. In 1907 they ventured into the South Atlantic whaling by setting up a station in the Falkland Islands, In 1909 a subsidiary of the company, the South Georgia Company, founded the port of Leith Harbour in South Georgia as a whaling station where it could be closer to the whaling waters. It would become the largest of the seven such stations in South Georgia and Salvesens would eventually go on to become the single largest whaling company in the world.

Some of the Salvesen fleet at Leith Harbour, South Georgia. The factory ship Southern Opal is closest, with at least 8 whale catchers behind. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Stripping whale carcasses at Leith Harbour, with the hut encampment of the "town" behind. CC-by-NC-SA 2.0, Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections
Stripping whale carcasses at Leith Harbour, with the hut encampment of the “town” behind. CC-by-NC-SA 2.0, Edinburgh University Centre for Research Collections

Salve Christian Salvesen died in 1911. Up until 1914, the company’s funnels had been painted red, white and black stripes, but this was too close to the colours of the Imperial German flag. When Salvesen’s steamer Glitra was sunk 14 miles off of Stavanger in October of that year by a U-boat they switched to the red, white and blue of the Norwegian flag. The officers and crew were put into the lifeboats and made it back to shore. These new colours can be seen on the preserved whale catcher Southern Actor, now a museum ship in Sandefjord, Norway.

Southern Actor in 2014, the worlds last surviving, functional steam whaler. CC Tore Sætre, @toresetrephoto

After WW1, Salvesens purchased the former Royal Mail steamer Carmarthenshire and had her converted into a whaling factory ship – the Sourabaya – with a stern ramp up which carcasses could be hauled, before being stripped and disassembled on board. The factory ships could accompany the whale catchers and made the whole process more efficient; the whalers had shorter journeys back and forth to the factory ship rather than always back to the shore base, and the partially processed whales could be transshipped to the shore base for final processing. The Sourabaya was used as a cargo ship during WW2 and was sunk by a German U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic in 1942.

The Sourabaya, Salvesen's first stern ramp factory ship. PD, source Vestfold Fylkesmuseum Digitalt bildearkiv
The Sourabaya, Salvesen’s first stern ramp factory ship. PD, source Vestfold Fylkesmuseum Digitalt bildearkiv

Salvesens shipping losses during WW2 were particularly heavy for the size of the company. Seven of their 10 tramp steamers were sunk; they lost 16 of their merchant ships in total, from the 876 ton Glenfarg up to the 12,000 ton factory ship Salvestria, nine of their whale catchers that had been requisitioned for naval service would be sunk. The Salvestria was lost within sight of Leith, bringing a cargo of processed whale blubber all the way from the South Atlantic. She hit a German mine off of Inchkeith in July 1940 and went down with ten of her crew; 5 British and 5 Norwegian. After WW2, Salvesens began to made good their war losses and return to the South Atlantic whaling industry. They started by buying up war surplus naval corvettes – a type of vessel built on the hull of a commercial whale culture – and converting them into whale catchers.

Whaler Southern Lily
Southern Lily, a Salvesen whaler rebuilt from the Flower-class naval corvette Renoncule. Embedded from the Flickr of the Scottish Maritime Museum

Whale catchers were small vessels and did exactly what it said on their tin; they caught whales and harpooned them. They had no facilities for processing the carcasses, that was done on factory ships or back onshore at places like Leith Harbour. Salvesen’s post-war factory ships were anything but small, the Southern Venturer was one of two 15,000 ton monster ships, complete with a helicopter, landing pad and hangar, that Salvesen’s had built in 1945. We can now look back on this with the horror it deserves, but this was big business in the 1950s.

Southern Venturer, from the Salvesen Archive and Edinburgh University. Note the whale catchers, one alongside and the other in the distance, and the whale carcass being towed into the ship through the stern hatch.

But this extreme post-WW2 modernisation and industrialisation of the Salvesen fleet was the result of ever diminishing returns; as they became more efficient at hunting, catching and processing whales, the whale populations were more systematically decimated. In turn, the whalers had to hunt further and further from the island base – resulting in the need of the floating factories – and had to be at sea for more of the year. The company now had an about turn in attitude and became a proponent of whale conservation. Their whaling assets were sold in 1963 and the company’s “southern capital” at Leith Harbour was abandoned in 1965.

Leith Harbour, South Georgia in 2007. PD – Markabq

Salvesens had hedged their bets after the war with their return to whaling, and had also dipped their toes in the Atlantic whitefish business. They revolutionised this industry in the early 1950s when they developed the first freezer stern trawler factory ships, which both trawled the fish and also processed, packaged, and froze it for sale. The first of this line was Fairtry I of 1952. Salvesens were approached by Sir Dennis Burney in 1948 who had been experimenting with the ideas and quickly saw the potential, buying both his prototype trawler Fairfree and his business. Their experience in factory whaling ships and knowledge of the Nordic demand for fresh white fish made this a common sense decision.

The revolutionary Fairtry I, built in Aberdeen for Salvesens in 1952
The revolutionary Fairtry I, built in Aberdeen for Salvesens in 1952

With whaling abandoned and fishing waning, the company survived by reinvention and diversification, they moved away from traditional coastal shipping and focussed themselves in specific sectors such as bulk carriers, managing colliers for the Central Electricity Generation Board and later in the North Sea oil offshore service industry. On land they moved into containerised distribution, frozen food and storage – all head-quartered in Leith and Edinburgh. I can clearly recall their lorries, still carrying the house flag of the company’s ships, around town when I was younger.

Salvesen Convoy
Salvesen promotional parade in 1977, from the Salvesen house magazine. Embedded from the Flickr of Pyewacket947

In 1986 the company listed itself as Christian Salvesen PLC on the London Stock Exchange. By 1989 they took the decision to exit the shipping business and concentrate on logistics and distribution. In 1997 it left its spiritual home of Leith on Bernard Street behind for the East Midlands and Northampton. They did at least leave their flagpoles behind in Leith! This building at one time also co-housed the Norwegian Consulate.

Christian Salvesen's former HQ on Bernard Street in Leith
Christian Salvesen’s former HQ on Bernard Street in Leith

Salvesens are gone from long gone from Edinburgh and Leith, but they have left a few reminders. The famous penguins of Edinburgh Zoo, for instance, who were first brought back from South Georgia by Salvesen’s ships alongside 4 seals. They were captured by Salvesen’s ship Coronda in 1913 and arrived in Edinburgh on Sunday 25th January 1914.

Edinburgh Zoo King Penguins, CC-by-SA 3.0 SeanMack

On the banks of the sterile river basin of the Water of Leith, now cut off from the sea and shipping, a Salvesen’s harpoon gun is a bit of a curio, and a reminder of Leith’s dubious role at the forefront of the 20th century whaling industry.

A whaling harpoon gun from a Salvesen's ship, now a curious heritage objet on the banks of the sterile river basin of Leith CC-by-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor
A whaling harpoon gun from a Salvesen’s ship, now a curious heritage objet on the banks of the sterile river basin of Leith CC-by-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor

The Salvesen family lost a number of sons and nephews in WW1 and after the war Edward T. Salvesen – by now Lord Salvesen – became involved in the Scottish Veterans Garden City movement; a scheme to build “homes for heroes”. In Trinity in Leith the SVGCA built a small housing scheme for injured ex-servicemen named Earl Haig Gardens (no comment on the appropriateness of that name.) Plaques over the doors of some of the cottages commemorate the lost Salvesens and relatives of some of the other benefactors.

Earl Haig Gardens
2nd Lt. Eric Thomas Smervell Salvesen, died 23 April 1917
2nd Lt. James Harvey Bryson, died 20th October 1918
Major James Norman Henderson, died 28th June 1915

At Kaimes Crossroars, the Edinburgh Ladies Committee of the SVGCA, led by Lady Salvesen, built a row of neat modern cottage houses for disabled ex-servicemen, with ELC plaques on the pediments.

SVGCA cottages at Kaimes Crossroads

Lord Salvesen died in 1942, but his family remained involved in the SVGCA. After WW2, they again helped finance the construction of SVGCA ex-servicemens’ housing, this time in Muirhouse. Salvesen Gardens is a pleasant little housing scheme, again along Garden City sorts of lines. and again if you stroll around you will find commemorative plaques by most doors.

Salvesen Gardens at Muirhouse, note the commemorative plaques.
Salvesen Gardens at Muirhouse, note the commemorative plaques.

And next to Salvesen Crescent are the former Lighthouse keepers cottages for the Forth shore station, built in 1951. These housed the keepers and their families who served the lights of Bass Rock, Bell Rock, Inchkeith, Fidra and the Isle of May. As the lights became automated these were later used as retirement housing for ex-Lighthouse keepers before being gradually sold into private ownership. This is really one of the most charming little bits of social housing Edinburgh has to offer. Small but perfectly formed and with a style that evokes the NLB’s lighthouse keepers cottage style.

Salvesen Crescent

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