As might be expected from the name, Glen Line's origins are
to be found in Scotland. The Gow and McGregor families set themselves
up in Glasgow during the mid 1850's as cargo and voyage brokers.
It would appear that they worked closely together to ensure
full cargoes with the Gow's doing the chartering and the McGregor's
putting together the freight.
Advertisements show that in 1860 ALAN C.GOW,
whose interests lay in steam and machine technology, was acting
as a voyage broker in partnership with James McGregor who, at
the same time, was still engaged in business on his own account.
Seven years later, in 1867, Alan Gow had the sailing ship Estrella
de Chile built for trading to Chile via Cape Horn. Due to its
proximity to industrial Lancashire, Liverpool became a leading
centre for imports and exports and Gow's ship operated initially
on a Glasgow-Liverpool-South America route.
The 'Glen' prefix first emerged when the barque
Glenavon was acquired in 1868. By this time a formal partnership
had been entered into with the McGregor's as the ownership was
under the name Alan C Gow & Co. With Alan C. Gow as manager,
the Glenavon was destined for the China tea trade but, since
this trade was seasonal and one way, she went to Chile in the
first instance before crossing the Pacific to China.
In 1869 the sailing ship Glenaray joined the
fleet and the company began to advertise their services as 'Glen
Line'. The routing of the Glenaray differed from that of the
other two vessels inasmuch that she went directly to the Far
East where profits were greater and, being largely under the
British flag, more politically stable than South America.
When the Suez Canal opened in 1869 Alan Gow
and James Mcgregor did not 'sit back and wait' like many other
companies operating ships to the Far East but took the initiative
and placed an order, at a cost of £25,700, for a ship
to compete in the China tea trade, the Glengyle. At the same
time, as the tea commodity trade was centred in London, the
company moved its base accordingly and Glen Line remained there
for the rest of its existence.
The Glengyle joined the fleet in 1870 and
was profitable from the start even though steamships were comparatively
small and the coal consumption of compound engines high. The
compound engine had only been in service for five years, since
Alfred Holt had installed them in the Agememnon trio for the
Far East route. The Glengyle completed the voyage from China
an 50 days as compared with the best time of George Thompson's
sailing clipper Thermopylae's 91 days. The Glengyle wasn't faster;
it was the Suez Canal that made all the difference. However,
the scene had been set and plans for expansion were prepared
which involved the raising of additional working capital. To
facilitate the expansion programme ALAN C.GOW & COMPANY
was formed with James McGregor responsible for steamship activities.
With the appropriate funding in place orders were placed with
the London & Glasgow Engineering & Iron Shipbuilding
Co. (London & Glasgow Co.), the builders of their first
steamship, for five sister ships.
In the end fifteen similar ships were built
during a 23 year period but the first out of the shipyard was
the Glenroy in 1871 followed by four more over the next three
years after which the company had nine ships including two which
were under sail.
The record for the China tea run was being
beaten on a regular basis and in 1874 the Glenartney completed
the voyage from Foochow to London in 44 days although her best
time was 41 days achieved some years later. Also in 1874 James
McGregor transferred the remainder of his activities into the
partnership but the name remained and, with this, the company
began to operate sailings from New York to the Far East.
Through its life the company was never one
which went in for acquiring second hand ships but in 1876 it
purchased the Glenorchy which had been built by John Elder for
Dutch owners. Designed for the Far East trade she was wider
in the beam than those built by London & Glasgow, which
meant a greater cargo carrying capacity. With her the steam
fleet was now eight which enabled the company to provide a monthly
sailing on a three and a half month round voyage.
The only four master in the fleet, the Gleneagles,
was built by London & Glasgow & Co. in 1877 and, being
an extented version of her earlier sisters, was, for the first
time, advertised as having passenger accommodation. All the
company's ships had carried passengers in the past but usually
only local business people and shipping agents and their families.
The Far East Conference, initiated by John
Swire of the China Navigation Co., was set up in 1879 with Shire
and Glen Lines as members. The Conference concentrated on stabilising
freight rates on the UK-China and Japan-UK. Up until the Conference
was formed the principle was that freight rates, which could
fluctuate even as the ship was loading, would only be fixed
at the time of departure which could lead to loss making voyages.
By 1880 James McGregor had become the senior
partner and to recognise this the name was changed to McGREGOR,
GOW & COMPANY but everybody now knew the company as Glen
Line and even advertisements in Lloyd's List and the Journal
of Commerce promoted 'Glen Line to the Far East'. The company's
aim by now was to increase the speed of its ships and, in 1882,
the two funnelled vessel, Glenogle, joined the fleet. Costly
to build she had a service speed of 15 knots which made her
capable of completing the run from China in 31 days. In addition,
she also carried passengers in direct competition with P&O's
twin funnelled ships, the Clyde built in 1881 being the first
of eight. Thomas Skinner introduced the Stirling Castle on the
same route in 1881 but, as there was now an over capacity of
passenger ships, he was nearly bankrupted and had to sell in
1883. The management of Glen Line had second thoughts, cancelled
further orders, and reverted back to the tried and tested three
masted ships but, as they had come to realise that passengers
provided good revenues, they increased the passenger accommodation
in First and Second class.
In 1883 the Glengarry
was the first of a new class of five ships built by London &
Glasgow Co. with increased passenger accommodation and the company
had its first loss, as a shipowner, in 1884 when the Glenelg