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Shire Line

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The Shire Line was founded by David James Jenkins in 1860. Although born in Exeter in April 1824, the third son of John Jenkins who hailed from Haverfordwest, David Jenkins always considered himself to be a Welshman, a trait which was always apparent during his life's work. Educated at Teignmouth grammar school his ambition was a career at sea and, in attaining that desire, he undertook an apprenticeship in sail. However, his time on sailing ships coincided with emergence of the steamship as a means of sea travel and, since small steam vessels had been plying the West Country coast and river estuaries for some ten years, he was able to spend his formative years in these early paddle steamers. By 1845, his apprenticeship completed, he was sailing as a deck officer on the steamships and, before his thirtieth birthday, was sailing out of London with his own command.

Although the Crimean War was primarily fought in Black Sea it was a war against Russia and, as a consequence, there was a certain amount of action taking place in the Baltic. Therefore, in 1854, David Jenkins was to be found commanding a supply ship sailing out of Hull with stores and equipment for the British forces, under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Napier, who were attempting to launch an, albeit fruitless, attack on the Russian fortifications in Hango Roads and Bomarsand.

By 1859, at the age of thirty five, David Jenkins was committed to shipowning and planned to leave the sea and set up an office ashore in the city that he had got to know well - London. He knew where the action was and established his office, with the name of D.J JENKINS & COMPANY, at 30, Lime Street, conveniently located within the expanding shipping community.

In those days there were many owner/captains looking for work for their ships and David Jenkins initially concentrated on voyage broking and cargo agency work. He used his already established connections and many of the captains who came to rely on him were from Wales. Although he was servicing the needs of the sailing ship owner/masters his objective was still steamship ownership.

His first ship however, acquired in 1861, was the wooden barque Mary Evans. Like many other first ventures she was named after his mother, and traded to the West Indies making some good profits. She was commanded by a Cornishman named Captain Samuel Rickard and David Jenkins came to rely on Welsh masters from the Milford Haven area. By doing so he established a sea-going community in which everybody knew everybody else and their families to the benefit of all. Unlike many other business owners at the time he held advanced liberal views and went as far as sponsoring schooling for the children and providing scholarships for the more gifted. David Jenkins looked after his men and even paid them a small pension when their seafaring days were over.

A second small ship, the Eastward Ho, was purchased in 1862 and, as the name would suggest, she was destined for the Far East trade. Trade was good and sufficient profits were made to enable David Jenkins to cautiously approach the London merchant banks with plans for expansion.

In 1863 an order was placed with the Pembroke firm of Allan & Co. for a larger ship. It was decided to name her Pembrokeshire but it is doubtful whether, at this stage, David Jenkins intended to name all his ships after the Welsh 'shires' as subsequent vessels were acquired and deployed without changes of name. The Webfoot was acquired in the following year and traded under that name. However, when, over the next two years, two sister ships came out of Gaddarn's Yard at Neyland named Carnarvonshire and Cardiganshire and a further vessel, the Carmarthenshire, came out of Pembroke Dock, a tradition of naming after the Welsh 'shires' became established. For the first time sailings were being advertised under the Shire Line name.

Unfortunately for David Jenkins, this tradition created a potential problem as there were only eleven Welsh 'shires' and at one stage there were two ships of the same name in the fleet, a sailing ship and a steamship.

By 1864 David Jenkins was concentrating his trade on the Indian and Far East markets and, in particular, the tea trade. His ships sailed via the Cape to India with a cargo, then sailed for China in ballast where they loaded with tea bound for London. None of the ships were considered to be in the 'clipper' class and were quite happy to return home with full cargoes at the freight rate of the day. If there was a spate of ships waiting for cargoes, which depressed the freight rates, David Jenkins' ships would remain at anchor until a more profitable cargo became available, possibly remaining there for several weeks. Other shipowners adopted the same tactics as the voyage profit could be doubled.

In 1866 the fleet was increased to 7 sailing ships with the acquisition of the Southern Queen, who again traded under the Shire banner without a name change.

Intending to broaden the company's trading area David Jenkins looked towards Japan where, although not immediately profitable, the prospects were promising. The service was extended in 1869 when two smaller sailing ships , the Glamorganshire, completed in March of that year, and the Denbighshire, delivered a year later, were used on annual voyages to bring home, not tea, but spices and silks. It was the Ceylon tea trade that was expanding and to cater for that market the sailing ship W.W.Smith was purchased.

When the Suez Canal opened in November 1869, like many other shipowners, David Jenkins was slow to react. Trading patterns were well established via the Cape, the China tea trade was in decline and being superceded by tea exports out of India and Ceylon. Wooden and composite hulls were being replaced by iron, the new supposedly economical compound engine was relatively untested, being only five years old and coal supplies on the steamer routes was sparse and subject to wild fluctuations in price. Many shipowners, including David Jenkins were prepared to 'wait and see', indecision which nearly bankrupted the newly created Suez Canal Company.

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