The famous OLIVEBANK destined for a long career with new owners before striking a mine in WW1
The 3 masted Thornliebank, built in 1896, came to grief after a long voyage from Chile when she hit the notorious Crime rocks in the isles of Scilly. The enquiry criticised the Master. He had not had a firm position for several days due to inclement weather, and what finally did for him and the ship was a Bishop Rock light which had been changed and crucially not registered on board, although the amendment had been available to them.
The table below gives some idea of the chances of surviving a seagoing career in the days of sail….
Ann Main Wrecked
Francis Thorpe. Wrecked
Pomona Abandoned at sea
Comliebank Abandoned (after sale)
Sardhana Abandoned at sea
River Falloch –
Gowenbank Abandoned at sea
Cedarbank Disappeared (with new owners)
Olivebank Mined (new owners)
Levernbank Abandoned at sea
Springbank Damaged and broken up
Loch Eck –
Isle of Arran –
David Morgan Disappeared
Allegiance Abandoned at sea
Loch Ranza –
Ganton Rock –
Marion Frazer –
13 wrecked, 16 disappeared or abandoned, 3 torpedoed.
Only a handful of the 47 vessels therefore had a full and uneventful fate. The fleet grew rapidly and there were 30 sailing vessels and 11 steamers listed in the first 15 years of business. It is hard to visualise the set back and the mood when smart new ships were lost very early in their careers. In 1891, Russell and Company, Port Glasgow, delivered 3 new 4 masted vessels built specially for the Pacific grain trade. They were named Thistlebank, Gowenbank, and Ashbank, and the latter ship only sailed for 6 months before disappearing at sea with all hands on a voyage from Algoa Bay to Australia (NSW). The Gowenbank was in the fleet for 5 years before she also had to be abandoned off Cape Horn. The Thistlebank alone survived for 23 years before being sold to Norwegians when she was then torpedoed off Ireland a year later.
The rapid growth of the fleet was breathtaking, and in 1892, no less than 5 vessels were delivered from three different yards. The Fernbank and the Oakbank came from the Dumbarton yard of A. McMillan and Son, and the 4 masted Beechbank from Russell and Company, Port Glasgow. Cedarbank and Olivebank were delivered from the now famous yard of Mackie and Thompson in Glasgow. This group of new buildings were to have mixed fortunes, the Fernbank and Oakbank lasting ten and eight years respectively. Only the Beechbank made it to the breakers yard.
Over the early years, the proportion of steamers started to grow, and the last sailing ship, the Philadelphia joined the fleet in 1912. She was sold on to Norwegian interests 3 years later, only to be torpedoed in 1917.
Although it was the tramping trade that gave Weir a way into the ship owning business, he soon looked at something more permanent, and started to create some regular trades and which later became established liner routes. Over the years, this became a highly successful pattern, and was reinforced at every opportunity. The big fleet of vessels were also available on the open market for tramping, giving a high degree of flexibility. In 1905 he settled on a new name for his fleet, the ‘Bank Line’, and this became world renowned and synonymous for a ‘no frills’ global service in tramping and Liner services. For mariners, it was never a so called ‘ prestige’ company, but many liked the comprehensive and regular work that the growing fleet offered. To achieve his aims, he built up a comprehensive network of Agents and subsidiaries, many of whom he partnered with in business, and many of whom became long standing personal friends. It was another success story, and it ran for many years from the beginning in 1885 to the 1990’s before rampant containerisation arrived. Regular trades formed the backbone of the modern service. Within the company itself, tragedy struck as the owning family suffered early deaths, and the interest and drive for shipping waned, and then morphed into other activities. So ended one of the remarkable success stories of the 20th Century.
This company went about its business quietly, content to trade and provide the best service possible to shippers worldwide. Virtually unknown to the general public, the nearest to global recognition occurred on the rare occasions that an incident hit the headlines. Of the ships that made up the sailing fleet, the Olivebank was the most famous, as she was occasionally in the news, and she was to end her days under another well known owner, Gustav Eriksson. The end of her days came when she was ignominiously mined in the North Sea in 1942. A few survivors clung to a spar protruding from the water, but the Master and many others on board drowned. It was a sad end for a ship that had stretched the imagination of maritime folk, especially, the young. Renowned for always turning up, even when long overdue, she also did some smart passages as listed here.
Occasionally, ships got into the world news, as when the Firbank ( on charter to EAC as the Sibonga) picked up over 1000 Vietnamese refugees in desperate need in open boats in the China Sea in 1979. There was difficulty in Hong Kong for the Master to land survivors, and for a while the incident received the full glare of publicity. When the ‘Southbank’ stranded in the central Pacific on Washington Island, the pictures and reports of survivors leading life in a ‘tropical paradise’ made lurid headlines in the national papers for a few days, and before all were taken off by an American Navy ship from Honolulu.
What allowed a sailing ship to reach old age, was down to a combination of factors, not unlike life itself. Careful management, good Masters, and a liberal helping of ‘Lady Luck’ were essential ingredients. Contrast this with the stories that follow, of beautiful ships that disappeared with all hands, never to be seen
Falklandbank. Heathbank. Castlebank.
again. This was an all too common fate, and looking back it is clear that certain routes and particular cargoes flagged up real danger. Coal from Newcastle, N.S.W. Australia was always a high risk cargo due to fire from spontaneous combustion. Careful stowage was needed to avoid the danger of shifting cargo in adverse weather. Precautions were taken, but the history books still carry numerous accounts of vessels routed from NSW to the West Coast of S America disappearing on passage. The Bank Line had it’s share, and the Gowenbank and the Castlebank suffered this fate. ( see the table).
A word should be said about the perils of big 3 or 4 masted sailing vessels traversing the world with all of the dangers inherent in the oceans and from ever changing weather. The saying, ‘ prudent mariner’ sums up the special needs of this occupation and it was a both a skill and a talent, enhanced with a sixth sense, that enabled a few masters to live to old age. And to bring their crews home safely! They needed all of these attributes. Appointing a trustworthy Master was one of the trickiest decisions an owner had to make. Nothing was guaranteed however, and the loss of the big beautiful German five masted sailing vessel, the ‘Preussen’ captained by one of the most seasoned and skilled Captains in the famous Laeisz fleet is a prime example where luck ran out. She was lost in the channel in a collision with a railway steamer, and grounded at Beachy Head. With hindsight, a wrong judgement over position at a crucial time by the Master meant the loss of this beautiful ship. It is fascinating reading and heartrending in cold print but the company did keep faith in him and he went on to successfully command other vessels.
A huge weight rested on the shoulders of the Master and a lesser one on the watchkeeping officers at all times. Sailing the big unwieldy ships, bereft of engines, and subject to current, tide, and fickle winds, meant that vigilance was constantly needed. The ships were happiest out on the oceans, but were helpless without tug assistance close to port. The Master alone regularly had to make crucial decisions that often meant life or death, and this could be a daily occurrence unless some relief was obtained in long periods of steady winds, as in the trades. It was a guessing game to some extent betting on wind and weather in the immediate future, but years of experience and local knowledge determined whether sail should be set or shortened. When beating up the English Channel or in confined waters the rapid changes necessary became acute. Only too often the sea room available narrowed down the options dramatically, and drove vessels on to rocks despite all efforts. Many of these heart rending stories have been well documented and they make grim reading, none less than when wives and children were on board. The key decision and the absolutely essential skill that a successful Master needed was the ability to shorten sail in time to avert damage to the sails or much worse. This was harder than it sounds because Owners kept pressure on to make fast passages which could not be achieved by regularly shortening sail unnecessarily, and an over cautious Master was unpopular. In anything but steady winds, there was a constant need to be weighing up the amount of canvas aloft, and no Master got it right 100% of the time. No office job even remotely compares!
What of the crews? They were often a mixture of hard bitten sailing men who were wild ashore, but good at sea, and crucially good aloft in times of need. Young, idealistic men made up the balance , but they often became disillusioned, and it was very common, even normal, for men to run away in foreign ports. Apprentices were a useful addition to the sailing vessels and were more reliable than the hardbitten seamen. There are some interesting accounts that have been left behind by long gone sailors. Over the lifetime of Andrew Weir and the Bank Line, thousands of apprentices served their time afloat in sail, and later in steam and motor vessels.
The very first vessel at the start of this great adventure, was the purchase of the ‘ Willowbank’ in 1888. She had been called the ‘ Ambrose’ at launch, but purchased by a company called J.F.Gibb and company in 1884 who gave her the ‘ Willowbank’ name which stuck. She was small by the standard of ships that followed at only 882 tons gross, but played an important role by giving 10 years service before being sunk off Portland in a collision in 1895. By this time around 35 other vessels both new and second hand had been added to the fleet or traded. It was a fortuitous start aided by that first successful purchase.
It seems that the suffix ‘bank’ was then continued for over 100 years through sail, steam, and motor, ending finally with another ‘ Willowbank,’ launched in 1983. It was the most used name with 5 vessels in all at some time or another.
Willowbank pic 2
Several new orders were placed in a remarkable 3 years between 1889 and 1894. Four new vessels named Hawthornbank, Hazelbank, Elmbank, and Comliebank in 1889/90. Eight new vessels in 1892 named Thistlebank, Gowenbank, Ashbank, Beechbank, Fernbank, Oakbank, Cedarbank, and Olivebank. A further six new buildings came a year later named Levernbank, Laurelbank, Castlebank, Heathbank, Falklandbank, and Springbank.
Of the above, the Hawthornbank served for a remarkable 21 years and was eventually torpedoed and lost in 1917 when under the Norwegian flag.
The Hazelbank was far more unlucky, being wrecked on the Goodwin Sands less the 1 year from launch
The Elmbank survived for 4 years but was then wrecked on the Isle of Arran.
The Comliebank was another of the sailers that lasted 23 years in the fleet, only to be lost in the Atlantic six years later under the Norwegian flag.
The first ‘ Willowbank’ had given 10 years valuable service, and eventually the fleet grew to 47 vessels, 26 of which were purpose built, and the rest purchased. Some were in and out of the fleet only a short time. It is clear that the owner proved very astute in the sale and purchase of ships in addition to his other considerable skills. Sizes ranged considerably, but it seems that the dedicated order for x vessels of the Levenbank class was ordered at the top end of the scale. A tonnage of….. and dimensions of ……. Was specified.
In 1896 the first steamer, the ‘ Duneric’ was built. Thereafter the fleet had a growing proportion of steam vessels, but it was not until 1912 that the last sailing vessel joined the fleet. She was the Philadelphia built back in 1892 for German owners.
So ended a remarkable story.