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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History





Christopher Rowbotham was baptised at Christ Church, Knottingley on the 4th January 1852, one of nine children born to Christopher Rowbotham, a boat hauler, and his wife Elizabeth, formerly Greenwood. They had married at St. Giles Church, Pontefract on 21st April 1835. The father Christopher died and was buried in St. Botolph’s Church burial ground 22nd September 1858 aged 56 years. Elizabeth Rowbotham re-married on the 11th October 1863 to Joseph Wright, a widower and ship carpenter of Goole.

After an argument with his stepfather, Christopher ran away to sea. For a time he was steward on the ‘Resolute’ of Goole, but on the 2nd October 1872 he is recorded as being the master of the schooner ‘Tiger’ arriving in Goole with a cargo of wood from London. This vessel had been built in Wakefield and was owned by Thomas Clegg of Goole. On the 3rd February 1874 Christopher took command of the two-masted schooner ‘Arrival’, official number 60945, built in Knottingley in 1869 by Atkinson and Thompson and owned by one of the Cawthorn family in London where it was registered number 107 in April 1869. She was larger than ‘Tiger’ and he was master of this ship until April 1879.

He was only nineteen years of age when he married Ann Andrews at Goole in 1871. She was the daughter of William Andrews and his wife Elizabeth, and was born in Selby in 1850. Her brother William, born in 1841, was a master rigger in Liverpool. The 1881 census records Christopher Rowbotham as master aboard his ketch ‘Princess’ together with three crew members. Ann, his wife, was living at Southeron Street, Hook, with four children, Mary A aged 9, Elsie 7, Lilian 4 and William C. aged 1. Also living with the family is Ann’s widowed mother Elizabeth aged 63 and born in Liverpool. By this time the family had obviously prospered for they were able to employ a servant.

It was in 1879 that Christopher had his first experience as a shipowner when he purchased 22 shares in the ketch ‘Princess’ official no.67828, built by William Wake of Goole and launched in April 1879. The other 42 shares were divided between George James King of Goole, and Christopher’s brother-in-law William Andrews of Liverpool. George James King sold 10 shares to Christopher Rowbotham and 11 shares to William Andrews. After the death of William Andrews in 1898 Christopher bought his 32 shares from the family and became the sole owner. Christopher was the first master of this vessel and maintained this command until 1885.

In 1883 Christopher Rowbotham purchased 8 shares in the fine two-masted schooner ‘Elite’ official no. 67839, built specially for the Newfoundland trade, by William Caisley at Howden Dyke, at a cost of £3,000. Two of the other shareholders in this vessel were Mark Robert Hargrave and John Hudson Wetherall both of Knottingley. He eventually sold his interest in this vessel on 11th July 1893. An unusual coincidence is the fact that two of these owners, Christopher Rowbotham and John Hudson Wetherall were both born in Knottingley in 1851, and perhaps went to the same school, maybe even in the same class, and both of them were successful in life, forming and owning a steamship company.

Meanwhile in 1885 he purchased 43 shares in the two-masted schooner ‘Athletae’ official no. 54517, and built by William Wake of Goole in 1867. At this time his residence is recorded as Southsea, Hants, and by 1888 he is shown to be living at Lee in Kent. On the 25th January 1890 whilst on a voyage from Leith to Woolwich Arsenal, with a cargo of government stores, she was abandoned at sea during a gale off the coast of Yorkshire. A report in the Goole Times of 31st January 1890 says:

"The smack ‘Fame’ arrived at Grimsby on Monday night when the master and owner S. Pilcher reported having on board the captain (Robert Daniels) and four of the crew of the schooner ‘Athletae’ of Goole. It appears that about 5.30 p.m. on Sunday evening last, when about 100 miles from Spurn the ‘Fame’ fell in with the schooner which was bound from Leith to London with stores and pig iron, and had sprung a leak. The crew were taken on board the smack and the schooner abandoned in a sinking condition. The ‘Athletae’ (Captain Daniels) was insured in the Goole Mercantile Marine Insurance Society, and the Hull MMIS, and was owned by Mr C. Rowbotham and Captain King. She was bound from Leith for Woolwich Arsenal with Government stores."

In 1889 he purchased the wooden schooner ‘Thusnelda’ built in 1876 by R. Moller of Denmark. This vessel was re-named after his daughter ‘Elsie’ official no.96593.

Another wooden schooner ‘Celestina’ official no.95111, built by W.H. Lean of Falmouth in 1889 was purchased in 1890.

Moving with the changing times, in 1899 he acquired his first steamship, the 258 ton ‘Cheviot’ official no. 97965, built by Wood Skinner & Co at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1891.

In 1903 he had his first purpose built steamship the 458 ton ‘Helmsman’ official number 118279 built and launched for him on 22nd April 1903 at the Wood Skinner yard in Newcastle upon Tyne. This was followed by the 358 ton ‘Arrival’ official no.120481, launched from the same yard 22nd November 1904.

With three steamers now in his fleet, Christopher Rowbotham disposed of the wooden schooners ‘Celestina’ in 1904 and ‘Elsie’ in 1905.

On the 1st February 1908 Christopher Rowbotham took two of his sons William Christopher and Farnill into partnership and established the company Christopher Rowbotham & Sons. They moved into offices at 19 St. Dunstans Hill, where, including the three Rowbotham’s, a total staff of six were employed, and they remained here until the building was destroyed in 1940.

Considerable changes had taken place in the shipping industry where merchant schooners in sail had been replaced by steamships which were not so subject to weather and tides, and could offer a more reliable and quicker service. A reasonably successful business had been built up carrying stores for the Admiralty, and many naval bases and yards were visited by Rowbotham ships.

A fourth steamer the 562 ton ‘Steersman’ official no.129046 purchased from the Wood Skinner yard was launched on the 2nd September 1909.

Except for the ‘Arrival’ the Rowbotham company adopted a naming policy for their ships distinguished with each vessel name ending ‘man.’

In 1909 Christopher Rowbotham the company founder was elected to Lloyds, but he died two years later on 17th August 1911 at the age of 60.

In 1913 the company diversified into the insurance business with the formation of a separate company under the title C. Rowbotham & Sons (Insurance) Ltd.

It was not until 1917 that C. Rowbotham & Sons disposed of their last sailing ship, the ketch ‘Princess’ which was sold to John William Raddings of Hull, another mariner with origins in Knottingley, having been born here in 1880. This vessel was purchased for £1,150 as a replacement for the schooner ‘Charlotte Kilner’ which had the misfortune to be run down at anchor in the Humber by the minesweeper ‘Valmont’ on 20th December 1916.

On the 22nd March 1917 John William Raddings set off on his first voyage with the ‘Princess’ carrying a cargo of 157 tons of coal from Hull for Guernsey, but the vessel was not heard of again. It was presumed to have foundered off the Norfolk coast, with the crew of four all lost.

During the first world war the company acted as agents or managers on behalf of the Admiralty. Then soon after the war the two dry cargo vessels ‘Cheviot’ and ‘Arrival’ were sold in order to take advantage of the high price of vessels at that time.

In 1922 they purchased the largest vessel owned by the company, a 1,394 ton dry cargo steamer ‘Veerdam’ that had been launched 8th July 1920, built for and by L. Smit & Zoon Scheeps-en Wertuigbouw, Kinderdijk, Holland, and it was re-named ‘Wheelsman’ official no.146690.

Probably due to the termination of a contract for the transporting of Admiralty stores two vessels were sold out of the fleet, ‘Helmsman’ in 1923 and ‘Steersman’ in 1925 thereby leaving only one vessel 'Wheelsman', remaining.

In 1925 William’s son Christopher joined the company and he was influential in its running until it was disposed of in 1970. He was followed in 1931 by Farnill son of John. ‘Farnill’ was a christian name born by many generations of the family and originated as a surname from the female line of the family. Henry Thompson married Elizabeth Farnill on 20th July 1730, and their daughter Mary Thompson married John Rowbotham on 13th October 1770, then one of their sons born in 1786 was called Farnill Rowbotham, and each generation after bore the christian name Farnill.

In 1925 the company entered a new expanding and demanding area of activity, the transportation in bulk of chemicals and fuels, an area being exploited on the inland waterways, and esturial bunkering services, by John Harker Ltd, one of the Lyon & Lyon group of companies at Knottingley. Rowbotham’s purchased and converted ‘Lochside’ which was re-named ‘Helmsman’ official no.122827, followed in 1928 by ‘Clydeburn’ re-named ‘Steersman’ official no.133021.

In 1931 the ‘Tillerman’ official no.162652 achieved three firsts for the company – she was their first new purpose built tanker from a Dutch yard, their first motor ship, and the first fitted with screw displacement pumps for discharge of cargo.

By 1935 the dry cargo activity had come to an end when the ‘Wheelsman’ which had been employed carrying Blue Circle cement between the Medway and Mersey was sold out of the fleet.

More vessels were to follow: ‘Rudderman’ in 1934, ‘Wheelsman’ 1935, ‘Steersman’ 1936 and ‘Guidesman’ 1938. Also in 1938 they were involved in tug management on behalf the Overseas Towage & Salvage Co., Ltd, a subsidiary of a French company.

During the second world war their vessels were requisitioned into Government service as tankers or water carriers. In addition they managed a large number of tankers, dry cargo vessels and tugs for the Ministry of War Transport, including the tanker ‘Empire Anglesey’ built at John Harker’s shipyard.

In 1948 they purchased ‘Bedale H’ from Harkers and she was re-named ‘Helmsman’ official no.165674.

Many vessels entered or left the fleet with some of the newly built coming from the Yorkshire yards of Cochrane’s of Selby, Goole Shipbuilding & Repairing Co and Drypool Engineering & Dry Dock Co., at Hull.

Until 1956 the company was run as a partnership. Two sons of the founder had joined their father in 1908 – William Christopher (died 1956) and Farnill (died 1943). In turn they had been joined by their sons Christopher (son of William) in 1925 and John (son of Farnill) in 1931. In 1956 Christopher bought out his cousin John and converted the partnership into a Limited Company trading under the title C. Rowbotham & Sons (Management) Ltd. John Rowbotham left the company and his place was taken by another cousin Richard (Dick) Rowbotham. His father Stanley, the third son of Christopher the founder, was not involved in shipping but had qualified as a doctor.

Gradually the ships were transferred into the ownership of various different companies with the parent company acting as manager, a similar situation had evolved at Knottingley with several small companies coming under control of the Lyon & Lyon group.

In an article in October 1967 by Dick Rowbotham for the company’s house magazine he wrote:

"The recent history of the firm would not be complete without mention of the remarkable expansion that has taken place in other directions in the last few years. Since the late 1950’s the insurance interests have developed from a small broking company with a staff of about a dozen to six separate companies with a staff of nearly a hundred. Their activities now comprise all aspects of insurance – both broking and underwriting – on an international scale, and in terms of number of staff, the ships are now left far behind. This year has also seen the formation of the first Rowbotham Company outside the UK – Rowbotham Reinsurance (N. America) Inc., under the direction of John McCarthy in Boston – and this, with the Common market in mind, may well be an indication of where the future lies. A little closer to home but still outside London, the firm is now represented on Merseyside by Willie Roberts, who is building up a thriving ship agency business in a part of the world where he has had many years experience."

By 1969 the following is a list of companies within the Rowbotham group:

Shipping C. Rowbotham & Sons (Management) Ltd
Helmsman Shipping Co Ltd
Quarterman Shipping Co Ltd
C. Rowbotham & Sons (Chartering) Ltd
Ship Agency W. J. Roberts & Son (Shipping) Ltd
Insurance C. Rowbotham & Sons (Insurance) Ltd
C. Rowbotham & Sons (Underwriting Agency) Ltd
Rowbotham (Reinsurance) Ltd
Rowbotham Reinsurance (N. America) Inc
Helmsman (Underwriting) Ltd
Hargraves Bloch (Life & Pensions) Ltd
A.J. Bell Ltd

In 1970 Rowbothams were advised to sell, because the level of death duties which would be levied on the death of Christopher Rowbotham would decimate the company. The sale concerned the shipping interests only of the Rowbotham group, and the total share capital of C. Rowbotham & Sons (Management) Ltd was acquired by the Ingram Corporation of New Orleans. The insurance side continued under family management until this was sold in 1978.

Under the direction of the new parent company C. Rowbotham & Sons (Management) Ltd continued to expand and in 1981 took on the new title ‘Rowbotham Tankships Ltd.’ Further acquisitions followed including the Hull Gates Shipping Co., of Hull, so advances that that had been made by the company while still under family control, had been built upon, making Rowbotham Tankships the largest short sea tanker company in the UK.

Due to a financial crisis in 1985 the Ingram Corporation were advised by its bankers to sell Rowbotham Tankships and it was acquired by the New Jersey based Marine Transport Lines Inc.

On the 3rd May 1990 P & O Bulk Shipping acquired 50% of the assets of Rowbotham Tankships for a reported £11.2 million, and became joint partners with Marine Transport Lines Inc. Then on 15th January 1993 P & O purchased the other 50% interest from Marine Transport Lines, and the Rowbotham name disappeared with the formation of ‘P & O Tankships Ltd’ a subsidiary of P & O Bulk Shipping.

On 30th December 1996 James Fisher & Sons Public Limited Company of Barrow in Furness bought P & O Tankships for a reported £38.8 million and it was re-named James Fisher Tankships.

Until 1993 the Rowbotham funnel and house-flag, a red R in a white diamond on a blue background had been prominent on these steamships, surely a great tribute to the enterprise of Christopher Rowbotham, a ‘Knottler Lad.’

Ron Gosney

Also by Ron Gosney:

Captain George Colverson
John Harker Shipyard
Disasters at Sea


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