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KNOTTINGLEY'S MARITIME HISTORY
CHRISTOPHER ROWBOTHAM & SONS
by RON GOSNEY
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
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
In 1913 the company diversified into the insurance business with the
formation of a separate company under the title C. Rowbotham & Sons
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Also by Ron Gosney:
Captain George Colverson
John Harker Shipyard
Disasters at Sea