Founded in 1826 and known then as The Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company played a big part in trading links by sea from Tayside and having always been a vital part of the region’s economy, DP&L has now been a part of these links for over 190 years.
The Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company is a direct descendant of an amalgamation of The Dundee & Perth Shipping Company and The Dundee & Perth Union Shipping Company who were once fierce rivals on the important Dundee to London route. On July 3rd 1826 a contract of copartnery was signed which brought the rivals together. The new company had a total of 23 vessels, 13 of which were principally employed on the London sailings whilst the others traded to Glasgow via Grangemouth, and the Forth & Clyde Canal, to Leith and to Liverpool.
The company’s earliest venture into steamship ownership came in 1830 when delivery was taken of the wooden paddle tug “Sir William Wallace” and in 1833 orders were placed for two wooden paddle steamers from the famous Clydeside engineer, Robert Napier. These were completed in 1834 and named “Dundee” and “Perth”. These were the most luxurious and fastest steamers on the east coast and their Masters took great pleasure in outpacing their Leith and Aberdeen rivals.
Gradually the era of paddle steamers gave way to that of screw steamers and the company took delivery of its first, another “London,” iron built and engineered by Napier in 1854. Its successor, a larger “London,” built in the Dundee yard of Gourlay Brothers proved to be one of the most successful vessels to fly the company flag, remaining with the fleet for 53 years and serving not only on the London run but also to St. Petersburg. In 1857 she sailed there loaded mainly with machinery and cured fish, returning with a memorable cargo of flax, tallow, caviar, cranberries and hams! These early voyages demonstrated the possibilities of using a fast steamer on longer distance runs.
This was a period of expansion for the company and the old established Dundee & Hull Shipping Company was acquired in 1857. This was the company who owned the “Forfarshire” which was wrecked off the Farne Islands giving rise to the heroic story of Grace Darling.
The last two paddle steamers were replaced in 1861. Their replacements were often employed in the Mediterranean currant and fruit trades. Also during this period a regular service to Hull from Dundee was undertaken.
The latter years of the 19th century proved to be a period of consolidation for the company with modernisation of the fleet continually taking place. During this time cabin ships with first and second class overnight accommodation were introduced and, as an example, the “Dundee” built in 1886 had berths for 65 first class and 60 second class passengers as well as 75 deck passengers. A triple expansion engine gave her a speed of 15 knots. Increased competition meant that passenger comfort was becoming more and more important. The company opened its own terminal at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse in 1901.
Up until the first war the company’s four principal vessels maintained the London and Hull sailings more or less uneventfully carrying an increasing tonnage of jute products, although as bunkering requirements became greater a coal tender was ordered to bring coal from Tayport across to the ships’ berth in Dundee. This arrangement was upset in 1912 when there was a miners’ strike in the Fife coalfields.
DP&L was incorporated under the Companies Act in 1914 with a total capital of £280,000.
During the war years of 1914 – 1918 many of the company’s ships were requisitioned, primarily as armed boarding steamers and convoy escort vessels. Undoubtedly the most distinguished action was seen by the “Dundee” (the fifth of the name) in March 1917 when, as an armed boarding steamer attached to the 10th Cruiser Squadron, she spotted a strange steamer off the Norwegian coast. This turned out to be the armed German raider “Leopard” masquerading as a neutral Norwegian vessel. Despite being heavily outgunned, the “Dundee” kept the imposter at bay for nearly four hours before the latter was sunk by HMS “Achilles”. When the war finished in November 1918 the company found itself with no vessels to maintain its sailings although with war loss compensation they were eventually able to obtain the release of four vessels from the Ministry of Shipping.
A further period of acquisition followed the first war with the purchase of the Dundee & Newcastle Steam Shipping Company and the Kirkcaldy Steamship Company Limited. Furthermore, the goodwill of Thomas Cowan’s sailings from Leith and Dundee to Southampton and Treport was acquired. An attempt by the company to acquire the Aberdeen Steam Navigation Company failed in early 1920 after negotiations had been underway for 18 months. This would have given DP&L a virtual monopoly of the sailings between north east Scotland and London.
The scramble to find ships after the war had been successful; not only were the Dundee to London sailings being satisfactorily maintained but expansion saw routes to Lisbon, Seville, Antwerp and Barcelona being opened. A regular route sailing between Aberdeen and Antwerp was also instituted.
The centenary of the company in 1926 came during a period of comparative stability in coastal line trades. The fleet had increased from five ships in 1914 to nine some 12 years later and a regular network of services was in operation from the Tay to not only London but also Newcastle, Hull, Southampton and northern France. The majority of the cargoes carried south were locally manufactured goods of various sorts; jute products of course, popular magazines from D.C. Thomson, jams made by Keillers, printed stationary and postcards produced by Valentines and paper from the nearby Guardbridge paper works. These were loaded together with cases of whisky and sacks of seed potatoes brought down the river from Perth.
In 1928 DP&L took over the local sailings between Leith and Kirkcaldy. These sailings carried linoleum products to Leith for export and carried back to Kirkcaldy Danish dairy products landed at Leith. This vessel was known locally as the “bacon and egg boat”.
The long established Aberdeen, Newcastle & Hull Steam Company was acquired in 1929.
The depression of the early 1930’s hit both shipowners’ and shipbuilders’ and, in an effort to help local industry, the Board took the bold decision to order a new cargo steamer with accommodation for 12 passengers from the Caledon Yard. This was the seventh “Dundee”, launched in 1933 at a cost of £69,686! A period of relative stability was brought to an end in 1939 although even before this the Munich crisis had led the Admiralty to charter one of the company’s ships in 1938.
The outbreak of war in 1939 brought to an end the London passenger sailings which had been maintained uninterrupted in peace time since the inception of the company. Five vessels were requisitioned and it was not possible to maintain normal services.
DP&L ships took part in, amongst other operations, the PLUTO pipeline across the English Channel shortly after D-Day, convoy rescue steaming, and supply runs to the Royal Navy in Scapa Flow. Support roles during the D-Day landings were also performed by company vessels. Only one ship was lost during the war; the “Gowrie” was attacked in January 1940 by two German aircraft four miles east of Stonehaven. A bomb exploded close alongside and the starboard boiler burst. The crew were forced to leave the ship and she later sank. However, Dundee Wharf on the Thames was badly damaged in a bomb attack during September 1940 and was out of action for some time. Several ships were managed during the war on behalf of the Ministry of War Transport.
Post-war conditions were completely different to those of 1939. The ships which had run the passenger service to London were ageing and rather the worse for wear. Over the years they were sold overseas with more suitable cargo vessels being acquired. These faced increasing competition from both road and rail services. Nevertheless, the purpose built post-war vessels such as the “Lunan” (1946) and another “London” (1951) were profitable and sailed successfully for many years.
In 1946 the company re-entered the deep-sea tramp market with the introduction of the three general purpose vessels “Angusburn”, “Angusbrae” and “Angusmuir”. These ships were almost continually employed and were seen in many ports in different parts of the world. They carried sugar from Jamaica, esparto grass from Libya, timber from Archangel and iron-ore from North Africa. They all enjoyed successful careers and were reliable and well-liked by their crews.
The company’s ventures into farther-flung ports continued when the possibility was investigated of vessels being chartered to operate from the Canadian eastern seaboard to ports such as Hamilton, Detroit and Cleveland on the Great Lakes. A three year contract for services between April and November each year with the Newfoundland–Great Lakes Steamship Company, initially for two vessels, was signed. The following year the “Perth” and the “Lunan” sailed for Montreal. As this arrangement continued and prospered, a new “Dundee” was launched in 1954 having been specifically built for the Great Lakes trade. She was provided with 40,000 cubic feet of refrigerated space to carry frozen fish from Newfoundland to the Great Lakes ports. By the early 1960’s trading conditions were becoming increasingly more difficult and a rate-cutting war developed. In addition, there were dock labour problems in the Canadian ports and 1962 was to be DP&L’s last full season in Canada with the ships gradually being switched to other routes, including between New York and the West Indies. The 1954 “Dundee” also made several voyages into the Pacific, the only company vessel to do so.
In 1954 the company acquired a minority interest in a small London-based firm, Lockett Wilson Ltd. This was to lead to another happy and profitable association as Lockett Wilson Ltd were not only using Dundee Wharf, but were also in the market to buy ships. Soon the “Clova” and “Crombie” were transferred to the new firm and sailings were operated from London to Paris and also from Goole and Hull to Paris and Brussels. New vessels, the “Vendome” and “Vauban” were added to the fleet having been constructed by the associated Brazen Island Shipyard Ltd. of Polruan in Cornwall. Further ventures included the acquisition of a 49% holding in Channel Shipping Ltd. in Jersey and a controlling interest in the Brazen Island Shipyard in 1957. Although this latter venture only lasted six years, some interesting work was undertaken, including the conversion of tankers to dry cargo vessels.
The coastal home trade became increasingly difficult to operate profitably during the 1950’s and 1960’s. There was a dramatic reduction in the amount of coal carried from the north east to ports in the south of England and there were significant changes in the distribution pattern of cattle feedstuffs. As a result, important decisions were made about the future of the company. The most radical was the termination of the liner service between Dundee and London which had been run since the formation of the company in 1826. The last “London boat” (the “Broughty”) made her final sailing in November 1961 and a train service was substituted. The only coastal liner service remaining was the occasional voyage to Southampton with potatoes. The coastal fleet was reduced to four vessels by the beginning of 1963. Gradually, as the remaining ships became older and inefficient, they were sold abroad.
The year 1967 was the end of the line and in March the “Kingennie” tied up in the Tyne after a voyage from Swansea and the company flag was run down for the last time. The “Kingennie” was the last ship to be owned by the company and a ship owning era of just over 140 years was at an end.
The company maintained its interest in Lockett Wilson Line and Channel Shipping and their five ships. However, these were facing severe competition from ro-ro ferries and container ships. Dundee Wharf was sold in October 1969.
To counter the decline in the company’s shipping interests some acquisitions were taking place, notably the ships’ chandler Andrew Gray and the long established shipping agents N.B. Leslie and P.S. Nicoll & Co. In 1966 a substantial interest was bought in Dundee Stevedores & Porters Ltd. and later the company bought the entire share capital. It also acquired James Allison & Sons and this firm was amalgamated with Andrew Gray into Allison-Gray, dealing in shipping and industrial supplies and marquee hire.
The core interests of the company from the coastal liner trades to North Sea oil was achieved by the mid 1970’s. Around this time serious development of Dundee’s historical and natural geographic links with Scandinavia and the Baltic began to take place with the obvious emphasis on forest products, and the company began acting as agents for both shipping and cargo interests for ever increasing tonnages of newsprint and pulp.
DP&L eventually became part of the Coalite Group which itself was taken over by the fuel distribution group Anglo United plc in 1981. In April 1993 the company returned to local ownership when Cortachy Holdings acquired the company and so again became part of the local business community.
In 2014 DP&L entered a new stage in its long history when control of the Group transferred to its management team.
DP&L now has interests in business and leisure and golf tour travel agencies, industrial supplies, marquee hire, personnel and recruitment. With its proven record of adaptability and its willingness to diversify in changing markets and conditions, DP&L looks forward with optimism to the future.