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Early Harrison

18 January 2010 by stepheng

painting of a large sailing ship

‘West Derby off Egremont’ by Thomas Dove, from the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.

Like most boys of my generation, spotting trains, boats, planes and buses was my hobby. It started with car number plates before graduating to ships when I was in my mid teens.

This was the early 1960s and Liverpool was still a great port to look at vessels before tight security and containerisation swept away the old scenes.

I would cycle along the dock road or take the ferry to Birkenhead and Wallasey Docks. Among the many ships I recorded were those of the famous Harrison Line whose vessels were once common on the River Mersey and in ports throughout the world.

T & J Harrison Ltd was founded in Liverpool in 1853 as the port steadily grew in capacity and importance. The company, headed by Thomas and James Harrison, had small beginnings focusing on the wine and brandy trades.

In Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Art and the Sea gallery there is a fascinating oil painting of one of the earliest Harrison ships – the West Derby, named after an historic village in Liverpool where I live.

West Derby off Egremont was painted by Thomas Dove (1811 – 1886) and shows the sailing ship making sternway – drifting slowly backwards so that the anchor takes hold in the riverbed.

In the foreground is an early Liverpool steam tug which has helped the West Derby into the Mersey. The painting shows five crew members furling (rolling up) a sail. Four stand precariously on the yard hauling up the sail while the fifth stands below manoeuvring the sail upwards.

A Harrison tradition started in 1857 with the naming of Philosopher, a full-rigged ship. From then on most of the company’s ships were named after trades and professions.
Harrison’s first two steamers were the Gladiator and the Cognac, both built in 1860 The last sailing ship was sold in 1889 and the company began to develop its routes which from 1902 included South Africa.

The most famous Harrison ship was the Politician, wrecked in 1941, which inspired the classic 1949 Ealing comedy Whisky Galore. She foundered off the Isle of Eriskay with 50,000 cases of scotch on board.

The Harrison Line (now Charente Ltd) sold its shipping interests to P&O Nedlloyd in 2000.

Shortly afterwards the huge Harrison archive was donated to the Merseyside Maritime Museum archives for use by researchers. A total of 134 boxes of records covering the period 1860 to 1980 give a remarkable insight into the expansion and day-to-day operation of the line.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).

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