The African Steam Ship Company, and the story of a piece of china

The shore at Parton, just North of Whitehaven, is a good place to find tiny sherds of pottery and china. Many of the fragments are of ‘blue and white’, of which some are willow-pattern – lucky finds are glimpses of the story where the princess and her lover are escaping over the bridge, or branches of the tree that look like three catkins are blowing like flags in the wind.

Pieces of china

There are pieces of fine china, and of lumpish earthenware storage jars such as ‘Dundee Keillor’ marmalade; patterns coloured green, or red or brown. The best ones are where the patterns are hand-painted, or of printed transfers that have been pressed onto the surface manually. My finds are stored in a yew bowl that was turned by my husband, and occasionally – usually when our granchildren are visiting – the sherds are tipped out, examined and sorted.


Every time, this piece of white china with its brown markings stands out as something special. It’s not fine china; it’s about 5mm thick, with sea-smoothed and rounded edges, and it measures about 5cms by 3cms. ‘SHIP COMPANY’ – the chances of finding a fragment with the words so intact and clear seem astonishingly small! For a long time the design seemed indistinct, until one day, as I turned the piece this way and that, the content leapt out at me: a helmeted head, a bent arm; and some faint letters, perhaps ‘LIORA’. The helmet with the crest was surely that of Britannia? What was she doing amongst the trees?

For fun, I put a photo of the fragment on Facebook back in February, asking if anyone could thrown any light on it and, amazingly, I had a reply within a few hours from someone called Gemma, who posted a link to the British Museum’s website [1]. A friend of hers had shared my post, and Gemma said ‘I find it impossible not to chase up such things’, because she worked ‘with artefacts’. The BM link contained a photo of a shipping company’s medallion – the African Steam Ship Company’s medallion – and detailed notes and weblinks.

From the British Museum Collection’s website, see ref. 1 below

My pottery fragment fitted perfectly with the design. Britannia, with flowing cloak, and her spear and shield partly hidden behind her, is holding back a curtain to reveal a kneeling African, who appears to be proffering a pile of goods – elephant tusks, a pineapple, and fruits; behind him (or her – the person is bare-chested, but it is impossible from the BM’s image to guess the apparent gender!) is a view of a coast with palm-trees. Or, as explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton wrote in 1863 (using the language and attitudes of the time – there is a lot to unpick here, not least how ‘taking the knee’ now has a very different significance) ‘[The Company’s] device, I may observe, is a negress agenouillé, who presents to Britannia of the bare leg a little heap of (typical) “small potatoes” and “some pumkins”.’ [2]

‘LIORA’ is from ‘Spero meliora’, the company’s motto ‘I hope for better things’.

Why did part of this medallion, if that is what it was (see later discussion with Alex Whithorn) turn up on the shore at Parton? And what was the African Steam Ship Company (ASS)? My first thought was that it was connected with the trade from which merchants and ship-owners in the port of Whitehaven, just to the West of Parton, grew rich – the triangular trade between West Africa, the West Indies and Britain, in enslaved African people, sugar, and rum.

However the ASS was founded in 1852 by an Edinburgh man, Macgregor Laird – nearly 50 years after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which outlawed international trade in people as slaves, and nearly 20 years after the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act which made the keeping of slaves illegal within the British Empire. Macgregor Laird (1808-1861) was, according to the BM Curator’s notes, ‘An ardent evangelical protestant and opponent of the slave trade, [who] shared the view that Africa could be ‘civilized’ through the beneficient alliance of Christian missionary activity and ‘legitimate commerce’ replacing trade in human beings.’

His aim was to help the economy of West African traders by buying and then selling their produce, particularly palm oil, in Britain. To quote Burton again [2]: ‘The [shipping] line has already … been beneficial to the West Coast of Africa, and will be more so by encouraging the “tin-pot trader”, which in Oil-River-Slang means the merchant who has no ship of his own.’

Palm oil

PN Davies, in his 1969 essay about the African Steam Ship Company [3] wrote that the 1807 Slave Trade Act was ‘ a severe blow, particularly for Liverpool men who had come to predominate in the trade. However, the trade was prohibited just when an alternative to the export of men was presenting itself. This was the growth of the palm oil industry, and the quantity imported into Liverpool rose from 55 tons in 1785 to 1,000 tons in 1810 and to 30,000 tons in 1851.’

These Liverpool and Bristol slave traders were familiar with the multiple uses of palm oil in Africa, and had ‘already been buying it regularly as food for slaves being shipped to the Americas’ according to Pauline von Hellermann in her fascinating article [4] about the history of ‘red gold’, palm oil, in West Africa. So now they switched their trade to a different kind of ‘commodity’, palm oil. In Europe, the oil was used as an industrial lubricant, in street-lighting, in candle-making and soap production (which was why William Lever – later Lord Leverhulme – became involved in shipping and in new methods of palm oil production in Africa and at home); the British government’s abolition of import tax on palm oil in 1845 helped fuel a massive increase in imports (see Josie Phillips’ article [5]).

Lander and Laird

But this increased demand for palm oil required finding new routes into the ‘interior’ of West Africa in order to reach new supplies and new traders, and in 1830 the brothers Richard and John Lander – by travelling overland to the upper Niger and following it downriver in canoes – showed that the ‘Oil Rivers’ were actually branches of the Niger.

Richard Lemon Lander was born in Truro, Cornwall, in 1804, in the Fighting Cocks Inn. He has been part of my memories of schooldays since I was a teenager, when I walked up Lemon Street, past the granite Doric column of the Lander monument, every day during term-time. He was just a name and a stone statue to me then, and it’s strange to think that it is only now that I appreciate his significance, and can grieve that he died at such a young age, just a few days before his 30th birthday. The Fighting Cocks Inn later became the much more genteel Dolphin, where my parents and I sometimes had afternoon tea.

Richard Lander Monument, Lemon Street,Truro [Wikipedia, via – see notes at end]

In 1832, Macgregor Laird became excited by the Landers’ discovery and the prospect of opening up the Niger to increased trade, and set up the African Inland Company [6]. Richard Lander wrote to him, keen to join him in the venture, and Laird commissioned two armed paddle-steamers to be constructed at Liverpool, the wooden Quorra and the iron-hulled Alburkah, which were not only ocean-going but of shallow enough draught that they would be able to negotiate the rivers. A sailing-ship, the brig Columbine, was also part of the expedition. Lander was appointed leader. A detailed and sometimes entertaining account of their adventures – despite the many horrors and difficulties incurred – was written subsequently by Macgregor Laird and the surviving surgeon, RK Oldfield (and has been digitised by the Wellcome Collection [7, 8].

The Quorra aground below the junction of the Shary and the Niger (from ref.8)

But illness frequently struck them, and the Quorra became stuck on a sandbank for several months. Lander especially was often weak and ill but despite this was able to carry out various journeys for trading purposes. But a letter from Lander, dated Jan 22nd 1834, was delivered to Oldfield ([8], p284): ‘I was coming up to you with a cargo of cowries and dry goods worth four hundred and fifty pounds when I was attacked from all quarters by the natives of Hyammah …. I am wounded, but I hope not dangerously, the ball having entered near the anus and struck the thigh bone: it is not extracted yet.” On June 29th, Oldfield wrote, ‘the pilot Footman came on board, bringing a letter from Col Nicolls, addressed to me,which had been left two months before, in which I was informed of the melancholy death of Mr Lander, who had expired in consequence of the wounds he had received at Hyammah.’ Until then, nearly five months later, neither Laird nor Oldfield had known that their companion was dead: poor Richard Lander had died on February 6th 1834, and had been buried in a cemetery in Fernando Po [9] .

The expedition was  not in any way a success. According to something of an understatement by PN Davies [3], ‘Most significantly, of the 48 Europeans who took part in the venture, 39 died of disease.’

The disastrous end of the expedition ‘dissuaded [Macgregor Laird] from going back to Africa. He became an activist for the rights of African peoples’ instead [10]. And this eventually led him to found the African Steam Ship Company.

The African Steam Ship Company

The ASS [10] was in existence, separately, and later subsumed within other umbrella companies, between 1852 – when it was set up by Macgregor Laird – and July 1936.

Macgregor Laird ensured its viability from the start by obtaining a 10-year contract, which was later extended, with the Royal Mail to carry mail to Africa and ports en route; on return, the ships would carry goods from West African ports. He persuaded various ‘influential men’ to join the company, including James Hartlet, a director of the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company. The ASS started with five steamships – Forerunner, Faith, Hope, Charity, and Northern Lights, built at his brother John’s shipyard on the Mersey, and the company office was moved from London to Liverpool.

On her first voyage, Forerunner’s ‘Homeward cargo was loaded at Fernando Po, Cape Coast Castle, Sierra Leone, Bathhurst, Tenerife and Madeira. The main items of cargo were palm oil, gum, ginger, camwood, pepper, ivory, arrowroot, beeswax, cochineal and gold dust.’ [3]

As was all too common in those days, wrecks and strandings occurred, with the loss of goods, and often of lives. The explorer Sir Richard Burton, voyaging to Fernando Po on the ASS’s ‘Blackland’, notes that ‘the African Steam Ship line is cursed’, and adds a footnote to his account of the outward journey:

‘.. the ‘Faith’, the ‘Hope’, and the ‘Charity’. The latter three being large, slow and fitted with auxiliary screws, failed, and were sold…. The ‘Candace’, on board of which all the watch was asleep, was run into by a Dutchman, near Gibraltar. The ‘Niger’ was wrecked by hugging the iron-bound shore of Tenerife, and the ‘Forerunner’, which carried Dr Livingstone’s African journals, was lost on 25th Oct., 1854, close to Madiera …. Her gold is still on board… the ‘Cleopatra’, Capt. Delamotte, was lost on the 19th August, 1862, on the Shebar, at the mouth of the Shebro River, 40 miles out of her course. … Mr Hanson, Her Majesty’s consular agent, Sherbro River, was drowned, with his boat’s crew, as he came to their assistance – thirteen lives sacrificed by prodigious carelessness. A bad rumour went abroad that the old ship had been purposely lost.’ [2]

My long-time friend, Dr Peter Stanier, an industrial archaeologist who has also always been interested in shipping, discovered an article in the Western Morning News of March 16th 1881, describing the end of the ASS ship Benin, ‘run down and sunk’ by a steamship of the Ducal Line, the Duke of Buccleuch, off Start Point. Salvaged objects included barrels of palm oil, bales of cotton and two monkeys ‘found seated on pieces of the wreck’ [11]. (There’s another, indirect, Solway link here: the Duke of Buccleuch was built in Barrow in Furness. A few years after colliding with and sinking the Benin, she had yet another collision, with a sailing ship off Brighton, and sank [19].)

Peter, incidentally, also went to school in Truro and although his daily walk did not take him past Lander’s monument, he knew it well – and like me – he appreciates the connection between Macgregor Laird and Richard Lander.

The wrecking of the ASS ship, the Benin (see ref.11)

As well as outgoing mail (the Blackland carried ‘thirty-five huge mailbags, containing mental pabulum for some score of West African ports’), and incoming goods, ASS ships also carried passengers. Burton is amusing about the beverages and the size of the cabins; see below and ref [2]. He is amusing about much else, too.

Macgregor Laird died in 1861, while the company was active and profitable. His brothers William and John had been the first Liverpool agents for the company, but later, two of the agency’s employees, Alexander Dempster and John Elder, set up Elder Dempster Ltd, which subsequently managed the ASS and, in 1832 bought up the British and African Shipping Company, under the new name of Elder Dempster Lines Ltd. [12]

Davies has followed the tortuous story [3]. In the early 1900s, Elder Dempster Lines, on the death of its then owner, Alfred Jones, came under the control of Lord Pirrie (chairman of Harland and Wolff) and Sir Owen Philipps, Lord Kylsant. Kylsant had grandiose ideas, buying up shipping lines and expanding his influence world-wide, and in 1926 he bought the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company – which included the White Star Line – for £7 million. This was a disastrous move, and eventually his financial mismanagement and fraudulent activities in trying to cover up the resulting huge deficits ensured that he received a 12-month prison sentence.

Incidentally, the White Star Line, famous for its iron ships like the Titanic, was founded by Thomas Ismay, who was born in 1837 at Maryport, a small port on the Solway just to the East of Parton and Whitehaven: the Maryport Maritime Museum [ref.13; the Museum is currently closed until it moves to new premises] has a fascinating little exhibition of photos and artefacts, including some fine china plates with the White Star device in the centre.

The decrease in trade with West Africa, the economic damage and the loss of ships wrought by the War, and Kylsant’s fraudulent behaviour and mismanagement of the Royal Mail contracts, were some of the reasons why the African Steam Ship Company (still part of Elder Dempster Lines) was wound up on 13th July 1936, with ‘a total deficiency’ of £3,215,997 [3]. It had had a very complicated history, with a series of different owners and agents and, despite the tone of his writing, it is worth reading Davies’ chapter to follow the twists and turns and machinations of the main players.

A Shipping Company Medallion or plate.

I was very fortunate in that Alex Whitlock, the Cumbria Finds Liaison Officer (who is based at the Museum of Lancashire in Preston) was visiting Maryport’s Senhouse Roman Museum one day in March 2022, to help identify ‘found objects’. The ‘Finds’ officer works with the British Museum’s excellent Portable Antiquities Scheme [14], where I had previously been able to find out more about another beach ‘find’, a red clay loom-stone, a few years back [15]. Alex himself has an interest in ceramics and pottery, and opened my eyes to topics like ‘brown transfer ware’ and the types of clay. Feeling the undersurface of the medallion fragment, he thought there might be a slight raised area, perhaps indicating it was part of a saucer or a plate. While looking at photos of other pieces of china I had collected, he talked about free painting by hand (we could see brush marks and irregularities on some of the pieces) and showed me where a transfer, cut out of a larger set, must have been torn because part of the design was missing. Britannia and the lettering on the ASS medallion are, however, in surprisingly good condition for a transfer-print.

According to the Curator’s information on the BM website [1], the ASS medallion in their collection dates from 1852, and was made of pale earthenware by the Davenport Porcelain company in Staffordshire, with the name Davenport impressed on the base – but my attempts to find out more failed, as the company no longer exists. A similar brown transfer design is in the centre of a Davenport bowl (it can just be seen in the Wooley & Wallace auction catalogue [16]). Other pieces with the ASS device were, for example, in dinner sets made by Minton; some were blue, but a 2019 catalogue for Charles Miller auctioneers shows a ‘Rare African Steamship Company [Elder Dempster Line] ‘Alton’ pattern dinner plate, by Minton, circa 1880’, with the brown transfer design in the centre of a slightly stained white plate that is about 26 cms diameter [17].

What were medallions for? Perhaps they were souvenirs for passengers, or perhaps they served as advertisments (the ‘device’ equivalent to a logo) or as gifts to traders. Judy Rudhoe, Curator in the Department of Britain, Europe and Pre-History at the BM, very kindly answered my emailed query: “… we could not find any contemporary mention of the medallions either. We thought it possibly a presentation medallion to members of the company, perhaps on their retirement. But given the range of ceramic wares decorated with the same medallion, it seems it was also commissioned as a dinner service, perhaps to promote the activity of the company, but that is only speculation.”

The medallion shown on the BM website is clearly complete in itself and not part of a larger whole, and has a diameter of 6.5cms. The design on mine would be about 7cms in diameter, but it has a plain border – how wide this was originally is impossible to guess, but it seems more likely that the fragment is part of a plate rather than a medallion.

The slightly uneven place on the base, however, is not a ridge. I rubbed the area with a 4B pencil, and looked at it under the dissecting microscope – and could just make out the shadows of the letters NTO. This does indeed suggest the maker’s name of Minton rather than Davenport.  My little piece of china is probably part of plate or bowl.

African Steam Ships on the Solway?

And finally, how did a fragment of an ASS plate end up on the shore at Parton on the Solway coast? The ASS was based in Liverpool, and I wondered if there were any records of their ships visiting Solway ports like Whitehaven. Apparently, many of the ASS papers are held in the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, but unfortunately, the museum staff were unable to respond to queries at present due to “commitment to ongoing projects”.

It’s easy to forget that the sea, the Firth, was an obvious transport route, until the railways spread their net. In the 19th century the activities of ships of all sizes on the Solway and out to the Irish Sea were like a spider’s web. Paddle-steamers, paquet boats, fishing boats of all types – for salmon, herring, shrimps – and ships carrying passengers and cargo were plying from the small ports like Silloth, Port Carlisle, Parton, and Kingholm Quay at Dumfries, and between the larger ports of Annan and Whitehaven (see, for example chapter 3 in The Fresh and the Salt [18]. In the latter case, the bigger ships went into the Irish Sea,  to the Isle of Man, the Irish ports and Glasgow, and of course down to Liverpool, where passengers embarked on even larger ships to emigrate or conduct business in America, Canada – and West Africa.

View South-West from Parton beach, to the lighthouse at the mouth of Whitehaven

Sailing ships, in particular, were often forced to take shelter in the Solway or were blown up the Firth. The treacherous shifting sandbanks caused many wrecks. But steam ships were (in theory) more in control of their destiny. Still, it would be interesting to discover if records show whether any ASS ships had ventured up the Firth, for whatever reason.

Alternatively, it’s reasonable to suppose, given Whitehaven’s connections with West Africa, that someone who had sailed on an ASS vessel to or from Africa, might have had reasons to visit that port.

Then there is the puzzle of why the plate ended up in the water, and here we can enjoy ourselves with whatever fiction we want to imagine: a bag or chest fallen overboard; a fit of temper; plate-throwing; dislike of the design – choose whatever scenario appeals. And given that longshore drift gradually shifts objects up the Cumbrian shore towards the North-East, the piece of china could have entered the sea almost anywhere along the coast to the SouthWest, from Liverpool to Whitehaven.

I had never imagined that a small fragment of printed china would open up so many stories.

Meanwhile, I have another intriguing little piece of brown transferware to enjoy: a fragment of a picture of a … headless chicken? [20]

A headless chicken …?

  1. British Museum Collections

2. Sir Richard Francis Burton, Wanderings in West Africa from Liverpool to Fernando Po. 1863. Tinsely Brothers, London;

3. P. N. Davies, ‘The African Steamship Company’; in Liverpool and Merseyside: essays in the economic and social history of the port and its hinterland, ed. J. R. Harris (1969) Please note my grateful thanks to Dr Anna Pilz, twitter @anna_pilz, of the Universities of Edinburgh and Galway, who kindly obtained the pdf of this paper for me, and with whom I have had several helpful conversations.

4. Paulin von Hellerman (2021) Red gold, a history of palm oil in West Africa.

5. Josie Phillips (2021) An illustrated history of industrial palm oil.

6. Grace’s Guide  

7. Macgregor Laird and RAK Oldfield (1837). Narrative of an expedition into the interior of Africa by the River Niger. Vol I. Richard Bentley, London.

8. Macgregor Laird and RAK Oldfield (1837). Narrative of an expedition into the interior of Africa by the River Niger. Vol II. Richard Bentley, London.

9. Richard Lander, Wikipedia Credit for Creative Commons photo of the Lander monument is due to www / Richard Lander Monument, Truro Creative Commons

11. Western Morning News. Wednesday 16th March, 1881 (my thanks to Dr Peter Stanier for this newspaper article)

10. African Steam Ship Company; and Macgregor Laird



14. Portable Antiquities Scheme, and loomstones


16. Woolley & Wallis auction catalogue

17. Charles Miller auction catalogue

18. Ann Lingard (2020) ‘Ships and seaweeds’, in The Fresh and the Salt, the Story of the Solway. Birlinn Books

19. ‘Duke of Buccleuch’

20. Within two days of my publishing this blogpost, Gemma (see paragraph 3) used her excellent investigative powers to discover that this is in fact a duck – which can be found standing at one side of Edge Malkin Potteries ‘Tunis’ design, see for example; the curved ridge at the back of the fragment fits neatly with the position of the raised circle on the base of the plate.

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