50 British built ships over a ten-year period from 1957 to 1967.
Post WW2, the Bank Line embarked on a massive building programme, and one which only peaked in the 1970s. Looking back, some 50 years later, it seems even more remarkable that all those vessels all came from British yards, namely, Harland and Wolff in Belfast, William Doxford in Sunderland, and Messrs Swan Hunter on Tyneside. Those were the days of British shipping successes. In 10 years, from 1957 to 1967, no less than 50 new vessels were launched for the Bank Line, often without much of a ceremony, and it is a tribute to the owners, managers, and staff that these vessels could be absorbed so readily and gainfully into the worldwide fleet. It was a staggering achievement by the yards and included a steady improvement in design and features as the years passed. By contrast, it seems almost bizarre that today, not only the building yards, but the Merchant Navy itself has shrunk beyond any significant presence.
The design of the Bank Line ships, so crucial to success, was altered year on year as the needs of the trade became clearer, but it was a moving target, some would say a blurred target, as the traditional break bulk cargoes reduced in volume bit by bit, and shippers started demanding boxes. In the traditional US Gulf loading ports of the company, shippers were starting to express a preference for 40 ft containers which swiftly exacerbated the onboard problem.
Within the fleet, in these heady years of expansion, a competent deck officer could look forward to an early command after just a few voyages in the Chief Officer position, and barely 30 years old. There was also a good chance in the first few years of command of being asked to take out a brand-new vessel from the building yard, something rather special in a normal career. It was a great attraction and helped to retain Officers in a company where signing on for two years was still the rule. After all, wives and girlfriends ashore were always competing for loyalty and affection!
After this frenzied period, there followed another important 12 ship order from Wm Doxford in 1972. These were handsome vessels with 4 hatches ahead of the bridge, and one aft, and they were called the ‘Fleetbank’ class. Altogether then, some 75 ships were built over a 20 year period, a truly amazing record.
Bank Line already had a history of building a series of ships, with the inter war years seeing a similar picture. This was coupled with an early faith in the Doxford oil engine, and also the opposed piston arrangement. This came with advantages and some disadvantages, but trial and error saw a gradual and satisfactory improvement, sufficient for the company to continue with this type of propulsion. Onboard the ships with these engines, there was a satisfying clatter in the engine room, machine gun like, when running at full capacity.
When Andrew Weir was in his prime in the early 1920s, and eagerly forging ahead, he placed a single order with Messrs Harland & Wolff Ltd for 18 ships. This was seen as a great act of faith in the yard. By this time, he had already made his mark in maritime history by owning the largest fleet of British sailing ships, and this had been achieved at a relatively young age. Some of the new motor ships of the 20s were allocated to Harland’s Goven yard on the Clyde to spread the workload. They were all twin-screw vessels giving a good turn of speed of 14 knots, and presumably worth the additional cost of spares and maintenance which two engines entailed. No less than 9 of these ships were lost in WW2, and another wrecked, but those that survived all put in over 30 years’ service, and could be seen in ports around the world, toiling away with steam winches and lattice type derricks well into the 1950s. The vessels were named: Inverbank, Glenbank, Birchbank, Cedarbank, Comliebank, Clydebank, Alynbank, Elmbank, Forresbank, Nairnbank, Weirbank, Larchbank, Myrtlebank, Levernbank, Olivebank, Oakbank, Speybank and Springbank. Not particularly handsome, they were never-the-less the backbone of the Bank Line fleet between the wars, and one, the Myrtlebank stayed in the fleet for 35 years before going to the scrapyard in Hong Kong.
Fast forward to the 1950s. The steady parade of new vessels meant that the oldtimers could finally be phased out of the fleet, and the warbuilt ships went with them. They had given valuable service and provided much needed capacity. Andrew Weir (later Lord Inverforth) had recently passed on at the age of 90, and still attending the office, but his unique global network of Agents, trades, and established routes took up the challenge readily. Soon, the shiny new hulls could be seen in ports all around the globe. They were aided by a very able chartering department who joined up the dots of regular and time honoured routes by spot charters when needed. It was a giant chess game for those involved. The term ‘tramping’ is often used in connection with Bank Line activities, but the true story is much more sophisticated. A glance at the sailing schedules and the advertising of the day showed a bewildering commitment to regular lines, and that bewilderment included some from employees of the company! A magnificent ‘spider’s web’ of routes encompassed the globe. The House Magazine of the time carried a list of ships under the heading “Where are they now?” and they might well have asked!