Alfred Holt, born on the 13th June, 1829, was the third son of Mr. George Holt, of Liverpool. After being privately educated he was apprenticed in 1846 to the late Mr. Edward Woods, Past- President, under whom he gained a varied and extensive experience of railway surveying and construction and locomotive building.
He later turned his attention to marine engineering, and after a short time with Messrs. Lamport and Holt, of Liverpool, he engaged in business on his own account in 1852 as a consulting marine engineer. To this he later added the commercial management of steamship lines, in which he showed considerable enterprise, and became very successful.
In 1855 he commenced the first unsubsidised line to the West Indies, which formed the nucleus of the West India and Pacific Steamship Company. He also assisted in the establishment of Messrs. Lamport and Holt’s line to South America, and accompanied their first vessel, the 'Kepler,' in 1864 as volunteer supercargo and engineer, the vessel having been built to his design.
Up to this period all steamship engines were of the low-pressure (generally under 20 lbs.) wet-condensing type, good specimens burning perhaps 5 lbs. of coal per IHP. per hour, but it was becoming daily clearer that less fuel must be burned if longer voyages were to be undertaken. Cornish engines were the school for fuel economy, and Mr. Holt made a complete study of these engines, applying his knowledge to marine engines. Of course the crux of the question was the employment of high-pressure steam, and Mr. Holt was probably the first to use high-pressure steam successfully at sea.
In 1864 he fitted the 'Cleator' with a boiler carrying 60 lbs. steam, and the resulting economy in coal consumption proved it was possible for a vessel of 400 tons to undertake long voyages. The engine was a compound one with a single crank. Compound engines had always been used in conjunction with low pressures, The 'Cleator' gave him confidence to build three vessels of about 2,300 ton4 each, with which his blue-funnel China line, known as the Ocean Steam Ship Company, began in 1866. The route had to be via the Cape of Good Hope, the Suez Canal not being open till the end of 1869, and the unbroken run between England and Mauritius was at that date a rather exceptional performance. The venture, though thought doubtful by many, was successful, and became a large well-known steamship undertaking. Throughout, he was associated with his brother, Mr. Philip H. Holt.
In the early eighteen seventies, Messrs. Butterfield and Swire, his China agents, conceived the project of running steamers on the Chinese rivers, mainly on the Yangtsze. Mr. Holt secured financial support for the venture and advised as to the hulls and machinery.
After an exhaustive study of American river-boats in 1872, Mr. Holt recommended the construction by Messrs. Inglis of Glasgow of four vessels based on the American type. The wooden hulls,however, were replaced by iron, and the walking-beam engine was retained though somewhat modified, they were a complete success and competition soon ceased. This was the nucleus of the China Navigation Company. His practice in connection with the machinery of steamboats involved his becoming acquainted with the subject of hull-construction, he conducted extensive studies and became somewhat of an expert.
Mr. Holt was for over 25 years a member of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, and,
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having been chairman of several of the committees, was elected in 1891 and 1892 chairman of the Board. He took a great interest in the general business of the Board, and especially in the works and marine departments. He originally suggested the construction of an overhead railway on the line of docks, along which passenger traffic had become almost impossible.
By 1887 the overall level of competition between British rival companies led to a freight rate war and a complete breakdown of the Conference system. The profits of the major British rivals: P & O, Ocean Steam Ship Company, Glen Line, Castle Line,
Shire Line and the China Mutual were all affected to the extent that, finally, agreements were made that led to a new Conference system being introduced in the 1890s. This was undoubtedly a turning point for Alfred and Philip Holt who now became firmly wedded to the Conference system and the principle that equalisation of freight rates would eliminate wasteful competition. They were, nevertheless, determined to maintain competition in the provision of quality of service whereby the most efficient company was sure of receiving the largest reward.
The 1890s also saw a change in trading patterns and in the types of cargo required to be carried in the China trade. Light measurement cargos such as textiles from Yorkshire, for example, were being replaced by heavier, dead-weight cargos such as machinery from the Midlands, and the Holts took the decision to build new vessels designed to accommodate these changes. In 1891, the Holts created two new shipping companies in order to strengthen their competitive position against Dutch shipping lines. The first, Nederlandsche Stoomvaart Maatschappij Oceaan was founded in Amsterdam, and its fleet consisted of a number of older Blue Funnel ships but now under the Dutch flag. The second, the East India Ocean Steam Ship Company comprised a part of the Bogaardt fleet together with other vessels already purchased by the Holts for the East Indies trade. This latter company was to be operated from Singapore but under the control of the Ocean Steam Ship Company Managers.
In 1895, Richard Durning Holt, Maurice Llewelyn Davies and George Holt junior joined Alfred and Philip Holt and Albert Crompton as Managers of the Ocean Steam Ship Company. Albert Crompton had become a Manager in 1882. The new Managers undoubtedly made a major contribution to the improvements in the profitability of the Ocean Steam Ship Company. Significant operating economies were made, even to the extent of reducing salaries and wages of Ocean Steam Ship Company employees by 15%. New markets were identified, and operating practices revised. Old ships were disposed of, and, between
1894 and 1902, twenty-two new, large steam ships were added to the Blue Funnel fleet.
Mr. Holt died at Liverpool on the 28th November, 1911, in his eighty-third year. He was elected a Member of The Institution on the 2nd February, 1875.
Liverpool Records Office
Liverpool Central Library