The year 2016 marks two significant milestones for Swire: it is the group’s 200th anniversary and it is also 150 years since Swire first opened an office in China.
There are older firms around the world, but few perhaps have built such a diverse portfolio of business interests from scratch. Very few indeed have had such an enduring association with a single family: the current Chairman and CEO, Barnaby and Merlin Swire, are great-great-greatgrandsons of the founder, John Swire – the Liverpool merchant who started it all back in 1816.
John Swire of Liverpool (1793-1847) was in fact originally from Yorkshire. His family had farmed near Skipton for a number of generations before John’s grandfather – also John Swire – went into the textile trade; his son Samuel followed him into this business. However, both father and son came unstuck financially and their ventures ended in bankruptcy. Family insolvency may well have been the spur that drove young John Swire, eldest of Sam’s ten children, to try his luck in Liverpool.
“John Swire, merchant”’s first recorded imports were from America: quercitron bark (used in dyeing textiles) and raw cotton – which was to become a significant commodity in the firm’s import trades. He gradually built a successful business based almost exclusively on imports from North America (flour, animal hides, turpentine, tar) and the West Indies (coffee, spices, sugar and rum).
John Swire died young from cancer in 1847 and the business passed jointly to his two sons, John Samuel and William Hudson Swire, who were then 21 and 17 years of age; when William came of age in 1851, the company took the name “John Swire & Sons”. From the outset, John Samuel Swire (1825-1898) was the entrepreneurial driving force behind the development of the business, while William – dogged by ill-health – played a less active role, eventually selling his share to his elder brother.
The firm began to invest in sailing ships: firstly, in 1850, with a 22 per cent shareholding in the barque Theodore, and then in 1853 with a majority 31per cent of the new Liverpool-built iron clipper ship, Evangeline. Both of these ships operated in the New Orleans trade – which primarily involved raw cotton – and sailed under the colours of the Liverpool shipping company, Clint & Co.
By 1854, John Samuel Swire had decided to expand to Australia, where the discovery of gold in Victoria and rapid growth of the new colony offered unprecedented business opportunities. In Melbourne, he established “Swire Bros.” and was soon importing a wide variety of goods, ranging from iron bars, arsenic and “blasting powder”, to barrels of pork, boots, blankets and bottled beer. After four years, he returned to Liverpool. John Swire & Sons’ export business to Australia continued to flourish, but the lasting importance of the Melbourne branch was to switch Swire’s trading focus away from the New Orleans cotton trade, which was severely curtailed by the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.