SHIPOWNER, PHILANTHROPIST AND M.P.
Situated in the Consecrated/West Section of Jesmond Old Cemetery.
Walter Runciman was born in Dunbar, Scotland on July 6, 1847. He was the fourth son of Walter Runciman, master of a schooner and later a member of the coastguard, and Jean Finlay, oldest daughter of John Finlay, shipowner, also of Dunbar. The family moved to Cresswell, Northumberland, to what Runciman himself describes as “an eighteenth century cottage with an ample garden well cultivated. The situation was picturesque, and even in its loneliness had a restful charm that created in one a desire to live there. The house was comfortably furnished, spotlessly clean, and everything about it gave the impression of industry and taste.”
Despite or, perhaps, because of, both parents having a seafaring background, they both actively discouraged “young Walter”, as he was affectionately known, from pursuing a life at sea. There is an insightful passage in Runciman’s autobiography ‘Before the Mast and After’, where, after young Walter is very impressed by the tales his visiting grandfather and two great uncles were recounting, he recalls his mother saying, “I pray and believe that fate has something better in store for you than serving the gun with powder to shoot down your fellow creatures, my laddie. Anyway, your mother will spare no pains to prevent her boys from entering a service that pressed well-to-do relatives of her own, as though they were serfs. Don’t I remember that three of my brothers were drowned in pursuit of this ‘matchless profession? No, I have suffered too much to be carried away by heroics and glory, to sanction the sea as an occupation for any of my sons. Did I not marry my husband on condition that he would give up his command and find other honourable work ashore?” Never the less, Walter was as keen as ever to go to sea and made a first attempt to fulfil his goal at the tender age of 10 before being found and brought back by his father but, two years later, in December 1859, Walter managed to persuade the Captain of the “handsome, copper bottomed brig Harperley” to take him on as a cabin boy on his first voyage to the southern seas. As he himself says, “the discomforts of that that voyage merely confirmed my lifelong passion” and from these humble beginnings, he became one of the foremost figures in the commercial life of the nation.
By the age of 21, Walter was a Master Mariner (his Master Mariner certificate was number 88053, is dated October 2, 1871 and is believed to be the oldest in existence), but found time to marry his childhood sweetheart, Ann Margaret Lawson. Interestingly, his older brother John, who was also a mariner, married Ann’s sister, with an article in the Newcastle Journal, Monday, September 20, 1937, recalling that “at an early age, the two girls became orphans and were brought up in Cresswell by relatives. There, they became known to the Runciman family and the children of the two families played and grew up together. Then, when the girls left school, they became engaged to the two sea-faring brothers and planned to have a double wedding. All arrangements were completed – but a disappointment was to follow. Walter Runciman was unexpectedly recalled to his ship and the plans had to be changed hurriedly. Walter Runciman was married on Good Friday, 1868, and his brother, Captain John Runciman, married his bride a few days later.”
Walter bought his first ship, an old steamer called the ‘Dudley’, in 1885 and quietly went about his business. Four years later, he founded the South ‘Shields Steam Shipping Company Limited’, based in South Shields and by 1895, he had acquired 20 steamers and, two years later, changed his company’s name to the ‘Moor Line Ltd.’, whose name originated from the Blakemoor estate owned by his wife’s relatives. Contracts for new vessels were placed with a variety of local shipbuilders, including John Redhead & Sons, Ltd., of South Shields, William Blumer & Co., and William Doxford & Sons Ltd., of Sunderland, and, by 1904, his company owned 23 steamers, going on to reach 40 by the outbreak of WW1. With the exception of Sir James Knott, of the Prince Line, Walter was at the time the largest shipowner on the north east coast, and the Moor Line Fleet was trading to all parts of the world. The company not only suffered financial losses during the WW1; they also lost 26 of the vessels requisitioned by the Admiralty and Minister of Shipping, with many crew being taken prisoner by the Germans or drowned. In 1919, Walter sold all of the company’s 13 remaining ships to Western Counties Shipping Company Limited for £1,800,00. Walter kept his staff together however, managing a small shipping company. In 1920, he formed a new Moor Line Ltd and in 1922, when Western Counties collapsed, Walter bought 8 of his ships back for £175,000. In 1935, at the age of 88, Walter acquired a controlling interest in the Anchor Line, which had previously been owned by Cunard. Following his death in 1937, the company changed its name to Runciman Shipping Company Ltd, managed by Walter Runciman and Company Ltd.
The two companies merged in 1947 to acquire the latter name. The Anchor Line was sold to Runciman in 1965 and three years later the ownership of the Moor Line was transferred to Anchor Line Shipping Management Ltd., while Runciman Shipping Limited ran day to day operations of the ships. By 1976, Runciman Shipping Limited was one of five divisions of Anchor Line Company Limited, running the administration of the company.
Other highlights in relation to Walter include being made a Baronet in 1906 and serving as Liberal MP for Hartlepool, where he has a street named after him, from 1914 to 1918. In 1910, he wrote “The Tragedy of St. Helena”, an account of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile and death and in 1933, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Runciman of Shoreston, taking his seat in the House of Lords at the age of 85. At the age of 84, he made his first flight in an aeroplane, being piloted by his grandson, Mr. Walter Leslie Runciman.
Having had an offer turned down to buy the Cresswell estate in the early 1900’s, Walter purchased Doxford, “one of the most beautiful estates in Northumberland” and, subsequent to this, purchased Shoreston Hall and the Springhill Estate, near Seahouses. In his autobiography, Walter describes renovating Shoreston Hall, taking him “eighteen months to knock it and the grounds into shape. The house was gutted and re-fitted, but the old character was undisturbed. Dismal insanitary cottages were pulled down, and commodious, healthy, picturesque dwellings erected in their place for our employees. There is not an ugly bit of scenery around it, and its gardens are a joy to us and to the visitors who come to see them.”
By one of life’s interesting quirks, my family and I have stayed at the lovely holiday accommodation that is now Springhill Farm on a number of occasions and have often walked past Shoreston Hall, wondering who must have lived there….. now we know!!
Although Walter had his ‘retirement’ properties in Seahouses and Doxford, it would appear that he spent most of his ‘working’ life in Fernwood House, Jesmond, with census and electoral roll records recording this as the main residence for him and his family.
Walter died at the ripe old age of 90, having taken ill on his yacht, Sunbeam the Second, moored in Blyth. He was taken to his home in Jesmond, where he died peacefully, at 3.30 a.m. on Friday, August 14, 1937, with the papers subsequently reporting his demise as the ‘death of the grand old man of shipping.’ His funeral service was held in Jesmond Methodist Church, with a simultaneous service also held in Seahouses. A memorial service was also arranged in the City of London.
Walter and Ann Margaret had one son, also named Walter, who was born on the 19 November 1870. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in history in 1892. Walter entered Parliament in 1899, successfully contesting Oldham for the Liberal party at a by-election. but was defeated by Winston Churchill at the general election a year later. However, in 1902, he was elected to the Commons in a by-election at Dewsbury in 1902 and subsequently served as President of the Boards of Education, Agriculture and Trade. He lost his seat in 1918 but by 1928, he was back in Parliament as MP for St. Ives, and in 1931, when the National Government was formed, he was re-appointed to the Board of Trade, where he stayed until 1937, when he was removed from office by the formation of a new Government by Chamberlain. However, he was then elevated to the House of Lords, adopting the title of First Viscount Runciman of Doxford, taken from the country estate purchased by his father in 1909.
In 1927, he made a donation of £75,000, which was more than half of the £143,000 required, to construct a major extension to the Royal Victoria Infirmary. The extension is still in use and forms a major part of the hospital.
Before the Mast and After; the autobiography of a sailor and shipowner. By Sir Walter Runciman, Bart. Published in 1924 by Fisher Unwin Ltd., London.
Benjidog Historical Research Resources: The Allen Collection.
Philanthropy North East Web Site, Community Foundation, Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.