Butterfield & Swire – the company


Nick Kitto

Butterfield and Swire, the Far Eastern trading company of John Swire and Sons, was one of three companies established from the partnership of John and William Swire with R S Butterfield. The Shanghai Office opened on 1 January 1867 to handle John Swire & Sons textile shipments to China which had previously been consigned to Preston, Bruell & Company.

Almost at once the firm’s interests were extended with the acquisition of the agency for Alfred Holt’s Blue Funnel Line and expansion into shipping, insurance and other fields was eventually to lead to the abandonment of textile shipments for which the company had originally been formed.

Throughout the Nineteenth Century branches were opened and agencies established in ports in Japan, along the Yangtze River and down the China coast, including in 1870 the Hong Kong office which was accorded equal status with Shanghai. Expansion also took place into South East Asia, Australia and the Philippines until there were Butterfield & Swire offices or agents in most parts of the Far East.

Although the partnership with Butterfield was dissolved in 1868 the firm retained its original title and gradually new partners were taken in by John Swire, particularly after his brother’s retirement in 1876. All John Swire & Sons interests in the East were placed under the direction of Butterfield & Swire and all correspondence from the East was conducted through the Hong Kong or Shanghai Head Offices.

By the 1930s, as well as the management of John Swire & Sons concerns in the East – the China Navigation Company, and Taikoo Sugar Refinery and Dockyard – Butterfield & Swire also held the important agencies of the Ocean Steamship Company and the China Mutual Steam Navigation Company, as well as numerous insurance companies and other companies trading in the East.

Despite the serious internal problems affecting China and severe Japanese competition, the firm flourished until the Japanese invasion in 1941, when the outports offices and Hong Kong were taken over, closed down and the staff interned. The Shanghai office continued to function into 1942 and some accounts and letters were sent out with the British Embassy staff who were repatriated in the spring of 1942; shortly after the remaining Butterfield & Swire staff were interned. During the war the Butterfield & Swire office at Chungking [Chongqing] in Free China took over the remaining Chinese business of Butterfield & Swire while the main Butterfield & Swire presence in the Far East was maintained from Bombay and Calcutta [Kolkata] by Butterfield & Swire (India). The Hong Kong and Shanghai Offices and the outports, were gradually reopened in the autumn of 1945, as business resumed and Butterfield & Swire property was returned from the Japanese.

Under normal conditions the Hong Kong and Shanghai Head Offices divided the various Butterfield & Swire responsibilities between them, although maintaining consultation on issues involving both. Shanghai controlled Butterfield & Swire and China Navigation Company branches, business and property in Shanghai, along the Yangtze River and in coastal ports north of Ningpo [Ningbo], as well as the management of the Orient Paint, Colour and Varnish Company and the Tientsin Lighter Co. Hong Kong dealt with Butterfield & Swire and China Navigation Company branches and agencies on the South China coast, in Indo-China, Siam, the Philippines and the Straits, and with the management of the Dockyard and Refinery. It was also the senior Blue Funnel Agency in the East, dealing direct with Holt’s in Liverpool on all matters including the routing of homeward loading vessels, and sending copies of the correspondence to Swire’s in London. Eastern staff postings, pay and leave arrangements for John Swire & Sons owned concerns were discussed by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Managers before joint recommendations were sent to London for final decision. The daily running of the firms Taikoo Dockyard & Engineering Company, Taikoo Sugar Refinery and Orient Paint, Colour & Varnish Company were, however in the hands of works and factory managers rather than the responsibility of Butterfield & Swire although all overall policy and management recommendations were made and put forward to London by the relevant Butterfield & Swire office.

Both Head Offices were organised on the same basic structure as the London Office; the Outer Office being divided into sections dealing with particular interests and specialities and a Private Office with a Manager and assistants. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Managers wielded considerable power, all communications with London being conducted through them and their opinions were respected by the London Office. J S Swire took first William Lang, the head in Shanghai, and then J H Scott and Edwin Mackintosh as partners and these three men controlled the Eastern end for many years. Lang retired in 1888 and Scott and Mackintosh returned to Britain in the 1890’s and their replacements were not taken in as partners as they had been but later in the Twentieth Century it became practice to appoint one Director from the Eastern staff who had had experience as Manager in Hong Kong or Shanghai. (1)

https://www.hpcbristol.net/visual/sw07-111 archive photos


  1. John Swire & Sons Ltd Archive The collection comprises the bulk of known surviving material stored in the London Office of John Swire & Sons, covering the development of the firm from about 1870 to 1982. The collection is not complete, due mainly to bomb damage suffered during World War II. There is also a paucity of Eastern records attributable to the occupation of local offices and the firm’s Head Offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1941, when records were destroyed either by the Japanese or beforehand by staff to prevent them falling into enemy hands.

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