James Henry Scott

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James Henry Scott
Born 20 July 1845
Died October 22, 1912(1912-10-22) (aged 67)
Spouse(s) Emily Reid Yuill
Parents Charles Cunningham Scott and Helen Rankin


James Henry Scott, Senior Partner of John Swire & Sons Limited from 1898 until his death in 1912, had a major role in developing Swire’s early industrial interests, which would later be redeveloped as an extensive property portfolio. Jim Scott was the third son of C.C. Scott, Chairman of Scott’s Shipbuilding & Engineering. He left Liverpool for Shanghai in the Blue Funnel steamer Achilles on 27th September 1866, at the age of 21. In his pocket was a letter from Alfred Holt to John Samuel Swire, asking him to give the young man a trial as a shipping clerk. So began Scott’s life-long connection with the firm of Butterfield & Swire.

John Swire had recently arrived in Shanghai and was in the process of establishing his new House; it consisted of Swire, himself, as taipan, two specialists to handle Manchester (cotton) and Yorkshire (woollen) goods, young Jim Scott as bookkeeper and general clerk, and an office ‘junior’. As Scott later recalled: ‘In those days firms in China found the members of their staff in board and lodging. Butterfield & Swire being then small, all dwelt in the same house and messed together, the clerks having the privilege of asking their friends to dine when the taipan was out, but at no other time’. As newly appointed agents for Blue Funnel, there was much to learn: ‘as no one in the newly started firm knew anything of custom-house work, it was a case of groping in the dark for the young shipping clerk’.

Despite this unpromising beginning, Scott clearly had aptitude and, by the age of 24, Swire had arranged for him to take charge, on a temporary basis, successively of the Yokohama and Shanghai offices; he took over the new Hong Kong head office from the end of 1870. Between bouts of ill-health, which forced him home to the UK for extended periods, Scott would spend the remainder of his career in the East alternating between Hong Kong and Shanghai. He was made a partner of John Swire & Sons from 1st January 1874 and on John Swire’s death in 1898, took over as its Senior Partner — the news reaching him by telegram as he stepped off a P&O steamer at Singapore.

In spite of a 20-year age difference, Swire and Scott were firm friends through thick and thin and Swire trusted his judgement implicitly. Scott spent a year and a half helping to run the UK end of the business while John Swire travelled east in 1873, and was installed in Swire’s London flat with instructions to ‘treat it as your own’. On John Swire’s return in 1874, it was Scott who suggested he take a look at two brand new coastal steamers up for sale cheap at the family shipyard and so precipitated the expansion of China Navigation’s interests from the Yangtze onto the China Coast. And it was Scott who was sent to scout the location for the proposed Taikoo Sugar Refinery in Hong Kong in 1881 — diligently inspecting the site (by boat) during a typhoon, in order to gauge how sheltered it would be. Less happily, it was Scott who in 1884 had to break the news to John Swire, once again visiting China, that his Shanghai comprador had committed suicide having been uncovered in major embezzlement of the China Navigation Company.

Of his role as Senior Partner from 1898, following John Swire’s death, Scott said that he did his ‘best to maintain the high reputation of the firm, and to carry on the business on the lines [Swire] followed’. However, he also proved to be a decisive and far-sighted leader: keen to steer the firm into new areas of interest; pragmatic in retrenching businesses that failed. He invested in a cold store in the Philippines, established a tug and lighter business to carry transhipped cargo up the Hai River to Tianjin, and made the hard decision to cut China Navigation’s prestige Australia line when cabotage and immigration restrictions rendered it unviable.

James Henry Scott is principally remembered for two initiatives which would have a lasting impact on Hong Kong, his adopted home of so many years. The first was Taikoo Dockyard, the construction of which he put in train from 1900 — John Swire having fiercely resisted ‘the dockyard scheme’ and declared the sugar refinery to be his ‘last child’. Scott identified and purchased a plot of land to the east of the refinery compound and the family firm, Scott’s Shipbuilding, acted as expert advisors. It was a brave move, given the scale of the undertaking and the huge capital investment. The dockyard took eight years to construct, its opening coinciding with a world-wide slump in shipping that was to last several years. Jim Scott lived long enough — just — to see Taikoo build its first ships, but not to see it return a profit.

Scott is also remembered as the leading voice amongst Hong Kong’s British business community who spoke out in support of the foundation of the University of Hong Kong. The majority of the hongs insisted that an enlarged, western-educated, Chinese middle class would usurp British commercial supremacy, but Scott spoke of his ‘deep-rooted belief in the great advantages that are likely to accrue to the Colony’. And he put his money where his mouth was, endowing the university with a substantial sum and creating a chair of engineering. With typical modesty, he demurred when it was suggested it be named the Scott Chair, and so instead the Taikoo Chair of Engineering came into being.

Scott married Emily Yuill, sister of a B&S colleague, George Yuill (who later became Swire’s agent in Australia) and, after her death, Mina Dunlop. Two of his sons and two grandsons became directors of John Swire & Sons; one of the latter, Edward Scott, went on to become Chairman of the Swire group. James Henry Scott died on 22nd October 1912; like his predecessor, he never retired: managing the firm he had seen come into being was not just his job — it was his life.


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