John Samuel Swire
|John Samuel Swire|
24 December 1825|
December 1, 1898 (aged 72)|
|Other names||The Senior|
|Spouse(s)||Helen Abigail Fairrie, Mary Warren|
|Children||John 'Jack' Swire, George Warren Swire|
Central to the transformation of John Swire & Sons from
a modest provincial trading house into one of the leading
British hongs on the China coast is the figure of John Samuel
Swire — the elder of John Swire of Liverpool’s two sons,
who was born on Christmas Eve 1825 and took over the
business in 1847, at the age of 21.
The old-fashioned term merchant adventurer might
be an appropriate label for John Samuel Swire. Certainly,
he saw the expansion of his eastern empire in terms of
an adventure: ‘I never cared for money, save as counters
for the game of life’ he wrote, and ‘I have always gone in
for glory and not for £ and d’. From his father he inherited
a gruelling work ethic and a horror of debt — the spectre
of the family bankruptcies lingering on. A man of
uncompromising integrity, his driven and decisive approach
to business was tempered by a cast-in-stone code of
ethics: ‘I have been called a fool for not doing others as they
would do me, but hate the faintest approach of playing with
loaded dice, even in the ordinary form sanctioned by the
highest commercial authority’. His close business associate
and friend, Philip Holt, recalled: ‘I never knew a man with
a stronger sense of justice in business’.
John Samuel Swire was a man of considerable
personal courage, both in and outside the confines of his
business. An enthusiastic horseman, he hunted whenever
opportunity arose, continuing to do so into his late 60s.
He was shipwrecked twice in his 50s: in 1876, when yachting
in the Norwegian fjords; and in 1878, on an isolated island
in the Philippine archipelago, when he led the shore party
and ‘interviewed the (tribal) chief in that sunhat with
an umbrella and two pistols’. When there was a French
invasion scare in 1859, he was one of the first to enlist
with a local militia regiment, the 5th Lancashire Volunteer
Rifles. And in 1849, at the age of 23, he spent five months in
America’s ‘Wild West’, recalling 30 years later: ‘It was then
said that I had travelled further alone amongst the Indians
than any other man not a trapper who possessed what I had
then, but haven’t now — a scalp!’ Family lore has it he also
held the postal franchise for the State of Arkansas — more
than 20 years before the advent of the Pony Express. Swire’s
decision to open a branch in Melbourne in 1854 was certainly
an act of bravery, bearing in mind it took him so far outside his
firm’s usual scope and that it also entailed a lonely sojourn
of four years’ toiling to build up the Swire Bros. business on
the other side of the world from his immediate family.
Personal tragedy dogged John Swire’s early life and
no doubt coloured his character. Engaged at 19, his fiancée,
a Miss Lizzie Gordon, died before they could marry. In 1859,
on his return to Liverpool from Australia, he married Helen
Fairrie, whom he had known from childhood. But marital
happiness continued to evade him and his ‘Nell’ died of
consumption while on a sea voyage for her health, only 30
months after their wedding. She left behind an infant son,
John, whom his parents called ‘Jack’. Stunned by her death,
John Samuel Swire immersed himself in work and it would
be almost 20 years before he remarried.
Swire’s decisive nature is well illustrated by the
remarkable speed with which he established his China
House in 1866. Unhappy with the performance of his
Shanghai agents, Preston, Bruell & Co., he sent out
a representative early in the year to keep an eye on imports.
By September it had become clear that sterner measures
were required. Swire immediately drew up a partnership
agreement with R.S. Butterfield, a textile manufacturer
for whom he was handling exports to China, and then took
ship himself for Shanghai. Arriving there on 28th November,
he moved into Bruell’s premises (literally, since in those
days it was customary to ‘live over the shop’). Within a few
short days he had bought them out, taken a lease on new
premises and arranged to move in Bruell’s furniture. The
establishment of Butterfield & Swire was announced in
the pages of the North China Daily News on 3rd December,
a week after he had arrived.
There followed 20 years of hard work and steady
expansion, and although Swire returned to Europe within
a year, he never loosened his iron grip. His confidence in his
own acumen and ability was unshakeable: ‘My one merit
is that managers and partners in the House will accept
my decisions with perfect confidence where accounts are
concerned. Every dispute is left to my award, and with it,
they have heretofore been satisfied’. Accordingly, he ran
his business along the lines of a strict but kindly patriarch
presiding over a loved, but occasionally wayward and
foolish family. To his staff and business partners he was
simply ‘The Senior’.
His character shines through in his surviving business
correspondence, where his style is vivid, forthright, witty,
occasionally acerbic, and he suffers fools not at all.
‘What a cantankerous, obstinate, illogical old man you
are getting,’ he wrote to his Shanghai manager in 1893.
‘Employ your leisure either in resting your brain or exercising
your body. If you must special plead, post the letter in
the fire and burn the duplicate’. Swire sat down to write
to his eastern managers in longhand daily and they
religiously forwarded copies of their inter-port mail
to London — enabling him to maintain a degree of control
and insight into the minutiae of outport life that is
staggering from a modern perspective.
Away from the office, John Samuel Swire was
a devoted family man. Personally frugal at times, he could
be magnificent in his generosity to his friends. In 1881, he
finally remarried — after strenuous prompting from son Jack.
His second wife, Mary Warren, the daughter of a Liverpool
ship owner, was Swire’s goddaughter and 26 years his junior;
they would have one son, (George) Warren, born in 1883.
It is telling that Mary kept every single letter John wrote
to her — including notes of the ‘will be back at 2pm’ variety.
His letters reveal a relationship that belies the Victorian
stereotype: he never talked down to his wife on matters
of business and consulted her on a wide range of subjects.
His relationship with his two sons was equally warm and
easy — though they clearly hero‑worshipped him as well.
In later life, rheumatoid arthritis caused John Swire great pain. Forced to give up his beloved hunting, he underwent periodic treatment at a variety of fashionable spas. He died just short of his 73rd birthday, on 1st December 1898. John Samuel Swire never handed over the reins of his firm to a successor and his rigorous management style continued to influence its development for many years after his death.