John Samuel Swire

From WikiSwire
Jump to navigation Jump to search
John Samuel Swire
Born 24 December 1825
Liverpool, England
Died December 1, 1898(1898-12-01) (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.


Events / Stories