an introduction


Elder Dempster House Flag The company had its roots in the African Steam Ship Company established by Royal Charter in 1852, and the British and African Steam Navigation Company founded in 1868. The agents of British and African was Elder Dempster and Company, and the three companies were superseded in August 1932 by Elder Dempster Lines Limited.

Royal Mail pennant Based in Liverpool, Elder Dempster Lines served the trade routes to West Africa. It operated three liners (known to all as the mailboats) on a regular scheduled service departing each fortnight to Ghana and Nigeria, with other ports of call in Sierra Leone and Liberia. A large number of cargo and express cargo ships sailed from the UK / Continent to West Africa, and further south beyond the equator, and also to the USA. Outward cargoes were general and manufactured goods and included cars, locomotives, machinery, textiles, salt, beers and whisky, and on return voyages logs, sawn timber and ply, palm kernels, palm oil, groundnuts, rubber, cocoa, and tin.

West Africa map
Destinations Served
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West Africa map
West Africa Ports
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map Elder Dempster ships sailed from a number of UK ports, including Liverpool, Tilbury, Newcastle, Hull, Glasgow, and Hull. Continental ports were primarily Hamburg, Bremen, Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam. En route ports were Las Palmas, Funchal, and Casablanca, and down The Coast the buff-coloured funnels of Elder Dempster ships were to be seen at Dakar, Bathurst (now Banjul), Conakry, Freetown, Monrovia, Cape Palmas, Abidjan, Takoradi, Tema, Lome, Cotonou, Lagos/Apapa, Burutu, Warri, Sapele, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Victoria, Tiko, Douala, Bata, Libreville, Port Gentil, Pointe Noire, Boma, Matadi, Luanda, and Lobito (the latter more than 5,000 nautical miles from Liverpool). Providing a local presence and support to company ships and their crews was an effective chain of offices of Elder Dempster Agencies, and other services included coastal cargo ships, ferries, and tugs of the West African Lighterage and Transport Company.

The company played a major part in Britain’s war effort, but not without a price: losing 42 ships in the Great War and 26 ships in the War of 1939-1945 plus a further 7 managed on behalf of the British government. Elder Dempster ships also took part in the Falklands War of 1982.

In the 1930s Elder Dempster operated an airline - Elders Colonial Airways - with flights from Freetown to Bathurst and Dakar - and for many years ran a fleet of coastwise cargo ships and river ferries in Nigeria. At the end of the 19th century the company had been instrumental in forming the Bank of British West Africa (renamed the Bank of West Africa in the 1950s, and subsequently acquired by the Standard Bank).

distance table
Sailing Distances
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BBSNCo GGL The fleet expanded during the 1950s and early 1960s, taking in the P. Henderson ships of the British and Burmese Steam Navigation Company in 1952 and the Guinea Gulf Line in 1965. Alfred Holt’s Ocean Steam Ship Company (Blue Funnel Line) became owners of Elder Dempster Lines in January 1965, and in 1984 Palm Line (founded by the United Africa Company in 1949) became part of the group.

Elder Dempster's peak tonnage was reached in 1965, but the West African trade was not immune from the sweeping changes which affected shipping worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s and the decline of the British merchant fleet. By the end of 1988 the company was operating one ship, foreign-built and with a Blue Funnel rather than traditional Elder Dempster name. Elder Dempster Lines, together with Palm Line and Guinea Gulf Line, was acquired by the French Delmas-Vieljeux shipping group in 1989 and passed into history. Elder Dempster Agencies operated as the liner shipping agency for the group in the UK until 2000, when it became Delmas UK, and on 8 May 2000 Elder Dempster was formally wound up. Delmas became part of the CMA CGM group in September 2005 and is one of the major shipping companies serving West Africa. Subsequently CMA CGM unified all its maritime activities to and from Africa under a single brand, and from March 2016 Delmas is now CMA CGM.

Of the Elder Dempster Lines fleet of the mid-1960s the Aureol lasted for a year longer, and arrived at the breakers on Alang Beach (India) in June 2001. Although the ships have now gone for ever, to the many former ED seagoing staff they live on.


Elder Dempster House Flag



all text and ports map © Mike Ingham
house flags © BBSNCo / GGL
EDL map and distance table © Elder Dempster Lines
Elder Dempster Lines House Flag © Elder Dempster Lines

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this page last updated 12 June 2016

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