Royal Reels: Gambling


This advertising postcard has an illustration of Barton Falls, Cairns (Queensland) and it advertises the Howard Smith Steamshhip Proprietors and Coal Contractors, Australia. At the bottom of the card their are spaces for the names of the ship and for the date of the ship’s sailing (Figure 1).

The reverse of the postcard shows a red flag with a white ‘S’ in a black diamond, and the 1d postage was paid with a pair of the green ½d bantam stamps of Victoria which are postmarked with a MELBOURNE/ 1908 roller cancel. It is addressed to Newcastle, N.S.W. and the message is largely illegible. The black and red flag was the insignia for Smith’s shipping company (Figure 2).

The red, black and white insignia was the hallmark for the steamship company which was incorporated in Melbourne in 1883 by Captain William Howard Smith and over the period of 1907 until 1939 he accumulated a total of 17 steamships and one sail ship. The names, dates of building, gross tons and durations of service are seen in the Table as Figure 3.

William Howard Smith, master mariner and ship-owner, was born at Yarmouth, England, son of Ormond Smith, mariner, ship-owner and mail contractor for Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Holland, and his wife Kesier nee Edmubds. At the age of 10 years Howard Smith went on his first voyage, and he later studied navigation and qualified as a master. He became a partner of his father’s firm at 21 and was given command of the steamship Adonis. For some years he was employed by Malcolmson Bros, ship-owners, and sailed to Dutch, Spanish and Latin American ports. His first wife died without issue but in 1854 he brought his second wife Agnes Rosa nee Allen, and their 5 children to Australia.

With S.P.O. Skinner, a marine engineer, Smith had bought the Express, a 136-ton schooner-rigged steamer, and entered the Port Phillip Bay trade between Melbourne and Geelong. After eight good years, Smith sold out to his Geelong agent, T. J. Parker, and he entered the intercolonial trade. In 1862 he and his family revisited Europe. He bought the steamer Kief, renamed it You Yangs, and from mid-1864 commanded it in competition with the powerful Australasian Steam Navigation Co. between Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle. This venture was successful and two years later he bought another steamship in England, the Dandenong. It was his last command and he remained ashore after 1870.

He established himself in the Newcastle coal trade, and he formed a limited partnership with L. J. L. Burke, who had a large coal business in Melbourne in the mid-1860s; he acquired the firm afterwards,and it became one of Melbourne’s largest and most efficient coal importers, constantly acquiring vessels because of the growing demand for passenger and general cargo services from Melbourne to all the eastern coast ports. In the late 1870s he had three of his sons in the partnership and they took charge of the Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane offices. The firm became a limited liability company in September 1883, William Howard Smith and Sons Ltd, with a nominal capital of £1 million, paid up to £500,000; all the £10 shares issued were taken up by his family. He became the managing director at Melbourne and his second son, Edmund, at Sydney. Howard Smith retired from active management in 1884 and his sons Walter S. and Arthur Bruce succeeded him, but he continued as chairman until 1887.

Smith was a director of many companies, a commissioner of the Melbourne Harbor Trust in 1884 and a member of the Marine Board of Victoria in the late 1880s. He was also a committee-man, then chairman of the Melbourne Sailors’ Home in 1874-80, and a committee-man of the Victorian Shipwreck Relief Society in 1877-80. At the age of 76, he died on 22 March 1890 in Melbourne, survived by his wife, and seven sons and two daughters. The business was reorganized under the control of four sons, Edmund (Melbourne), Walter (Geelong), Harold (Sydney), and Ormond (Brisbane) who later acquired extensive pastoral properties near Kilcoy, Queensland. Howard Smith’s great entrepreneurial ability had ensured the firm’s prosperity in the 1890s.

Coal, sugar, cement, machinery and general cargo were staple trades for Smith’s shipping between the two World Wars, and only the Canberra operated as a passenger ship. Howard Smith was also involved in research on Australian brown coal’s conversion to petroleum with other larger players (Imperial Chemical Industry and Broken Hill Proprietary) but, the combined company known as Synthetic Coal Oil Products, was abandoned as the synthetic oil cost three times its market price! The company was well ahead of its time.

I acknowledge that the Australian Dictionary of Biography contributed to a significant proportion of the text of this paper.

Categories: Business