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Tramping to success

In complete distinction to an operator of liner services, like Cunard or Blue Funnel, an operator of tramp ships sends their ships anywhere a profitable cargo is on offer. A liner company will carry many different commodities on one voyage. These would usually include a variety of foodstuffs and manufactured goods, all of which have to be carefully stowed to prevent damage. A tramp will carry just one cargo in bulk, such as grain or coal.

It is a moot point whether liner or tramp operation is more profitable. Certainly Robert Ropner made his fortune with tramps, founding a major British shipping company. His early story is a rather romantic one.

A dream of seafaring and a nightmare crossing

Born in Magdeburg, Germany, Robert Ropner fell in love with the idea of seafaring from reading books, although he had never seen the sea. Travelling to Hamburg, he stowed away on a British ship bound for West Hartlepool. A rough passage cured him of all ideas of going to sea, and he settled in England, found work, and married.

Working for a firm of coal exporters, the ambitious young man quickly realised that having their own steamships would earn him and his partners more money than chartering them from other owners. In 1868 a local yard built him the Amy, named after Ropner`s daughter. It did not carry as much coal as expected, and was soon wrecked. Ropner was undaunted, however, and went on to order more ships, first with his partner and later for himself. With his German origins, Ropner was particularly successful in trading with ports around the Baltic. With a growing population and rapid industrialisation, British trade was growing fast in the last half of the 19th century. Ropner and other astute shipowners benefited from this growth.

Ships were then usually financed by a number of individuals buying sixty-fourth shares [definition]. As Ropner showed his expertise in managing ships profitably, investors were keen to put money into his new ships. Thus, the fleet under his control grew quickly, although Ropner himself would hold only a minority of the shares.


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