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Sir John Gunn,
The Cardiff Business Entrepeneur From Caithness
P R Myers

Historical Articles   
The ranks of eminent Caithnessians have tended to have been dominated by scholars, soldiers, engineers and politicians. It has been rare to find a business entrepreneur who has attained similar recognition from his fellow Caithnessians, one of the few exceptions being Sir John Gunn who conformed to the archetypal image of the successful Victorian businessman whose interests embraced coal exporting, ship-owning, railways, collieries, and banking. Sir John Gunn was one of many who left the quiet, rural background of their boyhood to go and seek their fortune in the expanding industrial development associated with the exploitation of the South Wales coalfield. Judging by his remarkable self-advancement from fairly humble beginnings, the dynamic setting of late-Victorian South Wales proved to the right place for the business talents of Sir John Gunn who emerged as a major figure in Cardiff's business world.

Sir John Gunn was born on 28th October 1837, the son of Donald Gunn who lived at Achlibster in the parish of Halkirk. I have been unable to find anything about his early childhood in Caithness, suffice to say that he left his native county at the age of eighteen to begin his business apprenticeship in Newport, Monmouthshire in 1855. His Newport employer held a high regard for John Gunn's potential business acumen when the latter left to go to Cardiff in 1860 which was steadily emerging as "the coal metropolis of the world". Cardiff's hinterland developed into one of the richest coal and iron- making complexes in Britain and Cardiff was the gateway to these important industrial valleys. Cardiff is more than anything a creation of the Victorian age, for until the middle of the 19th century, it was a small insignificant market town that had hardly changed since the Normans built a castle on the bank of the River Taf.

The expansion of the coal industry gave rise to the building of the West and East Bute Docks and in the year that John Gunn moved to Cardiff, coal exports had increased to two and a quarter million tons; more than double that of 1850. The hundreds of ships which came to load at the port required dry-docking facilities. The Mount Stuart Dry Dock was established by John Batchelor and was acquired in 1872 by a syndicate of which John Gunn was the principal promoter. Two years later, John was joined by his brother, Marcus who acted as manager of the new company.

Not content with repairing ships, the two brothers from Caithness decided to enter shipowning themselves when they took delivery of the 1,481 gross tons iron steamer "Dunedin" from Dozfords of Sunderland. By 1892, John and Marcus Gunn & Co. of 11 Mount Stuart Square, owned a further three vessels: the iron steamers "Cornelia" (894 gross tons, built 1872), "Dunbar" (1,774 gross tons, built 1876), and "Dunkeld" (2,791 gross tons, built 1880). Like the Gunn brothers, other Cardiff shipowners established themselves in elegant offices in the Bute Street, Mount Stuart district of the city. Cardiff attracted many shipowners from other regions; people such as W. J. Tatem from Devon, the Morel Brothers who first came to Cardiff to sell potatoes from their Jersey farm and William Reardon Smith from North Devon.

The Gunns' tramp steamers were employed in the coal trade for which there was an insatiable worldwide demand. Wherever steam engines ran, on railway lines or in ships, good steam coal was needed and coal from South Wales, in particular, was the 100-octane fuel of the 19th century steam age. By providing outward freights for merchant vessels, coal helped to keep down the price of shipping, which meant that the cost of importing vital raw materials for Britain's industries was kept relatively low. The Gunns were involved in a cut-throat business, since by the 1880s, a farthing made all the difference between winning and losing a valuable contract. The rate for shipping coal to Brazil in this period was about 24s. a ton.

John Gunn's emergence as a dominant figure in the commercial world of Cardiff was recognised when he was elected as president of the Cardiff Chamber of Commerce in 1886 and 1887 and again in 1897. In 1891 he was chairman of the Cardiff Shipowners' Association. As well as being chairman of the timber importers, John Bland & Co. Ltd., John Gunn held a number of directorships and he was to be found on the boards of the Cardiff Railway Company, the Bristol and West of England Bank, Cardiff Collieries (Llanbradach) Ltd. and several other public companies.

It was natural in those days that a prominent businessman should dabble in politics. As a young man, John Gunn had the Liberal cause but with the split caused by the Irish Home Rule Bill, he, along with others, formed the Liberal Unionist Organisation. In 1892 he unsuccessfully contested a Cardiff constituency on the Unionist ticket. For several years he was a member of Cardiff Town Council and in June 1898 his fellow exile-Scots of the Cardiff Caledonian Society, of which he was founder, held a special banquet in celebration of the knighthood conferred upon him in that year. It would seem that Sir John Gunn was the most eminent Scotsman in Cardiff and it is not surprising to find him as the principal founder of the Presbyterian Church in Windsor Place of which he was the senior elder for many years.

Sir John Gunn belonged very much to the more prosperous, sedate and respectable section of Cardiff society but the "coal metropolis of the world" inevitably had its seamy side. The ever-growing city attracted thousands from all over the world. In 1911, only half the population of Cardiff had been born in the city, the remainder came from all parts of Europe; from rural Wales and rural Ireland; from Greece and Scandinavia and a significant minority were coloured people from the West Indies and China, Central America and East Africa. Many of these settled in the mean, congested streets around the docks: twilight area of cafes and taverns, of crimps and boarding house keepers that led one writer in 1911 to describe Cardiff "as the most undesirable port in the United Kingdom, the dumping ground of Europe".

The Gunns' fleet of steamers always remained a modest one in comparison with other Cardiff fleets and by 1899 they had sold the elderly steamers "Cornelia", "Dunbar", and "Dunkeld", leaving them with their first ship, the "Dunedin". In 1903 the "Dunedin" was sold and was replaced by the "Renwick" (664 gross tons, built 1890) which in turn was sold two years later. For their subsequent tramp steamers, the Gunns adopted the limited liability system of ship ownership in which the ownership of each vessel was turned into a limited liability company. In Cardiff shareholding in steamers became a craze; everybody who had anything to do with shipping, and many who had not, bought shares in tramps. Honouring their birthplace in Caithness, the Gunn brothers had the steel screw steamer "Achlibster" (4,395 gross tons) built for them in 1906 by Richardson, Duck & Co. of Stockton-on-Tees. Her owners were the Achlibster S. S. Co. Ltd. and was managed by the Gunn brothers. A similar steamer, the "Bilbster", owned by the Bilbster. S. S. Co. Ltd., followed from the same builders in 1908.

In 1911 the managership of these two ships was taken over by A. H. and E. Gunn. Arthur H. Gunn was one of Sir John's three sons (he also had six daughters) and I can only assume that E. Gunn was a son of Marcus Gunn. The younger Gunns added a third ship to the fleet, the steel screw steamers, "Chalister", which was built in 1913 by D. & W. Henderson & Co. Ltd., Partick, Glasgow. The "Chalister" was a typical shelter deck tramp steamer and was employed in the deep sea tramping trades throughout her career which lasted until 1942. She had a large cargo carrying capacity but like many such ships, she was underpowered and able to maintain only 8 knots on 34 tons of coal per day.

The year in which the "Chalister" was built marked the peak of Cardiff's coal exporting prosperity when a staggering 10,576,506 tons of coal was exported. The First World War arrested this prosperity and in the post-war years the export of coal declined dramatically. During the war itself, many ships were requisitioned by the Admiralty to serve as colliers which were needed to replenish the bunkers of the Royal Navy's warships. The s.s. "Bilbster" was requisitioned to perform this role and it is possible that she may have steamed past the shores of the Gunns' native Caithness while on passage to the Grand Fleet's base at Scapa Flow. While the "Achlibster" and "Chalister" survived the war, the "Bilbster" was not so fortunate because she was lost after a collision, east of the Azores on 21st November, 1917.

Sir John Gunn died on 20th January, 1918 at the age of 80; a much respected figure in the Cardiff business community, his obituary in the South Wales Daily News was reprinted in The John o' Groat Journal on 8th February, 1918. Despite his exile from his native county, he continued to take an interest in the affairs of Caithness to the very end. It is noteworthy to remember that the s.s. "Achlibster" took the name of his birthplace to many ports in the world, especially in South America.

A. H. & E. Gunn sold the "Achlibster" and "Chalister" in 1919 and never resumed shipowning although A. H. Gunn continued as a director of the Mount Stuart Dry Locks Ltd. Both ships underwent changes of ownership: the "Achlibster", as the Greek "Alecos" was wrecked in 1935 while on passage from Barry to Bahia Blanca with coal, while the "Chalister", as the German "Eodur" was torpedoed and sunk on 20th April, 1942 by H. M. Submarine "Trident", north-west of Namsos, Norway.

The collapse of the coal exporting trade resulted in many of the 150 Cardiff shipowning firms folding up altogether until today there are only three left at the port. The histories of some of these defunct companies are occasionally chronicled in the magazine Sea Breezes, and in monographs. However the Gunns would be pleased that there is a permanent memorial to their shipowning venture in the most famous and largest maritime museum in the world which is seen by thousands of visitors every year. On exhibition in the 20th Century Merchant Shipping Gallery in the East Wing of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich is a builders' half-model of the s.s. "Chalister". A large, conspicuous model, perfect in every detail of a shelter deck tramp steamer in her owners' livery of black funnel, brown masts, brown deckhouses, black topsides, and brick-red boot-topping. The model of the "Chalister" is not only a fitting memorial to the Gunns of Cardiff but to the hundreds of tramp steamers (and the crews who endured their spartan conditions) which contributed to the development and prosperity of Cardiff in its heyday.

R E F E R E N C E S

Obituary of Sir John Gunn   John O'Groat Journal 8th February, 1918
Who was Who 1916-1928   London, 1929
Correspondence with Mr. David Jenkins, Research Assistant, Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum, Cardiff.
J. Geraint Jenkins The Port of Cardiff and its Shipping, Part II Nautical Magazine Vol. 233, No. 6
J. Geraint Jenkins Seafaring History of Wales Sea Breezes Vol 53, No. 404
  Cardiff Seaport Exhibition Ships Monthly Vol. 15 No. 2
This article first appeared in the Caithness field Club Bulletin October 1983