Dodwell & Co.

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Logo of Dodwell & Co.
George Benjamin Dodwell (1851-1925)

Dodwell & Co. (Chinese: 天祥洋行) or Dodwell's, was one of the leading British merchant firms, or hongs, active in China and Japan during the 19th and 20th century. It was a direct rival to Jardine, Matheson & Co.

History[edit]

W.R. Adamson and Company – The forerunner of Dodwell & Co.[edit]

The forerunner of Dodwell & Co., W.R. Adamson and Company, was founded as a result of the efforts of a group of Cheshire weavers who needed to increase supplies of raw silk for their mills. On their behalf, William R. Adamson arrived in Shanghai in 1852. In 1858 he set up his own firm, W.R. Adamson and Company, in London, with its head office in Shanghai and branches in Hong Kong, Foochow and Hankow. It was the first of the British merchant firms to venture into Japan, opening a branch in Yokohama in the early 1860s. W.R. Adamson and Company built up an export business in tea and silk, and also a general import business, and began to acquire shipping agencies. The name changed in 1867 to Adamson, Bell and Company, when Frederick Hayley Bell joined the company.

In 1872, the firm appointed a shipping clerk in its Shanghai office named George Benjamin Dodwell (1851–1925). He was 20 years old, born in Derby and quickly rose to prominence in the company, playing an important part in its expansion throughout the Far East. By 1876 Adamson Bell and Company's tea shipments were only marginally behind those of Jardine, Matheson & Co and Butterfield and Swire. Dodwell also secured in 1887 the agency for chartering and managing ships on behalf of the Canadian Pacific Railway between Hong Kong and Vancouver (Canada), thus establishing the first regular steamship line across the Pacific.

The formation of Dodwell & Co. and its expansion till the Second World War[edit]

When in 1886 Adamson decided to retire and return to England he also withdrew his capital and Bell was left in control. Because of the lack of the former cash resources and the practical experience of Adamson the company soon ran into severe financial difficulties and faced bankruptcy from March 1890. Dodwell, together with A.J.H. Carlill, saw their chance to take over the business activities of their moribund employer and formed Dodwell, Carlill and Company on 1 May 1891. The head office of the new company was set up in London.

By this stage the firm had branches in China and Japan, the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States and from 1912 New York. Shipping agency and tea trading were major concerns. Having lost again the Canadian Pacific contract in 1892, Dodwell secured another trans-Pacific contract with an American railroad company, the Northern Pacific Railway, and by the turn of the century could claim to be the largest shipping firm on the Pacific coast. Dodwell was a large exporter of China and Japanese teas, which they sold especially to Britain, the United States and from 1901 to Russia. When demand began to shift towards Indian teas, Dodwell opened a branch in Colombo in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) in 1897 to purchase and sell Cylon teas.

In 1898 George Benjamin Dodwell and his partners decided to transform the business into a Private Limited Liability Company. From 1 January 1899 the company began to operate as Dodwell & Company Limited with a capital of £500,000. By its articles Dodwell was elected Chairman for life. The same year he retired from the East and returned to London. There George Benjamin Dodwell not just oversaw the further development of Dodwell & Co. but diversified his business activities and was chairman of the Malacca Rubber Plantation Company.

From the turn of the century on to the First World War, tea sales declined and general merchandising and the shipping agencies became more important. Branches initially opened for shipping agency or tea trading often developed other activities. The Vancouver branch invested in salmon canneries, developing a business exporting canned salmon to Britain and elsewhere. In the United States the Tacoma branch exported lumber and together with the Seattle branch helped develop a local flour milling industry. The Colombo branch diversified from tea trading to the export of coconuts. It established a desiccating mill in 1910 and acquired a number of tea and coconut plantations.

Japan also became more important to the company. Dodwell & Co. acted as the exclusive agent for the chartering of ships by the Japanese government during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. Its Japanese trading business expanded further through the export of coal to Singapore and Shanghai, and the shipment of Japanese straw braid from Kobe for Europe. Dodwell & Co. also helped with opening of the new port of Yokkaichi to further its export of Japanese porcelain. During the First World War Dodwell's shipping business boomed with the chartering, bunkering, and sale of Japanese steamers to the Allied powers. In 1919 Dodwell & Co. reached a peak of success. The capital of the company had doubled and the trading profit achieved record levels unsurpassed until 1947.

The inter-war period and the Second World War[edit]

The inter-war period was marked by grim economic conditions.

After the First World War the increasing success of Japanese companies in the struggle for a share of the world's trade, made it more interesting for them to deal directly with customers and suppliers in foreign countries. Middlemen import and export traders and ship charteres like Dodwell's had to adapt accordingly. In 1927 Dodwell & Co., now headed by Carlill after the death of his founding partner in 1925, decided to stop to trade on its own account. Instead Dodwell & Co. would act only as agent for other companies selling to Japanese buyers.

The decline of the value of the Chinese Dollar to zero and an ill judged investment in the Shanghai company Sanitas Mineral Water Factory in 1932 contributed to the substantial losses of Dodwell & Co. in the 1930s. At the same time the Shanghai tea trade was losing heavily. Between 1920 and 1938 Dodwell & Co. paid dividends just on three occasions (1923, 1937 and 1938). The company survived this difficult time only because it had built up a large reserve fund of nearly £300.000 during the prosperous first two decades of the twentieth century.

Only the recovery of most of the branches of Dowell & Co. from 1938 onwards ensured that the company was well placed to face the upheavals of the Second World War, including shipping losses and the liquidation of their entire Japanese holdings by the authorities in 1941.

The post war years and the loss of independence[edit]

Following the End of the Second World War, Dodwell´s offices in Hong Kong and Japan had to be re-opened. As a consequence of the Chinese Revolution 1949 the company was forced to close down all branches in Mainland China. Dodwell & Co. had to look elsewhere overseas for new markets. Soon new branches were established in the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and East Africa. Also in 1948 a Joint venture was set up in India together with the Indian company "Salem & Co.", selling electrical equipment and steel tubing from Germany.

Post-war recovery in Hong Kong and Japan was rapid, and the company began to expand in new directions, including rubber and textiles, and also motor vehicles. Dodwell Motors, a subsidiary, was formed in Hong Kong after the war. It amalgamated in 1969 with Inchcape's Metro cars to form Metro-Dodwell Motors Limited, which took over all British Leyland franchises in Hong Kong. From the mid-1950s, Dodwell & Co. specialised as buying agents for department and chain stores throughout the world, opening their own retail stores in some places, including Kenya and Hong Kong (franchise of Marks & Spencer and later BHS).

In 1972 the whole share capital of Dodwell & Co. Limited was acquired by Inchcape and Company Limited, which maintained Dodwell as a quasi-independent company for some time. Only when a combination of factors plunged Inchcape into its two most difficult years ever, 1994 and 1995, much of Dodwell & Co. was sold off in separate parts. In 1995 the buying agent business of Dowell & Co. was sold as part of Inchcape Buying Services to the smaller competitor Li & Fung Ltd. (Hong Kong). The shipping service of Dodwell & Co. had been integrated into the newly formed Inchcape Shipping Services (ISS) in 1993, which was purchased by Electra Investment Trust Plc, a British investment group in 1999. In January 2006 Electra sold ISS to Istithmar PJSC, a major investment house based in Dubai (United Arab Emirates). The extensive interests in business-machine trading in Hong Kong, Japan and many other Far Eastern countries, which Dodewll & Co had established by the 1970s, were also hived off. Inchcape, since 1999 solely focused on the sale of motor vehicles, only retained the motor car business of Dodwell & Co..

Premises[edit]

Dodwell & Co. had its Head Office from 1891 to 1903 at "Dock House", Billiter Street and thereafter at 24, St. Mary Axe, both City of London (London, England).

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Geoffrey Jones: "Merchants to Multinationals – British Trading Companies in the nineteenth and twentieth Centuries", Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000, ISBN 978-0-19-829450-4
  • Jones, Stephanie: "Two Centuries of Overseas Trading: The Origins and Growth of the Inchcape Group", The Macmillan Press, Basingstoke 1986, ISBN 0-333-37172-0
  • King, Frank H.H.: "George Benjamin Dodwell (1851-1925)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, first published 2004, online edition Oct 2006: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/48869 (Oxford DNB subscription required)
  • Matheson Connell, Carol: "A Business in Risk – Jardine Matheson and the Hong Kong Trading Industrie", Praeger Publishers, West Port, 2004, ISBN 0-275-98035-9
  • Warde, Edmund: "The House of Dodwell – A century of achievement – 1858–1958", Dodwell & Company Limited, Printed by W. Chudley & Sons Limited, Exeter 1958
  • Waters, Dan: "Hong Kong Hongs with Long Histories and British Connections", Paper presented at the 12th Conference of the International Association of Historians of Asia, at Hong Kong University (June 1991)
  • Records of "Dodwell and Company Limited" are to be found at the "London Metropolitan Archives"

External links[edit]