Thomas Henry Ismay

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Thomas Henry Ismay
Thomas Henry Ismay.jpg
Born7 January 1837
Maryport, Cumbria, England
Died23 November 1899 (aged 62)
Other namesBaccy Ismay
OccupationPresident of White Star Line
Known forHeading and running the White Star Line
  • Joseph Ismay (father)
  • Mary Sealby (mother)
"White Star". Caricature by Lib published in Vanity Fair in 1894.

Thomas Henry Ismay (7 January 1837 – 23 November 1899) was the founder of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, more commonly known as the White Star Line. His son Joseph Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line who in 1912 sailed on the maiden voyage of the ocean liner RMS Titanic.

Early years[edit]

Thomas Ismay was born on 7 January 1837, in a small cottage in the town of Maryport, Cumberland. Some time after Thomas's birth, his father Joseph Ismay started a timber business, shipbrokers and shipbuilder. He bought shares in five vessels coming in and out of Maryport. When Thomas was six the Ismays moved to a much larger house in Grasslot, Maryport. The entire family moved to the dwelling because of the 3 sisters Thomas's mother had. The home's name was "The Ropery", the name deriving from the ropes being used at the ship yard laid out in front of the home. This house was near his grandfathers ship yard. This was the first place where he was employed. He spent much of his time around the harbor. He learned here about the sea and navigation along with his most notable habit, of chewing tobacco, giving him the nickname "Baccy Ismay". When Thomas was 12 he was sent to High School in Brampton, Cumberland. This school was one of the best in all of Northern England.

Shipping career[edit]

At the age of 16 Thomas left school and started an apprentice with shipbrokers Imirie and Tomlinson, Liverpool. Upon completion of the apprenticeship he wanted to gain some experience on the high seas. Once he got back to England he started a business. He partnered with Philip Nelson who was also a man from Maryport and a friend of his fathers. However, the partnership did not last long, Philip was a retired sea captain and believed in old, trustworthy wooden ships while Thomas believed the future was in iron ships. In 1867 Thomas Henry Ismay acquired the flag of the White Star Line.

Ismay had always held an interest in the Asiatic Steam Navigation Company and wanted to see how it was run, so he and Gustav Wolff, founder of Harland & Wolff, decided to take a trip to India on board an ANSC steamer. This was partly to see how their rival was managed and partly a family holiday. On 26 October 1887, they left Dawpool and traveled by train across Europe, seeing the sites of France, Switzerland and Italy along the way. Once they got to Italy they joined the SS Nizam, bound for Alexandria. Once in Egypt the pair visited the Pyramids and cruised on the Nile.

Around 1870 Thomas Ismay drafted a new set of rules and regulations for his brand new trend setting steamers, RMS Oceanic (1870), RMS Atlantic and the RMS Baltic (1871).

From 1863 till 1899 Thomas Henry Ismay was president of White Star Line and had several ships under his authority, Most of these ships up until 1870 were chartered, even after 1870 most of White Star Lines vessels were chartered from more notable/wealthy shipping lines, the reason being so that they were not completely at fault if someone died on board because of medical or the ships being and condition.

Ulcoats, Cecelia, Golden Sunset, Gladiator, Duke of Edinburgh, Duleep Singh, Bucton Castle, Globe, Nereus, Borrowdale, Weathersfield, British Prince, Dallam Towers, Remington, Hecuba, Pride Of The Thames, Houghton Towers, Warwickshire, Victoria Tower, Hawarden Castle, Vancouver, Castlehead, Vandieman, Comandre, Seatoller, Casma, Compadre, Bayard, British Admiral, Montrose, Ismay, Estrella, Pembroke Castle, Hausquina, Rajah, SS British Navy, Cairnsmore, Santon, Kirkwood, Delhi, Merwanjee Framjee, Ravenscrag, Cape Clear, Grace Gibson, Hannibal, Cardigan Castle, Santiago, Jason, RMS Oceanic (1870) (Oceanic was White Star Line's first true vessel because she was actually ordered by Thomas Ismay)

Personal life[edit]

On 7 April 1859 Thomas married Margaret, the daughter of Luke Bruce. In 1867, he acquired the flag and branding of the White Star Line. The family lived at Beach Lawn, Crosby.

During these years he undertook several grand projects including, in July 1882, the building of a private residence in Thurstaston on the Wirral Peninsula, designed by the renowned architect Richard Norman Shaw. Built of a local red sandstone, the property was completed in December 1884. It was named Dawpool and, when Ismay's widow died in 1907, both of his sons declined to take up residence. When the Ismays tried selling the home, the agent said the land would be worth more if the home was blown up[citation needed] and it was eventually sold to a Mr. Rutter who loaned to the government as a hospital during World War I. In 1926 it was sold to Sir Henry Roberts who had it demolished a year later.

Albion House (White Star Line Building), Interior Lobby, Liverpool


Shortly after the launching of the Oceanic on 14 January 1899, Thomas Henry Ismay began to complain of pains in his chest. Throughout his life he had been very active and was seldom sick, so his doctor took his pains very seriously. His condition slowly deteriorated and construction on Oceanic's sister ships was delayed. In March of that year, Thomas's health began to improve, and he and Margaret went to Windermere where he became sick again. Mrs Margaret summoned a doctor and a dose of morphine was given to Ismay. After 6 days he was feeling better and he returned to Dawpool in Thurstaston, Wirral. Within 6 weeks he had more violent pain. The doctor diagnosed it as a gallstone. By 26 April Ismay felt good enough to work, but in August he collapsed and was confined to bed. On 31 August an operation was performed on Ismay to try to alleviate his condition. The operation was unsuccessful and a second one became necessary on 4 September. The next morning he insisted that his daughters go on a voyage on the Oceanic whilst he talked to his wife. He asked his wife to arrange for the local church to pray for him. On 14 September Thomas suffered a heart attack. His condition continued to worsen and on 23 November Thomas Henry Ismay died at the age of 62. His wife never fully recovered and she died 7 years later.

He and his wife are commemorated with a large grave at St Bartholomew's Church, Thurstaston, Wirral, inscribed: "Great thoughts, great feelings came to him like instincts unawares" and "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God."

Grave of Thomas H Ismay Thurstaston Wirral


  • The Ismay Family. White Star Line. Thomas Henry Ismay. The man and his background.
  • Gardiner, Robin, History of the White Star Line, Ian Allan Publishing 2002. ISBN 0-7110-2809-5
  • Oldham, Wilton J. The Ismay Line: The White Star Line, and the Ismay family story, The Journal of Commerce, Liverpool, 1961
  • "Ismay, Thomas Henry." Dictionary of National Biography (1901). Reproduced at Encyclopedia Titanica.
  • "Thomas Henry Ismay Dead." The New York Times, 24 November 1899. Reproduced at Encyclopedia Titanica.