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Shipping Companies

When you walk around EC3 today, there are buildings and monuments that relate to the river Thames and to our maritime history. There are several in and around Trinity Square.

Walking along the riverside, between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, you will come across Three Quays, Sugar Quay, Custom House, and Grant’s Quay.

Away from the river it is not so easy to find evidence of the area’s maritime past where well into the 20th century, there were once numerous ships brokers, merchant companies and passenger shipping companies all with headquarters buildings or offices here in EC3.

Amongst them were:

The following is a brief summary of each of the above companies, with details about their location in EC3 and where you can find out more about their history and/or current operations.

The East India Company

In 1600, a group of English businessmen asked Elizabeth I for a royal charter that would let them voyage to the East Indies on behalf of the crown in exchange for a monopoly on trade.

The merchants put up nearly £70,000 of their own money to finance the venture, and the East India Company was born.

The East India Company became one of the most extensive and powerful corporations in the world with, initially, a focus on trade with the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia.

It later developed territorial interests and at its height had an army of over 200,000 men. It ruled large areas of India and led the British crown to assume direct control of the Indian subcontinent.

The East India Company was first based in Philpot Lane, off Fenchurch Street, using the home of their Governor. In the 1620s it moved to Crosby House, Bishopsgate and then in 1638 it moved into the house of its new Governor in Leadenhall Street.

After the death of that Governor the company remained in the house and as they grew in size acquired the adjoining property which became known as East India House as shown in this 17th-century Dutch print.

Old East India House

Old East India House from a late 17th-century Dutch print

In the 1720s, merchant and amateur architect Theodore Jacobsen designed a new house for the Company on the same site in Leadenhall Street, as shown in this 1766 engraving by T Simpson.

East India House Leadenhall Street

East India House, Leadenhall Street - 1766 engraving by T Simpson

Jacobsen later designed the Foundling Hospital located in Lamb’s Conduit Fields and he served as a governor of the Foundling Hospital. At the Foundling Museum there are illustrations of the hospital he designed and a fine portrait of Jacobsen on display.

Jacobsen’s house was extended by Henry Holland and Richard Jupp between 1796 and 1800.

East India House Extended

East India House extended by Henry Holland and Richard Jupp

East India House watercolour

Watercolour of East India House by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804), courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

When the East India Company was finally wound up in the mid-19th century the house remained for two years before it was demolished. Today you will find Lloyd’s of London occupying the site.

Even after its dissolution, the East India Company left a lasting impact on the territories with which it traded and/or controlled.

To discover more about the East India Company, see:

P & O – The Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company

Sail gave way to steam from the 1820s and it was the arrival of steam that led to faster and more efficient ships.

The origins of P & O lay with a firm of London ship brokers and agents called Willcox and Anderson, who were running speculative services to Spain and Portugal in the 1830s.

Two Dublin ship owners, Charles Wye Williams, and Captain Richard Bourne seized the opportunities that steam offered and teamed up with Wilcox and Anderson. In 1837 Bourne secured a government contract for the Peninsular mails to be managed by Willcox and Anderson under the aptly named ‘Peninsular Steam Navigation Company’.

This is seen as the foundation of what became the Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. A full history of the Company can be found at P&O Heritage.

The company was known by millions as P & O and their offices, like the East India Company, were also in Leadenhall Street opposite East India House. From 1848 P & O had their headquarters at 122 Leadenhall Street.

P & O Leadenhall Street

A print of P&O's offices at 122 Leadenhall Street in 1859.
Source: The Old P&O Line

In the 1960s, architects Gollins Melvin Ward & Partners designed a new building for P & O. See Royal Institute of British Architects for an illustration of that building.

Standing on the site today is the Leadenhall Building better known as the ‘Cheese Grater’ by architect Richard Rodgers.

In 2005 the company was taken over by Carnival Corporation and you can read about that in a Guardian article published in 2005. The P & O name lives on today as P & O cruises, part of Carnival Corporation.


The company started in 1840 by Samuel Cunard with steam powered ferries in Nova Scotia and grew to become one of the best-known passenger shipping companies in the world.

The names of its transatlantic liners, Lusitania, Mauritania, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and QE2, regularly featured in press and media throughout the 20th century.

Cunard had its European headquarters at Cunard House in Liverpool from about 1916 to the 1960s. It was a building commissioned by Cunard and can still be seen today at the Pierhead.

Cunard building in Liverpool

Cunard Building in Liverpool. Source: Wikipedia

In the 1930s, architects Mewes and Davis designed the Cunard Building at 88 Leadenhall Street. See Royal Institute of British Architects for an image of that building. The name ‘Cunard’ can be seen at the top of the building if you zoom in.

This Art Deco building was demolished in the 1990s but today there are still reminders of Cunard on the replacement building at 88 Leadenhall Street with lifebelts on the railings and on one side of the building running along Cunard Place.

Lifebelts on 88 Leadenhall Street

See 180 years of sailing with Cunard to discover more about the history of Cunard. See Cunard House for more information about the building at 88 Leadenhall Street.

Wm H. Müller & Co

A Dutch shipping company established in the late 19th century in the Netherlands by, German born, Wilhelm Muller. 

Today there is a visible and very impressive reminder of this company’s presence in EC3 because Holland House, their original office building, still stands in Bury Street.

Holland House

In 1878, a German named Wm H. Müller established a trading company in Rotterdam that grew into a major player in the Dutch shipping and transport sector. In 1947 they opened an international freight forwarding subsidiary in New York named the Wm H. Müller Shipping Corporation.

By the latter years of the 20th Century the Rotterdam-based holding company had become a vast conglomerate with holdings in manufacturing, trading companies, mechanical engineering, and various other interests.

In the early 1990's the Board of Directors took a strategic decision to divest themselves of their shipping and transport companies, which now represented a small percentage of the total holdings.

Over the next few years, the Müller transportation companies were spun off, mostly to the local management, and in 1993 the renamed Muller Shipping Corporation became a privately held company.

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Sculpture of ship on Holland House by Joseph Mendes da Costa

Holland House is a wonderful looking building with its green faience tiled façade and sits behind the Gherkin. 

It was designed for Wm H. Muller by leading Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage who had been greatly influenced by a visit to New York in 1911. It was built between 1914 and 1916.

For more information about Holland House, see:

The General Steam Navigation Company

In the early 1900s architect E B I’Anson designed a headquarters building for the company which today houses the Liberty Bounds pub.

General Steam Navigation Company

The company, incorporated in 1824, was one of the earliest steam ship companies operating on the river Thames and the first to operate a steamer service to European ports.

It carried both goods and passengers and by the end of the nineteenth century was well known for excursions from London to Margate, Ramsgate, and other North Kent ports.

In the church of All Hallows by The Tower there is a model of one of its 1930’s passenger steamers, MV Royal Daffodil, which took part in the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk and brought home over 9000 men.

General Steam Navigation Company decoration

The company was taken over by P & O in the 1920s but the name continued through until the 1970s until it was absorbed into another P & O subsidiary.

For more information about the General Steam Navigation Company see:


By the 1930s Clarksons had become the biggest tanker brokers in the world. In the 1850s they occupied a site in America Square and today are only a short distance away at Commodity Quay, St Katherine Dock.

Read more about their history

Blue Star Line

This company was founded in the early years of the 20th century by the Vestey family to transport meat. One of the first companies in the world to use refrigerated ships, they expanded into passenger traffic.

Blue Star Line

Source: Derek Longly

Their headquarters was at Albion House, 34 Leadenhall Street.

For more information about the Blue Star Line, see:

Henry Bucknall and Sons

Established in Portugal in the mid-18th century to buy and export cork to the UK, they later became Henry Bucknall and Company and then Ellerman and Bucknall (Steamships) Co Ltd.

Their offices were at 104 to 106 Leadenhall Street.

For more information about Ellerman and Bucknall (Steamships) Co Ltd, see: