Saturday, January 14, 2012

Robin Line

Robin Line, 1942-1948
Robin Line ship officer hat badge.
Three piece construction.
Eagle and shield sterling; wreath brass/gold-plate. Company insigne brass and enamel. Late Second World War era.
badge: 60mm x 65mm

On the second page of the March 17, 1954 edition of the Wilton Connecticut Bulletin there is long column about a GOP Sunday Tea. The Bulletin reports that the tea was a breezy affair attended by the community's upper crust; although not mentioned was the striking absence of Arthur Lewis, Jr. This would be explained by a single line next to the column reading: "Arthur Lewis Dies", followed by  a pithy obit - speaking nothing about his frantic life nor his high-paced career or even funeral arrangements.  Perhaps the same-page announcement of solo-trumpeter Roland Kutik indicated him more a town favorite than the two decade cut-throat steamship executive.

On his first vacation in years, Arthur R. Lewis, Jr. died of a heart attack in sunny Fort Lauderdale. He was the workaholic president of Seas Shipping Company, whose main and best-known subsidiary was the Robin Line. Lewis' professional life was driven by his twin obsessions: profits and desire to crush his firm's competition - the Farrell Line. The Robin Line and Farrell Line rivalry was one of the most vicious and vindictive rate wars in United States maritime history. This is striking in that the Lewis and Farrell families once shared a close personal and business relationship; in fact the Robin Line was established in 1920 by his father, Arthur R. Lewis, Sr. in concert with the Farrell family. Robin Line ships operated in the intercoastal trade as auxiliaries to various Farrell concerns; mainly the Isthmian Steamship Company - the US Steel shipping company - and the American South African Line - in which Lewis, Sr. had partial ownership. However for reasons not public and perhaps secreted away in the exclusive India House, this immediate and irreconcilable rift between the families resulted in the 1933 separation of ownership and management of all shared firms. The Farrells ended up with full control of the American South African Line and the Argonaut Line; the Lewises gained the Sea Shipping Company and its Robin Line.

Soon afer the division of interests, Lewis, Sr. died and his son took up his mantle with gusto. Lewis, Jr. continued to operate the Robin Line's four ships in the intercoastal trade and did not foray into international shipping. Relations between the families remained combative, and the opportunity for Lewis to strike a blow against the Farrells presented itself in the person of Sylvester J. Maddock. Maddock, an employee fired by the Farrells, convinced Lewis to bring the Robin Line into the African trade in 1935. As general agent, Maddock knew the ports and shippers in Africa and thus was able to build up the cargo volumes for the Robin Line at the expense of the American South African Line.

When the United States Shipping Board established direct service between the United States and South Africa, British lines - which prior operated a triangular service via the British Isles and other regions - decided to mimic the American model to diminish the upstart competition in a once sole British preserve. In order to avoid destructive competition between each other and to stave off British ascendancy, the American lines involved in the trade, following the same framework for other regional conferences and agreed in 1924 to establish the U.S.A.-South Africa Conference. The Conference set rates, routes and number of sailings for its members. This was an outward conference with jurisdiction only over cargoes leaving the United States; the lines created a separate complimentary body - the South Africa-U.S.A. Conference - with jurisdiction over the inbound cargoes coming from South Africa to the United States. Although South Africa was the center of the trade, the conference, in spite of its title, held an undefined jurisdiction for decades over the east and west coasts of Africa, as far north as the Azores and the Canary Islands on the west coast of Africa and up to Tanzania on the east. When the Robin Line applied for membership in the conference in 1935, James A. Farrell, Jr., blocked the application, thus initiating a bitter rate war. To try to drive the Robin Line from the trade, the Farrells orchestrated the U.S.A.-South Africa Conference to reduce its rates from twenty dollars to eight dollars a ton, and eventually to four dollars; this last figure barely covered half of operating costs, and as a result both companies including the other conference members were taking heavy losses on each voyage. The Robin Line did not collapse, however, because it was shipping large volumes of automobiles to South Africa for Chrysler and Ford. When the Robin Line bid for membership in the Conference again as a way of ending the rate war in 1936, the Farrell family once again had the application rejected. The Farrels felt confident in the liquidity of the American South African Line since it had the advantage of a generous US mail contract under the provisions of the Merchant Marine Act of 1928 to keep it afloat; yet despite the lack of such a contract, the Robin Line managed to survive. The rate war continued until 1937, when a reduction in the government subsidy at last forced the Farrell family to call it off; but losses had been so great that the American South African Line was on the verge of bankruptcy and saved only by profits garnered from other Farrell shipping interests in the Atlantic trade.

In 1938 the Robin Line managed to secure its own subsidy from the U.S. Maritime Commission, and the next year the Second World War with its high shipping rates temporarily served to halt the destructive competition. At the same time the Robin Line gained entrance into the much-coveted conference.  Flush with cash and subsidies, the Robin Line acquired several new ships for the first time in almost a decade.  These new ships were streamlined and were dubbed the "best-looking" freighters on the oceans by mariners at the time. With the ubiquitous automobile, farm and road-building equipment cargoes inbound, the Robin Line carried rock lobsters (crayfish), exotic timber, gold bullion and freight-neutral diamond cargoes outbound. These new ships were known for their extensive refrigeration plants for the former and welded-shut safe compartments for the latter, and smart crew accommodations.

Although the two lines remained rivals, they preferred to respect the agreements of the U.S.A.-South Africa Conference. During the Second World War, the vessels of both lines were requisitioned, and both operated government ships for the War Shipping Administration under ships husband agreements. After the return of peace, the two lines resumed their bitter rivalry. In hearings before the U.S. Maritime Commission, the Robin Line, because of the opposition from the Farrell Line, lost the subsidies on the route from U.S. Atlantic ports to West Africa in 1947. However, when Farrell declined to handle the unusually large volume of automobile exports to South Africa, the Robin Line - who previously provided the service and won lasting goodwill among the automobile exporters - took up the slack to its benefit. In 1955 the last of the British lines withdrew from the route, leaving as active conference members only the Robin and Farrell Lines (American South African Lines renamed) in the region.

With Lewis, Jr.'s death none of the family members wished to follow his breakneck work ethic, instead they elected Winthrop O. Cook as Seas Shipping Company new president. As president, Cook found before him the expensive task of replacing the company's old wartime surplus vessels. Instead of investing in a costly and immediately unprofitable project, Lewis' heirs decided to avoid the problem altogether and sold the Robin Line to Moore-McCormack in March 1957; making a tidy profit, as seen in the transaction records as argued before United States Court of Appeals Second Circuit (371 F.2d 528): "Seas Shipping Company, Inc., sold ten ships to Moore-McCormack Lines, Inc. [...] for $5,466,668 in cash and notes and 300,000 shares of Mooremac stock." Soon thereafter, the new owner removed the vessels of the former Robin Line from the African trade, leaving only the Farrell Line in the U.S.A.-South Africa Conference.

House Flags of Robin Line
  • Blue with a white lozenge bearing a red R. 1920-1942.
  • Blue with a white oval in the hoist, with a stylized wing with three sections sweeping toward the fly; oval contains red R. 1942-1957.
Ships of Robin Line
It is worth noting that the Robin Line was so called because all its ship names began with the word "Robin".

Pre-War

Robin Adair (built at close of the Great War by Skinner & Eddy Shipyard, Seattle)
Robin Doncaster
Robin Goodfellow
Robin Gray

Second World War (1942-1948)

Robin Adair
Robin Doncaster
Robin Goodfellow
Robin Gray
Robin Locksley
Robin Sherwood
Robin Tuxford
Robin Wentley
Post-War (1948-1955)
Robin Doncaster
Robin Goodfellow
Robin Gray
Robin Hood
Robin Kettering
Robin Kirk
Robin Locksley
Robin Mowbray
Robin Sherwood
Robin Trent
Robin Tuxford
Robin Wentley

1955-1957

Robin Doncaster
Robin Gray
Robin Hood
Robin Kettering
Robin Kirk
Robin Locksley
Robin Sherwood
Robin Trent
Robin Tuxford
Robin Wenley

Moore-McCormack purchase (1957)

Robin Gray
Robin Hood
Robin Kirk
Robin Locksley
Robin Mowbray
Robin Sherwood
Robin Trent

Principal Executives
Arthur R. Lewis, Sr.: 1920-1933
Arthur R. Lewis, Jr.: 1934-1954
Winthrop O. Cook: 1954-1957

References
The Decisions volumes are particularly interesting as they document legislative activities around and Robin Lines gripes with the U.S.A.-South Africa Conference; relevant entries may be found under Seas Shipping Company.  Interestingly, the Maritime Commission and its successor Federal Maritime Board did not lend a kind ear to Lewis. Albion's monograph is interesting in that it is an economic history of the South Africa trade with a focus on the Farrell Line; it presents the family in a positive light and takes an apologetic approach to its foreign-flag activities, anti-union stance and ignores overall poor crew conditions; Lewis and the rate war is mentioned practically in passing.

"Arthur Lewis Dies." Bulletin, Wilton Connecticut. March 17, 1954: p 2.

Obituary. New York Times, March 17, 1954.

Federal Maritime Board. Decisions, Vol. 4, 1952-1956. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963.

U.S. Maritime Commission. Decisions, Vol. 3, 1947-1952. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1963.

War Shipping Administration. United States Maritime Service Training Manual, Deck Branch Training. Washington, D.C.: Maritime Service, 1943. p. 45.

Robert G. Albion. Seaports South of Sahara: The Achievements of an American Steamship Service. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1959.

Rene De La Pedraja.  A Historical Dictionary of the U.S. Merchant Marine and Shipping Industry: Since the Introduction of Steam.  New York:  Greenwood, 1994.

Colin Stewart. Flags, Funnels and Hull Colours. London: Adlard Coles Ltd., 1957.

Captain Frederick James Newdigate Wedge. Brown's Flags and Funnels of British and Foreign Steamship Companies, 5th Edition. Glasgow: Brown, Son & Ferguson, 1951.

United States Court of Appeals Second Circuit. 371 F.2d 528: Seas Shipping Company, Inc., Petitioner, v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Respondent. Argued December 1, 1966 Decided January 16, 1967.

Many kind thanks to Captain Jack Misner for sharing his recollections of his time with the Robin Line.


Robin Line, Hat badge, obverse
Eagle and shield sterling; wreath brass/gold-plate. Company insigne brass and enamel.
Second World War era.
Mounted on wool backing and mohair band.
badge: 60mm x 65mm

This badge uses the US Maritime Service officer hat badge as a base and has the the anchor device replaced with a company insigne. As mentioned in previous posts, this was a common practice followed during the Second World War by ship officers throughout industry. This particular badge is interesting is that it does not use the company house flag on the the badge, rather a bow design element. Some Robin Line ships used the Blue-White-Red wings flanking the R in oval device on the bow; the slight incline of the R denotes speed, which the Line was famous for.

Do note the high degree of corrosion on exposed copper/brass elements and chipped enamel.
The insigne is without or has a corrosion obscured hallmark. I am unable to remove the the badge from backing to determine any hallmarks on the other component elements; the top keeper nut is welded in place by corrosion.

Robin Line, 1942-1948

Robin Line, Hat badge, obverse detail

IMG_2914a

Robin Line, 1942-1948

Robin Line, 1942-1948

Robin Line, 1942-1948


Robin Line, Hat badge, backing and mohair band detail

Robin Line, 1942-1948

Robin Line, 1942-1948

Robin Line, coat lapel badge
No hallmark. Gold-plate brass. Second World War era.

This badge would be found in pairs on either coat lapel of a ship officer's reefer. This badge is gold-plated brass, with most of the gold rubbed away. Although the badge itself is without a readable hallmark, the pin snap has a miniscule H&H (Hilborn & Hamburg) star hallmark on its face and is marked Sterling.

Robin Line, 1942-1948

Robin Line