Marcus Samuel, 1st Viscount Bearsted,
by Robert Henriques: Barrie & Rocliffe. 42s.
the man who founded Shell became one of the richest men in the world. But he was neither a financial genius, nor a great innovator or inventor. He was simply a very shrewd merchant, who never learnt anything about oil and whose major preoccupation throughout his life was with retaining the good name of his House and establishing his respectability and Patriotism in the eyes of the Edwardian English Establishment.
His views on life and politics were banal-Tory in the extreme; kind to animals, model husband, model Jew in his charitable contributions and refusal to trade with the anti-semitic Rumanians, model Lord Mayor of London, unspeakably kind to working classes (when not organised), brought up large country estates, beloved by servants. Nor was his patriotism sham; Shell (unlike more Christian organisations) did not profiteer in World War I; at great risk he and Deterding brought over a complete TNT plant from neutral Holland to this country. He was a nice man. limited, not the saint his grandson-in-law and biographer makes out, but he has stood one test—his name, unlike that of any other fabulously rich man, is almost unknown on the Left.
So where’s the interest to those not unduly impressed by the Romance of Big Business? On several accounts. First Samuel’s relationship with the navy. His major object in life was to persuade the Royal Navy to turn from coal to oil fuel. He went to great lengths, he offered the government a controlling interest in Shell; he established a world-wide network of fuelling stations. But Admiralty technical incompetence was too ingrown; then when Jackie Fisher and Churchill started to revitalise the Admiralty, Samuel was beaten by the Burmah Oil Co and D’Arcy of Anglo-Persian; not, as one might suppose, through graft and an anti-semitic old boy net, but for reasons which appear better to me than to Col. Henriques. Shell was by this time (1912) 60 per cent Dutch owned; its network of companies were mostly registered abroad; they relied on oil not their own in the Caucasus (bought from the Rothschilds) and definitely Dutch in the East Indies, also on the Mellons in America. None of these sources were likely to be British-controlled in wartime; Churchill therefore went to Burma and Persia for his oil. Hence the most profitable investment ever made by a government—in what is now of course British Petroleum. In view of the later developments it is I think a legitimate historical speculation to wonder what would have been the results if the government had bought Shell from the Lord Mayor of London in 1900 or 1901?
Certainly Shell would not have become as important as it did as a result of its merger with Sir Henry Deterding’s Royal Dutch Co. Deterding was not only big enough to stand up and beat Standard Oil at its own game but was also more single-mindedly interested in oil and power than Samuel. The gentlemen of Room 1400 (the board of Standard Oil which met daily to fix the world price of oil) and Deterding behaved like classic infighters; they made gentlemen’s agreements and promptly broke them; they employed people to go round denigrating their competitors; they lowered prices drastically to bankrupt smaller concerns (many of Rockefeller’s rivals committed suicide after he had broken them): they employed spy networks of great efficiency the chief standard agents in the East, the estimable Mr. Fertig and the amiable Mr. Lufkin, knew more about the Shell operations in Borneo than did Samuel . . . and so on and so on. They were about as cartelised as a couple of professional boxers (not excluding co-operation in unimportant contests or markets).
How did Bearsted ever come to this nasty business? He had the basic idea of shipping bulk oil from the Caucasus to the East, there to be broken down, put in tins and sold instead of shipping it already cased. This necessitated several revolutions; tankers safe enough to go through the Suez Canel; bulk storage facilities in all the major Eastern ports (built by his nephews Mark and Joe Abrahms, paid £5 per week each); a very reliable selling agency everywhere—here he relied on his family’s names and agents, who were a roll-call of the most important English Traders everywhere; above all complete secrecy—which was for once kept.