If you wish to look up ‘transport by sea’ in any library or archives you will get passenger lists, cruise ships (most of which will all focus on the Titanic); and in the case of the Caird Library and Archives, a tea clipper called Cutty Sark.

Now a new opportunity for research has presented itself on container ships. A recent acquisition to our archives explores the history of containerisation and the history of P&O Nedlloyd Container Line Limited (1966–2006).

Containerisation has its origins in early coal mining regions in England, beginning in the late 18th century with the use of canal barges.

Before containerisation, goods were usually handled manually as individual loads in sacks, barrels or wooden crates. Typically, they would be lowered or carried into the hold and packed by workers. Ships could spend weeks at port waiting for all the cargo to be unloaded and loaded, not forgetting delays that would be caused by accidents. The ship might call at several ports before off-loading a given shipment of cargo; each port visit would delay the delivery of other cargo. Multiple handling and delays made transport costly, time consuming and unreliable. This was called break-bulk, which was the only way to transport goods until the 20th Century.

Unloading tea ships in the East India docks
Unloading tea ships in the East India docks, from the 'Illustrated London News', 26 October 1867.

20th century containerisation transformed the world’s trade in non-bulk cargoes both at sea and on shore, and revolutionised the world’s ports. It became more than simply a question of putting cargo in containers, bringing about the development of a new class of ships to hold the containers; port terminals especially designed for receiving the ships; and cargo, trucks and trains adapted to handle the containers. It saw the progress of a need for new approaches to cargo handling and as technology improved, new types of containers (such as refrigerated) stimulated the move from paper to electronic records for tracing containers and their contents.

The history of P&O Nedlloyd begins with Overseas Containers Limited (OCL). In the early days of containerisation considerable investment was still required in the necessary organisation to transport and handle shipping containers, and many shipping companies formed consortia to ease the financial burden. OCL was formed in 1965 by four British companies: British and Commonwealth Shipping, Furness Withy, P&O and the Ocean Steamship Company.

OCL Promotional Brochure
OCL Promotional Brochure [PON/7/4/1]

By 1982 OCL was Europe's largest container through transport operator; during the 1980s P&O gradually increased its share in the consortium, until 1986 when OCL ceased to exist, the organisation becoming known as P&O Containers Ltd (P&OCL). In 1996 P&O Containers merged with Nedlloyd to form P&O Nedlloyd. August 2005 saw the completion of a buyout of P&O Nedlloyd by the A. P. Moller-Maersk Group and in February 2006 the name Maersk Line was adopted for the combined fleets.

OCL information Sheets on Health and Safety
OCL information Sheets on Health and Safety [PON/7/4/1]

Discover the history of OCL from executive director and committee minutes; corporate plans and studies. Read the development of P&O Containers Ltd (P&OCL) through its board minutes and executive papers, 1979–1991. We also have minutes and board of director minutes of the Associated Container Transportation (ACT). This company was formed to bring together and containerise the cargo liner interests of Cunard, Ellerman, the Blue Star Line, Ben Line and the Charente Steamship Company. The Cunard and Ellerman elements of ACT were acquired by P&O in 1991 (when it wholly owned OCL), and the Blue Star Line in 1998.

As an added bonus we also have the Blue Star Line & ACT minute books 1920–2006; Australia Japan Container Line Ltd (AJCL) board minutes 1972–8, and Crusader Swire board minutes 1982–6 ; all of which eventually merged with P&O.

OCL promotional brochure
OCL promotional brochure [PON/7/4/1]

Victoria Syrett (Archive Assistant)