Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 148,470 pages of information and 233,895 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
James Allan (c1811-1874) of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co
1875 Obituary 
MR. JAMES ALLAN, senior Managing Director of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, was a native of Aberdeen, and whilst still a lad, entered as a junior clerk the engineering works of Messrs. John Duffus and Co., of that city. This firm, then recently established, was one of the largest in Scotland, and they opened and owned for many years a line of steamers between Aberdeen and London, building two vessels, the “Queen of Scotland” and the “Duke of Wellington”, for the purpose.
In 1832 a friendship sprang up between Mr. Allan and Mr. John Bourne, then commencing his engineering career at the same works, and when in 1833 the latter was transferred to Messrs. Caird and Co.’s, of Greenock, he induced his father, the late Captain Bourne, to give Mr. Allan employment as a clerk in the Dublin and London Steam Company’s office in Dublin, of which company Captain Bourne was the director, and he and his brothers the chief proprietors.
This was done with the concurrence of Messrs. Duffus and Co., who behaved in a very friendly way to Mr. Allan, and who considered that his opportunities for advancement would be greater in the new sphere thus opened. The company had a repairing shop at the North Wall, the books of which Mr. Allan kept. But as that duty alone did not afford him sufficient occupation, he also assisted the book-keeper at the company’s chief office, Eden Quay. Mr. Morgan, the company’s book-keeper, having suddenly died of cholera, Mr. Allan was the only other person who understood the books, and his efficiency in the performance of his duties led to his being appointed to the post.
About the year 1838, circumstances induced Captain Bourne to remove to London, and Mr. Allan accompanied him as his secretary and assistant. Captain Bourne’s various undertakings had by this time become consolidated in an enterprise known as the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company, the parent of the existing Peninsular and Oriental Company.
The Peninsular Company, in common with most new companies, disappointed expectation at first. The receipts were less than was expected; the expenses more. It was the first company which ran steamers to distant foreign ports, and would, under any circumstances, have been an arduous undertaking for a few private persons to carry out.
Besides, the Messrs. Bourne, on whom the burden really devolved, were now past the prime of life, and from this, and various other causes, Mr. Allan’s duties in London became of a very anxious and arduous character. They were, however, faithfully and successfully performed; and when in 1840 the Peninsular Company became a joint-stock undertaking, and extended its operations to Egypt, and finally to India, Mr. Allan became the Secretary to the new company.
In this capacity he did not restrict his attention to technical duties, but practically acted as one of the managers, and had a large share in directing its policy. He often astonished his colleagues by the extent of his knowledge on engineering subjects, and in all such questions they soon came to defer to his opinion. He drew up a set of rules to be observed, and of duties to be performed, by every officer on board the different steamers - being probably the earliest example of such a code of regulations.
He took the chief part in guiding the company to the adoption of oscillating engines, tubular boilers, and iron ships-then generally regarded as hazardous innovations and all his recommendations turned out to be right; while they had the rare merit of being also early. No doubt he was aided in coming to these conclusions by his friend Mr. Bourne: but he had the valuable faculty of profiting by the knowledge of others, as well as by the results of his own experience and observations, and also of creating the disposition on the part of others to render him any service in their power.
At the time of the expansion of the Peninsular into the Peninsular and Oriental Company, the Transatlantic Company, established to trade across the Atlantic, and owning two steamers, the “Liverpool” and the “United States,” afterwards called the “Oriental,” was simultaneously absorbed; and, in 1848, Mr. Allan was, by general consent, appointed a managing director of the Peninsular and Oriental Company. Subsequently, the two other managing directors died, and he thus became the senior, and so continued up to the time of his death.
In a life such as Mr. Allan’s there are no romantic incidents to record, nor any startling achievements. His career was one of steady industry and intelligent supervision. Without marked energy either of intellect or of action, his progress was rendered sure by the wisdom of his judgments, which were singularly undisturbed by any emotion of interest or of temper, and by his amiability of character, which disarmed hostility. Large-minded and generous, above petty jealousies or suspicions, with a temper which could hardly be ruffled, and a patience which could hardly be wearied, he inspired a confidence not to be shaken, and won not merely universal esteem, but universal affection. Several years ago the employ& of the Peninsular and Oriental Company raised, unknown to Mr. Allan, a subscription of 55,000 for a service of plate, which ‘was duly presented with the sanction of the directors. Such testimony was hardly needed to show how much he was respected and beloved by the persons who had the best means of knowing him.
Mr. Allan died, after a brief illness, at Camp’s Hill, Lewisham, on the 15th of October, 1874, aged sixty-three.
He was elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 4th of December, 1849.