Curator’s Choice – Flag

Posted: 9th September 2020

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Flag

This nylon flag, in the shape of two joined pennants is an Ellerman’s Wilson Line table flag. The top part is a purple coloured narrow triangle with white lettering. J.R.E. stands for John Reeves Ellerman. The lower half of the flag is a white forked pennant with a red spot in the centre – this represents the Wilson Shipping Line.

The Wilson Shipping Line was founded in Hull by Thomas Wilson (1792-1869), who bought his first ship in 1825. The company prospered under the leadership of Thomas Wilson’s sons, Charles Henry and Arthur. By the early twentieth century it had become the largest privately owned shipping company in the world with over 100 ships sailing to destinations around the world. The Wilson Shipping Line was to suffer during the First World War and was sold in 1916 to Sir John Reeves Ellerman, reputedly the richest man in Britain at the time.

Sir John Reeves Ellerman (1862-1933) first entered the shipping world in 1892 and founded Ellerman Lines in 1902. He began purchasing rival shipping lines and when he bought The Wilson Shipping Line, he paid £4.1 million. He renamed the company Ellerman’s Wilson Line.

Despite being extremely wealthy, John Ellerman lived a relatively ordinary life with his wife Hannah. John and Hannah had two children, Annie Winifred and John II.

When John Ellerman died in 1933 his son took over the shipping business. But his true love was natural history, and in particular, rodents. John II wrote The Families and Genera of Living Rodents in 1940 / 1941, followed by two further natural history books published in the early 1950s.

When his father died, John II inherited £20 million of his estimated £36 million estate. The first thing he did was marry his girlfriend, of whom his father had disapproved of. John Ellerman’s daughter Annie Winifred was to only inherit £900,000 from her father. She was a writer and a poet who used the penname Bryher, acquired from her favourite Island in the Isles of Scilly, off the coast of Cornwall.

From an early age Bryher had envied her bother, and this would have likely been the case when their father died too. Bryher had always “wanted to be a boy”, and dreamed of following in her father’s footsteps, and running the shipping companies. She wrote about her want of masculinity in later years via a series of historical novels with young male protagonists. These novels supported same-sex relationships over heterosexual ones.

Bryher was aware of her sexuality from being very young, and she also knew her parents would not approve. In 1921 she married the American author Robert McAlmon. However, this was a marriage of convenience for them both, for in 1918 Bryher had met and began a relationship with the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). Their relationship was an open one and when Bryher divorced Robert in 1927, she quickly married Kenneth Macpherson, a writer who shared her interest in film and who was also H.D.’s lover.

Bryher divorced Kenneth in 1947 but continued her relationship with H.D. until Doolittle’s death in 1961. Their relationship had lasted over 40 years.

Ellerman’s Wilson Line (The Wilson Shipping Line) was fundamental to Hull’s commercial growth and left an imprint on the city that still exists today. But not only that, thanks to Bryher the monetary legacy also left its mark.

Bryher financially supported many young writers, photographers, artists and more – especially keen to help women and those with very little money. She was able to publish works by notable poets such as H.D. and Edith Sitwell, and fund projects for all three of her partners, H.D., Kenneth and Robert. Queer art and literature of the time was certainly better off thanks to Bryher and the lasting legacy of the Ellerman’s Wilson Shipping Line.

Written by Research and Documentation Assistant Lauren Field.

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