P&O - A sailor’s journey from Shetland to Streatham

One of Streatham’s historical residents, Arthur Anderson, was born in 1792 at Böd of Gremista in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands.  As a boy he worked on the beach preparing fish but was press ganged into the Royal Navy in 1808.  10 years later following the Napoleonic Wars he was discharged and found himself in London.  

Image of P&O logoHe found work as a clerk in the London ship-broking firm of Brodie McGhie Willcox where he became a partner in 1822.  They bought their first ship in 1825 and formed the ‘Peninsula Steam Navigation Company’ in 1837.  In the 1830’s steam power was still in its infancy but Anderson and Willcox believed it was key to revolutionising commerce and communication by sea.  Most of their business was initially conducted in Portugal and Spain and the house flag was formed from the royal red and yellow of Spain, and the blue and white of Portugal.

The Company merged with the ‘Transatlantic Steam Navigation Company’ and was formally incorporated by Royal Charter in 1840 as the ‘Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’.  P&O, as it could now rightly be called, embarked on a period of empire building in the East.  Investment in larger ships, coaling stations and infrastructure allowed the Company first to cross Egypt and then to reach India in 1842 (via Aden) before continuing further East to Ceylon, Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong in 1845.

It was a trade fleet carrying everything from post to tea.  But in 1844 in a bid to get more custom, the writer William Thackeray was invited on a trip around the Mediterranean in exchange for a magazine review – and “cruising” was born.  In 1847, shortly after the Opium War, P&O entered the profitable opium trade, shipping 642,000 chests of Bengal and Malwa opium in the next eleven years.

But P&O’s history has been varied; its vessels have played many a part in British conflicts. Florence Nightingale travelled on the P&O liner Vectis during the Crimean War in 1854, and ships were lost in the two world wars. But it was the P&O ship Canberra’s role in the Falklands that marked its grandest moment.

Image of Norwood Grove (The White House), home of Arthur Anderson, founder of P&OIn 1847 Arthur Anderson leased Grove House and the Seven Acre Streatham Grove estate, now known as Norwood Grove, and he lived there until his death.  He is also credited with developing the Norwood Grove grounds into a Victorian landscaped park. 

Despite the demands on his time in London Anderson maintained a close involvement in Shetland. He launched Shetland's first newspaper, founded the Shetland Fishery Company and introduced Shetland knitwear to a wider audience by presenting some to Queen Victoria.  Arthur Anderson was also an early backer of Crystal Palace FC.  From 1847 to 1852 he was a Liberal Radical Member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland.

Anderson died in London on 27th February, 1868, he was 76 years old, and still working as Chairman and Managing Director of P&O. He was buried at West Norwood Cemetery.

His birthplace Böd of Gremista, which was built in 1780, is now a museum.

Image of Arthur Anderson, founder of P&O Lines and resident of Streatham