Name

Jeremiah Thompson

Career

Business/Commerce

Occupation 1

shipowner

Identifier

NYC to Liverpool packet

Region

NA/Mid-Atlantic region

Era

Maritime Republic (1751-1815)

Born

1784

Died

1835

Source

ANB

Text

In 1798 Thompson's paternal uncle Francis came to New York City to represent the family business; in 1801, Thompson joined him.
In New York, Francis Thompson had begun working with Isaac Wright and his son William, fellow Quakers from Long Island (Francis married Isaac's daughter), who, having begun as blacksmiths, had developed into major importers of British iron goods. By 1807, to facilitate their various importing and exporting activities, Isaac Wright and Francis Thompson jointly owned the Pacific, a fast-sailing transatlantic trader. By the same year, Thompson's father, back in Rawdon, had begun using Australian wool to produce a particularly fine woolen cloth that found a ready market in America. Seeking both to expand and to balance this trade, Thompson suggested shipping their goods to the American South (avoiding middlemen) and then buying raw cotton to export to Manchester.
In 1803 Benjamin Marshall, another Yorkshireman who had entered the cotton trade in Manchester, came to New York, where he and his brother opened an office next to the Thompsons on Beekman Street; he soon joined the Thompsons and Wrights in trading ventures. Marshall built on Thompson's idea, undertaking to travel south personally, frequently spending winters in Georgia to arrange cotton purchases, a practice in which Thompson soon joined. By 1815, when Thompson first appears separately in the New York directory, he was among the leading exporters of cotton, as well as a major importer of British woolens.

A critical challenge for any trader at that time was securing shipping services; there were then no "common carriers"; no ships sailed on a fixed schedule. Merchants typically owned their own ships, offering space to others only when their own cargoes did not fill the hold. In 1815 Thompson had become a part owner of the Pacific. But the explosion of trade after the end of the War of 1812 led him and his partners to buy additional fast-sailors--the Amity in 1816, the Courier in 1817--which they used in their New York-Liverpool trade. The partners--Thompson and his uncle Francis, the Wrights, and Marshall--had between them a thorough understanding of New York's burgeoning trade and were perhaps uniquely positioned to recognize the need for and opportunity in creating a scheduled shipping line between New York and Liverpool. To that end, they acquired a fourth ship, the James Monroe, and on 27 October 1817 they announced in the New York Commercial Advertiser that the first scheduled sailing line--departing on fixed days every month from New York and Liverpool--would begin operation from New York on 5 January 1818. It did, in the teeth of a howling nor'easter; it endured for sixty years, until 1878.

Whose idea the new line was is in dispute, but it is always attributed to either Thompson or Marshall; once operating, the Wrights took primary responsibility for management of the Black Ball Line--so called because of the large black circle painted on the fore-topsail. The line itself fundamentally transformed shipping services. Using large, swift ships, 400 to 500 tons each, their captains drove them, averaging only twenty-three days on passages from Sandy Hook to Liverpool during the first nine years; the westward passage, against the prevailing winds, averaged forty days. This intensive utilization of ships--each made three round trips a year--was a dramatic change from the typical pattern of one, occasionally two, round trips a year. More important, for the first time, any merchant--not just those owning ships--on both sides of the Atlantic could dispatch letters, orders for goods, and merchandise on a known schedule, and, critically, know when they would arrive and a response be sent, a development with profound implications for the conduct of business.
By 1824 New York boasted dozens of packet services, to multiple European ports and to every significant American port. New York far outdistanced its rivals--Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia--absolutely dominating American foreign trade. The packet service was so efficient that the British abandoned their Canadian postal packet, sending mail via coastal packets to New York. And the incessant competition for more speed helped drive naval architecture to design faster, larger ships, a process that eventually brought forth the great clippers.

Over the next decade, Thompson had two main areas of business activity. He continued investing in packet lines and ships: he was involved with founding packet service to Greenock and Belfast and a Philadelphia-Liverpool line; in 1827 he was considered the largest shipowner in the country. More surely, he was the largest cotton exporter in the years up to 1827, a scale of business that was so great that it made him reputedly the third largest bill-drawer in the United States. Thompson, a man of "large, well-proportioned dimensions," was now "esteemed so highly" that he became clerk of the New York Yearly Meeting.

Thompson nearly failed in 1825. At the end of 1824, cotton stocks in Liverpool were low; prices shot up. When the news reached New York, prices there followed. Thompson, trying to exploit the situation, sent a fast boat to New Orleans with orders to his agents to buy heavily. But another exporter was there first, by two days; Thompson had no advantage. The Liverpool market broke in April with the unexpected arrival of Brazilian cotton; the Blackballer Florida brought the news to New York. In New Orleans, the frenzied buying continued for nearly another month and then collapsed. Thompson's agent there, Vincent Nolte, failed; Thompson himself, apparently much hurt, rallied to emerge again the following year as the largest cotton trader. In 1827, Thompson continued buying heavily, using drafts on his longtime Liverpool house, Coopers, Benson & Co. But in September, without warning, it refused to accept these drafts; Thompson suspended payments; then, despite selling his extensive shipping interests, he failed in early 1828 (probably contributing to Francis Thompson's failure the same year). Thompson, unable to clear his debts, was thereafter legally barred from conducting business in his own name. He died in New York in 1835, never having married.

The New England Palladium of 16 February 1827 offers perhaps the clearest statement of Thompson's historical significance: "I consider Commerce by lines of ships, on fixed days, an invention of the age nearly as important as Steam Navigation, and in its result as beneficial to New York, which has chiefly adopted it, as the Grand Canal."