Thomas Henry Ismay was born in Maryport, Cumbria, England, on 7th January, 1837. Following his birth, his father, Joseph Bruce, started a shipbuilding company. Investing in shares for five vessels that came in and out of Maryport, the Ismay family soon moved to a grander house called “The Ropery”, which was near his grandfather’s shipyard.
Thomas Henry Ismay Jnr. spent much of his youth at his grandfather’s shipyard. It was here were he learnt about navigation and the sea. Thomas also had a habit of chewing tobacco, which led to his nickname “Baccy Ismay”.
It was during his attendance at boarding school that Thomas’s Father died. However, Isaac Middleton, his great Uncle, became a father figure to Thomas, arranging for him to become an apprentice at the ship brokers Imrie, Tomlinson in Liverpool, England. He was just sixteen years old when he started his apprenticeship and, following its completion, he went on to sail the seas to gain some firsthand experience on the water.
Upon his return to Liverpool, Thomas Ismay started a business of his own, and later partnered with retired sea captain Philip Nelson. Together they created the business Imrie, Tomlinson and Company. However, the partnership ended before it began, as Philip believed they should stick with wooden ships, whilst Thomas was certain iron ships were the future.
It was in 1867 that Thomas purchased the name and flag of the White Star Line. Ismay set up his new company headquarters at 30 James Street, with the aim to operate large ships on the North Atlantic.
A chance meeting with Gustav Christian Schwabe and the ship builder’s nephew, Gustav Wilhelm Wolff, over a game of billiards soon led to a profitable partnership. Schwabe made Ismay an offer he could not refuse when he promised to finance the White Star Line if Ismay’s ships were built by Wolff’s company, Harland and Wolff. By 30th July 1869 the ship builders received their first orders.
In 1870, William Imrie, a Liverpool shipbroker, joined the company, and it wasn’t soon after that Ismay formed the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, which later become known as the White Star Line.
The company initially produced six Oceanic class ships: Oceanic, Atlantic, Baltic, Republic, Celtic and Adriatic. It was a custom for many shipping companies at the time to have a common theme name for their vessels, which is why Ismay chose all his liners to end with “-ic”. It wasn’t until 1871 that they began operating between New York and Liverpool, with disaster striking the company in 1873 when the SS Atlantic sank, resulting in the loss of 535 lives.
Thomas Ismay remained as president of the White Star Line from 1863 until 1899. However, following the launch of the Oceanic on 14th January, 1899, he began to complain of chest pains, which his doctor took very seriously due to Ismay’s health complaints throughout much of his life. As a result, construction on any Oceanic sister ships were delayed. While he did show signs of improvement, he soon fell ill once again and had to undertake two operations to alleviate his pains, which were both unsuccessful. He later suffered a heart attack, which led to his death on 23rd November, 1889.
His son, J. Bruce Ismay, took control of his father’s company, which eventually lead to the creation of three luxurious Olympic class cruise liners: RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic and RMS Britannic.