James Wathen Pockett was the second son of Walter Pockett (1794-1856) who was a master mariner and merchant of the port of Swansea. Although of English descent (his parents came from Gloucester) Walter’s branch of the family had been living in Swansea since 1790. By 1821 he was already the Master of the smack “Favourite” in which he used to trade between Gloucester and Swansea. In 1822 he married Elizabeth Luce (1800-1870), a publican’s daughter of the picturesquely named “Tiger Tavern” in the Strand, Swansea. This Tavern was also Pockett’s lodging-place, used for overnight stays when his vessel was being either loaded or unloaded.
From these humble origins, Walter Pockett was to establish a family that was to enjoy a sizeable share of the success that came Swansea’s way during the industrial revolution. Already by the 15th March 1823, he was to declare in the Cambrian newspaper that: “…he begged respectfully to inform the inhabitants of Swansea and its vicinity, that he has established a Salt Warehouse on the Quay, near Mr. S. Padley’s Deal Yard and hopes that, by rendering a good article at a very reasonable price, to meet and merit their approbation.”
A ‘salt warehouse’ cannot literally be interpreted as being a storage place for salt, in contemporary terms it was a grocer’s warehouse or store. The entrepreneurial drive that the Pockett family was to manifest would seem to have had its fountainhead in the founding father, Walter. In addition to his grocer’s warehouse of the 1820s, he also had a sea-going freighting business operating between Swansea and Gloucester by 1840. He used a smack called ‘Elizabeth (his wife’s name) to transport metal (Swansea’s prime export at that time) to England, returning with fruit and veg. In those far-off pre-refrigeration days, fruit and veg were only available when in season so space was available for freight in the off season. Thus, the Pockett Steam Ship Company’s origins in the freight-carrying trade were founded in a very modest way indeed. A measure of success must have followed from 1840, as by 1849 Walter Pockett added the ‘Morfa’ (smack), ‘Carmarthen Packet’ and the ‘Burncoose’ (schooner) to his nascent shipping empire.
It was this initial success with the salt warehouse and the freighting business, that was to provide the capital base for the later diversification into paddle-steamers by his sons. Four days after the announcement that his warehouse was to open for business (19th March 1823), he had further cause for celebration with the birth of his first son (there were eventually to number 5 sons and 2 daughters in the family).
This first son was called William (1823-1890), he too went on to become a Master Mariner, half-owner of the “Burncoose” and eventually master of the ‘Prince of Wales’.
However, it was the second son, James Wathen Pockett (1826-1880) who was to consolidate the family’s success and upward mobility by developing Pockett’s Wharf into ‘Steam Packet Wharf’. His managerial skills must have manifested themselves at an early age, for by 1846 and at the tender age of 20, he was established as a shipbroker and agent on Padleys Quay (conveniently close by his father’s wharf).
James Wathen Pockett’s rise as a businessman and a shipowner was a steady one from that date on, for by 1847 he was the agent for the Paddle Steamer ‘Lord Beresford’ and by 1855 for the Prince of Wales’ also. In 1856 he bought the ‘Lord Beresford’ outright and did the same with the Prince of Wales’ in 1857. During 1857 James Wathen Pockett assumed full control of the steamers. His brother, Frederick, sold his share of the business to James Wathen, leaving William and Henry Pockett as employees. By the ripe old age of 31, James Wathen Pockett was a steam ship owner of some stature and was still growing. In 1858, he added the screw steamer “Henry Southan” to the burgeoning fleet. Walter Pockett’s death occurred on the 24th October 1856 and it merited only the briefest of obituaries in the Cambrian newspaper of the 31st October:
“On the 24th inst, after a long illness, aged 62 Walter Pockett, Master Mariner, a man much respected by all who knew him.”
Nine years after the death of his father, and in something of a heyday for the Pockett family fortunes (the 1860’s), the Cambrian newspaper had to take more extensive notice of the activities of the go-ahead Pocketts. In a report dated 16th June 1865 it announced:
“Mr. J. W. Pockett, the spirited proprietor of the Bristol and Swansea steamboats, anxious to afford every facility for the quick and safe despatch of vessels, has just received and fitted up a steam crane for loading and unloading the steamers… By means of this crane, Mr. Pockett has been enabled to dispense with the costly services of a large body of ‘lumpers’ (dockers) which will soon repay him for the considerable outlay made in the purchase of the steam crane.”
The serene way with which the newspaper recorded the consignment of an unspecified number of hapless workers onto the tender mercies of the poor-law system and conceivably even the workhouse, is a salutary reminder of the uncompromising Victorian attitude toward the adoption of mechanical innovation.
By 1867, James Wathen Pockett’s business star must have been in the ascendant, as throughout the months of that year is recorded a series of small advertisements in the Cambrian newspaper that declare:
“Increased sailings of J. W. Pockett’s steamers between Swansea and Bristol, a further increase in March 1867.”
As mentioned earlier, 1867 was the year that saw the Wharf area just above the entrance to South Dock christened Pockett’s Wharf’, and the purchase of the paddle steamer Velindra’. In addition to Pockett’s Wharf they also had space available in the corner of the north side of South Dock, and on the eastern side of the “Glasgow Wharf”.
In the interim eleven-year period since Walter Pockett’s death, the Pockett empire had evidently expanded spatially as well as materially. However, a tragic death was to occur which was to foreshadow the end of the Pockett family involvement in steam ships. On the 11th December 1870, William Pockett’s only son, Walter, was lost at sea when only twenty-two years old. Of the five sons that Walter Pockett produced, only William had male issue, James Wathen Pockett bore three children, all female.
Three years after the death of William and Emma Pockett’s son, and as if to underline in three-dimensional terms his arrival in Swansea society, James Wathen Pockett had a suitably impressive villa built in the Uplands district of Swansea. Beresford House as it was called was built on three plots of land that James had originally purchased in 1854. It was there that he died on 18th January 1880 at the relatively early age of 54. As a mark of respect his coffin was borne down from Beresford House by employees to a place in the family vault in St. Mary’s Churchyard. This was a notable token of respect as St. Mary’s is in central Swansea, two miles from the high ground on which Beresford House is situated.
The company continued to trade under the title of “J. W. Pockett Steamers” with control ceded to William. James Wathen Pockett’s obituary in the Cambrian newspaper merited a larger entry than did his father’s a quarter of a century earlier, and it is of interest because of the background detail it supplies:
“Decease of Mr. J. W. Pockett, — we have this week to chronicle the removal from our midst by death of Mr. J. W. Pockett, the well-known proprietor of the fleet of steamers which trade between Swansea, Bristol, Ilfracombe and other places in the Bristol Channel. Mr. Pockett had for some considerable time been confined to his house at Uplands, where he suffered severely from complications of heart-disease, paralysis, and dropsy. He died about four o’clock on Sunday afternoon.
Mr. Pockett was well-known by Bristol Channel traders for the enterprising way in which he managed the steamboat services between the neighbouring ports, and also for the geniality of his manners. His death was comparatively early, he being only 54 years of age. The funeral, which was private, took place yesterday under the supervision of Mr. D. C. Jones, of Castle Square. The coffin was carried out by employees from the house to St. Mary’s Churchyard, and buried in a vault near the west door of the Church. Several old friends of the deceased were present to render the last attentions to his remains.”
By the time of James Wathen Pockett’s death in 1880, of the 5366 ships which used the Docks in that year, over a third we steamers. What had started with Walter Pockett and his smack “Favourite” freighting vegetables between West Wales and the West Country in the reign of William IV, ended in the late Victorian period with the family owning a large leisure and trading fleet, known the length and breadth of the Bristol Channel
The company still advertised the steamers as J. W. Pockett’s Steamers’ and had another ten successful years ahead. This decade, which ended in 1890, marked both the period of William Pockett’s stewardship of the steamship fleet, and the final phase of its very existence as a family concern. Six months after the business was left to him by James, the company became known as “The Bristol Channel Steam Packet Co., Capt. Wm. Pockett, Manager.” In the course of buying and selling vessels for the fleet’s use during the early 1880’s, he took out numerous mortgages and by virtue of his astute commercial sense, was able to clear them all by 1885.
After taking ill at a Sunday morning religious service at St. Mary’s, at the end of September 1890, he died on the 6th October. As a mark of respect, local tradesmen put up their shutters and every vessel in the harbour flew its flag at half mast. Like all the male-born Pocketts he was of large stature, and was buried (reputedly) in one of the largest coffins Swansea had seen. It is with William’s death that the Pockett influence on the company died too. James Wathen, Henry and Daniel Pockett were all dead, and Frederick was about to retire. The two daughters were married and had moved away. William’s wife Emma, then promptly sold the entire business
lock, stock and barrel for £7,850 on the 16th December 1890, a mere nine weeks after the death of her husband. The company was bought at an auction by Mr. Henry Stanley Flinn and Mr. George John Wakefield, a Steamship Manager and Merchant Tailor respectively. The company Head Office was moved to Bristol and Mr. Thomas Probert became Manager. From February 1891 the company was thereafter known as ‘Pockett’s Bristol Channel Steam Packet Co. Ltd.”
The company carried on successfully until the outbreak of World War I, when its steamers were requisitioned for war work. P and A Campbell took over Pockett’s Wharf in 1920, continuing to let the ‘Velocity’ and ‘Agra’ ply their cargo trade right up until the middle nineteen twenties. The Pockett family steamship empire now lives on only as the ephemera in private and public collections, in old newspapers and as the name of a long-defunct wharf in Swansea’s Maritime Quarter.