Arthur Anderson was born on 19th February, 1792, in the Böd of Gremista Lerwick, where his father Robert was the manager of the whitefish station. The Böd was built by the landlord, Arthur Nicolson of Lochend, as a store for the accoutrements of the fish-curing business, but also as a home for Robert and family. It was relatively spacious for the time, particularly compared with the rudimentary stone lodges housing the seasonal workers.
Having recognised his son was intelligent, and having a great regard for education, Robert sent Arthur to a small elementary school set up by the Rev John Turnbull. However, aged 12, Arthur had to leave school to earn some money. He was employed by Thomas Bolt of Bressay, a fish-curer and general merchant. Arthur was given the job of beachboy, cleaning fish, then spreading them, when salted, on the beach. However, Bolt soon recognised Arthur’s intelligence, and put him to work in his office, where he acquired useful business habits. He also continued to see the Rev Turnbull, who further satisfied his urge to learn.
By the time Arthur was 15, Britain was at war with France, and British navy ships frequently visited Shetland looking for “recruits”. The Press Gang forcibly removed young men to enrol in the Navy, and in 1807 Arthur was frogmarched to a boat waiting to take him to the Navy ship offshore. Fortunately, Bolt’s guarantee that Arthur would join up at 16 saved him, and the following year Arthur found a berth on a visiting warship bound for Portsmouth, and the Royal Navy.
By 1809 he was midshipman on board the 64-gunner HMS Ardent, but soon realised that expenses as an officer required more money than he possessed, so in 1810 he transferred to the smaller HMS Bermuda . There heserved five years as captain’s clerk , reading avidly and becoming fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. He left in 1815, one of 3000 Shetlanders who served in the Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
Seeking work in London, Arthur’s uncle, Peter Ridland, introduced him to Brodie Willcox, a young man starting out as a ship-broker. Employed at first in Willcox’s office as a clerk, the company’s connections with Spain and Portugal meant he soon became invaluable, and in 1822 joined Willcox as a partner in a firm of ship charterers. That same year he married Mary Ann Hill, daughter of a shipowner.
The new firm proved successful, and soon acquired its own ship, later fitted out with guns and used for Portuguese trade. During subsequent civil wars in Spain and Portugal, the company supported the royalists, including shipment of arms and extra vessels – a sound decision, resulting in contracts with both countries to deliver mail, and entitlement to fly a flag embodying the colours of Spain and Portugal.
Despite traditionalists’ misgivings, they began increasingly to use steamships, forming the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company, then in 1840 the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company– the beginning of P&O, with Anderson and Willcox directors. While Willcox ran the company in London, Anderson travelled widely, problem-solving. Within ten years, they sailed to India and the Far East, owning property in many countries, and forming an essential part of British trade. This included transportation of opium from India to China – a legal trade at that time, although not universally approved of by the British public.
Having established these regular routes for their ships, Arthur suggested a way to avoid the hazardous journey round the Cape of Good Hope would be to construct a canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, via Suez. However, the British disagreed, and in 1869 France and Egypt collaborated in building the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, Arthur arranged transportation of mail and passengers overland by horse-drawn carriages, with coal for the steamships carried by 4000 camels.
During all this activity, he never forgot his birthplace His philosophy was , “Wealth ought not to be sought for its own sake, but as a means of being useful to others.”
In 1836 he founded Shetland’s first newspaper, The Shetland Journal, financed, edited and largely written by himself. He attacked the power wielded by lairds over crofting and fishing, as well as suggesting social improvements, and his Liberal policies proved very popular, including his petition to Parliament protesting against the invidious Corn Laws. Unfortunately, it proved too difficult to produce the paper from London, and after a few years it closed down
In an attempt to break the monopoly of the lairds, and put an end to fishing tenure, he set up the Shetland Fishery Co in 1837on the island of Vaila. He aimed to open up new markets, and provide work for men too poor to have their own boats He introduced new methods, and paid wages. Initially successful, his lease expired in the ‘40s, his health was beginning to fail, and business ceased. However, the lairds’ grip on fishing could be loosened – young men had discovered an independence not available to their parents, and meant to keep it.
In 1839 he was largely responsible for Shetland’s first steamship, enabling speedier mail services. Also, from 1847-1852 he was Liberal MP for Orkney and Shetland.
Nor did he forget the women. Shetland women knew how to knit and spin, to supplement the family income, but usually they “sold” their knitwear to local merchants in exchange for goods, not cash – the invidious Truck System. Arthur encouraged knitting of lace items for a friend’s shop in London, for payment in cash, and in 1837 he presented some fine examples to Queen Victoria. Impressed, she immediately ordered a dozen pairs of lace stockings, the court ladies followed suit and a burgeoning fine lace industry emerged.
Since his own schooldays, Arthur had an interest in the education of those unable to afford private schooling. In 1852 he employed a teacher in the Skerries, then in 1862, despite no local support whatsoever, he built the Anderson Educational Institute in Lerwick, to provide secondary education. It featured a relief sculpture of his parting with Thomas Bolt in 1808, whose advice was to become the school motto – “Dö weel an’ persevere”. This resulted in increased opportunities for Shetland youngsters, and greatly changed the structure of local society. Outwith the isles, he also set up schools in Southampton for the children of P&O employees, while in London he provided the Norwood Working Men’s Institute for social, cultural and trade union purposes.
When his beloved wife died in 1864, he fulfilled her wish of erecting the Widows’ Asylum in Lerwick, (now the Anderson Homes,) intended for the widows of Shetland fishermen and seamen. A separate fund, the Shetland Widows’ Trust, still operates today.
In 1862 Brodie Willcox died, whereupon Arthur became Chairman as well as Managing Director of P&O. However, his poor health finally proved too much, and in February 1868 he too died, aged 76 and still working.