Worms, a Franco-British company

It was in 1848 that Hypolite Worms decided to make importing British coal the focus of his business with the clear intention of giving it pride of place on the French market. At the time British coal, though known for its excellent quality, was only rarely sold in France, the market being flooded with cheaper Belgian coal.  To achieve his goal, he opted to "deal directly with the producers and bypass all the middlemen" and to place regular bulk orders with his suppliers in order to obtain from them the lowest possible rates. He also made the deliberate decision to take charge of all affreightment operations, an ambitious target which was to lead him to set up a base in Newcastle in the North of England, this being one of the main coal ports at the time. It was here, therefore, that Worms established its first branch.

Three years later, in 1851, recognising that the growing use of steamships would boost bunker coal consumption, Hypolite Worms decided to open a second branch in Cardiff, right at the heart of the mining area.

This was followed in 1856 by a third branch in Grimsby and, subsequently, by further branches in Blyth, Sunderland and Swansea.

1856 was one of the milestone years in the company's business dealings with Britain. It was during this year that Hypolite Worms bid for contracts connected with the proposed Manchester Sheffield & Lincoln Railway and was involved in the creation of the Anglo-French Steam Ship Cy Ltd, a company whose role was to be that of developing the port of Grimsby.

It was also the year in which Worms launched its first two screw-steamers, a type of ship uncommon at the time in France. British-built (like so many of their successors), they were produced at the Martin Samuelson & Cy shipyards in Hull.

These ships and other vessels bought or chartered were essentially used for coastal shipping between Grimsby or Cardiff and Dieppe, Le Havre, Rouen or Bordeaux. On departure from Britain, their most common cargo was coal but also bales of wool. They would return laden, for the most part, with the agricultural produce in short supply in Britain, a country that had opted to develop its industrial activity almost to the exclusion of all else.

For several decades, backloads shipped from Bordeaux consisted of thousands of pit props produced in the Landes, and kegs of wine whose famous names were sported by many of the vessels in the Worms fleet.

Thanks to the many contracts signed with major clients such as the Messageries Maritimes, Peninsular & Oriental, or the national Navies of France, Britain, Russia, Austria and even Japan, the Maison Wormssupplied vast numbers of bunkering stations located in the main international ports where ships would call to refuel.

By 1871, therefore, less than 25 years after its foundation, Worms accounted for 7% of all British coal exports and was one of the sector's leading British firms.

Under these circumstances, it is easy to understand how it came about that the newspaper La Bataille, in an article published on 28 February 1892, the day after the opening of the branch in Algiers, echoed reports in the Algerian press of the major contract signed by the Maison Worms with the French Navy and entitled its leading article: "French Navy to be supplied by British firm!"

As early as in 1869, Worms et Cie, which had contributed largely to the construction of the Suez Canal, set up a base in the vicinity in Port Said. As a result, it began to play an active part in the oil trade alongside the British company Marcus Samuel & Co.

It was Samuel, in fact, that came up with the idea of routing tankers with bulk fuel consignments through the Suez Canal. But to do this, it needed to underwrite its financial undertakings with the Suez Ship Canal Company, and this it was able to achieve via the Maison Worms. Through the agreements signed between the two companies, Worms et Cie was to become Samuel's general agent and, later, that of Shell, when this latter company was set up in 1897, in Marseilles, Port Said and Suez, subsequently obtaining a monopoly for oil sales in Egypt, Sudan and, later, Palestine and Syria.

Although with hindsight we now know that oil and its derivatives have gradually and irreversibly replaced coal, Worms was nevertheless able to maintain the level of its coal imports right up to the Second World War. It remained one of France's leading British coal traders throughout the whole of the period in which coal was still in common use.

Between the First and Second World Wars, the company's shipping operations (consignment sales and transit), associated with the industrial services (handling) offered to its shipping company customers, served to cement the position of the branches and compensate for coal trade fluctuations.

In addition to its fuel and shipping services, the company also entered the banking sector and, here again, its British connections left their mark, British merchant bankers (for example, Baring Brothers) being the one of the models that inspired Hypolite Worms, grandson and namesake of the founder, when he founded the banking division in 1928.

Two events in the Second World War are perfect illustrations of the quality of Worms' relations with Britain in the more recent past.

One of these was the agreements signed in London by Hypolite Worms in July 1940, in his capacity as Head of the French delegation to the Maritime Transport Executive Committee, through which 2 million tonnes of neutral ships were transferred to the British, these being ships for which he had originally negotiated charter contracts for France, and the other the decision to give the British forces access to bunkering stations in Port Said and Suez.

At the end of the war, the company was able to move into the travel agency business through its many offices along the North African coastline and this business was then extended to the British Isles to afford new opportunities for the British branches threatened by the slump in the coal trade and the crises facing the merchant shipping sector.

When, in 1960, Worms et Cie decided to reinforce the position of its Bank on the international scene, it was able to raise investment from four foreign establishments, including two based in the UK: the Bank of London & South America and the Bank of Scotland.

As part of this process, the Banque Worms was also involved in the creation of several banking establishments in other countries, the Energy Bank set up in London in 1973 with the Bank of Scotland and Barclay's Bank in particular, in order to fund projects in the energy sector on a worldwide scale.

The merger between French paper manufacturer Arjomari and its Anglo-American counterpart Wiggins Teape & Appleton in 1990 further reinforced the links between Worms et Cie and Britain, which have remained constant over the years thanks to the breadth and diversity of the company's portfolio.

The closeness of the company's links with Britain is, however, not just the result of business ties, extensive and varied though they may be, but also on a more personal level through the people chosen to head the company's various departments, whose continued presence has only served to further cement such ties.

The best example of this is perhaps Henri Josse, who, when exiled to London in the wake of the coup d'état of 2 December 1851, took British nationality and became a Member of Parliament, before taking control of the Grimsby branch in 1856 and becoming a managing partner in 1874.


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