Engineer Victoria Drummond was a trailblazer for women in shipping, but she is far from the only one as the careers of Liselotte von Rantzau-Essberger and Christina Onassis demonstrate.
Shipping has historically been a male dominated business although organisations such as WISTA, the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association, is making much progress to change this.
However, there are shining examples from the past where women have played a significant role in the history of shipping. There was the engineer Victoria Drummond and owner Liselotte Essberger, while the two daughters of Greek Captain Livanos would feature heavily in one of shipping’s greatest rivalries and end with granddaughter Christina Onassis running one of the fleets.
Victoria Alexandrina Drummond MBE (1894-1978) will go down in history as a trailblazer for women marine engineers and became the first female member of the Institute of Marine Engineers.
Despite being from a prosperous family and with Queen Victoria as one of her godmothers, she always wanted to become a marine engineer and by the age of 22 was apprenticed to a garage. In 1918 she started work in the engine and boiler works of the Caledon Shipbuilding and Engineering Company and four years later she was hired by the Blue Funnel Line and sailed on the Anchises as a junior engineer until 1924.
Following study, in 1926 she obtained her Second Engineer’s Certificate, becoming Britain’s first certificated woman marine engineer. In 1929, Drummond repeatedly sat the Board of Trade examination for Chief Engineer, but 30 times the examiners failed her, allegedly because she was a woman.
She spent a number of years ashore but with the outbreak of the Second World War she returned to sea, albeit on a foreign ship. Following her bravery and leadership aboard the Panamanian cargo ship Bonita when it was attacked by planes in 1941, she was awarded the MBE.
Post-war, she worked as a superintendent in shipyards in Dundee and Burntisland, then at sea as second or chief engineer until her retirement in 1962. Drummond passed away on Christmas Day 1978.
Taking the helm
It is rare for a woman to run a major shipping company for decades but that is what Liselotte von Rantzau-Essberger (1918-1993) did for 34 years.
She was born in Kiel, the daughter of John Theodor Essberger and his wife Charlotte, nee Simonsen. Her father, a former naval commander, established his company, John T Essberger, in Hamburg in 1924, specialising in tankers, and then in 1941 he took over the Deutsche Afrika-Linnie (DAL), a liner company engaged in the Africa trade.
Liselotte von Rantzau-Essberger married Viktor Cuno von Rantzau (1910-1982) in 1942 and with whom she had three sons. When her father died in 1959 she inherited his company which, under her careful guidance and buoyed by the West German Wirtschaftswunder, she managed very successfully for over 30 years with robust growth in the Africa trade and tanker shipping.
She was counted among the most successful women entrepreneurs in Germany and was a long-time member of the executive committee of the Association of German Shipowners, and from 1988 to 1990 was chair of the African Association of German Business.
After her death in January 1993 in Mammern, Switzerland, her sons Heinrich and Eberhard von Rantzau, who had been with the company since the 1980s, continued to run the shipping business.
Greek shipping tragedy
Two women, though not directly involved, played a role in the 20th century’s biggest shipping rivalry, that of Aristotle Onassis (1906-1975) and Stavros Niarchos (1909-1996).
In the 1940s, the rivalry between Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos, two entrepreneurial Greek shipowners in New York, was well established but it would be made worse by their respective courting of the daughters of shipping magnate Stavros Livanos.
Niarchos allegedly wished to marry the younger daughter, Tina (1929-1974), but was told that this could not happen until the older, Eugenia (1927-1970), was married. However, Onassis pursued Tina so avidly that eventually Livanos relented and allowed the marriage to go ahead in 1946. Niarchos then married Eugenia in 1947.
In the meantime, the rivals were building numerous ships and vied with each other for who had the largest. In 1956 Niarchos owned two 30,158 gross ton tankers, then Onassis replied in 1959 with two of 37,900 tons, and so it went on. By the end of the century the two companies they had established remained rivals with each owning VLCCs. They also outdid each other on the size of their yachts and who owned which island.
On the marriage front Onassis ended up being divorced by Tina in 1960 after she discovered he was having an affair with Greek opera singer Maria Callas. Niarchos also had a troubled marriage and Eugenia died of an overdose in 1970. Tina finally ended up marrying Niarchos in 1971 although she died soon after.
When Onassis died in 1975 his daughter Christina (1950-1988) took over the company as his son, Alexander, had died in a plane crash in 1973. She then ran the business for the next 13 years until she died of a heart attack in 1988.
A truly Greek tragedy with shipping at its heart.
John Barnes is a journalist and author and former editor of Marine Engineers Review.