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Page last updated at 13:53 GMT, Thursday, 20 August 2009 14:53 UK
The secretive billionaire
Sir John Ellerman founder of a shipping empire
Sir John Ellerman founder of a shipping empire

Modern business billionaires have global fame. Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Roman Abramovich are household names.

Even tycoons from a previous age, such as John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie have become the stuff of legends.

Britain's richest ever businessman lived a much more low profile existence, to the point of invisibility.

John Ellerman was born on Anlaby Road, Hull in 1862. He was the son of a German corn merchant who had come to the city from Hamburg in 1850.

His father died when John was 9 years old and left him a legacy of £600. His mother came from Birmingham and John moved to the city to start a career as an accountant. After passing his exams he moved to London and set up his own accountancy practice.

Ellerman bought the ailing Bucknall Line in 1908
Ellerman bought the ailing Bucknall Line in 1908

He began his business empire in 1892 when he put together a consortium to buy up an ailing shipping company. He sold on the company a few years later to the American financier JP Morgan, at a considerable profit. Spurred on by this success, Ellerman began to snap up other shipping lines.

William Rubinstein is Professor of History at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He explained that Ellerman was one of the first businessmen to use an analytical approach to identifying companies ripe for takeover:

"He had a genius for the balance sheet. He could spot underperforming firms and he bought them up and put them back on their feet."

He was awarded a baronetcy in 1905, for his support in providing the government with ships during the Boer War.

In 1916 Ellerman acquired the Hull based Wilson Line, once the world's largest privately owned fleet. He began to branch out, buying breweries and coal mines.

With the approach of World War One, Ellerman started to invest in the media. A decision partly motivated by his father's origins, according to Professor Rubinstein:

"He was afraid people would start picking on him because he was a German. He had an interesting solution to this and the press, he bought up most of Fleet Street."

The Ellerman's home in Mayfair, London
The Ellerman's home in Mayfair, London

Sir John had major shareholdings in The Times, Daily Mail, Financial Times, Illustrated London News and Tatler. The tactic seemed to work:

"He managed very successfully to keep his names out of the papers, except for the Daily Express, which was headed by Lord Beaverbrook, who hated him for some reason."

Despite his vast wealth he lived a quiet, low-profile existence away from high society.

One of the possible reasons for shunning the limelight was his personal life. He lived with a woman named Hannah Glover. The pair had a daughter together in 1894 but did not marry until 1908. Shortly afterwards they had a son.

Sir John Ellerman died in 1933. He left over £36 million in his will, over £10 billion in today's values.

The two children did not get on. It was reported that at their father's funeral the siblings had a row that led to them throwing furniture at each other.

Sir John's daughter, Annie Winifred Ellerman, moved to Paris and became a well regarded feminist writer, working under the pen name of Bryher. Her inheritance allowed her to fund the famous Parisian bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, which published the early works of novelists such as James Joyce and Ernest Hemmingway.

The bulk of the money went to his son, also named John, who took over the running of his father's business empire.

Sir John Jnr married Esther de Sola in the 1930s
Sir John Jnr married Esther de Sola in the 1930s

Sir John Ellerman Junior, although competent, did not have his father's commitment to business affairs. He did, however, inherit his father's disdain for the high-life; preferring to spend time studying rodents in South Africa.

The son had a philanthropic streak and donated money to charities working with disabled groups, both in the UK and South Africa. Upon his death in 1973 the bulk of his money was invested in a trust fund for distribution to worthy causes.

For Professor Rubinstein the legacy of John Ellerman is that he ushered in the era of professional business management:

"He is, in a sense, the ancestor of the people who go to get a MBA in business schools now. Or, train professionally to look at accounts and put companies back on their feet or found new ones. When he was doing it there was nobody like him. Now they're a dime a dozen."

Pictures courtesy of and copyright: The John Ellerman Foundation.


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