The 2,635grt Trunkby was built in 1896 by Ropners at Stockton. On 27th May 2016 she was sunk by gunfire from U-39 south of the Balearic Islands. (John B. Hill collection)

The great tramp company founded by Robert Ropner in 1874 in West Hartlepool became the largest and best known in Britain. He had been born in 1838 as the son of a German Prussian Army officer and emigrated to Britain at the age of 18 years by stowing away in Hamburg, determined on a life in the Merchant Navy. However, his ship was only going as far as West Hartlepool and after a rough North Sea passage, seasickness changed his mind and he took a job in a Hartlepool bakery. He then worked for a colliery fitting and coal exporting business in Hartlepool. After becoming a naturalised British subject, he joined the Hartlepool shipowner and coal exporter, Thomas Appleby & Company. He was made a partner in 1866 and then devoted most of his time to the shipowning side of the business. In 1874, Robert decided to branch out for himself as a shipowner and divided the fleet equally with Thomas Appleby, retaining five small steamers on Baltic trading.

These five small steamers were nearly new with the eldest dating from 1870, and a brand-new steamer delivered in July of that year was named after himself for his own account in a somewhat disguised spelling of Ropner backwards, to give Renpor. She was completed by Short Brothers at Sunderland of 2,000 dwt and was under Capt. Young for her maiden voyage but was lost eight years later to pack ice in the North Atlantic whilst on a voyage from Hartlepool to Boston with iron and potatoes. The next new tramp was Hesleden from William Gray at West Hartlepool in June 1876, followed by a near sister from the same yard, Horden in March 1877.


The 4,577grt Teespool was built in 1905 by Ropners at Stockton. On 1st April 1936 she arrived at Rosyth to be broken up by Metal Industries. (John B. Hill collection)

In 1879, an office was opened in Cardiff to more easily obtain coal charters from the South Wales ports, and at the end of 1880 the company owned 13 iron steam tramps, more than any other shipowner in Hartlepool. Robert also owned the largest, Elpis of 3,200 dwt, which engaged in the ‘Eternal Triangle’ trade to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, with an occasional tea charter from China. Fifteen new tramps were launched at Hartlepool for the Ropner fleet between 1881 and 1887, with the first to have triple expansion engines being Greystoke of 1885, and the first built of steel being Wave of 1887. In that year an office was opened in London to be near the nerve centre of the chartering world, the Baltic Exchange, particularly to obtain homeward grain charters from the Black Sea.

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