Home » Literary Life » Lion Rampant: Duncan Dunbar and the Age of Sail by Michael Rhodes

Lion Rampant: Duncan Dunbar and the Age of Sail by Michael Rhodes

Modern Limehouse is mainly a quiet residential area, however in the 19th century it was a bustling throng of businesses, ship builders and associated workers. Within this maelstrom of activity was Dunbar Wharf under the auspices of Duncan Dunbar. His fascinating story is told in a new book by Michael Rhodes. The book entitled Lion Rampant: Duncan Dunbar and the Age of Sail charts the rise of Dunbar from his birth at Dunbar Wharf to his death when he was one of the richest men in Britain.

Duncan Dunbar junior was not a self made man but built upon the considerable fortune left by his father Duncan Dunbar senior who arrived at Dunbar Wharf in 1779 after a short time working on Robert Milligan’s sugar plantation in Jamaica. His friendship with Robert Milligan and James Hibbert would be very beneficial for Dunbar when they became the leading lights behind the creation of the West India Docks.

Photograph – Isle of Dogs Life

Dunbar Senior used these contacts when he began his export business which began at Ropemakers Fields in Limehouse as a brandy, wine and beer merchant. Dunbar had noticed a gap in the market providing alcoholic drinks to the various outposts of the British and used his contacts with Milligan, the East India Company and various suppliers to build up a lucrative trade. An interesting by-product of this trade was that traditional British dark beers were not suitable for long journeys, so India Pale Ale was developed by a number of brewers, notably Hodgsons in Bow. The book throws some light onto the ongoing debate about IPA, part of the confusion is that Dunbar IPA was popular throughout the empire but it was often brewed at the Barley Mow brewery owned by Taylor Walkers and exported under the Dunbar label.

Photograph – Isle of Dogs Life

The success of these enterprises allowed Dunbar senior to expand his business along the Thames waterfront and Ropemaker Fields. He took over full control of his business and gradually included his sons John and Duncan as partners. After Duncan Senior died in 1825, the sons were left the business and property at Dunbar Wharf. Although Duncan was only 22 and John 17, they had worked in the business for many years and had a wide network of family and acquaintances.

The main part of the book charts the rise of Duncan Dunbar junior from Dunbar Wharf in Limehouse to shipbuilder and owner of the largest fleet of sail ever assembled. He also founded two insurance companies and two banks and dominated trade routes to Australia, New Zealand, India, and Asia. It is estimated that his ships brought to Australia and New Zealand one-third of all arrivals and supplied transport for the Burmese War, the Crimean, Second Opium War and Indian Rebellion.

However for all his success, Dunbar remains quite an enigmatic figure and a pioneer who has been largely forgotten by history. Over the years this has always been the source of some mystery to myself who has long been fascinated by Dunbar Wharf and its long and varied history.

This book does provide some clues to his personality with a section that delves into his personal life. Duncan Dunbar junior was actually born in a small room at Dunbar Wharf and grew up in Limehouse before being sent to Forres Grammar school in Scotland. Duncan Dunbar senior was a great believer in Scottish education and Forres contained a number of the wider Dunbar family. At the age of 15, Duncan Dunbar junior worked full time at Dunbar Wharf learning the family trade.

Even in his early 20s, Duncan Dunbar junior was a large imposing man and had a reputation as an engaging and enquiring personality. He had followed his father’s footsteps by becoming a member of Blackheath Golf Club, he developed into quite a competent golfer winning the Summer medal more than once. Blackheath Golf Club was much more than just a sporting outlet, many of the members were wealthy and held prominent positions in the business and political world.

However as his business grew, Dunbar had less time for golf and was in demand to sit on Business and commerce organisations like the City of London club, Lloyds Registry, he became a director of the West India Dock Company. He remained unmarried but was surrounded by family at his home in Howrah House in Poplar. Despite his rise in society, it seems that Dunbar was generally liked for his approachable demeanor and good humour, he also seemed to have something of ‘the common touch’ being popular with the Dunbar ship captains and crew.

Duncan Dunbar by Camille Silvy, 18 January 1862, © National Portrait Gallery, London

As he grew older, he developed an interest in art and moved to Porchester Terrace in Bayswater. This move from East to West London was significant on many levels suggesting he was ready to enjoy the fruits of his labours and would leave the day to day running of the business to trusted members of staff. A photograph in the book shows Duncan Dunbar in 1861, the photograph reflects his position as one of the moving forces of the Empire.

However, the stress and strains on his constitution would eventually come to the fore and suddenly in 1862, Duncan Dunbar junior collapsed and died in his Bayswater home. He was only 58 and his death rocked the Stock Market and the business community.

This book comprehensively charts Dunbar’s rise and provides evidence about how quickly Dunbar’s business empire was carved up between family members and the executors of the considerable 1.6 million pound estate. It was the demise of the Dunbar business that probably explains why Duncan Dunbar’s name disappears from history and his legacy is little understood.

Hopefully, this book will change people’s perceptions of Duncan Dunbar, the author has travelled the world accumulating information from a variety of sources to create the most definitive biography of Duncan Dunbar to date. This fascinating biography places Dunbar and Limehouse at the centre of global trade that provided the template for the modern world. Products and labour from around the world became interlinked in a way that had never been seen before. The effects of that trade changed the world forever and this book is a timely and important reminder of the process and people behind that trade.

If anyone wants to buy a copy of the book, find a link here


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