1833 – 1892
From seashells to the world of oil
In 1833, Marcus Samuel decided to expand his London business. He already sold antiques but decided to try selling oriental seashells as well, capitalising on their popularity in the interior design industry at that time. The demand was so great that he began importing the shells from the Far East, laying the foundations for an import-export business that would ultimately become one of the world’s leading energy companies.
When Marcus Samuel senior died in 1870 he passed the business on to his two sons, Marcus junior and Samuel, who began to expand it. In the 1880s they became particularly interested in the oil exporting business but shipping still posed a problem as oil was carried in barrels which could leak and took up a lot of space. To solve the problem, they commissioned a fleet of steamers to carry oil in bulk, including the Murex which, in 1892, became the first oil tanker to pass through the Suez Canal.
1893 – 1900
The Shell Transport and Trading Company is born
With the maiden voyage of the Murex, the Samuels brothers had achieved a revolution in the transport of oil. Bulk transport substantially cut the cost of oil by enormously increasing the volume that could be carried. The brothers’ main competitor at the time was Standard Oil, a company famous for its blue cans of kerosene that, when empty, could be used for anything from roofing to bed pans. To stand out they created the Shell brand and painted their cans bright red. The tactic worked and, by 1896, their kerosene trade was earning more than all their other businesses combined.
In 1897 Marcus and Samuel renamed their company the Shell Transport and Trading Company and launched their first refinery at Balik Papan in Dutch Borneo. The refinery later had to be destroyed when the USA declared war on Japan in World War II.
1901 – 1907
Merging with Royal Dutch
In 1901 when oil was found in Texas, Marcus Samuel junior pulled off the deal of a lifetime and won the transport and distribution rights from his company’s main competitor, Standard Oil. However, by 1902, overproduction in Texas had slashed the available supply to virtually nothing. At the same time, a smaller competitor called Royal Dutch had had begun to construct its own tankers and set up its own sales organisation in Asia. As a result, half of the Shell’s fleet sat idle.
So, in 1907, the decision was taken to merge Shell Transport and Trading Company with Royal Dutch and form the Royal Dutch Shell Group. The day the telegram was received announcing the merger – April 23 – is now celebrated every year as Shell’s birthday.
1908 – 1913
Expansion and innovation
The merger with Royal Dutch signalled a period of rapid expansion as Shell (the Group’s name quickly became shortened to Shell) opened operations throughout Europe and in many parts of Asia. There was also substantial exploration and production in Russia, Romania, Venezuela, Mexico and the US.
The years that followed also gave Shell many exciting opportunities to demonstrate the quality of its products in the fast-developing market for petrol (gasoline). These included record-breaking races, flights and journeys of exploration. For example, in 1907 Prince Borghese won the Peking to Paris motor rally using Shell Spirit motor oil. In the Antarctic, explorers Ernest Shackleton and Captain Scott used Shell fuel, while Bleriot’s inaugural cross-Channel flight was made using Shell Spirit.
1914 – 1945
Helping with the war effort
Shell was a crucial partner to the Allies in both World Wars. During World War I, Shell became the main fuel supplier of the British army and also offered all of its ships to the British Admiralty, including the Murex.
The inter-war years were a time of rapid expansion for oil companies as the use of motor cars and demand for petrol increased. Shell fuelled the first trans-Atlantic flight made by Alcock and Brown in 1919, developed new and improved drilling techniques and, in 1929, founded Shell Chemicals to advance the refinement of chemicals from oil.
When World War II began, Shell’s London office was dedicated to supporting the war effort and the company’s refineries in the USA produced aviation fuel to support the Allied air forces. All Shell tankers came under Government control and many Shell staff showed great bravery in keeping them going, including the flying ace Douglas Bader who worked in the aviation department of Asiatic Petroleum before joining the RAF in 1939. War was also a catalyst for great innovation, with major advances in both fuel and chemicals research, including the development of fuels for new generations of aircraft such as the Spitfire.