Marcus Samuel, founder of Shell Transport
In 1833 shopkeeper Marcus Samuel decided to try his hand at selling shells imported from the Far East

Early beginnings

The market for oil remained confined to lighting and lubricants until, in 1886, the internal combustion engine and demand for petrol (gasoline) arrived with Karl Benz and the first Mercedes. By now the Samuel business had passed to Marcus Samuel junior and his brother Sam. They exported British machinery, textiles and tools to newly industrialising Japan and the Far East and on return imported rice, silk, china and copperware to the Middle East and Europe. In London, they traded in commodities such as sugar, flour and wheat worldwide.

It was during a trip to Japan that Marcus became interested in the oil exporting business based in Baku, Azerbaijan, which was then part of Russia. The Rothschilds had invested heavily in the 1880s in rail and tunnels to overcome the transport difficulties of getting oil from this landlocked base to the Black Sea and from there to overseas markets. Shipping still posed a problem as the oil was carried in barrels which could leak and took up a lot of space in the hold.

The S S Murex commissioned by Marcus Samue
Murex, Shell’s first oil tanker, delivered kerosene across the ocean to Asia in 1892

Revolutionising the transport of oil

Marcus and Sam 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. They also set up bulk oil storage at ports in the Far East and contracted with Bnito, a Russian group of producers controlled by the Rothschilds, for the long-term supply of kerosene.

Their strategy was high-risk: if news of their operations got out they would be squeezed out by Rockefeller’s dominant Standard Oil. With the maiden voyage of the Murex, Samuels 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 Samuel brothers initially called their company The Tank Syndicate. In 1897 renamed it the Shell Transport and Trading Company.

Petroleum was also being produced in the East Indies, a Dutch colony, and in 1890 a company had been formed to develop an oil field in Sumatra. This was to become the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company.

Under the management of J.B. August Kessler, the company built a pipeline and refinery at Pangkalan Brandan. Kessler was joined in 1896 by a dynamic young marketing director, Henri Deterding, who would become a dominant figure in the company until the outbreak of the Second World War. Faced with competition from the Samuels’ low bulk transport costs, Royal Dutch began to construct tankers and bulk storage installations and set up its own sales organisation.

Seeking new oil sources

By the turn of the century, Marcus Samuel had become the model of an Edwardian plutocrat with a grand house in London and a country mansion, which had been bought along with furniture, pictures and parkland from Lord Romney. He kept horses and a carriage and was active in public life in the City of London. He was knighted in 1898, became Lord Mayor of London in 1902 and was a leading figure in the business community. But Marcus Samuel’s dependence on Russian producers left him vulnerable and he decided to seek other sources of oil.

The Far East was the obvious place to look and his first venture into Borneo brought him up against Royal Dutch Petroleum, one of the region’s biggest competitors. The two companies decided to join forces to protect themselves against the might of Standard Oil, forming a sales organisation in 1903, the Asiatic Petroleum Company.

In 1904 the scallop shell, or pecten, replaced Shell Transport’s first marketing logo, a mussel shell. In various forms, it has remained in use ever since, becoming one of the best known brand symbols in the world.

Preparing for Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition, powered by Shell fuel
Preparing for Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition, powered by Shell fuel

Merger into the Royal Dutch Shell Group

The full merger of the two companies into the Royal Dutch Shell Group came in 1907. There were two separate holding companies, with Royal Dutch taking 60% of earnings and Shell Transport and Trading taking 40%. The merger transformed the fortunes of both companies. Under the management of Henri Deterding they turned from struggling entities to successful enterprises.

The RDS Group rapidly expanded across the world. It formed marketing companies throughout Europe and in many parts of Asia. Exploration and production began in Russia, Romania, Venezuela, Mexico and the USA.

The first 12 years also provided many exciting opportunities to demonstrate the quality of the products in the new, fast-developing market for petrol (gasoline). These included record-breaking races, flights and journeys of exploration. In 1907, Prince Borghese won the Peking to Paris motor rally using Shell spirit motor fuel. The same fuel was used at the Brooklands racing track in the UK. In the Antarctic, explorers Ernest Shackleton and Captain Scott used Shell fuel, while Bleriot’s inaugural cross-Channel flight was made using Shell Spirit.

The first consignment of liquefied natural gas was shipped in 1964 from Algeria in the SS Methane Princess.

1960s to the 1980s

Shell continues to extend exploration overseas and adopts a policy of diversification. North sea gas fields are discovered.

Innovation and diversification
Shell headquarters, The Hague

1980s to the new millennium

Shell grows through acquisitions and unifies Royal Dutch and Shell Transport and Trading under Royal Dutch Shell plc in 2005.

Our history: 1980s to the present

More in about us

The Shell brand

The Shell brand promotes our values and the quality of our products and services all over the world.