JONES, Alfred Lewis  [1845 - 1909]

In 1848 Daniel Jones decided to move his family from Carmarthen to Liverpool. He had recently sold The Welshman, a Carmarthen newspaper, and looked to other employment to new horizons and opportunities to support his sizeable family. He could never have imagined that consequent to the move his then 3-real-old son, Alfred Lewis, would take a job as a cabin boy which would in turn lead to his establishing a shipping empire of such import that some would call him the “Uncrowned King of West Africa”.

Alfred Lewis Jones was born in Carmarthen on 24th February 1845. His mother, Mary Jean Jones, was the son of the rector of Llanedi and amongst his near relatives were clergy, doctors, a barrister and a wine merchant. His origins were not all that humble, although later accounts of his upbringing were at pains to try to emphasise the ‘rags to riches’ element of his life. The family’s first Liverpool home was at Stand Street L3, which used to be near Pembroke Place, They then moved to Willow Grove, York Street L6, off West Derby Road, both houses long since demolished.

In 1859 he decided that his future lay in a life at sea and he successfully persuaded a master of the African Steam Ship Company to give him a trial as a cabin boy. He would make only one voyage to West Africa, being away from Liverpool for about 3 months, but it would change his whole life. Impressed by his ability the ship’s master recommended him to the ship’s agents and they gave him a post as a junior clerk. He stayed with the firm, Laird and Fletcher (later Fletcher and Parr), throughout the 1860’s, his starting pay being the princely sum of half-a-crown a week, rising to £1 when he was 20. At this time he was living at 40 Freehold Street L6, off West Derby Road. His prospects were enhanced when two key personnel left the firm, Alexander Elder and John Dempster, and by 1870 Jones was in a senior position earning £125 a year.

Jones formed his own shipping company in 1878 and his initial success concerned the Elder Dempster Company that they decided to offer this potential rival a junior partnership and he joined the company in 1879. Elder and Dempster would retire from the firm and Jones would take the helm, at the same time acquiring a majority shareholding in the business. When he joined the company controlled 21 ships, in the year he died, 1909, they controlled 109 vessels. He also managed the expansion of their interests from West Africa to Canada and the West Indies.

From the mid-1880’s he lived at a sizeable mansion, The Oaklands, at 34 Aigburth Road L17. He lived there until his death, together with his widowed sister and her daughters.

Jones was knighted in 1901 for services to Jamaica and West Africa. He died on 13th December 1909, his estate being £674,259 (about £100 million in 2022 value) and his will included a host of charitable bequests. Amongst his many philanthropic endeavours was his leading role in the establishment of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

He was also responsible for engineering a notable shift in the diet of the British working class. In 1884 he visited the Canary Islands, seeking to establish a coaling station there for their West African ships. He found considerable poverty there, consequent to the demise of the main industry – cochineal – due to the invention of aniline dyes. He saw an opportunity to expand the small, languishing, banana industry on the island. Jones was not primarily motivated by profit in this venture, he had long advocated a fruit diet and was intent on bringing the banana, at that stage a luxury item, within reach of the poorest in the land. Providing finance to planters, cargo space for exports and subsidies to retailers at home, he ensured that banana was popularised and freely available.

Alfred Lewis Jones was, of course, a committed imperialist and many assessments of his life and career would undoubtedly highlight the exploitation of those who lived in Britain’s colonial possessions. In particular his nurturing partnerships with the Belgians has been highlighted, given the appalling brutality of their monarch-led suppression and exploitation of the Congo. Yet he clearly took a genuine interest in the well-being of those who lived in the lands with which his ships traded, evidenced by his efforts to support their industries and address their health problems.

The Jones home at 40 Freehold Street L6 has been demolished but the adjacent 38 still stands and gives an idea of the house in which they lived.

Oaklands, 34 Aigburth Road L17

This imposing mansion was Jones' home from the mid-1880s until his death in 1909. Now gone, I do not have an exact date of its demolition, but the housing now occupying the site appears to be c.1930s.

This map [OS 1905] shows the location of Jones' mansion, bordered by Barkhill Road, Aigburth Road and Holmefield Road. The area is now largely occupied by Cheyne Gardens.


There is a comprehensive entry for Alfred Lewis Jones  in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I have two biographies of Jones. Sir Alfred Lewis Jones K.C.M.G.: A Story of Endeavour and Success by A.H.Milne [Henry Young & Sons 1914] and Sir Alfred Jones: Ship[ping Entrepreneur Par Excellence by P N Davies [Europa Publications 1978].