Shell is called Shell because they used to sell shells. True story.
Our tale starts in the East End of London in the mid 19th century, and one Marcus Samuel.
Some people say Samuel came from an Iraqi Jewish family, others say his family arrived in London via Holland. Both could be true, but both also fit so neatly into a narrative of the oil industry, they’re maybe worth taking with a pinch of salt. What we do know is the 1851 census has Marcus Samuel down as a shell merchant.
At the time, small boxes covered in sea-shells were in vogue, but it’s likely Samuel sold a whole range of things - whatever he could pick up round the docks and sell on to the burgeoning London bourgeois. By the 1860s, he’d built some wealth and was importing everything from ostrich features to bags of pepper. He was also joined in business by his two sons, named, imaginatively, Marcus and Samuel. They forged relationships with trading houses across the world, especially in Asia. Apparently he imported the first mechanical loom to Japan. According to Daniel Yergin's book the Prize (which, if you're into the history of oil, you should totally read), the Samuels’ tiny office in Houndsditch crammed full to the ceiling with Japanese vases, imported furniture, silks, seashells and feathers.
Let’s shift focus to Marcus Samuel Jr, as he was the real oil man. So legend has it, while travelling in Caspian Sea area in 1892, Marcus Jr realised there was potential in exporting oil from the region, and commissioned the world's first purpose-built oil tanker. He named the tanker the Murex, Latin for a type of snail shell, with a nod to his father’s earlier trade.
Oil tankers existed before this. Ludvig Nobel – big brother of the chap the prizes are named after – is credited with building this first modern one in the late 1870s, and there are records of boats we might call oil tankers before that, off the coast of the North of England, or in Pennsylvania. But Marcus Samuel Jr’s ships were the first to convince the Suez Canal company - understandably worried about explosions - of their safety. Crucially, this allowed him to ship oil to Bangkok and Singapore.
By the end of 1893, Samuel had launched ten more ships - all also named in reference to shells, the conch, the clam etc - with 50 more by 1895. Marcus himself was knighted in 1898 when his tanker SS Pecten (another shell name) helped pull HMS Victorious to safety.
In February 1907 Samuel’s Shell Transport & Trading merged with Royal Dutch Petroleum and we got the entity we know today, the entity we know today, Royal Dutch Shell.
Another part of Marcus Samuel’s company, M. Samuel & Co, developed into a merchant bank and, in 1960s, merged with another company to create Hill Samuel, which is now a part of Lloyds TSB. The Sydney end of their business, Hill Samuel Australia, is now better known as Macquarie, of vampire kangaroo fame. But that’s a slight diversion from our story. Back to the oil.
During the First World War, Shell was the main supplier of fuel to the British Expeditionary Force. It was also the sole supplier of aviation fuel and supplied 80 percent of the British Army's TNT. Marcus Samuel was made an actual oil baron - the 1st Baron Bearsted of Maidstone in the County of Kent - in honor of his support of the war effort.
In 1919, Royal Dutch Shell took control of the Mexican Eagle Petroleum Company and by the 1920s was established as the world’s leading oil company, producing 11% of the world's crude oil supply. During the depression the 1930s, they merged with BP, and traded as Shell-Mex and BP till 1975 when the brands parted again. In 1970, they bought the mining company Billiton, then sold in 1994. They discovered the first oil well in Malaysia in 1910 and started work in Nigeria in 1958. Suffice to say, they get around, and one of the things that makes Marcus Samuel’s story so important is that it’s not just a story of oil, but of the history of globalisation. People like Marcus Samuel didn’t just fuel 20th century trading, they were it too.
Marcus Jr died in 1927, and his son, Walter, took over as Chairman of the Shell Transport and Trading Company. His old home Upton Park is now a National Trust property, and recently switched its heating system from oil to renewable energy.
And the Murex? She ended up fighting in WW1, and was torpedoed inDecember 1916 by a German Navy submarine a bit north of Port Said, Egypt, sunk with the loss of one man.