Sir Robert Ropner – Victorian Entrepreneur
Emil Hugo Oscar Robert Ropner was born in Magdeburg, Prussia in 1838.
Both of his parents died of cholera when he was ten but they had left enough money for him, and his nine siblings, to get a basic education. At the age of 19 Ropner and a friend decided to emigrate to Australia.
Once they had reached the port of Hamburg, they found a vessel bound for Australia, unfortunately there was only one job available which Ropner’s friend took. Ropner took the next departing vessel; the SS Dora and set sail to England – the vessel docked in West Hartlepool.
Upon seeing the booming business of West Hartlepool docks, Ropner soon found employment within Thomas Appleby’s firm of coal exporters and in 1868 he launched Appleby’s first steamship. Ropner began to build up a fleet of colliers and founded the Ropner Shipping Company in 1874. In 1882, Ropner purchased Preston Hall. The estate and lands were bought for £27,500 and a Winter Garden, ballroom, entrance porch, billiards room and landscaped parkland were soon added – a home befitting his new status in society.
In 1888 Roper bought the north shore shipyard in Stockton, it went on to become a well-established and successful shipbuilding firm. In its first year the yard built four steel tramp steamers – the Maltby, the Aislaby, the Raisby and the Thornaby. The shipyard thrived and so did the Ropner Empire – by the late 1880s Ropner had one of the largest shipping lines in the world.
Ropner served as High Sheriff of Durham in 1896 and from 1900 – 1910 represented the constituency of Stockton-on-Tees in the House of Commons. In 1904 he was created 1st Baronet of Preston Hall and of Skutterskelfe Hall in Hutton Rudby.
In 1906 Ropner’s shipyard built a second SS Maltby, it was one of 60 ships that the yard – the third largest in the country, employing 1,500 people – had built by the time of the outbreak of the First World War. Ropner himself served during the War and was a Colonel in the First Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry.
The shipyard went into liquidation soon after the First World War and closed in 1925, but the shipping company continued through both World Wars, only the Royal Navy owned more ships than ‘Ropner’s Navy’. After the Second Word War, the company left Stockton for Darlington where it remained a family-run shipping business until it was taken over in 1997.
Emil Hugo Oscar Robert Ropner – known simply as Robert Ropner died in 1924, aged 85.