Aden's Commercial Dawn: Captain Thomas and the Birth of Banking

The year was 1842, a mere three years following the capture of Aden by Commander Haines, when Captain Luke Thomas arrived on the scene. He quickly became an agent for the P&O Company, which at the time operated with just a solitary steamer, modestly delivering mail to Aden once a month. This seemingly small operation marked the beginning of a significant transformation in Aden’s commercial landscape.

By 1847, Captain Thomas, spotting an opportunity, ventured into the world of banking. He established a system specifically catering to the soldiers of the British garrison in Aden. This system was a boon for these soldiers, allowing them to securely deposit their earnings and efficiently remit funds back to their families in England. This venture wasn't just a convenience; it was a lifeline, strengthening the ties between the soldiers in this far-flung colony and their loved ones back home.

By 1855, the seas of commerce were becoming crowded, with other shipping lines vying for a piece of the action against P&O. Undeterred, Captain Thomas branched out, diversifying into the coaling of ships. This move proved prescient, especially when in 1869, following the opening of the Suez Canal, the first shipload of coal passing through was consigned to none other than Captain Thomas.

Captain Thomas' business acumen bore fruit, and in 1856, he welcomed a young, dynamic 29-year-old Cowasjee Dinshaw as a partner. The following year, their growing enterprise was formalized as Luke Thomas & Co. Limited, continuing its role as an agent for P&O until 1865.

Luke Thomas Building, Aden 1880
Luke Thomas Building, Aden 1880

In 1886, an imposing new colonial-style office building was erected, adjoining the Cowasjee Dinshaw Building. This was where the ‘Bank of Aden’ flourished, despite facing stiff competition from the National Bank of India Ltd., which opened its doors in 1895.

Known for his technical prowess and innovative spirit, Captain Thomas was not just a businessman but also an inventor and a visionary. He designed an advanced cooling system for water condensers, crafted a new lifeboat davit, and pioneered a telegraphic system that linked the various parts of Aden, revolutionising communication in the region.

The telegraph system comprised two landlines between Crater and Steamer Point, one which connected the Residency to the Resident's Office and the other as a public line. The Government paid Luke Thomas & Co. an annual rent for the first line and the second, public line, was charged to the public at 9 annas for a 16-word message. A third line linked Luke Thomas’ premises at Steamer Point with their coal yards and water condensing plant near the Little Pass at Hedjuff. The condensing plant, capable of producing 12,000 gallons of distilled drinking water per day, was a vital resource, not just for the public but crucially for the shipping industry. Additionally, an ice-making plant on-site could churn out an impressive 4 tons of ice daily.

His contributions to perfecting the ship coaling system were significant, with his factory at Hedjuff becoming the crown jewel of South Arabia’s industrial landscape.

Despite these technological advancements, by 1876, the company operated without an office, and intriguingly, the bank had no safe for its deposits. This changed when Frederick Atkinson joined the company, elevating it to new administrative heights. He became Managing Director in 1881 and Chairman following Captain Thomas’ death in 1886. Remarkably, by the mid-1960s, the Atkinson family still had ties with the company, with Frederick Atkinson's great-grandson, Mr W.S. Atkinson, at the helm as Managing Director.

The 1880s were marked by supply challenges in Aden, with most provisions coming from Somaliland. The monsoon season often brought shortages as native ships remained docked. This prompted the Aden authorities to turn to Luke Thomas & Co., then the only British firm in Aden, to venture into the steamship business, albeit briefly.

The late 1800s saw Luke Thomas & Co. embroiled in fierce competition with the Perim Coal Company. However, the onset of the First World War brought a boom in the coaling business, with the Hedjuff workshop repairing 144 H.M. ships in 1943 and a further 375 in 1944, earning high commendation from the Admiralty.

However, the advent of oil as a preferred fuel for ships marked a downturn for the coal industry. Despite a post-World War II boom in coal, the company's directors foresaw the inevitable decline of coal and astutely expanded into other trading activities, ensuring the survival and evolution of Luke Thomas & Co. in an ever-changing commercial landscape.

Captain Luke Thomas’ journey in Aden is a testament to entrepreneurial spirit, technical innovation, and adaptability, painting a vivid picture of the commercial dynamism that defined this era in Aden's rich history.