Thomas H. Ismay was born on 7th January 1837 at Maryport in Cumberland, where his father, Joseph, was a successful local shipbuilder. He attended the local school until 12, then Croft House, a boarding school near Carlisle. He entered a three-year apprenticeship with Imrie, Tomlinson in Liverpool: another apprentice was William Imrie, and they quickly formed a close friendship. At the end of his apprenticeship, in 1856 he signed up to sail on the barque Charles Jackson, heading for Valparaiso, Chile via Cape Horn; he returned in October. T.H. Ismay went back to working with Imrie Tomlinson, where he met Philip Nelson, a ship-owner.
In 1858, when T.H. Ismay reached 21, he and Philip Nelson set up business as shipbrokers, trading as Nelson, Ismay & Co. T.H. Ismay married Margaret Bruce in Liverpool on 7th April 1859. Nelson, Ismay ordered their ﬁrst ship, from Alexander Stephen on the Clyde in 1858, and in the following years purchased several more vessels. On 1st April 1862 Philip Nelson retired and the ﬁrm was dissolved. Ismay continued with ship and insurance brokering, as T.H. Ismay & Co.
The shipping company Wilson & Cunningham went into liquidation on 18th January 1868. Its trading name, White Star, its house flag of a red burgee with a white star, and goodwill, were sold to Thomas H. Ismay and George H. Fletcher for £1,000.
Gustav Schwabe introduced Ismay to Gustav Wolff, his nephew, and Edward Harland, who were building steamships at Belfast. Schwabe proposed to Ismay that, if he had all his vessels built at the Belfast yard, he would back Ismay in establishing a new shipping company. On 30th July 1868 T.H. Ismay’s White Star Line and Harland & Wolff ﬁnalised an agreement to build three steamers. Soon after Oceanic Steam Navigation Co. Ltd was formally registered on 6th September 1868, with an initial issue of 400 shares of £1,000 each. The new company was to concentrate on the north Atlantic.
William Imrie Senior died in 1870 and his son, also William, combined the business with T.H. Ismay, known as Ismay, Imrie & Co. T.H. Ismay would manage steamers on the north Atlantic as White Star Line, while William Imrie would manage sailing vessels, mainly to Australia. White Star now started to grow and develop.
After several successful years, on 21st December 1891 T.H. Ismay resigned from Ismay, Imrie, with his sons Bruce and James joining the board; he remained as chairman. Ismay was summoned to the Foreign Ofﬁce on 16th June 1897 and was informed that Queen Victoria wished to confer a baronetcy on him. However, the honour was declined.
While on a short holiday in early 1899, T.H. Ismay collapsed. Diagnoses varied, including liver complaint and lower bowel. The attacks continued for several months, getting progressively more severe, although in July he was well enough to visit Belfast to tour Oceanic. While there he was presented with the freedom of the city.
On 28th August 1899 he suffered a major relapse. A surgeon operated on the gall bladder on 31st August, with a second operation on 4th September. T.H. Ismay’s health continued to deteriorate, and on 13th September he suffered the ﬁrst of several heart attacks. T.H. Ismay died at just 62, on 23rd November 1899, and was buried on 27th November.