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Marcus Samuel, founder of the Shell Transport and Trading Company

Marcus Samuel, founder of the Shell Transport and Trading Company

Almost 200 years ago, a London antique dealer began importing sea shells from the Far East to supply a fashion for exotic décor.

Marcus Samuel’s enterprise laid the foundations for a thriving import-export business later run by his sons, Marcus Junior and Sam.

At this time oil was largely used in lighting and lubricants and the industry was based in Baku, Russia, with its large reserves of high quality oil and strategic natural harbour.

Revolutionising oil transport

The arrival of the internal combustion engine in 1886 led to a surge in demand for transport fuel. Building on their shipping expertise, the Samuel brothers commissioned a fleet of steamers to carry oil in bulk. They revolutionised oil transport with the maiden voyage of their first tanker, Murex. In 1892, Murex was the first ever tanker to transit the Suez Canal. The brothers’ company was named the Shell Transport and Trading Company in 1897. It used a mussel shell as its logo.

Becoming Royal Dutch Shell

Shell Transport’s activities in the East, combined with a search for new sources of oil to reduce dependence on Russia, brought it into contact with Royal Dutch Petrolem. The two companies  joined forces in 1903 to protect themselves against the dominance of Standard Oil. They fully merged into the Royal Dutch Shell Group in 1907.

Shell changed its logo to the scallop shell, or pecten, which is used today. By the end of the 1920s Shell was the world’s leading oil company, producing 11% of the world’s crude and owning 10% of its tanker tonnage. The 1930s were difficult: the group’s assets in Mexico were seized and it was forced to concede generous terms to the Venezuelan government when it nationalised its oil fields.

Post-war expansion

After the Second World War, as peace brought a boom in car use, Shell expanded into Africa and South America. Shipping became larger and better powered. In 1947 Shell drilled the first commercially viable offshore oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. By 1955 Shell had 300 wells. In 1958 Shell began production in Nigeria.

The oil crisis

In 1969, Ghaddafi took power in Libya, cutting oil production and raising prices. Other producers threatened to do the same and the Yom Kippur war of 1973 brought the crisis to a head. Within weeks OPEC countries quadrupled the oil price and imposed a boycott for two months. The effect on the West was economically catastrophic.

Tapping new resources

North Sea platform

The 1970s were notable for Shell’s development of the oil fields in the North Sea and South America - difficult and expensive to do, but crucial given the reduced supplies from the Middle East. In 1978 Shell completed the Cognac drilling and production platform in the Gulf of Mexico, the world’s tallest platform at 35 metres (1,100 feet).


From the mid-1990s public scrutiny of the oil industry intensified as environmental issues gained prominence. Shell was criticised over plans to dispose of the Brent Spar platform and also ran into difficulties in Nigeria. As the new millennium got under way, Shell expanded in China and Russia. In 2005 Shell dissolved its old corporate structure to create a single new company. Shell remains one of the world’s major oil and gas companies. We have interests in liquefied natural gas and gas to liquids products; we help develop sustainable biofuels; and we are involved in wind projects.

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