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The William Robertson shipping business was founded in 1852 by William Robertson, whose first venture as a ship owner was the purchase of the scow or barge, Ellen, which plied on the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Clyde Estuary. His next acquisitions were the lighter, Gem, in 1854, the Ruby in 1855 and the Pearl in 1859. He acquired his first steamer or puffer, the Jasper, in 1865 and his first sea-going steamer, Agate, in 1878. His first diesel powered vessel, the Sapphire, was purchased in 1935. The names of the ships were all derived from minerals, precious and semiprecious stones. The business concentrated on coastal tramp ships, trading commodities such as coal and limestone among the ports of Great Britain, Ireland, France, the Netherlands and the Baltic. In 1885, Robertson also began managing ships for others. The business expanded rapidly and, by the outbreak of war in 1914, owned 49 vessels. A number of ships were lost to enemy action, however, during the two world wars.
In 1922, the business acquired a large quarrying operation at Llandulas in North Wales, which was registered under the name Kneeshaw, Lupton and Co Ltd.
In 1949, a private limited company, William Robertson Shipowners Ltd, was formed to take over the assets of the William Robertson partnership. The management of the fleet, however, was left in the hands of the partnership. The partnership appears to have been wound up in 1958, when William Robertson Shipowners Ltd changed its name to Gem Line Ltd and a new company called William Robertson Shipowners Ltd was formed to continue the management of the fleet.