City of Perth (1947-67), an Ellerman Lines ship, by John S. Smith

History of the Foundation

The Foundation was created from the wealth and generosity of a father and son. The first Sir John Ellerman was a trained accountant who went on to become the richest man in Britain.

His wealth was based on a variety of businesses, principally shipping, in the early 20th century. His son, who inherited the title from his father and was also called John, was responsible for donating the funds from those businesses to create the Foundation.

Father and son both shunned publicity: they were generous employers and friends and gave their personal support to philanthropic causes.

Sir John Ellerman (1862-1933)
The first Sir John created his wealth from buying up and managing businesses, including newspapers, breweries and property and, most publicly, shipping. By 1917 Ellerman Lines formed an eighth of Britain’s mercantile shipping tonnage, equal to that of the entire French merchant fleet.

Sir John was also a major shareholder in the Financial Times, the Daily Mail and the Illustrated London News. At the time of his death his fortune was estimated at £36m, the largest estate ever in the UK up to that point – a sum equivalent in today’s values to something like £1.5bn. He left two children: John who inherited the title and the bulk of the wealth, and Winifred who wrote under the name Bryher and lived an unconventional and philanthropic life.

Sir John Ellerman (1909-73)
At the age of only 23 the second Sir John inherited close to £20m. He was considered an extremely capable businessman, but was not really interested in running the family shipping business. Soon after his father’s death he married Esther da Sola, a Canadian with whom he shared a great interest in music and theatre. His lifelong passion proved to be natural history and in particular the study of rodents, on which subject he became a world expert.

From the late 1940s, Sir John and Esther spent an increasing amount of time in South Africa, to avoid both British winters and the attentions of the press. It was there that he developed a strong interest in local charities and set up the Rachel Swart Fund for disabled people, named after a young woman born without arms or legs whose courage impressed him. The Foundation continues to support this charity.

The John Ellerman Foundation
The second Sir John had no children. Shortly before his death he transferred almost 80% of the shares in Ellerman Lines Ltd to two grantmaking trusts: the Moorgate Trust Fund (1970) and the New Moorgate Trust Fund (1971). In 1992 the Trustees merged the two funds into the John Ellerman Foundation. Over the years the Foundation has continued to uphold the aims, interests and values of its main benefactor, while adapting to the changing needs of the modern charitable world.