Sigrid Björkegren was the owner of Sweden’s largest shipping company for sailing ships and at the same time the only woman ship owner in the country, around the turn of the century 1900.
Sigrid Björkegren was born in 1845 in Simrishamn. She was the daughter of Folke Kraak, the mayor of the city, and his wife Catharina Elisabeth Werngren. She had one sister and two brothers. Sigrid Björkegren was to stay in Simrishamn all her life. The knowledge that she would later benefit from in her role as an entrepreneur, she acquired by working as her father’s helper and clerk during her youth. In the autumn of 1866, she married one of her father’s good friends, ship owner Johan Daniel Björkegren, who was 25 years older than she. He and his brother had owned and run the shipping company L. J. Björkegren & Co. since 1849. The company was named after their father, whose shipping company was one of the more prominent in Simrishamn. In 1855, Johan Daniel Björkegren became sole owner of the shipping company after his brother had died. From the 1850s on, the shipping enterprise mainly involved transporting Swedish oats and other cereals to England. On the return journey, English coal was imported to Sweden.
After her marriage, Sigrid Björkegren lived with her husband at the Björkegrenska town house in Simrishamn with their own housekeeper, four maids and a boy. The household also consisted of a governess, a bookkeeper and sometimes also a few unmarried women. However, these were absolutely the only things that reminded one of the life of a traditional middle-class woman, for at the Björkegrenska shipping company, Sigrid Björkegren worked side by side with Johan Daniel Björkegren throughout their marriage. Also, their family’s style of living was known to be simple and ordinary. Apart from his work at the shipping company, her husband was involved in various contexts in the public life of the city, where he exerted great influence. He and Sigrid Björkegren’s father instituted the Simrishamn savings bank, where he was also active as chairman for a long time. He was the chairman of both the seamen’s and the harbour directorate in Simrishamn, the initiator and chairman of the sea insurance association Njord, and besides all that, an agent for the German consulate in Simrishamn.
Early on in their marriage, three children were born in quick succession: in 1867 their daughter Elisabeth, the year after Anna Maria and in 1869 their son Lars Johan Folke. In December 1876, the Björkegrenska home was struck by a family tragedy when the fourth child, their daughter Sigrid, died when only one week old. Elisabeth remained unmarried and continued living at the Björkegrenska town house until her death. Anna Maria married Axel Herrlin, professor of psychology and pedagogy in Lund. Lars Johan Folke started his career as a clerk at L. J. Björkegren & Co. After that, he continued on to Stockholm where he worked as an office manager and was predicted a brilliant career before he died in 1901, at barely 32 years of age.
During Johan Daniel Björkegren’s time as a shipping company owner, the business expanded. During the 1870s and 1880s, apart from several other types of vessel, the Björkegrenska shipping company owned some barks that one after the other became the biggest ships in Simrishamn. During the 1880s, about 500 persons are estimated to have been dependent upon L. J. Björkegren & Co for their livelihood, ships’ crews with families included. The shipping company mainly trafficked the Baltic and the North Sea, but some of the barks also regularly crossed the Atlantic. The first of the latter was the bark Sigrid in 1877. Coffee, tea, resin and guano among other goods were imported from America. When the railway reached Simrishamn in 1892, the harbour’s significance for cereal transports diminished and L. J. Björkegren & Co’s operations were instead turned towards rough timber transports between Norrland and England, still with coal and coke as cargo on the return journey.
After her husband’s death in 1898, Sigrid Björkegren, popularly called “The Missus” or “Mrs Consul” herself took over the helm of the company. She also took over the post of chairman of the insurance company Njord. When Johan Daniel Björkegren died, the shipping company was the main owner of 20 sailing vessels. Several of the vessels were namely not owned outright by the Björkegrenska shipping company. At a time when steam ships were becoming ever more important for sea trade, Sigrid Björkegren was the owner of Sweden’s largest fleet of sailing ships and the only woman ship owner in the country. Barks especially did well for themselves in competition with steam ships and the shipping company experienced a period of prosperity during the Boer war in 1899–1902, as did the Swedish shipping trade as a whole. However, the number of vessels had to be cut down as time passed, which was undertaken by selling them. At the time of the outbreak of the first world war in 1914, the shipping company only owned six vessels, all of them barks.
As managing director, Sigrid Björkegren was known for her wisdom in business and her extensive knowledge about ships and seafaring. Her leadership style was appreciated by everyone from sea captains to crew members, and she was a popular element in the city life of Simrishamn. Every day, she took a walk to the harbour where she inspected the ships and chatted with all manner of seafarers. She also kept a daily eye on the weather so as to know about the weather conditions in which her ships and crews found themselves. Throughout her life, she showed notable solicitude for her captains and seamen. She always took shipwrecks in her company very hard, and they were not all that infrequent. On her initiative, a rule was instigated in the company that no more than one member of each seafaring family was allowed to join any one ship. In that way, family catastrophes in connection with accidents at sea were to some degree limited. During her whole life, she took an interest in active and also retired sea captains and seamen. Sigrid Björkegren often communicated her appreciation to them for their loyalty and interrogated them about their families and life situations in general. She often helped diligent and gifted young men to qualify as ship’s officers using company funds.
When the first world war broke out in 1914, Sigrid Björkegren was an elderly lady when it came to the workload demands of the shipping company business. The oceans had at the same time become much more hazardous and it was no longer the powers of nature that threatened seafaring and seafarers most. The risky investment, counted in human lives and well as ships’ cargoes, worried her deeply. In October 1915, the Wolfe, the most recently purchased bark in the shipping company’s fleet, was wrecked in the North Sea and 13 crew members died. Sigrid Björkegren was strongly affected by this loss, as she was by similar fates wherein military attacks struck several ships that had recently been sold by the Björkegrenska shipping company. Despite the fact that the war opened doors for brilliant business deals for neutral Swedish ships, she chose in 1916 to close down her shipping company.
After the business had been closed down, Sigrid Björkegren lived with her daughter Elisabeth in the Björkegrenska town house. Towards the end of her life, Sigrid Björkegren suffered from prolonged illness and became bedbound. However, she still received faithful old employees in the form of sea captains and seamen at her bedside for a chat about old times. According to her daughter, they were precious hours. Sigrid Björkegren died in 1936. She is buried in the Old Cemetary at Simrishamn.
On the initiative of Sigrid Björkegren’s grandchildren Hedvig and Sigrid Herrlin, a foundation has been started for the conservation of the Björkegrenska town house. The large five-storey granary in the grounds of the town house, built in 1848 and locally called Oat Castle, nowadays accommodates the Österlen Museum.