Bates, Sir Percy Elly, fourth baronet 1879-1946, merchant and shipowner, was born at Liverpool 12 May 1879, the second son of (Sir) Edward Percy Bates who became second baronet, and his wife, Constance Elisabeth, daughter of Samuel Robert Graves, a former mayor of and member of Parliament for Liverpool.
Educated at Winchester, Bates began his business career as an apprentice with William Johnston & Co., shipowners, of Liverpool, and at the age of twenty-one joined the family business of Edward Bates & Sons, merchants and shipowners, long established in Liverpool and Calcutta, in which he remained a partner until his death. In 1903 he succeeded his brother in the baronetcy and in 1910 began his connexion with the Cunard Steam-Ship Company of which he became deputy chairman in 1922.
In the war of 1914-18 Bates joined the transport department of the Admiralty and, when the Ministry of Shipping was created, continued as director of commercial services, a branch of the Ministry which dealt with the shipment of the country's civilian supplies and largely also with the shipment of supplies to the Allies. Shortage of shipping made it daily imperative to find sources of supply which exerted the least demand upon it. Bates's wide knowledge of the world's trade, of which hardly any aspect save manufacture was unfamiliar to him, often enabled him to suggest such sources and to detect and challenge extravagant demands. He was appointed G.B.E. in 1920, was an officer of the Legion of Honour and held the Order of the Crown of Italy.
By temperament and training Bates disliked government control and its interference in commerce. History is against State trading, he would say, and he saw in it an inevitable lack of success because governments insist upon political margins which commerce cannot afford. In later years he tended to over-estimate what might have been achieved without control, although nobody was more decisive than he in exerting executive authority during the war years. In the war of 1939-45 he was a member both of the advisory council and of the liner committee of the Ministry of War Transport. The same problems arose as he had faced in the earlier war, although not always in identical form, and his advice was the more valuable because he was aware of the differences.
Between the wars, in 1924, Bates became a director of the Morning Post, often acting as chairman, until the sale of the paper in 1937. His views and influence must be assumed to be reflected in the opinions of that journal. One result of this association was a friendship and correspondence with Rudyard Kipling [qv.], whom he greatly admired and often quoted.
In 1930 Bates became chairman of the Cunard company and at the end of that year signed the contract for the vessel afterwards known as the Queen Mary, as six years later he signed the contract for the Queen Elizabeth. He had already explained to the shareholders that for the first time in the history of naval architecture it had become practicable to run a weekly service from Southampton to New York via Cherbourg with two steamers which can pay. Hitherto three had been required. The company is projecting a pair of steamers which, though they will be very large and fast, are, in fact, the smallest and slowest which can fulfil properly all the essential economic conditions. To go beyond these conditions would be extravagant; to fall below them would be incompetent. In spite of all impediments he remained a constant exponent and strong advocate of this policy, but the economic crisis of the following year forced the company to take a painful decision, the responsibility and disappointment of which fell inevitably upon him. At the end of 1931 work on the new ship (then known as Number 534) was suspended. Eventually prolonged negotiations with the Government resulted in the North Atlantic Shipping Act of 1934: the Atlantic assets of the Cunard and the Oceanic companies were incorporated in the new Cunard White Star limited company, of which Bates was chairman, and the Treasury was empowered to advance to the new company sufficient funds to enable them to complete Number 534 and to build a second ship. Work was resumed early in 1934 and the ship was launched by Queen Mary in September. The sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, was launched in September 1938 by Queen Elizabeth and in 1940 on her maiden voyage moved for safety to the other side of the Atlantic. Bates was insistent that she should, like the Queen Mary, be used for carrying troops and he liked to think, as was certainly the case, that the service of these two great vessels materially assisted the war effort. The fact that they were built in spite of difficulties so formidable is testimony to Bates's foresight, courage, and energy.
Bates never encumbered his talk with platitudes, or troubled to obscure the directness of his thought. He was terse in speech and trenchant in judgement. These characteristics, with a determined jaw and on occasion an emphatic manner, made him formidable to those who did not know him well. But he was always scrupulous in the use of power, ready for interchange of ideas and considerate and sensitive in personal relationships. He regarded himself as fortunate in having a group of brothers and other colleagues who looked to him for leadership and on whose support he relied. During his career he gave due time to those offices which fall to a leading shipowner; he was a member of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (1908-10), chairman of the Liverpool Steamship Owners' Association (1911, 1945), president of the Institute of Marine Engineers (1939) and chairman of the General Council of British Shipping (1945). He was also high sheriff of Cheshire, 1920-21, and a justice of the peace for the county.
He found relaxation in golf and shooting, was enthusiastic about curling, and a keen salmon fisher. From his earliest days he knew the River Erne and in 1939 he fished in Iceland and became interested in the Icelandic sagas, particularly in their descriptions of the topography of the areas where he fished.
In 1907 he married Mary Ann, daughter of William Lefroy [qv.], dean of Norwich. They had one son, Edward Percy, a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force whose death in action over Germany in 1945, borne by his father with outward stoicism, was a deep wound. Having presided as host on a short preliminary run of the Queen Elizabeth, Bates died 16 October 1946 on the very morning when he should have sailed in her on her first voyage as an Atlantic passenger ship. He was succeeded in his title by his nephew, Geoffrey Voltelin Bates (born 1921). There are portraits of Bates by A. T. Nowell at Hinderton Hall, Cheshire, where he lived and died, and by Sir Gerald Kelly at the Midland Bank, 62 Castle Street, Liverpool.
The Times, 25 September 1930