The UNION-CASTLE MAIL STEAMSHIP COMPANY came about through
the amalgamation of the Union Steamship Co. and the Castle
Packets Co. in March 1900.
Inspired by Arthur Anderson, a founder of
P&O, the Union Steamship Co. was the older company founded
in 1853 as the Union Steam Collier to carry coal from South
Wales to meet the growing demand in Southampton. Orders were
placed for 5 ships- "Union", "Briton," "Saxon,
"Norman" and the "Dane". The first steamship,
the 336-ton "Union" loaded coal in Cardiff in June
1854 but the outbreak of the Crimean War frustrated the carefully
made plans. After the war the company briefly tried to break
into the Brazilian trade but then ,as the reconstituted Union
Steamship Co., began chartering out its ships.
In the summer of 1857 the Admiralty invited
tenders for a new mail run to South Africa and, as luck would
have it, the Union Steamship Co. was accepted and the future
suddenly looked very bright. The mail contract was for 5 years
with an annual subsidy of £33,000 for which the company
was to provide a monthly service from Southampton with a call
at Plymouth carrying the mails in both directions.
The Cape Town mail service was inaugurated
on 15th September 1857 with the 530 ton steam ship "Dane"
carrying the mails and 6 passengers, under the command of Captain
Strutt. There had been little time to advertise and the revenue
from the first voyage was £102.
But the venture proved to be a success and
the "Dane" was soon joined by the 613-ton "Phoebe"
and the 739-ton "Athens" who, between them, managed
to work the route well within the contractual 42 days. The first
class fare was 45 guineas and the company's fortunate shareholders
were able to benefit from a 10% dividend. By 1859 the Cape Legislative
Assembly was that satisfied with the company's performance that
it decided to pay a bonus of £250 for every day that the
voyage was completed in less than 35 days.
The success of the venture
soon enabled the company to build its first ship for the South
African trade and in October 1860 the 1055-ton "Cambrian"
left Southampton on its maiden voyage. The "Cambrian"
was powered by both steam and sail and under steam only was
capable of 10 knots. She had accommodation for 60 first-class
and 40 second-class passengers and her other amenities included
a bathroom, a luxury for passengers at sea. Bound for the Cape
in September 1871 the "Cambrian" ran out of coal but,
under sail, still safely completed the voyage from Southampton
in under 42 days.
By 1863 Donald Currie, a Greenock born Scotsman
and a former employee of Cunard, had built up a fleet of four
1200-ton sailing ships with "Castle" names which traded
round the Cape on the Liverpool - Calcutta run. This company
was known as the Castle Packet Co. and the venture was successful
until the Suez Canal opened in 1869. This virtually killed off
the Calcutta trade round the Cape. However, Currie, by this
time, had acquired an interest in the Leith, Hull and Hamburg
Packet Co where his brother was manager. The LH&H Packet
Co. chartered two vessels, the "Iceland" and the"
Gothland", to the Cape & Natal Steam Navigation Co.
However, Cape & Natal Steam Navigation Co. company failed
and this , purely by chance, enabled Donald Currie to deploy
the three new Castle steamships intended for the Calcutta run
on the Cape route. The vessels operated a twice monthly sailing
from London with a call at Dartmouth for the mails.
In 1872 he was asked by the Cape merchants
and the Government of Cape Colony to provide competition for
the Union Line and was offered generous terms to carry the northbound
mails in Castle ships. This he did but when the various contracts
expired in 1876 a new mail contract was signed sharing the traffic
equally between the two lines, each company providing alternate
sailings for a weekly service.
Rivalry between the two companies still existed
as any form of amalgamation was forbidden by the Cape authorities
under the terms of the mail contracts.