History of the Merchant Navy

The White Star flag was originally the house-flag of the Aberdeen White Star Line, a company which had been founded in 1845 by Henry Threlfall Wilson and John Pilkington. Prompted by the discovery of gold in Australia the company operated a fleet of sailing clippers to cope with the rush of prospectors to the newly found goldfields. The clippers, which started sailings in 1852, operated between Liverpool and Melbourne returning to England with whale oil, seal skins, wool and, more importantly, gold.

Initially the line only operated clippers including the Ellen, the White Star and the Red Jacket but in 1863 Pilkington left the company to be replaced by James Chambers who commissioned the company’s first steamship, the Royal Standard. When the Royal Standard began operations the the passage time to Australia was cut to under 70 days.

“White Star”

In 1864 White Star joined forces with the Black Ball and Eagle Lines to form a conglomerate company, the Australian and Eastern Navigation Company Ltd, but this was short lived through financial difficulties. In order to enlarge it’s fleet the company mortgaged it’s assets, borrowed heavily and became seriously in debt, so serious that the newly ordered Sirius had to be sold on delivery. In 1865 James Chambers left and John Cunningham came in to take his place. In March 1866 a bank failure created serious problems for White Star and in a bid to capture some of the North Atlantic trade deployed the Royal Standard on a voyage between Liverpool and New York but with little success. The company’s mortgages were then taken over by the Royal Bank of Liverpool but in October 1867 the bank was closed down and it was revealed that the line owed £527,000. White Star was forced into bankruptcy in January 1868 and was then sold to Thomas Henry Ismay, a 31 year old shipowner, for £1000.

Ismay’s first change was to introduce iron built sailing ships instead of wood but, as a director of the National Line, he had some experience of steamships and the Atlantic traffic and realised the potential of operating a high-class passenger service between Britain and North America. In 1869 he formed the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, to be known affectionately as the White Star Line, for that purpose. Ismay was joined by a William Imrie and together they set about revolutionising passenger comfort of the North Atlantic route by placing an order with Harland & Wolff in Belfast for four liners which had the first-class accommodation amidships instead of aft, larger cabins and more port holes. They also incorporated a promenade deck which extended the full width of the ship, a notion which was to influence all future passenger ship design. The first vessel, the 3707-ton Oceanic, was launched on 27th August 1870, sailed on her maiden voyage in 1871 and made all other Atlantic liners obsolete. Many observers believed that White Star would continue to operate to Australia but Ismay had other ideas; he intended to join the battle of the Atlantic in competition with Inman, National, Guion and Cunard. The Oceanic was followed by the Atlantic, the Baltic and the Republic. In August 1896 the North Atlantic crossing was made in 6 days, 21 hours and 3 minutes but there was no attempt by the White Star Line to build for speed until the 20 knot vessels Teutonic and the Majestic entered service in 1889 which, incidentally, were the first ships to operate without sails.

Thomas Ismay

Bruce Ismay

By the end of the 19th century the White Star Line was the most powerful British shipping company with vessels trading not only to North America but also to Australia and South Africa. In 1899 the second Oceanic was completed, a vessel which surpassed the dimensions of any other ship afloat and longer than the Great Eastern. Thomas Ismay died in 1899 and his eldest son, Bruce, became chairman and managing director. Having worked his way through the company he took over where his father left off and maintained the company’s on-going policy.

However, after the turn of the century the company was, in 1902, acquired by the American financier J.Peirpont Morgan becoming part of the International Mercantile Marine Company with Bruce Ismay retaining his position as Chairman and Managing Director. With new American money and the shipbuilding skills of Harland and Wolff Ismay embarked on an ambitious expansion programme. The company’s prime concern was passenger comfort and their ships got bigger and bigger until in 1911 the 45324-ton Olympic, the first of three sister ships, made a huge impact with the public as the world’s largest liner. The second sister, the Titanic, followed in 1912 but disastrously hit an iceberg and sank while on her maiden voyage. The third sister, the Britannic entered service in 1914 but, in 1916 , was sunk by a mine while operating in the Aegean Sea during the First World War. However, after the war, despite these losses the company continued to prosper as a strong rival to the Cunard Line.

The White Star Line was acquired by Lord Kylsant shortly before his Royal Mail group failed in the early 1930’s. When Royal Mail collapsed the shipping industry was suffering because of the Depression and so the British government insisted that the White Star Line merged with Cunard and in 1934 the two fleets joined forces as the Cunard White Star Line. This signalled the end of the White Star Line. The ships of the new company flew a double house flags until 1957 when Cunard purchased the remaining shares held by the White Star Line. Cunard then disposed of most of the White Star ships and by 1958 the renowned White Star Line ceased to exist.

Books on the White Star Line are relatively few but we have located-
Merchant Fleets Vol.19: The White Star Line
by Duncan Haws