History of the Merchant Navy

By this time the Boer War had started and Britain had gone to war in South Africa. Several ships from both fleets had been commandeered for military purposes including the 3487-ton “Spartan” which was deployed on hospital duties. When, on conclusion of the Boer War, the ships resumed civil operations in May 1902 they returned to the merged fleet under the Union-Castle house flag.

In 1910 the company’s intermediate service was extended northwards to Mombasa to link with an East African service which operated via the Suez Canal. This operation was undertaken jointly with the British India Steam Navigation Company. The vessels initially deployed on these routes were Union Line ‘G’ ships based on the design of the 1893, Belfast built, “Gaul”, “Goth” and “Greek”. All three were of 4750-tons and elegant in design but in 1910-11 they were replaced with more economical and reliable and not so elegant Castle vessels.

1912 was another milestone in the history of the Union-Castle Line. Not only had the mail contract time been reduced to 16 days 15 hours, which was well within the capability of the “Briton” and her successors, but the company was also to lose its independence. Sir Owen Philips, owner of the Royal Mail Steam Packet } Co, was looking to expand his operation and, consequently, on April 18th, acquired a large holding of ordinary shares in the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company, and with it, financial and management control. Fortunately, the day to day running of the company was not affected and nor was there any loss of identity as the fleet continued to be managed independently.

With the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914 many vessels were commandeered for government service as armed merchant cruisers, troopships or hospital ships. The “Armadale Castle”, the “Edinburgh Castle” and the “Kinfauns Castle” became armed merchant cruisers and the mail ships came through the war relatively unscathed. The vessels on the intermediate service and the cargo ships were not so fortunate and there were grievous losses; the sinking of the “Llandovery Castle” being particularly harrowing.


The “Guelph”

These vessels had to be replaced before the company could resume its former itineraries to the Cape and East Africa. In the early 1920’s the most elderly vessels on the mail run, the former Union Line ships “Norman” and “Briton” were replaced by the 19000-ton “Arundel Castle” and the “Windsor Castle”. Powered by a pair of coal-fired steam turbines they had four funnels, cruiser sterns and ungainly Topliss gravity davits. Not particularly nice to look at they were satisfactory in service and proved very popular with the travelling public. However, steam was now being superceded by diesel and Lord Kylsant (formerly Sir Owen Philips) played an influencing role in encouraging the company to make the switch. The company took delivery of the 20141-ton “Carnarvon Castle” from Harland & Wolff} in 1926 as the first diesel engined motor ship for the mail run and the East Africa service which, in 1922, had become known as the Round Africa service. She was a distinctive vessel with two well-raked masts and two squat funnels, the top of which where cut parallel with the deck. The conditions of the mail contracts which, by now, were renewed annually, remained unchanged and the service speed was still 16 knots.

In 1931 the Kylsant empire collapsed. Fortunately, the Union-Castle Line was detached from the Royal Mail group relatively unscathed as the material and financial connections weren’t as complicated as other companies in the group. The company was, once again, independent and able to carry on business without any untoward changes.

The link with Harland & Wolff was maintained and remained so for the next 25 years. By now the Union-Castle Line had nine 16-knot mailships, the “Armadale Castle”, the “Kenilworth Castle”, the “Balmoral Castle”, the “Edinburgh Castle”, the “Arundel Castle”, the “Windsor Castle”, the “Carnarvon Castle”, the “Winchester Castle” and the “Warwick Castle” together with 11 intermediate Round Africa ships and half a dozen cargo vessels.

The mail contract negotiated in 1936 required a reduction of the passage time to no less than 14 days which required a service speed of 19 knots. Two motor ships, the “Stirling Castle” and the “Athlone Castle” were already being built at the Harland & Wolff shipyard but a further 8 vessels would by needed to fulfil the faster service. Three years was allowed to modernise the fleet and the task was completed by building a third new motor ship, the “Capetown Castle”, and re-engining the steam turbine powered “Arundel Castle” and “Windsor Castle” as well as the older motor ships “Carnarvon Castle”, “Warwick Castle” and “Winchester Castle”. During the re-engining the “Arundel Castle” and “Windsor Castle” were re-modelled and transformed into two magnificent looking ships with two new well proportioned funnels and sweeping curved stems.


The “Arundel Castle” And The “Winchester Castle”

As fate would have it, the Second World War was declared on 3rd September 1939 before the new service was able to settle down and become established. All the mailships were conscripted into government service as either armed merchant cruisers or troopships. The mail run, in the meantime, was serviced by smaller, older passenger ships, namely the “Dunbar Castle”, the “Llandovery Castle”, the “Llandaff Castle”, the “Llanstephan Castle” and the ageing “Gloucester Castle”.

The fleet suffered quite extensively and most of the surviving vessels required a lot of work done to them before they could be returned to commercial operations. The “Pretoria Castle”, completed in 1939, was converted by the navy into an aircraft carrier and it took until March 1947 to restore her to passenger ship status with a new name, the “Warwick Castle”. New buildings were resumed and in 1948 two 28705-ton steam turbined mailships entered service, the “Pretoria Castle” and the third “Edinburgh Castle”. These were followed in 1950 by the 18400-ton “Bloemfontein Castle” which was intended to provide a reasonably priced passage for emigrants to South Africa and Rhodesia. The need never arose and the vessel was, consequently, re-deployed on a one-ship, economy class only, intermediate service from London to Beira via the Cape. The 17 knot ship was always the ‘odd one out’ and in 1959 she was sold to the Greek-owned Chandris Line.

During 1950/51 smaller steam-turbined vessels, the “Rhodesia Castle”, the “Kenya Castle” and the “Braemar Castle” were completed for the round Africa service to join the pre-war built motor ships “Dunnottar Castle”, the “Durban Castle” and the “Warwick Castle”, all built between 1936 and 1939. The round Africa service was operated alternately via the Cape and via the Suez Canal from London, the journey time being approximately 6 weeks.


“Pretoria Castle”
(Photo: UCPSC 15/175)

“Edinburgh Castle”
(Photo: UCPSC 23/200)

The company was also trading with refrigerated fruit ships and general cargo vessels but after the war it faced fierce competition for freight from old established companies including Sir Nicholas Cayzer’s Clan Line and Lord Vestey’s Blue Star Line. Common-sense prevailed to prevent counter-productive rivalry and in 1956 the Union-Castle Line and Clan Line merged under the umbrella of the British and Commonwealth Shipping Co. However, the companies maintained their individual identities with only a double house flag to notify a change of ownership.

By the end of the 1950’s the passage time to Cape Town was down to 13 days but an 11 day service was envisaged and in 1957 construction of the 28582-ton, steam turbined “Pendennis Castle” was commenced. With accommodation for 187 first-class and 475 tourist-class passengers she entered service in 1959 and was quickly followed in 1960 and 1961 by the “Windsor Castle” and the “Pretoria Castle”.

Also by the end of the 1950’s the Union-Castle Line was co-operating very closely with the South African Marine Corporation (Safmarine)} and already one of the general cargo ships the “Drakensberg Castle” was sailing under the South African flag. In 1966, however, it was the turn of the passenger liners and the “Pretoria Castle” and the “Transvaal Castle” were renamed “SA Oranje” and the “SA Vaal” and eventually re-registered in the Republic of South Africa.


The “Llandaff Castle”

The ” Pendennis Castle”

In 1965 the fleet of seven mail ships necessary for the 11 day, weekly service was completed with the construction of the fast cargo liners the “Good Hope Castle” and the “Southampton Castle. These vessels had accommodation for 12 first-class passengers mainly for people wishing to travel to St Helena and the Ascension Island.

The Union-Castle Line had never been interested in holiday cruising, that is, until 1964 when the company took over the operation of the former Pacific Steam Navigation Co’s “Reina del Mar” which was operating out of Southampton. but she did not officially join the fleet, without a name change, until her purchase had been negotiated in 1973.

However, the face of British shipping was about to change, due mainly to the invention of the jet engine and the building of faster, safer aircraft. When the De Havilland “Comet” took to the air, mail could be delivered around the world far quicker than by sea. The Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” enabled the mass transportation of people by air. The days of the passenger liner and the regular mail services by sea were numbered. Consequently, in 1977 the passenger/cargo vessel “Southampton Castle” made the last Cape mail run from Southampton to Cape Town. However, the last ship to fly the mail pennant for the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co was the “Kinpurnie Castle” (ex Clan Ross) . She carried the mail on a voyage from Southampton to Durban calling at the Ascension Islands, St Helena, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London.

Also in 1977, on 19th September, the “Windsor Castle” returned to Southampton at the conclusion of the last mail run, 120 years and 4 days after the “Dane” set sail on the first epic voyage. The Union-Castle mailships would no longer depart from Southampton meticulously at 4 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, a sailing which was only delayed once when the vessel waited one hour for Sir Winston Churchill to board.

During the 1980’s a new breed of cargo carrier, the container ship, was introduced which made the operation of small cargo vessels un-competitive. As a result, the British and Commonwealth Shipping Group abandoned it’s shipping operations and the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co. ceased to operate.

The Fleet

Fans of the Union-Castle Line may wish to read
Union-Castle Line
by Peter Newall
Mailships of the Union-Castle Line
by CJ Harris


A 23″ model of the “Edinburgh Castle”
Built by Bob Wilson, F.R.S.A.