History of the Merchant Navy

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.


The “Pheobe” & Sir Donald Currie

In 1888 a new contract was negotiated with the British government which guaranteed both companies an assured £26,000 annually but the contract stipulated a 20 day passage to the Cape and an extension to Durban with calls at East London and Port Elizabeth. Although the Union Line operated out of Southampton and the Castle ships sailed from London they offered an identical service and passage tickets were interchangeable. Vessels departed every Thursday, alternately from Southampton and London. In 1891 the Castle Line replaced its Dartmouth call with one at Southampton and the services became more integrated with the consequent reduction of the bitter rivalry, a characteristic of trade in the early days. The Union Line operated 10 steamships and the Castle Mail Packets Co. (renamed in 1881) deployed 11 vessels on the mail run and both companies worked connecting coastal services to Lourenco Marques (Maputu), Beira and Mauritius.

The Cape steamers were small compared with the vessels which plied across the Atlantic to North America and even those on the Australia run. In 1885 the largest in service was the 661-ton “Mexican” and her small sister the” Tartar” both completed in 1883 for the Union Line. However, the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1900 provoked change which resulted in the Union Mail Co taking delivery of the 5625-ton “Dunottar Castle”. This vessel surpassed everything in both fleets with accommodation for 100 first-class, 90 second-class, 100 third-class and 150 steerage passengers. With a top speed of 15 knots the history of the South African mail service was about to change. The Union Line responded with the 6844-ton “Scot”. With a clipper-stem and a service speed of 16.5 knots carrying 204 first-class, 205 second-class and about 100 third-class passengers she was magnificent and possibly one of the best looking ships ever built. She broke all records for the Cape run reducing the passage time to 15 days. Unfortunately, the running costs were huge and after incurring considerable losses over a period of 12 years she was eventually sold to the Hamburg America Line.

The livery of the Union vessels was drab black with a white riband around the hull but in 1892 this was changed to a white hull with blue riband and cream-buff coloured funnels. On the other hand, the Castle ships had a lavender-grey hull with black-topped red funnels, a livery which survived until the company’s eventual demise some 80 odd years later.


The “Scot” and The “Norman” (2)

Looking for a more economical vessel the “Scot” was followed by the 7537-ton steamship “Norman”. Built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast she was slower operationally but was considerably more advanced than any other vessel built or being built for the Castle fleet and laid the foundations for a new generation of Union liners. The 10248-ton “Briton” and the 12385-ton “Saxon” followed, each contributing to the development of the classic Union-Castle design which culminated with the building of the “Edinburgh Castle” and the “Balmoral Castle” in 1910.

At the end of the 19th century the Castle vessels were old fashioned in appearance compared with the their Union rivals but they were popular and Donald Currie’s Castle Line was probably more financially secure than the Union Steamship Company.

When the mail contract expired in 1900 there were no additional applicants for the new contract and, consequently, the managements of both companies were able seek concessions, notably the exclusion of any clause forbidding a merger of the two concerns. Once the contracts had been signed and sealed Donald Currie approached the Union Line’s board and proposed a merger which was agreed and in March 1900 the assets of the Union Line were transferred to the Castle Mail Packets Co. The company was then restructured to become the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co. Ltd. and adopted the distinctive lavender-grey hull of the Castle Line for the new company. All new vessels joining the fleet from that date had Castle names, the Union liner “Celt”, sister of the “Saxon”, was completed as the “Walmer Castle”. Similar ships but with additional first-class accommodation, the “Armadale Castle” and the “Kenilworth Castle”, were completed in 1903 and 1904 respectively.


The “Briton” And The “Dunluce Castle”