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In 1853, the Union Steamship Company was founded as the Union Steam Collier to carry coal from South Wales to meet the growing demand in Southampton. It was originally named the Southampton Steam Shipping Company, but later renamed Union Steam Collier Company. The first steamship, the Union, loaded coal in Cardiff in June 1854 but the outbreak of the Crimean War slowed things down. After the war the company was reconstituted as the Union Steamship Company and began chartering its ships.
In 1857 the company was re-registered as Union Line, with Southampton as head office. That same year, the British Admiralty invited tenders for the mail contract to the Cape and Natal. Union Line was awarded the contract with monthly sailings in each direction of not more than 42 days, sailing from Plymouth to Cape Town or Simon’s Town. The five year contract was signed on the 12th September under the name Union-Steam Ship Company Ltd. The first sailing was from Southampton on the 15th September by the Dane.
Union Line built its first ship for the South African run and in October 1860 the Cambrian left Southampton on its maiden voyage. She could carry 60 first class and 40 second class passengers. In September 1871, bound for the cape, she ran out of coal but, under sail, completed the voyage from Southampton in less than 42 days.
By 1863 Donald Currie had built up a fleet of four sailing ships which passed the Cape on the Liverpool-Calcutta run. This company was the Castle Packet Company and was successful until the Suez Canal opened in 1869. By this time, Donald had acquired shares in the Leith, Hull and Hamburg Packet Company where his brother James was manager. The LH & H Packet Co. chartered two ships, Iceland and Gothland, to the Cape & Natal Steam Navigation Co. but this company failed. Donald then used three new Castle steamships intended for the Calcutta run on the Cape run. The ships sailed twice monthly from London with a call at Dartmouth for the mail.
In 1872 the Castle Packet Company took on the Cape run after the collapse of the Cape & Natal Line which had Currie ships on charter. Sailing from London, the ships called at Dartmouth. The service was sold under the banner “The Regular London Line”, later becoming “The Colonial Mail Line” and then “The Castle Mail Packet Company Limited”.
In 1873 Union Line signed a new mail contract including a four weekly service up the east coast of Africa from Cape Town to Zanzibar.
In 1876 the Castle Mail Packet Company Ltd was formed. Later that year, the Colonial Government awarded a joint mail contract. The service to the Cape became weekly by alternating steamers.
In 1882 the Union-Line Athenian became the first ship to use the new Sir Hercules Robinson graving dock at Cape Town. This was constructed of Paarl granite and was named after the Governor of South Africa.
In 1883 the South African Shipping Conference was formed to control the Europe -South / East Africa freight rates. The Conference was dominated by the Union Line and the Castle Mail Packet Company. Fierce rivalry between the two mail companies dominated the route until the merger in 1900. A seven year joint mail contract was signed with the clause that the companies not amalgamate.
In May 1887 the Dunbar Castle sailed from London with the first consignment of railway equipment to link the Eastern Transvaal with Delagoa Bay. The railway line was opened in 1894.
In 1890 Castle Packet’s new Dunottar Castle sailed from Southampton on her maiden voyage. It reduced the voyage to 18 days, and embarkation was switched from Dartmouth to Southampton. She had accommodation for 100 first class, 90 second class, 100 third class and 150 steerage passengers.
In 1890 Union Line’s Norseman and Tyrian, together with Courland and Venice from the Castle Packet Company began shipping supplies for transporting up river to Matebeleland. These materials were used to open up the new country of Rhodesia.
In 1891 Union Line’s Scott left Southampton on her maiden voyage reaching Cape Town in 15½ days with a stop in Madeira. In March 1893 the same ship set a new Cape run record of 14 days, 18 hours – a record which stood for 43 years. It was also in 1891 that the Castle Line replaced its Dartmouth call with one at Southampton. The Union Line now operated 10 steamships and the Castle Mail Packets Co. (renamed in 1881) operated 11 on the mail run. Both companies operated connecting coastal services to Lourenco Marques, Beira and Mauritius.
In 1893, both Union and Castle Lines began a joint cargo service from South Africa to New York. The mail contract was renewed, again with the non-amalgamation clause.
In October 1899 the Anglo-Boer War broke out. Both Union Line and Castle Packet ships ferried troops and supplies to South Africa. In late 1899, a new mail contract was offered but only one company could win the award. This led to the merger proposed by Donald. It was announced in December 1899 and Castle Line took over the fleet. The Union Line livery was black with a white riband around the hull but in 1892 this was changed to a white hull with blue riband and cream-coloured funnels. The Castle ships had a lavender-grey hull with black-topped red funnels, and this was adopted as the livery for the Union-Castle Line.
On the 13th February 1900, shareholders approved the merger. On the 8th March the merged company name was registered – Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company Ltd.
At the time of the merger, the Union Steamship fleet included the:
Celt (on order)
The Castle Line Mail Packet Company ships included the:
On the 10th March 1900, Union Line’s Moor left Southampton for the last time in Union colours. On the 17th March Donald Currie hosted a reception aboard the Dunottar Castle to celebrate the hoisting of the Union-Castle flag for the first time. The Anglo-Boer War resulted in heavy military traffic for Union-Castle Line. Lord ROBERTS and his Chief of Staff, General KITCHENER, travelled to the Cape by Union-Castle.
In 1901 the Tantallon Castle was lost off Robben Island. In 1902, after the war had ended, 15 ships were laid up at Netley in Southampton Water. Nine ships undertook the weekly mail service – Saxon, Briton, Norman, Walmer Castle, Carisbrooke Castle, Dunvegan Castle, Kildonan Castle and Kinfauns Castle.
In 1910, Lord GLADSTONE, the first Governor-General of South Africa, sailed to the Cape aboard the Walmer Castle. The 1900 mail contract was extended until 1912, as the colonies united and the South African Parliament was formed under the Union of South Africa. The Prince of Wales was to sail to Cape Town, to open the new Parliament, aboard the Balmoral Castle – taken over by the Admiralty for the purpose as H.M.S. Balmoral Castle. Shortly before the ship sailed King Edward VII died and the Prince of Wales ascended the throne as H.M. King George V. He was not able to go to Cape Town and his brother, the Duke of Connaught, was sent instead.
In 1911 the Royal Mail Line bought the Union-Castle Company, taking control in April 1912. A new ten year mail contract was signed. The first new ships now bore Welsh names – the Llandovery Castle and the Llanstephan Castle.
In 1914, the Carisbrooke Castle, Norman and Dunvegan Castle were commissioned by the Admiralty – the first as a hospital ship, the latter two as troopships. By the 4th September, 19 of Union-Castle’s 41 ships were on war duty.
By 1915, Union-Castle had 13 ships in service as hospital ships. Some of the ships were lost during WWI:
28 October 1916 – Galeka was hit by a mine.
19 March 1917 – Alnwick Castle was torpedoed and sunk.
26 May 1917 – Dover Castle was sunk by a U-boat.
21 November 1917 – Aros Castle was torpedoed and sunk.
14 February 1918 – Carlisle Castle was torpedoed and sunk
26 February 1918 – Galacian was sunk by a U-boat, whilst renamed the Glenart Castle
12 September 1918 – Galway Castle was sunk by a U-boat, whilst renamed the Rhodesia
27 June 1918 – Llandovery Castle was sunk by a U-boat whilst serving as a hospital ship. 234 lives were lost, making it the fleet’s worst disaster. The Union-Castle War Memorial to those lost is at Cayzer House, Thomas More Street, London.
By October 1919, the Africa service had restarted, and Natal Direct Line had been bought. The weekly mail service resumed after WWI. The intermediate service restarted with the Gloucester Castle, Guildford Castle, Llanstephen Castle and the Norman.
In 1921 the Arundel Castle entered service. It was Union-Castle’s first four funnelled ship and the fleet’s largest ship to date. The Windsor Castle followed in 1922 and the “Round Africa” service was inaugurated.
In 1925 the Norman was withdrawn from service and the Llandovery Castle brought into service, followed by the Llandaff Castle and the Carnarvon Castle in 1926.
In 1927 the Royal Mail Line added the White Star Line. The British Treasury became involved to try and separate Union-Castle Line’s parent company from Royal Mail. By 1932 the Royal Mail group of companies (which included Union-Castle) had run into financial difficulties. Union-Castle came out of this as an independent company. In 1934 Royal Mail was put in liquidation. With heavy government involvement, Union-Castle started rebuilding.
In 1936 the Athlone Castle and the Stirling Castle entered the service. The Stirling Castle beat the record to the Cape set in 1893 by the Scot. A new ten year 14-day mail contract was signed. At this stage only the Stirling Castle and the Athlone Castle could maintain the timetable. The Arundel Castle and Windsor Castle were rebuilt, and the Carnarvon Castle, Winchester Castle and Warwick Castle were re-engined. On the 29th April 1938 the Cape Town Castle entered service. By 1939, the rebuilding programme was complete, but WWII was looming. The Edinburgh Castle became a troopship and the Dunottar Castle served as an armed merchant cruiser. After war was declared, the Carnavon Castle, Dunvegan Castle and Pretoria Castle became armed merchant cruisers.
The following Union-Castle ships were lost during WWII:
4th January 1940 – Rothesay Castle
9th January 1940 – Dunbar Castle hit by a mine and sunk.
28th August 1940 – Dunvegan Castle was sunk by a U-boat.
21st September 1941 – Walmer Castle was bombed and sunk.
12th December 1941 – Dromore Castle was hit by a mined and sunk.
14th February 1942 – Rowallan Castle was bombed by enemy aircraft.
16th July 1942 – Gloucester Castle was sunk by the German cruiser Michel.
4th August 1942 – Richmond Castle was sunk by a U-boat.
14th November 1942 – Warwick Castle was sunk by a U-boat.
30th November 1942 – Llandaff Castle was sunk by a U-boat.
22nd February 1943 – Roxburgh Castle was sunk by a U-boat.
23rd March 1943 – Windsor Castle was sunk by enemy aircraft.
2nd April 1943 – Dundrum Castle exploded and sank in the Red Sea.
During the war Union-Castle ships carried 1.3 million troops, 306 Union-Castle employees were killed, wounded or listed as missing, 62 became prisoners-of-war. The Master of the Rochester Castle, Captain Richard WREN, received the DSO. The Winchester Castle, along with the battleship H.M.S. Ramillies, lead Operation Ironclad at Diego Suarez, and was awarded Battle Honours and her Master, Captain NEWDIGATE the DSC.
By the end of WWII, the Union-Castle passenger fleet consisted of the Cape Town Castle, Athlone Castle, Stirling Castle, Winchester Castle, Carnarvon Castle and the Arundel Castle.
In 1946, South Africa sponsored a scheme for engineers and their families to emigrate from Britain to fill positions in South Africa. These passengers travelled on the Carnarvon Castle, Winchester Castle and the Arundel Castle. The Durban Castle joined the “Round Africa” route.
On the 9th January 1947, the Cape Town Castle departed from Southampton – the first passenger ship carrying post-war mail. Along with the Stirling Castle, the mail service was restored. In May the Llandovery Castle restarted the “Round Africa” passenger service.
In 1948 the Pretoria Castle (later renamed the S.A. Oranje) and the Edinburgh Castle, departed from Southampton on the 22nd July and the 9th December respectively on their maiden voyages in the mail service.
In February 1949 the Dunottar Castle returned to the “Round Africa” service. A rebuilding programme started and 13 new ships were brought in – the Pretoria Castle and the Edinburgh Castle (mail service); the Kenya Castle, Braemar Castle and the Rhodesia Castle (intermediate liners); the Bloemfontein Castle (Round Africa service); the Riebeeck Castle and Rustenburg Castle (refrigerated cargo); Tantallon Castle, Tintagel Castle, Drakensberg Castle, Good Hope Castle and the Kenilworth Castle (general cargo). The Good Hope Castle and the Drakensberg Castle were registered in South Africa
In 1950 the Bloemfontein Castle departed from London on her maiden voyage anti-clockwise “Round Africa”. In 1953 the Pretoria Castle was chosen to be the Union-Castle ship present at the Coronation Review of the Fleet by Queen Elizabeth II at Spithead on the 15th June 1953.
On the 31st December 1955, the Clan Line and Union-Castle Line merged to form British & Commonwealth. The Clan Line contributed 60% of the assets (57 ships) and Union-Castle 40% (42 ships), giving the CAYZER family control of Union-Castle. The routes and livery of each company remained unchanged.
On New Year’s Day 1959 the Pendennis Castle (replacing the Arundel Castle) departed from Southampton on her maiden voyage in the mail service. The Arundel Castle completed her 211th and last voyage from the Cape, sailing for breakers in the Far East. On the 18th August 1960 the Windsor Castle departed from Southampton on her maiden voyage in the mail service, becoming the largest liner to visit Cape Town. The Winchester Castle was withdrawn from service. Also in 1960, an explosion aboard the Cape Town Castle killed the Chief Engineer and seven officers and ratings.
In 1961, the Transvaal Castle (later renamed S.A. Vaal) was launched by Lady CAYZER. In 1962 the “Round Africa” service was closed. The Transvaal Castle departed from Southampton on her maiden voyage on the 18th January 1962. The Carnarvon Castle and Warwick Castle were withdrawn from service, departing Durban for the last time together. The Durban Castle was also withdrawn.
The Southampton Castle was launched on the 20th October 1964 by Princess Alexandra.
The Windsor Castle sailed on the 16th July 1965, accelerating the mail service to provide a Southampton – Cape Town passage in 11 days. The old 4 p.m. Thursday departure was replaced by the 1 p.m. Friday departure, which remained in place for 12 years. The Athlone Castle and the Stirling Castle were withdrawn from service.
The final cycle of weekly sailings saw the mail ships departing from Southampton in the following order: Windsor Castle, Southampton Castle, Edinburgh Castle, S.A.Vaal, Pendennis Castle, Good Hope Castle, S.A. Oranje.
In 1965 Union-Castle took over the charter of the cruise liner Reina del Mar, using her out of Southampton in the summer months mainly to the Mediterranean. In the winter she cruised from South African ports – often to Rio de Janeiro and other South American ports. The Good Hope Castle sailed on her maiden voyage in the mail service on the 14th January 1966.
The UK seamen’s strike in 1966, lasting 46 days, saw 13 British & Commonwealth Group ships laid up in Southampton Docks at the same time. The mail service became a joint operation with the South African Marine Corporation – Safmarine. The Pretoria Castle and the Transvaal Castle were transferred to Safmarine and the South African flag, becoming the S.A. Oranje and the S.A. Vaal, painted in Safmarine colours.
As the De Havilland Comet jet took to the air, mail was changed from sea mail to air mail. The Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet enabled the mass transportation of people by air. In October 1973 British & Commonwealth Shipping Company and Safmarine combined their operations under the name International Liner Services Ltd. On the 29th June 1973 a fire broke out aboard the Good Hope Castle whilst en route from Ascension Island to St. Helena. Passengers were rescued by a passing tanker. The ship was abandoned but did not sink. She re-entered the mail service from Southampton on the 31st May 1974. A world-wide oil crisis resulted in a 10% surcharge on mail ship fares. The Southampton – Cape Town mail service was temporarily slowed from 11 days to 12 days, to conserve bunker oil.
The S.A. Oranje departed from Southampton on the 19th September 1975 for the breakers. It was the start of the phasing out of weekly mail service.
The Edinburgh Castle’s last departure from Southampton (without passengers) was on the 23rd April 1976 for Durban, after which she went to the breakers. The Pendennis Castle was withdrawn after arriving at Southampton on the 14th June.
In 1977 a decision was made to containerise Europe – South Africa services. The company’s flagship, Windsor Castle, left Southampton on her last voyage on the 12th August, arriving back on the 19th September. She was sold for use as a floating hotel in the Middle East. The S.A. Vaal made her final arrival at Southampton on the 10th October. She was rebuilt as the Festivale with Carnival Cruise Lines on the 29th October and eventually scrapped in 2003 in Alang, India. The Good Hope Castle made her last arrival in the mail service at Southampton on the 26th September. On the 30th September, mainly in order to keep the islands of Ascension and St. Helena supplied, she made an additional voyage to the Cape via Zeebrugge, outside the mail service. She was finally withdrawn on return to Southampton on the 8th December. She was sold to Italy ‘s Costa Line as Paola C but was soon broken up. On the 24th October 1977, the Southampton Castle arrived at Southampton on her last mail service. She was sold to Costa Line but soon afterwards went to the breakers.
To keep the Union-Castle name alive, several Clan Line refrigerated ships were given Castle names and were repainted in Union-Castle colours. The last ship to fly the mail pennant for the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company was the Kinpurnie Castle (former 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. By 1981 the last of the Clan Line ships were sold. In 1982, International Liner Services Ltd withdrew from shipping after failing to compete against air travel. By 1986 British & Commonwealth had disposed of their last ship.
In 1999, the Union-Castle Line name was revived for a special “Round Africa” sailing on the old route. P & O Line’s Victoria sailed on the 11th December 1999 from Southampton on a millennium cruise with her funnel painted in Union-Castle colours. New Year’s celebrations were held in Cape Town. The Victoria returned to Southampton in February 2000.
In June 2001 the Amerikanis (former Kenya Castle) was scrapped in India, In July 2003 the Big Boat (former Transvaal Castle) was scrapped in India. In August 2004 the Victoria (former Dunottar Castle), was also scrapped in India. The Margarita L. (former Windsor Castle) was then owned by the Greek LATSIS family but in December 2004 this last ship was sold for scrap to Indian scrap merchants, ending the era of the Union-Castle Line.
Ports of Call
Royal Mail Service: from Southampton to Durban, via Madeira, Cape Town, Algoa Bay and East London. Northbound voyages called at Mossel Bay.
Around Africa service (West Coast): from London to London, via Canary Islands, Cape Town, Durban, Delagoa Bay and Suez Canal. Other ports of call were given as East African, Egyptian and Mediterranean ports. They may have included Madeira, Ascension, St. Helena, Lobito Bay, Walvis Bay, Lüderitz Bay, Mossel Bay, Algoa Bay, East London, Beira, Dar-es-Salaam, Zanzibar, Tanga, Mombasa, Aden, Port Sudan, Naples, Genoa and Marseilles.
Around Africa service (East Coast): from London to London, via Suez Canal, Delagoa Bay, Durban, Cape Town, Lobito Bay, St. Helena, Ascension, Canary Islands and Madeira. Other ports of call may have been the same as the West Coast route.
Intermediate service: from London to Beira or Mombasa, via Canary Islands and Cape Town. Occasionally called at St. Helena and Ascension on northbound voyages. Other ports of call may have included Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth), East London, and Atlantic ports as per the “Around Africa” West Coast service.
“Round Africa” route, from the 1954 Union-Castle brochure
The Union Castle Line Poster
A Trip to South Africa, by James Salter-Whiter, 1892
Ships and South Africa: a maritime chronicle of the Cape, with particular reference to mail and passenger liners, from the early days of steam down to the present ; by Marischal Murray, Oxford University Press 1933
Union-Castle Chronicle: 1853 – 1953, by Marischal Murray; Longmans, Green and Company 1953
Mail ships of the Union Castle Line, by C.J. Harris and Brian D. Ingpen, Fernwood Press, 1994
Union-Castle Line – A Fleet History, by Peter Newall, Carmania Press 1999
Golden Run – A Nostalgic Memoir of the Halcyon Days of the Great Liners to South and East Africa, by Henry Damant, 2006
Merchant Fleet Series. Vol. 18 Union-Castle, by Duncan Haws
Union-Castle Line Staff Register: http://www.unioncastlestaffregister.co.uk
Article researched and written by Anne Lehmkuhl, June 2007
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