Union-Castle Line


Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co Ltd was founded in 1900 by the merger of Union SS Co. Ltd. and the Castle Mail Packet Co. Ltd. These two companies had for the previous 25 years dominated the trade from UK to South Africa. Union was started by Arthur Anderson of P & O in 1853, as Union Steam Collier Co. The plan was to build 5 steamers to bring coal from South Wales to meet the requirements of P & O, Royal Mail and other shipping companies using Southampton. The Crimean War broke out before the ships could enter service and they were chartered by the British Government. When they were returned to Union in 1856 at the end of the war, there were ample coal supplies in Southampton and the company needed to find other employment for their ships. The company was renamed Union Steam Ship Co Ltd and experimental services to South America and from Birkenhead to Hamburg were attempted without success. The company was saved by winning an 1857 tender for a mail contract to Cape Colony and Natal. The tiny Union ships were completely unsuited for the contract, but they enabled Union to make enough money to buy larger, second-hand ships.

In 1863 the service was extended to Port Elizabeth and service frequency increased to twice monthly in 1868. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to provide a service along the eastern coast of Africa in partnerships with P & O but after complex negotiations a service was opened in 1873 to Zanzibar linking to an onward service operated by British India. During these early years Union saw off a number of competitors, but in 1872 a formidable rival appeared in the form of Donald Currie’s Castle Line. Donald Currie was born in Greenock in 1825. His father was a hairdresser and the family moved to Castle Place, Belfast in 1826. Currie’s childhood in Castle Place was so happy that he gave his ships 'Castle' names. In 1842 Currie became a clerk in Cunard’s freight department in Liverpool, where he quickly rose through the management ranks and by 1854 had become an important figure in North Atlantic shipping. In 1862 Currie took a controlling interest in the Leith, Hull & Hamburg Steam Packet Co. (LH & SPC) Shortly afterwards that company's manager died and Donald’s brother James took over. In the same year Donald resigned from Cunard and formed Donald Currie & Co, which built 9 high quality sailing ships that were operated from Liverpool or London to Calcutta via the Cape, each carrying 100 emigrants.

Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Curry ordered his first two steamers in 1871. In the winter of the same year, George Payne, owner of The Cape & Natal Line chartered two steamers from LH & SPC for use in his private mail service to the Cape. This was an unsubsidised service that charged about one third of the official mail, but did not guarantee sailing and arrival dates. Unfortunately in 1872 Payne was unable to meet the charter payments, but he persuaded Currie to take over the service. Payne acted as Currie’s South African representative. The new Castle steamers were placed on the route and from 1873 the Calcutta service was phased out. The Castle steamers were in fact superior to the Union ships and achieved shorter voyage times than the official mail ships. This delighted the Cape Legislative Assembly who voted to pay Currie £140 for each passage day below 30 days.

In 1876 Currie formed his Castle Mail Packet Co, which became a public limited company in 1881. The formation of Castle coincided with the Colonial government awarding mail contracts to both Union and Castle, requiring them to jointly provide a weekly service, with alternate sailings by the two companies. The contract also forbade the two companies from amalgamating. Voyage time was set at 26 days. These arrangements generated intense competition between the two companies. The twin contracts were renewed in 1883, but with the voyage time reduced to 21.5 days and in 1888 to 20 days; in 1893 it was 19 days. Union had difficulty matching the standards set by Castle although an exception was Scot, whose photo is in the collection. She was the finest and fastest ship on the route, but was hopelessly uneconomic, burning 170 tons of coal per day. As a result, Union’s finances deteriorated during the 1890s and Gustav Wolff (of Harland & Wolff) began stalking the firm, building up his shareholding and being elected to the board in 1894. Wolff was instrumental in persuading Union to join the H & W Commission Club, whereby in exchange for all future Union ships being built by H & W, they were priced at cost plus 4%. This arrangement resulted in Union acquiring some excellent, but expensive vessels.

Both Union and Castle were greatly effected by the political and economic events in South Africa. Despite the problems caused by the Boer War, the Cape Government decided to change the basis upon which the mail contract would be renewed in 1899 in an attempt to increase competition. The contract was opened to public tender by anyone on the basis that the winner would have an exclusive contract. The outcome was the direct opposite of the political intention, as no one could meet the tender conditions and no tenders were submitted. Currie seized the opportunity to propose a merger of Union and Castle under his management and the government was obliged to accept.

Union-Castle immediately withdrew from the H & W Commission Club, but it continued to place some contracts with the yard on a competitive basis and Gustav Wolff remained a director of the merged company. Sir Donald Currie died in 1909 leaving a vacuum in the U-C management, which Wolff sought to exploit through Sir Owen Philipps, (later Lord Kylsant) chairman of Royal Mail, Elder Dempster and Pacific Steam Navigation, who was a close associate of the owners of H & W. In December 1911 the £10 shares in U-C were standing at about £12 on the stock market, when Philipps made a lavish offer of £32.50 per share for the company, plus £700,000 for the resignation of Donald Currie & Co as managers. These proposals were of course accepted and the takeover was completed in April 1912. The purchase was made jointly by Royal Mail and Elder Dempster. One of the new U-C directors was Lord Pirrie, the chairman of H & W and U-C immediately rejoined the H & W Commission Club. Later in 1912 U-C entered into a new 10 year mail contract, whereby the company undertook to build 6 mail steamers of 15,000 tons each.

The outbreak of WW1 disrupted these developments. U-C entered the war with 41 ocean-going vessels and a number of cargo ships were acquired during the conflict. In total, 8 ships were lost during the war. The company did well during the 1920s, but became increasingly threatened by Kylsant’s reckless acquisitions, which were financed by the subsidiaries, including U-C, maximising their borrowing capacity. In 1931 the Kylsant empire imploded, leaving a web of cross debt between the operating companies. U-C was inherently solvent, but its survival was only assured when its shareholders, Royal Mail and Elder Dempster went into liquidation in 1934, allowing their creditors to float U-C as an independent company in 1936.

At the start of WW2 U-C owned 28 ocean-going ships of which 13 were lost together with the lives of 274 U-C personnel. A rebuilding programme was undertaken and a new mail and freight contract was agreed in 1947. This required the mail voyages to come down to 14 days and that some of the cargo ships be transferred to South African registry.

In 1955 it was announced that a merger was proposed between U-C and Clan Line Steamers Ltd. Negotiations were completed in January 1956 bringing together the 57 ships of Clan, Houston and Shire Lines with the 42 ships of U-C, Bullard King and King Lines. Labour disputes in 1957/58 during the construction of Pendennis Castle led to the permanent termination of the relationship with H & W. In 1966 the mail contract was accelerated to 11.5 days, allowing the service to be operated by 5 passenger ships and two fast cargo ships. Two of the passenger ships were transferred to South African Marine Corporation. In 1967 the East Coast service was ended. The independence of the East African Colonies meant an end of the employment of colonial service personnel, who were the major users of the service.

The desire for an ever faster service to South Africa is a constant feature of this history. It was inevitable therefore, that the mail service succumbed to the 1970s competition from airlines and fast container ships. The passenger service finally ended in 1977. By 1979 the U-C fleet was down to 4 refrigerated ships and the last two of these were sold in 1982, bringing the history of the company to an end.


Vessel Type Launched/Completed Tonnage DWT Builder
Arundel Castle Passenger Oct 1894. Gross: 4588 Net: 2879 Fairfield Shipbuilders & Engineering Co. Ltd. Glasgow
Athlone Castle Cargo / Passenger 576,778 G. 28/11/1935. Gross: 25567 Net: 15186 15138 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Balmoral Castle No Info
Braemar Castle Passenger July 1898. Gross: 6266 Net: 3964 Barclay, Curle & Co. Glasgow
Braemar Castle Cargo / Passenger 476,250 G. 21/04/1952. Yard No: 1459 Gross: 17029 Net: 9490 10834 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Capetown Castle No Info
Carnarvon Castle Passenger 14/01/1926. Gross: 20122 Net: 12089 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Chepstow Castle No Info
Dover Castle No Info 21/12/1964. Yard No: 507 Gross: 7955 Net: 4272 Greenock Dockyard Co. Ltd. Greenock
Dunottar Castle Passenger 20/06/1890. Gross: 5625 Net: 3139 Fairfield Shipbuilders & Engineering Co. Ltd. Glasgow
Dunvegan Castle No Info 1896??
Durban Castle Cargo / Passenger 508,170 G. 14/06/1938. Yard No: 987 Gross: 17382 Net: 10223 10802 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Edinburgh Castle Cargo / Passenger 615,520 G. 16/10/1947. Gross: 28705 Net: 16606 16558 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Gloucester Castle Cargo / Passenger 326,000 G. 1911 Gross: 7999 Net: 4991 Fairfield Shipbuilders & Engineering Co. Ltd. Glasgow
Good Hope Castle No Info
Grantully Castle Passenger Dec 1879. Gross: 3489 Net: 2234 Barclay, Curle & Co. Ltd. Glasgow
Kenilworth Castle Passenger 15/12/1903. Yard No: 356 Gross: 12975 Net: 6463 11060 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Kenilworth Castle Cargo 708,320 G 1944 Gross: 9907 Net: 6101 11755 C. Connell & Co. Ltd. Glasgow
Kenya Castle No Info
Llandovery Castle Passenger 03/09/1913. Gross: 10639 Net: 7128 Barclay, Curle & Co. Ltd., Glasgow
Llangibby Castle No Info
Pendennis Castle Cargo / Passenger 345,720 R. 24/12/1957. Yard No: 1558 Gross: 28582 Net: 15977 15600 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Pretoria Castle Cargo / Passenger 607,560 G. 17/08/1947. Yard No: 1332 Gross: 28705 Net: 16606 16688 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Richmond Castle Cargo / Passenger 418,532 R. Sept 1944. Yard No: 1178 Gross: 7906 Net: 4687 9335 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Riebeeck Castle Cargo / Passenger 424,788 R. March 1946. Yard No: 1277 Gross: 8355 Net: 5029 9198 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Rochester Castle Cargo 413,265 G. 29/04/1937. Yard No: 992 Gross: 7818 Net: 4791 9258 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Roslin Castle Cargo / Passenger 364,292 R. 20/12/1934. Yard No: 943 Gross: 7017 Net: 4306 8510 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Rotherwick Castle No Info 1960?
Rothesay Castle Cargo 362,429 R. 21/02/1935. Yard No: 944 Gross: 7016 Net: 4260 8510 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Rothesay Castle Cargo 479,240 G. June 1960. Yard No: 595 Gross: 9650 Net: 5244 10000 Greenock Dockyard Co. Ltd. Greenock
Rowallan Castle Cargo / Passenger 418,234 R. April 1943. Yard No: 1150 Gross: 7943 Net: 4665 9275 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Roxburg Castle Cargo / Passenger 357,000 R. June 1937. Gross: 7801 Net: 4360 78900 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Rustenburg Castle Cargo 429,112 G. June 1946. Yard No: 1278 Gross: 8355 Net: 5012 9198 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Sandown Castle Cargo / Passenger 624,000 G. 1921 Gross: 7634 11500 Short Bros Ltd. Sunderland
Scot No Info
Southampton Castle No Info
Srirling Castle Cargo / Passenger 576,266 G. 15/07/1935. Yard No: 941 Gross: 25554 Net: 15100 15421 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Tantallon Castle Cargo / Passenger 686,690 G. 22/10/1953. Yard No: 1499 Gross: 7432 Net: 4204 10835 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Transvaal Castle Cargo / Passenger 36,320 R. 17/01/1961. Gross: 32697 Net: 17950 16388 John Brown & Co. Ltd. Clydebank
Warwick Castle Cargo / Passenger 178,680 R. 18/04/1939. Yard No: 1006 Gross: 17387 Net: 10229 10590 Harland & Wolff Ltd. Belfast
Winchester Castle No Info
Winchester Castle No Info
Windsor Castle No Info 1960?

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