Union Steam Ship Company

The Earliest Mails.

The earliest efforts to affect letter transport from South Africa long antedates European settlement. In 1500, only thirteen years after the discovery of the Cape, the Portuguese Commander Pedro D'Ataide hung in a tree at Mossel Bay an account of the disaster which had overtaken his Fleet. This was contained in a shoe with a request attached that any homeward bound vessel finding it would take it to Lisbon.

Nearly a century later there were the 'Post Office Stones', the earliest of which there is knowledge was dated 1607. Captains of ships touching the Cape would place their letters when outward bound under the stones, homeward bound ships would pick up the mail and convey it home, inscriptions on the stones are in English, Dutch, Danish and French.

The first Mail Packet Service between England and the Cape commenced in 1815 when fast sailing vessels were employed by the British Government to leave the Thames monthly carrying mails and passengers for the Cape, Mauritius and India. The first Mail Packet reached the Cape in 114 days. After calling at Madeira and Rio De Janeiro.

On the 18th of October 1825 the first steamship to ply between England and India, the Enterprise, 500 tons entered Table Bay. Great excitement prevailed in Capetown when she was signalled from the Lions Rump on the 58th day out of Falmouth, the schools closed and business was suspended to witness her arrival. Before anchoring she steamed about the bay to demonstrate her ability to manoeuvre regardless of the wind. Two other small steamers each of 179 tons maintained a mail service to the Cape until 1857 when the first mail contract was signed between the Cape Government and the Union Line.

The Union Line had started life in 1853 and had been called 'The Southampton Steam Shipping Company' issuing some 3, 000 shares at a value of £20. The Board of Directors comprised Arthur Anderson and Patrick Hadow of P & O, Captain C.E. Mangles, M.P., Edward Dixon of Royal Mail, Thomas Hill, the Company Engineer, Anderson's brother-in-law Henry Faudel and Benjamin Phillips, Faudel's brother-in-law.

The Company was originally formed to supply coal from South Wales to Southampton to meet the increasing demands for bunkers by P & O and Royal Mail. On the 7th October 1853 the Company changed its name again to that of Union Steam Collier Company with its headquarters in Leadenhall Street, London. The Company announced that it was to build five new steamers each to make 24 round voyages annually supplying bunkers to P & O, Royal Mail and General Screw Steamship Company. The Company livery was that of P & O and the name of its first ship was Union it was said at the time that this was the reason for the name change of the Company. All the Company's ships Union, Briton, Saxon, Norman and Dane along with the newly acquired Celt were all requisitioned by the Government for service during the Crimean War, the Celt had been bought from Lungley to replace Union but was requisitioned herself immediately. At the War's end in 1856 the ships once more returned to Southampton but because of the conflict the stockpile of coal had risen considerably so other work for the vessels had to be found. At a Board meeting an attempt was made to find suitable employment for the Company's ships, P & O adopted a 'Not in my Backyard' approach as it already had a surplus tonnage on its Indian Service. Its vote went for a South American Service which won the day, as this was Royal Mail's territory Captain Mangles a Director of Royal Mail was left with no other option than to resign from Union's Board. On the 23rd of September Norman made the inaugural voyage Southampton to Rio De Janeiro, followed by her sisters Union and Dane. As no coal had been carried by the Company's ships to date it was thought that its name was inappropriate therefore in December the Company changed its name to the 'Union Steam Ship Company Ltd.' and it moved its Head office from London to Southampton. Union's incursion into Royal mail's territory proved fruitless as did an alternative route from Birkenhead to Hamburg and it was a great relief when Union won its first contract to carry the mails to Cape Colony and Natal in 1857.

The contract was awarded on the 4th September and it stipulated a monthly sailing in each direction with a voyage time of not more than 42 days also ships had to be of a size of not less than 530 tons. Port of Embarkation for the mails was Devonport under the supervision and care of the usual Royal Navy Officer (plus servant) for delivery to Capetown or in the event of adverse weather conditions Simonstown. The initial contract was for five years at an annual subsidy of £33, 000, two further homeward ports were added to the voyage that of St. Helena and Ascension. The Dane sailed on the first voyage with Captain William Strutt in command carrying only six passengers and very little cargo, this was due to the fact that there had been no time to advertise the service, in any event the voyage took forty four days, two days more than the schedule allowed. However this was more than compensated by the arrival in Capetown of the Celt carrying 11, 000 letters and 3, 640 newspaper plus passengers and cargo. The Directors were able to breath a sigh of relief and with new found confidence appointed Anderson, Saxon and Company to act as their agents. In this year the Company purchased Phoebe but sadly lost Briton whilst en route to Seville whilst on charter.

In 1858 because of a clause in its contract with Governments Union started to purchase larger vessels from other owners, a policy which was to continue for many years. Saxon was sold this year and replaced by the much larger and faster Athens which had spent her early life trading in the Mediterranean. Up until this year passengers had been expected to provide their own bedding, in one of Union's advertisements appeared the novel idea that union would provide the wherewithal, not only that it would provide stewardesses as well.

On the 23rd of april 1860 Cambrian was launched, Union's first specifically designed for the Cape service, on entering service Phoebe was put up for sale. The first tugs entered service which were owned by Deane and Johnson, Albatross took up station in Cape Town and Pioneer at port Natal and on the 1st of May the Cape Point lighthouse was commissioned.

The new Briton was commissioned in 1861. In those days it was the ship's Captain who vitalled the ship, not as in later years when the role was taken up by the Chief steward or Purser. Some captains saw this as a way to boost their own earnings, fortunately they were thin on the ground and passengers and crew alike ate well on the Union Ships. Four main meals a day were the norm with breakfast at nine, luncheon at noon, tea at three, dinner was at five and finally supper was from seven-thirty. Washing facilities left quite a lot to be desired with gentlemen having to use a salt water tub placed forward between the hours of 5am to 7am, ladies had to stand in tubs placed in their cabins. Celt was sold at the end of this year and the Norman and Dane transferred to Coastal trading.

Union was sold in February of 1863 and on the 13th Saxon and Roman entered service. In March the Company's mail contract was renewed but the passage time was reduced to thirty-five days, Port Elizabeth was added to the route, and the contract now called for a Doctor to be carried. Briefly Union Line had competition in the form of Diamond Line but this petered out after only four years. In 1864 Anglian entered service her special design catered for crossing the shallows at Durban, Norman was sold out of the Fleet and purchased by her builder.

During the Great Gale on the 18th of May 1865 three of the Company's ships were at anchor in Table Bay, both anchors failed on the Athens and with no other option Captain David Small elected to take his ship out to sea. He successfully rounded Mouille Point only to have the sea flood in through the Engine Room skylights dousing the boilers. Without power the ship ran aground and broke up on the rocks with a loss of all twenty-nine onboard. The company also lost Dane whilst the vessel was approaching Port Elizabeth when she ran aground, considered a total loss on the 28th of November, also this year a new mail contract was signed with the Natal Government. Mauritius and Natal were completed for coastal trading. In 1866 Mauritius appealed to Union Line to extend its service to Galla, Ceylon when P & O transferred its transhippoint, after a subsidy had been agreed Union Line concurred, the new ship Dane along with Mauritius and Natal were placed on the service. The other new builds Celt and Norseman also entered service.

Another competitor commenced trading in 1867, this was the Cape of Good Hope Line, again like the Diamond Line its career was short-lived also terminating after only four years. The amount of sailings was doubled in 1868 in exchange for an extension to the existing contract now to run until 1876 this was formulated in an attempt to ward off increasing competition.

The Chairman of Union Arthur Andersen died on the 28th of February he was succeeded by one of the founding Directors Sir Benjamin Phillips. Due to the Mauritius Government failing to honour its share of the subsidy the service to Ceylon was terminated, this came as a relief to the Union Directors as traffic beyond Ceylon was virtually nil. The Suez Canal opened in 1869 and depression hit the Cape Colony as ships bound for India no longer had to transit the Cape, however with the finding of the Star of Africa diamond circumstances changed and business began to improve. Northam was purchased from P & O, Anglian and Mauritius were sold to Palgrave, Murphy & Co of Dublin. The 17th of May 1870 saw the opening of the new Cape Town docks with Saxon being the first Company ship to use the facility on the 5th November. Yet another competitor entered the fray, Cape and Natal Steam Navigation Co which had been started by a local business man Mr. George H. Payne, unfortunately both of his ships were wrecked, they were Westernhope and Beethoven. However George Payne bounced back in 1871 when his ship Sweden smashed the UK- Cape record reducing the voyage to 27.5 days, Saxon the Union's ship took 37.5 days on a parallel voyage. Union had just purchased Syria from P & O and on her first voyage reduced the voyage time down to just under twenty-seven days. Unfortunately for George Payne the Sweden's voyage was to be his only high point and as he floundered Donald Currie's Castle Line stepped into the breech, Union purchased Danube from Royal Mail and had her converted from paddle to screw.

British India joined Union Line in bidding for the services to Zanzibar in 1872. There were to be two services one northern from the Cape and the other southern from Suez, the move by the British government was to hopefully reduce the Island's dependency on its main form of commerce which was slavery. British India underbid Union but in June the Companies put forward a joint proposal, Union to do the Northern route, British India the southern from Aden. During the negotiations Union used the opportunity to try to extend its mail contract and at the end of the lengthy discussions all sides appeared content at the outcome. The unfortunate fly in the ointment however was that no one had consulted the Cape Legislative Assembly. In the end the contract was awarded at an increased subsidy, the extension however was not ratified, unfortunate for Union as it had acquired two new ships and refurbished a further four at an expense of a third of a million pounds on the strength of the original agreement. The problem was also compounded by the growing competition from Donald Currie's Castle Line who it was said had the 'ear' of Cape politicians unlike the Chairman of Union Sir Benjamin Phillips who rarely left the shores of Britain. Zulu, Basuto and European were acquired this year and Cambrian was sold to French interests.

In the June of 1873 Natal made the inaugural voyage from Capetown to Zanzibar, Kafir made the following trip. A new joint mail service contract was signed on the 1st of July with Castle Line being the co signatory the sailings were scheduled to alternate between the two Companies. An adverse effect for Union was that it now found itself with a surplus of ships, to alleviate the problem Union decided to operate a Southampton - Port Elizabeth service and in the November Syria made the first sailing. Six more ships entered service in '73' they were Asiatic, African, Namaqua, Basuto, Tueton and Kagr, Britain was sold to the Admiralty becoming HMS Dromedary and Norseman became a cable layer. Due to the Company's expenditure in anticipation of being awarded the Zanzibar contract unfettered Union posted a loss 73/74 of £8, 000 and therefore no dividend was paid Nyanza was purchased from P & O as she was surplus to requirement by the latter and had been laid up in Southampton since 1870. The Celt was wrecked at the mouth of the River Ratel between Cape Agulhas and Danger Point on the 7th of February fortunately all 90 onboard were saved by another Company ship, Zulu. Northam was sold becoming Stars and Stripes and Union Line opened an office at 11, Leadenhall Street, London.

Saxon was put up for sale when the new Nubian came into service in 1876, Basuto was also sold to French interests after only three year's service, on her first voyage for her new owners she foundered off Corunna. Namaqua was wrecked off Port Nolloth in the March and Union Line opened its own Office in Cape Town at 16 Adderly Street naming Thomas E. Fuller as its General Manager. With increased competition from Castle Line mounting Union embarked on an ambitious new build program in 1877, the first two ships Durban and German entered service the latter taking the cape record from Castle. Zulu was sold and European was lost off Ushant without loss of life on the 5th of December. Syria left the fleet in 1879, Pretoria entered service, and a tug, Union went on station at Durban, Kafir was wrecked near Cape Point at the entrance to Simonstown. In the year of the Zulu War, 1879 Africa, Pretoria and Danube amongst many other vessels carried troops for the conflict, Nyanza evacuated 150 women and children from Pinetown. On the 28th of August King Catawayo was captured and along with his family were transported to Simonstown aboard Natal, Lord Chelmsford and his Staff travelled back to England aboard the German. Arab, built in Glasgow was the sole addition to the fleet this year.

The Empress Eugenie mother of the Price Imperial, Bonaparte, who had been speared to death in an ambush early the previous year went to Durban onboard German in 1880 on a pilgrimage to the site of his death. On her return to France aboard Trojan the Company made a dispensation for the ship to call at St. Helena so the Empress could visit the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. Danube, Roman Teuton and Nyanza were all placed on the Zanzibar route, the Sultan of Zanzibar was so taken with Nyanza that he bought her for use as his Royal yacht and apart from a couple of commercial trips to Bombay she spent the rest of her life anchored at Zanzibar. The American foundered on the 23rd of April when the propeller shaft sheared and screwed itself out of the stern, despite the watertight doors being closed the ship still sank survivors being picked up by the Senegal of the British & African S.N.Co. The service to Zanzibar was terminated in 1881 and Spartan joined the Fleet. In the February a monthly connection to Hamburg and shortly after Antwerp was added to the itinerary. On the 30th of August Teuton whilst outward bound from Cape Town struck a chartered rock four miles off Quoin Point. It was thought at the time that the ship could be saved and only one lifeboat was lowered with no importance being given to lowering the remaining lifeboats. Within a minute the second and third bulkheads collapsed under the weight of incoming water and the ship sank immediately. Of 272 persons onboard only the 36 occupants of the first lifeboat survived. An argument between the Company Directors ensued in 1882 as to the sighting of Head Office. One lone Director Alfred Gibb was in favour of Southampton and was supported by the local populace who purchased shares in the Company so that they could vote in the shareholders election. To everyone's surprise Alfred Gibb won the day and was immediately confirmed as Chairman when the rest of the Board including the previous Chairman Sir Benjamin Phillips resigned. Moor and Athenian which were built at the yard of Aiken and Mansel, Glasgow joined the Fleet this year.

On the 18th of January 1883 the joint mail contract which had been awarded to Union Line and Castle was renewed for a further five years though the Government stipulated that the two Companies were forbidden to merge and had a clause entered into the new contract to that effect. Because of the economical depression in South Africa the South African Conference which had been organised by Donald Currie started a new service to Baltimore via Newport from the hoMe port of Liverpool. Arab and Nubian commenced the first services they were relieved on the South African service by Mexican and Tartar. After eighteen years of uneventful service Natal was sold for further trading to Trinder, Anderson & Co of London.

Arab was chartered in 1884 for the relief of Gordon at Khartoum and the following year Moor was converted into an auxillary cruiser at Simonstown for an anticipated war with Russia. The new African became one of the first ships to be fitted with triple expansion engines in 1886 and Union was represented at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee at Spithead by Asiatic Moor and Pretoria in 1887. At this time Dutch settlers were being encouraged to settle in the Transvaal and many travelled on Union Lines ships also gold was discovered in the Rand which started a gold rush.

The joint mail contract was renewed again in 1888 with voyage times reduced to twenty days and fast voyage premiums abolished, the clause with regards the merger was retained in the contract. Danube was scrapped being replaced by the Saxon recently completed at the yard of Oswald Mordaunt & Co of Southampton and Asiatic was sold to H. Martini of Southampton for further trading.

To cope with the demand for extra traffic created by the Rand gold rush Union purchased Australia from P & O in 1889 renaming her Dane but she proved to be something of a disaster. After twenty-six years service Roman was sold to Essayan, Oondjian of Constantinople, Turkey for further trading, renamed Adana. 1890 saw the introduction of two new ships, Tyrian, and Norseman with the launch of Scot taking place at the year's end, 30th December. Roman had been purchased for the intermediate service, it was a mistake she was too old, too heavy and far too hot and subsequently sold for scrap in 1891, Castle Line also joined Union at Southampton on the 29th of June. 1892 proved to be an eventful year, in March an extension of seven years was signed for the joint contract, again with the no merger clause, also in the same month Scot broke the Cape passage record reducing it to fifteen days, nine hours and fifty-two minutes. May saw the maiden voyage of Gaul first of a ten build 'G' class vessel designed by William Pirrie of Harland & Wolff. Dane was scrapped, African and Norman were sold for further trading, Durban was wrecked at Socorro Point near Tenerife on the 11th June and finally Nubian ran aground whilst on passage to Lisbon on the 21st of December, she became a total loss.

Despite a loss the company declared a dividend in 1894 of 2.5% and during the General Meeting Alfred Gibbs resigned as Company Chairman after 37 years continuous service on the board. Gustav Wolff of Harland and Wolff duly filled the vacated seat on the board and Sir Francis Evans was duly elected to be the new Chairman. Norman entered service, Tyrian and Anglian were sold on, both to Australian ship owners. 1895 proved to be an excellent year only marred by cargo overcapacity and in 1896 German was sold to Italian owners with the Union tug Carnarvon being sold at Lourenco Marques.

The Briton third ship to carry the name was launched in the June of 1897 and was to become the largest ship yet to sail between Great Britain and her Colonies. Pretoria was sold to the Quebec S.S. Co of Southampton, Saxon was sold to Portuguese owners, sadly wrecked on her delivery voyage and Tartar was sold to Canadian Pacific. Goorkha was delivered in the August of this year.



Built: 1897 by Harland & Wolff of Belfast.
Tonnage: 6, 287g, 3, 975n, 12, 642 dwt.
Engines: Twin Screw, 2 x Triple Expansion, 375 NHP, 12.5 Knots.
Passengers: 55 First Class, 70 Second Class, 70 Third Class.
Launched 23rd January 1897, Completed 28th August 1897.

Goorhka was delivered for the intermediate service and was transferred to Union- Castle ownership on the 8th March 1900. In 1910 she transferred to the East African service and four years later on the 20th October she was commissioned as a hospital ship with a 408 bed capacity. On the 10th of October 1917 she was mined off Malta carrying 362 casualties and medical staff fortunately the ship was abandoned without loss of life and she was eventually towed into Malta for repairs. She was decommissioned eight days later and returned to Union Castle for repairs after which she continued on her intermediate service. She was sold for breaking in 1926.

The Company acquired three second-hand steamers in 1898, two from Elder Dempsters of Liverpool which were renamed Sabine and Sandusky, the other purchased from Smiths of Glasgow and renamed Susquehanna. On the 19th of July 1899 a joint contract was renewed with Castle but will be covered later in the History of Castle Line.