Liner History – Newfoundland’s RED CROSS STEAMSHIP LINE
World War I – D Company, First Newfoundland Regiment, lining rails of S.S. Stephano, ready to leave for overseas, March 20, 1915.
From the late 1800s until 1929, the main passenger and freight-carrying service between St. John’s, Newfoundland and New York (via Halifax, Nova Scotia) was provided by Bowring Brothers Ltd (aka The Red Cross Line). This company was owned and operated by a long established and very successful merchant family of Newfoundland. The firm was founded, about 1811, by Benjamin Bowring, a watch and clock maker, and a former native of Exeter, England. The firm expanded steadily under Benjamin’s management in the early decades of the 1800s. It continued to grow and prosper throughout later decades, as Benjamin’s sons, and eventually his grandsons, took over and guided the business. Their shipping business included routes to England, India, New Zealand, Australia and the West Coast of America. By 1880, the company had built up a fleet of trans-oceanic steamships, and in 1888 formed a new company, the English & American Shipping Co. Ltd., to operate passenger and cargo services, mostly between Liverpool, St. John’s and New York.
In 1884, Bowring Brothers Ltd. formed the New York, Newfoundland and Halifax Steamship Company, offering luxury passenger liner service. Known as The Red Cross Line, this company ran a passenger and freight service along the eastern seaboard, between St. John’s and New York, with a stop-over at Halifax. This steamship line took its name from the Bowring house (or family) flag, which consisted of a red X (St. Andrew’s Cross), on a white background. This family ensign was prominently displayed on the black smokestack(s) of their steamships. In the days before wireless, as ships neared St. John’s Harbour, they were first spotted and identified by lookouts on Signal Hill, high above the entrance to the harbour. The ship’s imminent arrival and its “house” was quickly relayed, to the city’s residents below, by the raising of the appropriate flag, high atop Signal Hill. A cannon was also fired to alert the city’s residents to the presence of the newly raised signal flag. This tradition of flag signaling continued on Signal Hill until 1958. It is still used today to ceremoniously signal the arrival of cruise ships or other important ships.
The two original steamships of the Red Cross Line were the SS Portia and its sister ship the SS Miranda. They could reach New York from St. John’s in about five days, even with the Halifax stop-over. This was a very popular service, and it did much to stimulate trade between these ports. From the manifests, it is obvious that it also stimulated emigration by many Newfoundlanders in search of adventure, employment, or a new way of life. Navigating the North Atlantic can be treacherous at the best of times, so it is not surprising that, by the turn of the century, both of these ships had been wrecked. The SS Miranda was lost in 1894 and the SS Portia, five years later, in 1899.