- It was one of the most important British liner routes of all – the express run from Southampton to the South African Cape.
- Carrying passengers as well as cargo, including the all-important mail, it was a byword in travel – ‘every Thursday at 4’, as one of the big Union castle liners set off for Cape Town and beyond.
RMS Pretoria Castle Union Castle Line – Her maiden Voyage – Newsreel…
- By the late 1950s, these mail ships included the Arundel Castle, Carnarvon Castle, Winchester Castle, Athlone Castle, Stirling Castle and two post-war sensations, the Edinburgh Castle and Pretoria Castle.
- Three new liners arrived in 1959, the last great ships built for Union Castle. They were Pendennis Castle, Windsor Castle and Transvaal Castle.
- The route was not just to the Cape – for Union Castle offered a service down the East coast of Africa and a round-Africa route too.
- In 1977, with the mail contract and passengers lost to the jet and cargo to container ships, the service ceased in October that year and Union Castle was no more.
The painting above is by Simon Fisher and is entitled ‘CASTLES AT THE CAPE’. Resplendant in the fondly remembered Union-Castle lavender-hulled colours, CAPETOWN CASTLE passes EDINBURGH CASTLE in Capetown Harbour in the 50s, Table Mountain forming a fine backdrop.
- The Union Line was founded in 1853 as the Southampton Steam Shipping Company to transport coal from South Wales to Southampton.
- It was renamed the Union Steam Collier Company and then the Union Steamship Company. In 1857, renamed the Union Line, it won a contract to carry mail to South Africa, mainly the Cape Colony.
- Meanwhile, Donald Currie had built up the Castle Packet Co. which traded to Calcutta round the Cape of Good Hope.
- This trade was substantially curtailed by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the Castle Line started to run to South Africa instead, later becoming the Castle Mail Packet Company.
In 1872 the Cape Colony gained “Responsible Government” and its first Prime Minister, John Molteno, ordered a re-negotiation of the country’s mail services. In 1876, keen to avoid either of the two main companies gaining a monopoly on the country’s shipping, he awarded the South African mail contract jointly to both the Castle Mail Packet Company and the Union Line.
The contract included a condition that the two companies would not amalgamate, as well as other clauses to promote competition, such as alternating services and speed premiums. This competition led to their shipping services running at unprecedented speed and efficiency.
The contract was eventually to expire however, and the period of intense competition was later to give way to co-operation, including transporting troops and military equipment during the Boer War. Finally, on 8 March 1900, the Union Line and Castle Shipping Line merged, creating the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company, Ltd, with Castle Shipping Line taking over the fleet.
Athlone Castle was built in 1936 and was a troopship in the Second World War
Union-Castle named most of their ships with the suffix “Castle” in their names; the names of several inherited from the Union Line were changed to this scheme (for example, Galacian became Glenart Castle) but others (such as Galeka) retained their original name. They were well known for the lavender-hulled liners with red funnels topped in black, running on a rigid timetable between Southampton and Cape Town. Every Thursday at 4pm a Union-Castle Royal Mail Ship would leave Southampton bound for Cape Town. At the same time, a Union-Castle Royal Mail Ship would leave Cape Town bound for Southampton.
The combined line was bought by Royal Mail Line in 1911, but continued to operate as Union-Castle. Many of the line’s vessels were requisitioned for service as troop ships or hospital ships in the First World War, and eight were sunk by mines or German U-boats. The Royal Mail Line ran into financial difficulties in the 1930s, culminating in the prosecution of its director Lord Kylsant, and Union-Castle Line became an independent company again. Many vessels were again requisitioned in the Second World War. Three – Dunnottar Castle, Carnarvon Castle, Dunvegan Castle became armed merchant cruisers. Pretoria Castle (1939) was also first requisitioned as an armed merchant cruiser, but later served as an escort aircraft carrier.
The company took over the King Line in 1949, and merged with Bullard King and Clan Line in 1956 to form British & Commonwealth Shipping. It merged with South African Marine Corporation in 1973 to create International Liner Services, but competition with air travel adversely affected its shipping activities, and cargo shipping rapidly became containerized.
The final South African mail service arrived in Southampton on 24 October 1977, and International Liner Services withdrew from shipping in 1982. British & Commonwealth continued in other fields, and acquired Atlantic Computers in 1989, but accounting problems soon became apparent and British & Commonwealth was liquidated in 1990.
In December 1999 the Union-Castle name was revived for a millennium cruise; the P&O ship Victoria was chartered for a 60-day cruise around Africa, and had its funnel repainted for the occasion.
The last few surviving Union-Castle Line ships were scrapped in the early 21st century, the former Kenya Castle in 2001, the former Transvaal Castle in 2003, the former Dunnottar Castle in 2004, and finally Windsor Castle in 2005.