Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company

The UNION-CASTLE MAIL STEAMSHIP COMPANY came about through the amalgamation of the Union Steamship Co. and the Castle Packets Co. in March 1900.

Inspired by Arthur Anderson, a founder of P&O, the Union Steamship Co. was the older company founded in 1853 as the Union Steam Collier to carry coal from South Wales to meet the growing demand in Southampton.

Orders were placed for 5 ships- "Union", "Briton," "Saxon, "Norman" and the "Dane". The first steamship, the 336-ton "Union" loaded coal in Cardiff in June 1854 but the outbreak of the Crimean War frustrated the carefully made plans. After the war the company briefly tried to break into the Brazilian trade but then, as the reconstituted Union Steamship Co., began chartering out its ships.

In the summer of 1857 the Admiralty invited tenders for a new mail run to South Africa and, as luck would have it, the Union Steamship Co. was accepted and the future suddenly looked very bright.

The mail contract was for 5 years with an annual subsidy of £33,000 for which the company was to provide a monthly service from Southampton with a call at Plymouth carrying the mails in both directions.

The Cape Town mail service was inaugurated on 15th September 1857 with the 530 ton steam ship "Dane" carrying the mails and 6 passengers, under the command of Captain Strutt. There had been little time to advertise and the revenue from the first voyage was £102.

But the venture proved to be a success and the "Dane" was soon joined by the 613-ton "Phoebe" and the 739-ton "Athens" who, between them, managed to work the route well within the contractual 42 days.

The first class fare was 45 guineas and the company's fortunate shareholders were able to benefit from a 10% dividend. By 1859 the Cape Legislative Assembly was that satisfied with the company's performance that it decided to pay a bonus of £250 for every day that the voyage was completed in less than 35 days.

The success of the venture soon enabled the company to build its first ship for the South African trade and in October 1860 the 1055-ton "Cambrian" left Southampton on its maiden voyage. The "Cambrian" was powered by both steam and sail and under steam only was capable of 10 knots. She had accommodation for 60 first-class and 40 second-class passengers and her other amenities included a bathroom, a luxury for passengers at sea. Bound for the Cape in September 1871 the "Cambrian" ran out of coal but, under sail, still safely completed the voyage from Southampton in under 42 days.

By 1863 Donald Currie, a Greenock born Scotsman and a former employee of Cunard, had built up a fleet of four 1200-ton sailing ships with "Castle" names which traded round the Cape on the Liverpool - Calcutta run. This company was known as the Castle Packet Co. and the venture was successful until the Suez Canal opened in 1869.

This virtually killed off the Calcutta trade round the Cape. However, Currie, by this time, had acquired an interest in the Leith, Hull and Hamburg Packet Co where his brother was manager. The LH&H Packet Co. chartered two vessels, the "Iceland" and the" Gothland", to the Cape & Natal Steam Navigation Co. However, Cape & Natal Steam Navigation Co. company failed and this , purely by chance, enabled Donald Currie to deploy the three new Castle steamships intended for the Calcutta run on the Cape route. The vessels operated a twice monthly sailing from London with a call at Dartmouth for the mails.

In 1872 he was asked by the Cape merchants and the Government of Cape Colony to provide competition for the Union Line and was offered generous terms to carry the northbound mails in Castle ships. This he did but when the various contracts expired in 1876 a new mail contract was signed sharing the traffic equally between the two lines, each company providing alternate sailings for a weekly service.

Rivalry between the two companies still existed as any form of amalgamation was forbidden by the Cape authorities under the terms of the mail contracts.

In 1888 a new contract was negotiated with the British government which guaranteed both companies an assured £26,000 annually but the contract stipulated a 20 day passage to the Cape and an extension to Durban with calls at East London and Port Elizabeth. Although the Union Line operated out of Southampton and the Castle ships sailed from London they offered an identical service and passage tickets were interchangeable.

Vessels departed every Thursday, alternately from Southampton and London. In 1891 the Castle Line replaced its Dartmouth call with one at Southampton and the services became more integrated with the consequent reduction of the bitter rivalry, a characteristic of trade in the early days.

The Union Line operated 10 steamships and the Castle Mail Packets Co. (renamed in 1881) deployed 11 vessels on the mail run and both companies worked connecting coastal services to Lourenco Marques (Maputu), Beira and Mauritius.

The Cape steamers were small compared with the vessels which plied across the Atlantic to North America and even those on the Australia run. In 1885 the largest in service was the 661-ton "Mexican" and her small sister the" Tartar" both completed in 1883 for the Union Line. However, the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1900 provoked change which resulted in the Union Mail Co taking delivery of the 5625-ton "Dunottar Castle". This vessel surpassed everything in both fleets with accommodation for 100 first-class, 90 second-class, 100 third-class and 150 steerage passengers. With a top speed of 15 knots the history of the South African mail service was about to change.

The Union Line responded with the 6844-ton "Scot". With a clipper-stem and a service speed of 16.5 knots carrying 204 first-class, 205 second-class and about 100 third-class passengers she was magnificent and possibly one of the best looking ships ever built.

She broke all records for the Cape run reducing the passage time to 15 days. Unfortunately, the running costs were huge and after incurring considerable losses over a period of 12 years she was eventually sold to the Hamburg America Line.

The livery of the Union vessels was drab black with a white riband around the hull but in 1892 this was changed to a white hull with blue riband and cream-buff coloured funnels.

On the other hand, the Castle ships had a lavender-grey hull with black-topped red funnels, a livery which survived until the company's eventual demise some 80 odd years later.


1900-1977  The Cape Mail Service

Southampton - Madeira - Cape Town - Port Elizabeth - East London - Durban - East London - Port Elizabeth - Cape Town - St.Helena (occasional) - Ascension (occasional) - Las Palmas (occasional) - Southampton.


Cargo service South Africa - USA (usually New York)


London - Walvis Bay - Cape Town - Port Elizabeth - East London - Durban - Mauritius.


Cargo feeder service Southampton - London - Antwerp - Rotterdam - Bremen - Hamburg.


London Walvis Bay - Cape Town - Port Elizabeth - East London - Durban - Dar-es-Salaam - Mombasa and reverse.


Day excursions Cape Town - Simonstown (return by rail)

1910-1914, 1919-1922

London - Suez - Mombasa.

1910-1961  The Intermediates

Round Africa service: London - Southampton - Gibraltar - Tangier (occasional) - Palma de Majorca (occasional) - Marseilles - Genoa/Naples - Tunis (occasional) - Suez - Port Sudan (occasional) - Aden - Mombasa - Zanzibar - Dar-es-Salaam - Beira - Lourenco Marques - Durban - East London - Port Elizabeth - Cape Town - Southampton. (and reverse)


Southampton - Cape Town - Port Elizabeth - East London - Durban - Delagoa Bay - Lourenco Marques (occasional) - Mombasa.


Cargo service Continent - UK - South Africa - UK.


Beira based feeder service: Zanzibar - Dar-es-Salaam - Inter ports - Beira - Durban.


Southampton - Cape Town direct.


London - Las Palmas - Ascension - St. Helena - Cape Town - Durban - Beira.


London - Gibraltar - Genoa - Port Said - Port Suez - Aden - Mombasa - Zanzibar - Dar-es-Salaam - Beira - Durban - Lourenco Marques - Tanga - Naples - Marseilles - London.



From B&C February 1964

Union-Castle Line Commanders

The following pages attempt to record all the Commanders of Union-Castle ships 1900-1977, a virtually impossible task, but what has been unearthed does present a reasonable picture. Because the fall-out rate amongst Junior Officers was inevitably high, except in rare circumstances only those who achieved command are recorded.

The main sources for research are listed below:

The House Magazines of  The British & Commonwealth Shipping Co Ltd 1956-1983 listing officers serving, and is an indispensable aid.  It also records retirements and obituaries, although not in the depth of detail one would wish.  The last issue was in 1988. Unfortunately there are significant gaps, particularly amongst the cargo ships.

Lloyds Voyage Cards recorded the names of the Captains until the end of 1947.  Provided they are legible this is a valuable tool.

Lloyds Captains Register, also at Guildhall Library, has all the info up to 1947.  However experience in studying Files 18568 and 18569 has thrown up information inconsistent with Company data (Para 6) which I have generally preferred.

As late as the 1950s, barring the war years, the Company produced a monthly or bi-monthly sailing and loading schedule naming the Captains.  Those for the period Jan 1909-Jan 1915 have been especially useful.

The Head Office Voyage Book for 1926-1937 thoughtfully included Captains’ names. Unfortunately the following volume did not, but the speed and consumption book 1939 does, barring the old coal burning Intermediate and cargo ships.

Further information is derived from publications notably by Marischal Murray, George Young, Brian Ingpen and numerous press cuttings and correspondence from former officers, ratings, and passengers.

Clearly there are massive gaps, notably up to c 1908 and also for War Service and the period 1945-1955.

Alan Mallett has generously allowed us to copy his research into the Masters of the Union-Castle Line.  Only those who have spent hours of footslogging from archive to archive, library to library can know what a generous offer this is.

Union-Castle on Facebook

The history notes on each ship are from

Merchant Fleets 18: Union, Castle and Union-Castle Lines by Duncan Hawes  ISBN 0946378 15 0

They've stripped her frills an furnishin's they've bared 'er stem to stern,

They've gutted 'er from mizzen-truck to hold,

An' she's learned 'er final lesson, what the best o' sailors learn,

That the sea is finished wiv yer when yer old!

Yes, she's finished with the sea,

An' she'll never more be free,

To wander where the waves is rollin' green,

For the knackers they 'ave got 'er

An' they'll bloomin well job- lot 'er,

An they'll never give a thought for what she's been.

They didn't 'old no service for to mark 'er dyin' day,

But 'er sisters 'ooted mournful as she passed.

An' a brace o' dirty tug boats came an 'ustled 'er away,

Wiv 'er colours 'angin' sadly at the mast.

An' they'll never give a rap

As they cut 'er into scrap,

For the glory an' the pride she used to be,

An 'er owners will forget 'er

An they'll take an' build a better,

But there'll never be a better ship for me.

Yet I 'aven’t seen the last of 'er, for ships is more than steel,

An' sailor men see more than other folk,

So I know some day I'll sight 'er wiv the pilot at 'er wheel,

An 'er ghostly funnel trailin ghostly smoke.

I'll be ready for I'll know

That it's time for me to go,

An I'll smile to 'ear the shout of "come aboard!"

An' there's not a man will fail 'er

As we muster there to sail 'er

Straight to Heaven for the glory of the Lord!

My thanks to Bob Wilson for finding this old piece of poetry and it sums the sentiments of all ex-mariners.

Mail Ships

Union-Castle Line Voyages

Union-Castle Line Advertising

Union-Castle Line Documents & Booklets

Fares and Sailing Schedules

Managed Ships

Extra & Intermediate Ships

 General Cargo Ships

Utility Vessels

Coasting & Feeder Vessels

Total Vessels



The Two Fleets at the Time of the Merger

In 1910 the company's intermediate service was extended northwards to Mombasa to link with an East African service which operated via the Suez Canal. This operation was undertaken jointly with the British India Steam Navigation Company. The vessels initially deployed on these routes were Union Line 'G' ships based on the design of the 1893, Belfast built, "Gaul", "Goth" and "Greek". All three were of 4750-tons and elegant in design but in 1910-11 they were replaced with more economical and reliable and not so elegant Castle vessels.

1912 was another milestone in the history of the Union-Castle Line. Not only had the mail contract time been reduced to 16 days 15 hours, which was well within the capability of the "Briton" and her successors, but the company was also to lose its independence. Sir Owen Philips, owner of the Royal Mail Steam Packet } Co, was looking to expand his operation and, consequently, on April 18th, acquired a large holding of ordinary shares in the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company, and with it, financial and management control. Fortunately, the day to day running of the company was not affected and nor was there any loss of identity as the fleet continued to be managed independently.

With the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914 many vessels were commandeered for government service as armed merchant cruisers, troopships or hospital ships. The "Armadale Castle", the "Edinburgh Castle" and the "Kinfauns Castle" became armed merchant cruisers and the mail ships came through the war relatively unscathed. The vessels on the intermediate service and the cargo ships were not so fortunate and there were grievous losses; the sinking of the "Llandovery Castle" being particularly harrowing.

These vessels had to be replaced before the company could resume its former itineraries to the Cape and East Africa. In the early 1920's the most elderly vessels on the mail run, the former Union Line ships "Norman" and "Briton" were replaced by the 19000-ton "Arundel Castle" and the "Windsor Castle". Powered by a pair of coal-fired steam turbines they had four funnels, cruiser sterns and ungainly Topliss gravity davits. Not particularly nice to look at they were satisfactory in service and proved very popular with the travelling public. However, steam was now being superceded by diesel and Lord Kylsant (formerly Sir Owen Philips) played an influencing role in encouraging the company to make the switch. The company took delivery of the 20141-ton "Carnarvon Castle" from Harland & Wolff} in 1926 as the first diesel engined motor ship for the mail run and the East Africa service which, in 1922, had become known as the Round Africa service. She was a distinctive vessel with two well-raked masts and two squat funnels, the top of which where cut parallel with the deck. The conditions of the mail contracts which, by now, were renewed annually, remained unchanged and the service speed was still 16 knots.

In 1931 the Kylsant empire collapsed. Fortunately, the Union-Castle Line was detached from the Royal Mail group relatively unscathed as the material and financial connections weren't as complicated as other companies in the group. The company was, once again, independent and able to carry on business without any untoward changes.

The link with Harland & Wolff was maintained and remained so for the next 25 years. By now the Union-Castle Line had nine 16-knot mailships, the "Armadale Castle", the "Kenilworth Castle", the "Balmoral Castle", the "Edinburgh Castle", the "Arundel Castle", the "Windsor Castle", the "Carnarvon Castle", the "Winchester Castle" and the "Warwick Castle" together with 11 intermediate Round Africa ships and half a dozen cargo vessels.

The mail contract negotiated in 1936 required a reduction of the passage time to no less than 14 days which required a service speed of 19 knots. Two motor ships, the "Stirling Castle" and the "Athlone Castle" were already being built at the Harland & Wolff shipyard but a further 8 vessels would by needed to fulfil the faster service. Three years was allowed to modernise the fleet and the task was completed by building a third new motor ship, the "Capetown Castle", and re-engining the steam turbine powered "Arundel Castle" and "Windsor Castle" as well as the older motor ships "Carnarvon Castle", "Warwick Castle" and "Winchester Castle". During the re-engining the "Arundel Castle" and "Windsor Castle" were re-modelled and transformed into two magnificent looking ships with two new well proportioned funnels and sweeping curved stems.

As fate would have it, the Second World War was declared on 3rd September 1939 before the new service was able to settle down and become established. All the mailships were conscripted into government service as either armed merchant cruisers or troopships. The mail run, in the meantime, was serviced by smaller, older passenger ships, namely the "Dunbar Castle", the "Llandovery Castle", the "Llandaff Castle", the "Llanstephan Castle" and the ageing "Gloucester Castle".

The fleet suffered quite extensively and most of the surviving vessels required a lot of work done to them before they could be returned to commercial operations. The "Pretoria Castle", completed in 1939, was converted by the navy into an aircraft carrier and it took until March 1947 to restore her to passenger ship status with a new name, the "Warwick Castle". New buildings were resumed and in 1948 two 28705-ton steam turbined mailships entered service, the "Pretoria Castle" and the third "Edinburgh Castle". These were followed in 1950 by the 18400-ton "Bloemfontein Castle" which was intended to provide a reasonably priced passage for emigrants to South Africa and Rhodesia. The need never arose and the vessel was, consequently, re-deployed on a one-ship, economy class only, intermediate service from London to Beira via the Cape. The 17 knot ship was always the 'odd one out' and in 1959 she was sold to the Greek-owned Chandris Line.

During 1950/51 smaller steam-turbined vessels, the "Rhodesia Castle", the "Kenya Castle" and the "Braemar Castle" were completed for the round Africa service to join the pre-war built motor ships "Dunnottar Castle", the "Durban Castle" and the "Warwick Castle", all built between 1936 and 1939. The round Africa service was operated alternately via the Cape and via the Suez Canal from London, the journey time being approximately 6 weeks.

The company was also trading with refrigerated fruit ships and general cargo vessels but after the war it faced fierce competition for freight from old established companies including Sir Nicholas Cayzer's Clan Line and Lord Vestey's Blue Star Line. Common-sense prevailed to prevent counter-productive rivalry and in 1956 the Union-Castle Line and Clan Line merged under the umbrella of the British and Commonwealth Shipping Co. However, the companies maintained their individual identities with only a double house flag to notify a change of ownership.

By the end of the 1950's the passage time to Cape Town was down to 13 days but an 11 day service was envisaged and in 1957 construction of the 28582-ton, steam turbined "Pendennis Castle" was commenced. With accommodation for 187 first-class and 475 tourist-class passengers she entered service in 1959 and was quickly followed in 1960 and 1961 by the "Windsor Castle" and the "Transvaal Castle".

lso by the end of the 1950's the Union-Castle Line was co-operating very closely with the South African Marine Corporation (Safmarine)} and already one of the general cargo ships the "Drakensberg Castle" was sailing under the South African flag. In 1966, however, it was the turn of the passenger liners and the "Pretoria Castle" and the "Transvaal Castle" were renamed "SA Oranje" and the "SA Vaal" and eventually re-registered in the Republic of South Africa.

In 1965 the fleet of seven mail ships necessary for the 11 day, weekly service was completed with the construction of the fast cargo liners the "Good Hope Castle" and the "Southampton Castle. These vessels had accommodation for 12 first-class passengers mainly for people wishing to travel to St Helena and the Ascension Island.

The Union-Castle Line had never been interested in holiday cruising, that is, until 1964 when the company took over the operation of the former Pacific Steam Navigation Co's "Reina del Mar" which was operating out of Southampton. but she did not officially join the fleet, without a name change, until her purchase had been negotiated in 1973.

However, the face of British shipping was about to change, due mainly to the invention of the jet engine and the building of faster, safer aircraft. When the De Havilland "Comet" took to the air, mail could be delivered around the world far quicker than by sea. The Boeing 747 "Jumbo Jet" enabled the mass transportation of people by air. The days of the passenger liner and the regular mail services by sea were numbered. Consequently, in 1977 the passenger/cargo vessel "Southampton Castle" made the last Cape mail run from Southampton to Cape Town. However, the last ship to fly the mail pennant for the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co was the "Kinpurnie Castle" (ex 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.

Also in 1977, on 19th September, the "Windsor Castle" returned to Southampton at the conclusion of the last mail run, 120 years and 4 days after the "Dane" set sail on the first epic voyage. The Union-Castle mailships would no longer depart from Southampton meticulously at 1 o'clock on a Friday afternoon.

During the 1980's a new breed of cargo carrier, the container ship, was introduced which made the operation of small cargo vessels un-competitive. As a result, the British and Commonwealth Shipping Group abandoned it's shipping operations and the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co. ceased to operate.

Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co

 Refrigerated Cargo Ships

Union-Castle Staff

Union-Castle Staff A - D

Union-Castle Staff E - O

Union-Castle Staff P - Z

When the mail contract expired in 1900 there were no additional applicants for the new contract and, consequently, the managements of both companies were able seek concessions, notably the exclusion of any clause forbidding a merger of the two concerns.

Once the contracts had been signed and sealed Donald Currie approached the Union Line's board and proposed a merger which was agreed and in March 1900 the assets of the Union Line were transferred to the Castle Mail Packets Co. The company was then restructured to become the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co. Ltd. and adopted the distinctive lavender-grey hull of the Castle Line for the new company.

All new vessels joining the fleet from that date had Castle names, the Union liner "Celt", sister of the "Saxon", was completed as the "Walmer Castle". Similar ships but with additional first-class accommodation, the "Armadale Castle" and the "Kenilworth Castle", were completed in 1903 and 1904 respectively.

By this time the Boer War had started and Britain had gone to war in South Africa. Several ships from both fleets had been commandeered for military purposes including the 3487-ton "Spartan" which was deployed on hospital duties. When, on conclusion of the Boer War, the ships resumed civil operations in May 1902 they returned to the merged fleet under the Union-Castle house flag.

Losses & War Time Service

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