IN 1853 the Union Steam Collier Company was formed to bring coal from Newcastle for the liners operating out of Southampton. A fleet of five ships was ordered but events were to alter these plans. The fleet instead supported the military in Crimea but when that war ended in 1856 other arrangements had been made to bring coal to the port.
Without work, the company tendered to provide a mail service to South Africa and the first ship, the "Dane", sailed on 15th September 1857. The requirement was for a monthly service with the voyage not to exceed 42 days. The company easily achieved this with reduced journey times and for each day saved under 35 days the company received £250.
In 1862 the Castle line was formed and in 1872 their ships entered the South Africa trade. The Castle Line quickly established faster times to the Cape and in 1873 the "Windsor Castle" did the journey in 23 days. The competition between the two companies worked to the benefit of South Africa and they ensured it remained so by insisting that the two companies remain separate. In 1876 the contract was shared between the two companies.
Competition between the two was fierce. The "Dunottar Castle" of 5,600 tons and capacity for 360 passengers was introduced in 1890. The same year the Union Line introduced the "Scot" of 6,884 tons with accommodation for 408 passengers.
In 1900 the South African Parliament decided to award the mail contract to one line only so neither company tendered as they declined to compete. No other tenders were received so the two companies received a contract without a clause prohibiting amalgamation. On the March 8, 1900 the Union Castle Mail Steamship Company was created.
By 1909 the company passed to the Royal Mail Steamship Packet Company and the Elder Dempster Company but still retained its name and they negotiated a far more comprehensive contract including the refrigerated transportation of fruit.
During the First World War the company lost eight ships but following the war the company rebuilt its fleet and by the mid 1920s they had introduced the 20,000 ton "Carnarvon Castle" which was diesel powered. The 1930s were the glory years for the liners as things slowly returned to normal. By the mid 1950s 35 sailings a month left Southampton for the USA and over 50 sailings a year to South Africa. The Union Castle line had a fleet of fifteen vessels eight of which were used on the weekly runs to South Africa. In addition to mail and fruit the ships carried passengers, either as first class or tourist class, with around 650 people for each sailing.
The people of Southampton joked that they could set their watches by the Union Castle Line whose ships departed every Thursday at four o'clock in the afternoon with a blast of the ship's horn. Union Castle line ships sailed from berths 101 and 102 from the 1930’s onwards. Previously they berthed at 38/9 berth.
Containerisation and the growth of air travel was to eventually catch up with the company and in 1975 they were the last liner operation of any size left in the world.
The "S.A.Vaal was the last Union Castle ship to leave Southampton on the 2nd September, 1977. The last to arrive was the "Windsor Castle" on 19th September. So ended 110 years of close association with Southampton.
By Godfrey Collyer - tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk.