Royal Mail Steam Packet Company

The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was a British shipping company founded in London in 1839 by a Scot, James MacQueen. The line's motto was Per Mare Ubique (everywhere by sea). After good and bad times it became the largest shipping group in the world in 1927 when it took over the White Star Line.[1]

Royal Mail Steam Packet Company
SuccessorRoyal Mail Lines Ltd
FounderJames Macqueen
Key people
Lord Kylsant
Royal Mail Lines Ltd
IndustryShipping, cruise line
PredecessorRoyal Mail Steam Packet Company
SuccessorFurness, Withy & Co.

The company was liquidated and its assets taken over by the newly formed Royal Mail Lines in 1932 after financial trouble and scandal; over the years RML declined to no more than the name of a service run by former rival Hamburg Süd.

History as Royal Mail Steam Packet Company

The RMSPC, founded in 1839 by James MacQueen, ran tours and mail to various destinations in the Caribbean and South America, and by 1927, was the largest shipping group in the world. [2] MacQueen’s imperial visions for the RMSPC were clear; he hoped that new steamship communications between Britain and the Caribbean would mitigate post-Emancipation instabilities, in particular by promoting commerce. [3] From the outset, the Company aimed to be the vanguard of British naval supremacy and technology, as F. Harcourt suggests, the RMSPC presented itself ‘as existing not merely for the good of its shareholders but for the good of the nation’. [4] The high hopes for the business were boosted by the Government’s mail contract subsidy, worth £240,000 a year.[5] As a company, the RMSPC evolved vastly from 1839 to the beginning of the twentieth century. They introduced new technologies, such as John Elder’s compound marine engine in 1870, and worked to redefine seafaring by focusing on comfort and passenger requirements.[6] In 1902, Sir Owen Cosby Philipps (1863-1937), otherwise referred to as Lord Kylsant, became the Chairman of the RMSPC. [7] From this stage onwards, the Company embarked on a mission of conglomeration by acquiring controlling interests in multiple companies. However, poor economic circumstances and controversy surrounding the deceptive Philipps meant that the RMSPC folded in 1930, after which various constituent parts broke off. In 1932, its successor, the Royal Mail Lines (RML) was formed, continuing the memory and operations of the RMSPC.[8]

Queen Victoria granted the initial Royal Charter of Incorporation of "The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company" on 26 September 1839.[9] In 1840 the Admiralty and the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company made a contract in which the latter agreed to provide a fleet of not fewer than 14 steam ships for the purpose of carrying all Her Majesty's mails, to sail twice every month to Barbados in the West Indies from Southampton or Falmouth. Fourteen new steam ships were built for the purpose: Thames, Medway, Trent, and Isis (built at Northfleet); Severn and Avon (built at Bristol); Tweed, Clyde, Teviot, Dee, and Solway (built at Greenock); Tay (built at Dumbarton); Forth (built at Leith); and Medina, (built at Cowes). In reference to their destination, these ships were known as the West Indies Mail Steamers.[10]

The West Indian Mail Service was established by the sailing of the first Royal Mail Steam Packet, PS Thames from Falmouth on 1 January 1841. A Supplemental Royal Charter was granted on 30 August 1851 extending the sphere of the Company's operations. In 1864, the mail service to the British Honduras was established. A further Supplemental Royal Charter was granted extending the sphere of the Company's operations on 7 March 1882.[9]

In the decade before the First World War the RMSP modernised its fleet, introducing a series of larger liners ranging from 9,588 GRT to 15,551 GRT on its Southampton – Buenos Aires route. Each had a name beginning with the letter "A", so collectively they were called the "A-liners" or the "A-series". The first was RMS Aragon in 1905, followed by sister ships Amazon, Araguaya and Avon in 1906, Asturias in 1908, Arlanza in 1912, Andes and Alcantara in 1913 and Almanzora in 1915. Earlier members of the series, from Aragon to Asturias, had twin screws, each driven by a four-cylinder quadruple-expansion steam engine. The final four members of the series, from Arlanza to Almanzora, had triple screws, with the middle one driven by a low pressure Parsons steam turbine.[11]

After the First World War RMSP faced not only existing foreign competition but a new UK challenger. Lord Vestey's Blue Star Line had joined the South American route and won a large share of the frozen meat trade. Then in 1926–27 Blue Star introduced its new "luxury five" ships Almeda, Andalucia, Arandora, Avelona and Avila to both increase refrigerated cargo capacity and enter the passenger trade. At the same time RMSP introduced a pair of new 22,200 GRT liners, RMS Asturias in 1926 and RMS Alcantara in 1927, which at that stage were the largest motor ships in the World. Although these were the biggest and most luxurious UK ships on the route, RMSP Chairman Lord Kylsant called Blue Star's quintet "very keen competition".[12]

Reconstitution as Royal Mail Lines

The company ran into financial trouble, and the UK Government investigated its affairs in 1930, resulting in the Royal Mail Case. In 1931 Lord Kylsant was jailed for 12 months for misrepresenting the state of the company to shareholders.[1] So much of Britain's shipping industry was involved in RMSPC that arrangements were made to guarantee the continuation of ship operations after it was liquidated. Royal Mail Lines Ltd (RML) was created in 1932 and took over the ships of RMSPC and other companies of the former group.[13] The new company was chaired by Lord Essendon.[14]

The new company's operations were concentrated on the west coast of South America, the West Indies and Caribbean, and the Pacific coast of North America; the SouthamptonLisbonBrazilUruguayArgentina route was operated from 1850 to 1980. RML was also a leading cruise ship operator.

RMS's largest ship was the 25,895 GRT turbine steamship RMS Andes. She was designed as an ocean liner but when launched in 1939 was immediately fitted out as a troopship. She finally entered civilian liner service in 1948, was converted to full-time cruising in 1960 and was scrapped in 1971.[15]

RMSP and RML lost a number of ships in their long history. One of the last was the 17,547 GRT turbine steamship RMS Magdalena, which was launched in 1948 and grounded and sank off Brazil on her maiden voyage in 1949.[16]

In 1965 RML was bought by Furness, Withy & Co.,[1] and rapidly lost its identity. In the 1970s parts of the Furness Withy Group, including RML, were sold on to Hong Kong shipowner C.Y. Tung, and later sold on to former River Plate rival Hamburg Süd; by the 1990s Royal Mail Lines was no more than the name of a Hamburg-Süd refrigerated cargo service from South America to Europe.


List of RMSP Company ships


For conciseness smaller ships such as schooners and lighters are omitted.[18]

Ship Date Commissioned GT Propulsion Hull Notes
Trent18411,856paddlewoodServed as a troopship during the Crimean War. Involved in the Trent Affair between the UK and US. Scrapped in 1865
City of Glasgow18411,700paddlewood
Avon18412,069paddlewoodWrecked 1863.
Great Western18471,775paddlewoodBrunel's first ship
Amazon18512,256paddlewoodCaught fire at sea and sank on Maiden Voyage
La Plata18522,826paddlewood
Avon18802,162screwironSold to Ellerman Lines 1903. Sank after colliding with the SS Boynton, 19 April 1916.
La Plata18823,240screwiron
La Plata18963,445screwsteel
Trent18995,525screwsteelRequisitioned by the Admiralty as a depot ship, 1915-1919. Scrapped in 1922.
La Plata19014,464screwsteel
Arcadian19067,945screwsteelEx PSNC Ortona. Requisitioned in 1915 and converted to an armed merchant cruiser. Torpedoed and sunk by UC-74 15 April 1917.
Marima19062,742screwsteelEx Bucknall Line Zulu. Sold 1911 and renamed Marika.
Manau19062,745screwsteelEx Bucknall Line Transvaal. Wrecked near Bahia in 1906.
Amazon190610,037screwsteelTorpedoed and sunk by U-110 on 15 Mar 1918.
Segura19064,756screwsteelEx Union-Castle Line Greek. Transferred to Shire Line and renamed Pembrokeshire. Returned to RSMP in 1913 and renamed Chignecto. Scrapped in 1927.
Sabor19064,758screwsteelEx Union-Castle Line Gaul. Transferred to Shire Line and renamed Carmarthenshire. Returned to RSMP in 1913 and renamed Chaleur. Scrapped in 1927.
Araguaya190610,537screwsteelRequisitioned for conversion to a Hospital ship in 1917. Returned to RMSP in 1920. Sold to Jugoslavenski Lloyd in 1930 and renamed Kraljica Marija. Sold to France in 1940 and renamed Savoie II. Sunk at Casablanca on 8 Nov 1942 by US Naval Forces.
Avon190611,073screwsteelRequisitioned as a troopship 1914. Converted to an AMC as HMS Avoca. Returned to RMSP 1919 and resumed original name. Scrapped 1930.
Monmouthshire19075,091screwsteelEx Shire Line. Renamed Tyne 1919. Sold to Japan 1922 and renamed Toku Maru. Scrapped 1934.
Denbighshire19073,844screwsteelEx Shire Line. Renamed Tamar 1919. Sold 1923 and renamed Joyce Nancy. Resold 1925 and renamed Sassa. Sold again the same year and renamed Argostoli. Sold once more 1928 and renamed Avgy. Scrapped 1930.
Flintshire19073,815screwsteelEx Shire Line. Sold 1913 to Ellerman Lines and renamed Algerian. Mined by UC-5 on 12 January 1916.
Asturias190812,015screwsteelRequisitioned for use as a hospital ship in WW1. Torpedoed by UC-66 on 20 March 1917 and beached. Subsequently salvaged for use as an ammunition hulk. Repurchased by RMSP 1920 and refitted as a cruise ship and renamed Arcadian. Scrapped 1933.
Arzila19082,722screwsteelEx Mersey Steamship Co. Sold in 1922 to Kehdivial Mail Line and renamed Bilbeis. Wrecked 5 March 1934.
Agadir19082,722screwsteelEx Mersey Steamship Co. Sold 1922 to Kehdivial Mail Line and renamed Belkas. Resold 1935 and renamed Damas. Sold again 1940 and renamed Sakara. Requisitioned by the MoWT in WW2. Returned to KML 1946 and scrapped 1955.
Berbice19092,379screwsteelOriginally deployed on the West Indies inter-island service. Requisitioned 1915 as a hospital ship. Sold to Mitchell Cotts & Co 1922 and renamed Suntemple. Resold 1924 and renamed Baltara. Wrecked 1929.
Balantia19092,379screwsteelOriginally deployed on the West Indies inter-island service. Requisitioned 1916 as a hospital ship and renamed St. Margaret of Scotland. Returned 1918 and resumed former name. Sold 1922 to Kehdivial Mail Line and renamed Boulac. Scrapped 1935.
Deseado191111,475screwsteelPassed to RML. Scrapped 1934.
Arlanza191215,044screwsteelRequisitioned as an AMC in WW1. Returned to civilian service 1920. Passed to RML. Scrapped 1938.
Demerara191111,484screwsteelScrapped 1933.
Desna191211,484screwsteelScrapped 1933.
Alcala191310,660screwsteelEx Lamport and Holt Vauban. Returned to L&H 1914 and resumed original name. Chartered again for a short time 1922. Scrapped 1932 after having been laid up for two years.
Andes191315,620screwsteelRequisitioned as an AMC in WW1. Renamed Atlantis 1929 and redeployed as a cruise chip. Passed to RML. Requisitioned as a hospital ship in WW2 and retained as an emigrant ship afterwards. Scrapped 1952.
Radnorshire19134,302screwsteelOperated by Shire Line. Captured and sunk by SMS Möwe 7 January 1917.
Caribbean19135,824screwsteelEx Union-Castle Line Dunnottar Castle. Requisitioned as an AMC in WW1. Foundered 27 September 1915.
Merionethshire19134,308screwsteelEx Cambrian SN Co Reptonian. Operated by Shire Line. Torpedoed and sunk by U-62 27 May 1918.
Cardiganshire19139,426screwsteelOperated by Shire Line. Requisitioned as a troopship in WW1. Sold to Christian Salvesen 1929 and renamed Salvestria. Mined and sunk 27 July 1940.
Cobequid19134,738screwsteelEx Union-Castle Line Goth. Stranded and wrecked 13 January 1914.
Caraquet19134,917screwsteelEx Union-Castle Line Guelph. Ran aground on a reef and sank 25 June 1923.
Alcantara191315,831screwsteelRequisitioned as an AMC in WW1. Sunk in action with SMS Greif 29 February 1916.
Carnarvonshire19139,406screwsteelOperated by Shire Line. Scrapped 1933.
Drina191311,483screwsteelEx Elder Dempster Lines. Initially requisitioned as a hospital ship but returned to RMSP. Mined and sunk 1 March 1917.
Almanzora191415,551screwsteelRequisitioned as an AMC in WW1. Passed to RML. Requisitioned as troopship in WW2, retained as an emigrant ship until 1947, scrapped 1948.
Essequibo19148,489screwsteelRequisitioned as an AMC in WW1. Sold to Pacific Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) 1922. Sold to USSR 1935 and renamed Neva.
Ebro19148,480screwsteelRequisitioned as an AMC in WW1. Sold to PSNC 1922. Resold to Yugoslavia 1935 and renamed Princess Olga. Sold to Portugal 1940 and renamed Serpa Pinto. Scrapped 1954.
Carmarthenshire19157,823screwsteelSold to Christian Salveson in 1929 and converted to a whale factory ship. Renamed Sourabaya. Torpedoed and sunk by U-436 on 27 Oct 1942.
Pembrokeshire19157,821screwsteelScrapped 1933.
Larne19163,808screwsteelEx Aberdeen Line Ninevah, ex E&ASC Aldenham. Sold 1917, scrapped 1923.
Brecknockshire19168,422screwsteelOperated by Shire Line. Captured and sunk on her maiden voyage by SMS Möwe 15 February 1915.
Darro191611,493screwsteelCollided with the troopship SS Mendi 21 February 1917, the latter sank with great loss of life. Scrapped 1933.
Navasota19178,795screwsteelPassed to RML. Torpedoed and sunk by U-47 5 December 1939.
Sambre19195,260screwsteelEx War Swift. Passed to RML. Torpedoed and sunk by U-34 27 July 1940.
Glamorganshire19198,192screwsteelEx War Armour. Operated by Shire Line. Scrapped 1933
Nagara19198,803screwsteelPassed to RML. Torpedoed and sunk by U-404 29 March 1943.
Segura19195,295screwsteelEx War Pansy. Sold 1921 to Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway. Resold 1932 to Houlder Line and renamed Langton Grange. Sold to Greece 1937 and renamed Nicolaos M. Embiricos. Mined and sunk 4 November 1939.
Somme19195,265screwsteelEx War Toucan. Passed to RML. Torpedoed and sunk by U-108 18 February 1942.
Severn19195,246screwsteelEx War Pelican. Sold to Greece 1932 and renamed Leonidas II. Scrapped 1934.
Radnorshire19196,723screwsteelEx War Diamond. Operated by Shire Line. Sold to Henry Thompson 1931 and renamed Sithonia. Torpedoed and sunk by U-201 13 July 1942.
Silarus19195,101screwsteelSold to G N Stathatos 1931 and renamed Nemea. Torpedoed and sunk by the Italian submarine Luigi Torelli 15 January 1941.
Siris19195,242screwsteelEx War Gem. Passed to RML. Torpedoed and sunk by U-201 12 July 1942.
Narenta19198,266screwsteelPassed to RML. Sold to Japan 1939. and renamed Kosei Maru. Torpedoed and sunk by USS Tunny 7 April 1943.
Nictheroy19208,265screwsteelPassed to RML. Sold to Lauro Lines 1937 and renamed Cuma. Mined and sunk 18 October 1940.
Orcana19207,814screwsteelEx Aberdeen Line Militiades. Sold to PSNC 1922. Scrapped 1924.
Oruba19207,818screwsteelEx Aberdeen Line Marathon. Sold to PSNC 1922. Scrapped 1924.
Natia19208,723screwsteelPassed to RML. Captured and scuttled by the German auxiliary cruiser Thor 8 October 1940.
Nariva19208,723screwsteelPassed to RML. Torpedoed and sunk by U-91 17 March 1943.
Nebraska19208,261screwsteelPassed to RML. Torpedoed and sunk by U-843 8 April 1944.
Sarthe19205,371screwsteelPassed to RML. Torpedoed and sunk by U-68 8 October 1942.
Sabor19205,212screwsteelEx War Whale. Passed to RML. Torpedoed and sunk by U-506 7 March 1943.
Montgomeryshire19216,650screwsteelEx War Valour. Operated by Shire Line. Sold to Italy 1931 and renamed Riv. Sunk in an air raid 30 August 1941.
Lochkatrine19219,419screwsteelPassed to RML. Torpedoed and sunk by U-552 3 August 1942.
Lochgoil19229,462screwsteelPassed to RML. Taken over by MoWT 1939 and converted to CAM ship Empire Rowan. Torpedoed by Italian aircraft 27 March 1943 and beached. Wreck blew up 1951.
Culebra19233,044screwsteelEx War Mirage, ex Riposto. Passed to RML. Sunk by gunfire from U-123 25 January 1942.
Orca192316,063screwsteelEx PSNC. sold to White Star Line 1927 and renamed Calgaric. Scrapped 1934.
Orduña192315,499screwsteelEx PSNC. Returned to PSNC 1926. Scrapped 1951.
Orbita192315,486screwsteelEx PSNC. Chartered 1921 then purchased 1923. Returned to PSNC 1926. Scrapped 1950.
Ohio192318,940screwsteelSold to White Star Line 1927 and renamed Albertic. Scrapped 1934.
Lochmonar19239,412screwsteelWrecked off Liverpool 30 November 1927.
Asturias192522,048screwsteelPassed to RML. Requisitioned as an AMC in WW2, later converted into an emigrant ship. Scrapped 1958.
Alcantara192622,209screwsteelPassed to RML. Requisitioned as an AMC in WW2, later converted to a troopship. Returned to service in 1948, scrapped 1958.

List of Royal Mail Lines ships

This list is of the additional ships acquired by RML in addition to those passed directly from RMSP.

Ship Service GRT Notes
Highland Chieftain1932–5814,131ex Nelson Line. Sold and renamed Calpean Star
Highland Brigade1932–5914,131ex Nelson Line. Troopship in WWII. Sold and renamed Henrietta.
Highland Monarch1932–5814,139ex Nelson Line. Scrapped 1960.
Highland Patriot1932–4014,157ex Nelson Line. Torpedoed and sunk by U-38 in the North Atlantic.
Highland Princess1932–5914,128ex Nelson Line. Sold and renamed Marianna.
Nagoya1932–368,442ex Nelson Line Highland Warrior. Sold and renamed Marlene.
Nasina1932–357,206ex Nelson Line Meissonier. Sold and renamed Asmara.
Nela1932–467,206ex Nelson Line Moliere.
Nalon1932–407,206ex Nelson Line Murillo. Bombed and sunk off Ireland 6 November 1940.
Magdalena1948–4917,547Sank off the coast of Brazil on maiden voyage.
Andes1948–7125,895Launched 1939, requisitioned as troopship.
Amazon1959–6820,348Transferred to Shaw, Savill and Albion Line and renamed Akaroa.
Aragon1959–6920,348Transferred to Shaw, Savill and Albion and renamed Arawa.
Arlanza1960–6920,348Transferred to Shaw, Savill and Albion and renamed Aranda.

See also


  1. "Royal Mail Steam Packet Company". Shipping Lines. Retrieved 17 April 2012.
  2. B.C. Hunt, The Development of the Business Corporation in England 1800-1867 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936).
  3. James MacQueen, A General Plan for a Mail Communication by Steam between Great Britain and the Eastern and Western Parts of the World; also, to Canton and Sydney, Westward by the Pacific (London: B. Fellowes, 1838).
  4. F. Harcourt, Flagships of Imperialism: The P&O Company and the Politics of Empire from its Origins to 1867 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p. 3.
  5. Anyaa Anim-Addo, ‘Steaming between the Islands: Nineteenth-Century Maritime Networks and the Caribbean Archipelago’ in Island Studies Journal, 8.1 (2013), p. 24.
  6. Robert Woolward, Nigh on sixty years at sea (London: Digby, Long & Co., 1894), pp. 172-175;
  7. Edwin Green and Michael Moss, A Business of National Importance: The Royal Mail Shipping Group 1902-1937 (London: Meuthen & Co., 1982)
  8. Green and Moss, pp. 18-19.
  9. Dodd, George (1867). Railways steamers and telegraphs: a glance at their recent progress and present state. London: W&R Chambers. pp. 159–161.
  10. Nicol 2001b, p. 101.
  11. Nicol 2001a, p. 130.
  12. Nicol, Stuart. "The Royal Mail Story". Archived from the original on 8 December 2011. Retrieved 17 April 2012.
  13. Nicol 2001b, p. 138.
  14. Nicol 2001b, pp. 162–186.
  15. Nicol 2001b, pp. 186–193.
  16. Nicol 2001a, pp. 222–241.
  17. The steamer Dane was running to Cape Town in 1860: Morning Chronicle, 30 November 1860 - Cape of Good Hope


  • Anonymous (1910). A Link of Empire; or, 70 years of British Shipping: Souvenir of the 70th year of incorporation of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. London: Royal Mail Steam Packet Company.
  • Bushell, T.A. (1958) [1939]. Royal Mail: a Centenary History of the Royal Mail Line 1839–1939. London: Trade and Travel Publications Ltd.
  • Bushell, T.A. (1950). Eight Bells, Royal Mail Lines War Story 1939–1945. London: Trade and Travel Publications Ltd.
  • Nicol, Stuart (2001a). MacQueen's Legacy; A History of the Royal Mail Line. 1. Brimscombe Port and Charleston, SC: Tempus Publishing. ISBN 0-7524-2118-2.
  • Nicol, Stuart (2001b). MacQueen's Legacy; Ships of the Royal Mail Line. 2. Brimscombe Port and Charleston, SC: Tempus Publishing. ISBN 0-7524-2119-0.
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