Union-Castle Line

The Union-Castle Line was a British shipping line that operated a fleet of passenger liners and cargo ships between Europe and Africa from 1900 to 1977. It was formed from the merger of the Union Line and Castle Shipping Line.

Union-Castle Mail SS Co. Ltd
Union-Castle Line
  • Union Line
  • Castle Mail Packet Co.
SuccessorBritish and Commonwealth Shipping
Founded8 March 1900 (1900-03-08) in United Kingdom
Defunct1990 (1990)
United Kingdom
Area served
London and Southampton to Cape Town
Key people
  • Donald Currie
  • Sir Francis Vernon Thompson
ServicesPassenger, cargo and mail transport

It merged with Bullard King and Clan Line in 1956 to form British & Commonwealth Shipping, and then with South African Marine Corporation (commonly referred to as SAF-Marine) in 1973 to create International Liner Services, but maintained its separate identity throughout. Its shipping operations ceased in 1977.

Predecessor lines

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. The inaugural sailing of the Dane left Southampton on 15 September.[1]

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.[2][3][4]

Union-Castle Line

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. In 1922 the line introduced its Round Africa service, a nine-week voyage calling at twenty ports en route. Alternate sailings travelled out via the Suez Canal and out via West Africa.[1]

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 with Vernon Thomson as Managing Director. 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 carrier.[5]

After the war the line made good use of its three ships converted to troop transports to facilitate carrying the vast number of emigrants seeking new lives in East and South Africa. When they ran out of berths the line set up its own internal travel agency to book passages on other lines and even air services. The mail service to South Africa, curtailed during hostilities, recommenced with the sailing of Roxburgh Castle from Southampton on 2 January 1947.[1]

British & Commonwealth, and International Liner Services

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 containerised. 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 the 1950s and 60s the line operated a fleet of fifteen ships, eight on the principal weekly mail run from Southampton to Cape Town. Each ship could carry an average of two hundred First Class passengers and four hundred and fifty in Tourist Class. Six of the remaining ships operated the monthly Round Africa service, sailing both clockwise and anti-clockwise round the continent. The remaining ship operated a service carrying up to 750 Tourist Class passengers to Beira and back via the West Coast route every three months.[1]

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.


The initial Union fleet consisted of the colliers Union, Briton, Saxon, Norman and Dane. In 1860 this was augmented by the much larger Cambrian.[1]

At the time of the merger in 1900, the Union fleet included:

Arab, Briton, Falcon, Gaika, Galeka, Galician, Gascon, Gaul, German (2), Goorkka, Goth, Greek, Guelph, Mexican, Moor, Norman (2), Sabine, Saxon (4), Scot, Spartan, Susquehanna, and Trojan, with Celt on order (renamed Walmer Castle before it came into service)

and the Castle Line fleet included:

Arundel Castle (3) (1894–1905), Avondale Castle (1897–1912), Braemar Castle (1) (1898–1924), Carisbrook Castle (1898–1922), Doune Castle (1890–1904), Dunolly Castle (1897–1905), Dunottar Castle (1890–1913), Dunvegan Castle (1896–1923), Garth Castle (1880–1901), Harlech Castle (1894–1904), Hawarden Castle (1883–1904), Kildonan Castle (1899–1931), Kinfauns Castle (2) (1899–1927), Lismore Castle (1891–1904), Norham Castle (1883–1903), Pembroke Castle (2) (1883–1906), Raglan Castle (1897–1905), Roslin Castle (2) (1883–1904), Tantallon Castle (2) (1894–1901), Tintagel Castle (1) (1896–1912)
Ship Built Tonnage Notes and references
Alnwick Castle19015,893Passenger steamer

Built by William Beardmore and Company, Glasgow
Torpedoed by U-81 on 21 March 1917

Armadale Castle190312,9731936 scrapped
Aros Castle19014,460Steamer

Built by Barclay, Curle & Co., Ltd., Glasgow
Torpedoed by U-90 on 21 Nov 1917

Arundel Castle192119,023Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, launched 11 September 1919, completed 8 April 1921, maiden voyage 22 April 1921, scrapped 1959
Athlone Castle193625,564Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, launched 28 November 1935, completed 13 May 1936, maiden voyage 22 May 1936, scrapped 1965
Balmoral Castle191013,3611939 scrapped
Balmoral Castle19657,952ex-Clan Robertson

1976 renamed Balmoral Castle
1979 renamed Balmoral Universal
1982 sold to Greece, renamed Psara Reefer.

Bampton Castle19206,6981932 sold to Greece, renamed Atlantis
Banbury Castle19186,430ex-Glenstrae

1920 purchased from Glen Line, renamed Banbury Castle
1931 sold to Greece, renamed Rokos

Berwick Castle19025,8831919 burnt out at Mombasa, sold to Italy
Bloemfontein Castle195018,4001959 sold to Greece, renamed Patris
Braemar Castle18986,318Hospital ship

Built by Barclay, Curle & Co., Ltd., Glasgow
Mined and damaged by U-73 in the Aegean Sea in 1916

Braemar Castle19437,067ex-Empire Duchess

1949 purchased from MoWT, renamed Braemar Castle
1950 transferred to King Line, renamed King James
1958 sold to Hong Kong, renamed Tyne Breeze

Braemar Castle195217,0291966 scrapped
Bratton Castle19206,6961931 sold to Greece, renamed Proteus
Capetown Castle193827,0001967 scrapped
Carlisle Castle19134,325Steamer

Built by Northumberland SB. Co., Ltd., Newcastle upon Tyne
1915 purchased from F.S. Holland & Co., London, renamed Carlisle Castle
Torpedoed by UB-57 near Royal Sovereign Light Vessel on 14 Feb 1918

Carlow Castle19175,8331930 sold to Mitchell, Cotts & Co., renamed Cape St. Columba
Carnarvon Castle192620,122Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, launched 14 January 1926, completed 26 June 1926, maiden voyage 16 July 1926, scrapped 1963
Cawdor Castle19026,2351926 went ashore South West Africa and declared a total loss
Chepstow Castle19137,494ex-Anglo-Brazilian

1915 purchased from Nitrate Producers Ltd., renamed Chepstow Castle
1933 scrapped

Cluny Castle19035,1471924 transferred to Bullard King, renamed Umkuzi
Comrie Castle19035,173Passenger steamer

Built by Barclay, Curle & Co., Ltd., Glasgow
Torpedoed and damaged by UC-71 5 nautical miles (9.3 km) S of St.Catherine's Point on 14 Mar 1918
1924 transferred to Bullard King, renamed Umvoti

Corfe Castle19014,5921927 sold to W. Schuchmann, Hamburg, renamed Ostee
Crawford Castle19104,264ex-Hova

1917 purchased from F.S. Holland, London, renamed Crawford Castle
1930 sold to W. Kunstmann, Stettin, renamed Victoria W. Kunstmann

Dover Castle19048,271Hospital ship

Built by Barclay, Curle & Co., Ltd., Glasgow
Torpedoed and sunk by UC-67 50 nautical miles (93 km) N of Bona, Algeria on 26 May 1917

Dover Castle19647,950ex-Clan Ranald

1976 renamed Dover Castle
1979 renamed Dover Universal
1981 sold to Greece, renamed Golden Sea

Drakensburg Castle19459,905ex-Empire Allenby

1946 purchased from MoWT, renamed Drakensburg Castle
1959 scrapped

Dromore Castle19195,242Cargo ship

Built by Harland & Wolff at Greenock
Launched as War Poplar, completed as Dromore Castle
She hit a mine and sank whilst in a convoy 20 nautical miles (37 km) SE of the River Humber, without any loss of life, on 12 Dec 1941

Dunbar Castle18832,837Steamship

Laid down as Doune Castle and upon purchase named Dunbar Castle
1895 Sold to Fairfield Ship Building and Engineering Co. and renamed Olympia
10 December 1910 – ran aground on Bligh Reef off Alaska's Prince William Sound and sank without loss of life

Dunbar Castle193010,002Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, completed 20 May 1930, struck a mine off North Foreland, Kent and sank on 9 January 1940
Dundrum Castle19195,259Cargo ship built by Harland and Wolff, completed 31 December 1919, caught fire and sank in Red Sea 2 April 1943
Dunluce Castle19048,114Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, completed 15 September 1904, sold for scrapping in 1939 but purchased by the Admiralty for use as accommodation ship
Dunottar Castle18905,625Passenger ship

Built by Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Co, Goven, Scotland Dec 1899 requisitioned as a troop transport for the Second Boer War
1913 sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company as Caribbean

Dunnottar Castle193615,002Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, launched 25 January 1936, completed 27 June 1936, maiden voyage 10 July 1936, renamed Victoria 1958, The Victoria 1976 and Princesa Victoria 1993, scrapped 2004
Dunvegan Castle193615,007Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, launched 26 March 1936, completed 27 August 1936, requisitioned by Admiralty in 1940 as an armed merchant cruiser and renamed HMS Dunvegan Castle, torpedoed and sunk off Ireland by U-46 on 27 August 1940
Durban Castle193817,3821962 scrapped. In 1947 it was the crime scene of the Porthole Murder Case[6][7]
Durham Castle19048,217Passenger/cargo

Built by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering, Govan
1939 requisitioned by the Admiralty as an accommodation ship
Struck a mine off Cromarty on 20 Jan 1940 and sank

Edinburgh Castle191013,326Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, launched 27 January 1910, completed 28 April 1910, maiden voyage May 1910, sunk as a target by gunfire by Royal Navy off Freetown 1945
Edinburgh Castle194728,7001976 scrapped
Edinburgh Universal19799,996ex-Polar Honduras (Hamburg-Sud)
1981 leased from Barclays Mercantile Finance Co renamed Edinburgh Universal

1984 transferred to Hong Kong renamed Caspian Universal

Eider19001,2361926 purchased from Royal Mail SP Co., for the Southampton – Bremen – Hamburg feeder service

1936 sold to J. Billmeir, renamed Stanhill

Galway Castle19117,988Passenger ship built by Harland & Wolff, torpedoed and sunk by U-82 160 nautical miles (300 km) SW of Fastnet Rock, Ireland on 12 September 1918
Garth Castle19107,612Launched 13 January 1910.[8] 1939 scrapped
Glenart Castle19006,807Formerly Union Line Galician

Hospital ship
Built by Harland & Wolff, Ltd., Belfast
1 Mar 1917 – Mined and damaged by UC-65
26 Feb 1918 – Torpedoed and sunk by UC-56 10 nautical miles (19 km) W of Lundy

Glengorm Castle18986,763Formerly Union Line German
Gloucester Castle19117,999Hospital ship

Built by Fairfield SB. & Eng. Co., Ltd., Glasgow
31 Mar 1917 – Damaged by UB-32 near the Isle of Wight 15 Jul 1942 – Sunk by German raider Michel off South West Africa. Captain H.H. Rose and 92 passengers and crew were killed. Two lifeboats containing 61 people were picked up by the raider and taken to Japan as prisoners

Good Hope Castle19459,905ex-Empire Life

1946 purchased from MoWT, renamed Good Hope Castle
1959 scrapped

Good Hope Castle196510,5001978 sold to Italy, renamed Franca C
Gordon Castle19014,4081924 scrapped
Grantully Castle19097,612Launched 14 October 1909.[8] 1939 scrapped
Guildford Castle19117,9951 June 1933 beached after collision in Elbe with Blue Funnel Line's Stentor. Total loss
Hansa19048801907 transferred from Liverpool-Hamburg Line

1937 sold to J. Billmeir, renamed Stanray

Helius18884,579ex-Dresden, (North German Lloyd)

1903 purchased by Houston Line, renamed Helius
1904 purchased by Union-Castle
1906 sold to Turkey, renamed Tirimujghian

Incomati19203401924 purchased from Portuguese Government, East Africa feeder service

1928 sold to Portugal

Iolaire1902999Sir Donald Currie's yacht, used as officer cadet training ship

1914–1918 HMS Iolaire anti-submarine patrol ship
1939 became HMS Persephone
1948 scrapped

Kenilworth Castle190412,975Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, launched 15 December 1903, completed 19 May 1904, scrapped 1936
Kenilworth Castle19449,916ex-Empire Wilson

1946 purchased from MoWT, renamed Kenilworth Castle
1968 scrapped

Kenya Castle195117,0401967 sold to Greece, renamed Amerikanis
Kinnaird Castle19567,718ex-Clan Ross

ex-South African Scientist, renamed Kinnaird Castle
1962 reverted to Clan Line
1969 transferred to King Line
1975 sold to Panama, renamed Nazeer

Kinpurnie Castle19548,121ex-Clan Stewart, ex-South African Sculptor

1961 transferred from Safmarine renamed Kinpurnie Castle
1967 sold to Panama, renamed Hellenic Med

Kinpurnie Castle19667,950ex-Clan Ross

1976 transferred from Houston Line, renamed Kinpurnie Castle
1979 renamed Kinpurnie Universal
1982 sold to Greece, renamed Syros Reefer

Leasowe Castle19178,106Passenger steamer

Built by Cammell, Laird & Co., Ltd., Birkenhead
20 Apr 1917 – Torpedoed and damaged by U-35 90 nautical miles (170 km) WxN of Gibraltar
27 May 1918 – Torpedoed and sunk by UB-51 104 nautical miles (193 km) W of Alexandria

Llandaff Castle192610,786Passenger liner/troop transport

Built by Workman, Clark & Co Ltd, Belfast
She took part in Operation Ironclad
Torpedoed and sunk by U-177 on 30 Nov 1942 off South Africa

Llandovery Castle191411,423Hospital ship

Built by Barclay, Curle & Co., Ltd., Glasgow
27 Jun 1918 – Torpedoed and sunk by SM U-86 116 nautical miles (215 km) W of Fastnet Rock, Ireland

Llandovery Castle192510,6401953 scrapped
Llangibby Castle192911,951Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff (Govan), launched 4 July 1929, completed 21 November 1929, maiden voyage 5 December 1929, damaged during an air raid while docked in Liverpool on the night of on 21–22 December 1940, torpedoed and damaged by the U-402 16 January 1942, scrapped 1954
Llanstephan Castle191411,3481952 scrapped
Lochgair18881111901 acquired as tender at Port Elizabeth

1905 sold to J.G. Stewart, Glasgow, renamed Loch Gair

Newark Castle19026,224Passenger/cargo steamer

12 Mar 1908 ran ashore 4 nautical miles (7.4 km) from the coast, in Richard´s Bay near the Umhlatuzi River, South Africa

Pendennis Castle195828,5821976 sold to Philippines (Panama flag), renamed Ocean Queen

April 1980 scrapped

Polglass Castle19034,631ex-Reichenfels, (Hansa Line)

1914 captured by Britain
1916 managed by Union-Castle renamed Polglass Castle
1921 sold to Hansa Line, renamed Reichenfels

Pretoria Castle
Warwick Castle
193917,3831942 sold to Admiralty and rebuilt as an aircraft carrier

1946 re-purchased by Union-Castle, renamed Warwick Castle
1962 scrapped

Pretoria Castle194828,7051966 transferred to South African Marine Corp., renamed S.A.Oranje

1975 scrapped.

Reina Del Mar195620,263Purchased from ex-Pacific Steam Nav. Co,

1964–1973 chartered by Union-Castle for cruising
1973 purchased by Union-Castle
1975 scrapped

Rhodesia Castle195117,0411967 scrapped
Richmond Castle19387,798Cargo ship

Built by Harland & Wolff Ltd, Belfast
Torpedoed and sunk by U-176 in mid-Atlantic

Richmond Castle19447,9711971 scrapped
Riebeeck Castle19468,3221971 scrapped
Ripley Castle19177,521ex-War Soldier

1919 purchased from shipping controller, renamed Ripley Castle
1931 scrapped

Rochester Castle19377,7951970 sold to Cyprus, renamed Glenda and scrapped
Roslin Castle19357,016Refrigerated cargo ship built by Harland and Wolff, completed 4 May 1935, scrapped 1967
Rosyth Castle19184,328ex-War Earl

1919 purchased from shipping controller, renamed Rosyth Castle
1920 transferred to Bullard King & Co., renamed Umlazi

Rotherwick Castle19599,6501975 sold to Liberia, renamed Sea Fortune
Rothesay Castle19357,016Refrigerated cargo ship built by Harland and Wolff, completed 11 May 1935, went ashore on Scottish Island of Islay, total loss 5 January 1940
Rothesay Castle19609,6501975 sold to Uruguay, renamed Laura
Rowallan Castle19397,7981942 bombed by German aircraft and sunk in Mediterranean
Rowallan Castle19437,9501971 scrapped
Roxburgh Castle19377,801Cargo ship

Built by Harland & Wolff, Belfast
Torpedoed and sunk by U-107 in mid-Atlantic on 22 Feb 1943

Roxburgh Castle19448,0031971 scrapped
Rustenberg Castle19468,3221971 scrapped
Sandgate Castle19227,6071937 caught fire and sank NE of Bermuda
Sandown Castle19217,6071950 scrapped
Southampton Castle196510,5381978 sold to Italy, renamed Paola C
Stirling Castle193625,554Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, launched 15 August 1935, completed 29 January 1936, maiden voyage 7 February 1936, scrapped 1966
Stirling Universal19799,065ex-Hilco Speedster (Larsen. Oslo)

1981 leased from Lombard Facilities Ltd, London renamed Stirling Universal
1984 transferred to Hong Kong renamed Speedster Universal

Tantallon Castle19537,4481971 sold to Cyprus, renamed Aris II
Tintagel Castle19547,4471971 sold to Cyprus, renamed Armar
Transvaal Castle196132,697Ocean liner

Built by John Brown & Company, Clydebank, Scotland Sold to Safmarine in 1966 and renamed SA Vaal
Scrapped in 2003

Walmer Castle190212,546Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, launched 6 July 1901, completed 20 February 1902, scrapped 1932
Walmer Castle19369061941 Southampton – Bremen – Hamburg feeder service

21 Sep 1941 bombed and sunk in the Atlantic while convoy rescue ship

Warwick Castle193020,445Passenger ship/troop transport built by Harland & Wolff, launched 29 April 1930, completed 16 January 1931, maiden voyage 30 January 1931, torpedoed and sunk by U-413 in mid-Atlantic on 14 November 1942
Winchester Castle193020,109Passenger ship built by Harland and Wolff, launched 19 November 1929, completed 11 October 1930, maiden voyage 24 October 1930, scrapped 1960
Winchester Castle19647,950ex-Clan Ramsey

1977 renamed Winchester Castle
1979 renamed Winchester Universal
1980 sold to Greece, renamed Lady Madonna

Windsor Castle191518,967Ocean liner

Built by John Brown & Company, Clydebank, Scotland
Torpedoed by enemy aircraft and sunk on 23 Mar 1943 off Algiers

Windsor Castle196037,6401977 sold to Yiannis Latsis, Piraeus, renamed Margarita L (Panama flag).

Scrapped at Alang, India, from August 2005

York Castle19015,5171924 sold to Italy, renamed San Terenzo


  1. Damant 1977
  2. Murray 1953, p. 74.
  3. "Sir Donald Currie". Ancestry24.
  4. Molteno 1900, p. 120.
  5. Gardiner 1980
  6. http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/news/1973456.The_porthole_murder/
  7. http://murderpedia.org/male.C/c/camb-james.htm
  8. "Launches and Trial Trips". International Marine Engineering & Naval Architect. Marine Engineering, Inc., New York—London. 32 (February): 284. 1910. Retrieved 2 February 2018.

Sources and further reading

  • Damant, Henry (1977). Every Thursday at Four O'Clock. Weaving International Friendship Foundation.
  • Gardiner, Robert (1980). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1922–1946. Conway Maritime Press.
  • Harris, CJ; Ingpen, Brian D (1994). Mailships of the Union-Castle Line. Vlaeberg: Fernwood Press. ISBN 1874950059.
  • Molteno, PA (1900). The life and times of Sir John Charles Molteno, KCMG, First Premier of Cape Colony, Comprising a History of Representative Institutions and Responsible Government at the Cape. II. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 120. ISBN 1-146-67157-1.
  • Murray, Marischal (1953). Union-Castle Chronicle 1853–1953. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • Roussel, Mike; Warwick, Sam (2015). The Union-Castle Line: Sailing Like Clockwork. Stroud: The History Press. ISBN 978-0750962919.
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