Donald Currie

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For other people named Donald Currie, see Donald Currie (disambiguation).
Donald Currie (Walter William Ouless, 1907)

Sir Donald Currie GCMG (17 September 1825 – 13 April 1909) was a British shipowner.

Early life and career[edit]

Currie was born in Greenock, Scotland. However, he spent his school days in Belfast at the Belfast Academy and later at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and at a very early age he was employed in the office of a shipowner in that port.

At the age of eighteen he left Scotland for Liverpool, where shipping business offered more scope. By a fortunate chance he attracted the notice of the chief partner in the newly started Cunard steamship line, who found him a post in that company. In 1849 the Cunard Company started a service between Le Havre and Liverpool to connect with their transatlantic service. Currie was appointed Cunard's agent at Havre and Paris, and secured for his firm a large share of the freight traffic between France and the United States. In about 1856 he returned to Liverpool and held an important position at the Cunard Company's headquarters.

In 1862 he determined to strike out for himself and, leaving the Cunard Company, established the Castle Shipping Line of sailing-ships between Liverpool and Calcutta. Business prospered and 1864 Currie found it profitable to substitute London for Liverpool. He not only made the capital the home port for his vessels, but also settled in London. The London ship repair yards of the Castle Shipping Line, under the trading name of Donald Currie & Co., were founded on the banks of the River Lea, on the opposite bank from Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co. Ltd.

Development of the Union-Castle line[edit]

Union-Castle liners in East India Docks, London in 1902
Curries own "House Flag" used on his shipping line

In 1872 he came to the conclusion, after a careful study of all the circumstances, that the development of the Cape Colony justified the starting of a new line of steamers between England and South Africa. Fortuitously, in the ensuing few years the Cape economy boomed, and consequently steam communication and transport to southern Africa expanded.

Although the Cape Prime Minister John Molteno was a personal friend of Donald Currie, he refused to authorise Currie to run a monopoly - desiring instead to preserve a state of competition between the principal shipping companies. Molteno therefore ordered the South African mail service to be shared equally, between Currie's Castle Company and its older rival, the Union Line. After lengthy negotiations, Currie agreed to alternating services, speed premiums and other clauses to promote competition. The new mail contract was signed on 5 October 1876 and Currie created the Castle Mail Packets Company, with the offices located at the Castle Shipping Line headquarters.[1]

Initially forbidden by the contract from amalgamating, keen competition ensued between the companies. This competition led to their shipping services running at unprecedented speed and efficiency. However the contract eventually expired and several decades later, in 1900, Castle Shipping Line and Union Line would merge and become the Union-Castle Line.[2][3]

Political service in South Africa and Britain[edit]

"the Knight of the Cruise of Mr Gladstone"
Currie as caricatured by Ape (Carlo Pellegrini) in Vanity Fair, June 1884

Currie's intimate knowledge of South African conditions and persons was, on several occasions, of material service to the British government. His acquaintance with Sir John Brand, the president of what was then the Orange Free State, caused him to be entrusted by the home government with the negotiations in a dispute concerning the ownership of the Kimberley diamond-fields, which were brought to a successful conclusion. He also introduced the two Transvaal deputations which came to England in 1877 and 1878 to protest against annexation. Though his suggestions for a settlement were disregarded by the government of the day, the terms on which the Transvaal was subsequently restored to the Boers, agreed essentially with those Currie had advised.

The first news of the disastrous 1879 Battle of Isandlwana in the Zulu War was given to the home government through Donald Currie's agency. At that time there was no cable between England and South Africa, and the news was sent by a Castle liner to St Vincent, and telegraphed thence to Currie. At the same time by diverting his outward mail-boat from its ordinary course to St Vincent, he enabled the government to telegraph immediate instructions to that island for conveyance thence by the mail, thus saving serious delay, and preventing the annihilation of the British garrison at Eshowe. In 1880 Currie strongly urged the British admiralty to utilize certain of his fast steamers as armed cruisers in war-time, and this soon became an official arrangement.

In the same year he was returned to parliament as Liberal member for Perthshire, and in 1881 for services rendered during the Zulu War he was rewarded with a knighthood (KCMG). Although he was a strong personal friend of Prime Minister Gladstone, he was unable to agree to his position on the Home Rule question, and from 1885 to 1900 Sir Donald Currie represented West Perthshire as a Unionist.

Legacy on the Sporting world[edit]

In 1890 the company's ship Dunottar Castle made its maiden voyage, taking the British Rugby Team on a tour of South Africa. Currie had accompanied the team and presented the South African Rugby Board with a gold trophy to be used for internal competition. At the end of the tour the British team presented the Currie Cup to Griqualand West, the province they believed had produced the best performance of the tour. The Currie Cup is contested to this day. The Dunottar Castle would also carry General Buller and 1,500 soldiers to the Boer War in 1900.

In September 1892 Currie formed Castle Swifts F.C. which became the first professional football club in Essex. The team was initially drawn from his mainly Scottish workforce. Castle Swifts would have great relevance in the early history of Thames Ironworks, the team which would later become West Ham. The Castles' first home ground, a field located opposite the West Ham Police Station in West Ham Lane was named Dunottar Park, after the Castle Line company's ship. The team was disbanded at the end of March 1895, after Currie decided to withdraw his financial backing.

Later life and honours[edit]

In 1897 Sir Donald Currie was promoted within the Order of St Michael and St George to the rank of Knight Grand Cross (GCMG).

In 1906 Sir Donald Currie endowed at his old school Belfast Royal Academy the school's most prestigious scholarship. The scholarship is known as the Sir Donald Currie Scholarship. In addition the Academy named a House in his memory.

Donald Currie died in Sidmouth in 1909.

Glenlyon and Fortingall[edit]

The attractive Perthshire village of Fortingall, with its large hotel adjoining the churchyard, was built 1890-91 by Currie, who bought the Glenlyon Estate, including the village, in 1885. It was designed by architect James M MacLaren (1853–90). It was inherited by his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Percy Molteno, and the estate is increasingly appreciated as one of the most important examples of 'Arts and Crafts movement' style in Scotland.


  1. ^ Murray, M: Union-Castle Chronicle: 1853-1953. Longmans Green, 1953. p.74
  2. ^
  3. ^ P.A. Molteno: The life and times of Sir John Charles Molteno, K. C. M. G., First Premier of Cape Colony, Comprising a History of Representative Institutions and Responsible Government at the Cape. London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1900. Vol.II, p.120. ISBN 1-146-67157-1

See also[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Henry Edward Home-Drummond-Moray
Member of Parliament for Perthshire
Constituency divided
See East Perthshire and West Perthshire
New constituency Member of Parliament for West Perthshire
Succeeded by
John Stroyan