Union-Castle Line

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Union-Castle liners in East India Docks, London in 1902

The Union-Castle Line was a prominent 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.

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

Predecessor lines[edit]

Gascon was built in 1897
Galeka was built in 1899 and sunk by a mine in 1916
Glenart Castle as a First World War hospital ship. She was built in 1900 as Galician

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.

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.[1] [2] [3]

Dover Castle was built in 1900, was a hospital ship in the First World War and was sunk by torpedo in 1917
Armadale Castle was built in 1903 and was an armed merchant cruiser in the First World War
RMS Edinburgh Castle was built in 1910, was an armed merchant cruiser in the First World War and an accommodation ship in the Second World War
Gloucester Castle was built in 1911 and was a hospital ship in the First World War. Afterwards she returned to civilian service. She was sunk by torpedo in 1942
Llandovery Castle was built in 1914, was a hospital ship in the First World War and was sunk by torpedo in 1918
RMS Carnarvon Castle was built in 1926, was an armed merchant cruiser in the Second World War and fought the German auxiliary cruiser Thor in 1940
Athlone Castle was built in 1936 and was a troopship in the Second World War

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.

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. 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 aircraft carrier.

British & Commonwealth, and International Liner Services[edit]

RMS Edinburgh Castle, built in 1947
Bloemfontein Castle, built in 1950

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 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 cargo ship MV Winchester Castle, built in 1964 as Clan Line's Clan Ramsay

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 Castle 1901 5,893 Passenger steamer

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

Armadale Castle 1903 12,973 1936 scrapped
Aros Castle 1901 4,460 Steamer

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

Arundel Castle 1921 19,023 1958 scrapped
Athlone Castle 1936 25,564 1965 scrapped
Balmoral Castle 1910 13,361 1939 scrapped
Balmoral Castle 1965 7,952 ex-Clan Robertson

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

Bampton Castle 1920 6,698 1932 sold to Greece, renamed Atlantis
Banbury Castle 1918 6,430 ex-Glenstrae

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

Berwick Castle 1902 5,883 1919 burnt out at Mombasa, sold to Italy
Bloemfontein Castle 1950 18,400 1959 sold to Greece, renamed Patris
Braemar Castle 1898 6,318 Hospital ship

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

Braemar Castle 1943 7,067 ex-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 Castle 1952 17,029 1966 scrapped
Bratton Castle 1920 6,696 1931 sold to Greece, renamed Proteus
Capetown Castle 1938 27,000 1967 scrapped
Carlisle Castle 1913 4,325 Steamer

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 Castle 1917 5,833 1930 sold to Mitchell, Cotts & Co., renamed Cape St. Columba
Carnarvon Castle 1926 20,122 1963 scrapped
Cawdor Castle 1902 6,235 1926 went ashore South West Africa and declared a total loss
Chepstow Castle 1913 7,494 ex-Anglo-Brazilian

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

Cluny Castle 1903 5,147 1924 transferred to Bullard King, renamed Umkuzi
Comrie Castle 1903 5,173 Passenger 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 Castle 1901 4,592 1927 sold to W. Schuchmann, Hamburg, renamed Ostee
Crawford Castle 1910 4,264 ex-Hova

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

Dover Castle 1904 8,271 Hospital 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 Castle 1964 7,950 ex-Clan Ranald

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

Drakensburg Castle 1945 9,905 ex-Empire Allenby

1946 purchased from MOWT, renamed Drakensburg Castle
1959 scrapped

Dromore Castle 1919 5,242 Cargo 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 Castle 1883 2,837 Steamship

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

Dunbar Castle 1930 10,002 Passenger liner

Struck a mine off North Foreland, Kent and sank on 9 Jan 1940

Dundrum Castle 1919 5,259 Cargo ship

2 Apr 1943 caught fire and sank in Red Sea

Dunluce Castle 1904 8,114 1939 sold for scrapping but purchased by the Admiralty for use as accommodation ship
Dunottar Castle 1890 5,625 Passenger 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 the Caribbean

Dunnottar Castle 1936 15,002 1958 sold to Incres SS Co, Monrovia, renamed Victoria

2004 scrapped

Dunvegan Castle 1936 15,007 Requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1940 as an armed merchant cruiser and renamed HMS Dunvegan Castle

She was torpedoed and sunk off Ireland by U-46 on 27 Aug 1940

Durban Castle 1938 17,382 1962 scrapped
Durham Castle 1904 8,217 Passenger/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 Castle 1910 13,326 Ocean liner

Deliberately sunk as a target by gunfire by Royal Navy off Freetown

Edinburgh Castle 1947 28,700 1976 scrapped
Edinburgh Universal 1979 9,996 ex-Polar Honduras (Hamburg-Sud)
1981 leased from Barclays Mercantile Finance Co renamed Edinburgh Universal

1984 transferred to Hong Kong renamed Caspian Universal

Eider 1900 1,236 1926 purchased from Royal Mail SP Co., for the Southampton - Bremen - Hamburg feeder service

1936 sold to J. Billmeir, renamed Stanhill

Galway Castle 1911 7,988 Passenger steamer

Built by Harland & Wolff, Ltd., Belfast
Torpedoed and sunk by U-82 160 nautical miles (300 km) SW of Fastnet Rock, Ireland on 12 Sep 1918

Garth Castle 1910 7,612 1939 scrapped
Glenart Castle 1900 6,807 Formerly 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 Castle 1898 6,763 Formerly Union Line German
Gloucester Castle 1911 7,999 Hospital ship

Built by Fairfield SB. & Eng. Co., Ltd., Glasgow
31 Mar 1917 - Damaged by UB-32 near 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 Castle 1945 9,905 ex-Empire Life

1946 purchased from MOWT, renamed Good Hope Castle
1959 scrapped

Good Hope Castle 1965 10,500 1978 sold to Italy, renamed Franca C
Gordon Castle 1901 4,408 1924 scrapped
Grantully Castle 1910 7,612 1939 scrapped
Guildford Castle 1911 7,995 1 June 1933 beached after collision in Elbe with Blue Funnel Line's Stentor. Total loss
Hansa 1904 880 1907 transferred from Liverpool-Hamburg Line

1937 sold to J. Billmeir, renamed Stanray

Helius 1888 4,579 ex-Dresden, (North German Lloyd)

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

Incomati 1920 340 1924 purchased from Portuguese Government, East Africa feeder service

1928 sold to Portugal

Iolaire 1902 999 Sir 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 Castle 1904 12,975 1936 scrapped
Kenilworth Castle 1944 9,916 ex-Empire Wilson

1946 purchased from MOWT, renamed Kenilworth Castle
1968 scrapped

Kenya Castle 1951 17,040 1967 sold to Greece, renamed Amerikanis
Kinnaird Castle 1956 7,718 ex-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 Castle 1954 8,121 ex-Clan Stewart, ex-South African Sculptor

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

Kinpurnie Castle 1966 7,950 ex-Clan Ross

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

Leasowe Castle 1917 8,106 Passenger 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 Castle 1926 10,786 Passenger 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 Castle 1914 11,423 Hospital ship

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

Llandovery Castle 1925 10,640 1953 scrapped
Llangibby Castle 1929 11,951 Damaged during an air raid while docked in Liverpool on the night of on 21/22 December 1940

16 Jan 1942 torpedoed and damaged by the German submarine U-402 1954 scrapped

Llanstephan Castle 1914 11,348 1952 scrapped
Lochgair 1888 111 1901 acquired as tender at Port Elizabeth

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

Newark Castle 1902 6,224 Passenger/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 Castle 1958 28,582 1976 sold to Philippines (Panama flag), renamed Ocean Queen

April 1980 scrapped

Polglass Castle 1903 4,631 ex-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
1939 17,383 1942 sold to Admiralty and rebuilt as an aircraft carrier

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

Pretoria Castle 1948 28,705 1966 transferred to South African Marine Corp., renamed S.A.Oranje

1975 scrapped.

Reina Del Mar 1956 20,263 Purchased from ex-Pacific Steam Nav. Co,

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

Rhodesia Castle 1951 17,041 1967 scrapped
Richmond Castle 1938 7,798 Cargo ship

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

Richmond Castle 1944 7,971 1971 scrapped
Riebeeck Castle 1946 8,322 1971 scrapped
Ripley Castle 1917 7,521 ex-War Soldier

1919 purchased from shipping controller, renamed Ripley Castle
1931 scrapped

Rochester Castle 1937 7,795 1970 sold to Cyprus, renamed Glenda and scrapped
Roslin Castle 1935 7,016 1967 scrapped
Rosyth Castle 1918 4,328 ex-War Earl

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

Rotherwick Castle 1959 9,650 1975 sold to Liberia, renamed Sea Fortune
Rothesay Castle 1935 7,016 5 January 1940 went ashore on Scottish Island of Islay, total loss
Rothesay Castle 1960 9,650 1975 sold to Uruguay, renamed Laura
Rowallan Castle 1939 7,798 1942 bombed by German aircraft and sunk in Mediterranean
Rowallan Castle 1943 7,950 1971 scrapped
Roxburgh Castle 1937 7,801 Cargo ship

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

Roxburgh Castle 1944 8,003 1971 scrapped
Rustenberg Castle 1946 8,322 1971 scrapped
Sandgate Castle 1922 7,607 1937 caught fire and sank NE of Bermuda
Sandown Castle 1921 7,607 1950 scrapped
Southampton Castle 1965 10,538 1978 sold to Italy, renamed Paola C
Stirling Castle 1936 25,554 1966 scrapped
Stirling Universal 1979 9,065 ex-Hilco Speedster (Larsen. Oslo)

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

Tantallon Castle 1953 7,448 1971 sold to Cyprus, renamed Aris II
Tintagel Castle 1954 7,447 1971 sold to Cyprus, renamed Armar
Transvaal Castle 1961 32,697 Ocean liner

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

Walmer Castle 1902 12,546 1932 scrapped
Walmer Castle 1936 906 1941 Southampton - Bremen - Hamburg feeder service

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

Warwick Castle 1930 20,445 Passenger liner/troop transport

Built by Harland & Wolff, Belfast
Torpedoed and sunk by U-413 in mid-Atlantic on 14 Nov 1942

Winchester Castle 1930 20,109 1960 scrapped
Winchester Castle 1964 7,950 ex-Clan Ramsey

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

Windsor Castle 1915 18,967 Ocean liner

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

Windsor Castle 1960 37,640 1977 sold to Yiannis Latsis, Piraeus, renamed Margarita L (Panama flag).

Scrapped at Alang, India, from August 2005

York Castle 1901 5,517 1924 sold to Italy, renamed San Terenzo


  1. ^ Murray, M (1953). Union-Castle Chronicle: 1853–1953. London: Longmans, Green & Co. p. 74. 
  2. ^ "Sir Donald Currie". Ancestry24. 
  3. ^ 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. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Harris, C.J. and Ingpen, B.D., (1994), Mailships of the Union-Castle Line, Fernwood Press, ISBN 1-874950-05-9

External links[edit]