The Onedin Line

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The Onedin Line
Alt=Series title over a sailing ship's sails
Genre Drama
Created by Cyril Abraham
Opening theme Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia by Aram Khachaturian
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 8
No. of episodes 91 (list of episodes)
Producer(s) Peter Graham Scott
Running time 49-51 minutes
Production company(s) BBC Production
Original channel BBC One
Original release 15 October 1971 (1971-10-15) – 26 October 1980 (1980-10-26)

The Onedin Line is a BBC television drama series which ran from 1971 to 1980. The series was created by Cyril Abraham.

The series is set in Liverpool from 1860 to 1886[1] and deals with the rise of a shipping line, the Onedin Line, named after its owner James Onedin. Around this it depicts the lives of his family, most notably his brother and partner Robert, a shop-owner, and his sister Elizabeth, giving insight into the lifestyle and customs at the time, not only at sea, but also ashore (mostly lower- and upper-middle-class). The series also illustrates some of the changes in business and shipping, such as from wooden to steel ships and from sailing ships to steam ships. It shows the role that ships played in such matters as international politics, uprisings and the slave trade. Additionally the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal is mentioned in one episode.

Story outline[edit]

James Onedin (Peter Gilmore), the younger son of old Samuel Onedin, a miserly ship chandler, was a penniless sea captain with aspirations to greater things. In order to become a ship-owner, he married Anne Webster (Anne Stallybrass), who was some years his senior (in real life, Stallybrass was seven years younger than Gilmore). The spinster daughter of Captain Joshua Webster, owner of the topsail schooner Charlotte Rhodes, Anne entered into the marriage in full awareness that it was purely a business transaction on Onedin's part; but a warmer relationship gradually developed.

The Charlotte Rhodes was portrayed by a schooner built in 1900, originally named Kathleen & May;[2] prior to the start of the series the ship had been renamed. A shrewd and often ruthless operator, James soon built up a fleet, assisted by the loyal Mr (later Captain) Baines (Howard Lang). His other sailing ships included the Pampero, the Medusa, the Søren Larsen, the Neptune, the Falcon, the Trident, the Osprey, the steamship Shearwater, the Christian Radich, the Thorsoe, the steamer Black Pearl, the Jenny Peak renamed the Letty Gaunt, the Ondine, the Orlando, the Star of Bethlehem, the Teawind and the Lady Lazenby. He also initiated the building of a steamship, the Anne Onedin (until the death of his wife, to be named the Golden Nugget).

James's volatile sister, Elizabeth (Jessica Benton), became pregnant by seafarer Daniel Fogarty (Michael Billington). To avoid disgrace, she married wealthy Albert Frazer (Philip Bond), developer of steamship technology and heir to the Frazer shipyards, a connection James soon turned to his own advantage. Elizabeth gave birth to a son, William, who later died as a young man in a street accident.

Robert Onedin (Brian Rawlinson), James's older brother, took after their father and counted coppers in the family shop, though he later expanded it into a profitable department store, urged on by his thrifty and socially-ambitious wife, Sarah (Mary Webster). They had one son, Samuel, who cared more for the sea and ships than shopkeeping. Robert was elected as a Member of Parliament and he and Sarah moved to a smart new residence but Robert's life abruptly came to an end when he choked on a bone at a family dinner. His widow Sarah made attempts to contact him through a medium then, despite her son Samuel's objections, almost married the fortune-hunting Captain Dampier. She was last heard of as having undertaken a tour of the world but, at a certain point, abandoned its itinerary. Since she did not reappear in Liverpool, she may even have settled abroad.

At the end of the second series Anne, whom James had come to love, died giving birth to a daughter, Charlotte. James considered two possible replacement brides: wealthy widow Caroline Maudslay and the young heiress Leonora Biddulph (Kate Nelligan), before settling for his daughter's governess, Letty Gaunt (Jill Gascoine). In due course Letty also died, of diphtheria, and, by the last series, James was married to a third wife, the exotic Margarita Juarez and was, by then, a grandfather.

James's daughter Charlotte (Laura Hartong) fell in love with her cousin William, but he abandoned her when she became pregnant. Instead, she married her cousin Samuel. Following William's death, Charlotte and the now successful Samuel were increasingly unhappy and were divorced as a result of her infidelity, after which Charlotte was humiliated by Samuel's marriage to an American girl, Caroline.

The eighth and final series ended with news of the death at sea of Daniel Fogarty, whom Elizabeth had finally married after the death of her first husband Albert and also with the birth, at last, of a son and heir for James. Born aboard ship, the child was named Will after Captain Baines.


Series creator Cyril Abraham had originally envisaged The Onedin Line as being about a modern shipping company with its boardroom battles and seagoing adventures, but then he discovered that almost all such companies were run by boards of anonymous executives. However, he noticed that most of these companies had their origins in the 19th century, mostly started by one shrewd and far-sighted individual who, through his own business acumen, built up a shipping line from nothing.[3] Abraham stated that James Onedin was not based on one individual but was rather an amalgamation of several characters. Suggested real-life inspirations include Victorian era shipping line owner James Baines & Co. of Liverpool (a leading character in the series was named 'Captain Baines'), Sir Samuel Cunard and various members of the Allan Line family.

An article in Woman magazine published in July 1973 featured an interview with Cyril Abraham in which he recalled how he came up with the very unusual family name Onedin.

He wanted something unique. He had decided to call the leading male character James but still had not found a surname when the BBC agreed to film the story. Then some inspiration - he said:

One day I stumbled across the word Ondine, a mythological sea creature. By transposing the "e", I had James Onedin, a sea devil.

The programme was recorded in Dartmouth, Devon,[4] as well as certain scenes in Exeter, Falmouth and Gloucester (many of the dock scenes). The last series was filmed in Pembroke Dock, Wales, where the 18th-century naval dockyard and surrounding streets became Liverpool, and various coastal locations in the Pembrokeshire area substituted for Turkey and Portugal.

Due to its popularity in Sweden, the series inspired the name for a real-life shipping line in Stockholm, the Ånedin-Linjen, founded in 1973, which until recently operated cruises in the Baltic.[5]


The music behind the opening credits of the series is an excerpt from the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from the ballet Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian. Other background music includes excerpts from Ralph Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 5, Manuel de Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 and Jean Sibelius's Tapiola, symphonic poem for orchestra.

Traditional music, including folk songs and sea shanties in particular, are heard in abundance throughout the series, including such songs as "The Maid of Amsterdam," "Ruben Ranzo," "South Australia," "Maggie May," "The Sailor's Hornpipe," "Botany Bay," "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes," "A Hundred Years Ago," "Blow the Man Down," and "On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at."

Series details[edit]

  • Drama Playhouse - The Onedin Line: 7 December 1970 (1 50 min episode)
  • Series 1: 15 October 1971 to 28 January 1972 (15 50 min episodes)
  • Series 2: 17 September to 31 December 1972 (14 50 min episodes)
  • Series 3: 21 October 1973 to 27 January 1974 (13 50 min episodes)
  • Series 4: 25 April to 27 June 1976 (10 50 min episodes)
  • Series 5: 26 June to 28 August 1977 (10 50 min episodes)
  • Series 6: 18 July to 17 September 1978 (10 50 min episodes)
  • Series 7: 22 July to 23 September 1979 (10 50 min episodes)
  • Series 8: 31 August to 26 October 1980 (9 50 min episodes)


The series made the careers of Peter Gilmore, who played James, and Anne Stallybrass, who played Anne, and Howard Lang who played Captain William Baines, as well as being an important break for Jill Gascoine (Letty Gaunt), Warren Clarke (Josiah Beaumont), Kate Nelligan (Leonora Biddulph) and Jane Seymour (Emma Callon). Other cast members included Jessica Benton (Elizabeth Frazer), Brian Rawlinson and James Garbutt (Robert Onedin), Mary Webster, (Sarah Onedin), Michael Billington / Tom Adams (Daniel Fogarty), Philip Bond (Albert Frazer), Edward Chapman (Thomas Callon), James Warwick (Edmund Callon), John Phillips (Jack Frazer), Caroline Harris (Caroline Maudslay), James Hayter (Captain Joshua Webster), Ken Hutchison (Matt Harvey), Laura Hartong (Charlotte Onedin), Marc Harrison (William Frazer), Christopher Douglas (Samuel Onedin), Roberta Iger (Margarita Onedin), Jenny Twigge (Caroline Onedin), Cyril Shaps (Braganza), Hilda Braid (Miss Simmonds), David Garfield (Samuel Plimsoll), Robert James (Rowland Biddulph), Sylvia Coleridge (Mrs Salt), Sonia Dresdel (Lady Lazenby), Nicolette Roeg (Ada Gamble), John Rapley (Dunwoody), Stephanie Bidmead (Mrs Darling), John Sharp (Uncle Percy Spendilow), Heather Canning (Mrs Arkwright), Keith Jayne (Tom Arnold), Frederick Jaeger (Max van der Rheede), Edward Judd (Manuel Ortega), Elizabeth Chambers (Miss Gladstone), Jack Watson (Dr Darling) and Maurice Colbourne (Viscount Marston).


Soren Larson, one of the ships filmed

Among the historic ships and boats featured in the series was the steam pinnace Hero, then owned and lent by John Player & Sons,[6][7] and the following tall ships:


There are six novels based on the series. The first five, The Shipmaster (1972), The Iron Ships (1974), The High Seas (1975), The Trade Winds (1977) and The White Ships (1979) are all by the creator of the series, Cyril Abraham. The books are not straightforward novelisations of the television episodes, since the author introduced additional material and also changed a number of details, though dialogue from the series that Abraham had penned himself is utilised. In print, Elizabeth's child is conceived in a private room above a restaurant, not on the Charlotte Rhodes; George Callon lasted considerably longer and died in bed after suffering a stroke, not in a warehouse fire; Emma was Callon's daughter, not his niece; Captain Webster remarried, his new partner being the irrepressible old crone Widow Malloy, an entertaining character with a repertoire of coarse remarks; Albert did not abscond to Patagonia but died aboard ship following his involvement in retrieving a kidnapped Elizabeth from Daniel Fogarty; Caroline Maudslay and Matt Harvey were omitted altogether (though Matt did appear in a short story - see below); Jack Frazer's life was extended and he lived to see both Emma's death and Daniel's return from Australia, though his television discovery that William was not his grandson never took place.

The sixth novel, The Turning Tide (1980), was written by Bruce Stewart. This deviated even more from the television series and probably from Cyril Abraham's intentions as well. Letty was depicted as a jealous harpy aiming unpleasant remarks at Charlotte; Elizabeth and Daniel ended up emigrating to Australia permanently and James became the owner of the Frazer Line. The book is, nonetheless, an entertaining read with a moving final speech from James.

A series of Onedin short stories by Cyril Abraham, set between Series Two and Series Three, appeared in Woman magazine in 1973. The first one was called For The Love Of A Lady; the final one was entitled The Choice. The plots involved two of James' crew who were rivals for the same woman; Robert's encounter with the attractive Amelia; a social gathering that revolves around the naming of the first Onedin steamship; an appearance by Sarah's destitute sister Constance, who is on the streets; and the first appearance in James' life of Leonora Biddulph. A later tale by Abraham, For Love of the Onedins, appeared in a short-lived magazine called tvlife. This story, covering Leonora's wedding, occurs between Series Three and Series Four and features Matt Harvey, who was Elizabeth's love interest during the fourth series. There is a slanging match between Elizabeth and Sarah, who each disparage the circumstances of the other's wedding day until Leonora intervenes to restore peace.

Cyril Abraham had planned to write a whole series of novels about the Onedin Line, but he died in 1979 after completing the fifth book, The White Ships. The story was eventually to have seen James and Elizabeth as two wizened old autocrats, both determined not to relinquish their hold on the shipping business. James would have died as a very old man, leaving the family divided over control of the company. Cyril Abraham intended the Onedin saga to continue right up to the 1970s.

Additional books[edit]

Peter Graham Scott's autobiography British Television: An Insider's Story (McFarland & Company, 2000) includes a full (25 page) chapter on the setting-up of the series and his time as producer (and occasional director/writer) on the first 42 episodes, along with six behind-the-scenes black-and-white photos.


The pilot was broadcast as a one-off BBC Drama Playhouse production on 7 December 1970; it was announced in September 2010 that the recording - previously lost - was discovered in the American Library of Congress. The story and the cast were basically the same with the exception of Sheila Allen, who played Anne Webster/Onedin; Anne Stallybrass took over the part for the series.

The series was originally aired in the United Kingdom by the BBC, from 15 October 1971 to 26 October 1980. In the Netherlands, broadcasts started in 1972. In the mid '80s, the BBC repeated the series in a daytime slot. From 1992 UK Gold repeated the series in full and stopping showing in 1998 before moving to sister channel UK Gold Classics in October 1998 when the channel was launched, although it was only available on Sky Digital on weekends between 6pm-2am and the showing only lasted around six months. In 2000 it reappeared on UK Drama and has been repeated in full on that channel in more recent years. In 2007 MAX restarted a broadcast of the first series, with one episode every workday (Monday through Friday), starting 10 July 2007. The UK digital channel Yesterday began running the whole series from 27 July 2010, starting at 4 pm (Monday through Friday) and repeated at 7 pm, also showing an hour later on Yesterday +1. As with many of the vintage series run by the channel, the episodes are slightly cut, from the c.50m length standard in the 1970s to the c.46m standard on Yesterday.

The programme was extremely popular in Romania. After a visit to North Korea the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu opted to replace the programme (and other popular shows) with broadcasts designed to show off the success of his policies. Consequently the population tuned into foreign stations to follow the series. In 1989 these channels carried news broadcasts of events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall which were absent from Romanian television news. This in turn contributed to the uprising which brought down the Ceaușescu regime.[10]

Home video and DVD releases[edit]

Home video versions of the series have been made available in various versions over the years. For series one, edited versions were made available by BBC Video on VHS in the 1990s. These edited masters saw a re-release in the UK on DVD from Universal Playback in 2003. The Australian (from ABC) and Dutch (from Memphis Belle) DVD versions of series one also derive from these edited versions. In North America, Canadian company BFS Video released the first four episodes uncut on VHS in 2001, with these and the next four episodes arriving on DVD in two double-disc sets two years later.

It would not be until 2007 that all 15 episodes of the first series became available uncut on DVD, in the UK from 2 entertain in a four-disc set.

Series two follows a similar pattern, with edited versions arriving on VHS and DVD in the UK from the same companies listed above. The version from the Netherlands is sourced from the same masters. The Australian version, however, has all 14 episodes uncut on four discs, and was released in 2008.

Series three to eight are available on DVD from Memphis Belle in the Netherlands, and all are uncut. All series are also available in Germany.

Series three and four are available uncut in the UK and Australia.

In summary, all current DVD editions are uncut apart from the Australian series one and the Dutch series one and two. The earlier edited UK versions of the first two series are still available from a number of sites.

Episode list[edit]


  1. ^ Jeff Evans, The Penguin TV Companion, London: Penguin, 2006, p.624
  2. ^ Kathleen & May
  3. ^ McLeay, Alison. The World of the Onedin Line David & Charles (1977) pg 9
  4. ^ "Things to Do | Indoor | Outdoor | Dartmouth Museum". Dartmouth Museum. Retrieved 10 August 2011. Bayards Cove was used in the BBC period drama The Ondedin Line, to represent the wharves and buildings of Liverpool Docks. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Series 2, episode 1 credits
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Onedin Line Tall Ship to visit North Wales". Retrieved 2012-09-26.  A note to this: In the pre-1976 series' episodes, the Charlotte Rhodes was indeed played by herself ("The World of The Onedin Line", copyright Alison McLeay, 1977). In 1976 the original Charlotte Rhodes required extensive maintenance to keep her seaworthy, and her owner decided to sell her to new Dutch owners; hence her disappearance from 'The Onedin Line' screen and only being mentioned by name throughout the rest of the Series' run. Charlotte Rhodes was sadly destroyed by arson in 1979. The Kathleen and May is still afloat, and bears an uncanny likeness to the Charlotte Rhodes save that she is some 30 feet shorter than the Charlotte Rhodes dimensions given in Ms. McLeay's book. According to the Kathleen and May's history (, "During 1968, KATHLEEN & MAY was discovered in bad repair by the Duke of Edinburgh who created the Maritime Trust in London to help preserve her. She was bought by them in 1970 with funds given by the Hong Kong shipowner Sir Yue-Kong Pao. They began restoring her as a typical West Country schooner. In 1998, she was sold for £80,000, towed to Bideford and moored at a disused coal wharf where restoration work began." The ship's complete history encompassing from 1900 (when she was named Lizzie May until 1908) until 2011 makes no note of the Kathleen and May ever having appeared in 'The Onedin Line' Series; the above reference, Kathleen and May, concurs with this.
  9. ^ "Tall Ship Soren Larsen Sailing adventure for all ages". Retrieved 2008-11-06. 
  10. ^ "We Have Ways Of Making You Think: The Power Of Soap. BBC Broadcast 26/11/92

External links[edit]