“Every Thursday at 4 p.m….”: Wolfsonian reminiscences of the Union Castle Line
Today’s post comes to you from Dr. Laurence Miller, who, after a lifetime of collecting ocean liner promotional materials, not only gifted them to The Wolfsonian—FIU library, but regularly volunteers his time a couple of days each week to help us document and catalog his collection. Here is Dr. Miller’s most recent post:
“Every Thursday at 4:00 p.m….” This most famous phrase associated with the Union Castle Line reflected the clockwork-like schedule for which the company was famous. Indeed, every Thursday at 4 p.m., a lavender–hulled Union Castle passenger, cargo and mail ship would sail from Southampton, England for South Africa; simultaneously, another would begin the voyage from Capetown to Southampton. To maintain this service—one of the longest in the world—required no less than eight vessels ranging from twenty to thirty thousand tons–small ships by today’s standards, but medium-sized in the immediate postwar era. Each accommodated approximately 650 passengers, (normally in two classes), which, considering the size of the ships, meant that there was an abundance of space per passenger on deck and in public rooms.
As passenger liners, the Union Castle vessels had some of the loveliest profiles afloat. The general impression was long and lean. In spite of the narrow-bodied hulls, the ships depended heavily on cargo to remain profitable, and there was keen demand for their cargo space. Machines, vehicles, textiles, apparel, glassware and general cargo were exported from Britain to South Africa. On the northbound sailings, cargo holds were filled with wool, hides, wines, and fruit.
The large areas reserved for cargo space would eventually hasten the demise of the line once the industry shifted to container ships. The S.A. Vaal found new life as Carnival Cruise Line’s Festivale. Vice President for Operations at Carnival, Meshulam Zonis, inspected the ship and recommended her purchase. He also noted that the ship contained a special area for transporting gold.
Laurence Miller Collection, The Wolfsonian—FIU
Décor in passenger areas ranged from elegant to eccentric. The first class lounge of the Pendennis Castle provides an excellent example of Union Castle elegance; an example of the eccentric can be seen below in a suite sitting room complete with chintz and a fake fireplace!
Laurence Miller Collection, The Wolfsonian—FIU
If the brochure pictures are any guide, the evening ambiance was formal, as can be seen in this photographic illustration of the First Class dining room of Edinburgh Castle.
Although the ships of the Union Castle Line were comfortable rather than luxurious, it is the lifestyle on board during the long, leisurely voyages for which the vessels most likely will be remembered. Most passengers were using the ships as transportation, which lent the sailings both a sense of purpose and passenger lists reflecting many segments of British and South African society. The uncrowded, open decks provided abundant opportunity for outdoor enjoyment in good weather, although South African waters could be rough in winter. One of the later ships, the Pendennis Castle, was lengthened in the building yard to permit installation of stabilizers without sacrificing earning capacity.
First class accommodations catered to wealthy citizens of Britain and South Africa who traveled, often seasonally, between the two countries, while tourist class afforded emigrants and those of lesser means an affordable way to make the same journey. In both classes, there was extensive deck space where most passengers spent their days and, often, evenings as well. Most of the mail ships were not air-conditioned; rooms were designed accordingly with high ceilings, large windows opening onto shaded decks, and, one hopes, good ventilation. Bathrooms were often shared, even in first class; heavy carpeting was avoided to help create a cool atmosphere. Cabins, especially in tourist class, could be small, perhaps reflecting the limited time spent in them as opposed to on deck.
After arriving in Capetown, southbound ships went on to Port Elizabeth, East London, and Durban, South Africa affording South Africans a reasonably priced ten-day round trip vacation voyage between Capetown and the city and popular beach resort of Durban. On the northern end of the mail service, Britons could use the vessels as an inexpensive but pleasant means of reaching Madeira and Las Palmas at any time of the year.
There was no need to forsake maritime surroundings after arrival in Capetown; the line built the Mount Nelson Hotel surrounded by a nicely shaded park and with furnishings from older, retired Union Castle liners. It ensured that passengers had appropriate accommodations in South Africa and reminds one of the hotels Matson Lines built in Honolulu for the same purpose.
Up until July, 1965, Union Castle offered 13 ½ day voyage lengths for the United Kingdom to Capetown mail service; after that date the company accelerated them to 11 ½-day passages. In fact, Pretoria and Edinburgh had been built more than fifteen years earlier with higher service speeds built into their design. The Mail Service finally ended 120 years to the day from its inception. The final sailing of the mail service was made by a cargo ship, the Southampton Castle, on 24 October 1977. While the mail service garnered most of the attention, the line concurrently maintained a monthly ‘Round Africa service in each direction using vessels of about 17,000 tons. The complete voyage took about two months.