By David Haisman
On the Cape Run
the Union Castle Line was when I signed on to the Edinburgh Castle in
October 1956 as an Able Seaman. This ship had been launched in October 1948 by
Princess Margaret in Belfast. In January 1954, this vessel had set up a new
speed record between the UK and Cape Town of thirteen and a half days.
To say that this was
the first time that I had sailed with this company was not quite true as I had
sailed as a passenger at 11 years of age on the Pretoria Castle,
28,000 ton sister ship to the above on her maiden return voyage from South
Africa. As a family, we were returning to England after my father's five years'
posting with the Admiralty to Simonstown naval base in South Africa had ended.
When the Pretoria
Castle was launched in 1947, it was considered at that time to be quite an
unusual event whereas the launching ceremony was conducted by radio from South
Africa. The story
goes that Mrs Jan
Smuts, wife of the South African Premier, General Smuts, pressed a button at
their family home in Pretoria, South Africa, which in turn, sent out radio
transmissions that activated the launching trigger over 6000 miles away on the
The company's ships
operating out of Southampton at that time on the Cape Mail Service comprised
mainly of eight passenger vessels of well over 20 000 tons. There were other
intermediate ships and fruit boats operating out of London and some other major
ports but the following were the main Southampton to South Africa passenger
fleet They were the
Edinburgh Castle, Athlone Castle, Cape Town Castle, Stirling Castle, Carnarvon
Castle, Arundel Castle and the Winchester Castle. Sailing on five of these ships
and serving as
a seaman on four of them I can honestly say that I had a bit of an affection
for those handsome liners. They
beautiful ships to look at when at sea and proportioned with their
superstructures and funnels much the way many seamen believed a ship should
look in those days. They were commonly referred to by many in the industry
as ''The Lavender
Ladies'' and it was
thought by some, that this livery was an ideal base paint to alter the ship to
battleship grey in case of being commisioned for war service. I wouldn't know
too much about that but it was seaman type rumour that the Pretoria and
Castle were so designed that their
top decks could be easily transformed in order to operate as aircraft carriers.
A brass plate on their promenade decks informed those passengers that were of
the keep fit variety that jogging or walking eight times around the promenade
deck would equal one mile.
Built by Harland and Wolff
in Belfast, they were distinctive by their streamlined bridge fronts, clipper
style bows and cruiser sterns. To see those lavender coloured hulls with red
boot topping, white superstructures along with their red funnels and black
tops, they were indeed a pleasure to the eye of the ship lover and for those
that appreciated the good lines of a passenger vessel. I was always impressed
by the sturdy construction of these vessels and their sea worthiness along with
a good turn of speed although they always cruised well below their capabilities
which was well over 20 knots. This enabled these ships to keep an extremely
reliable timetable which must have been the envy of many other shipping
company's on regular service runs.
Apart from the usual
shipboard smells of paint and diesel oil on many ships, all Union Castle
vessels had their own distinctive strong smell of fruit, particularly of the
citrus variety, wafting around the decks which wasn't too unpleasant as I
recall. Some of this
were of the mainly moulded or carvel variety and powered by the ''bar maid''
system, unlike many other operators of that time. The cross benches had an
upright handle on the port and starboard side of each cross bench in the lifeboat and the
occupants pulled them back and then pushed forward in order to propel the boat.
The linkage in the bottom of the boat consisted of a series of universal joints
from each set of ''barmaids'' which in turn, connected to a main propellor
shaft running practically the full length of the boat. The advantages of this
system was that anyone could use them and there wouldn't be any requirement to
rely on oars, sails or engines to clear the boat away from a sinking
The signing on of crew was
usually done on board on a Monday before the Thursday sailing after seeing the
ship's doctor for clearance. After signing on with the company and then the
Board of Trade articles, many seamen would apply for an Advance Note which was
an advance on wages. The uniforms issued for deck crew were quite basic
consisting of 2 pairs of trousers, 2 shirts, a blue beret and a sea jersey with
the words ''Union Castle Line'' emblazoned across the chest.
The other deck crew, namely A/B
Quartermasters, wore the typical Royal Naval uniform much the same as some
other transatlantic liners.
Every week throughout the
year, one of these ships would arrive in Southampton from South Africa at 0600
hours on a Friday morning and on Thursday during the same week, another would
sail at exactly 1600 hours and you could practically set your watch by them.
To illustrate the near perfect timetable that
this company kept on this service there was, mounted on a wall in a pub in
Durban, an eight pointed star, much like a compass rose, that could be rotated
to indicate the positions of any of the eight liners at any given time.
For example, on each point of the star was a
ship's name pointing at one of the ports of call or positions at sea, fixed on the outer circle.
This in turn would reveal the positions of
all the other seven ships at that time. How many other shipping company's boast
such a timetable? (See
my rough diagram)
On voyages from
Southampton, these ships carried a wide range of general cargo with plenty of
farm machinery, vehicles, whiskey, spirits, confectionery, cosmetics, clothes
and shoes. I mention particularly shoes because in order to prevent pilfering
which was always a problem, the footwear for the left foot would go out on one
ship and the right foot, out on the next ship sailing the following week! The
ships on this service had a
passenger carrying capacity of around 650 in total, the majority were of Cabin
Class passengers and the remainder of around 200 First Class.
The outward bound ports of
call were mainly Las Palmas in the Canary Islands for bunkers and then on to
Cape Town. From there it was around the coast to Port Elizabeth and East London
and then on to Durban, sometimes stopping at Mossel Bay before returning to
Cape Town. Whilst
in Cape Town it was
nearly always necessary to moor the vessels up with two, 10 inch insurance
wires attached to huge shoreside coirs fore and aft, along with normal
moorings, due to the massive swell at times within the dock basin from the
influence of the Cape Rollers. To see these huge liners surging with strong
forward and rolling movements against their moorings alongside of the berth was something not normally seen when a ship
of that size is lying alongside of the berth.
To give the reader some idea of the size of those wires, they, like
other mooring wires,ropes etc. are measured by their circumference.
On the homeward run, they
would usually drop anchor at Funchal off of Madeira before returning to
Southampton, the whole round voyage taking just six weeks. When anchoring off
of Funchal, the company insisted that an Able Seaman go ''into the chains'' and
swing the lead prior to dropping anchor. I've no doubt at all that the anchor
probably landed in the same hole on the bottom of Funchal harbour every trip,
but this was the routine and they were sticklers for that.
On the homeward bound
voyages, the cargo's usually comprised of a wide selection of seasonal fruit,
cape brandies and wines and nearly always gold bullion. On arrival in Southampton,
the gold bullion would be taken to berths 43/44, the Cunard White Star berths,
for shipment to New York. Seamen
those days were of the opinion that the Titanic also carried bullion, shipped
up from South Africa as this process had been on- going for many years
previously. always of course, in the utmost secrecy. When serving on the
old Queen Mary and Elizabeth, I can remember
gold bullion being loaded in Southampton, along
with furs, jewellery and perfumes being loaded at Cherbourg, all of which
was stowed in the ship's bullion rooms right forward.
These strong room
facilities were inspected every 4 hours
throughout the voyage by the Master at Arms and the officer of the watch and to
my knowledge, these valuable cargo's have always arrived safely at their port
of destination. However, this was not the case on one particular voyage with
Union Castle Line when returning from Cape Town in the early 1960's.
If one would like to take the time to go
through Southampton's Southern Daily Echo's archives going back to that time,
it will be found that the gold consignment had been stolen during the voyage
and was later discovered hidden in a sand box up on the ship's boat deck.
Several members of the crew as I remember, were arrested as a result.
The Winchester Castle
was bult by Harland and Wolff in
1929 and was originally built with two funnels although one was removed later
in order to streamline her appearance. I joined this ship as an Able Seaman
in September 1957
and did a couple of
trips on her to get away from the British winter and enjoy some of the good
weather down the Cape, just the same as many other seamen did at that time.
The Carnarvon Castle was
another old Union Castle ship built by Harland and Wolff in 1926.
Like some of the other older vessels in the
fleet, she was later re- engined to increase her speed for the growing
passenger numbers and to maintain the valuable mail contract. As with other
ships of the line she had been commisioned by the Royal Navy for war time
service and like most other old ships, the crew accommodation wasn't up to
I signed on to this ''old
girl'' in September 1958 and the reason I chose this company's ships
occasionally was as a result of having some good friends in South Africa at
that time. As an unestablished seafarer in those days, qualified Able Seamen
were in short supply and we could choose our ships to go where and when we
pleased. Ships of this size would have to have a specified number of qualified
seamen as laid down by the Board of Trade and they were becoming difficult to
find when national service ended.
I've always found it
remarkable, that throughout my seagoing career on passenger liners, I could
never remember a child going over the side or being lost at sea despite their
attempts to climb every ship's rail in sight.
With adults, it's quite a different story with the odd suicide attempt
taking place on the old 'Queens' when I sailed with Cunard. During our watch
when on docking bridge lookout, we were instructed to keep an eye on passenger
decks especially at night around that
end of the ship.
The 25 000 ton Athlone
Castle was the sister ship to the Stirling Castle and
out a wide range of trooping voyages throughout the war before returning to the
U.K. and the South African service around 1947. Built by Harland and Wolff in
1935, she was launched by Princess Alice of Athlone.
Whilst I was serving on
board the Athlone Castle in 1959, on crossing the Bay of Biscay
during one voyage,
an almost successful
early morning suicide attempt took place. The ''Bay'' was kind to us on that
particular day with early morning sunshine, good visibility and a gentle
swell. On the 4-8
watch during washdown,
one of the seaman spotted a young woman jump over the stern rail and on hitting
the water, disappear below the turbulence at the stern.
Immediately, the 'Man Overboard ' signal was
given and the ship was put hard over in a 180 degree turn, heeling over and
causing, as we heard later, much broken crockery from the dining saloon and
galley as they were laying up for breakfast.
Engines were put on dead
slow and lookouts were posted on the 'monkey's Island' (on top of the wheel
house) and also right forward in the bows as well as up in the crows nest with
binoculars. With the sun glinting on the water and all eyes straining to look
for someone's head, an object no bigger than a football, there comes a
realisation of how difficult it is to find someone in that vast expanse of
water from a huge liner. It was however, her lucky day as it didn't take too
long to spot her and an accident boat was lowered to pick her up. It has been
said that when a would be suicide jumps off of the great height of an ocean
liners deck, they usually change their mind after hitting the water and
resurfacing. Not so with this young lady.
Once the accident boat drew
alongside of her,she refused to be helped into the boat until a couple of
seaman jumped into the water and literally shoved her into the boat. At that
specific moment, her dressing gown came off and the distraught woman ended up
lying in the bottom of the boat stark naked. Seamen, being the gentlemen they
are,quickly took their shirts off and covered the poor woman up as the boat
drew alongside of the ship with several hundred crew and passengers lining the
ship's rail and looking down at the scene beneath them.
She was quickly taken to the sick bay and
kept under close scrutiny for the remainder of the voyage.
Had the Bay of Biscay lived up to it's name
for extreme heavy weather on most crossings, there may well have been a far
different ending to this story for this young woman.
In Cape Town,
old negro with a shock of white hair would meet every Union Castle liner on
arrival and deliver newspapers to the ship's officers and crew. He was known
affectionately by everyone locally and throughout the fleet as ''Snowball'' and
even in the sixties, he was thought to have been well over 90 years of age
although no one was ever quite sure of
that or if he ever knew his date of
birth. He had delivered papers
since when he was a very young boy and would sleep on board ship whenever he
could find somewhere to bunk down until the ship sailed. It was company policy
that no one should be on board at night from shore -side unless they had
official business to be there. With ''Snowball'', he was like a company mascot and
no one took any notice when he stayed on board any of the Union Castle ships
when in port. It was estimated that he was well over 100 years of age when he
died and one of the company's vessels took his body out on the homeward bound
voyage for burial at sea.
Going back in time, the
Union Castle Line ship, Saxon, built
in 1900 by Harland and Wolff of around
12 000 tons, was a ship that featured
times in my mother's life when as a
young girl in South Africa during the early 1900's. Her and her parents
had sailed on this ship for visits to the UK on the odd occasion and their last
voyage was to join the Titanic in 1912. Originally built for the Union
Steamship Company, she became one of Union Castle lines' work horses until
being finally scrapped in 1935.
In 1977, the Union Castle
line, after well over a hundred years on the cape mail service, wound up with
the final arrival of the Southampton Castle at Southampton in October