BULLARD KING'S NATAL DIRECT LINE

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BULLARD KING'S NATAL DIRECT LINE

Will Bramhill of Colchester in the U.K. sent the photograph below.  Do any readers know as to whether this depicts the company house flag and is therefore a uniform button which dates from anywhere between 1930 and 1960?

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Courtesy Will Bramhill of Colchester UK.

The elegant UMGENI (1938) is seen below sailing from King George V Dock in the 'fifties with one of Watkin's steam tugs helping to swing the ship.  Both the UMGENI and the UMTALI (1936) were built as coal burning steamers,  converted post-war to oil fuel.  Both ships were sold to Elder Dempster in 1957.

umgeni.jpg
Courtesy Laurence Dunn - SM AUG/86

The NATAL DIRECT LINE,  so named because in earlier days their vessels by-passed the Cape of Good Hope and proceeded direct to Durban - or Port Natal as it was more commonly known,   commenced its career with sailing vessels in the 1850s but, in 1879 ventured into steam with the SS PONGOLA.

In those days the size of vessels was limited to enable them to cross the notorious Durban Bar and it was not until 1904 that the 13,000 ton mail steamer,  ARMADALE CASTLE crossed the dredged and deepened bar to open up the port to all comers.    The turn of the century brought with it, in 1901, the UMSINGA and, in 1902 the UMVOLOSI, both of 340 feet and a beam of 42 feet 7 inches.   More building followed rapidly and in 1904 came the UMZUMBI and UMHLALI.    Durban was now open to shipping yet for the next 30 years B-K ships never exceeded 4,300 tons.   About this time the ships were painted white as with those on the India service but this soon gave way to a light grey hull which persisted until the company's demise in the 1960s.   The buff, black-topped funnel with a central encircling chocolate band was the company's trademark throughout.   Once again tragedy stalked and while the UMZUMBI had a long career despite a grounding on Ushant,  the UMHLALI left her bones near the Cape of Good Hope.

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Courtesy Capt. C.J. Harris - SM AUG/86

The UMGENI in London's West India Dock with the UMTALI (1936) astern

It was during World War 1 that B-K became a subsidiary of Union-Castle and remained so until Clan Line and Safmarine absorbed the companies under the houseflag of British & Commonwealth.  Although B-K was now a member of a group they retained their flag and funnel markings,  continuing to operate an independent existence.
 
In 1914 the UMGENI (1) achieved headlines as the ship chosen by General Smuts to (illegally) deport the leaders of the Rand rioters following strikes and disturbances in Johannesburg.   Efforts were made to intercept the ship off Cape Town using a chartered tug but without success.

umvoti.jpg
Courtesy Laurence Dunn - SM AUG/86

The UMVOTI (above), 1903, was built as Union-Castle Line's COMRIE CASTLE  and transferred to Bullard King in 1924.

Union-Castle's influence first became apparent in 1920 when the 1894 SABINE and the ROSYTH CASTLE became the UMZINTO (II) and UMLAZI (II) respectively.   The latter was a WW1 standard freighter and to the end retained a single pole mast.   Then again, in 1924, two ageing Union-Castle ships, the "extra" steamers and sister ships CLUNY CASTLE and COMRIE CASTLE were transferred to the B-F flag and became the UMKAZI (II) and UMVOTI (II).   They had been built in 1903 and 1904 and,  at 5,100 tons,  were the largest vessels of the B-K fleet.   They were ugly ships but during the great shipping strike of 1925 the UMVOTI was pressed into service to carry the Royal Mail from Cape Town,  her Indian crew being unaffected by the strike.   Both gave long service,  the UMKAZI being scrapped in 1938 and the UMVOLI being scuttled as a blockship off Folkstone in mid-1940.   Both were twin-screw ships and did the UK-Cape passage in a leisurely 25 days.

umona.jpg
Courtesy Laurence Dunn - SM AUG/86

The UMONA (1910) is seen above in Table Bay.

After a long lapse of 20 years, the B-K resumed a building programme with the 1934 UMTATA (III).  Of 8,141 tons, she had a pleasing profile with raked stem, cruiser stern and a proportioned funnel.  In passing,  it is strange to reflect that with all the melodius Zulu names from which to choose, B-K should have repeated names over and over again,  UMTATA being used at least four times.
The new UMTATA was a coal burner with up-and-down reciprocating engines.  Due to cinders and smoke causing discomfort the funnel was lengthened.

umzumbi.jpg
Courtesy Laurence Dunn - SM AUG/86

The UMZUMBI (1904) is seen above in Capetown in 1931.

The UMTALI  (1935) and UMGENI  (1937)  were similar to the prototype set by the UMTATA,  with modern and comfortable accommodation.       They proved immensely popular with the travelling public and were invariably booked to capacity with 100 plus passengers.
 
The first two named survived the war after several hazardous experiences but the UMTATA was torpedoed in a Caribbean port and again off Miami,  fortunately without loss of life in either incident.  In 1944 she was replaced with the UMTATA  (IV).  Slightly smaller than her predecessor and with accommodation for only 12 passengers,  she was the company's first oil burner.  Post war vessels included the standard war-built flush deck freighters UMZINTO (III) and UMKUZI (III).  The former was a coal burner and proved uneconomical.  She was soon sold to Costa Rican interests and renamed VASTRIC.  The UMKUZI was on "indepartmental transfer" having formerly been the Clan Line's CLAN ANGUS.

umlazi.jpg
Courtesy Laurence Dunn - SM AUG/86

The UMLAZI  (1918) is seen here in Table Bay.   She was built as the WW1 standard ship WAR EARL, in Canada.   As the ROSYTH CASTLE she was transferred from Union-Castle Line in 1920

The UMGENI of 8,180tons had a length overall of 451 feet and a beam of 61 feet.  The UMTATA  (torpedoed) differed only in tonnage being slightly less at 8,141.  The UMTALI fitted between the two at 8,162 tons.  The new UMTATA mentioned previously was smaller at 7,288.  Service speed was 16 knots.  Both the survivors, UMGENI and UMTALI were subsequently converted to oil fuel but, with the fall off in passenger traffic,  both were sold to Elder Dempsters in 1957 and renamed WINNEBA and CALABAR respectively.  In 1963 they were disposed of for scrap.

umtali.jpg
Courtesy Laurence Dunn - SM/AUG86

The UMTALI  (1936)  photographed in the Thames in 1952

In 1958/59 B-K acquired three freighters from Clan Line.  The CLAN ROBERTSON became the UMZINTO,  the CLAN MACRAE the UMGENI and the LANARKSHIRE the UMGAZI.   However, their tenure was short lived  and in the latter part of 1959 they reverted back to Clan Line.
This virtually spelled out the end for the famous old company.  True, a few ships were later allocated to the briefly operated Springbok Line in 1960 wherein the familiar B-K funnel had a springbok's head superimposed, but the end was not far off.   Safmarine still held the franchise for Bullard King's cargo bookings but this was merely a paper transaction and a well beloved company appreciated by shippers,  passengers and crew alike faded into oblivion like so many others.

The abridged history of this fine old company was compiled by Captain C. J. Harris who sailed for many years with the company before entering the Royal Navy.   Acknowledgement is also given to the Ship Society of South Africa for certain information gleaned from their records.

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