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Issue 5: Article 5 - A Great Son of Greenock

Sir Donald Currie

On 17th September 1825 there was born in Greenock a child who would end his days a Knight, a major shipowner, Member of Parliament and one of the principal figures in maritime history.

Born to James and Elizabeth Currie, in a large family of four sisters and five brothers, he was not really destined, or so they thought, to enter the maritime trades, instead at the age of 14 he went to work in his uncle's firm of Hoyle, Martin & Co, Greenock sugar refiners.

This wasn't what he wanted at all, he would much rather follow in his brother James' footsteps, James worked as an engineer with David and Charles MacIver.

In 1842 he began to follow his star by moving to Liverpool to work for Cunard as a clerk in the freight department, but it was in 1894 that he really started to grow in stature after Cunard sent him to open offices in Le Havre, Antwerp, Paris and Bremen, following the repeal of the Navigation Acts which opened trade in Europe significantly.

When he came back to Liverpool in 1854 he was a bit more than just a clerk, his experiences had whetted his appetite for trade and in 1862 he purchased controlling shares Leith, Hull and Hamburg Steam Packet Company after resigning from Cunard. He set up his shipping company as Donald Currie & Co. and sought the India Trades where he believed the future lay.

In 1863 he took delivery of four new sailing vessels: STIRLING CASTLE, ROSLIN CASTLE, WARWICK CASTLE, PEMBROKE CASTLE, all from the same builder, Robert Napier of Govan.

What made Donald Currie different in those days was his introduction of fixed schedules, regardless of how much (or rather, how little) cargo was in the hold. This was an astonishing innovation for its day!

And so was born one of the most famous named lines, eventually becoming known as the Castle Line. The next year he took delivery of three more sailing vessels, KENILWORTH CASTLE by Aitken & Mansell, Kelvinhaugh, ARUNDEL CASTLE, KENILWORTH CASTLE from Robert Steele & Company
and in 1865 TANTALLON CASTLE again from Robert Steele.

Firmly astablished in the London-Calcutta run, another two vessels followed in in 1867 and 1868, the CARNARVON CASTLE and the CARISBROOKE CASTLE, both by Barclay Curle, Glasgow..

In 1868 the TANTALLON CASTLE broke the record to Calcutta, doing the trip in 80 days.

In 1872 he took delivery of his first steamship - the DOVER CASTLE, another Barclay Curle ship, and he was to initiate her on his new venture on the private Cape Mail run. This new line of business had been started earlier in the year with ships Currie chartered in. The private run was in competition with the Royal Mail run, but was subject to delays as the Royal Mail ships were given precedance at ports. However, it was the Victorian equivalent of economy surface - slower, but cheaper.

Unfortunately that ship never actually made the run, as Currie could not give up the chance of chartering the vessel to Pacific Steam Navigation Co. who wanted her for a voyage from Liverpool to Callao via Cape Horn and back. On the return voyage the vessel caught fire and was scuttled. This meant the first vessel actually owned, as opposed to chartered, by Currie to do the Cape run was the WALMER CASTLE, built again by Barclay Curle in 1872.

The investments he was making could never really have made much for Currie, compared with the ships on the Royal Mail run, these by now operated by the Union Line. He formed in 1876 the Castle Mail Packet Co and later that year was awarded a joint contract with Union Line to operate Mail services. From then on the two companies worked in harmony to deliver the services, with their ships taking complimentary schedules. This was the beginning of what was to be one of the most famous partnerships in the shipping world.

However, meantime, Mr Currie had received a gong from Her Majesty and became Donald Currie, CBE for his services to shipping. In 1880 he entered parliament, member for Garth. The shipping clerk was really becoming a man of substance.

In 1881 his mail company went public and he was Knighted.

Incidentally, whilst in Parliament, Sir Donald was the first to come up with the idea of using fast merchant ships to be converted into armed merchant cruisers. He campaigned hard for this idea and it is largely due to him that eventually this use of merchant shipping in time of war was realised. Indeed the KINFAUNS CASTLE of 1879 was built with this idea in mind, so sure was Currie that his idea would be taken up.

Competition from other companies on the Cape services led Sir Donald to form the South African Conference, which consisted of his own line, Union, Clan, Aberdeen, South African and Natal Direct lines.

Meanwhile it must not be forgotten that Sir Donald had other companies on the go, namely the Leith, Hull & Hamburg Steam Packet Co.and the Liverpool Hamburg Line and he operated coastal routes from Cape Town as well.

Throughout the 1880's and 1890's Castle line grew, just as many other companies did during this exciting era. Many, many vessels followed, culminating towards the end of the 19th Century with what were arguably some of the most beautiful liners in the world.

But as the century ended a shock came when the time came to renew the Cape mail contract. This time, the stipulation was that only one company could bid for it. Neither did. Sir Donald proposed a merger of the two concerns and on March 8th, 1900 Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co. Ltd was registered.

This was the birth of a company that saw itself run through to the end of the great days of passenger liner travel and one of Britain's most distinctive.

Sir Donald lived to a good age, but I imagine that many mourned the passing of a great Scot, a great son of Greenock, when at 84, he died at the Manor House, Sidmouth on the 13th April 1909.

DUNOTTAR CASTLE - Where the reception was held with Sir Donald Currie and Sir Francis Evans in attendance to mark the amalgamation of Union and Castle lines.(Photo Gavin Stewart, from the Joe McMillan Collection

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