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
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
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
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
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